Adadoda* (solo short)

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Patches McDuff:
Lovingly dedicated to Sgt. Smokepole--this one's for you Smokey!  :-*


*Adadoda - (Ay-Toe-Dah) Cherokee for Father.


~Saturday August 1st 1874 ~ Early evening at the Southern Star~

Patches tapped the papers neatly into the folder and tucked it under the sling of her slowly healing left arm. This weeks reports were finally done. Including a full report of the attack on the Mission.

A bit awkwardly, using only her right hand, she plugged in the graphite key and checked the tape. That would automatically record any incoming messages that might come in while she was out of earshot, although she doubted there was anything left to message about. Since her left arm was still pretty much useless due to the stab wound she'd recieved during the fight a the Mission a little over a week ago, she'd done pretty much nothing but send and receive messages.

It was a good thing she enjoyed her job.

Once the key was plugged in and she was sure everything was in order, she turned down the lamps and exited the telegraph office. She would deliver the reports to 'Sleeps office then go scrounge something to eat.

Saturday nights at the Southern Star were usually "fend for oneself" nights. It was a night for socializing. Just about every Saturday night when they weren't on the hunt for some bad guy or other, Scarlet, Fritz, Rose, Johnny, Jimmy and Bo would head to the Ace for some good old fashioned celebration and libation. Sometimes they would all go, especially since 'Sleep wanted to visit Becca. They had become very close in the last few months.

Ella took her Sabbaths from sundown on Friday to full dark on Saturday. She spent that time studying or healing, as her faith would allow her to do no work on the Sabbath day. But Rose always made sure there was a big pot of stew simmering merrily away on the stove, and generally big fluffy biscuits--made fresh the day before--to spoon it over. Fine enough of a meal for a bunch of trail worn lawmen.

Patches smiled as she passed the lab. She could hear Bill and Ella speaking, apparently deep in discussion over some theological debate. This had become a habit with them. Seemed fitting on Ella's Sabbath and the night before Bill and Patches would attend Mass. It sort of kept one in "the mood".

Patches would sometimes sit in on such discussions but never when there was work to be done. Getting reports done and out by Saturday evening was her own rule. It allowed her to keep her focus in church, much preferring to concentrate on spiritual matters rather than codes, wanted posters, arrest reports or death certificates.

When she reached 'Sleep's office she rapped lightly on the door.

"'Sleep?" she called, then listened. Silence. Gently she pushed the door open and poked her head in. "'Sleep?" The office was silent, dark and empty. "Huh," she mumbled aloud. "Wonder where he went."

She figured he had probably gone to the house to eat. And that thought made her own stomach growl. So she laid the reports on his desk, straightened his blotter, and left. If he was any where near the kitchen she'd tell him she left the reports. Knowing 'Sleep, he'd prolly not want to look at them until tomorrow anyhow. It was, after all, a lovely evening.

Her moccasin clad feet made little noise on the smooth marble entry way of the house as she made her way to the kitchen. She could already smell the aroma of meaty stew and strong coffee. She quickened her pace, for once not stopping to walk the points of the huge black marble star in the center of the entryway (a game she played with herself similar to hopskotch, and something that Scarlet thought was just funny as hell. Patches claimed it was "good luck" and almost never failed to do it).

Licking her lips she quickly reached down plate and cup, dished herself up a healthy portion of stew over biscuits slathered with freshly churned butter, and poured herself a cup of coffee to wash it all down with.

"Gotta appreciate the little things in life," she said as she crossed herself, said a quick prayer and dug in.

As soon as she finished she rose and walked over to the huge double sink. She burped on her way and giggled a little. "Oh! Excuse me!" She said aloud although there was no one else in the room. Better out than in, her Daddy always said, but that was no excuse to not be polite.

Quicky she washed her dishes and set them in the rack to dry. The sun was just setting and turning the sky deep shades of purple and gold. She smiled, nodded to herself and refilled her coffee cup. Now was the best time to go sit on the veranda. Watch the sun go down and smell the acres of roses at the back of the house.

Yep. Life was good on the Southern Star. It was a place of grand beauty that reminded one that life wasn't ALL blood and dust and bad guys.

"Ah! There you are!" She exclaimed cheerily as she stepped onto the cobbled stone veranda.

Tensleep turned in his chair. His pipe stuck squarely between his teeth, his coffee cup in one hand. He smiled and stood.

"Here I are," he said. "Ya git them reports done?"

