Wasn't a sunny day, but being new to Missoula I didn't reckon on snow in September nor all the queer goings-on which happened next. The menfolk rode out early that day- everybody was still spooked by the killing of Mister Custer last June. A few ladies stopped by earlier, but since about two, nobody wanted to go out with the all dark clouds.
I have all the groceries, the early apples and late cabbages, set to go back in the cellar, when a terrible howl commences outside and snowflakes, fat as the end of your thumb, start falling everywhere. I rush three baskets to the lift what Eli, the town blacksmith, installed afore I got here. I work the chains and levers to send them all down where they'll be safe from freezing. I'm just set to go down and settle them in when I hear a little wail from behind the row of dresses we got shipped in last week.
I rummage around and, lickety-split, spot a basket with a bundle wrapped in it. Don't take no college boy to figure this is a baby what somebody done left here for me to raise. Only, when I check the baby, it looks like it must be some sort of monkey, as hairy as it is. Not so much the face, but its arms, chest, and legs all got a kind of fur, soft like goose down. And the little boy has peed himself. After raising six younger siblings, I know how to do this, but...
As soon as I git a makeshift, but dry, diaper on the little fellow, he starts bawling louder than afore. Change, feed, spit up, then start over again. Pattern I know better than Colt knows revolvers. I pry open a can of condensed milk and git some in a cup. He won't take a spoon, so I have to soak the milk in a bit of cloth, then dribble it into his mouth.
His skin is red enough he can't be more than a week or two old, and he's small to boot. He might be early, or his ma might have been a midget or some such like you see at a traveling show. Or maybe he's one of them before history people, seeing as how he's got that fur. But he got a good grip in his fingers and he likes his milk.
After his feeding, he settles right down and I git back to the work of settling in for a snowstorm in September. Bout the time I'm finished down in the cellar, bell rings and I hurry up to see who in tarnation would be out in this sort of weather. I don't see nobody and am set to git back to work, when I spot the basket is empty. Ain't no way, no how, that baby got outta that basket and out the door on his own self. Body had to help him somewhat.
I grab a coat, the basket, box of shells and a Winchester. Ain't no sense going out without all three. Putting shells in ain't easy with a basket slung over my arm, but I got to git going. I step out onto the boardwalk and the cold slaps me in the face. Beaumont weren't never like this. Nobody on the street, least ways so far as I can see. Snow's falling heavy like rain afore a hurricane. I look down and spot a place what's filling in where a body dragged something along the walkway. Can't make out no boot tracks, but that trail's the only thing I got, so I follow along like a calf after its mamma.
Bout the time I reach the bank, I finish loading the shells and slip the box into my pocket. the trail rounds the corner into an alley leading back and I aim to go after whoever took the baby. Something growls, low like a wolf, making me lever a round into the chamber. I go round the corner with the barrel leading. Only ain't nothing there but the baby, crawling through the snow like it ain't cold nor nothing. I go to grab him up and he looks at me with his big pale blue eyes and I stop, staring in wonderment. I put the basket beside him and say, "Git on in, if you're so all fired sure of yourself."
He crawls in and burrows into the blankets. I lift the basket and something is sure as sugar wrong. It weights too much, then I figure that I got the Winchester too, so it adds as much as a small baby, sort of doubling the weight. I make it back to the store and Mrs. Jackson is standing inside tapping her foot. She's an old busybody. Thinks she owns everything. She's part-ways right, seeing as her husband owns the sawmill and is on the right side of comfortable.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, just had to step out for a moment. How can I help you?"
"Miss Boyle, do you know how long I have been waiting?"
"I was out for about ten minutes. So I reckon it's no more than that."
"Would your brother care for your attitude?" She waves around the room. "Your store is entirely too cold."
"I agree, but I ain't got let to put coal in the stove." I aim to make her decide I'm too stupid to know what she means so she'll git down to business.
"I came her today-"
Baby lets out a squall would do a locomotive proud. I look Mrs. Jackson straight in the eye. "I heard a baby crying and went to save it from the storm. Seemed the Christian thing to do. Reckon I need to feed it now."
"How do you propose to do that?"
"We got canned milk." I want to punch her to git her to shut her big bazoo. She don't never stop jawing. The baby bawls some more and the basket is getting a mite heavy, so I set it on the counter. His face pops up and looks like it belongs to an infant not a newborn.
"Mama," he says. He's looking at me, reaching out with his hands, the chestnut fur on his arms visible for anybody looking.
