Fort Benton, Montana
"GHOST DANCERS?" Christianna Lawrence jumped as Jim Hill's rich voice boomed clearly through the closed door of the colonel's inner office. "Don't be an idiot, man! You can't think some religious tomfoolery amongst the Indians will be any problem to my railroad crew. The Indian wars were finished years ago!"
Alone in the anteroom, Christy watched through the window as soldiers led a straggling band of renegades into the snow-covered compound. Despite Colonel Richardson's warning, she thought they looked a sorry lot to be passing themselves off as a Blackfoot war party. The soldiers had placed the Indians' war lances across their shoulders and bound their wrists to them. Bloody bruises and cuts gave evidence the troops had been none too gentle when they chained the prisoners together. The ankle irons had abraded cold-shriveled flesh that oozed blood as they marched across the snow and their moccasins left bloody tracks wherever they stepped.
Half sick, Christy turned away to warm her hands at the pot-bellied stove in the corner of the commissionaire's office, with hardly a glance for the dusty wooden chairs or an unmanned desk laden with dispatches. She sighed, removed her kid gloves and smoothed the skirts of her proper traveling suit with only a hint of a bustle. The seams had been taken in as far as they would go and still the suit hung on her as on a clothespeg. Even a reflection caught in the chrome top of the stove, showed the shape of her bones plainly beneath the pale skin of Christy's heart-shaped face. That warped image still showed the high cheekbones, pointed chin and tipped up nose of a face meant to be rounded and flushed with color and only served to accentuate her present gaunt appearance.
"I WON'T HEAR OF IT!"
Christy blinked as Jim's voice again boomed behind the heavy wooden door.
Though she couldn't hear the colonel's reply, Christy knew his was the voice of reason. Reason? With James Jerome Hill in this mood? A fat lot of good that would do. Even MaMá had never been able to prevail against Jim, who was a distant cousin on the Dunbar side and Christy's godfather.
Some of the railroad construction crew were already encamped up near the trestle bridge across the Big Sandy, waiting for a break in the weather. The rest were housed in dormitory cars in the train that would move west as soon as the snow melted. Jim had been out of sorts ever since he'd received communication from the colonel the day before. Today, the officer had met them with a warning of Indian trouble almost before their carriage stopped rolling and he was still harping on the same theme. The colonel wanted to send a troop of cavalry west as far as Santa Rita with the railroad crew to "protect them from Indians."
Jim claimed the Army wanted a free ride and swore he'd be damned if he'd feed and transport any troop of cavalry hundreds of miles without payment. Did he look like a fool? Christy smiled, remembering that she'd asked if he could not afford to move a few soldiers. From his reaction anyone might have thought she'd suggested he give away the entire St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba line. When people rode on his railroad, Jim Hill said, they damn well paid to do it! Now Jim had come to Fort Benton to refuse in person and had brought Christy along "to soften the old fool up." Christy almost wept when she considered how little effect a bony scarecrow like herself could have upon the gentleman, even here in the west where women were still something of a rarity. The colonel had lost no time in shutting her out of his office.
Christy removed her feather-trimmed hat, ran her fingers through her short curls and blinked back tears that threatened to fall. MaMá had all but died of vapors when Christy had announced her plans to visit Montana. MaMá said the wild west was no place for a well-brought-up young lady. And Christy's 18-year-old sister, Elaine-the-perfect, had almost fainted at the thought.
After all that had happened in the past few months, Christy failed to see how it mattered what she did. Only last September she had been a popular debutante, renowned for being an ugly duckling who had achieved grace at last. Christy moistened her lips, a habit retained from the weeks her body had burned with fever. Gone were the long wavy tresses, the shapely figure, and the habitual sparkle in her green eyes. For months she had lain helpless and weak, with her hair falling out. Though her fiancé had visited every day, Christy soon realized it was only from duty. She knew her future could hold no love now--not after what the doctors had done....
When she had recovered most of her strength Christy never guessed the final indignity she must withstand. Visions had come to her mind unbidden. When she mentioned them to her doctors, they had begun to look at her strangely. Christy's mother had wept, but it had been Elaine who had informed Christy her reason was being questioned. If the doctors thought her deranged, Christy knew her next action must have confirmed their suspicions. When she knew she would recover, Christy had written to Jim and poured her heart out, telling him just how incapable she felt of going on with her life in New York. His response had been a telegraphed invitation to join him on the high plains for a season of roughing it. He said the change would do her good.
Christy had packed her trunks and left within a fortnight. Her lips curved in a smile when she thought about Jim's idea of "roughing it." He lived in an opulent private railroad car complete with electric light, steam heat, and hot and cold water running from gold taps. Since her arrival, Christy had enjoyed every comfort and luxury, yet she had not been able to leave her unhappiness behind. Christy gave herself a mental shake. There was no profit in dwelling on bitterness. She resolved to turn her thoughts away from the past and forced her attention back to the scene outside the window.
Two of the captured Indians fell to the snowy ground. They were the weariest human beings Christy had ever seen. One of the others, a tall man with long hair flowing loose, leaned down and spoke to them. They regained their feet, holding their heads proudly in spite of their defeat. Mounted cavalry troops in their dark blue uniforms poured through the gate and rode within a foot of the tall Indian, but he didn't appear to notice. He stared straight ahead from hooded eyes.
Christy thought the Indian's manner strange for a warrior who had been captured by the Army. He stood with his head high, all trace of suffering, shame, or defeat held firmly in check. She noticed his wide shoulders, held square beneath a stained and tattered buckskin shirt, the muscled shape of his thigh as he moved a foot to ease the strain of the chains on the man standing next to him.