"Yessir," she said. "Left'em on yer desk. Mind if I join ya fer a spell?"

"Please do," he said, indicating a chair with a sweep of his arm. "Didja remember to eat?"

She took the proffered chair and rolled her eyes. "Yer gittin' ta be as bad as Ella," she teased. "Yeah I ate."

"Well sometimes ya fergit," he huffed. "An' I aint seen Ella all day so I wasn't sure she reminded ya." He looked at her. "Did she remind ya?"

Patches laughed. "Yeah, she reminded me. Five times." She shook her head smiling fondly as she got comfortable in the rocking chair and slowly began to rock. "Beautiful night huh?" She noted after a time.

"Yep. Right purdy."

One thing she loved about Tensleep. He always saw and appreciated the beauty in things. Even out on the trail. He leaned forward a bit and pointed. "Mockin' birds comin' out to play."

She followed his arm and saw them too. What a ruckus they made as they darted in and out of the branches of the trees! She couldn't help it, she laughed at their antics.

"How's the shoulder?" 'Sleep asked once again leaning back in the chair.

"Aw," she said lifting her arm a bit in its sling. "Pains me some but it's healin'. Ella says the stitches can come out Monday. Says it won't leave much of a scar. Acorse, she been puttin' one'a her potions on it daily. Stings like hell but smells good. Reckon I'll have to spend some time out on the range gettin' it strengthened up again."

"Reckon so," he said. "Lemme know when ya go. I'll go with ya."

"Alright," she smiled at him. "That'd be fun."

"Yep." He smiled, sipped from his cup and looked out over the land. Twilight was fast approaching, turning the world into a shadowed purple mass of wonder. A breeze blew the roses into rich waves of color and scent and both of them sighed with contentment. Neither realizing the other had done so.

"Patches?" 'Sleep asked after a long silence.


"I been thinkin' about some stuff," he started.

She glanced at him sideways. "Don't do that," she quipped. "Always gits us inta trouble."

"Hey!" He defended, albeit good naturedly. Jokes like this were not uncommon amongst those that lived and worked at the Star.

Patches giggled. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm jus' hackin' on ya. Whatcha been thinkin' 'bout?"

"Been thinkin' 'bout the night of the attack on the mission," He sipped from his cup looking over the rim at her. Guaging her reactions no doubt.

She held her hand up. "It's all in my report," she said shaking her head a little. "In great gory detail." She was still upset at the loss of Brother Michael, God rest his soul.

"Even the part about that fella?" He asked.

She looked at him questioningly. "What fella?"

"The one you called "father". That fella."

"Oh!" She said, "him. Well like I said that's a long story. And no, not a lot of details of that is in my report, although he was there and thus got mention." She smiled.

"Well," he said. "I'm curious. An' I got time for a long story." He grinned. "An' so do you."

She looked at him cockeyed. "Curiosity killed th'cat yanno," she said shrewdly.

"Heh," 'Sleep chuckled. "Satisfaction brough'im back. Tell me."

Patches laughed. She loved the banter between herself and this crew. Kept things interesting. "Ya sure ya wanna know? Ya prolly heard stories like this a hundred times as well traveled as ya are. It's kinda tragic."

"Yeah, I'm sure." He settled back in his chair and relit his pipe. "I are all ears."

Patches smiled. "Well, lessee...where to start..."

"Try at the beginning," he quipped.

She looked at him sarcastically. "Before or after 'and then there was light'?"

'Sleep rolled his eyes. "C'mon Patches, who is he? To you I mean."

Ah. So thats what it was. 'Sleep, like everyone else on the posse, was simply trying to clear up a mystery. And he had asked her directly, which meant, by her own standards, she'd answer truthfully.

Patches smiled fondly and looked into her cup. "Father, friend, guardian angel, mentor." She said, then looked at him. "The white man calls him 'Sergeant Smokepole' cuz he's deadly accurate with that big ol' Sharps he totes. The Indians call him 'Little Skunk'."

'Sleep raised one eyebrow. "I heard some strange names b'fore but...Little Skunk?"

Patches chuckled. "Donno the whole story on the name but I reckon it might have somethin' ta do with things that happened when he was a baby." She wrinkled her nose. "But even with a name like that he's very much respected among the People."

"Which People?" 'Sleep was genuninely interested now, his whole demeanor had changed.

"Cherokee," she answered right away. "He was an Elder, Aniwaya Clan. Clan of the Wolf, the protectors. You know Cherokee?"

