We lost a good man at the tent revival. Never saw it coming. Willie was one of the best young drovers Tam and I’d had the pleasure of getting to know, having worked with him on two major Chisholm Trail cattle drives. We’d miss the lad.
Why the fire-and-brimstone preacher got to him, who knew? The three of us had drawn our pay after the herd had been corraled in Abilene, jist like any other time. Wild Willie, as he was known to most who knew him well enough to bump elbows at the bar, headed straight fer trouble as he always did when money was burning a hole in his pocket. As we always did, Tam and I rode straight out of town, heading south at a steady pace, looking to git on back out of Kansas with our hides and our pokes intact.
Which is not an easy guarantee. There’s folks in Kansas who don’t care overmuch fer either one of us. Folks who’ll seldom brace you face to face, but who’ll come at your back in half a heartbeat iffen they see the chance.
But like I’ve said before, that’s another story fer another time.
The kid had caught up to us jist before daylight, having ridden through the night like the Devil himself was at his heels. He never said what sort of hornet’s nest he’d stirred up back in Abilene, and we never asked. Three days later, we’d come up on the tent revival, set up right near the trail outside of a town nobody had yet bothered to name, and decided to attend. Jist fer chuckles. Not having a clue that our traveling partner would go get himself all possessed by the Lord, leaving us to mosey on south without him.
Some say possession by Lucifer is a fearsome thing, but them folks conquered by the Almighty don’t seem to git loose none too easy, neither.
The two of us topped the rise and headed down the far side, finally leaving the hubbub behind. Them folks could yell fer Jesus loud enough to harm a man’s hearing, were he to hang around there overlong.
“He sure ’nuff got the calling.” I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud till Tam responded.
“He did that. I never seen nobody more eager to git away from punching cows fer a living, and that’s a fact.” He shook his head in wonder. “Though I can’t fer the life of me picture that feller helping the preacher bring folks to the Lord fer the rest of his life. But, you know, it does remind me of a story.”
I busted out laughing so hard my palomino gelding spooked sideways like he was ducking a rattlesnake. It was a good thing the sun was about to drop over the horizon. Time to pick a spot, make camp fer the night. Tam’s tall tales always made the coffee go down extra fine.
“A story about what?” I asked, as soon as I could quit sputtering. “A Jesus story, or a preacher? Or a poor, misguided cowboy seeing the Light?”
“Not exactly,” he allowed, “But it is about a believer. Or rather, an old mountain man up Montana way called Believer.”
Most of my tales come to me third hand at best, but this one I lived.
I wasn’t much past puberty when I ran away from home. Not that my folks were hard to live with; they done their best. But I had a hankering to see the wild places while they were still wild, and they wouldn’t hear of it.
“Come into the banking business with me when you’ve finished learning your letters, son,” Father told me more than once, “And you’ll have a profession of which you can be proud for the rest of your life.”
Mom would jist nod, knowing in her city-loving heart that Father knew best.
Trouble was, I heard that different. Sounded like he was saying, “…And you’ll hang yourself with a green rope from having to foreclose on dirt farmers trying to make a living and ranchers scrambling to keep their beef alive long enough to make it to market. Not to mention boredom. Self-hatred and boredom, a great combination. Love you, son!”
So I headed out, and one thing led to another. I was a thousand miles and many months away from home, up where the glaciers grow and the Blackfeet roam. How I’d come to such a pitiful pass would take too long to tell, but I was down to two cartridges fer my rifle, hoofing it on shank’s mare, hoping to drop a deer to fill my belly so’s I could think straight. The four-point buck that stepped out from an aspen thicket not eighty yards from where I stood was the answer to my prayers. I lifted the rifle easy-like so as not to spook him, lined up the sights…
…and passed out.
When I come to, it was in a cabin. A log cabin, but like none you’ve ever seen before or likely ever will. It had windows on all four sides, for one thing. Not huge things, but with real glass.
It was snowing outside.
