April 1860, Echo Canyon, Utah Territory, U.S.A.
She smelled blood. Its metallic tang assailed her senses, before it was overshadowed by the stench of death. Stepping back to scan the sheer wall of the bluff rising before her, her breath caught in her throat, and a sob escaped. Finally, she’d found him. A scuffed black boot and fur coat showed through the snow, his body wedged into the bottom of a crevice three feet above her head. She looked up to the top of the cliff, from which he must have fallen, but saw no one.
Finding handholds where there were none, Aleksandra Lekarski scrambled up the wall as her heart constricted in her chest. She tugged her father’s cold, stiff body free and down onto level ground, giving thanks he’d been out of reach of the wolves, whose tracks abounded in the snow where she now stood. Her world blurred as she dropped to her knees and cradled his lifeless head in her lap, rocking him. Ceaseless tears flowed down her doeskin tunic.
With a numbing pain in her mind, she ran shaking hands over him, seeking answers. What could have made an experienced trapper like Krzysztof Lekarski fall off a bluff and succumb to a death more suited to a greenhorn?
This couldn’t really be happening.
Just seven days ago, he’d kissed her goodbye with glowing eyes.
‘Keep the fire going in the smokehouse this time, will you, Aleks?’
‘Of course, Papa, my promise. Be back soon, I’ll miss you.’
‘I’ll return before you’ve missed me, then we’ll go sell last winter’s furs at the trading post.’
We’ll never go to town together again.
Aleksandra sat back on her heels and gripped her swimming head in her hands, fingers pulling her hair until it hurt, then let out a whimper and returned her attention to her papa.
She shrank from what was left of his eyes…and was glad he’d been in the narrow gap, too small for large predators. Beetles had been there, or some rodent, maybe even a hawk. Trying not to breathe through her nose and swallowing hard as her stomach rolled, Aleksandra’s hands froze at the feel of hard-crusted blood. Her heart stopped altogether at the sight of the inch-long, bloodied cut in his buckskin jerkin, repeating into his chest wall. Turning him over, Aleksandra found a laceration of the same size exiting the soft leather covering his back.
Nothing but a sword wound fit the description. Papa hadn’t simply fallen off the bluff.
Ears beginning to ring and world narrowing to a small gap, she fought the rising panic.
It couldn’t be…Vladimir couldn’t have found us! Not over two decades, across two continents and the Atlantic Ocean!
The ground swayed and she squeezed her eyes shut to stop the motion as she hunched over her father’s still form, recalling the words her father had repeated again and again, so she would always remember:
‘He will seek us out. Vladimir will come for the secret and we must be prepared to keep it from him, at all costs, always.’
It seemed Papa had died trying.
Despite her entire being screaming to fall apart for the loss of her only remaining family, the years of Papa’s training to protect their secret stopped her in her tracks. Drawing a few deep breaths, she looked around the bottom of the cliff. Her clearing vision now saw more wolf sign: scrapings on the wall below his body, white snow darkened by blood beside stinking yellow patches. Leaving him there, knowing the scavengers would return, would be the hardest thing she’d ever done but Aleksandra knew what Papa would have required of her.
Heart sinking as she slumped to the forest floor beside him, she took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she touched her lips to the top of his head. With shaking hands and tears flowing anew, Aleksandra lifted the leather thong of the beaded Shoshone medicine bag from about his neck and slipped the signet ring from his finger. Kissing her papa once more, she covered him with leaves and snow, beseeching the forest spirits to care for him with love.
She rose and turned to leave, but even through the brain-fogging misery, she remembered to check for the tools of Papa’s trade. The trapper’s scabbard was empty and his rifle missing. The firearm lay nearby, half covered by a snowy branch. Shouldering it, she stared back at the man she loved beyond life, her heart in a vise, with a promise and a prayer for his soul. Tears drying cold and tight on her face, she ran back once more to brush back the frozen leaves and kiss him goodbye, then scanned the aspen glade in the brilliant morning light. No one watched. With the silence and speed of the kwahaten, the antelope, her name with the Shoshone people friendly to her family, she ran for her pony.
