"Oh, hell no." Pounding hooves sent vibrations through her feet—fast riders bearing down. Mary snatched the water bucket from a drinking horse and heaved her massive body up onto the stagecoach seat. "Yee haw!" At the flick of her whip, Jim, the lead horse snorted and surged forward, pulling the others with him.
Spying a rocky outcropping up ahead, Mary drove the team over the hardscrabble terrain toward shelter. She yanked the reins with all her might to stop the coach. The frightened horses stamped their feet in confusion, raising dust around them. Stomping her boot on the reins, Mary wrestled them under control. "Shush, babies. Sweet apples waitin' for us at home." Once the horses settled, she checked the chambers of her Smith and Wesson .38 revolver and cocked the hammers of the double-barrel shotgun stretched across her lap. "Come on boys. I'ma waitin' for ya."
Three horsemen charged past her hiding place at blinding speed. Mary chuckled, "Too hellbent to notice my dust. They'll be 'cross the Canadee border before they knows they passed me."
She wiped the sweat from her neck with a big red handkerchief. Breathing deep, Mary tried to calm her pounding heart. "Thankee, rock," she patted the mound in gratitude. These three rocky mounds stood out like moles on the back of the flat prairie. The gold stubble of late summer grasses stretched to the horizon. Even as sundown neared, the hot sun roasted the earth and filled her nostrils with the smell of burnt grass.
Mary waited behind the rocks until she could longer hear their hooves, and then snapped the reins. She trotted her team out and back along the road to Cascade. "Ha! No loot for you Johnson boys today. Think I don't recognize you? Fools, ain't even payday at Montana Mines for another two weeks."
An unsettling thought jolted through her mind. Shoot, 'spect they'll be back for it. I been fearin' gangs outta the Dakota Badlands; not local boys. Lord, I hopes you keep watchin' out for me.
* * *
After dropping off the mail bags at the post office in town, Mary swung the stagecoach toward Sun River Valley. She dropped one envelope onto the seat next to her. In fancy handwriting, the envelope bore the name Amadeus Dunne, Mother Superior of Ursuline Convent, St. Peter's Mission. Mary could not bring herself to call her friend Amadeus "mother," though the young priest and all the nuns did. The Blackfoot children and their parents at the mission school did, too.
I ain't callin' no skinny white woman "mother." 'Specially not one no older than me. Now back in Ohio when they called her sister, that made sense.
Mary and the horses eased into a steady rhythm as they headed home. Maybe some days hard, Lord, but this place suits me. I'm a free woman traveling 'cross the prairie 'neath this big, big sky.
As she pulled into the mission's yard, a dozen or so children raced toward her. Jumping off the coach, Mary handed the reins to an older boy. "Give 'em extra feed, Mingan. They earned it."
"Mary! Mary!" the younger children shouted. Shy little Kanti hid behind Mary and tugged on her pants leg. Mary scooped up the girl and raised her high in the air. "My lil' songbird. Fly, fly, fly." The child giggled as Mary spun her, while the others jumped up and down, pleading, "Me next! Me next!"
"Have to go and see Amadeus first, young'uns." Mary strode into the mother superior's office, forgetting to knock as usual.
"Welcome home, Mary," Mother Amadeus said with a smile. "Did they keep you in Great Falls for a while?"
"Nah. My friends just poured the drink a tad too much last night. I fell to sleep right there in that saloon chair."
Amadeus raised an eyebrow. "Mary Fields, how long have we known each other now? I keep praying you'll mend your ways."
"Nigh on twenty-five years; ever since I high-tailed it out of slavery. Amadeus, you know'd I'm a drinkin' woman when you asked me to come with you to Montana, so don't be fussin' on me now."
Mary pulled the letter out of her pouch. "I've a letter for you, Sister."
"Thank you, Mary." Amadeus broke the seal and opened the envelope. She said with a sigh, "Bishop Brondel is coming for a visit in a fortnight."
"That good or bad?"
"Well, we will see," she smiled at Mary and tossed the letter aside. "For now, let's think about dinner."
"Those sweet peas in my garden ripenin' up nice. I'll check 'em."
"Lovely. Please take them to the cook."
