I saw them first.
“Tam,” I said, and he looked off toward where I was pointing. Dark specks at least a couple of miles away, dotted along a low hill to the southeast.
We were lucky, or divinely protected, however that works. Stopped along the trail where we were at jist this moment, we had a scraggly treeline to our right that served as a backdrop. It seemed likely we’d be plumb invisible to them specks.
Except fer my overly flashy palomino.
The tall tale teller unbuckled his lefthand saddle bag, pulled out a small telescope, and took a look. I heard him hiss like some irritated reptile. He muttered something under his breath.
“Didn’t catch that.”
“Kiowa. I never have done well with Indians that start with a K.”
“Want to back our horses in among these trees a bit? This has got to be the only patch of woods in this entire part of Oklahoma.”
“Kiowa,” he went on as if he hadn’t heard me. “Bloody, blasted Kiowa. War party if I ever seen one. Twelve…thirteen of ’em. Blast.”
We were already easing our mounts back into the treeline. “Think they seen us?”
“They give no sign of it,” he shrugged, closing the scope. “But with the Kiowa, that don’t count fer much. They’re right tricky folks.”
“I’m puzzled,” I admitted. “You git along well enough with the Comanche, and they’re allies to the Kiowa.”
“They’ve no need to fight each other’s battles. Believe me, I can trade with the Comanche, but them Kiowa will lift your hair quick as anything, given the chance. Especially if you’re with me.”
I looked over at my jug-eared partner, sitting atop his grulla, staring out at them distant, moving specks. “The way they’re pointing, they’ll be out of our way within the hour. Think you’ll be able to see ’em if they cross the trail ahead of us?”
“Should be. No guarantee.”
“Okay,” I mused. “Let’s say they cross where we predict and keep going. Give ’em another hour to git far enough to the west so’s we feel as safe as we’re gonna git. By the time we crossed their tracks, it’d be near sunset. Reckon we’d be better off staying right here fer the night? Supper up early, fire up a pot of coffee, then have the fire out before dark?:”
“Good a plan as any.” Tam never even turned from his study, pondering them Kiowa with a K. “And I reckon you’ll want a tale before we turn in. How be I tell you about the Kootenai?”
I didn’t have the foggiest notion what a kootnee might be, but what the hey. “Sure,” I said. “I look forward to hearing about the kootnee.”
My out-of-character lack of enthusiasm didn’t even penetrate his thick skull. He was too far inside his own head, worrying about them few tribes of red men who didn’t seem to appreciate him properly. Tribes whose names started with a K.
Not that I was feeling growly because of anything my partner had said or done. I simply have trouble caring a whole lot about a tall tale when there’s folks in the vicinity itching to stake me out over a red ant pile jist fer kicks and giggles.
With or without a K.
They’d gone through an hour or so after sunup. Medicine Coyote had told me. Not a warning, jist sitting there at the edge of the aspen grove where we could keep an eye on each other while I was splitting firewood. His attention had been drawn to the little valley below Believer’s homesite. I turned to see where he was looking, and there they were. Blackfeet, a full day’s ride from camp in the dead of winter.
The mountain man and his young Cheyenne wife were already standing out in the open by the time I joined them. About that time, the party’s leader–my friend Tall Pine, from his size–waved up at us, and all three of us waved back.
This was a puzzlement. Sure, the weather had been mild fer days and promised to hold fer a while yet, but a party this far from home at this time of year? I thought Indians stayed close in during the snow months, always. Unless the meat was running out, and that couldn’t be it. They’d had tons of the stuff on hand when we’d visited jist a week ago.
Seven…nine of ’em.
Believer must have read my mind, like he seemed to do sometimes. “You don’t see that too often,” he said, “But more with Bear Breath’s band. This route is the one they take fer raids over west of the Rockies. He lets it be known a bunch of young hotbloods who’re willing to brave the elements on a scout …well, they might jist gain what he calls Winter Honor.”
“Huh.” I thought a bit. “Does that make sense?”
“Yes and no. There ain’t a tribe west of the mountains fool enough to go against the Blackfeet on purpose, but then again the Army might. After the massacre of Heavy Runner’s band in ’37 by Colonel Baker, Bear Breath ain’t been one fer trusting to chance.”
