Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 11: Crazy Boy

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It was the dangedest Injun raid I ever seen. There was thirty, maybe forty of ’em, came howling up out of that draw like our herd of tick-infested longhorns was the answer to their prayers to bring the buffalo back. Not Comanche. In fact, no tribe I knew, and that’s a fact. Tam said they were Utes, way out of their normal stomping grounds here on the Chisholm Trail. Likely jist plain hungry and needing to feed their families.

Of course, feeding the red hordes weren’t exactly on the trail boss’s itinerary, didn’t make the ranch no money whatsoever, so we had us a running gun battle fer a while there. The only casualty on our side was young Jeb, who took a slug through his left arm. Clean exit, no bone involved, jist a flesh wound. It was doubtful a single red warrior got singed even a little bit, though we all lied like politicians making campaign promises and said we’d seen some of ’em slumped over their ponies before they’d topped the rise and disappeared over the hill.

No, we ain’t really that bad at slinging lead, even from horseback. Not all of us, anyway. Call it charity if you like. Jist don’t publish yer findings, or I’ll deny it seven ways from Sunday, and so will every man jack drover in the crew.

When we got done comparing notes, it seemed purty clear the raiders had gotten away with either eight or nine market-ready beeves. It could have been a lot worse. Besides, it made Tam mighty thoughtful. He always was a thoughtful sort; I swear, sometimes you could jist about see them gears grinding between his sizeable ears. This was one of them times. Once things were settled a bit around the campfire, we didn’t have long to wait.

“I ain’t told you fellers many stories having to do with the Indians,” he began, “but it so happens I do know one or two.”

That brought a round of chuckles from the cowboys hunkered down around the fire, rolling after-meal cigarettes and sipping on coffee still scalding hot from the pot.

“One or two,” he went on as if he hadn’t noticed, “And one in particular has been eating on me ever since them Utes hit us today. Reckon it’s time you heard about Crazy Boy and Hunger Dog.”

We agreed, of course.

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Tam speaks
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His childhood name was Still Water, given to him when his mother birthed him next to a scum-covered pond back in the timber near their winter camp. He was twelve years old, a young Cheyenne anxious to prove himself a man…and a whole lot more anxious to save his dog’s life.

Not that anyone else among The People considered the dog to be the boy’s property. Dogs were camp critters, useful for warning against enemy raiders and for filling a stewpot every now and then. Sentiment toward even the cutest puppy was not a consideration when folks needed to be fed. Animals were spiritual beings, yes…but dogs were still and always…meat.

Still Water had himself ingested more than one bellyful of fat, greasy puppy stew.

Unfortunately, this winter had been hard. The weather should break soon now, but soon might not be soon enough. Hunters had failed time and again to bring home fresh meat despite ranging far from camp. The People began to eye the young adult coyote-dog mix the boy thought of as his. He knew this–Still Water read the people of the camp as readily as he read animal tracks in fresh snow–and he also knew that he must act soon, or it would be too late.

He spoke to his father, Lean Runner, early one morning. Casually, taking care with his words and how he said them.

“That old bear is a problem for The People.” He delivered the line lightly, the sort of observation repeated countless times by nearly everyone. Long Claw was an aging grizzly, a giant of a boar bear grown weary and also complacent. This bear had been possessed by an evil spirit and had taken to raiding their camp, always deep in the night, striking swiftly and carrying away anything he could eat.

Which included horses and dogs, men, women, and children. The Cheyenne had lost three warriors, one old woman, and one child already, not to mention the seven ponies.

Lean Runner said nothing to his son’s sally. Jist looked at him. The youngster went on. “Bet that big one would feed The People the rest of the winter. Might have to boil him for three days, though!” He twinkled and laughed as if at a great joke. His father grinned with him. Then Still Water delivered his most important words. “Maybe this boy should hunt this old bear, tell him to fill our stewpots!”

Lean Water laughed aloud at that, reached out to ruffle the child’s hair. “Why not, little one? You are faster and stronger than any old Long Claw!”

He was, of course, not serious. The boy was, of course, entirely serious–and he’d jist set his father up. When the time came that he was confronted by family as well as tribal elders because of his insane quest to kill the giant bear single handed, he would be able to say in all truth that his father had given him permission. That was important. Moments later, he and the potential stewpot puppy dog slipped from the camp. “Come along, Hunger Dog,” he told the canine. “You and I must hunt.” No other Cheyenne warrior would have even thought of taking a dog along on a hunt…but Still Water was no ordinary being. He was not fearless. The thought of tackling Long Claw alone daunted him considerably. But he thought in ways others seemed not to do, and he’d learned to hide that truth from the others.

