If we had to suffer through a south Kansas dust storm, Hansen’s Hovel was the place to do it. Herman was a gracious host, his ugly Choctaw wife an incredible cook, and their flirty, curvy daughter a sight to behold.
True, you’d probably never make it to the outhouse, but the Hansens even had an answer fer that. In the back room, behind a curtain, sat a covered bucket. Lift the cover, do your thing, replace the cover, and…go drink another three or four cups of coffee.
“Tam”, I told the tall tale teller, “You’d best have another story about ready fer the hearing. That fried liver jist ain’t one of my all time favorite smells.”
My partner smiled, sort of. “Liver’s the best part of the whole danged critter. You should try some.”
“Soon as gobble up a live skunk. Or a porcupine with the quills on.”
“Ain’t never tried a live skunk,” he said thoughtfully, “and I skin the porkies before putting them to the flame.”
That shut me up. Despite us having worked together fer years, I was beginning to realize there was a whole lot about this man I did not know. I was learning, though, now that he’d opened up and started telling tales about his own life.
He belched loudly, causing Goes West Woman to purely beam at the compliment to her cooking. Young Rose Hansen jist giggled. She was modernized, that one, no appreciation at all fer the old ways. She appreciated Tam, though; everybody in the room could see that much. What there was about the tale teller was hard to put into words, but he drew females something fierce.
Which was either romantic or sad, depending on how you looked at it. Tam’s heart clearly belonged to another man’s wife he’d not seen fer more than twenty years.
“Reckon I could tell one more,” he said–finally!–and we all forgot about the dust storm raging outside. “Let’s see…the next big thing that happened that winter was when the Blackfeet came fer Believer.”
We saw them coming from a distance, clearly meaning themselves to be seen. The two Blackfeet were pushing their ponies a bit, trotting up the gentle grade toward the mountain man’s cabin. Believer watched them fer a long moment, muttered something under his breath, and strode out to meet them at the edge of the aspen grove.
“What’d he say?” I asked Laughing Brook.
The stunning young Cheyenne girl looked troubled. “Those two warriors are Long Runner and Bear Breath. Great people among the Piegan. My husband said trouble in the lodges.”
We weren’t long in discovering the nature of that trouble. The one called Bear Breath began signing from a good hundred yards out. I caught part of it, looked like sickness. They were still a good sixty yards off when they hauled their mounts to a stop. A bit more sign passed between the Blackfoot and Believer, whose back was to us, so naturally we had no clue regarding his side of the conversation.
Then they were gone, jist like that, trotting back down the grade a bit more briskly than they’d come up. Believer passed us in great long strides, heading fer the cabin, moving with the same sort of intensity I’d last seen when the Chinook wind warmed up most of a mountain to throw at us on the day of the hunt.
“Sickness in the lodges,” he said, never slowing down. “Sounds like–I don’t know. And neither do they. Not the pox, thank the Almighty.”
I shuddered. The Plains Indians, including the Blackfeet, had deliberately been nearly wiped out by the introduction of smallpox to their unsuspecting bodies in 1837. Genocide. That was one of those big words I’d learned in school before I ran away from home. Pox. The only good Indian is a dead Indian. Indeed, thank the Almighty it was not the pox.
“Sounds like it could be some kind of flu. The symptoms fit. Fever, chills. Sometimes vomiting, sometimes not. Same fer the trots. Honey, where’d we put that–oh, here it is.”
It was obvious he was going to help the tribe. Why they’d come to him, I had no idea, but Laughing Brook could tell me later. He was slamming gear together fer a solo trip, meaning his beautiful wife and I would be spending time here alone. Together.
“I’ll saddle the dun,” I told him, and got a look in return I could have sworn included both approval and appreciation.
“Leave the cinch a bit loose,” was all he said. I understood. The man that trusts another to set his saddle right deserves what he gits.
He was gone.
Mixed emotions tumbled through me fit to scramble my brain entirely. Fer one, there was reawakened lust fer Laughing Brook, which I’d tamped down deep the night her man had butchered them other two men and fed ’em to the coyotes. Tamped down, but obviously not killed; there were butterflies in my gut doing the happy dance and a desperate need to adjust my trousers a bit to hide my excitement.
But that wasn’t all. Not by a long shot. I’d not been more’n a few dozen yards away from Believer since the day he’d found me face down in the open, half dead of starvation, and took me under his wing. I owed the man my life. So there was guilt fer daring to covet his wife, though not near enough of the stuff to rule the roost.