‘It’s you and me now, Dzień,’ she choked out as she untied him and slung the rifle on her back. Vaulting on as he struck off into a gallop, they flew back toward the cabin, the Indian pony seeming to sense the urgency and single-mindedness of his mistress. Slowing him to a stealthy walk as they neared the cabin, she slid from Dzień’s back, signaling him to wait while she crept closer to the cabin. Before its open door, papers lay scattered beneath a light dusting of snow, fluttering in the chill breeze. The open barn doors slowly swung back and forth.
By now Rogan should have been tearing up the stable and his field, but Papa’s stallion was gone. She waited, straining every muscle to hear any sound, but heard nothing, save creaking hinges, then tiptoed around the perimeter of the yard in soft deerskin moccasins, keeping to the tree shadows as she’d done with her Shoshone friends in play. Hidden in shadow, Aleksandra stole to the window at the back of the cabin and peered in.
Her breath caught at the destruction. The intruder had turned the cabin upside down in his search, and when he was done, it looked like he’d set to the place with his sword. Feather tick mattresses were sliced and bedclothes ribboned over the cabin floor. Seeing no movement, she eased the door open and slid inside.
The doors of the oak secretary Krzysztof had given to Aleksandra’s mother just before she died two winters ago lay open, drawers flung helter-skelter and papers scattered.
Utensils danced amongst broken crockery and cast iron pans. In some dim recess of her mind, she noticed the zakwas and sourdough pots still stood on their shelf behind the cook stove, high above the chaos. She broke into a sweat at the sight of the stove lids lying in deep, black grooves in the wooden floor of the cabin. Lids hot enough to burn themselves into the cedar planks meant she’d probably just narrowly missed the visit of the intruder, probably Vladimir, when she left the cabin to find her pa. Her sun-bleached muslin dress remained on its peg in the corner by her bed, doubtless informing the Russian that someone besides Krzysztof lived here.
With a wry grin, Aleksandra saw Papa’s velvet-lined boxes still in their place beneath the eaves, then she slipped out the door. Skirting the yard again, she noiselessly opened the back door of the barn and peeked in before entering and surveying the damage. The intruder had been busy here too. The harness and building tools were strewn about the dirt floor, the contents of the feed room and hay pile scattered. The buckboard wagon and dogcart were still there, but the gate rails of Rogan’s loosebox lay where they’d been dropped and the manure in the box was dry, several days old.
She glanced about the darkened corners of the barn and scanned the yard outside once more before returning to squeeze her hand into the secret cache behind the colt’s feed bin. As her fingers felt the chill of the dozen or so glass vials, and the box next to it, her lips twisted into a bittersweet smile. For the first time in days, the leaden melancholy lifted from her shoulders, if only a little. Despite the destruction, Vladimir had missed what he came for.
What now? Aleksandra ruminated, shaking her head, then took a great lungful of air.
Dzień trotted up at her whistle and she resolutely wiped her tears onto his mane, then hugged him around the neck with the hint of a smile.
‘Papa’s secret is safe, Dzień. We can bring him home,’ she murmured, pressing her face into his furry neck. Reaching around, he nuzzled her derriere in reply and Aleksandra twisted to kiss him on his white star. She pulled the bedroll and bags from her saddle, then led him to the travois just inside the barn. After adjusting the two long poles, already bound together with woven rawhide strips, she covered the widest part of the litter with a buffalo rug and her Papa’s conveyance was complete.
On the long walk back to the bluff, she thought of her father’s loving touch, his constant presence in her life, his sweet smile and his twinkling eyes. She would have them no more. Spiralling downward again, Aleksandra almost welcomed the thought of drowning in the emptiness, but gritted her teeth and mentally shook herself. She needed to focus on survival. Aleksandra suspected Vladimir didn’t know the exact nature of what he sought, but nonetheless, he would return. She needed to be ready, or better yet, gone.