Christy watched the captive renegades and eavesdropped unashamed as the Colonel's voice took on volume. "If you won't think of your men, at least think of that fragile young woman out there. How long do you think she'd last as a captive in the hands of men like the ones we just took prisoner?"
A fate worse than death? The colonel must have read one too many dime novels. At any rate, now that the surgeons had accomplished their miracle, she was by definition no longer a maid and perhaps excused from the "death before dishonor" convention. A leaky appendix was a tiny thing to have caused so much trouble. The life-saving surgery had been attempted too late. Infection had spread agony throughout her body and corrupted even the secret feminine places. For more than a week, doctors had pronounced every hour Christy's last. For more than a month, they had lanced new pockets of infection and despaired of her life. Considering the news they gave her later, Christy almost wished the fever had taken her. Though her body would regain strength and the appearance of health, Christy would never be able to conceive a child, because of the internal scars.
Staring through the wavy-paned glass, Christy thought those renegade Blackfoot captives looked just as she felt inside: dried up, half dead, soul weary. They, too, must have had their dreams dashed and defeated. The tallest one stood straight and stared into space. The others drooped, but kept to their feet. Their coppery skins looked rusty in the late winter light. Beneath his war paint the tall one's skin shone several shades lighter, though it was just as weathered. His blue eyes gazed into the middle distance. Christy's own eyes narrowed and she moistened her lips. Blue eyes?
The door to the colonel's office burst open, and Jim Hill stormed through it. "Yes, there are plenty of men who'd like to stop me, but they are all back east. I'm moving no soldiers. No, no, NO!"
With an air of exasperation, the colonel turned to Christy. "Miss? Can't you make him see reason? I beg of you."
"My dear Colonel, nobody tells James Jerome Hill what to do. If you and all your troops can hold no sway, what makes you think he'll bow to my address?"
"He's dead wrong." The colonel paced around the office, anger clear in every motion. He picked up a paper from the pile of dispatches, then tossed it back with a growl of disgust. "You people back east just don't understand the Indian problem. Now, Washington wants us to search for captives living on the reservations and return them to their white relatives. That's just plain stupid."
"I am sure if a member of my family had been held captive, I'd be most anxious to have them home again." Christy smiled at the colonel. "And if I were the one so unfortunate as to be captured, I think I should be grateful to the Army for helping me return."
"Would you?" Anger blazed in the colonel's eyes as they met Christy's. "Would you really want to go back after you'd lived as a white slave to some Blackfoot buck and borne him two or three half-breed brats? Would you leave your children behind? If you took them with you, how long before your relatives back home wished they'd never seen you again?"
Christy choked back a sob and looked down to hide the tears that closed her throat. That problem would never be hers.
"Excuse me." Jim Hill spoke softly, but the anger in his face was unmistakable as he stepped between Christy and the officer. "Colonel, I believe you had better change the subject."
The colonel looked genuinely concerned at Christy's distress. "I apologize, ma'am. But you must understand that any captives we find now have already been with the Indians for years. It's too late for them to go back. This is the worst time in the world to start asking questions, what with the ghost dancers already stirring things up. It's not just here, they're dancing in all the tribes--the cult is sweeping across the high plains like a prairie fire, and it's every bit as dangerous!" The colonel turned back to Jim, a troubled expression in his eyes. "I cannot allow you to go west without protection. If you won't accept my offer, then I must forbid you to proceed." Though Colonel Richardson stood a head shorter than the railroad owner, his ruddy face had turned a darker shade than his bushy ginger moustache. "You can just stay right here until you're ready to see reason."
Christy's mouth dropped open in surprise. How dared the colonel forbid them to leave? Didn't he realize the power James Jerome Hill wielded?
Jim helped Christy on with her cloak and moved toward the door. His tone was low and matter-of-fact when he spoke. "I'll wire my attorney in Washington. Within a week you'll receive written orders from the Department of the Army not to place any restrictions on my operations. In the meantime I'll brook no interference. I've got a crew of two thousand men ready to start laying track as soon as the weather breaks, and we're not waiting around for permission."
The Colonel followed Jim and Christy outside. "Are you implying that you can give orders to the United States Army, sir?"
Jim put on his hat and drew his large body up to its full height. The graying beard on his chin quivered, and his bad eye, injured in a boyhood accident, half closed. "I'm merely reminding you that almost everything the Army moves west--supplies, ammunition, even your replacement, should that become necessary--everything reaches you via my railroad. People in Washington understand that even if you don't, sir."
Christy smiled. Jim shouted all the time, but when he really lost his temper, he lowered his voice. It was one of the many things she loved about him.
"Now sir, absolutely nothing is going to stand in the way of pushing my line west."
"But Mr. Hill--?"
Jim blinked, smiled, and resumed his usual booming tones as they descended the steps to the parade ground. "Why this railroad will open the whole north country to trade. And we're going all the way before we're done--" His raised arm sliced through the air pointing west. "--all the way to the Pacific Ocean!"
The colonel gave Jim an indulgent smirk. Christy heard a sergeant standing behind her snigger and mutter something about "Hill's Folly." She drew her mink-lined cloak closer and pulled on her gloves.
"As for the ghost dancers causing trouble, that's nonsense." Jim took Christy's arm and raised one eyebrow as they walked across the compound. "You're overreacting." He waved one hand at the row of drooping captives. "Colonel, that's your ghost-dancing threat of an Indian uprising. Half a dozen renegades dying on their feet."
Christy tugged at Jim's elbow. "One of them is white, you know."
The two men turned and gaped at Christy. "Wh-white?" the colonel stammered. "Nonsense! Those savages are murderers!"
An idea struck her, and sudden inspiration shone in her eyes. "My goodness, he must certainly be one of those captives you're supposed to return to their families!"