Mary strode out to her garden—her pride and joy. She had planted corn, beans, potatoes, squash, and sweet peas. Vegetables earned priority, but she had reserved one corner of the garden for a rose bush. Deep red blooms brightened the monotonous landscape that surrounded the mission. Gently, she plucked a bloom for the dinner table. Ah, sweet Jesus, thankee for these flowers. I don't even mind the thorns. Something this beautiful got to protect herself.
After she dropped off the basket of peas in the kitchen, Mary headed to her room in the back of the convent. Though a big, big woman, Mary thought this tiny room suited her. Small and simple; all I need. She tidied herself up a bit and set aright the few things out of order in her immaculate room. A day like today deserves a bit of whiskey. Amadeus will have my hide if I drinks it here, though. No matter. I'll join the boys later down at the saloon.
At dinner, Mary sat at a long table with the nuns. The half-dozen children who lived at the mission sat at another table. Most of the mission's students lived in the nearby Blackfoot village, where they now enjoyed dinner with their own families. Those young'uns without family, they's just like me. They'd be alone in this world if not for the kindness of Amadeus and the nuns.
After dinner, Mary hitched up Jim for the ride into town. "You enjoy your dinner and a nice nap? We'll stride easy tonight, Jimbo. No sense jarring these ole bones of ours."
Stars glittered across the enormous expanse of black sky that arched over the flat prairie. Wish I know'd stories like some folks do about the jumbles of stars that stand together. God done covered all the peoples of His earth with a big cozy blanket. A buffalo blanket, maybe.
* * *
"Howdy, boys!" Mary swung open the saloon doors and marched up to the bar.
A chorus of men welcomed her, "Hey, Mary."
"Whiskey neat, Jake." She pulled a half-smoked cigar from her pocket and struck a match. Savoring the cigar with deep satisfaction, she surveyed the room. In a corner, she spotted the Johnson boys. They sat glumly at a table playing cards with a few others. Losing by the look of it.
"Jake, send one over to the Johnson boys on me. They look like they be needin' it."
Jake nodded. "Them boys been sinkin' deep since they pappy died last fall. Their ranch 'bout ready to go bust 'cause of this drought and young Gus's gambling. That boy either stupid or unlucky. Most likely both."
"Well, hard times can scramble your head and lead a body to the damnedest foolishness."
When Jake brought them their drinks, the Johnson crew looked over at Mary in surprise. She raised her glass in salute.
* * *
"Mary, you'll need to pick up Bishop Brondel from the Great Falls rectory after you've loaded up the mail," Amadeus told her.
"He's comin' today?"
"I'm afraid so. Please don't keep him waiting long. I'd rather he not be in a foul temper when he arrives. He can be a bit snippy when peeved."
"Yes'm. I'll deliver him right gentle and timely."
True to her word, Mary headed straight for the rectory after picking up the mail and the Montana Mining Company payroll. She took a bit of time arranging it all to make sure the bishop had a comfortable seat inside the stagecoach.
Brondel waddled out of the rectory and motioned Mary to pick up his bag. Obliging, she followed the rotund little man back to the stagecoach and slung his bag onto the roof. Sissy man, wearin' that long black dress, dinky cap, and prissy pink shoes.
Though Mary had placed a wooden box in front of the stagecoach cabin, Brondel had difficulty maneuvering himself into the coach seat. Seeing him struggle, Mary gave his butt a boost.
"Sorry, Reverend. Just tryin' to help you up."
"That's Bishop, thank you. And kindly keep your hands to yourself."
Mary shrugged and slammed the door after him. Settled on her perch atop the stagecoach, she clicked her tongue and the team set off.
Leaning toward the coach window, Mary shouted, "So what brings you out this way, Reverend . . . er Bishop?"
"I plan to visit every church and mission under my jurisdiction in this newly minted State of Montana. This congregation is growing so fast and far, I need to set strong standards at the outset."
"You'se got a lot of ground to cover, sir. Montana's spread tall and wide."
"How long until we reach Cascade?"
"Twenty-six miles, should take no more than five hours." I'd make it in four if I didn't have to worry about bumping your sorry ass.
