In honor of the passage of the transgender non-discrimination bill in Massachusetts, I’ve been wanting to share this story I wrote (under my alter-ego’s name) for my first anthology, Rode Hard, Put Away Wet. Not a winter holiday story, although there is certainly snow.
A bit of background first: it’s estimated that as many as 400 women served as soldiers in the Civil War in the US, on both sides. Some went to be near husbands or lovers, but many seized the chance to live, however dangerously, as men. Some were exposed when they were wounded, some long afterward when they died after maintaining a masculine identity for the rest of their lives, and some must have gone on to live life on their own terms and never be questioned. This is a story of one who went west and found everything he needed.
The lamps of Dutch Flat shone through the swirling snow as we rounded the last curve of the Bear River. Old Ulysses picked up his gait, not needing the lights to know that shelter and feed and the company of his own kind lay close ahead.
As for me, hunched against the cold in my sheepskin coat, hat brim pulled low to keep the snow clear of my eyes, I'd be happy enough for shelter, too, and a good meal. The company of my own kind was a more questionable matter. I had acquaintances in town, some who counted me as friend, but only one who understood the resolve it took for me to put on the face and manner that the rest took for granted.
The early snow lay a foot deep in the open, deeper where it drifted against outcroppings of boulders and scrub pine and juniper. Ulysses was the first to notice something different about the long, white mound at the edge of one such thicket, partly obscured by weighted branches.
I might have missed it altogether, being inwardly focused on reassembling my go-to-town identity. Jack Elliott, miner, trapper, supporter of civic projects and worthy charitable endeavors; a sizable man, good for back-up in a fight, known to crack heads together in the quelling of drunken brawls, and a sharpshooter from his days in the Union Army.
All this was, on the whole, true. A role I could live with. It was the frequent whispers, meant kindly enough, in general, that made my innards shiver. Some newcomer on the porch of the general store or in a saloon would lean close to an old-timer to hear about poor Jack Elliott, wounded so bad at the Battle of Chickamauga that his beard never grew again and his voice had gone up to about the pitch of an adolescent boy's.
Then they'd shift uneasily in their chairs until somebody commented that Jack surely had an eye for the ladies, at least, and would buy a girl a drink and even dance with a good deal of enjoyment, though nobody'd ever seen him go upstairs at the whorehouse. That'd bring a chuckle, and more uneasy shifting, but if I came close enough for hailing there'd be genial enough greetings and invitations to sit in at a poker game.
My ruminations had begun to drift back toward the girls in the dance hall, all curls and red lips and waists laced up tight to make their bosoms swell above their low-cut gowns. Ulysses' sudden halt jolted me. I looked where the horse was looking, and saw a twitch of movement. Just a juniper branch springing loose from its weight of snow, I figured, maybe triggered by some small creature sheltering beneath.
I urged Ulysses onward, but he stopped again when we'd drawn about level with the suspicious mound. My horse was not of a temperament to shy at trifles. Half Morgan, half Clydesdale, he had strength enough to fear little, wit enough to know what needed fearing, and courage enough to face the latter if I asked it of him. From Vermont to the war in the South to the Sierra Mountains he'd carried me, through the hellfire of battle and the solitude of wilderness. It wasn't fear, but more likely curiosity that halted him now, or perhaps his judgment that I ought to take notice of whatever this was.
Another twitch, more shedding of snow, and I saw that he was right. Jet-black hair lay beneath a powdering of white. I dismounted, my Sharps carbine at the ready, and gently prodded a snow-covered shoulder with the toe of my boot. No response.
I knelt, still cautious, and turned the body on its side. The face revealed was pale as ivory, eyes closed, with a knife slash and swelling purple bruise extending from the narrow jaw up over a delicate cheekbone.
A child? A female child? I dropped my carbine and brushed away snow with both hands. She wore a quilted jacket and cotton trousers, much too thin for the weather. I shed one elkhide glove and slipped a hand under the flimsy covering, looking for a heartbeat. The curve of her breast told me that she was, in fact, no child. I looked closer at her face and realized that she must be from the Chinatown section of Dutch Flat, populated by immigrants who had come first for the mining, then for the building of the railroad.
I touched a finger to her exposed throat. Cold. Cold as death. But not dead, not quite, not yet. A tremor of a pulse still stirred the smooth skin.