Although her father, a survivor of Austro-Hungarian-occupied Poland, spent countless hours teaching his children self-defense, Aleksandra didn’t fool herself. Her skills with a shashka were a fraction of her papa’s, much less those of his own teacher, Vladimir, who was unsurpassed with the short Russian Cossack sword.
‘You’re a good student, Aleksandra, but your impetuosity gets you into trouble,’ Papa always said, shaking his head as he disarmed her, yet again, ‘whether you’re sparring at shashkas or trying to knit for the memory of your mama, God rest her soul, who tried to reconcile you to your femaleness.’
She grinned, despite herself. Knitting that always ended up as a wad of uneven and dropped stitches—inevitably thrown in fit of temper onto a set of antlers high upon the sitting room wall.
Rounding the bottom of the bluff, Dzień picked up his head and pricked his ears, sniffing the breeze, then headed for the pile of leaves covering Krzysztof. He stopped dead six feet away.
Aleksandra gave him a pat on the neck and tried to smile, but failed. She left the pony’s head to adjust the travois. Breathing deeply through flared nostrils, Dzień stepped towards Krzysztof. He shook his mane, then nuzzled the lifeless body, knocking off the leaves as he checked his full length. Dzień tapped him with a front hoof, then snorted and turned away, showing the whites of his eyes as he stared at the motionless man from the corner of one eye. Aleksandra’s gut wrenched to see it.
Blood pounded in her head as she struggled to drag Krzysztof’s six-foot frame onto the makeshift stretcher. Dzień craned his neck around to watch, his muzzle and the skin about his eyes tensed and strained.
The pony responded to Aleksandra’s gentle urging and took Krzysztof home one last time. She would bury him with his beloved wife and sons in their overpopulated graveyard, then determine how to elude Vladimir and survive.
‘Can’t protect our secret if you’re dead, moje drogie córki.‘ Papa’s words came back to her, in his thickly accented but precise English.
“My darling daughter.” Gulping, she clutched her father’s medicine bag and tried to choke back more tears, realizing she’d never hear those words again.
Watching the woods around them as they neared home, Aleksandra drove Dzień to their burial ground and pulled her father from the litter. Begging her papa’s forbearance, she followed Dzień to his stall, stripped off the travois and tack, then rubbed down the tired horse as he relished his oats and tore into last summer’s sweet meadow hay. He’d worked hard for five solid days in search of Krzysztof. Halfway through his meal, he threw up his head, looked towards Rogan’s stall and whickered softly before shaking his head and returning to his feed. Aleksandra left him to his rest and strode to the house to assuage her own hunger for food and solace.
The meat, suet and berry mixture the Indians called pemmican satisfied her hunger on the trail this past week, but Aleksandra was grateful the corn pones were still where she’d left them when she left to find Papa. Dry and stale after five days on the cooling rack, they were still ambrosia with maple syrup and sliced kielbasa. Hunger sated, Aleksandra thought about building a fire, but decided to wait until dark, in case the intruder was still nearby. Taking Pa’s rifle, pick and spade, she went to bury him with an aching heart. Hacking at the frozen ground, memories of her papa, mama and brothers flooded her mind, but she kept her head down and went on digging.
There’s something I’m forgetting, something important.
The thought repeated as she added a rough cross to the mounded earth and slumped beside it, tears, sweat and unbound hair flowing over her father’s last resting place.
I’m sorry there are no flowers for you, Papa. They’ve returned to the earth, too. She sat still, staring at the drifting flakes of snow until her nose and hands were too cold for her to remain there.
Entering the barn to check on Dzień, Aleksandra’s mind rolled inexorably on…The skins must go to the trading post soon.
But for what?
As long as she could remember, every year’s work culminated in a wagon full of incredibly soft tanned furs to trade for tools and seed, stock feed, dry goods, fabric, thread for clothes and harness as well as treats for the family. Things were different now with no kin. She hugged herself tightly, shoulders hunched, as the bands around her heart tightened again. Trying to breathe, she glanced around the barn at the furs on their elevated platform.
