We were watchful fer danger as always, but other than that, I was doing some deep thinking. Last night, Tam had told me a tale of a Life Decision, namely how he’d come to decide to become a cowboy at the age of thirteen. Some folks would consider that a mite young, but not me. I’d been working cattle from the day the midwife cut my umbilical cord, or close enough to it.
Born in the saddle, as they say.
Here I’d been thinking to quit working the Chisholm Trail after one more drive, my jug-eared partner had been doing the same, but neither of us had wanted to spill the beans to the other.
Well, the cards were all on the table now. Thing is, I still wasn’t sure who was holding what.
“Tam,” I began, “I don’t know how much you’ve got salted away, and I’m not asking now. But I do know my own numbers, what the bank in Cheyenne is holding fer me, and it’s going to make setting up my ranch downright…tricky. There’s enough fer a fair piece of grazing land with good water if I’m careful I don’t git skinned in the buying. But then there’d be nothing left to stock the place.
“If it was like Texas a few years back, I could maybe pull a Sam Maverick and jist round up every calf that ain’t been marked. But anywhere I’d consider locating, there ain’t that many unbranded critters running loose, and getting caught at it is a good way to get strung up from the nearest cottonwood tree, anyway.
He looked at me as if I’d jist explained to him that a black funnel cloud means a tornado and rattlesnakes don’t always rattle before they kill you. I hastened to my point.
“What I’m trying to say is…would you consider the two of us throwing in together? You know, pool our money so’s we could do it right, set up a ranch worth founding?”
I swear to God, Tam didn’t answer right away, but his grulla turned its head to look back at me when I said that. Whether in approval or disapproval, though, I’d no clue. The silence went on long enough, I begun to think I’d said something out of iine.
“Of course, iffen you’ve got yer plans made….”
“It ain’t that,” he said, “Or at least, not exactly. Let me put it this way. My money’s not in cash right now–”
“–and I can’t give you a straight answer till we hit Abilene at trail’s end. There’s a fellow there I trust, near as much as I do you. Which is considerable. Despite your tendency to git irritated over the small things in life.
“Anyway, I’ll need to talk to Gregory before I know where things are at fer me, and it has to be face to face. We might trust each other, but we don’t trust the U.S. Mail or the telegraph, either one.
“Huh. So you’re telling me maybe…but yes or no will have to wait till the last minute. Right?”
“That’s it exactly.”
I felt a giddy sense of relief. I might not have to part ways with this jug-eared, long-winded storyteller after all. I’ve always been able to put a good face on most things if there’s the smallest peg of hope on which to hang my hat. Fer now, this would do jist fine.
Unless he was lying, trying to let me down easy.
Nah. That wasn’t Tam’s way.
“We ain’t got much sun left,” he observed. Captain Obvious. “But we should be able to reach Hook’s Crossing before the last light’s gone. Eh?”
“Sounds good to me,” I agreed, suddenly looking forward to sleeping indoors fer a night. “As long as you got a story that’ll tickle Janet’s fancy.” Janet Hook ran a little place with bunks and meals fer travelers. No bath, but then I didn’t see much need of one. I was dead serious about the importance of the right story, though. Last time we’d stopped there, some idiot cardsharp who fancied himself a storyteller had dropped in while we were waiting on our supper. The fool had started his telling without being asked, fueled by a fair bit of rotgut we found in his saddlebags.
His “story” had prominently featured a bawdy lady he called a Hooker, and Janet’s man mountain of a son had taken offense on the spot. One thing had led to another, culminating in the gambler committing suicide by popping one of them spring guns out of his sleeve.
Near as we could tell when we dumped him in the sagebrush, he’d caught both barrels of buckshot from George Hooker’s Greener, two slugs from Tam’s .45 Colt, and one from my .44 Russian by the time his body slammed up against the back wall.
It’s not nice to mess with Janet Hook.
“Believe I know the perfect story at that.” Tam smiled, remembering. “Janet’s always had a real soft spot fer cats. “I reckon she’ll like the tale of Lynnette Lynx jist fine.”