More than anything, the emptiness of the cabin was–what’s the word?–palpable. I’d never realized the big man’s energy filled the place so much until it didn’t. How did Laughing Brook stand it, all them times when he was gone fer a day or two and she had to spend her time plumb alone? Especially at night?
“He is a medicine man.”
Fer a second or two, I was confused. Who was–oh. “Believer?”
“Yes,” she nodded, standing with arms folded, staring toward the far ridge where her husband and his mount had finally dropped out of sight. “Him. Not the traditional sort of medicine known to the Blackfeet or the Cheyenne, but there is in him a healing instinct.” She shrugged. “No one knows precisely how he does it. I suspect he does not even know, himself.” She laughed suddenly. “It has made the Blackfeet glad they did not kill him when they had the chance. Except for this one medicine man. He is jealous, I think.”
Well. That explained why they’d come for him. But what was I to do about this raging desire threatening to make me do something really, really stupid?
I decided to cut firewood.
The great double-bit axe was my favorite tool. During the summer, long before my arrival, Believer had cut a great number of logs from fallen timber, using the dun to drag them to the cabin–or close to it. Some thirty feet from the dwelling, the logs were piled neatly between four aspen trees spaced jist right to contain them. From there, the process was simple.
First, the buck saw (which I hated as much as I loved the axe) was used to cut a block from the end of a log. Then the block was placed atop the chopping block, and the axe went to work.
Don’t ask me why, folks, but I do love swinging an axe.
Besides, chilly winter day or no, it was sweaty work. I was building muscle, which had to be a good thing iffen I wanted to grow up big and strong like Believer. My rifle, loaded with its one remaining cartridge–I still hadn’t mentioned to Believer that I had no more ammunition fer the thing–was propped against a tree within easy reach. Life was good, and after a bit I’d sweated out the lust.
Mostly. Laughing Brook did kinda start things up again every time she bent over to pick up another stick of firewood. She was hauling the stuff to the cabin as I cut it, making herself useful.
I could think of another kind of useful.
Looking back, it was likely that distraction what dulled my senses to danger,
It wasn’t till I seen the coyote that I knew something was wrong. Devil Dog didn’t often make a daytime appearance, but there he was, bellied low in the snow, ears laid back like he was ready to fight to the death, upper lip curled back in a silent snarl.
That didn’t look good. I went from horny to fearful faster’n a white man can steal an Indian’s territory. Was he rabid? Being back at the log pile, ready to cut off another block with the buck saw, I was standing right next to the rifle–which found its way into my hands purty much of its own accord. Slowly, the hammer came back.
Then I realized: He weren’t looking my way, or toward Laughing Brook either. She was bent over again, picking up sticks, but his stare was fixed on something…that bit of juniper brush. Maybe…there!
“Cougar!” I yelled, and everything happened at once. The huge cat come charging out at the girl. She started to straighten. My rifle come up to my shoulder–and I found myself kicking into a cold clarity of mind I’d never experienced before. The bullet caught the cat and knocked it down…but only fer a second. I had no idea where I’d hit it, and now we had a wounded cougar scrambling back to its feet, making a squalling sort of fighting sound you can’t possibly imagine iffen you ain’t never heard it. I’d stopped it from reaching Laughing Brook on the first go, but now it seemed to figure she was the one who’d hurt it.
Likely, I’d made things worse.
Folks, if I was to say I could rightly specify each and every move after that, I’d be lying like one of them Persian rugs on a stone floor. A few things I do remember. Realizing my best weapon was the axe–but that it was too far away; the extra second it would take me to git it from the chopping block could mean a dead Cheyenne woman. Seeing the cat start fer the girl again, and her bouncing a stick of firewood smack between its eyes. Which didn’t make it none too happy, neither.
I don’t remember covering the ground between us, jist reversing the rifle so’s I had it by the barrel and was swinging it like a club.
Laughing Brook ran, then, which was about damn time.
I blacked out.
No, no, not unconscious. Jist not conscious of what I was doing any more. It wasn’t one of them red rages like you see in some men. Not like that at all. I don’t think.
Next thing I remember, the lion was dead. Not only dead, but dead dead. Near as I could tell from what I was seeing, I’d pounded the thing’s skull to mush with my clubbed rifle, which was forever useless as a firearm. The stock was splintered to smithereens, and even the barrel was considerably bent. A bullet fired through that muzzle would turn back and shoot you through the foot if it didn’t jist blow things up entirely.
