Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage
must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night
incessantly softly wash again and ever again,
this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead,
a man divine as myself is dead.
After a chilling winter of bitter winds and bottomless snows, the aging forest of giant trees was laden with misshapen saplings and tangled underbrush. Although the debris-littered forest was a tough course to navigate on horseback, the broad leaves of late spring provided a welcome canopy of cool shade from the midday sun as well as an impenetrable cloak of secrecy.
It was a watercolor painting of both eerie seclusion and peaceful serenity with sun-dappled ferns nestled among the decaying logs and bright green moss clinging to the scattered rocks and gnarled tree trunks.
Suddenly, a spotted deer froze and gazed up in distrust at a passing rider and horse. A serious young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, momentarily stopped her mount and stared at the fawn. Maybe the deer is an omen, the woman thought curiously. Shrugging off the random notion, she suddenly tapped her knees against her horse’s mange-scarred belly and rode on.
Aside from the quiet hoof beats and panting breaths of the weary horse threading its way through the rubble, the only other sounds were two plump squirrels chattering as they feverishly raced through the rustling leaves and the rippling of an icy mountain creek as it trickled over a panorama of sun splashed rocks.
Ducking under some low hanging tree limbs, the young woman leaned over her stocky mare’s coarse black mane, which was a stark contrast to its mottled tan coat. Her mount was a poor piece of horseflesh to be sure, but the woman didn’t seem to notice as she contentedly breathed in the earthy smells of damp, decaying wood and mud after a recent rainfall. The sights and smells of the forest were wonderfully familiar, and she briefly smiled and allowed herself a fleeting moment of pleasure.
Then it was back to business. As the young woman determinedly rode her mount over the unforgiving terrain, she gave the impression of being an expert rider with a maturity well beyond her years. It was remarkable how she cautiously stayed the challenging course. A less experienced rider might have taken the broad and less strenuous, sunny trail through the mountain pass about a mile north. But past experience had shown the woman it was risky not to remain shrouded in the dark shadows from those who might intentionally harm her.
In the 1870s, the Montana Territory was a wild and woolly country filled with hearty mountain men, trappers, gutsy settlers, a smattering of cavalrymen and forts, and migrating Indians. Many bands of Native Americans from different tribes had journeyed westward to escape the alarming spread of the white man’s settlements. More and more Indian bands dotted the rough landscape with tepees, but many were enemies after centuries of hostility. Because countless bands were suddenly boxed in and pressed into an overcrowded and smoldering geographical area, it was only a matter of time before the melting pot of frustration, resentment, and anger would boil over.
As these bands competed for their main source of sustenance, the dwindling buffalo on the Plains, it became survival of the fittest. Native Americans were not only pitted against other tribes but white settlers as well. Intertribal skirmishes as well as full-fledged battles with the white man were on the increase. When left with no other alternative to prevent the complete destruction of their way of life, some of the larger tribes began forming strategic alliances with enemy tribes. The Northwest had evolved into a complicated chessboard of tactical alliances which would one day determine the outcome of continual checkmates.
If the solitary white woman was afraid of traveling alone through hostile Indian country, she didn’t show it. For one so young, her life had not been without sorrow and hardship. Through the years, she had mastered masking her emotions and veiling her thoughts under a facade of gritty independence. Instead of projecting fear, she displayed an uncompromising demeanor of self-reliance and resourcefulness. Not only did it appear she felt at ease in the wilds, but her unflinching bearing seemed to say, Stay away from me.
Although the woman took every precaution to conceal her femaleness, the deception was only successful at a distance. Although she was on the small side of medium, her stoic posture gave a tall appearance that was uncommonly graceful and long-limbed. One might even say her wisps of honey brown hair and sun tinted skin made her appear comely in an outdoorsy way.
On the other hand, her tenacity would probably have discouraged all but the strongest suitors of the opposite sex. One steely glance from her stubborn eyes would have made most men hightail it to an easier conquest. Although she might have been a desirable female in some respects, her remoteness and resilient determination made her an untouchable enigma.
To appear more masculine, the woman’s long brown hair was coiled in an untidy bun fastened with a brass clip. Most of it was stuffed under a wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat trimmed with ornamental pheasant feathers. In a further attempt to disguise her origins, the woman’s buckskin clothing was plain and unadorned without any tribal beading.
From faraway, it was impossible to tell if the rider was a leggy cowboy or a skinny Indian scout from Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory. The latter category frequented the mountains, and Native American scouts typically chose to wear hats instead of traditional Indian breath feathers. The rider’s fringed buckskin pants suggested an Indian heritage, but with no ornamentation on the saddle, clothing, or moccasins, the rider’s tribe would remain a mystery. Although the stranger’s skin was pale when compared to the rich sunbaked color of Native American skin, the person’s complexion was tan enough not to give away any ethnicity.
Another detail one would notice was that the rider of the mangy horse was sufficiently armed and apparently ready to use the weapons if challenged. A combination bow and quiver was strapped diagonally across the stranger’s back, and there were plenty of arrows if one missed its target. The rider also had a nasty-looking, curved hunting knife, which was carved from a buffalo bone and shaped like a machete. It was visibly anchored on a belted waist and stained with dried blood. Only the rider would know the caked blood was from animals hunted for food.
The stranger had obviously been traveling awhile. She had a well-worn, dusty bedroll tied up somewhat sloppily, a rumpled saddlebag stuffed with a buffalo paunch and cooking utensils, and an oversized canteen, which she filled each time she ventured near a fresh mountain stream. Because she carried a large supply of buffalo jerky and pemmican, which was a dried mixture of buffalo meat and pounded berries, it also appeared she had a few more days to go before reaching her destination.
One could conclude by her direction that she was heading away from most white settlements and further into the backwoods. If a cavalry unit from Fort Laramie crossed her path, the soldiers would have been shocked to find a solitary white woman tempting fate in volatile Indian country. It would not have been surprising if they forced her to accompany them back to civilization. Worse yet, if an Indian war party discovered her, all guesses were off. Although the woman appeared capable, there was always the possibility of being captured or killed. A betting man, however, might put his money on the resourceful woman under any circumstance.