We’d barely hit the trail fer the day’s ride when we heard the first shots.
“That’d be the Harris place.” .
“Yep.” Tam reached down to touch the butt of his Winchester 73, a twin to my own. Between us, with the feed tubes fully packed, we could spit out 30 rounds of .44-40 lead before reloading. I’d felt a touch of buyer’s remorse when I dug deep in my poke to pay fer the fancy rifle, but only fer a day or two. And certainly not at this moment. If them shots meant what we knew they did, we’d be needing every round we could chamber.
We settled the horses into an easy lope, a shade faster than a trot but some slower than a full gallop. Not even Joker and Smokey could make it all the way to Bob and Berta’s little bobwire and rattlesnake ranch going flat out.
Along the way, we kept straining our eyes fer enemies and our ears fer anything at all, relieved every time we heard the report of a rifle. If they were still shooting, our friends were still holding out.
When we topped the final rise, it was definitely still going on. Tam swung his grulla to the left and I went to the right, putting a dozen yards between us and skylining ourselves deliberately. We made some noise while we were at it. If there was one thing I’d learned from the tall tale teller, it’s that Indians are notional critters. We figured to give ’em the notion about five hundred cavalry troopers were coming thundering down the slope.
Except nobody on God’s green Earth coulda mistook our war cries fer U.S. Army. The sound coming out of my partner weren’t no white man yell, I’ll tell you that much. Piegan, no doubt. I glanced his way jist once on the way in, and I could see Crazy Rifle, the White Blackfoot warrior from where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam, riding to war.
Clothes make the man, my ass.
Chills run down my back, and I jist went with ’em. What sorta gibberish was coming from my side of the equation, I’ll have to leave fer others to tell, though I know I was yelling some. The Kiowa besieging the ranch house had managed to fire the barn and were generally raising all kinds of Hell, but smoke still puffed out at ’em. I seen one Indian go down, pony and all. Bob Harris had simply shot through the mustang, screw the warrior hanging down the far side. Let him see how he liked lying under the damn horse.
Crazy Rifle and I triggered our shooters almost at the same instant, leaning low and forward over the necks of our horses. Neither of them first rounds hit a Kiowa, but between our noisemaking and the dust we kicked up right in front of Blue Sky’s pony, we got their attention. Bob had jist dropped one of his warriors, and now new enemies were riding at him with a sincere lack of hesitation, shooting repeating rifles at that.
The marauding Indian decided It was time to go.
There were no Kiowa casualties left behind; even the man downed by Bob’s final shot had managed to struggle out from under his downed pony and leap up behind another rider. Which did not mean there were no Kiowa casualties. Between us, Tam and I had slumped at least three of the fleeing warriors over their ponies’ necks before our Winchesters were empty and the Indians were out of range.
Not bad fer firing from the back of horses moving flat-out over rough ground. Them red men better run!
I’d surely begun to see what Tam had meant when he told me Blue Sky was a bad Kiowa, though. And I was about to see even better than I would have wished, once we got inside the house.
“Easy, Bob,” I said, settling him into the buckboard as lightly as possible. Which weren’t all that simple with him shot through the gut, down low on the left, and half a dozen other places less dangerous but equally painful. The man only grunted, glassy eyed from shock but running on iron will.
Our biggest problem was Berta Harris, lady of the house. “You’ve got to go after them!” She wailed fer the umpteenth time, “They took my Sissy and my Laura!”
Also fer the umpteenth time, Tam replied gently. “Can’t be done, Berta. Bob needs a sawbones. You can handle the reins all right, but there’s no way we’re letting you head fer the Army camp without us riding escort. And you’ve got the boys to consider.”
“You’ve got to go after them!” She wailed fer the umpteenth time plus one, “They took my Sissy and my Laura!” At least the woman was already getting the buckboard moving, and she had it pointed in the right direction. The bay mare had survived the raid by being hidden in the root cellar with the children–two of whom had bolted in panic and been scooped up by the Kiowa.