"Some," he said. "Sounds like a good clan for him."

"Oh yeah," she said emphatically. "He gets a little cranky when something he loves is harmed." THAT was the worlds biggest understatement! The last time someone had tried to harm her, he scalped him, gutted him, and cursed his eternal spirit. On the up-side though, the guy deserved it.

"So how'd ya find'im?" 'Sleep asked.

Patches laughed. "I didn't. He found me. Literally."


She smiled. "Really."


She rocked back and took a long drink of her coffee. Her eyes narrowed as she collected her thoughts.

"It was January, Month of the Cold Moon as the Cherokee call it," she began. "1866. Not real sure of the day cuz I was real sick. Prit near dyin'. I do remember it was snowin' that day though. As much as it ever snows in North Georgia anyhow. I remember thinkin' the snow had come early, and it was like a curse that came with the carpet baggers and yankees. Like they brought all that frozen hell down with'em. As if the war wasn't bad enough...." she stopped taking another drink.

'Sleep didn't say anything. There was, after all, a right and wrong time for questions. His silence must have encouraged her, however, because she continued.

"After Atlanta burned there was one building left standing," she said as she looked out over the roses, her eyes getting far away as if she were seeing in the reds and yellows the flames Sherman dealt out like christmas candy.

"A catholic church, near Spring Street. Disremember the name now but I ended up in it. It was one of the few places indoors that one could get medical attention, manned mostly by nuns. I had a shoulder wound festering from a shot I took up on Kennesaw. Needed help and needed it bad. Took me a long time to recover, cuz of the short supplies and such. Figured it was better than any Yankee outpost. At least there I'd have some sanctuary. Stayed there pretty much till the end of the war."

She smiled some. "Reckon I got converted there. Them priests sure did know how to save your eternal soul!"

She drained her cup and set it down on the table between them. "After that though, there was nothin' left to do but go home. See if anything was left. I figured I was close enough. Daddy, Johnny, Buck and Ray would be there already if not shortly after. We'd rebuild, life would go on...."

Her words trailed off and she swallowed hard. A moment later she sighed. "But that aint the way it was. When I got ta Blossom Creek it was like a ghost town. There was nuthin' left. Our place was nuthin more'n a black scorch mark on the ground. The house burned down, the barn. Daddy's workshop. Everything. Gone. And there was no sign of any body bein' there for months. Not even game trail out back."

"Then the rains came. Seemed fitting in a perverse sorta way. I made a shelter of sorts, determined to wait. Surely Johnny woulda made it through." She shook her head. "A week later I was gettin' sick. My mamma died of pnuemonia when I was a baby, we all got it. Rain and cold and me don't get along well."

She sighed. "Figured I'd best git back to Atlanta. Get some healin' again, maybe check with the army outposts. They might know what happened to my Daddy and my brothers. Never did make it that far. By time I hit Codge's place right outside'a the city, I was fevered and coughin' and weak as a kitten."

"Who's Codge?" 'Sleep asked when she paused.

Again that fond smile. "Codge was the fella that taught me everything I know about telegraphin' and bein a courier. But that's a story in itself. Let's just say there aint nuthin' he didn't know." She chortled. "He's the worlds biggest information hound known to man. Magic on the key. He gave me my first job when I was 11 years old."

"How old were ya when the war ended?"

"Sixteen," she said. "A month away from seventeen."

"Dang," 'Sleep muttered.

"Yeah," She said reaching for her cup. She'd forgotten it was empty. "Lemme go git more coffee, ya want some?"

"Yeah," he said handing her his cup. "Thanks. Why don'tcha bring the pot?"

"I'm on it," she said ducking back into the house. 'Sleep smiled. She was always "on it".

She came back shortly with a hand full of cups and coffee pot. 'Sleep rose to help her as she was carrying all that one handed. He took the cups and put them down then took the pot and poured. They both settled back into their chairs.

"I wasn't sure which was worse," she said with a little shrug. "Seein' our house and lands burned or seein' Codge's place in shambles. But I wasn't exactly thinkin' straight at the time neather. Fever had gone way up, like the fires of hell burnin' in my head. Weather had turned cold. It was a time of extreme opposites.

