We stopped fer the night at one of our most favorite spots in all of northern Oklahoma, a little hollow close to the trail, with strong grass and a hidden spring. We had more’n a half moon and could well enough have kept going, but neither of us seemed to feel the kind of urgency that had driven us southward after previous drives to hook up with another herd headed fer the Chisholm Trail.
Maybe the routine–if it could be called that–was wearing thin on Tam, too. We’d be parting ways when I told him I was quitting after one more trail drive, but things are what they are. Nothing lasts forever, not even our cow-chousing sort-of partnership.
Which meant I’d be a fool not to git every story out of him I could, prior to that day of departure.
“Tam,” I said, noting the clouds tinted a rose-red by the setting sun. Red at night, sailor’s delight. Red in the morning, sailor take warning. “I’ve not truly known a single Indian in my lifetime, unless you count Old Salty.” Old Salty was an elderly, toothless red man back in my hometown. Never did know what tribe he come from. The town drunk, really, was all he was. That, and demented as any loon. Whether firewater had driven him crazy or crazy had driven him to firewater, nobody seemed to know. Or care.
Mostly, though, he was tolerated. Which made my hometown a touch unusual fer these times, or so I’d heard.
“You got a point?” The jug-eared cowboy glanced up from where he was stirring the beans. It was his turn to cook.
“Uh…yeah. From the stories you been telling of late, about the Piegan people and the Cheyenne girl, Laughing Brook, you make the red race sound like it’s something special. I mean, overall special. Like they got a better connection with the Almighty than most of us do, or something.”
I paused, struggling fer words. Words didn’t always come natural fer me. “I guess I’m asking, do you think it’s maybe true? That the people writing them stories back East about Indians being nothing but bloodthirsty savages have got the truth stood plumb on its head? Maybe even….” I thought a moment. “Maybe even that some white people hate ’em because they’re better than we are? More…spiritual or something?”
“Huh.” Tam ladled a heaping pile of beans onto each tin plate, added the haunches from the spit-roasted rabbit I’d shot a couple of miles back, and we tucked in. He didn’t answer me right away, not till the meal was done and the coffee on, but I knew he was thinking.
“You’re getting to where you read my mind a bit too often, cowboy,” he admitted then, rolling the one smoke he’d allow himself before calling it a night. “And I think it’s time to tell you about the bad Indian.”
We didn’t talk much that entire day on the ride back to the cabin. Speechifying by its nature tends to dull awareness of your surroundings, and that will sure as there’s fire and brimstone in Hades git your careless carcass killed in this part of the world. Plus, voice carries in the high country, especially in winter cold. I’d seen times when a spoken word could be heard by a ready ear from near a mile away. We rode silent and aware, all three of us–despite Laughing Brook’s view forward being nonexistent, riding double-up behind Believer on the dun as she was.
Nor did we waste any breath talking when we first got home. It was pitch dark by that time, but things needed doing. I butchered out the venison haunch Tall Pine had given me, leaving most of the meat in the cabin but taking the leg bone and a couple of pounds of flesh out to Medicine Coyote’s feeding place. Believer put up the horses, and Laughing Brook got the fire going.
Once we were all settled in, though, the woman had something to say. She was putting a meal together, I was busy wiping Piegan war paint from my face, and the mountain man was honing his skinning knife when she told us, “Bear Claw is a bad Indian.”
“Who,” Believer asked mildly, “Is Bear Claw?”
“He is a young Piegan warrior. Stocky, not as tall as most, but thick and strong. He rides a bay pony with one white sock.”
Nobody spoke until the big man had time to mull that over a bit. “Kinda mean looking? A sort of squint up around his left eye?”
“That’s the one.”
“Well, you clearly got something more to say about this bad Indian, girl. Spill it.”
Yes, I thought, spill it. Because I’d been thinking, all day on that long ride back home, how awesome the Indians I’d met so far had turned out to be. The Cheyenne girl, Laughing Brook, absolutely owned my affections–despite being more than spoke for, wife to Believer as she was. Chief Bear Breath and his friend Long Walker, my new friend Tall Pine–all of them were salt of the Earth types. Courageous. Honorable. Full of humor. Intelligent. Even, dare I think it, wise.
