Any time you have to dry camp fer a night, water is on your mind by the time the sun comes up. We were on the trail early, short on coffee from having emptied our canteens before we turned in. Both of us were as thirsty fer a long drink as a teenaged boy is fer the sight of a girl’s well-turned ankle.
Mostly, though, we worried about the horses.
Not that we said anything. I jist knew my partner, and he knew me. Till we hit Nelson Springs, allowing his grulla and my palomino to drink their fill and let it settle, there’d be a noticeable lack of talking between the two of us.
Which wasn’t all bad. It left me time to think on things. Like how much longer I intended to keep droving cows up the Chisholm Trail and then drifting back down to do it all over again, and again, and again. Most punchers worked fer a rancher year ’round fer thirty and found, and yes, there was a song about it.
I’m covering ground fer thirty and found
Trailing them critters that moo
A horse and a rope, yes, Mom, I’m a dope
I should have stayed back home with you
There was enough in my stash at the new bank in Cheyenne to buy a bit of land and a few cows fer starters. Nobody knew about that but Tam, it being frankly nobody else’s business. But the tale teller and I shared information we didn’t let on to outsiders. Like the fact that we’d become Chisholm Trail specialists, niche cowboys if you will. The two of us knew the Trail inside out, and that knowledge plus a few marketable skills let us set our own price fer our labors. Up to a point, anyway.
When the rest of the cowboys were drawing thirty dollars a month regardless of location, we stuck to taking Texas herds to Abilene and each got paid sixty.
I was getting tempted to call it quits after jist one more drive. This Tornado Alley territory was all right, but it was starting to grate on me. I didn’t know yet quite where I’d be settling, except that it’d be north of Texas and west of this dust country. Kansas was way too flat, and Oklahoma was…well, mostly Oklahoma simply suffered from being associated with both Kansas and Texas.
While our mounts were resting up from inhaling half the water in the tank–except fer the little Tam and I had sucked out of there to fill our bellies and our canteens–we took the time to build a fire and boil a fresh pot of coffee to go with the pemmican Tam fished out of his saddle bag. The man seemed to know every other Indian we came across, regardless of tribe, and he sign-talked pemmican with ’em more times than not.
This was some of the best. Young venison, my partner informed me, mixed with choke cherries and a bit of bear fat.
“Time fer a pot of coffee?” Tam asked.
“Why not?” I hadn’t dared hope. Man, I was getting tired of hustling back south every time, jist to foller another man’s cow butts up the Trail. One more drive. That was it. “I’ll rig the fire iffen you’ll throw in a tale. Starting now, so’s we don’t git rushed. Eh?”
“Eh. Why not. Maybe the story of Medicine Coyote.”
I started gathering buffalo chips with a will. It wasn’t every day Tam told a tale in broad daylight, and this promised to be a good one.
One dark, frigid morning, an hour or so before first light, I was wakened by Laughing Brook’s soft voice.
“Tam,” she said.
My eyes flew open. “I’m awake.”
“I forgot to bring in meat yesterday. We are out.”
“I’m on it.” While it was normally the Cheyenne girl’s job to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen, I could not be upset with her for rousting me out of my blankets. The wife of the mountain man had my heart.
And anything else she wanted.
Hoisting the heavy buffalo robe from its peg and settling it over my shoulders, I was surprised to see Believer was already up and at ’em. The usual routine in the cabin was fer Laughing Brook to bring him his first cup of coffee in bed. This generally brought him more or less upright, calling out,
“Daylight in the swamps!”
I was still only half awake, though, so this departure from routine didn’t trouble me none. With my knife at my belt and the old buffalo lance in my hand, I slipped out into the darkness. While it was no more than sixty feet from the cabin door to the root cellar, none of us went outside unarmed. There were bad men traveling these parts, more of them all the time. Not that a lance would be much help against a bullet or even a well placed arrow, but my rifle was busted.
You do what you can with what you’ve got.
And there had been the cougar. We’d killed the old tom mountain lion, the girl and I had done that, but in these parts you never knew. The more beautiful the territory, the more you’ll have to fight to say alive in it. Believer believed that, and I was fast coming to agree.
By the time I got back, calling out, “Coming in!” so’s nobody would shoot me on my way through the door, I was ready fer breakfast. I stepped on inside, closed the door behind me–
–and my jaw dropped. Laughing Brook, the woman of my dreams and occupier of Believer’s bed, stood by the fireplace, looking like the cat that ate the canary. Her jet black hair framed that perfect face…and she weren’t wearing her usual trade cloth dress no more. Instead, she gleamed in a beaded buckskin garment of the softest, purest white. It fit her in a way that brought out every female asset she had, and she had some assets. Both the sleeves and the hem of the dress were fringed. On her feet were matching high-topped moccasins that rounded out the picture.