Inside, a small fire in the fireplace provided both warmth and light enough to see by. There were two people, one male, one female. The big man who’d carried me in from where I’d dropped was…old. Couldn’t rightly put an age to him, but he was no spring chicken. Tough, though, like any who lived up this way would have to be. A mountain man fer sure, but wearing broadcloth, not buckskins. He didn’t look mean or anything, but there was something about the feller. I’d have picked him to come out winners in a barehand contest with a grizzly, and given odds to boot.
The girl was…was…Hell, partner, there ain’t no other word fer it but beautiful. She was that and more. Indian, maybe around my own age, fifteen at most. From that first moment, I was in love with her to the bottom of my heart, and plumb ashamed that the first time she’d seen me, I’d not even been so much as conscious of the fact! It was plumb humiliating. Not certain sure I’m over it to this day.
“Back in the land of the living?”
“Yes, sir. Seems so. And to whom do I owe–?”
“They call me Believer,” he said, knocking ashes from what looked like a cherrywood pipe, “And this charming lady goes by many names. Her Cheyenne moniker translates as Laughing Brook Over Stones, which even in their language is a bit of a mouthful. The Blackfeet call her Stupid Slave Slut, and I mostly address her as Myrtle.”
My jaw dropped. Stupid Slave Slut? Myrtle? “Uh…uh…I’m Tam.”
Myrtle said something to her man in no language I knew, which I’d later come to realize was Cheyenne. I could see why her voice alone identified her as Laughing Brook Over Stones; she burbled beautifully. Believer laughed. The bond between the two of them was palpable. I was instantly jealous, hating this…this old guy who clearly held the lady’s heart. And vice versa, but I didn’t care about that. In fact, I began wondering how I could eliminate Believer from the equation altogether.
“Welcome to our humble abode, Tam. Figure you could eat a mite?”
“My belly button is kind of gnawing on my backbone.”
Laughing Brook filled a wooden bowl from the black kettle hanging in front of the fireplace and brought it to me. I began to eat, more or less inhaling the best venison stew I’d ever come across. Or maybe it was bear, or beaver. Whatever.
The girl spoke again. Sounded like, “Na-mih-aoh pivuh veho.” Then she dimpled–yes, dang it, she actually had dimples–and added an obvious question. “Ta-vivvets?”
“Speak English, woman,” Believer remonstrated, but there was no heat in it. Laughing Brook said nothing.
Around a mouthful of stew, I mumbled, “What did you say?”
Believer answered for her. “She said her husband is a purty white man.”
“Oh?” I had to grin at that, forgetting about jealousy fer jist a moment. “But she said two things. What was the second part, the question?”
With an absolutely straight face, the mountain man explained. “She asked if you wanted to hump.”
I choked on my stew.
In the end, I spent the entire winter with the two of them. They wouldn’t hear of me leaving until I had my strength back and had learned a few survival skills I seemed to be sorely lacking.
“I believe you might jist benefit from knowing a bit of woodcraft,” he’d say, or, “I believe you’re going to be at least half a tracker afore you’re done.”
Looking back, I believe he was right.
One night, he explained how Laughing Brook came to be his squaw.
“Won her in a game of bones. Sla-hal, they call it.”
Strangely enough, I already knew something about the game. It’s intensely competitive, can go on for hours…and it’s not a white man’s game.
“He was awesome,” Laughing Brook said suddenly. In English! She was looking at her man with so much love in her eyes, I couldn’t even keep on hating my benefactor. Jealous, sure. That’s a given.
“I was indeed awesome,” Believer agreed, nodding sagely, “because I had to be. I believe there were close to three dozen warriors including the Chief when the Blackfeet let me know they were there. I’d jist dropped a fine cow elk, enough to feed me through an entire winter…and there they were. My old Hawken will drop a buff at half a mile if I get the windage right, but she was empty and they were loaded for bear.
“Well, Tam, I figured they were either going to fry me up fer a side dish to go along with that elk, or I was going to have to do some fancy talking in a hurry. I believe they say necessity is the mother of intention, or invention, something like that, and they may be onto something. Without waiting fer them warriors to pull the triggers on them Yellow Boys or skewer me with a slew of lances or arrows, I started flashing sign language at ’em:
“I AM THE GREATEST PLAYER OF THE BONE GAME IN ALL OF CREATION!”