I’d begun seriously considering the possibility that we whites were an inferior race. I didn’t envy the red men, not exactly, but I’d begun to wonder. Since my arrival on the mountain, I’d been under threat from five really bad white men, the two Believer had fed to Medicine Coyote and the three I’d frightened off by screaming in the dark. The Blackfeet called me Frightens Enemy, but all the enemies in my life had been white men.
Now the star of my heart had shattered the illusion. There was such a thing as a bad red man. Dang.
“My friend Wildrose told me of him, ” she said. “Because she feared for me, I think, but also because she does not like the fellow.” Laughing Brook turned the meat on the spit, then looked at me to explain. “Tam, you probably did not know this, but the Blackfeet often get married by arrangement. Sometimes not; families try to take the feelings of young people into consideration. But often, yes. There are cases of young women who did not get the man they wanted and hung themselves rather than marry a warrior they did not want.”
“I believe I can understand that,” I said, looking her in the eye.
Believer had the grace to pretend he had no idea what we were talking about.
“Anyway,” she went on, “Bear Claw’s family negotiated with the family of Wildrose to have her as his wife, but Wildrose’s father would not give permission for the marriage. He did not have to give a reason, nor did he, but Bear Claw was enraged. My friend Wildrose fears him and is careful never to be alone where this man might come upon her unaware.”
It was beginning to sound like one of them back-home girly romance novels my mother read and my sisters practically devoured. Was there a point to all this?
Turned out there was.
Laughing Brook dished up our pewter plates of meat, potatoes, and wild onions, sitting back to watch us eat as she finished her warning. Indian women never ate with their men, always waiting to finish off what was left over once the warriors had filled their bellies. It seemed a good system to me.
“You, husband,” she said, touching her man’s knee in a telling gesture, “He hates for being a healer. He is nephew to Groundhog, the medicine man whose jealousy of your skills and honor within Bear Breath’s band is well known. It was Groundhog who cared for both Sparrow Woman and Hawk Feather, the two Piegan who died of the flu. Not one patient of yours was lost. This has made Groundhog even more jealous than he was before, and where the medicine man is jealous, his nephew hates. Some fear Bear Claw has lost his humanity.
“You, my warrior,” she added, turning to me but regrettably not touching my knee, “He hates with an evil fire beyond telling.”
“Why?” I mumbled around a mouthful of meat. “I ain’t never done nothing to him. Don’t even know the fellow.”
“That’s just it.” She nodded. “You don’t know him because you stand far above him with the Piegan. He has been beneath your notice.”
I must have looked as confused as I felt. “You’ve lost me.”
“Last night in the lodge,” she asked, “Your stories of the cougar and the voice that frightened your enemies were not doubted. Everyone knew they had the ring of truth.
“But when Bear Claw received his name, it was not so. The story he told defied belief. Supposedly, he killed a sizeable black bear with nothing but a buffalo lance, receiving four claw marks across his left forearm in the fight. But Bear Claw also carries a rifle, gifted to him by his father. Warriors in the assemblage noted that the hole in the bearhide, slit where the lance had entered the bear’s body, appeared wider at the center–as if, for instance, the bear had been shot first and and the lance point later shoved through the hole in the dead bear’s hide.
“Further, the gashes on his forearm appeared to have come from a knife, not a bear’s raking claws.” She grinned impishly at me. “We of the Plains tend to notice these things.”
“Reckon they would.” I grinned back, ignoring the implied insult that white man me would miss such subtleties. You had to look out fer Laughing Brook’s sense of humor, once you got to know her a bit.
“So,” she finished, “The men asked him to smoke the pipe, saying that if his words were as straight as the hole in the pipe stem, he would live long and prosper, but that if his words were crooked, his days were numbered. This is a way to detect truth.”
“Let me guess,” Believer put in, “He refused the pipe.”
“He did. Said he had told the truth, and smoking the pipe would be a useless thing.”
The mountain man packed his own pipe full of fresh tobacco, lit up, and added the punchline. “Which means, them Piegan may let him go on with his name, but not a one of ’em has ever believed a word out of the man’s mouth from that day to this. I can see where a low-consciousness critter like that would purely rage against somebody like Tam, what with him not only being honored as a truth teller and valiant warrior, but also being an outsider. Not even of the band, and not even an Indian.”
