We were making good time until Tam’s grulla threw a shoe. From there, my palomino had to carry the both of us all the way to Wichita. Got there right at high noon without the partly barefoot gelding going lame, though, so that was a good thing.
Wichita is not our favorite town, possibly because we don’t have a favorite town. That many people scrunched together in one place is, to us, a thing of pure evil. But we knew a blacksmith on the outskirts who did good work. It would take a while, there being a couple of horses ahead of us, so we turned our mounts into the smithy’s holding corral, threw our saddlebags over our shoulders, and hiked on over to the Prairie Wolf Saloon.
If you had to spend time in Wichita, the Praire Wolf was the place to do it.
Happily, there weren’t many customers in residence, which allowed us a table in one corner. Tam, being left-handed, settled in with his back to the north wall while I done the same on the west. Not that we were sitting so close that it really made a difference, but it don’t pay to leave these things to chance. This way, there was a good eight feet between our gun hands, jist that bit harder to track visually if you was of a mind to brace us while we was sitting there minding our own business.
A miniscule edge, but sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference.
Taking a sip of my Wolf House Special rye whiskey–this was sipping whiskey, the good stuff, not the usual rotgut served to roving drovers– I stretched my somewhat lengthy legs out under the table, tipped my hat back and asked, “Tam, you maybe got another story or two you could tell about Believer the mountain man and his Cheyenne wife? Last night’s tale was mighty fine, but it kinda left me feeling there was more to it.”
Fer quite some time, a minute or more, my partner didn’t respond. When he spoke, it was in a voice so quiet you couldn’t have heard it out on the street from the background noise in rowdy Wichita. “I reckon there could be. Ain’t never told any but the one you heard. But maybe it’s time.”
Okay, now he had me curious.
“It’s not easy to know where to start, though. I guess maybe…Devil Dog. Yeah, I could tell a bit about Devil Dog.”
I grinned, reaching for the makings. What could be better? It’d be a time yet before the smith had his horse ready to go, there was more whiskey right there behind the bar, and–for the moment at least–nobody could come at our backs.
“Ain’t no time like the present, Tam. Go for it.”
I’d been staying with Believer and Laughing Brook–the stunning Cheyenne girl he called Myrtle, of all things–for maybe three days before it hit me: What on Earth did this mountain man do to make himself a living? There seemed no doubt he was dyed-in-the-wool one hundred percent mountain man, all right, but something didn’t add up. He lived high in the mountains where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam…but I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of any hide nor hair! Most high lonesome fellows like this, with or without an Injun wife, are trappers. Beaver, mink, weasel (what them Easterners call ermine), anything with fur was fair game to them.
In Believer’s case, however, I figured I’d seen his entire layout: The remarkable log cabin with its four windows, one on each side. The root cellar dug into the side of the slope out back, where he and his woman stored an amazing amount of food they’d grown themselves. Even the “ice pit” lined with moss and filled with blocks of ice he said he’d sawn straight out of the glacier. Said he could keep fresh meat safe for more’n a month in that pit.
But no pelts.
Now, as you know, there ain’t but a handful of ways a white man can make a living in those parts without going plumb native. You can trap, which he wasn’t doing. You could try raising cattle, but what the Indians didn’t steal, the cougars and grizzlies and wolves would. In some places, you could dig fer gold, but not up where we were. Not that I’d ever heard, anyway, and rumors of a gold strike anywhere tends to produce a rush of rounders eager to scoop up whatever they can scoop up.
It was a mystery.
Finally, early one evening, I jist up and asked him, “Believer, how do you make money? You know, to pay fer clothing, and them real glass windows, and ammunition and such?”
“Don’t forget salt, kid,” he said, “And a trinket or two fer Myrtle. I believe there ain’t no woman on Earth, red or white, who can do without a trinket now and again.”
“Right,” I nodded like I’d understood all along. “Them things too.”
“I write stuff.”
Well, friend, you’re doing all right with your learning to read, and I’d been raised in a household where literacy was next to godliness, but this was something new.
“Never knew you could git paid fer writing,” I admitted, “except fer newspaper folks and them dime novel writers.”
Believer laughed aloud at that, a great booming sound that filled the cabin with life. More life, anyway; no dwelling could ever be considered exactly lifeless with a fine specimen of womanhood like Laughing Brook in residence.
“Nothing like that. I jist write about stuff that happens, what I see and experience along this great road called Life. Myrtle and I saddle up and head out to Fort Benton every spring. I take the manuscripts I’ve written over the winter. The Postmaster there knows to hold my mail. There’ll be two or three letters of credit from my agent back in New York. Those have to go to the bank, git switched out to real money.