"I come across a dead Reb sergeant nigh on towards midnight in a ditch b'side the road. Stole his coat to try to keep warm. Was too danged weak to build a fire and that might alert whatever yankee soldiers were in the area. So I curled up under it, wet wool and all, under a mimosa tree back away from the road. Figured to not wake up the next morning, but that was alright. The south was dead, my family was prolly dead. At least this way I could join'em."

She took a deep breath and smirked. "But no. The priests told me that God would provide, and He did." Her smirk turned into that fond smile again. "He sent me Smokepole A.K.A. Little Skunk. Like a dagum miracle he appeared outta nowhere...."

Patches McDuff:
Dawn had come late, bringing the cold gray light to dimly illuminate the gray clad man on the gray dapple Appaloosa. He blended in well. A shadow amongst the shadows, his stocky figure only evidenced by the faded yellow Master Sergeant's chevrons on his battle worn uniform and only if one knew to look for them.

The chevrons and the earth, the only things not gray on this morning. The earth looked like blood. A giant streak of life spilled from the very heart of it, frozen in the gray.

His countenance as grim as the day, his natural discipline kept him serene in the saddle. His shoulders and hat brim were flecked with accumulating snow, yet sharp blue eyes observed everything. He didn't feel the need to move around much. Best to conserve what little energy he had left for the rest of the journey home.

Home. The thought was like a warm fire burning steadily in his mind. He hoped the village still wintered in or near the same place.

His eyes flicked and his hands twitched the reigns. The horse stopped, head hanging down. An old woman was crossing the road, dressed in black and leading a skinny cow. She looked up at him fearfully for an instant, and the haunted look in her faded eyes made his heart hurt.

He nodded once, slowly. She simply turned her head and walked on, eventually disappearing into the bushes.

Another small movement of his wrist and the horse moved forward, plodding along slowly, as if he were wading through something thick and nasty, three feet deep. Another step, and another, in a long line of steps taking him slowly and painfully--home.

A flash to his right caught his ever observant eye. Was that light glinting on metal or color? He stopped, finally lifting his head to take a deep look into the surrounding bush. Something...bright. Yes. But not shiny. Where was it?

Then the sound came. A strangled cough followed closely by the soft russle of bush. A groan, almost as soft and small as the snowflakes.

But the bright flash was revealed for the second time when the bushes moved. Yellow amongst the gray.

Curious now, his knife whispered from its sheath, ready in his hand. His other stopping the horse. Slowly and quietly he dismounted, ever ready for an attack from an enemy. Cautiously he went in, parting the bushes with his free hand. His sences all on the alert.

And there it was, the sergeants jacket, bundled under the mimosa tree. Looked to be a good jacket too. He relaxed and went to it. He could use another coat. His hand grasped the collar and lifted.

He stepped back, knife coming into battle position. Under the coat was a thin face, a shock of red hair plastered to it. The pale lips opened and another cough ensued.

He knelt down, uncovering the figure more. A boy. A young boy, gaunt and obviously very sick. He was clad in soaking wet leather clothing, his body curled protectively around a CS couriers pouch. One of the many "civilian volunteers" that risked their lives on the battle fields delivering messages between generals and sergeants like himself. Boys like this one "volunteered" for many reasons, the most common being "too young to fight". He wondered breifly how much action this one had seen.

The cold must have roused him then, for his head turned. His eyes fluttered half open. Eyes of the deepest green.

"Daddy?" He whispered.

Smokepole couldn't help but smile. As much as he ever smiled. He had sons, and missed the calling of his name. Adadoda in his language.

The green eyes glassed him, fevered mind attempting to make some kind of connection with what he was seeing. The eyes lit on his chevrons.

"Sergeant," the boy raised his hand in a shakey salute. "I'll be movin' on sir." He attempted to roll over and push himself up, but was laid flat by a horrible fit of coughing.

His experience must have been vast. His words spoke of that in a single sentence. Most couriers were not treated well by the regular army. "Move on boy!" was heard a lot, gruffly shouted when the courier was perceived to linger too long. It was best to do what you are told less you get your ears boxed. Nevertheless, they were invaluable to everyone.

Smokepole frowned. He had watched many young couriers die on the battle fields. And all for a simple scrap of paper and a fancy seal pressed in wax.

"Not today, Little One" Smokepole said. Something stirred in the older mans heart. He wrapped the boy in the coat, his fever burning even through the cold wool thicknes of it, picked him up and carried him to his horse. He was feather light and very small. Nothing more than a skeleton with skin. "Today we find you some help."

He rested the boy across the saddle and mounted in one fluid motion. He urged his horse onward, this time at a little faster pace.

