When we reached the place where the Kiowa war ponies had crossed, Tam and I pulled up. He climbed down off his grulla and began studying the ground, tracing barefoot hoof marks with his fingertip, looking fer all the world like he was reading the most fascinating book in the world. Which, fer a tracker trained by the likes of the mountain man, Believer, he surely was.
I stayed aboard my palomino, standing tall in the saddle, scanning our surroundings constantly with the use of both the naked eye and my partner’s telescope. Them thirteen young hotbloods appeared to have kept on going when they’d come through here late yesterday, but a westerner who takes things like that fer granted is soon enough pushing up daisies.
At length, my partner straightened, brushed off his hands against his chaps, and climbed back in the saddle. “Blue Sky’s bunch,” he said sourly. “He’s a bad one.”
I raised an eyebrow as we got our mounts moving again. “I thought you seen all Kiowa as bad.”
He snorted. “You know me better than that.”
True enough. “How bad can a warrior with a sweet name like Blue Sky be?”
“Bad enough, specially if you know the why of the name. It’s said that any white man, woman, or child who don’t see him coming before he sees them…ends up staring at the blue sky. Unblinkingly. Forever.”
“Ah. Good thing we seen him first, then.”
“You got that right.”
It was the kind of morning that fools tenderfeet into thinking the world is a friendly place. The meadowlarks were singing, the night chill was coming off but the heat of the day hadn’t really hit yet, and yes, blue sky overhead.
I didn’t think I’d much like having to stare into that sky fer eternity, though. Or even jist till the ants got done with my carcass. I kept on scanning. This was Indian country, and don’t you forget it.
“Been thinking, Tam.”
“Indeed. Howsomever, what I been thinking is, whatever become of Bear Claw after you took his rifle and sent him packing back to his people one hamstring short? From what you told me, he don’t seem like the sort who’d take a cutting like that lying down. Even if standing up with one severed Achilles tendon would be a bit…problematic.”
“You’re right, cowboy. He weren’t the type, and he didn’t. As I found out the hard way. In the end, it come down to a trial of sorts. Let me think it through fer the rest of the day. Git my thoughts in order. Shorten it up some. It’s one of them stories that could take all night to tell in full, and us handsome devils need our beauty sleep.”
Fair enough. I could use some thinking time myself. It was my turn to cook supper, and I needed to decide between beans and sowbelly, or sowbelly and beans.
I was on trial fer my life.
Two dozen top men of the Blackfoot Nation sat around, solemnly smoking the pipe and discussing the fate of me and Bear Claw. We’d each had our say.
He’d lied, of course. At first, we’d been informed, the renegade Piegan had showed back up in camp saying he’d been no great distance away from the lodges when he felt the attack in the dark that hamstrung him fer life. His excuse fer being out there after dark in the dead of winter was flimsy–he’d heard someone crying, and gone to investigate. But people who live close to nature know spirits do exist. He could have been lured by such a one.
The dark part, and the hamstringing, were pure truth. The distance from camp was not. Believer’s cabin is a full day’s ride out. Full of hatred, the stocky warrior had been readying to set fire to the dwelling when I sliced him.
After stealing his rifle and parfleche full of cartridges from his pony’s back.
Later, when Tall Pine and his scouting party reported they’d been assisted in battle against the Kootenai, with me using the highly recognizable Hall carbine, the rat bastard had seen his chance. He claimed that now he understood what evil had tempted him into the darkness, crippled him fer life, and stolen his prized weapon to boot. That evil was me, the white devil who must have snuck up near the Piegan camp and attacked the noble Bear Claw.
I’d had my say, and I reckoned most of the assemblage believed me.
But this time, challenged to smoke the truth-telling pipe…Bear Claw had smoked the pipe. According to the belief among the Blackfeet, telling a lie and then smoking the pipe would number your days something fierce. No one in his right mind would take such a risk. Yet Bear Claw had done so.
So had I, of course. But I knew my version of the facts to be honest and straightforward. I’d no reason to fear smoking myself to an early death.
The elders were trapped. Bear Claw had “proved” his honesty in this matter. Crazy Rifle (that would be me) had done likewise. Yet the two stories could not both be true. How to resolve this conundrum?
“They about done deciding whether to fill me full of arrows or jist stake me out fer the snow snakes?” I murmered quietly, barely loud enough fer Believer to hear.
The big man squeezed my knee. No words, but I got the message. And yes, it did comfort me some, knowing he was there and had my back. Up to a point, he did. There were seven bands of Piegan gathered here now, specially fer this trial. Either a young warrior from a respected family would lose big today, or a white man would. Neither was a sanguine prospect fer these people. The decisions made here today could not be made lightly.
I thought about the way my possession of the carbine had come to the attention of the Blackfeet. I had come to the aid of my friend, Tall Pine, and killed the chief among his Kootenai enemies with one wild ricochet shot.
No good deed goes unpunished. What goes around comes around. He who lives by the gun dies by the gun. Pride goeth before a fall.
I got a million of ’em.
The jury was in. Bear Breath, Chief to the band that was home to the young hater, Bear Claw, informed me of the court’s decision. My Blackfoot was getting a bit better with a lot of help from Believer’s Cheyenne wife, Laughing Brook, so I purty much understood everything he said.
Wished I hadn’t, though.
“Frightens Enemy,” he intoned, refusing to call me either of my later names, “There must be trial by battle. You and Bear Claw must fight.”
There was more, mainly a lot of stuff about this being a fight without weapons, but a potential fight to the death. There were signals if one wished to surrender, but the victor was not obligated to accept that yielding.
Bear Claw would kill me anyway; mercy was not in his nature. For my part, scared as I was, I remained clear on one thing: Death before dishonor.
