The trail south had been too quiet. Out here, if there’s nothing trying to kill you at the moment, heads up. You’re overdue. A lot of tenderfeet die early that way, lulled to inattention by the appearance of peaceful solitude on the Plains.
Truth is, you ain’t never alone. Not really, or at least not fer long.
Thankfully, neither Tam nor I qualify as any kind of tenderfoot. During our years of working together, each covering the other’s back, he’s caught the scent of danger on the wind quicker than I have a few times, but mostly we’re purty much on the same page.
When we seen the girl, we both felt our neck hairs rise.
She was jist sitting there along the side of the trail, wearing a dress that looked like it belonged back East, covered in dust and hanging her head like she was either plumb worn out or totally giving up on the world or both.
We didn’t even bother to share a look. This was trouble with a capital T, and I knew what that looked like now, having actually learned to read.
Where would they most likely be?
There, maybe. Looked from the lay of the land like there might be a bit of a hollow behind that bush. And there, on the left….
I began rehearsing my moves. Tam was better than me at this sort of thing, faster with his .45 Colt than I was with my .44 Russian and likely a quicker thinker to boot. But I’d stayed alive this long, to the disappointment of a fair number of folks.
It would have to do.
We hadn’t said a word, but when we were within striking distance of the bait woman–who kept her head down–all Hell broke loose. Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before. You got a better term for it, let me know.
There were muzzle flashes everywhere. Not really, but that’s how it seemed at the time. I was nearest, so it was me that dove down off the right side of my palomino, jerking the Winchester from its scabbard enroute. A hundred eighty pounds of trail-hard cowboy smashed into that poor, innocent little female, knocking the bonnet off her head as she flattened under the impact.
Then I raised that Winchester in two hands and smashed her skull.
And rolled, fast. Tam was still atop his grulla, tall in the saddle, smoke pouring out of his shooter, and there was enough of that black powder billowed up over both of them hiding places I’d spotted to tell me I’d been right.
Jist that fast, the shooting was over. But we hadn’t got off scot free. Sunny was down, and as anybody who’s ever forked a cayuse knows, a horse that’s taken a bullet is done for. The rat bastards had done killed him. The only good thing, iffen you could call it that, was the fact that I didn’t need to finish the job; my flashy palomino gelding, my best damned friend outside of the tale teller himself and the best trail mount I’d ever owned, had taken a round right through the brain pan.
I can git a mite irritable at such times.
With barely a glance at the body on the ground–it wasn’t going anywhere–I strode toward the nearest hiding place, thumbing back the hammer on the Winchester.
“Dawson,” Tam spoke quietly, but I ignored my partner. He’d seen me like this before, knew he’d not get through to me, but needed to know he’d at least tried. I understood that.
Nobody shoots my horse out from under me and gits away with it. Nobody.
There’d been three of ’em. The tale teller’s .45 had done fer two, but at least I’d had the satisfaction of blowing the brains out of the one he’d only wounded.
I was over my mad. Almost.
“Comancheros, all right,” I told my partner. “Their trade wagon’s over in that little thicket. Two crowbaits on their last legs, not a saddle mount one.”
“Figures.” Tam nodded. “Trade with the Comanche must not be too good this year. This bunch ain’t the first we’ve heard of that’s turned to banditry. Think we should bury ’em?”
“Not unless you feel strong about it. That fellow in the dress might last long enough to git the point across to a few other travelers before he’s plumb gone to the vultures.” Not likely, but you never knew.
That settled, we finished up the rest of our business in short order and moved on. Sunny’s final resting place, where we’d drug him away from the trail to give his carcass as much privacy as we could, was shielded enough from the sky there was at least a chance the coyotes would git a bite to eat before the vultures figured it out.
We turned the team loose to wander as they would. I could have saddled one of the swaybacked glue factories and tried riding him, I suppose, but the humiliation of being seen on such a critter was jist too much to handle.
Tam offered to swap out, take turns on the grulla, or even to double up, but I weren’t having none of it. I can be stubborn that way.
