The more I heard from Tam about his time with the Montana mountain man, Believer, and his stunning young Cheyenne wife, the more the stories took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Especially the yarn he’d spun last night about the old fellow butchering two wannabe attackers like they were nothing but a couple of table-ready cows and feeding the meat to a watch-coyote he called Devil Dog.
Devil Man, more like it.
Not that there was anything wrong with what he’d done. Not up in the high lonesome, there wasn’t. It jist fell a touch outside of my experience. That was it. I thought.
Such mental musings occupied much of the morning…but sorta went by the wayside when company showed up.
We were moving through a long stretch of sage flats, the kind of board-level ground only southern Kansas could produce. Monotonous, to the untrained eye. Full of life and danger to a couple of drifters like the pair of us, especially on such mounts as we had between our legs. One look at Tam’s grulla let a horseman know the critter could lope for miles without getting winded, and my palomino was a target fer the sheer flashiness of him.
The Comanches closed in on us from two sides. War party at that, which weren’t no good thing. Not a big bunch, jist twelve–no, thirteen, almost missed the runt on the undersized mustang. But they looked ready enough, and five of ’em had rifles.
I ain’t no Cheyenne, so I was certain sure this was not a good day to die. The four on my side didn’t even blink when I hauled the .44-40 out of the scabbard.
We stopped, set our horses so we each faced a group–even though Tam’s batch had more’n double the numbers of mine–situating ourselves more or less side by side. Them warriors was stone silent, and that troubled me as much as anything. Didn’t know what to make of it. From the corner of my eye, I could tell Tam was signing to the red devils. Good thing, too; I knew about as much sign language as I did Swahili.
Some minutes later, them Indians rode off, still without a word, still keeping a fair separation between my four and his nine. We reined our transportation back around, continuing southbound–the Comanche were headed west by northwest–as if nothing had happened.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.
“What did they have to say?”
“Ah.” The tale teller seemed to come back from woolgathering somewhere out beyond the stars. I couldn’t help wondering if every Indian he ever saw reminded him of Laughing Brook, ’cause it sure did seem like she’d kept a powerful hold on the man across the years–Hell, decades!–and miles. Or maybe not. Maybe he was jist memorizing the encounter with these warriors fer future storytelling.
With Tam, you never knew.
“First off,” he said, “The war chief knew me.”
“So,” I interrupted, struck by a thought, “They jump the reservation, or what?”
“Nah. These are some of Quanah Parker’s bunch. They’re still running wild and free. Sharp Antelope–that’s the leader, the one what recognized me–he’s purty notorious in his own right, not to mention being descended directly from Chief Cuerno Verde. Helluva man.”
“Huh. So…they jist say howdy to you, wave goodbye, and head off to burn out some settlers, then?”
He must have heard the sarcasm in my voice, me not being very subtle at the best of times, but my partner tends to let my prejudices run their course till I learn better on my own. I never did like the Comanche.
Not that they were in it to win any White Man’s Popularity Contest.
“I’m thinking,” Tam blurted–there ain’t no other word fer it; he blurted, “That iffen it don’t harm yer ears beyond mortal repair, it’d be a good thing fer me to fill you in on my entire winter.”
“With Believer and Laughing Brook?” I hid my excitement. “Well…I reckon my ears could take the pounding without falling plumb off.”
“That’s good,” he nodded, “Seeing as how I’m starting to feel a powerful hankering to git if off my chest. Not while we’re traveling,” he added hastily, “Jist the usual tales after chow.”
“Of course.” It looked like I wasn’t going to get much out of him about the Comanche fer a while, but I could live with that.
“Them fellers Believer fed to the coyotes that night, they didn’t come on foot. They had horses, and as was explained to me, that was a problem.”
Oh great, I thought. Hand out a blamed teaser like that and then leave me to wonder all afternoon why that was a problem. My partner could be plumb mean, sometimes.
“We need to get rid of them horses.” Believer explained, mostly fer my benefit. Laughing Brook nodded her understanding, but it’s likely she’d figured it out already. Like the dumb cluck kid I every now and again proved myself to be, I asked,
One thing about the old mountain man, he could answer a dumb question without making you feel dumb. My old man coulda took lessons from him on that score.
“Mostly ’cause you jist never know, Tam. Jeffers and his sidekick likely stole both of ’em, but we’ve no way of knowing how long ago, who from, or how many people would recognize one or the other on sight. The pinto’s got three brands on her, one on the sorrel, and no two of ’em alike.