Finally, she remembered.
‘Oh, my dear Lord, the furs.’
Covering her face with blistered hands, she rubbed her eyes. Struggling to remember the date, she counted the days and her heart plummeted. The Hudson’s Bay Company Agent on his annual purchasing trip would have already left the trading post. If by Providence he’d been delayed, she might still catch him. Running to the house, she shed her filthy buckskins and dragged on her muslin dress, her woollen everyday over that, then bolted for the barn, remembering at the last minute to yank her bonnet from its peg.
‘I’m sorry Dzień,’ she murmured caressingly, ‘but we need to get to the ‘post, now, my darling.’ Wrinkling his muzzle and tilting his head, he gazed at her as Aleksandra threw the harness saddle over his back and nimbly did up the bellyband and the crupper. The pony obliged when she offered the bit, though he stared at her, then looked back at his supper when she led him between the shafts of the hastily-loaded wagon, full of furs and a nosebag of feed for the beleaguered pony.
The sound of hoofbeats and creaking wagon wheels brought Xavier Arguello to his feet, reaching for his rifle, braced for an attack. The door flew open, slamming against the wall as a golden haired girl flew into the trading post. She stopped like she’d been shot, then wildly glanced around the room.
‘Is he gone?’ she blurted out.
Xavier lowered the muzzle of his gun and set it on the counter, watching the girl as tears rolled down her reddened and dirt-smeared face.
‘Have I missed the agent?’ She was all big eyes and trembling mouth, wisps of unruly curls escaping her long braid. Her crumpled bonnet hung by its ties down her back.
She bolted past him into the embrace of the Scotty, the trading post’s proprietor, and clung to him like she’d never let go.
‘Nay lass, dinna fash.‘ The big Scotsman chuckled, gave her a fatherly hug, then held her at arm’s length. ‘He’s out back harnessin’ his horse, but what’s the matter, a nighean, my darlin’?’
She mutely shook her head and stepped away a few paces, eyes wild, breast rapidly rising and falling.
‘Why the tears, mo nighean bhan?‘ He reached out a hand to wipe them from her dirty cheek, then looked behind her and frowned. ‘Where’s yer da?’ At that, the color drained from her face and she grew white as death. Scotty and Xavier both reached for her as she slumped towards the floor.
‘I’ve got her, Scotty.’ Xavier lifted the unconscious girl. He arched an eyebrow at the older man as Scotty threw a buffalo robe over the countertop. Setting her down on the thick pelt, he felt the rapid and thready pulse at her throat and his brows narrowed. ‘Does she normally faint?’
‘Never seen it happen before. She’s usually a tough little hellion,’ he called over his shoulder as he walked out the door. He returned, shaking his head, lips pursed. ‘Her da’s not here, she’s alone.’ Scotty’s eyebrows were nearly touching.
‘Who is she?’ Xavier glanced sideways briefly at Scotty from the girl’s side.
‘Name’s Aleksandra, her da’s a trapper ’bout an hour into the Wasatch Mountains. They’ve lived out there fer years.’ Scotty’s brows were lowered, his lips tight beneath his moustache, as he absently wiped up the whisky he’d spilled on the counter when the blonde whirlwind blew in the door.
Xavier felt her pulse again and reached for an Indian rug to cover her. ‘Whatever could’ve happened to her pa?’
Both men fell silent, looking down at Aleksandra. Plenty could’ve happened to a trapper on the Weber River in Utah Territory. If an accident or sickness didn’t get him, hostile Indians or a highwayman could.
‘Yer guess is good as mine, Xavier. Her pony’s nigh exhausted and I’ve never seen Dzień ever break a sweat.’ He closed his eyes and rubbed a forearm against his sweating brow. ‘I don’t like the look of this.’
‘When did you last see them?’ Xavier slid his gaze off Aleksandra’s face.
‘They were here ’bout a month ago, fer supper,’ he said, returning his attention to the girl’s still form. ‘Ain’t she a sight?’