Patches McDuff:
"Dang..." Tensleep muttered.

Patches had her hands wrapped around her coffee cup as if she were feeling the cold from all those years ago...still.

"Yeah," she said taking a drink.

"The boy was you I take it?" He said, looking her up and down. Kinda hard to believe anybody could mistake her for a boy.

She chuckled. "Yeah. Hair was shorter then, just growing out. Lack of a steady source of food made me kinda skinny I guess. Baggie clothes and a strategically placed leather strop took care of the rest."

Tensleep coughed in his hand and wriggled a might in his chair. Patches just grinned.

"More'n one way ta skin a coon, I guess," he said. "So did'ee take ya to a hospital er sumpthin'?"

She leaned forward and poured herself another cup of coffee. "Nope." She said smartly. "He took me home. To his village in the mountains. Prit near right on the Tennesse-Georgia-Carolina border." She straightened up and thought about that for a moment. "Nah. That aint right. Reckon it was further north than that." She nodded once then continued.

"Donno how he kept me alive during the trip up there though. I was kinda in and out the whole time and according to him it took over a week to get there. I vaguely remember him building fires and drinking alotta stuff that smelled like burning pine sap and tasted like grass smells right after a rain." She shrugged then grinned. "Kinda like some'a the stuff Ella comes up with."

Tensleep laughed and raised his cup. "Ella. Bless her heart. So where'd ya end up?"

She smiled. "A little Cherokee village on the side of a mountain just covered with that beautiful yella pine. Yanno, the one's that're forty foot tall and seem to stand like sentinals? Don't remember riding in except it was at night. I remember the voices just a little." She snorted a bit. "I thought they were angels. The Cherokee language is just beautiful spoken."

Tensleep nodded and contemplated the bottom of his cup. He'd thought the same about some of the People's languages he'd heard a time or two.

"So at what point did he find out you was a girl?"

Patches laughed. "I heard this story so many times its almost like memory. And I surely would'a loved ta see his face when Silver Tree told'im!"

'Sleep raised his eyebrows. "Silver Tree? Oh wait." He held his hand up and closed his eyes a moment. "Doan tell me, lemme guess. Village Medicine Woman right?"

Patches grinned. "You got it! Woman was a saint I tell ya. Older with silver streaks in her hair. Patient as the day is long, and wise. Very wise. Prolly the wisest person I ever met. But she had a sence of humor too. Its said she went and got Little Skunk herself....."

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Patches McDuff:
Little Skunk sat crossed legged on his bearskin contemplating the objects before him. The fire flickered comfortingly and it was warm, if not a bit lonely, in his wigwam. His sons had not yet returned from the war, and this caused him a great deal of concern. He was using the mystery of the objects to distract him.

When he and the boy had arrived, he was met with much joy and he was glad. Yet it was dulled by the fact that his sons were not among the throng of people come to greet him. Then dulled a bit more when they discovered his "guest" was white.

His people were never ones to refuse healing when needed and the boy was obviously near death. If there was a chance to save a life, even that of a white man, the Great Spirit would look on them favorably. There would be much debate however, if the boy did not die, about what to do with him after he healed.

Little Skunk had handed the boy to Silver Tree without first dismounting. That was when he noticed the boy's belt buckle. A yankee US buckle worn up-side-down so that it read "S n". Southern Nation. A way to use what dead yankees no longer needed without getting those on your own side confused. This was especially common with civilian volunteers who didn't wear uniforms of either blue or gray. Towards the end of the war, Little Skunk had seen many such buckles worn this way, obvious uniform or not. The Blue Army had much more "stuff" than the Gray Army ever had.

Taking that along with the CS couriers pouch, it was absolute which side the boy had riden for. Yet another mark in his favor. If he had obviously been a yank, Little Skunk may not have stopped, let alone brought him home. More likely he would have stolen the coat and left the wretch there to die, not being worthy even of a mercy killing.

The things found in the boy's couriers pouch, told a more telling tale. Spread in a half circle around his knees were a few stubs of pencil, a half-full notebook, some loose papers, a match safe, a quarter of a quarter peice of hard tack in a small canvas bag, a silver watch with a braided horse hair chain and a little silver fob --obvioiusly a good luck piece, a rosary, a small bible with burned edges, a battered, torn and dog-eared code book with a faded blue cover, and lastly the pouch itself.