When the bishop closed the coach shades, effectively cutting off conversation, Mary happily turned her attention back to the road and her own musings. The road ran alongside the Missouri River and occasionally through tall fields of wheat. Mostly, though, the surrounding landscape was simply prairie: wild grasses, wildflowers, and golden sod.
* * *
About half way through their journey, Mary spotted a dust cloud on the road up ahead. Horses. Queasiness churned her gut and rose up her throat. She spit hard to relieve the sour taste of fear.
"Hellfire damnation, those goddamned Johnson boys done got the date right." Anger flooded her brain—anger at them for doing this; anger at herself for spotting them too late. Leaning over the edge, she yelled through the coach window, "Reverend, duck down your head real low and don't say a word."
"Woman, stop taking the Lord's name in vain. And what on earth are you jabbering about?"
"Robbers, man. Here they come!"
Three riders bore down on the coach. In a swirl of dust, she steered the team a sharp left and shot her revolver into the air to warn them off. Instead, all three fired at the stagecoach and kept coming faster. Mary felt a sharp sting on her arm when a bullet grazed her. Ignoring it, she aimed her shotgun at the nearest rider. The retort echoed across the prairie as the rider fell and his horse sped away. Mary leveled her .38 at a second rider, who screamed as her bullet pierced his shoulder. The third rider circled the coach, trying to grab Jim's bridle.
"Yee haw!" Her team surged forward away from the robber's grasp. He charged after her, firing his .45. As his horse overtook the coach, Mary zinged a bullet into the rider's thigh. Yelping like coyote pups, the two robbers sped off toward the hills.
Slowing the team, Mary turned the coach around. The fallen rider lay at an odd angle. Not sure if he was dead or dying, Mary hauled herself off the coach and checked for any signs of life.
"He's breathin', but it ain't gonna be for long if I don't get him to the doctor. Reverend! Get out here. I'ma needin' your help."
The bishop peered fearfully out of the window, his pink cap barely visible.
"We gotta load this boy into the coach. You can sit up top with me."
Too frightened to not do as told, the bishop opened the door and came over to Mary.
"Pick up his feet. I'll get his shoulders and we'll lift him into the coach." Mary settled the man on the coach floor, and then pulled off the handkerchief covering his face.
"Joseph Johnson. Now why'd you go an' make me do that? I didn't wanna hurt ya." He was the youngest of the Johnson brothers. She had always liked him.
Joseph's eyes fluttered. "Mary, I'm sorry . . . "
"Shush, chile. Save your strength."
Shutting the coach door, she barked at the bishop, "Get your ass up on the coach, Reverend." Try as he might, the fat little man could not pull himself up. Mary roughly shoved him upward.
Hauling herself up after the bishop, Mary grabbed the reins and set off at a brisk pace.
Two hours later, she pulled into Cascade. The wheels had barely stopped turning when she jumped down and ran for the doctor. Doc Sandberg hurried after her, and they carried the Johnson boy inside his office.
"I'll be honest with you, Mary. It don't look good. Go on home and I'll send word out one way or another."
She would have stayed, but Mary had to deliver Bishop Brondel to the mission safe and sound or there would be hell to pay.
* * *
Mary answered the door to the sheriff's knock.
"I'm sorry, Mary, the Johnson boy didn't pull through," he said. "Doc told me you tried to save him."
"I sure didn't wanna shoot that boy," Mary hung her head mournfully.
"Well, you did right. I've a warrant out for the other two. I hear you got a shot into them boys, too. I'll let you know if they turn up."
Mary closed the door behind the sheriff and dragged herself toward her room. Passing Amadeus's office, she heard raised voices inside.
"I cannot turn her out," Amadeus insisted.
Brondel blustered, "She dresses like a man and swears like an infidel! Blasphemy, it is. She's vile and violent. And then there's the whiskey and cigars!"
"I owe Mary my life. When I had the ague and thought for sure God meant the fever to take me, she nursed me back to health. She stayed by my bedside day and night. Bishop, she helped build this mission with her own hands. I cannot abandon her."
"Your mission is to bring the word of God to the heathens. Those children should be filling the rooms, not a black woman of ill repute."
"Mary may not be a saint, but she certainly is not of ill repute! There is not one citizen in this community nor one child in this school who does not love Mary."
