"A Heart in the Hand"
J. Matthew Gottwig
J. Matthew Gottwig

First appeared in the Intergalactic Medicine Show

The story I’m about to tell isn’t about Major Jim Bridger. Sure, that old mountain wizard played his part but not in a manner you might expect. This is a story about Portugee Phillips and the woman who lost her heart. It’s a story about the largest battle in Chief Red Cloud’s war against the whites. Maybe most of all, this is a story about not getting what you want for Christmas.

In this story, gunfire echoed in the distance, but nobody could see the fight through the hills. Every man, woman, and child stopped to listen.

Fort Phil Kearny had never been so quiet.

The colonel had put Lieutenant Grummond in charge of the 2nd Cavalry that day. It was a proud moment for Missus Grummond, but fears of the outcome had sent her home to listen in solitude. She tried not to think of the battle or the magical locket tied around her husband’s neck.

Only after the air fell silent did she force herself to wonder about her husband’s fate. He would come home a hero, she wanted to imagine. His men would tell tales about how he took down twenty Lakota warriors and saved the logging train. The colonel would have to admit he’d been wrong about her husband’s temperament and would make him the permanent commander of the 2nd Cavalry. She hoped this with all her heart. Nothing would make for a better Christmas.

It never occurred to her to fear that he might die.

Across the fort, Portugee Phillips stopped splitting logs. He dropped his axe, tipped back his battered hat, and studied the sky. Then he thought the better of being empty-handed so close to the battle, and he picked his axe back up again. Portugee moved to the stockade. Through a gap between the logs, he could see smoke rising above the distant hills. The air smelled of gunpowder and blood. Portugee wished he could feel through the earth like Bridger could feel the earth. He wished he could ask the eagles for news or read tidings in the clouds. Portugee wanted to know if he should take his meagre earnings and run before Chief Red Cloud brought the fight to Fort Kearny.

The first of the army scouts returned near twilight.

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