I’d seen fantasy art work of what an Indian Princess should look like. Them artists didn’t know the half of it.
“You can breathe now,” Believer said, and I finally thought to look his way. Danged if he weren’t all duded up, too. The man worked day in, day out, in broadcloth clothing similar to half the dirt farmers in the states. I didn’t know either of these people even owned buckskins, let alone buckskins of this magnificence.
Believer’s outfit wasn’t beaded, nor was it white–which would have made him a marked man, had it been such–but it was fine. Mighty fine. Now he looked the very romantic image of the mountain man. Could have posed fer pictures to be sold to the Easterners.
“Wha–“, I finally managed.
“Bear Breath’s band of Piegan hold a feast every year at this time. Not quite sure of the reasons, though I believe it has to do with him being close related to Heavy Runner. Ever since Heavy Runner and his band were wiped out by the U.S. Cavalry in ’37, they’ve done this. I’ve always thought it’s a way for them to remember, sort of a memorial.”
The big man shrugged. “Not that they’re about to let any white man, even me, know too much about that part of it. But they’ve invited me every year since I beat Bear Breath in a game of bones. We’ve attended every year but fer one; three years back, the snows were jist too deep.”
“Ah, but–I’m to stay here? Hold the fort?”
“Nope. You’re coming with.”
“But–I’ve got no finery.” As a matter of fact, I’d be ashamed to show myself to the Blackfeet in my condition. My only shirt, cut down from an old one of Believer’s, wasn’t too bad, but both knees were coming through my trousers.
“Tam,” the girl’s soft voice penetrated my panic. “Look.”
I looked. She was holding up a set of buckskins that looked to be about my size. They were obviously brand new. How? There were numerous stashes of this and that in the cabin that I’d never explored fer fear of looking like a snoop; I could understand these folks having supplies of skins on hand. But where had she found the time to do this without me knowing? What, wait till I fell asleep every night and then git to cutting and stitching at the cost of her own rest?
It was the only explanation.
Man, I was feeling fine! Straddling Laughing Brook’s little mustang, following behind Believer and Laughing Brook riding double-up on the dun, I did fer a fact cut a fine figure. Under the buffalo robe, anyway. We were a powerful family, a clan–Hell, an entire tribe! Going to call on our brothers the Blackfeet, and doing it in style.
I turned fer one last look at the aspen grove hiding the cabin…and there was Medicine Coyote, sitting jist outside the edge of the treeline, watching us go. It had gotten to where I couldn’t call him Devil Dog any more, not since he’d warned me of the lion’s presence in time to save Laughing Brook’s life. Believer and Laughing Brook understood, though he was still Devil Dog to them.
“We will be back,” I thought at the coyote, as if he could understand English.
That’s when it happened.
“I know,” the beast answered, and I heard him clear as day. “I will watch.”
There were Indians who claimed the ability to speak with animals. Medicine animals especially. I knew this, but I wasn’t Indian…well, not much of me was. Not in form, anyway. Maybe loving an Indian woman counted? I was stunned…thrilled…overjoyed…and almost forgot to be polite.
“I will bring you something,” I promised. Then we dropped over the rise, and Medicine Coyote was lost to view.
We had been among the lodges of Bear Breath’s people fer a night and a day. Laughing Brook had hardly been seen, spirited away by a Piegan girl with laughing eyes. Wildrose had befriended the Cheyenne back when she was a slave to the Blackfeet known simply as Stupid Slave Slut. Believer told me that without Wildrose, he would not have trusted his wife’s safety to the other women of the band–but that with her, she was in no danger whatsoever.
“Wildrose is daughter to Bear Breath,” he explained. “None of the people here are going to risk offending him. He’s an upright man, and they would be shamed.”
Frankly, fer the first time since the mountain had picked me up from where I’d fallen unconscious due to starvation and carried me to the cabin, I’d kind of forgotten about Laughing Brook altogether. My plate had been too full to think much about a mere girl. Long Walker’s son, Tall Pine, was near my age but nearly as tall as Believer…and we’d bonded on sight. He’d earned his warrior name the previous summer in a daring raid, the details of which I couldn’t get clear fer the life of me. Being a white man–albeit 13 years of age–I didn’t have anything like that, but he treated me as if I did. Now, however, it was story time. Men only, warriors only, and I was part of it.
There are no words to tell you how that made me feel.
It had to be midnight, maybe later. An endless stream of men had taken turns, each standing to present his tale of valor, humor, daring, wit, or even tragedy to the twenty-some audience members. When a man was speaking, no one interrupted. Back in the states, I’d attended church meetings with far less decorum than these people had.
White folks, I was coming to suspect, were barbarians by comparison to the Blackfeet.