“Then we mail out my new writings, stock up at the general store, load all our gatherings onto the pack horse, and head back. Usually takes about a moon, round trip. Give or take.”
I pondered this. “She goes with you?
“Would you leave me behind?” Laughing Brook had been silent, mending one of Believer’s socks as neatly as any back-home housewife, but she could never resist a chance to tease me. My face must have turned beet red. In any event, she begun rocking back and forth from the mirth of it, silvery peals of laughter issuing from that perfect throat to fill the cabin’s every corner.
Believe I mentioned I was head over heels fer that girl. That other man’s wife.
The old mountain man’s eyes–the old writer’s eyes–twinkled, but he answered my question with a straight face other than that. “She goes with me. You’re thinking a journey like that is dangerous fer her, what with all too many white men figuring the only good Indian is a dead Indian. And you’d be right. But it ain’t near as dangerous as leaving her at home while I’m gone fer all that time.
“Jeremiah Johnston done that, and look what it got him. It got him a dead wife, when the Crow were done with her.”
He knocked the dottle from his pipe, suddenly somber. “I believe under the circumstances, I’d have done the same as he did, declared war on the entire Crow nation. But I’d rather keep this little lady alive.”
“I’d rather that, too!” Fer a second, I was fearful it had been me who said that aloud. When it turned out to be Laughing Brook herself, though, I knew I’d managed to keep the thought inside. Where it belonged.
We all went quiet fer a while. Until…
What–sounded like a coyote, sort of, but not one of the sounds I was used to hearing them make.
Seconds later, a steel shield had shuttered the fireplace, throwing the place into utter darkness, and Believer had slid out the door on his belly like some great snow-dwelling snake. Laughing Brook drew me down on the floor beside her, which under most any other circumstances would have thrilled me beyond telling. Her lips brushed my ear as she breathed the terrifying information into my being.
“That sound was Devil Dog. He is a friend. A coyote. We feed him scraps, and he watches. Keep your rifle ready, but do not shoot my husband when he returns. There is someone out there Devil Dog does not like.”
Well, that made it clear enough.
I likely would have peed my pants about then, not yet having acquired near the courage you’d expect from a man my age–nearly thirteen–who’d survived everything I’d survived since running away from home. Since Laughing Brook lying there by my side didn’t allow such a thing, I settled fer wishing and hoping.
Wishing maybe whatever was out there would take out the old man so’s I could properly acquire his Cheyenne wife…and hoping such evil thoughts wouldn’t jist git me struck dead on the spot fer impertinence.
Partner, I can’t tell you how long we had to wait, but Believer didn’t git himself killed, nor did I end up struck down fer lusting so fiercely after my benefactor’s wife. It must have been close to midnight, though, when we heard him call from jist outside the cabin door,
Minutes later, the fireplace shield had been removed, the coals stoked back to life, and a fresh pot of coffee put on to boil. There was something else fresh, too, which I’d smelled before the firelight made them visible. At Believer’s belt, there hung two fresh scalps. White men, not Indian; no red man’s hair looked like that.
I was fascinated.
The big man didn’t explain until the coffee was ready and he was nursing a cup, but then he give us a full account, or close enough. “They were sneaking up on the cabin like they knew what they were doing. I believe they did, too.” He palmed the scalp covered with curly brown hair, just a few flecks of gray starting to show. “This one was Jeffers Thomas. Remember him, honey?”
“I do, husband.” Her voice was steel, suddenly. For the first time, I could see the warrior bloodline in her expression. This girl could kill.
“We run into this feller last year in Benton,” he told me. “Had some idee he was going to cut Myrtle with a knife. Jist ’cause she was Cheyenne, maybe, but the why of it don’t make no nevermind. I’m kind of surprised he got up from that stomping I give him. Most men don’t.”
I observed drily, “Bet he ain’t got the guts to try it again.”
“I don’t believe he does,” Believer admitted, “Seeing as I butchered out him and his friend. Left the meat in our usual spot where we feed Devil Dog, so’s he’d know it was okay. He and his family shouldn’t have to hunt fer a while, unless that old tom lion gets wind of the bounty.”
“Likely not,” I agreed, man to man, cool as a cucumber. Not letting on, of course, that I’d come to a decision. I’d decided to quit having designs on his woman. Judging by the experience of the late Jeffers Thomas and his equally departed sidekick, it jist seemed the healthy thing to do.
Like I said, I ain’t never before told nobody–you look a little green around the gills, cowboy. This morning’s bacon didn’t set right, or what?