It wasn’t hard to see the scene he was painting, you know? This man had a way of telling a story. And yes, that winter living with them two had a fair bit to do with me taking up storytelling as an avocation. Know what avocation means? Look it up sometime, when you can find a dictionary. Anyway, Believer got their attention when he done that. The Chief held up a hand, telling the others to hold their fire, and the challenge was on.
See, nobody on God’s green Earth is more intensely competitive than the Blackfeet. A white man was saying he could beat the best of them at the bone game? They’d been playing this game forever. Clearly, this elk-killing intruder needed to be taught better manners; he could be tortured to death after being defeated in the game.
What the hey, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Believer had postponed his death, but he needed to do more. “What would you wager on the game?” He asked the Chief, still using sign.
There was some hard bargaining back and forth, with the white captive offering to tell them where he’d seen more than 100 head of buffalo only three suns away on a good war pony. If he lost–when he lost, as the Indians saw it–he would provide clear directions without even being tortured first. He would still be tortured, no doubt, but that was only to be expected. Colonel Baker’s slaughter of Chief Heavy Runner in the murderous action that left 173 Piegans dead in the Bear River Massacre was still extremely fresh in their minds.
But…if he won, would the Blackfeet actually let him go free? The agreement was made between him and the Chief, all right, but the other warriors didn’t look happy. Believer needed another gimmick to derail their hositility…and he found it at the tribe’s main encampment. A young girl, no more than eleven years of age at most, came running to the Chief, offering him a bowl of berries. It was not the sort of thing one expected to see in this culture, but the headman deigned to scoop a few of the berries from the bowl, popping them into his mouth. The mountain man swiftly signed,
“My freedom is nothing! I wish to have your daughter!”
It’s not easy to startle those folks, but every Indian within eyeshot did a double take–and then doubled over in laughter. When he managed to contain himself, the Chief signed back,
“If you win, you will have her.”
Telling the story with a clearly post-pubescent Laughing Brook now sitting on his lap and enjoying the tale, Believer explained.
“Them red devils didn’t have a clue that I spoke their language, and fluently at that. The Chief was fairly hooting with glee, calling out to the others, The white-eyes thinks this Stupid Slave Slut is my daughter! One could almost wish the fool could win the bone game!
“They were all laughing at me now, see, and I believe that was a good thing. Kept their hands off their hatchets and such. To anyone who knows the peoples of this land, it’s obvious Myrtle is Cheyenne, not Piegan.
“Anyway, they got the drums and the singers going, we settled in to throw the bones, and obviously I won. Took most of the night; dawn was lightening the sky by the time the Chief lost his last bone to me. It’d been close more’n a dozen times, but my gamble had paid off. Myrtle was mine, and I was free to go.
“Now, Tam, I knew I shouldn’t of done it, but I jist couldn’t resist. My Hawken was fresh-loaded, my slave girl was situated atop the pack mare’s panniers, and I was outa there…when the words come flying right out of my big mouth of their own free will.
“Thank you, Chief, fer the fine game and the Stupid Slave Slut.”
“And I said it in their language.
“One thing you need to know above all others, Tam: Indians is notional. They could of took my deceiving them about being able to speak their tongue all wrong. Iffen they had, we wouldn’t be setting here today, talking about it. But that man, he looked at me, eyeball to eyeball–and busted out laughing. Turns out he seen it as the finest joke any white man had ever played on him, and it fixed up his attitude some. See, what I’d done, a red man might have done jist that way.
“Until that moment, he didn’t have any reason to understand that white men could even have a sense of humor.”
“Me? Guess I’ve been a believer ever since. Yep, old son, I do in fact believe there’s always a way out, no matter how plug-ugly the odds may look at the moment. There I was, looking plumb likely to lose my scalp and a few other body parts I treasure even a bit more highly, and I ended up with the Blackfeet as friends and Myrtle fer a helpmeet.
“Coulda gone the other way, of course. Like I said, Indians is notional.”