But that weren’t all. The old buffalo hunting lance Believer kept hanging over the fireplace now pinned the coug’s body to the frozen earth. Laughing Brook, had to be. That’s why she’d run, not from the cat but for a weapon.
“Come,” she said, “We must go to the cabin.”
Fer a moment, not being quite back in the world jist yet, I didn’t know what she was talking about. At first, I began noticing my breath was heaving in and out of my lung cage like I’d run up to the top of one of them glaciers nonstop. Then I started figuring out there was pain, and blood, and I’d have fallen but fer the powerful strong little woman holding me up.
Jist then, I’ve gotta say, lust wasn’t in it.
My shirt was in shreds, and, as it turned out, so was a fair bit of my left shoulder, forearm, and upper chest. The old cat-warrior might have gotten himself pulped in the end, but he’d left me something to remember him by. To this day, I’ve no recall whatseover of taking them wounds. But I can remember the pain after, all right, along with the pleasure of Laughing Brook’s words as she dressed them gashes with some kind of salve before stitching me back together.
“Your wounds are all in front,” she said, “Where they should be on a man.”
I would have felt right proud of myself if I hadn’t passed out, fer real this time.
It was three nights later when it happened. I was stiff and sore, to put it mildly, but it seemed I was likely going to live. We’d talked into the evening, then Laughing Brook had banked the coals in the fireplace to hold till morning, and i’d settled down on my pallet . On my back, since that was the least uncomfortable position, and shirtless since the healing wounds were still more than a bit touchy. There didn’t seem to be any sign of infection, though, no inflammation. Jist a matter of waiting it out, give the body time to finish fixing itself.
When she slipped down beside me in the darkness, it took a moment fer the truth to register. My mentor’s wife was more than shirtless.
Fer a long time, her jist lying there next to me, no one spoke. Finally, though, I found my voice, forcing out the hardest words I’ve ever said in my life.
“You are married.”
“You are here.”
She had a point.
I wasn’t done protesting yet, though. Remember, I was thirteen years old, and though it pains me to say it, I was in fact a virgin at the time. Not from lack of interest, you understand, but I had to ‘fess up.
“It is not hard to learn,” she answered, and I swear there was laughter in her voice.
She spoke in Cheyenne then, very softly, but I’d learned enough of the language to catch it
“I will never cause you pain, my warrior.”
Now I was done protesting.
Believer had returned. I could not say I was overjoyed to see him, but Laughing Brook clearly was. I might be “her warrior”, but this was her man. As long as he lived, despite what we’d had together for seven glorious days and nights, the physical lovemaking between us would be no more. Forever.
Unless, of course, the big mountain man had cause to go off and leave us alone fer a while again….
Hope springs eternal.
Curiously enough, though, the guilt had left me with her first touch. I knew he knew. Any fool would know you don’t leave the most stunning woman on God’s green Earth alone with a randy young fellow–even a randy young virgin–and expect there not to be fireworks in your absence. And Believer was anything but a fool. I couldn’t fer the life of me figure out why he’d done it, but I knew it was okay. As long as I didn’t actually come out and confess, he wouldn’t have to kill me.
As it happened, it somehow made us brothers.
When he heard about the mountain lion, on the other hand, he took that plumb serious.
“What hit the Blackfeet,” he told us, “Seems to have run its course. Two people died of it, both older folks, but the rest are pulling through. Sounds like the greater danger was actually right here.”
I shucked my shirt–actually one of his, cut down considerably by Laughing Brook to more or less fit me, allowing fer some growing room. He studied the scars, commenting only, “Your scars are all in front, where they should be on a man.”
When I told him about Devil Dog having once again given warning, he nodded. “Medicine coyote.”
He looked over the twisted remains of my rifle and actually smiled. “Tam, you put some beef in your swings, to do this. Tell you what. If you hold off on leaving us till we hit Fort Benton in the spring, I know a mighty fine gunsmith in that town who can make this like new. He owes me a favor; this would kind of even things up.”
Then the man who’d saved my life, taught me already more’n the sum of what I knew before him, and even loaned me his wife, said simply,
“Thanks fer taking care of my woman while I was gone.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but I wasn’t going to ask him to clarifiy it.