We trotted our horses into the setting sun, not letting them ease back to a walk tilll we’d left the Kansas border and Hansen’s Hovel beyond the horizon behind us. Truthfully, Oklahoma had never looked better than it did this evening. Thank the Almighty that the dust storm had settled down by late afternoon, because things had been getting hot back there.
Hot, in the form of young Rose Hansen. By the time Tam had finished telling about his love affair with Laughing Brook, the Hansen girl’s bloomers were on fire. Lots of so-called experts claim teenaged girls don’t come in heat the way cows do, but them experts ain’t never seen a half-Choctaw teenager go all googly-eyed over my jug-eared partner.
There was no doubt whatsoever that Rose had gone to imagining herself in Laughing Brook’s place. Alchemists and herbalists galore have been touting various preparations as aphrodisiacs throughout history, but none of those folks had ever seen what Tam’s tale telling could do to a girl.
“Reckon we’re out of reach now,” I opined, beginning to scan the terrain ahead fer a suitable spot to camp. “Even if she stole one of her Daddy’s horses.”
“Should be,” Tam agreed, but he was still turning in the saddle to scan our backtrail a heap more often than he usually did.
“Bet they’re going to have to hogtie that girl tonight, though, or she’ll try.”
“Maybe. Most likely, I reckon her Daddy will settle her himself.”
“He’ll wha–his daughter?”
My partner looked over at me then, seen the horrified look on my face, and busted out laughing. “You look as offended as any of them church ladies in the cities could ever manage,” he got out when he could get his wind, “and them females have got it down to an art.”
“Huh.” I collected myself. Such a possibility had simply never occurred to me. That was all. Must be. “Speaking of them church ladies, I reckon they’d all purty much consign Herman to Hell fer an eternity of eternities.”
“They would,” he agreed, “And a fair number of them same self-righteous biddies would agree wholeheartedly that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. But none of them would be caught dead within a hundred miles of Hansen’s Hovel, so that’s not really an issue, is it?
“No…guess not. But…are you saying Herman Hansen is twisted that way?”
“Nope.” Both horses suddenly snorted and stopped cold. We waited a bit while a four-foot rattlesnake finished crawling across the trail, then continued on our way.
“So, if he’s not….”
“I ain’t saying he wouldn’t enjoy it. But I’ve known Herman a long time. Since before the War. The man can control his impulses, and there ain’t an evil bone in his body.”
“Think about it, cowboy. I got her boiler all stoked up, telling about Laughing Brook, and I shouldn’t of done that. Innocent mistake, but a mistake all the same. Howsomever, you can’t stoke up what’s not already burning. That girl is ready fer a man, and she’s gonna git one, one way or another.”
“I agree, but–”
“Hold on. Think it through. What’s gonna happen to purty Rose iffen Daddy don’t do the honors?”
I thought it through like he said. The answer didn’t thrill me none. “She’ll do the first rounder who stops by the Hovel who shows the slightest interest in her. Likely run away with the fellow if she gits the chance. But since there’s a lot of bad men out West these days, especially men on the move who’re likely to come by Herman’s place, and since them are the kind who’re most likely to take advantage of a naive young thing, the odds are she’ll hook up with trouble.”
“Go on,” Tam nodded, apparently agreeing that I was seeing clearly.
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten,” I admitted.
“Good start. Here’s the thing I know and you don’t. The Choctaw are as strictly moral a people as you’ll find anywhere. Not even the Puritans could outdo ’em. A girl who’d stray to a man’s blankets before marriage is almost unheard of.
“But almost ain’t exactly never. The way Herman told me, Goes West Woman was about Rose’s age when she spread her legs fer a white man. That spot’ll do.” He indicated a small clearing in the sagebrush where we’d camped other times. It’d be a dry camp, except fer the water in our canteens, but we’d have enough fer one pot of coffee and a small sip fer each horse. We angled our mounts off the trail toward the site, and he continued.
“Her people might have let her get away with that, but this particular white man was a whiskey trader. Her family group didn’t much like whites, but they was plumb death on whites peddling firewater. The randy trader escaped with his life, barely.
“And the Choctaw turned the wayward girl out naked to die. When Herman found her, she was lying unconscious in the sun, more dead than alive. The ants had gotten to her a bit; there were open sores from their bites covering her from head to toe.
“Now, that level of rejection was a bit severe even for the highly moral Choctaw, even in them days, but remember. Back when the first French trapper knocked up a Choctaw girl in the 1700’s and she had a halfbreed baby, the tribe nearly voted to kill the kid and outlaw any further interracial marriages. Those people do have a long history of distrusting white folks. Not that any thinking man could blame ’em.”
