My dogs were talking. Especially the right, where it felt like a blister had broken and was more or less filling the boot with my precious blood.
Precious to me, anyway.
The hike to Clarence Jackson’s CJ Bar ranch had ended up requiring camping fer one night along the way. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, except getting them boots back on in the morning–after first shaking out any unwelcome guests, naturally–had been more’n a bit of a tussle. Drovers don’t much cotton to replacing thousand-pound equines with shank’s mare.
Of course, when a low-life, drygulching Comanchero shoots your palomino plumb out from under you, it’s that or grow roots where you stand.
At least he was a dead Comanchero. May he rot in Hell.
Tam, as I would’ve done in his place, had offered to share his still-healthy grulla, but I’d refused and then couldn’t break after sticking my nose in the air at him like that. At least he didn’t offer again, leaving me to my misery, slogging along with my saddle over my shoulder while he rode in comfort.
He was good that way.
I stood straight, though, without a hint of my troubles showing on my face. CJ was a good man, not about to leave me on foot, but he’d also been a horse trader fer some years prior to setting up his own place. He’d clean out my poke and take the bag to boot, leaving me with enough pony to keep me alive but worthless fer punching cows, iffen he got half a chance.
He was good that way.
Molly Jackson put on a feed at high noon which filled us up purty much to the brim. Topped off with a better pot of coffee than we’d ever managed on the trail, I was about as logy as a rattler that’s swallowed an entire rabbit. That, too, was part and parcel of the dual nature of things here at the CJ. Clarence and Molly were two of a kind, hospitable to a fault and looking fer every angle, all at the same time.
“Well, boys, shall we mosey on out to the corral and see what’s what?”
“Why not? We know you’ve got the finest riding stock fer miles around, CJ.”
He worked his chaw around a bit, spat a gob that hit the spittoon -spang!- dead center, and drily observed, “I’ve got the only riding stock fer miles around.”
“There is that,” I admitted.
Young Sandra–Sandy to one and all–piped up, put in her two cents worth. “I’d take a look at the pinto, were I you.”
When she done that, I kind of forgot about my foot miseries fer a bit, because several things come to my attention all in one moment. CJ blinked. Molly Jackson started to frown, caught herself, and smoothed her features back in place. And Sandy…had growed up some.
Part of that didn’t mean nothing, of course. Everybody grows up or dies young, one way or the other. What was her last name? She weren’t no Jackson, I remembered that much. Orphaned child born to Molly’s sister, come to live with her aunt and uncle after her folks had died. Three, four years ago that was.
She did fill out them jeans some different from the last time Tam and I’d been through this way, though. No denying that. And she’d always had a habit of saying what she thought, as open and honest as the Jacksons were cunning and crafty. If she said the pinto was worth a looksee, then the critter was the best they’d have fer sale.
Neither CJ nor Molly much appreciated her spilling the beans like that. I started grinning, inside where the horse trader couldn’t see.
Tam held his peace till the CJ headquarters had plumb disappeared behind us. Then we looked at each other and busted out laughing so hard my new mount spooked and pitched a fit.
“Yee-haw-w-w-w-!” I yelled in sheer exuberance, fanning the horse with my hat, showing off like I was some eighteen year old kid again.
The grulla jist kept striding along, cocking one ear at us to keep track of the proceedings but otherwise unfazed. The tale teller’s transportation had seen the elephant; he wasn’t going to git overly excited about normal cowboy stuff.
When the black and white spotted critter figured he’d made his point and lined back out on the trail, I started running my mouth. “No disrespect to Sunny’s memory, partner, but this is some piece of horseflesh.” He was, too, a good sixteen-two at the withers, quick as a cat, with some serious bottom to him or I missed my guess.
Actually, I didn’t have to guess, nor road test the critter, neither. Purty young Sandy knew, and that girl didn’t lie.
“She must give her aunt & uncle pure fits.” Tam grinned, finally starting to talk again. Uncharacteristically, he hadn’t said two words during the entire negotiations between me and CJ Jackson. I thought maybe it was fer spite after I’d refused his offer of a lift on his horse when mine had been shot. Let me find out how it was, dealing with the horse trader.
Nobody had counted on the girl.
“Reckon she does,” I agreed, noting not fer the first time that her image was floating in my inner vision. Sun-gold hair, snub nose, freckles, and them sea-green eyes that seemed to be laughing and seeing right into a fellow at the same time. Right now, she was smiling.
We pulled up fer a moment so’s Tam could fish his little telescope out of a saddlebag and glass the horizon. When we got going again, he observed,
“You do know she’s set her cap fer you.”
That brought me up short. “Fer me? Why do you say that?”
“Oh, I dunno. Screwing the Jacksons over to get you a solid mount fer cheap–how’s that fer starters?”
“Hey, I paid a fair price!”
“Yep. And with Clarence Jackson, getting a bronc fer a fair price is roughly the same as skinning the man alive. By his lights, you took him to the cleaners. All thanks to the girl.”
“Guess she did help a little.”
He snorted. “A little? Let me count the ways, Dawson. Number one, she told you which horse to buy before you even looked at ’em. Number two, every time CJ tried extolling the virtues of a different crowbait, she jumped right in and told you what was wrong with it. Number three–”
“Okay, okay, point conceded.” This turn in the conversation was starting to make me nervous. “But that don’t have to mean she’s got me lined up in her sights.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “But you mark my words. When she’s alone in her room tonight, where nobody can see, I’ll lay a dollar to a doughnut hole she starts practicing writing her new name. Mrs. Dawson Trask. Sandra Trask. Or, for her more intimate friends, Sandy Trask.”