“Thing is, the red man’s no problem, but iffen the wrong white man was to come on ’em, put two and two together, he might jist take to wondering how them ponies come to be grazing up near old Believer’s place, and where them two pond scum last seen on their backs had gotten themselves off to this time.” That was a mighty long sentence fer the big man. He paused a moment, got up to dip himself a drink of water from the pail, and sat back down before adding the punchline.
“Ain’t no way that loudmouth come hunting this old coon without announcing his noble intentions to half of Fort Benton before he set out. We don’t want his transportation to tell his kin, if he’s got any that still claim him, exactly where he ended up.”
“Ah.” I got it. It really had been a dumb question. I risked a quick glance at the Cheyenne girl, hoping she hadn’t been paying attention. She caught my look, though, despite being busy cutting potatoes into the permanent kettle. How they’d made spuds grow in this high country was a mystery to me, but not near the mystery of Laughing Brook herself. Her eyes sparkled, she wiggled her nose at me fer all the world like a young cottontail rabbit at play–
–and I broke eye contact instantly.
“So,” Believer went on, pretending he’d noticed nothing of the byplay between me and his young wife, “You up fer a little jaunt, come morning? Be a hard two days and two nights in the saddle, mighty little sleep along the way.”
“I…you know I showed up afoot. Do you mean me to ride one of them Blood Ponies?”
Don’t ask me why I called ’em Blood Ponies. It jist come to me, carrying them men who’d come here to kill or be killed, they was Blood Ponies.
“Nope. Bad medicine, that. Wrong feller see you forking a stolen bronc, you git hung fer horse stealing fer sure.”
“You’d be on Myrtle’s mustang.”
“Oh. But…I thought you said leaving her here was too dangerous, like what happened to Liver Eating Johnston’s wife….”
He leaned forward, reaching a sliver of wood into the fireplace so’s he could light his pipe. “I did say that. But we was talking about being gone fer a full moon, then. This will be a lot shorter trip, a lot quicker. And,” he paused to get his pipe going, drew in a great lungful of smoke, exhaled, and went on, “Fer two-three days, Myrtle’s safe enough.”
I must not have looked convinced, because Laughing Brook spoke up. “My husband the awesome mountain man has not shown you quite everything about this place. Plus, he has taught me many ways to fight, including the art of invisibility. In all likelihood, even a group of men who found this cabin would never know I was here. And if they found out,” she shrugged prettily, “They would die.”
Wow. And here I’d thought Believer was waxing long-winded this day.
The art of invisibility?
The Blackfeet rode hard, circling their ponies around us at full gallop, whooping and hollering fit to wake the dead. The dead men’s horses were some spooked, fer sure, snorting and hauling back on their leads. I was pressed some to keep from losing my hold on the pinto’s rope, and the sorrel, with her lead tied off to the pinto’s tail and dancing nervously, wasn’t helping much.
Believer jist sat there atop his dun, hands folded across the saddlehorn and that big sh*teating grin plastered all over his face like it was the happiest day of his life. I wasn’t real happy at the moment, but at least his look of ease give me something to shoot for in the way of demeanor.
At least, neither his mount nor mine showed the slightest concern. That helped.
After what seemed about two or three eternities, them fool warriors stopped their game of circle the white-eyes. Their leader, a young man who reminded me of a fellow back in my old home town I never did like much, started spouting gibberish, and Believer spouted right back.
The problem ponies settled down a bit…and I suddenly realized a Blackfoot kid who couldn’t have been no older’n me was throwing sign in my direction. How did I admit I couldn’t–wait a minute. I did know some of this hand-language. Had picked up a bit of it, here and there, over the summer. Plus, Laughing Brook and Believer were both tutoring me.
I caught what looked like woman…and horse…and got the clear sense of being asked a question.
Well, sometimes you gotta jist fake it and hope fer the best. From that smidgen of comprehension, I thought I knew what he was asking: Why is a young white warrior riding a horse that belongs to a woman?
And I knew jist enough to sign a reply: Riding…woman…death.
The kid literally fell off his pony laughing. There were serious signs of amusement among the others, and I figured I must’ve said the right thing: “Riding (this man’s) woman (instead of merely riding her horse) would get me killed.”
They’d seen Laughing Brook. They knew Believer. Yep, they understood I was telling the truth, and I’d done it with a straight face. I’ve kinda liked the Blackfeet ever since. Especially the Southern Blackfeet, the Amskapi Pikuni , which these men were.