Yes. This one was loaded with experience. Odd for one so young. He was either extremely skillful or extremely lucky. Either way though, the condition of the items told Little Skunk that he had definately come through most if not all of the war.

He picked up the code book and thumbed the pages. Standard military issue although he doubted whatever commanding officer he rode under had given it to him. There were not many of these available. He supposed the boy had picked it up off a fallen comrad somewhere along the line.

There were neat notes written in the margins. This one was apparently well educated. Not only could he read and write, but he could also 'cypher'. It appeared alot of the notes, especially toward the back pages of the book, were also written in some kind of code. But not any code military or otherwise that Little Skunk recognized.

Suddenly Little Skunk's head was full of vision. He heard the screetch of an eagle echoing through the recesses of his mind, saw a wave of huge wings. White feathers with black tips, sharply contrasted against the clear blue sky.....

He put the book down, shaking his head just a little. The vision cleared.

He picked up the loose papers and leafed through them. Notes mostly. Tidbits written when time would allow. "Things to remember" so to speak. But then there were the drawings. That intrigued him. There were two of them. One of a tall bearded man, older, wearing a generals uniform. The other of a cabin in the woods.

Interesting to say the least. Pictures speaking words not unlike the written notes.

The last of the loose papers had a crumbling, red wax seal on the bottom portion of it. Words written in thin scrolling hand.

"Go home Patches" and below that a signiture. "General Joseph E. Johnston." The boys last orders. And probably the only message he'd ever read.

Little Skunk sighed. This alone spoke of stubborn loyalty. Orders with couriers generally contained orders for others, not themselves. Was he so reluctant to leave his commanding officer that the man had to ORDER him to go home? Probably.

He picked up the little notebook and flipped the cover. In neat hand was written: Patrick A. McDuff. Ah! Now he had a name for the boy assuming this was his notebook. He thumbed the pages. Probably his notebook. The hand writing was all the same.

Many pages were missing, torn out. But most of those that remained had writing on them. His eyes skimmed the writing, little tid bits jumping out at him.

"Home is where the heart is but where the hell is my heart?"
"Jimmy died today. God rest his soul - May 1863"
"Horse came up lame, was grounded for a time."
"Jesse shot in Vicksburg, need to reach Ol' Joe."
"Ride like the wind Patches, he said. So I did."

That last one caused him pause. Suddenly so clear in his mind the picture of the little man atop a thundering yellow horse, dodging flying cannon balls, leaping through billowing smoke, face grim with determination to simply get the message through.

He closed the book, not willing to linger too long, and picked up the pouch.

He ran his fingers over the heavy CS stamp. The pouch was worn but well kept. Turning it over in his hands he could see where repairs had been made, scrape marks on the flap where it had brushed against a stiff branch or something of the like.

He lifted it to his nose and inhaled deeply. The scent of new leather was now long gone but other scents remained. Gun powder, woodsmoke, bacon, charcoal, blood.

Yes this boy, this Patrick A. McDuff, had seen more than his fair share of action. And bravely too no doubt.

He went to set the pouch down but it somehow flipped in his hand. When it did the flap came open and there appeared something shiny. Curious, Little Skunk lifted the pouch once again.

When he had emptied its contents earlier he hadn't dumped it. He'd reached in and taken the items out one by one. What he failed to notice was a pocket sewn into the very back between the two verticle belt slits. This metal thing had slipped out of said pocket when the pouch turned up-side-down.

He picked it up, ever the more curious, and was surprised. In his hand lay a tarnished but still readable Pony Express Carriers badge.

Surely the boy was too young to have riden for the Pony Express. Perhaps he knew someone who had. Or perhaps he wanted to but never could. Either way, this was very strange. And why keep it hidden in a pocket so obviously an addition to a standard issue pouch?

"Hmm," he mumbled out loud as he replaced it. "More questions."

Almost as an after thought, he picked up the heavy silver watch. The horse hair chain was hand braided. He wanted to believe Patrick A. McDuff had made it. Perhaps from the hair of the tail of his own horse. The horse that bravely and faithfully carried him onto the fields to deliver those messages.

He held it up to his ear. It was not ticking. He popped the cover. The watch had stopped at a little past three. But that was only a minor note made to himself. More prominant was the small picture in the cover. A hand painted portrait of a beautiful woman.

Little Skunk leaned closer to the light of the fire, drinking in all its tiny details. Perhaps Patrick A. McDuff was in love? No. The resemblance was too pronounced. More likely this woman was his mother.

