The Thundering Path of Spirit 

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After a chilling winter of bitter winds and bottomless snows, the aging forest of giant trees was laden with misshapen saplings and tangled underbrush. Although the debris-littered forest was a tough course to navigate on horseback, the broad leaves of late spring provided a welcome canopy of cool shade from the midday sun as well as an impenetrable cloak of secrecy.

It was a watercolor painting of both eerie seclusion and peaceful serenity with sun-dappled ferns nestled among the decaying logs and bright green moss clinging to the scattered rocks and gnarled tree trunks.

Suddenly, a spotted deer froze and gazed up in distrust at a passing rider and horse. A serious young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, momentarily stopped her mount and stared at the fawn. Maybe the deer is an omen, the woman thought curiously. Shrugging off the random notion, she suddenly tapped her knees against her horse's mange-scarred belly and rode on.

Aside from the quiet hoof beats and panting breaths of the weary horse threading its way through the rubble, the only other sounds were two plump squirrels chattering as they feverishly raced through the rustling leaves and the rippling of an icy mountain creek as it trickled over a panorama of sun splashed rocks.

Ducking under some low hanging tree limbs, the young woman leaned over her stocky mare's coarse black mane, which was a stark contrast to its mottled tan coat. Her mount was a poor piece of horseflesh to be sure, but the woman didn't seem to notice as she contentedly breathed in the earthy smells of damp, decaying wood and mud after a recent rainfall. The sights and smells of the forest were wonderfully familiar, and she briefly smiled and allowed herself a fleeting moment of pleasure.

Then it was back to business. As the young woman determinedly rode her mount over the unforgiving terrain, she gave the impression of being an expert rider with a maturity well beyond her years. It was remarkable how she cautiously stayed the challenging course. A less experienced rider might have taken the broad and less strenuous, sunny trail through the mountain pass about a mile north. But past experience had shown the woman it was risky not to remain shrouded in the dark shadows from those who might intentionally harm her.

In the 1870s, the Montana Territory was a wild and woolly country filled with hearty mountain men, trappers, gutsy settlers, a smattering of cavalrymen and forts, and migrating Indians. Many bands of Native Americans from different tribes had journeyed westward to escape the alarming spread of the white man's settlements. More and more Indian bands dotted the rough landscape with tepees, but many were enemies after centuries of hostility. Because countless bands were suddenly boxed in and pressed into an overcrowded and smoldering geographical area, it was only a matter of time before the melting pot of frustration, resentment, and anger would boil over.

If the solitary white woman was afraid of traveling alone through hostile Indian country, she didn't show it. For one so young, her life had not been without sorrow and hardship. Through the years, she had mastered masking her emotions and veiling her thoughts under a facade of gritty independence. Instead of projecting fear, she displayed an uncompromising demeanor of self-reliance and resourcefulness. Not only did it appear she felt at ease in the wilds, but her unflinching bearing seemed to say, Stay away from me.

Although the woman took every precaution to conceal her femaleness, the deception was only successful at a distance. Although she was on the small side of medium, her stoic posture gave a tall appearance that was uncommonly graceful and long-limbed. One might even say her wisps of honey brown hair and sun tinted skin made her appear comely in an outdoorsy way.

On the other hand, her tenacity would probably have discouraged all but the strongest suitors of the opposite sex. One steely glance from her stubborn eyes would have made most men hightail it to an easier conquest. Although she might have been a desirable female in some respects, her remoteness and resilient determination made her an untouchable enigma.

To appear more masculine, the woman's long brown hair was coiled in an untidy bun fastened with a brass clip. Most of it was stuffed under a wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat trimmed with ornamental pheasant feathers. In a further attempt to disguise her origins, the woman's buckskin clothing was plain and unadorned without any tribal beading.

From faraway, it was impossible to tell if the rider was a leggy cowboy or a skinny Indian scout from Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory. The latter category frequented the mountains, and Native American scouts typically chose to wear hats instead of traditional Indian breath feathers. The rider's fringed buckskin pants suggested an Indian heritage, but with no ornamentation on the saddle, clothing, or moccasins, the rider's tribe would remain a mystery.

The stranger had obviously been traveling awhile. She had a well-worn, dusty bedroll tied up somewhat sloppily, a rumpled saddlebag stuffed with a buffalo paunch and cooking utensils, and an oversized canteen, which she filled each time she ventured near a fresh mountain stream. Because she carried a large supply of buffalo jerky and pemmican, which was a dried mixture of buffalo meat and pounded berries, it also appeared she had a few more days to go before reaching her destination.

Aside from her unfaltering appearance, the most unusual thing about the young woman was the intensity of a strange pattern of obsessive behavior.  Every few miles, she would pause to give her muscular, but scruffy mustang pony a rest. Then she would expertly dismount and examine her surroundings, looking for traces of other humans or animals. It became apparent she was skilled in tracking as she checked tree markings, broken bushes, and prints in the ground as well as evidence of campfires, crushed underbrush, refuse, and defecation. Someone had taught her well the skills of an Indian tracker.

After making sure she was temporarily out of danger, the young woman carried out the exact same routine she had done the previous hour. First, she unfolded a map of the terrain, which was illustrated and written in English. After returning it to a pocket in her poncho, she reached into her tattered saddlebag for a cowhide folder, which was rectangular and shaped for holding important documents.

Gingerly, the young woman opened the worn leather folder and reverently extracted a folded piece of paper. From a distance, it looked like yellowed newsprint. As if confirming her reason for traveling and rededicating herself to her mission, her pale green eyes scanned a faded news article. Then as if she were stroking the paper in a soft caress, her fingertips lightly brushed a black-and-white engraving of an Indian warrior.

Staring proudly from the page, the stern Indian was dressed in his finest ceremonial clothing including a headdress of breath feathers, a ribbed white vest made of bleached elk antlers, and white intricately beaded buckskin pants. After briefly smiling at the engraving with a mixture of regret and pain, the woman tenderly replaced the article in its protective cover.

After performing the same ritual every hour day after day, she bowed her head in prayer, made the sign of the cross, and then looked expectantly at the blue sky inching through the shrouded trees. Only then did she take a deep, determined breath. After exhaling forcefully, the woman determinedly remounted her horse and nudged the mare with her knees in the way of an Indian. Filled with a renewed sense of purpose, the solitary rider once again began her strenuous journey and threaded her way through the eerie shadows of the darkening forest.

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