The snows seemed to have stopped coming, at least fer a time. It was late in the day, Believer was about done patching a hole in the cabin’s roof where a couple of the shakes had ripped loose during the last storm, and I was finally finished with my woodcutting chores. Laughing Brook was picking up pieces of the split firewood–bending over again, which always drove me crazy beyond belief–when I heard her give a sharp yet clearly delighted exclamation.
She dropped her armload of kindling. When she straightened and turned toward me, she had something tiny and furry cradled in her arms. At first I thought it was maybe a rabbit, but the color wasn’t right.
Well, I’ll be–
“Wild kitten,” she corrected me, and I seen she was right. The little ball of gray fur looked barely old enough to have its eyes open. How had it survived long enough to end up–and then I remembered the dream.
“Medicine Coyote brought him,” I told her.
Now, plenty of folks disbelieve me when I tell that tale, saying the coyote would have eaten any baby cat it found, not carried it to humans to save its life. But the doubters ain’t seen everything that goes on in this world, and they don’t know Medicine Coyote.
The Cheyenne girl was glowing. Motherhood, I figured, and had a sudden knowingness this would likely be the first bobcat ever raised inside a log cabin. Except it wasn’t a bobcat.
“Canada lynx,” I heard Believer say. He’d come up behind me so soft-footed I hadn’t even heard him coming, Which didn’t bother me none; the big man could sneak up on purty much anything.
Right then was when we heard a high yipping sound that didn’t come from no coyote. My Piegan friend Tall Pine had come to call and was politely announcing his arrival.
“Her name is Lynette,” Laughing Brook announced, watching the kitten prove it was old enough to stomach raw meat after all.
“Lynette, eh?” Believer mused, puffing on his pipe. “Lynette Lynx, I presume.”
“She?” I hadn’t even thought about gender.
Tall Pine, seated beside me on the floor, looked somber. He wasn’t usually that way; I knew him to be of a generally cheerful and sunny disposition, one of the most instinctively optimistic men–red or white–I’d ever known.
He dropped the name like it was one of them military artillery shells, and with much the same effect from the way the others reacted. My beautiful never-again lover sucked in her breath so hard it must’ve hurt. Believer simply said,
I couldn’t stand it. “Who–or what–is Lynx Killer?”
Tall Pine got the job of explaining. “He is a renegade Cree, outcast from his own people. For many seasons, he was a war chief among them, respected by his people and a fierce enemy to the Blackfeet. Our northern brothers the Bloods had much trouble with him.
“Until one day during the Moon of Deep Snows. Most war parties begin with a dream. He was not called Lynx Killer then. He dreamed of a mother lynx who led him to a place of deep snows. Below this place was an encampment of our people, the Piegan. The lynx said to him, This is your destiny.
When he awoke, he explained to the Cree, “I have had this dream. Because of this, I am going to war.”
“It is winter,” his people wisely pointed out.
“I must follow my dream,” he replied, and he did. Because he was respected, many Cree followed to war upon the Piegan.
“But his war medicine, which had never failed him before, failed him then. The sentries of Rattlesnake’s band saw his party coming from a great distance. An ambush was prepared, and many Cree scalps were taken by the Blackfeet. He was not wounded, but his power among the Cree vanished as mist under the morning sun.
“Some feel his mind snapped. He blamed the lynx for misleading him and determined to do a thing that is not to be done. He vowed to become Lynx Killer, and to remove every last lynx from the land of the living.
“We have heard differing versions of what happened next. Some say he abandoned his people. Some say they drove him out. From that day to this, Lynx Killer the Cree has been a great enemy to the Lynx People.”
The young Piegan war chief looked fondly down at Lynette, extending his fingers down to stroke the little feline’s soft gray fur. She hissed and spat at him, and he laughed in delight. Then, sobering, he finished his telling.
“The Lynx People are strong and wise. Their women are good mothers. The mother of Lynette would not have been caught by wolves or allowed herself to be caught away from her babies by a storm. Only one thing could have taken this one’s mother from her. That thing is Lynx Killer the Cree.”
We all thought about that fer a while.
Eventually, it fell to me to break the silence.
“I will hunt this Lynx Killer.”