Several of the tellings had grabbed my attention a bit more than the others. Tall Pine for one, the young warrior describing how he’d escaped a war party of Assiniboine who’d been hot on his trail until he sneakily hid from them in the topmost branches of a tree. His pursuers didn’t think to look for their quarry some 80 feet above their heads. Then came Bear Breath and Believer, sharing the telling of the Chief’s loss in the bone game which had saved the mountain man’s life and given him Laughing Brook. Politely, the girl’s former owner refrained from referring to her as Stupid Slave Slut.
Not that Myrtle was much better, in my opinion.
The greatest impact on me, beyond question, involved the final two stories of the night. Mine. When I’d been invited to tell my tales of the killing of the cougar and also the scaring off of three Army deserters, I’d gone into shock. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what I said to the assemblage or how I said it.
I remember what Believer done right at the finish of my cougar-killing story, though. He’d brung along an oversized rawhide bag from the cabin, like a parfleche but twice as deep or more. When I got done telling the story, he’d gotten to his feet, reached inside the bag, and hauled out the remains of my .44-40 rifle. Them Indians did seem to plumb appreciate the visual aid, maybe more than the story itself.
“What are they talking about?” I asked Believer, watching Bear Breath and what I assumed to be the elders of his band circled up and talking to each other in polite sequence but with obvious animation. They cared about this topic. But my Blackfoot was never as good as my Cheyenne, and they’d quit using sign altogether. Linguisitically, I was lost.
Believer grunted. “They figure you’re due fer a warrior name.”
You coulda knocked me over with a feather. “But…I’m not a Piegan…right?”
He chuckled. “Nope. You ain’t no Piegan, nor likely to become one, neither. I ain’t even sure how they figure it’s up to them to tack a moniker on your hide, but when in Rome. Or in this case, I reckon, it’s more when in Indian country. Whenever they git done with their palaver, they’ll be slapping that name your way. It’s up to you, but I’d highly recommend you take it.”
“I wouldn’t think of refusing.” Not smack dab in the middle of their camp, I wouldn’t. “Jist hope it’s not something like Falls on Face or Pasty-Face Jug Ears.”
“You never know,” he said mildly. Which didn’t help much.
Why is it always times like this when a fellow realizes he really, really needs to go see a man about a dog?
“Why is it taking them so long?”
He chuckled again. “It ain’t. Fer Indians, they’re moving the discussion along fairly quick-like. What’s slowing ’em down a bit, though, is a disagreement between Bear Breath and Long Walker. At first, the Chief felt your name should relate to the cougar-killing, since that was the first of them two manly things you done.”
Huh. I could think of a third manly thing, but this did seem a really good time to be observing the Law of Silence on that score.
“At first? He doesn’t now?”
“Nope. Long Walker convinced him that didn’t count, due to Myrtle sticking a buffalo lance through the critter. You had help from a woman, he says. Naming you fer a woman-assisted event would weaken your medicine, maybe get you killed in battle fer no good reason.”
To make a really long story short, or at least shorter, they did finally finish up. Got me stood up in the center with the rest of ’em ringed all around me, including Believer. Don’t know iffen that’s the way they do it fer their own, but that’s the way they done it fer me. Bear Breath told me my warrior name was Frightens Enemy.
Which did give me pause fer jist a second or two. What did he mean by that? Did I look so danged ugly the enemy would run at sight of me, or what? But then Long Walker steppped up beside the Chief and explained in sign so’s I could understand what they were saying.
To defeat an enemy without killing him is a thing of great honor. You frightened not one but three of the enemy from your lands. You used only your voice to do this. Your name is fitting. You are Frightens Enemy.
It wasn’t over quite yet. They painted me up a bit with considerable ceremony, even had me keep the paint in place till the sun come up and the whole camp could see. After that, it being time fer us to saddle up and hit fer home, I decided to jist leave myself all war painted until we got back to the cabin. Nobody said different, so I guess that was okay. My new friend, Tall Pine, had gifted me with an entire haunch of venison, which left me racking my brains fer a way to gift him back.
We were well on the way, crossing a broad meadow where the snow wasn’t too deep and we could ride two abreast, when Believer told me.
“You know, Frightens Enemy, every good Piegan warrior needs a medicine animal.”
I looked over at my mentor. “Got one. My medicine animal is the coyote.”
The big man nodded slowly. “Reckon I can see that.”
Laughing brook spoke from her seat on the dun behind her man. “Your venison looks tempting. Are we digging into that tomorrow?”
“All right by me,” I replied. “As long as you don’t mind saving out the bone and a couple of pounds of meat fer Medicine Coyote. He told me he’d watch the place while we were gone, and I said I’d bring him something back.”
Someday I’d tell them how that had come about, me and the coyote talking like two brothers in my head. But fer the moment, the looks on their faces were priceless.