Tam stopped talking fer a bit while we dismounted and set up camp, each of us handling half of the work with no overlap and no wasted motion. As a team, we’d been doing this sort of thing fer more than a while. Neither of us was hungry, having gorged ourselves fit to bust at Hansen’s, so we passed on supper.
Once the fire was crackling and the coffee hung from the tripod to boil, he finished his thought.
“It took the man near a full year to nurse that girl back to health, but he done it.”
“So you’re saying,” I pondered, poking a stick aimlessly at the fire fer no good reason, “That both Herman and Goes West Woman likely have a low view of forcing, or in Rose’s case, even allowing a young girl out from under their protection unless it’s with somebody they know to be a good man.”
“They remember her ordeal–Mrs. Hansen’s ordeal–like it was yesterday.”
“And the rules of society, if they cross their own moral compass, can go straight to Hell in a hand basket.”
“By thunder, I do believe you’ve got it, cowboy. Now, dammit, that’s a fine half moon out there, the coyotes are on the hunt and making their night music, and we need to change the topic. How be I tell you about Believer and the fever?
“I thought you’d never ask.”
The fever that had killed two elderly Blackfeet had come to the cabin. Eight days after his return from helping in the lodges where dozens of sickened Indians were still recuperating, the mountain man known as Believer–my friend and mentor–was down.
It had seemed like he’d been immune, but obviously not. We now knew it took a week or more fer symptoms to develop. Which meant Laughing Brook and I might still catch it, but we’d have at least a few days first in which to try nursing the big man back to health.
He’d told us how the illness progressed, but hearing ain’t the same as seeing. Wearing nothing but his trousers because of his overheated body, he tossed on the bed in delirium, not really in this world at all. He was at least as old as the two Indians who’d died; we could lose him. There was no way his wife could share that bed fer the duration, so we bunked down together, making her a pallet next to mine.
No hanky panky this time, though. We were scared to death, jist two young kids terrified of losing the one great stabilizing force in our lives.
We did what we could. Laughing Brook rubbed down his face and chest time and again with handfuls of snow while I used the ragged remains of my old, cougar-shredded shirt to mop the water as it melted and ran down his skin. As far gone as he was, he knew his woman’s touch, always calming jist a bit whenever she did the snow thing.
There was that.
Likewise, we knew he had to take on water, or the dehydration alone would burn him to a crisp from inside. The girl taught me how and where to stroke his bearded throat while she cradled his massive head in one arm and poured from the dipper with the other. Some went down, a lot didn’t, and my trips to the spring fer more water were frequent.
It went on like this fer four days. Solid food was out of the question; he even vomited up the elk broth whenever we managed to get more than a spoonful into him at any one time. I remembered my Mom, back home, saying, “Stuff a cold and starve a fever!” Whether the fever was getting starved or not, we couldn’t tell, but Believer was losing weight. He wasn’t in trouble on that score yet, but we didn’t like the trend.
It seemed like it had been this way fer Eternity.
Then Laughing Brook saw the flash.
“Tam,” she spoke softly, “Come here.”
I joined her by the front window and looked where she was pointing.
“There,” she said. “By the giant pine at the edge of the treeline.”
“What did you see?”
“There was a flash. Something caught the light.”
I thought about that. It was nearly sunset. That treeline was roughly three quarters of a mile from the aspen grove hiding the cabin. We could see out, and normally a stranger who did not know the area could not see in…but it was a cold winter day, and we had the fire going. Clean wood, little smoke, but it wouldn’t take much.
Anyone who lasts more than a couple of heartbeats in the high country is constantly watchful, hoping to spot trouble on the way, before it can sneak up on him. A flash of light in the timberline meant trouble–a reflection from a rifle barrel, or a knife blade, or a looking glass. Trouble because there was still enough light left fer whoever was out there to have come on up, yelled out, “Hello the cabin!” and generally acted right about being in the area.
There was something human out there, it knew we were here, and it did not care to come out into the open. This could not be a good thing.
“I’ll check it out. As soon as it’s full dark.”
The girl, my beautiful lover and the mountain man’s devoted wife, simply nodded and went back to nursing Believer. I stood at the window and thought.
There were three of ’em. They’d apparently tried to get by without a fire, but the night was somewhere below zero, and there was something about ’em that struck me as southern men. Their blaze couldn’t be seen from the cabin–had to give ’em that much–but they were stone idiots fer arrogance, thinking themselves safe in the little hollow they’d found some thirty yards back in the trees.