Fer an early December day, the weather was warm and pleasant, jist cool enough to keep the snow from melting. We faced each other across a ring some thirty feet or more in diameter, a very thick ring composed of every able bodied Blackfoot man, woman or child living within a two days’ ride of Bear Breath’s encampment.
Much of the discussion in council had revolved around the unfairness of the match. The deck was stacked against Bear Claw, some said–only a few, but his father and uncles said this–because he lacked the full use of one foot. The deck was stacked against me, many said–my friend Tall Pine, and at least a dozen others–because I was five years younger, forty pounds lighter, lacking the combat training every Piegan male learned from infancy, and a weakling white boy to boot.
You’re telling me.
Believer had been coaching me in the fighting arts, but…
Bear Claw rushed me.
You’d not think a hamstrung fellow could move like that, but despite his sort of froggy looking side-hop-hobble style, he closed the distance between us right sudden-like. I sidestepped to his left, looking to work him around that hamstrung ankle, but he was ready fer that. How the Hell he changed course in mid-lunge like he done, I’ll never know.
What I do know is, before I could land a blow or really even think what to do next, he had me in a bear hug. The nasty thought went through my mind that if I was a girl, I’d be getting raped standing up right about now. He sucked that hold in tight, and I seen too late there was no way I could touch the strength of the man. Jist that quick, despite having bones purty much made of rubber at that age, I could feel my spine getting ready to part ways with itself. Equally bad, I was blacking out. He had me hugged up so tight, there weren’t even a smidgen of air getting to my lungs.
“Heel cutter!” He snarled in my ear, dead certain I was done for–not realizing he’d jist signed his own death warrant with them two words. Heel cutter!
Of course, I’d cut his ankle, not his heel, but this weren’t no time fer semantics. I figured I didn’t have but maybe three, four seconds before I went unconscious. It would have to do.
Now, this renegade was, as has been explained before, thick and strong–but not all that tall. In fact, young as I was, I topped him by and inch or two when we were both standing upright. Plus,my legs are proportionately long, compared to the rest of my body.
I was seeing spots in front of my eyes by the time I got it done, but I got it done. Kicked my moccasined right foot forward, sliding past his left leg until I’d reached the maximum possible extension–whereupon I reversed course, bringing the heel down, in toward myself, with everything I had left. Which was considerable, seeing as I’d been tramping these mountains and/or straddling Laughing Brook’s mustang fer months now.
My flying heel slammed into the back of his left ankle, dead center in the scar from where I’d cut him with Believer’s skinning knife no more than a month back.
He screamed–not quite like he had on the mountain when I’d sliced him, but part of that had been the pure surprise of it–and his arms flew wide open of their own accord. I hit the snow rolling, knowing this respite was going to be brief; I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
But I was fast getting back on my feet, I was sucking winter air into my lungs fer all it was worth…and I was pissed.
Bear Claw had fallen, too, but was back up on one knee with murder in his eye when I kicked him in the face. “Woman burner!” I roared, and glory be, it was a man-roar. My voice was finally changing, and about time. Laughing Brook could have died in that cabin, and this piece of offal had not cared. “Honorless!” The other foot missed, taking him in the throat, dropping him back onto the snow where he writhed on his back, gasping fer air. He flailed his arms, trying to catch my feet, but my feet were flying. They were the talons of stooping eagles, the hooves of stampeding buffalo, the thunder of a mountain avalanche. “Disgrace to the People!” It was as though it was me who had been born Piegan and he…he did not qualify for admission to the band.
It was over. I stood spread-legged, my chest heaving as it had after killing the cougar. There had been no blackout this time; I remembered every split second of everything I’d done. But I had no more emotion left in me than I’d had that time. I’d jist stomped a man to death, a man a third again my size and near a third older’n me, and I felt nothing. What was left of Bear Claw, nephew to the medicine man, Groundhog, was…pulp.
Was this what people meant by that old saying, “I’ll pound you to a pulp?” Apparently. Maybe. I didn’t know.
Chief Bear Breath approached, stopped in front of me, spoke some brief bit of gibberish I could never have understood in a million years, pounded his own fist once over his own heart, and moved on. He was followed by Long Walker, who repeated the mini-ceremony–whatever it was–and then by each and every elder present.
We were well away from the Piegan encampment, choosing to challenge the darkness. Laughing Brook waited at the cabin, entirely unable to know whether her husband or “her warrior” would return at all, let alone in one piece. Besides, these people, the Blackfeet, would need me to be gone fer a time. The women of Bear Claw’s family, his mother and sisters and aunts, were keening already. What I had done was necessary, but they would not thank me for it.
My ribs ached like a sumbitch and my back was a bit sore, but I was alive. There was that. The elders had warned Bear Claw not to smoke the pipe if he’d been lying, or his days would be numbered.
Purty small number at that.
“Believer,” I asked my mentor, noting my voice was more than a bit hoarse, “What was that thing they said? You know, when they thumped their chest at me after the fight?”
“You didn’t understand the words?”
“No. I don’t think I was exactly back in the world yet.”
“Unh. Not surprising. What they said was, You are Crazy Rifle.”
“Huh.” I thought a moment. “I don’t guess I’ll be changing names again any time soon.” I reached down to touch the stock of the Hall carbine where it rode in the fringed bucksin scabbard. “This one…a man had to give his life fer me to earn it. Crazy Rifle. It feels kind of permanent.”
The mountain man said nothing about that, but I knew he understood. In the near distance, coyotes howled, starting their night hunt. “Pass the word, brothers”, I thought at them. One strong fellow gave a quick “Yip!” in acknowledgement.
“Thank you,” I thought back.
Turning my attention to the stunning Cheyenne girl who held my heart regardless of her marriage to my mentor, I thought strongly, “We’re headed home!”
In my inner vision, her image flooded with joy and relief as her two men rode through the night, coming her way.