In truth, our little palaver didn’t run overlong after that. Before I knew it, the red men were heading off to the southeast, and we were turned around, aimed back toward the cabin and Laughing Brook like two arrows loosed from the same bow.
We made camp right at dusk. “Our bodies need fuel, and the horses need a bit of time to graze and take a nap as well,” Believer explained. “I know this place. The stream has good water, the grass has strength in it, and no enemy can come at us without me knowing long before they git near enough to do harm.”
I nodded wisely.
“Plus, few men travel through the deep of the night. Very best time to pass unnoticed.”
I had to admit, despite my constant worry over Laughing Brook being alone–except fer Devil Dog, the watch-coyote–that I was plumb tuckered. But once we’d chowed down and arranged our rolls, I had to ask, “What was the deal?”
“With the Blackfeet. You jist give them the horses? Couldn’t you have traded fer something you needed?”
He was silent fer a time, long enough I begun to wonder if I’d said something wrong. Turned out he was jist sorting out how to git it across to me.
“I did indeed give them the Blood Ponies, as you call ’em. We were lucky they were both mares. What marauding white men don’t know is, them folks who met us have a sizeable herd of equine breeding stock in about the most remote part of their stomping grounds you can imagine.
“That herd has something special about it, too, namely that a whole lotta them ponies got what a white judge might call a doubtful provenance.”
“Uh…” I had to ask. “What’s a provenance?”
He shrugged. “It means, there’s mares in that herd that were stolen from the Army, some run off during raids on settlers and gold miners, and a double handful whose owners jist plain won’t be needing ’em any more.”
“Huh.” I considered. “Like Jeffers Thomas and his sidekick.”
“Like them,” he agreed. “But yer main question was, why give ’em the animals, right? The answer is simple: Because it’s a better deal all around.”
“It’s like this. You go to horse trading with the Amskapi Pikuni, you’ll end up skinned alive. In fact, if it were me who was dumb enough to try it, them old sons would see it as a golden opportunity to get even fer me winning my life and my wife from ’em in the bones game. Sometimes you gotta quit when you’re ahead.”
“But when you give ’em something, you’ll git a gift of equal or greater value in return. Guaranteed. It’s the way they are.”
This was enlightening…but also puzzling. “They gave you nothing. We left….empty handed.”
“Fer the moment,” he agreed, “But only because they didn’t happen to have anything on hand suitable to the occasion.”
I thought about that. “So…you’re saying that sometime in the future, they’ll give you a gift worth two horses?”
“Wonder what that might be?” I wasn’t really asking, more or less jist thinking aloud. Not expecting an answer. But he had one ready.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, so casually that even a green kid like me could pick up on on the fakery, “If it might be a young colt. Maybe old enough to carry a feller if the rider wasn’t quite full growed yet, with some bottom to his bloodline so’s he wouldn’t get all windbroke the first time he had to outrun a stampede.”
It took a moment. Then my jaw dropped. “Believer…are you saying them Blackfeet will be bringing you a colt intended fer me?” I think my voice might of cracked on that last word, but it didn’t matter even if it did. “Why?!”
“Why not?” We’d put the fire out, so I surely couldn’t see his face, but he sounded…thoughtful. “You got the itchy foot, Tam. You ain’t near done seeing what there is to see of this great land, and come spring, you’ll need to be moving on. And I can tell you one thing, old son, shank’s mare will git you where yer going, but a good piece of horseflesh will change yer life forever.”
“Besides, Myrtle’s taken a fair shine to you. If I sent you down the trail no better off than the day you arrived, face down and half dead of starvation, she’d skin me alive. She could do it, too.”
He said no more, but I wouldn’t of heard a word anyway. All I could think, laying there in the dark, was, Laughing Brook likes me! The horse gift was an incredible thing, but it was Laughing Brook who’d made it happen!
Cowboy, it wasn’t until sometime later that I got to thinking about something else. Believer had said it right, and one day in late winter, them same Blackfeet come riding right up to the cabin and dropped off the finest young roan colt I ever seen, then or since. We took to each other right off, and yes, he did in fact carry me and my possibles out of there when the time come–along with one heck of an Appaloosa stallion, which is another story.
But, over the years, I got to thinking. That horse allowed me to git my first ever droving job. He was, no two ways about it, my real start in life. And I got him, indirectly to be sure, but I got him through the murder of two men whose bones litter the high country where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam.
Partner, I think you know I’d never knowingly touch blood money. But it does haunt me a bit from time to time, knowing that the first bronc I ever forked was financed by a pair of Blood Ponies.