“What’s that?” He asked as we made our way toward the Jackson ranch. It wasn’t far, prob’ly less than twenty miles. Unlike most drovers, I could hike that distance in riding boots and not whine about it fer eternity. Never mind the blisters.
“I was saying, I wished them Comancheros woulda come back to life so’s I coulda shot ’em all over again.”
He considered that. “No, you don,t,” he said at length, “and I’ll tell you why. When we git to Jackson’s place and haggle you a decent ride, I will.
“You need to hear the tale of the Dream War.”
I woke up with a gasp. The nightmares were getting worse.
Laughing Brook glanced over from where she was pouring Believer’s first cup of morning coffee. “Bad night?”
“Bad enough,” I admitted. Lynette Lynx was playing around the Cheyenne girl’s feet, growling and pouncing at her moccasins. The big mountan man who owned this place was jist sitting up, my noisy awakening having disturbed his slumbers a few seconds earlier than usual. “Still purty much the same dream, too. It’s gotten to where I’m at war from the time I lay down my head.”
“Seems like. Looks like him, anyway.” The nightmares had begun the second night after Tall Pine and I’d returned with the head of the renegade Cree and everything he’d owned worth keeping, Sometimes the ghost enemy of the Lynx People would still be riding the big Appaloosa stud that was now mine, sometimes not. Sometimes he still had his head, sometimes not.
But every time, time and time and time again, we would fight. Throughout the night, we warred upon each other, until by morning light, I was more exhausted than when I’d closed my eyes. I must have killed the rat bastard a hunnert times by now–Hell, a thousand times–and still he kept coming. The sumbitch jist wouldn’t stay dead. Not in my dreams, he wouldn’t. I shook my head, trying to clear it fer the day. “Believer,” I said, “I need to git this thing figured out. I ain’t never had a dream one about Bear Claw since I killed his ass, nor that Kootenai war chief, neither. Something is wrong. Bad wrong.”
The old man stretched, then reached fer his clothing. Laughing Brook had the cabin nice and warm already, so her men–meaning her husband and me, her never-again lover–could dress in comfort.
“I agree, Tam. You broke his medicine, such as it was. You and Tall Pine did. He shouldn’t have enough power left, even crazy as he was, to be going on lke this. Wish I knew the answer, which I don’t. But maybe there’s one who does.”
I looked at him, daring to hope. “And that would be?”
“One of the Piegan medicine men.”
“Huh. The only one of them I know is Groundhog, uncle to Bear Claw. Can’t see that hateful old fart helping me out.”
“Nor can I,” he grinned, “But your friend Tall Pine has a heap of uncles. One of them is a medicine man with Rattlesnake’s band. I ain’t never met him, but his rep with the Blackfeet is way up there.”
“I did meet him, once.” Laughing Brook put in, bending down to ruffle Lynette Lynx’s ears as she said it. The kitten immediately flipped over on her back and began terrorizing the girl’s hand with a mouthful of teeth and all four feet. Amazingly, the animal never bit down and never extended her claws when the two of them played like that. “He is a good man, full of honor and wisdom. I think he could help you, my warrior.”
“Oh, by the way, I’m with child.”
Tall Pine and I sat with Yellow Bird in the Dream Lodge. The small tipi–small by Piegan standards, but still enclosing plenty of space fer three seated men and a fire pit–had been hastily put together by the women of Rattlesnake’s band, jist for me. Or, more precisely, jist fer the revered healer who had freely admitted to one and all that my Dream War case was a tough one.
On the long ride from Believer’s cabin to the winter encampment of Bear Breath’s band, I’d had much time to think. Except when the Appaloosa found shallow enough snow under his feet to duck his head and go to bucking, that is. I’d learned a few things about my horse on that journey, and a few things about myself.
The Appaloosa, I now knew, is a stubborn breed. This one did not change his ways easily. But he also had a sense of humor, and I suspected he liked me better than his previous rider. The cavalry saddle, the best of those left behind by the three Army deserters I’d scared off with my night screaming, made it possible to keep a leg on each side and my ass in the middle most of the time, but he’d managed to throw me once. Smack dab headfirst into a snowbank.
