"Im sure youre used to coffee in the morning, but we dont have any."
"Thats all right. Thank you, anyway."
It was an unusually chilly dawn, and Stillson stayed curled up in her blanket in the doorway of the conical Indian tent. What did they call them? Tipis. The women had undressed her in the night and wrapped her in some manner of rough gown. She felt sort of sorry. The Indians had prepared a healing ritual for her that was supposed to take most of the day, only when she woke up she felt fine, better than she could remember having felt in a long time. Maybe better than she had ever felt in her life. She felt cleansed and refreshed from the inside out. She actually didnt want any coffee, or any breakfast or anything. She felt great and needed no outside stimulation. If it werent for the fact that some of the women were washing her clothes now, she would be up and gone, riding like the great wind across the plain.
The Indian squatted on his heels outside the flap door. She could see him much more clearly now. He was tall, and today had his long black hair tied in a pony tail in back. He was still in Sioux garb, but had a western-style jacket over his buckskin.
"My name is Sitting Lizard, or George Burgess, whichever you would like to use," he said.
"Which do you prefer?"
"Neither. I use Sitting Lizard out here and George Burgess back east."
"Since we are out west, I will call you Sitting Lizard. My name is Al Stillson. Alice Stillson, actually."
"Its very nice to meet you," Sitting Lizard said. "I looked at your hat and clothing after we brought you in. Ive seen you before. I thought you were a man. You work for Professor Marsh, dont you? You took care of my horse."
"Yes. Back when I was just Al Stillson. Although he may fire me now since I didnt make it to Fort Claggett."
"I will talk to him about that. I believe we can take care of that. If you tell me what you need, I will send someone in a hurry to Fort Claggett."
"I wouldnt think they would welcome the sight of an Indian approaching the fort in a hurry."
"Perhaps I will go myself. They will not be alarmed. I know many of the people there."
"Mr. Marsh wants to see if anyone has arranged to send a telegram up to Fort Benton. He wants to know if any messages are going out about bone discoveries by Mr. Edward Drinker Cope."
"Yes, Mr. Cope. I do not know him but I know who he is. Are you sure hes not looking for any discoveries from the other man as well?"
"What other man?"
Sitting Lizard laughed.
"This man has a very low profile, it seems. There is another man in the field. He appears to be digging up bones, but that is all we know about him. That is why I came to speak with Professor Marsh, to see if he knew anything. He doesnt. But he wishes to learn something."
I bet he does, Stillson thought. If Cope is enough to make him crazy, having yet another competitor will drive him right over the edge. But why wouldnt he tell me about it?
"That is only one of the mysteries around here, young lady," Sitting Lizard said. "Another mystery is why you are running around pretending to be a man when you make a perfectly presentable young woman. A pretty young woman, I daresay."
Alice Stillson blushed.
"I have been told that I am not conventionally beautiful, but I am attractive. My cheeks are a bit broad, as you can see. If I wear a mans clothing and cut my hair, I can pass for a slightly effeminate young man. If I add a little dirt to my face I can pass for a regular young man."
"A pretty young man," Sitting Lizard said.
He had a big smile on his face. He was enjoying this.
"Yes, I guess so."
"Now we have the how, Miss Stillson, but we dont yet have the why."
"Would you like the long version or the short version?"
"As I suppose I am off to Fort Claggett today, I suppose the short will have to do."
She was from a wealthy family in St. Louis, although one that had already seen the peak of its fortune and was now sliding down the other way. Her father, desperate to maintain some sort of status, had promised to marry her to the son of an even wealthier neighbor, a neighbor whose fortunes were still on the rise. That would have been fine except Stanton was a dolt, a young man who was willfully dumb. He had, as far as Alice Stillson could tell, no real interest in anything, including her. He was content to be and to spend and anything beyond that was an obstacle too great to mount. Her father sensed this in Stanton, and at one point in his desperation (and after he had consumed a few too many) had even whispered the heresy that she could always take a more interesting lover if she desired.
She did not desire, but also did not know quite what to do. Her fathers reach went a long way in St. Louis. Despairing of her predicament, she had escaped by reading trashy illustrated weekly accounts of the wild west. They were full of cowboy derring do, dastardly Indians and wide open spaces. She had taken to imagining herself as a cowboy and her unofficial betrothed as an Indian.
"I was always practical. So I thought, why not come out here and do some research and start writing those stories myself? The grammar is always terrible in those things. I figured I could do better, but I didnt want to come out here as a woman. I didnt want to be cowering at the wall while the hero saves the day. I also didnt want to be raped. So I disguised my looks and came out west. I went to California initially, just to see it, but its hard to wander around dirty there so I came back this way. In Fort Benton I heard of a paleontologist who was looking to hire people. I had read stories about gunslingers but I had never read one about a paleontologist, so I hired up with Mr. Marsh."
"So youre going to write stories about the brave paleontologist."
"I hope to, although it looks like Ill have to make a lot of things up, since nothing seems to be happening. I think I may have to exaggerate a bit to make him into a wild west hero, too."