“Tam,” he said, “We’d best be even more watchful than usual. You especially.”
Oh, now there’s a bedtime story.
I shot straight up off the pallet, eyes wide open, straining to see in the darkness. “He comes,” Medicine Coyote had said in the dream, and I had no doubt who he meant.
Fear. Panic, almost, but I knew better than that. It felt fer all the world like the slightest whisper could mean the difference between life and death fer the cabin and everyone in it. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Cold sweat ran down my back.
One thing to do before anything else. A forked willow stick stood jist inside the door. The mountain man had used it to witch fer water, back when the willow was still green and the spring still hidden. Moving silently, I retrieved the stick, eased back over toward the bed, and stretched out my arm to tap the big man’s shoulder with the end of the thing.
As expected, his skinning knife cut the branch in two before I could pull my hand back.
Mission accomplished. He was awake now.
Within seconds, I had my clothes on and was fumbling with a rolled bundle of leather. Believer’s hand touched my shoulder lightly, and I turned to breathe into his ear, soft as a feather’s touch, “Bear Claw”.
Back in the states, iffen a thirteen year old boy woke terrified from a dream after having heard a scary bedtime story, he’d likely jist be given some warm milk and sent back to bed. At best. But this wasn’t in the states, and I wasn’t no boy.
The mountain man started easing fer the door, but it was my turn to put a hand on his shoulder. He stopped. I reached fer his hand, straightened out the index finger, and stabbed it into my own chest. Me. He is mine.
He required no further explanation, jist started easing back toward the bed, likely to fill Laughing Brook in on the doings. I stopped him one more time, took his hand again, touched it to the razor-sharp skinning knife at his belt.
Moments later, knife in hand, I was out the door. Belly down, hugging the snow like my mentor had done the night he butchered them two. Now it was my turn.
Easing out some yards, I finally started a slow circle around the cabin, ghosting in the darkness from tree to tree. Except the Blackfoot warrior, Bear Claw, would be no easy meat. He was no fool white Army deserter, staring into the flames of a fire. My heart wasn’t jist thumping now, but threatening to jump right out of my body with every beat. This was stupid, I was dumb, and likely I was going to end up deader’n a doornail, not to mention froze half to death first.
But I had it to do.
Then I seen him. Heard him first, my jug ears proving their worth one more time. He was around back, and he was fixing to set fire to the cabin. From the dim outline I could make out by starlight, he’d already piled tinder and small brush up in leanto fashion against the southwest corner of the building. Which was bright enough on the face of it; at the corner of a log cabin, the log ends jut out. It may take ’em a time to burn, especially in subfreezing temperatures, but flames would run up ’em almost like a chimney, likely catch the roof on fire purty quick-like.
Besides which, I realized he likely didn’t care about the fire except fer knowing we’d have to come rushing out that front door once we realized the danger. The fire danger, that is. And he’d be ready with his bear-killing rifle. I’d no doubt of it.
So…where was that rifle?
The renegade Piegan was easing back and forth between the woodpile and the cabin, taking his time, building a setup fer a nice little bonfire. Where would his bay pony be? If I were him….
The juniper brush patch. The one from where the tom lion had leaped out at Laughing Brook. I begun moving again, easy, easy….
Yep. Good thing critters seem to like me, I can tell you that much.
Back by the woodpile, lying flat in the snow, I watched this bad Indian–well, watched the dim shape of his bulk outlined against the stars–as he came back fer a few more sticks of firewood to add to the pile by the cabin. Where I was laying, he coulda stepped on me if he’d gone sideways by more’n a foot. I tried to remember not to even think about my enemy, who might feel me thinking about him. That traitor heart didn’t stop pounding, but I did fer sure stop breathing.
He turned toward the cabin.
My left hand lashed out, pulling my uncoiling body behind it like I was in truth the Great Snow Rattlesnake.
Bear Claw’s scream split the air and scared me half to death, right there on the spot.
Believer opened the door. I stepped inside. “All clear.”
In what was getting to be a regular routine, Laughing Brook began stoking up the fire.