I kept my right eye closed so as not to lose my night vision entirely, one gloved hand held over the eye jist in case. U.S. Army deserters, from their clothing–as much as could be seen of that beneath the trade blankets under which they huddled. There was a war with Mexico going on, if I remembered correctly.
Every jack fool of ’em was staring straight into the flames, holding their hands out to the warmth. Had my rifle been functional, I could’ve dropped all three before a one of ’em could reach a weapon.
If wishes were fishes. The rifle had been smashed against a mountain lion’s skull, and I’d been out of ammunition, anyway. Laughing Brook had wanted me to take Believer’s Hawken on this little scouting venture, but I’d demurred.
“That rifle is one jump away from being bigger than I am,” I’d told her. “And I’m not familiar with it. It could git me killed as soon as save my life.”
What I did have was the buffalo lance, Believer’s skinning knife, and my all-purpose blade. Not enough, unless I was a deadly warrior like Believer, which I wasn’t. Maybe someday, but not yet.
I slipped in closer, ghosting from tree to tree, till my jug ears could hear what they were saying. They were stone blind from the firelight, and I’d learned enough woodcraft to be quieter than a mouse hunting seeds under the snow.
“Why wait?” The smallest man of the three asked. He had kind of a weaselly face, and the whine in his question seemed natural to him. “It’s jist gonna keep getting colder. I say we hit the cabin, kill the old man, take the girl, load up, and git going.”
So. They knew about Believer and Laughing Brook, but not about me. Of course, they couldn’t know the big man was sick, either. I had some big moccasins to fill.
“Dumbass,” the middle-sized fellow replied calmly. “I done told you. We hit ’em in the gray light jist before dawn. Didn’t you learn nuthin’ from yer time with the honorable Uncle Sam?”
There was more, but I’d stopped listening.
I had a plan.
Believer had been drilling me and drilling me on the idea that no matter how bad the deck looks to be stacked against you, there’s always something in yer knowledge you can put to use to save the day–if you can access the information.
During my hour at the window, waiting fer it to git full dark, I’d done some accessing.
Back home, one of my classmates had a crazy aunt. I don’t mean the woman was a little weird, or she chased kids with a broomstick–I mean batsh*t crazy. Every so often, she start jist flat-out screeching and cackling like the witches from every coven on the planet had come together fer a noisemaking conference. Most folks like that were jist locked up, or somebody shot ’em in the back to be done with it, but her family had money. Lots of money. So nobody, and I mean nobody, messed with Screeching Sophie Saunders.
But we little ones, especially the boys, most certainly did our best to copy her. We’d git together on a Saturday, outside of town so’s we could git away with it, and fire up the Weekly Hometown Sophie Sound contest.
No kidding; that’s what we called it.
There weren’t no prizes for Best Screecher, nothing like that, be we did score each other. I never won First Place; that always went to James Paulson, whose rendition was so uncanny, it’d leave chills running up and down your back like ten thousand demons walking on yer grave.
But I did come in second, more than once. And that would have to do. I’d warned Laughing Brook, when she heard it, not to think it meant I was getting killed.
“What the %&#!! was THAT!?!” The deserters weren’t staring stupidly into them flames now. Instead, they were staring stupidly–and extremely wide-eyedly–into the darkness off to my right, where I’d projected my voice.
It’d take too long to tell the rest of it blow-by-blow. I must’ve done the Sophie Screech a dozen times or more, never moving from that one spot but flinging my voice in every direction except the way I wanted them to go, throwing in a hint about their untimely demise with every second or third squall.
Come to think of it, that cougar me and Laughing Brook killed, some of that cat’s fighting sound was in there, too; it weren’t all jist Crazy Aunt Sophie.
Laughing Brook met me at the door, throwing her arms around me, but softly–them scars from the mountain lion not being fully healed yet–whispering in my ear, “My warrior.”
Damn, that sort of thing makes a man feel fine.
“You can stoke up the fire,” I told her. “Them rounders won’t be back. In fact, they’ll prob’ly need to change their britches, once they git where they’re going. And they was going some! They dang near lost their horses altogether, them cavalry remounts being worse spooked by my noisemaking than their riders. In the end, they give up trying to saddle their mounts, jist scrambled aboard bareback and off they went, every man fer himself and Devil take the hindmost.
“There’s three saddles out there, free fer the taking, come daylight.”
“The fever has broken,” she said, and then I heard Believer’s voice coming from the bed. A mere croak, but it was him right enough.
“Thought the banshees was coming fer me.”
“Yes. Your screams brought him back, Tam. You even frightened the fever away.”
I had no idea if she was serious or not, so I didn’t say anything. Believer did, though.
“Kid,” he croaked, “You are one scary sumbitch.”
It was the proudest night of my life.