"You came out here to research these wild west stories."
Sitting Lizard started laughing, so that he nearly rocked back on his heels and fell over.
"Whats so funny about that?"
"Im sorry," he said as his laughs petered out. "Its just funny that you think anyone actually puts any work into those things. Ive seen them. I even met somebody who wrote a few of them, once. They dont research them at all. Most of those writers have never been further west than St. Louis itself, and I doubt many of them have been that far. They sit in New York and Philadelphia and grind those things out, using secondhand stereotypes."
This could be a problem, she had to admit.
"Well, maybe your stories will be better than anyone elses."
"Do you know anyone in publishing? Do you know anybody at the magazines?"
"So how are you going to get your stories published?"
"I just will."
She thought about her betrothed to be, and a quick series of images passed before her mind. Stanton escorting her to the theater, dressed up, slightly bored. Stanton dining with her at the home of a friend, slightly bored. A tiny little baby being born, and looking ever so much like Stanton, already ever so slightly bored.
"I just will," she said, and her green eyes met the brown eyes of Sitting Lizard full on.
He put out a hand to touch her face, so slowly and gently that she never even flinched. His arm moved like water. His fingers brushed her cheek. She kept her eyes on him but he looked at her face, her lips, her forehead. His fingers and knuckles were very soft, not what she expected.
"You fell from a horse but theres not a mark on you. Not a scratch."
Her eyes opened wider, showing more of the green.
"None? I thought you had washed me off. I felt blood running down my face, or I thought I did."
"No, when we came down the ravine we found you sitting up like a doll. Your clothes were dirty but your face was clean."
"Usually I manage to keep both pretty dirty. What were you doing in the ravines, anyway?"
He looked off in the distance, as if unsure what to tell her.
"You remember the man I mentioned? The other one digging up bones? Weve been trying to keep an eye on his camp but he moves it around all the time. Someone thought they had seen it closer to the river, through that ravine. We were heading through there until we found you, but we hadnt found him. Two braves continued on looking for him, but they didnt find anything."
A picture flashed before her eyes of a man, reaching for her face. His hands were even smoother than the Indian who later found her.
"Sitting Lizard, I just remembered something. I saw a man. He found me before you did. I was really dazed and didnt get a good look at him. He was sort of looking me over and then I fell asleep."
"What did he look like?"
Sitting Lizard seemed very interested. He hunched even closer, nearly crawling inside the tipi with her. An Indian woman two tipis over gave him an odd look.
"Its hard to tell. I was dizzy and couldnt see straight. He looked big, but Im not sure how tall he was. He had blonde hair. But its"
"What?" Sitting Lizard asked as her voice trailed off.
"Its hard to explain. I wasnt scared. I sort of felt this peace coming over me. I think he realized Im a woman. I sort of felt a sense of surprise, but I never felt fear. And then I went to sleep."
"And when you woke up, you didnt even need the ceremony."
"Yes. I hope thats no trouble. I just felt so rested this morning. I feel great."
"A tall blonde man."
Sitting Lizard looked past the tipi flap. A woman walked their way, holding a folded pile of black cloth. She carried them like they were weights, and it occurred to Alice that the woman no doubt had more pressing things to attend to than washing her clothes.
"Here comes your clothing," Sitting Lizard said. "Ill let you change back into them."
"Tell her thank you for me," Stillson said when the woman handed her the shirt and trousers.
"Youre welcome," the woman said, without looking at her.
"Were pretty good with English these days," Sitting Lizard said when the woman left. "Thats another thing you wont read in those wild west stories of yours."
Stillson put the clothes on the ground inside the tipi, on a dry patch of grass. Sitting Lizard did not move, so she did not get ready to don them. He was still looking after the woman, but in a vacant way, as if looking far beyond her.
"Im sorry," she said.
He turned back to her and gave her a smile so faint its warmth did not quite reach his eyes.
"Dont be sorry. I didnt mean to sound angry. Its just that theres a lot going on. Sitting Bull is heading this way, and Im not sure what will happen when he gets here. Weve been keeping the women and children here, but Sitting Bull is likely to go further north. Im just not sure what will happen."
"Will you go with him?"
The already faint smile faded completely.
"Thats one of the things Im not sure about."
They sat in silence for a few moments, her green eyes looking into his brown ones.
"Ill let you get dressed," he said, and impulsively brushed her cheek again with his hand.
"Thank you. You have the softest hands in the west."
He stood and laughed.
"Oh, Lord. Please dont put that in your story."
"He had hands like iron," she said, pulling up her black shirt and fluffing it out.
"Steel. Hands like steel. Come find me when youre ready and well get you back on your horse and back to Professor Marsh. Ill go on to Fort Claggett and see if anyone has sought to send telegrams."
She began pulling the tent flap closed.
"I suppose this is the end of Alice Stillson," Sitting Lizard said.
"You dont like Al?" she asked, looking through the flap with one eye. "If youre nice Alice will come back."
"I hope she does," he said. "I hope she does."
Copyright © 1998 by Brett Davis
Return to Baen Books Home Page