“So,” Believer asked, unable to contain himself, “Was that your scream this time, or his?” I figured he didn’t much like being on the waiting end–what fighting man would?–and conscious enough to know it.
“His.” I went on to explain how I’d hamstrung the bad Indian. “That’s why I needed your skinning knife. It’s a sight sharper than I can ever seem to get mine, and the blade is longer.
“When I cut him, he went running fer his pony. I kind of expected him to turn and fight, had my knife in the other hand, hoping I’d have time to git my feet under me before it was too late. But he didn’t do that. Don’t believe the thought ever entered his head.
“Of course, he couldn’t really know what had bit him. Prob’ly thought it really was some kind of snow snake.
“He fell a bunch of times. It takes a heap of learning to run after losing the Achilles tendon on one side. Got the idea fer that from you.” I grinned at Laughing Brook. “You mentioned once that some tribes hamstring their slaves iffen they try to run away.”
“What did you–” The girl’s utterance was an outburst of sheer horror. It took me a second to figure out what had her so upset. Jist ’cause I’d donned her pure white fancy buckskin dress to go skulking in the snow, and jist ’cause I’d had to slice the shoulders and the waist open a bit to properly accommodate my man-shape…she had no cause to be going on like that!
Then her countenance started changing, her expression going from horror…to outrage…to anger, which was when I first realized getting this woman really mad at you might not be a particularly good idea….
And then she busted out laughing. I mean, that girl can laugh! It’s plumb contagious. Believer caught the hee-haws next, and then before I knew it, I was joining right in. It was out of control, a release that come closer to making me pee my pants than any time since the landslide nearly got the big man and me.
It took a time before we got ourselves calmed down enough so’s I could finish my telling. “Bear Claw fell six or seven times before he made it to his mount, and the pony didn’t like the blood smell on him when he got there, neither. But the last I seen, horse and rider was headed down off the mountain at a full gallop on a beeline toward home.
“Not only that, but I got me a rifle. A working rifle,” I amended, “And a heap of cartridges to boot.” I held up the Hall carbine and parfleche full of ammo I’d taken from the bay pony’s back before going after the bad Indian.
It was Believer who first realized I had no idea what I’d done.
“Tell me, Frightens Enemy, will you take a new name? Among the Blackfeet, you’re entitled to switch out every time you count a new coup. Maybe Snow Snake…or…Woman’s Dress?”
That set us all off again, but he had a serious point to make when we calmed down. My side hurt from laughing.
“Tam, humor aside, tell me: Did you wear Myrtle’s dress jist fer camouflage in the snow?”
“Of course,” I said, puzzled. “Why else?”
“He really doesn’t know.” Laughing Brook put her hand over mouth, fighting to keep from losing it again.
“Nope. Obviously not. Tam, when you said your medicine animal was the coyote, you surely got it right. Coyotes can be tricky critters when they have the need, and you’ve shown yerself to be the trickiest fighter I’ve seen in my considerable lifespan.
“See, you didn’t jist cut Bear Claw. You destroyed the fellow. He’s done with the warpath; the hamstringing seen to that. Most likely, he’ll make up some unbelievable story explaining how he come to git cut across the back of the ankle, and as always, nobody will believe him. But he has one other option. He might possibly claim he was ambushed, tell a much different version of what happened. He don’t know it was you that cut him–he couldn’t possibly. But since you’re the one he most hates, whatever tale he makes up will have you cast as the villain fer sure.
“In which case, his family might squall fer Piegan justice, demand you face consequences fer being the evil white devil you are. Bear Breath might, jist might, have to ask you fer your side of the story. And if he does that, you tell it jist how it happened. I believe Bear Claw would be so shamed by the truth, he’d either die from it or have to leave the territory entirely.”
“I know he would,” Laughing Brook put in.
Wait a minute…I got it. “You’re saying…that the great warrior Frightens Enemy wore a woman’s dress to indicate his scorn fer the coward who would attempt such a dishonorable attack upon those who were not even enemies of his people. And that even Woman’s Dress did not find him worth killing.”
“Something like that,” Believer nodded. “It lacks a little in the translation, but overall, I believe you’ve got it.”
We three looked at each other in total understanding—and once again collapsed in helpless laughter.