Tall Pine dropped a hand on my shoulder. “My friend, we will hunt this Lynx Killer. I, too, have had a dream.”
It took us two days to prepare and eight days of hunting to find the rat bastard. We were on foot. He rode a big Appaloosa he must have once stolen from the Nez Perce, who bred them, but we had the advantage. The horse floundered trhough the deep snows, struggling to make progress. Tall Pine and I skimmed over the surface on chokecherry-wood snowshoes.
He saw us coming from a quarter mile away, bursting out of the treeline like two dark, avenging demons. And he knew, I think, that his time had come. Perhaps not; the sound that uttered from his throat was a standard war cry and not, Tall Pine told me later, the death song known to the Cree. Yet still I think he knew. He was no longer Cree, but a lost and twisted Soul blaming the Lynx People fer his own failures. Perhaps he no longer knew the differences between songs.
His quirt slashed down at his mount’s haunch, attempting to charge us, and the horse struggled but could make little headway.
Seeing it was no use, he lifted his rifle–but the weapon was too cold and refused to fire.
On a dead run, I retrieved the Hall carbine from the scabbard that rode upon my back, but I did not attempt to shoot. Not yet. And not while running.
We separated, coming at our enemy from two sides, but Lynx Killer, twisted Soul that he was, could not be confused so easily. With his rifle useless, he calmly strung his bow in the face of our charge, and I had to admire his courage. Or his insanity. Whichever.
His first arrow flew toward Tall Pine, and missed.
His second arrow flew toward me, and did not miss. I looked at the shaft piercing my left arm and kept going. We were closing on the Cree; there was no time to dawdle.
Now. Tall Pine and I were one, stopping our headlong charge at the same instant, dropping to one knee, firing our rifles. My carbine’s .52 caliber slug, released a split second earlier than the ball from Tall Pine’s smoothbore, knocked Lynx Killer from the back of the Appaloosa so that he lay bleeding in the snow.
What got into me at that moment, I cannot tell you. Many a red man would understand, I suspect, but my actions and thoughts were not those of a civilized person. The Cree was down, but he was not out. Tall Pine was coming , but I was closer and reached the dying enemy of the Lynx People first. He had lost his bow, but his knife was in his hand, slashing at me as the buttstroke from my rifle smashed his fist. The blade went flying, and so did I, scooping both it and the man’s quirt up from the snow, turning to slash his snarling face once, twice, three times with the braided leather.
Then I turned, grabbed the Appaloosa’s war bridle, and leaped aboard. The horse snorted, tried to shy and to buck, but could do nothing in the deep snow. I brandished my rifle high in the air, screaming to the eagles circling overhead.
In white man terms, I was out of my freaking mind. When I came back to Earth, Tall Pine had taken Lynx Killer’s head, his froze-up rifle, bow, arrows, shield–everything I’d left unclaimed. Everybody talks about scalping like it’s a big thing, but fer truly proving yer story of counting coup on a dangerous enemy, nothing beats the head fer irrefutable evidence.
It took us another full day and a half to git back to the cabin, by which time our belly buttons were sure enough gnawing on our backbones. Our trail rations had been gone fer two days before we caught up to our quarry. We’d been dang near starved enough to throw in a winter vision quest right along with the hunt itself.
After my friend had rested up and feasted a bit, he’d naturally headed back to Bear Breath’s encampment. Fer bragging rights, it would be good to have me as a witness when he was recounting his coups, and vice versa, but the head of Lynx Killer would do fer now.
The first nght after he was gone, I’ll not forget. The cabin was dark, warm and quiet, nobody moving, not even a mouse…until I felt a small, warm body tuck under my chin. Lynette Lynx was purring her little heart out. Later, I had a dream. An adult lynx, stunningly beautiful from her tufted ears to her snowshoe paws, approached me as I sat beneath a tree in the snow, doing nothing but enjoying the night. She softly nosed my cheek. Within my mind, I heard the words, “Thank you”.
When my eyes snapped open in the darkness of the cabin, my wounded and wrapped left arm snuggling the wild kitten up under my chin, I was crying like a baby.