‘Shall I take care of her horse, what did you say his name was?’
‘It’s “Dzień“, something between “gin” and “jean”. It means “day” in Polish.’
‘Polish, got it.’ Xavier raised a brow and started towards the door.
‘Thanks, Xavier, I’ll do it.’ Scotty took a deep breath and walked out the door, shaking his head. ‘Not like ‘er to push a horse like this, ain’t never seen the likes,’ he muttered, clomping down the steps to where the fur buyer stood staring at the wagon with its stacks of furs, steam rising from the pony’s dripping barrel.
Xavier felt the tension in his jaw subside as Aleksandra’s pulse slowed and strengthened beneath his fingers, her color returning to a healthy pink. Shaking his head, he took a deep breath. He kept his distance from people for a reason and this girl, for all her charms, was not going to change that. He brushed his hair back with his fingers as his thoughts spun.
As the hour passed, Xavier sat near her and felt the wall around his heart crack open just a little. At such close quarters, he could see she’d been through hell. She was sunburned and when he turned over her grubby hand, its underside was reddened and blistered. She was young too. Couldn’t be more than seventeen, five years his junior and yet her curves were ripe and her lips were full. He breathed out hard. He’d stayed far away from all women for a long time. Maybe too long.
Get a grip, hombre! She’s out cold! Closing his eyes, he shook his head as he kicked himself. I have no need for this girl, nor any other, in my life.
Still, something about her tugged at his heart.
Scotty returned after seeing the agent off and putting Dzień away. Raising his eyebrows, he smiled to see Xavier still sitting on a barstool near her, oiling his rifle while he sang under his breath in Spanish, his big muscular torso dwarfing her. Waking up to Xavier might be just what the doctor ordered for the wild young Aleksandra.
When this quietly confident young Californio rode in last week from the west on his magnificent gray Spanish horse, Scotty gratefully accepted his offer of work, fortuitously coinciding with the Hudson’s Bay Company agent’s visit. Trappers from miles around converged upon the trading post for this yearly event, bearing piles of furs to trade for next year’s supplies.
Normally run off his feet, Scotty enjoyed the agent’s visit for once. Six-foot-plus Xavier did his share, and then some, handling the heaviest sacks of coal like they were stuffed with cotton. Scotty wondered about the courteous young Spaniard, who spoke a cultured English rarely heard in these parts, but seemed to lack a history or plan. The Scotsman soon learned that sharing confidences wasn’t in Xavier’s vocabulary.
No matter, he mused, ever’body’s got secrets. Least out West, here, folk let people keep ’em!
Vladimir Chabardine looked up from the mesmerizing nod of his chestnut mare’s ears.
There was someone else living there. I should’ve waited longer. Krzysztof’s secret yet eludes me.
The letter in the secretary addressed to Mr. K Lekarski said he was in the right cabin, but for three days he’d waited there and ransacked the place, finding nothing. He sighed deeply and ground his teeth.
A smaller horse’s hoof prints showed in the barn. They could be from a mount of Krzysztof’s, still tied in the forest somewhere, or they could belong to a woman’s horse, by the tattered dress hanging in the cabin and the general tone of the place. There were three graves behind the orchard, so who knew if she were still alive in this God-forsaken wilderness.
Death—it seems to be all around me.
Finally finding Krzysztof after nearly two decades and then killing him was something a Cossack arms master should have managed to avoid. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced his jaw to relax.
After having come so far, it was unconscionable to lose his life’s goal and everyone he loved along with it by the slip of a foot.
A few hours later, Xavier’s patience was rewarded as Aleksandra stirred, slowly opening eyes the color of a clear, blue sky. Too soon, they clouded over and flashed as she reached toward her hip. Thinking she would fall off the bench, Xavier dropped his rifle and grabbed her, speaking to her as he would a frightened filly. ‘Steady, mi querida, steady.’
Then he stilled as the tip of a sword indented the skin over his jugular vein.
From A Long Trail Rolling, (c) 2015
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