"It's final. I want that so-called woman out of this mission. And I want those children here in this school permanently and away from that heathen village."
Amadeus's voice rose higher in alarm, "You mean to take the children away from their families?"
"That is exactly what I mean. How can we hope to mold them into righteous Christians if we do not remove evil influences? Mary Fields, heathen Indians—I want them away from this mission and away from these impressionable children. If you cannot run this mission properly, others will. Or I will close it entirely and the failure will be yours."
Brondel yanked open the door and stormed past Mary. She stood there with her mouth gaping in disbelief.
"What kinda man takes young'uns from they mammies and pappies?" Mary said as much to herself as to Amadeus.
"Mary," Amadeus began gently, "the bishop's intentions are good, though his methods may not be what you or I would choose. He doesn't know these families like we do."
"You sho 'nuf right there. Babies belong with their kin," Mary asserted.
Amadeus nodded her agreement and slipped her arm around Mary's shoulders. "Mary, the bishop insists that you cannot live here. I don't want to see you leave. This house has been your home as much as the sisters." Wiping away a tear, Amadeus straightened her back. "Mary, I have to choose between you and the school."
Mary jutted out her chin. "Don't worry 'bout me, Amadeus. I'll find rooms in Cascade or build me a place out
on the prairie." As she walked toward her room, the corridor seemed long, the walls too close. The air itself
weighed heavy, pulling down her head and shoulders. In her room, she touched the crucifix on the wall. Did
you feel this alone, Jesus? You damn better stick with me, Boy. Long time since Mary been alone.
* * *
Long slow months dragged themselves into a year. Mary had not seen Amadeus nor much of anyone else since the burial. The weight of the boy's life had placed a heavy burden on her soul. On the stagecoach, fear and sadness now seemed as familiar companions to her as Jim and the other horses in her team. Building a cottage on the prairie had helped ease her mind a bit.
On her last mail delivery to the mission, Mary stammered out an invitation to Amadeus. "Done finished my house, Sister. If you be so inclined, maybe you could come bless it?"
"Mary, dear, I've no doubt the Lord has already blessed you and your home. I'd love to visit with you, though."
Just days before the visit, Mary painted the door to the cottage rose red, her favorite color. It had taken her some time to allow herself any brightness.
When Amadeus knocked, Mary opened the door to her first visitor with a self-conscious smile. "Welcome, Sister."
Offering Mary a basket of cornbread and a small potted rose bush, Amadeus entered the tidy cottage. "It's homey and warm, Mary. You've made a lovely home for yourself."
"Thankee, Amadeus. You're welcome any time. This here rose will be the first thing in my new garden. Beans and peas and such can come after."
"Mary, perhaps you can no longer live at the mission, but no one said you couldn't still come there and spend time with us. The children miss you, especially little Kanti. The sisters miss you. I miss you."
Mary sighed. "Ole Mary ain't been good company. Them babies need to laugh and play, not see my sorry face."
"Oh, Mary, please believe I still love you as my sister. I'm sorry the bishop forced me to choose between my duty to you and to the children."
"I'm sorrowful, Amadeus, because of that boy's life. I don't hold nothin' against you. You chose right."
Amadeus touched Mary's cheek. "You chose right, too. You did your job, Mary. You saved the goods you carried and the bishop—ungrateful though he was. And you tried your best to save that boy."
Before Amadeus left, she pleaded with Mary, "Please come to dinner next week. I'll tell cook to make all your favorites."
Mary nodded slowly. "Yes'm. I will."
Standing outside her cottage, Mary watched as Amadeus's carriage faded into the distant light. She felt the warm rays of the day's waning sun on her face. She gazed at the little rose pot she held in her hand. Maybe, Lord, you'll bless ole Mary with a new garden?
Digging a hole, Mary gently set the plant down into it. She retrieved ash from her fireplace and sprinkled it around the roots before filling in the hole with dirt. That'll feed you, little rose, and help you grow.
Two fat buds looked ready to sprout. Stroking a tender bud, Mary smiled. A tiny, slender thorn pricked her thumb. "Ouch! Little rose, your thorns as sharp as a kitten's claws. No mind. Something as beautiful as you got to protect herself."