I nodded. “Makes sense to me.”
“Again, yes and no. Even in a mild winter, we don’t see more’n two or three of these parties. If they actually picked up on a cavalry column heading their way, it’d be a miracle.” He grinned suddenly. “But he’s able to git rid of his rowdier young bucks fer a few days this way. Leaves the camp a heap quieter and more peaceful fer a time. White folks git cabin fever long before the snow melts. Reckon the red race could be subject to tipi fever, eh?”
“Lots of tipi creeping in late winter,” Laughing Brook put in.
She should know, having been slave to the Blackfeet before being acquired by her now-husband in a game of bones.
It was midmorning when we heard the first shots. From over the western ridge, where Tall Pine’s scouting party had gone. Not heavy fire, like you’d git from a troop of cavalry in a firefight, but not that many of Tall Pine’s group had been packing rifles, either.
Trouble, and my friend in the middle of it.
I had the mustang saddled and was pulling the cinch by the time Believer arrived at the corral to catch up his dun. We jist looked at each other, didn’t say nothing, and he handed me my Hall carbine and the parfleche full of cartridges. I’d hamstrung a renegade Piegan to git that shooter. Jist in time.
We took the north ridge route. It was slower, but there was cover most of the way. With folks shooting at each other, you wanted all the cover you could git. This was a time fer caution, not fer rushing in where angels fear to tread. Truth be told, I admitted to myself, thirteen year old fearsome warrior Tam aka Frightens Enemy aka Woman’s Dress was wishing heart and Soul he didn’t have this to do.
Right at high noon, we reined in to consider our options. There was brush here, high on the slope but well under the skyline. The people in the west-draining valley below us were kind of occupied; neither side was likely to notice us.
Believer spoke first, soft but clear. “How do you see it?”
I glanced at him, surprised. He was asking me? “I ain’t had no military training. You’re the canny old Indian fighter.”
He chuckled. “These days, more Indian lover than fighter. But that’s my point. I know what I’m seeing. The question is, do you?”
I hate it when he does that.
Still, my mouth started running of its own accord, like the durned thing is prone to doing. “Well, I see a bunch of Indians who ain’t near as dumb as most white folks think. Both sides are fighting from cover, using every tree and rock they can find to their own advantage. Neither force wants to back off, nor has either of ’em been able to flank the other. There’s one man well back fer the Piegan, holding their horses, and two fer the enemy doing the same.
“Which, looking at them ponies, make it purty clear Tall Pine’s bunch is outnumbered two to one. At best. Who the enemy is, though, I don’t have a clue.
“Good enough, professor?”
“Good enough,” the big man agreed. “Them others are Kootenai. Longtime tradiitional enemies to the Blackfeet.” He sounded troubled. “But this group, heading east through the pass into Piegan lands? That’s something I’ve never seen before.”
“Maybe testing the waters?” I ventured. “I mean, it’s been some years since the pox, but there’s still stories out there that the Blackfeet are done for. I know; I heard ’em told time and again last summer when I was covering a whole bunch of Montana Territory.”
“Maybe. I never thought of that. Okay, next question: If you intend to help your friend, how would you do it, and why?”
He would have to ask that. Fortunately, I’d come to know Believer enough that I understood him a bit. He’d appointed himself my survival instructor, and I’d danged well better not flunk the final exam, boy howdy!
“Once it is known I have helped the Piegan in battle, the other tribe will mighty surely put me smack dab dead center in their sights, an enemy forever unworthy of quarter. So if there’s a way to break their stand without being seen, that might be good. Though the moccasin telegraph generally gits the word out anyway.”
“Okay.” I went on, rubbing my chin in thought, “We come across the ridge under cover. We likely ain’t been seen yet by either side. If we slip on over in a sort of buttonhook move on this same north slope, we might be able to pull off the flanking movement Tall Pine’s people ain’t been able to accomplish.”
“Hunh. Thought you said you didn’t have any military training.”
“I don’t. It jist seems to make sense.”