"He seems a bit mature for canned milk." Mrs. Jackson lifts her nose. "Indeed, his hirsute nature indicates he may not be human. Is he a red savage?"
Low growl from the baby startles us both, but I'm quicker on the wiggle. I point to the door. "You can take yourself out and that's your attitude. This is the onliest dry goods and greengrocer in Missoula. So hobble your lip or light a shuck."
She leaves in a right huff and I turn to the baby. He's sitting there, just staring at me, but he cain't be the baby I found earlier. 'Cept he cain't be nobody else neither. Can he? I check his mouth and he's just at the edge of teething. I grab some canned applesauce from the shelf and open it. He's big and hungry enough that he eats the whole kit and kaboodle afore I know it. Once he's done, I check his diaper, which is awful snug but not wet or nothing.
Maybe I recollect it wrong. Maybe he was red from being cold and warmed up in the blankets. Or might have been the wet diaper. That gits kids riled faster than a hornet on a frog's back. Fussing and crying makes everybody red. Ain't no other thing it could be. All them folks talk of spiritualism is just grasping at straws. Good Lord knows what he intends and it ain't we should put our faith in some sort of hexes or magics.
To try and warm the store up, I pull the shutters closed and light the Franklin stove. The Lucifers don't want to strike, I go through seven afore I git one going, but the kindling lights right quick and sets the wood to blazing. I don't aim to chase after the boy again, so I keep his basket beside me the whole time. He's all tuckered after his escapade, so he settles in and sleeps like he ought.
It starts to get cheery until Mister Jackson roars in like a herd of cattle. "Damnation Mabel. What did you do to rile my misses so bad?"
"Saved the boy there instead of waiting on her like she was the queen of England." I'm in no mood for Jebediah Jackson's nattering. "She went and called him some sort of Indian and him with eyes blue as the summer sky."
Mr. Jackson ruffled the boy's hair with his hand. Lucky that the boy had gone under the swaddling again or the fur would have give it away. "Seems a normal enough child to me."
"I ain't one to soft solder doings." I want him out, but he ain't leaving so I reckon I got to give him both barrels. "I calculate she was mostly riled on account I wasn't taking none of her guff."
"She does have a temper." He pulls out a list. "I'd sooner bend an elbow, but I got to have this."
I take the list and add the costs in my head. "That'll set you back a fair margin."
"I'm good for it." He put a twenty dollar double eagle on the counter. "Add in a jug or three of hard cider to round out the cost. I don't fancy toting a pocket of loose dinero around."
I git everything in order, and by then the snow is thick as ticks on a hound dog. Mister Jackson hoists the entire box, including a flitch of bacon, a sack of flour, and two jugs of Mrs. Boone's best hard cider. He staggers a mite and I help to git the door open, then, so soon as he clears the lintel, shut and bar it. I turn back to check the basket and the baby has disappeared. Again.
"I am consarned if I can guess where all you might have got to this time." I'm so flustered I'm talking to the Good Lord, hoping he'll send me a sign. Then I know what I got to do, but applesauce is getting expensive. I decide I can search until I either find him, or he starts to bawling and makes it easy. I go over every foot of the store like I'm a scout tracking hostile Sioux. I'm stating to git riled when I hear him knocking into somewhat in the back storage area.
I hike my skirt and run in, where I find he's trying to climb up for a big jar of hard candy, the sort as sells at three sticks a penny. I dash over and, before either falls, grab him then the jar. He's too heavy. I can't hold him with one hand. I know he wasn't more'n five pounds to start, but he must be thirty now. A toddler, like to be near two, but still with that tight diaper, the cloth ripping on account of his size. And he still got fur over most of his body. He latches onto me like a burr, wrapping his hands around my arm.
"I don't know what all you are, but you ain't a human baby." The words are just out when the back door opens. I feel the burst of cold air but don't hear nothing. My hackles rise, warning of danger, but the Winchester is out front. I turn, slow as molasses, and find an old native woman wearing a Cheyenne leather dress covered with intricate wampum designs, mountains and clouds and falling snow. She leaves the door open and beckons with her eyes.
"I didn't take this boy," I explain. "I found him and he latched onto me."
"I know." She ain't talking English, but I still understand. "Old man winter lost his son while weeping for the people's children. I will tell him not all white men are so evil that you must be frozen."
Then she disappears, alongside the boy, in a billowing cloud of mist. I know I won't never see neither again, and my heart gets a little colder with the pain of losing the boy as was almost mine.