He wound the watch. Nothing happened. He smiled. A boy keeps a broken watch only to remind himself of his mother. That alone spoke volumes.

"Little Skunk." Silver Tree's voice from outside the wigwam, startling him out of his revery.

"Yes?" He called back.

"I must speak with you," she said. Her tone was not to be denied. He rose, pulled on his coat and ducked outside.

"Is it the boy?" He asked, concerned. Why else would Silver Tree come to his wigwam herself instead of sending one of her daughters? It must be urgent news. Either the boy would live, or he had already died.

She looked at him seriously. "Walk with me," she said, then simply turned and began walking.

Patches McDuff:
He turned up his collar, and fell into step beside her. It was still cold, but the snow had finally stopped.

"It is about your guest," she finally confirmed. She was leading him toward her wigwam but taking a round about way of doing it.

"Will he live?" He asked.

"No." She answered. Little Skunk sighed.

"Is he already dead?"

She tilted her head, looking forward still. "No."

He looked to his feet. "Then there is no hope." Why did this upset him so? His mind flickered to the objects in the boy's pouch. So much pride, loyalty, bravery and love in those things. It was unfair he should die.

"There is always hope," she answered.

He looked at her. "If he will not live, and he is not yet dead," he said ruefully. "Then there is no hope. He will die soon."

"No." she said, sucking thoughtfully on her teeth for a moment.

Little Skunk stopped. "No?"

She turned to him "No." She said as a matter of fact. "Your guest walks in two worlds. One of the obvious, the other, hidden. And when one wishes to hide something, the best place is in the open. Where everyone can see it."

Little Skunk was thoroughly confused. "You speak in riddles, Silver Tree," he said. "I do not understand."

She placed her hands on her hips. "Get your head out of the white man's world, Little Skunk," she scolded, tapping his temple with her finger. Still though, her eyes sparkled with just a touch of mischief. She pointed to her wigwam.

"He will not live and he is not dead because he is not a he at all." She turned with a flair of her furs and began walking again. Little Skunk stood rooted to his spot looking down and mulling over what she had said. Once he realized she was several yards away from him, he jogged to catch up.

"What are you saying, Silver Tree? I have brought home a ghost?" He asked flat out. By this time they had reached her wigwam, set far apart from the others. She smiled, lifted the flap, and swept her arm, indicating that he should go inside.

He ducked inside and was instantly assaulted by the strong scents of herbs, sweetgrass, and sage. A fire burned brightly in the middle, her daughters looked to him and smiled before returning to their work.

On a pallet made of bearskin and pine needles lay the boy, sleeping. The women had cleaned him up, and treated his wounds. His arms and part of his chest were covered with painted symbols, as was his forhead.

Silver Tree went to him, beckoning Little Skunk to follow. Once they had reached the pallet, she knelt, brought out a cool cloth and gently dabbed his face. He stirred, but only a bit.

Silver Tree, looked up at Little Skunk at the same time grasping the edge of the bearskin that covered the boy.

"Generally, Little Skunk," she said lifting the skin, yet never taking her eyes off the standing man. His eyes lit on a totally naked figure. "Boys don't have breasts."

His face must have shown his shock, for Silver Tree began laughing, as did her daughters. She let the skin down, once again covering the sick young girl.

"He's a she?" Little Skunk said softly. He could hardly believe what he'd just been shown. He'd heard rumors of course, of girls and women cutting their hair and dressing in their fathers or brothers clothing so that they could fight in the war, but they were just rumors! Weren't they?

His mind raced and he sunk to his knees. He reached out and touched the hand of the Little One, just now realizing he'd--er--SHE'D--been wearing a knitted cap this whole time. Her hair was now coiled loosely over one shoulder. It was a lot longer than he'd realized. She must have had it tucked under the cap. Looking at her face, he wondered how he'd missed it the first time. Of course in order to keep her warm on the trail here, he'd kept her clothed and wrapped in that coat, not even noticing her belt buckle until they rode in the night before.

He stood and looked at Silver Tree. "Will she live?"

Silver Tree smiled kindly her eyes flashing. "Yes."

"She will not die?" He asked.

Silver Tree shook her head. "Yes. She will not die."

He glanced down at the sleeping redheaded girl. "There is hope?"

Silver Tree took his arm and led him out of the wigwam. "There is hope. You may come visit as soon as the fever breaks."


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