We were ready, situated in a scrambled mess of boulders, maybe a hunnert yards distant from and close to fifty feet above them kootnee. Our horses were stashed up higher yet, jist below the skyline, back in the deep timber. Of maybe twenty enemy warriors, we could see a shootable body part on at least five or six of ’em. Neither side, Piegan nor kootnee, was flinging many rounds out there. Low on ammunition, most likely.
That, or neither side could catch a clear target long enough to draw a bead. Indians or not, it was a Mexican standoff, sure enough.
We’d fix that.
“Remember,” I heard Believer whisper from his position a few yards off to my right, “Hold low.”
Then his Hawken roared, my trigger finger jerked, and the first bullet ever launched from my .52 caliber Hall carbine left the muzzle in a hurry to join the fun while there was still fun to be had. Not meaning to sound callous about killing folks, but here’s a fact: If you got it to do, doing it from a natural rock fortress with the element of surprise in your favor is the only way to go.
Now, here’s the funny part. That big slug had a mind of its own. Maybe it figured I didn’t have no more say in it, having jerked the trigger like that jist ’cause the mountain man’s smokepole had like to blown out my right eardrum. I’d been aiming at the nearest warrior I could see, who had the better part of his body exposed to our spot up in them rocks, but Believer’s shot took him down and my bullet didn’t need to go there.
So it didn’t.
Instead, it flew off to the left, hit a rock half buried in the snow–I seen it spark when it done it–bounced on through a little screen of brush, and killed a warrior I’d no idea was even there.
Who happened to be the kootnee war chief.
You remember I’ve told you more’n once that Indians is notional critters? One thing seems to be reliable about ’em. Iffen they see their war leader flattened all sudden-like and blowing blood so it’s clear he’s not getting back up, they git the notion it’s not a good day to die right quick-like. There was a lot of yelling, not a word of which I understood, and then all you could see was Indian backsides running, churning up snow to git to their ponies.
The fool Blackfeet, most of ’em, wanted to give chase, but Tall Pine knew better. He had to make a lot of noise his own self, but he got ’em stopped.
What? You want to know if I took another new name after that little dustup?
Well, I kind of had to, now didn’t I? I wasn’t no Piegan, but I was jist thirteen years of age. Ten years later, it wouldn’t of mattered, but back then? Hell, yeah. Trouble was, how was I going to tell my story? I hate to admit it to this day, but the temptation to pretend I’d meant to put that bullet dead center through that kootnee chief nudged at me something fierce.
Except I remembered Bear Claw, how he’d lied about killing a bear with a lance instead of this very same rifle, and the price he’d paid fer that lie, and I caught myself jist in time. Told it true, that I’d jerked the trigger, and the lead had found its own way to a target I’d not even known existed. I expected Tall Pine and the others to laugh at me fer that, I truly did, with Believer maybe looking at me in pity fer my foolishness.
Instead, with us all gathered around there in the snow, when I got to that part, their eyes went wide. Not the mountain man’s, but all the red men. I stopped talking, having come to the end of my story, and we all jist stood there silent fer a minute.
Then my friend, the Piegan war leader Tall Pine, spoke–slowly, enunciating each word so’s I could follow it without him having to use sign.
“I have seldom heard of such a thing. Your rifle is crazy.”
Huh? I jist nodded like I knew what he meant.
The scouting party stayed the night with us. Three of the Piegan were wounded, none fatally. Believer patched ’em up the best he could, we all feasted and told stories into the night, and come the dawn, our friends headed fer home. Once they were over the rise and out of sight, I turned to the big man and asked,
“What did Tall Pine mean when he said my rifle was crazy?”
My mentor took a long pull on his pipe, thinking to answer, but Laughing Brook beat him to it. Which made sense; her Blackfoot was a bit better.
“He did not mean crazy like…loco….” She paused, and I had time to wonder where she’d come up with the Spanish word. “He meant…he meant spirited. That the Great Spirit is in the weapon.”
“Oh.” That made sense. Sort of. But I decided I liked my interpretation better. I would indeed take a new warrior name, and why not? What fool kootnee–uh, Kootenai; Believer had corrected me on that. What fool Kootenai would dare to challenge the mighty White Blackfoot warrior, Crazy Rifle?
Not a one, iffen they knew what was good fer ’em.