When I’d extracted myself and looked up, he was jist standing there, looking down at me all innocent-like as if to say, Why are you playing in the snow?
He was teaching me to be a bronc rider, fer sure.
Always, I tried not to think about Laughing Brook and the child growing in her belly. It might be mine, or it might be Believer’s–certainly them two practiced making babies more than enough fer it to be his. I didn’t know, wasn’t even sure I wanted to know. But them two would find out, come midsummer when that little one popped outa there. No one with eyes in their head would ever mistake one of my offspring fer one of his or vice versa. We looked nothing alike–both white men, but that was about the end of it.
“It is time to go to war,” Yellow Bird said, bringing me back to the present with a bit of a jolt. “Remember what I have taught you.”
I nodded, and the three of us settled down in our blankets fer the night. It had to be us three, the healer had explained, and only us three. Tall Pine and I had killed Lynx Killer together. The medicine man might be able to help a bit. And that was it.
Falling asleep wasn’t hard. Drifting off, I made sure to keep my Hall carbine cradled in my right arm, my belt knife loose in its sheath, and my left hand atop the large leather pouch Yellow Bird had loaned me fer the occasion. These weapons would travel to the Dream World with me, available and ready fer use in my war with the ghost of Lynx Killer.
Except Yellow Bird didn’t think my attacker was really Lynx Killer, and neither did I. We simply had no way to be sure who was doing this evil thing.
It didn’t take long. This time, the snow had gone from the Dream World. We warred upon each other, Lynx-Killer-who-was-not and I. He leveled his rifle at me and fired. Perhaps he had caused this summer setting so that his weapon would not freeze; I did not know.
Nor did I care.
The bullet was pushed aside by my Shield, a defense I’d learned to “make happen” in this violent place, make it happen instantly, at need. The Shield vanished from my arm, and the Hall roared. The slug took my enemy in the chest and flattened him in the snow.
My dreams give no warning . Summer. Snow. One must adapt or die.
I approached the downed warrior, but slowly this time, with caution. Hundreds of times before in this world, he has been dead but not dead. Nor is he dead this time. When he springs from the ground, knife slashing, I fling the opened pouch toward him. A cloud of bright blue powder billows forth from the thing, covering my tormentor head to foot.
A strangled sound comes from the being.
I step back, reloading the carbine while I wait.
Lynx Killer is gone. In his place stands a shocked Piegan. No Cree at all. In his moment of hesitation, I hurl my words, the words that the medicine man Yellow Bird has given me. I hurl them with every ounce of force and derisive scorn I can muster. This person has been giving me serious trouble. I can muster a lot.
“Groundhog,” I sneer at him, “Your medicine is weak. You are old, and toothless, and feeble. Go back to gumming your stew meat, and trouble me no more.”
For emphasis, I shoot him once again. This time, the impact of the bullet carries with it the power of my Spirit, and Groundhog is blown into nothingness.
This man, I think, will not again invade my dreams.
Tall Pine worried the fire back to life. Yellow Bird sat quietly, waiting fer me to speak. Part of me wanted to laugh, seeing him playing the impassive, stoic red man so well, but that was only because I’d had a good night’s sleep fer the first time in weeks. Part of me wanted to laugh at eveything.
“Groundhog.” I explained, but mostly fer my friend’s benefit. The medicine man, I was pretty sure, had seen the whole thing.
“Ah.” Tall Pine thought about that. “We should have guessed.”
“I kind of did,” I admitted, “But I wasn’t sure.” I also wasn’t sure there’d been anything in that blue powder that was magical. It might well have been one of those tricky medicine man things designed to convince me I could unmask Groundhog the Deceiver. You know, the idea that knowing I could do it would have been enough, but the powder maybe jist made that knowing possible.
Man, did I have an appetite all of a sudden.
Now, If only I could figure out whose baby Laughing Brook was carrying.