What no one else knew was that this Cheyenne knew where Long Claw denned. The old boar had not hibernated this year, for what reasons no one knew. Perhaps the animal’s instinct had been injured in the same way his left front leg had been hurt. He limped on that foot; perhaps his brain limped also and would not let him rest the winter through like normal bears.

Yet the giant did sleep, sometimes for a day or two, in a small cave set in the side of a hill, back in the deep timber. It was not far; the boy knew he and Hunger Dog could go there, kill the bear, and be back by the time the sun stood overhead. He would have told the others–he did not place the rogue bruin’s welfare above the lives of The People–but had jist yesterday discovered the den. Plus, he needed the lone kill to give him enough prestige to say, “You will not eat this dog. I am the warrior who fed The People on the flesh of Long Claw, and I say so.”

Even if they would have to boil the old boar for three days before they could eat him.

Hunger Dog was, like his friend, unusually sensitive and intelligent for his species–whatever that species may have truly been. He neither yipped in excitement nor ran in terror as Still Water crept to the cave opening, simply plopping down on his haunches, ears perked forward in curiosity, eager to see what his human companion might be up to.

On his part, they young Cheyenne said a silent prayer of apology to his brother, the bear, and let fly his first arrow.

Which didn’t go so well. The arrowhead found its mark, right enough, striking ahead of the haunch and deep into the monster grizzly’s vital organs. In other words, what the white man would call a gut shot. Not the best plan for taking down a griz. His father often told of a black bear he’d seen that had made three more jumps up a tree after taking a rifle bullet directly through the heart. Bears were famously hard to kill, and all he’d done was disturb this one’s digestion.

The roar of the infuriated beast should have been enough to kill the boy all by itself.

Long story short–though in the tale telling among the Cheyenne, nothing is ever short–Still Water ended up perched wa-ay up in a spruce tree with the enraged Long Claw standing on his hind legs, the feathered end of the arrow protruding from his gut as he rattled the puny human’s perch considerably. The boy had managed to keep his bow on the way up, even had the thought to try sending an arrow down the bear’s throat in mid-roar, but the tree was shaking too much. He couldn’t even get an arrow nocked, let alone properly aimed.

Then the bear pushed the tree over.

On the way down, Still Water realized, “I should have known he could do that!” But he was, as stated previously, twelve years old. No twelve year old knows everything whether he thinks he does or not. He jumped clear as the tree hit the ground, but Long Claw was on him immediately. He got an arrow nocked, started to pull…and knew he was out of time.

It was a good day to die.

Hunger Dog flashed between them, slashing the bear’s nose with his own teeth as he went. Not bulldog style; the wolf family does not fight like that. Slash and run, slice and dice. The bear turned to eat this new attacker–and this time, the young Cheyenne’s arrow flew true, straight through both of the huge boar’s lungs.

Still Water still had to duck behind another, much larger tree trunk, outcircle Long Claw, back and forth, for a time. Until the big one went down…and stayed down.

Not that the twelve-year-old was taking any chances. Many a good man has been killed by a “dead” animal. He waited till he was sure, then poked the bear’s massive head with a long stick to be extra sure. Not until Hunger Dog finally stalked up to the fallen beast, all stiff-legged, and started worrying the hide–not until then was he really sure.

Back at the winter camp of The People, his father asked, “Son, are you sure the bear is dead?”

“I think so,” Still Water responded modestly. “I cut off his head to be sure. It was too heavy to carry…but I brought the liver and the heart.” Naturally, he’d hidden those precious items just inside the treeline, then washed himself thoroughly in snow to rid himself of the bear’s blood. It was too much fun looking all innocent, a trick he’d mastered by the age of five. He knew he’d saved Hunger Dog, and he knew he’d now be given a warrior’s name. Something like Kills Bear or Hunts Alone With Dog. Something manly.

He nourished that illusion until he heard Lean Runner say the words that would stay with him for a lifetime. “You, my son, are one Crazy Boy.”

When his uncles and the tribal elders began laughing in agreement, he knew he was doomed…but Hunger Dog was saved, and that made all the difference.

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