“Time to change the subject,” I told him, “iffen you’re done poking at me.”
“I’m not poking, partner. Jist saying. You mark my words; you ain’t heard the last of Sandy whatever-her-last-name-is. But sure, we can talk about something else. This reminds me of the time I learned the hard way jist how persistent females can be.
When we got back to Bear Breath’s band, my friend Tall Pine talked me into hanging around fer a bit.
“There is plenty of room in my father’s lodge,” he pointed out, “and you are more than welcome. Besides, I’m getting tired of all the girls casting admiring glances my way after the killing of Lynx Killer. I could use another target for their affections.”
Or words to that effect. Blackfoot and English don’t cross-translate all that well. I knew he didn’t mean the females were climbing all over him or giving him presents. That wouldn’t be their way. What he must mean, I figured, is that when he made his rounds of the camp, all prettied up with his best beadwork buckskins and greased hair and all that…wait a minute.
“What’s wrong with that?”
He gave me his Stoic Red Man look. “Stay a few days. You’ll see.”
So I stayed…and I saw.
At first, I had no clue. Our days and nights were spent in feasting until we could hold no more and in recounting our war exploits until we could boast no more. Since both of us possessed considerable capacity in either case, it took a while to reach satiation. Frankly, it’s not that easy to git tired of having a bunch of powerful warriors admiring you as one of their peers.
Eventually, though, after about the third day, I started noticing. We’d parade easy-like around the camp, pretending not to notice the women working, while of course we was watching like hawks out of the corners of our eyes. Plus, if I seen a girl glance up shyly from working a fresh deerhide to stare a moment at Tall Pine, I’d tell him about it first chance we got. He done the same fer me. I had a problem, though.
“My friend,” I said one time when we chanced to have a few moments to ourselves, “I am troubled. I have seen girls look at you with obvious interest, especially Sparrow and that buxom one, Leaps Water. But you are telling me that most women follow me with their eyes, from little girls barely walking to toothless grandmothers. This cannot be.”
“Why not?” We’d escaped the hustle and bustle of the camp, partly in order to have jist such a talk as this. Dismounting from our horses, we squatted in the snow to study a set of tracks. Pine marten, going about its business.
“You are no ordinary warrior,” he pointed out, “in the eyes of the Piegan woman. First of all, you are white, and none of them has ever seen a white man accepted by the People who fights like one of the People. That alone would mark you out as worthy of interest.
“But there is much more. You ride a great rump-spotted stallion, an Appaloosa. Your stories, while told only to the men, are passed on to the women almost before they are out of your mouth. You are young and healthy and your coups are many.” He shrugged. “It would be a greater wonder, I should think, if the women did not follow you with their eyes.”
“Huh. Well…I guess I can see that, now that you’ve explained it some. At least it’s not my magnetic personality.”
“What is this magnetic personality?”
“Uh…means I draw them to me. Like, they’d still be looking if I hadn’t killed anybody or didn’t have a fancy horse to ride.”
He laughed. “Crazy Rifle, you cannot be serious! No one can separate his deeds from himself!”
It took some thinking before I seen he was right.
I struggled with the girl. She had done what only men and boys did, slit the lodge skins with a knife and slithered inside like some sex-starved snake. Only the darkness and the even breathing from my hosts had so far saved me from total humilation. She was strong.
Tall Pine was right, I realized. Being the recipient of affections from the Piegan women was more curse than blessing. Most of them lived with honor, jist as did most of the men. Fer this one, whoever she was–and I had a purty fair idea–lust ruled.
I had become a sex toy.
Or at least, I was about to, iffen a miracle didn’t happen. Stark naked herself, she was inside my blankets and inside my buckskins with the sort of grip on a man that’ll bring him to reason. My struggle–which was fast losing ground–had to be silent, which put me at a fatal disadvantage. Iffen I so much as sucked in extra wind, Tall Pine and his parents would awaken, and the jig would be up. I would be party to dishonoring their lodge, bedding an unmarried woman…at least I hoped she was unmarried…under their roof and their noses.
Losing the battle? Cowboy, I had purty much lost the battle when I heard the most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard in my life. Tall Pine’s father, Long Walker, spoke into the darkness,
“I cannot sleep, wife. Stoke up the fire and find me something to eat.”
Miss Tipi Creeper froze fer jist a second. Then she let go of her hold like my equipment was red hot–which by this time it purty much was–and scooted outa there in a flash through the slit in the lodge wall, leaving only a subzero draft behind to mark her passing.
I quick-like yanked my bucksins back up where they belonged and waited fer the fire to shed some light on the situation. When it did, I found myself looking at all three of my tipi-mates, and them looking back at me.
“Crazy Rifle,” Long Walker said, “Such a thing should not have happened.”
Yeah, I sort of knew that. Before I could blurt out an apology, though, he set me straight.
“To have a guest under my roof assualted in such a fashion is an evil thing. You have my apology. It will not happen again.”
I must have been purty rattled, considering how I responded to that. “You know what’s the worst of it? The great White Blackfoot warrior Crazy Rifle was getting his ass kicked. She was stronger’n me.”
My host threw back his head and laughed so loud he must’ve woke up half the camp. “The women of the Piegan work from sunup to sunset and beyond,” he explained when he could catch his breath, “building muscle, bone, and sinew. Welcome to my world!”
Or words to that effect. Like I said, Blackfoot and English don’t cross-translate all that well.