Sissy was eleven; Laura was…nine, if I remembered right.
The boys, who looked to be around six and seven, give or take, stared at purty much everything, wide-eyed and silent. Berta Harris would have done well to follow their example, but neither of us much blamed her fer wailing over the loss of her kids. Blue Sky would ride hard, maybe clean down to the Mexican border, maybe jist to some dropoff point he knew about, and he’d sell them girls. Trade ’em fer firepower if he could, guns and ammunition.
Sissy and Laura would end up living neither long nor well.
The U.S. Army was planning to build a fort next year–rumor was it would be called Fort Reno–and we’d heard some of the folks needed to do the building were already gathering. We’d also heard there was an Army doctor with ’em, a veteran of the War with plenty of experience handling gunshot wounds. The future Fort Reno was a ways down the trail, though, and we rode alert, wary and ready.
Most likely, Blue Sky was fleeing south with his valuable human merchandise as fast as his ponies could go, but neither Tam nor I took that fer granted.
Once we were all lined out, we were able to travel wide enough of the buckboard fer me to ask, “Why ain’t we going after ’em, cowboy? I know dang well you can track ’em, good as any Apache scout ever hatched.”
He looked over at me, and I seen the kind of pain in his eyes no man should have to bear. “There ain’t nothing I’d rather do, Dawson. But the odds ain’t in it. You saw the bunch; Blue Sky’s medicine has been strong lately. When we crossed their trail a while back, there was thirteen in the bunch. Today I counted twenty-two.”
“Same tally I got.”
“All right. Twenty-two fighting men, some of the best on the plains. We maybe done fer three of ’em, you and me, but the one Bob knocked down looked fit to fight. So, say nineteen.
“We startled ’em today, and they run, but it won’t happen again. Blue Sky’s an evil man, likely as crazy as Lynx Killer ever was, but he ain’t stupid, and his followers still believe in him. Even if he lost three today, no more’n four or five of them warriors will pull out on him. Let’s say five, jist to be charitable.”
He sighed deeply, then–with a visible effort–went on. “So, nineteen minus five equals fourteen. Every one of ’em the red man’s version of a fanatic, and every one of ’em skilled in war. They’ll be watching their backtrail, and they’ll be watching fer the two of us specifically.”
I frowned, not much liking where this was heading. “Are you saying we couldn’t take ’em?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. A man’s got to know his own limitations. Some don’t. General Custer, fer one; there’s a feller that ain’t yet learned his lesson.”
“You don’t have to preach at me about Custer.” I spat in disgust. “That’s one rat bastard I got no use fer atall.”
“Nor I,” he said. I knew he was thinking of his beloved Cheyenne woman-who-was-not-his-woman, Laughing Brook, and the role the cavalry officer had played in bringing misery to her people.
Then he said something that caught me entirely off guard.
“Thing is, cowboy, there was a time I believed I could whup the pants offen the entire world with one hand tied behind my back, jist exactly like George Armstrong does to this day. Only I was lucky. Learned my lesson at an early age, thank the Almighty and every last one of his helpers.
“Once we git these folks delivered safe to the Army, I’ll tell you about a horse named Wolf.”
I got cocky.
Looking back, it’s small wonder. At thirteen years of age–thirteen and a half, really–I was feeling absolutely invincible, and why not? I’d gone up against five…six dangerous men, three of which I’d killed (with some help from my Piegan friend, Tall Pine, in the case of Lynx Killer) and three of which I’d chased from the high country with nothing but the power of my voice.
I’d killed a full grown cougar in close combat, albeit with some help from a girl with a lance.
Senior warriors hung on my war tales when I recounted my coups. I loved a beautiful woman and knew she loved me, even if we couldn’t have each other. Piegan maidens found me so irresistible that they defied their culture’s mores to sneak under my blankets.
I was Crazy Rifle, the one and only awesome White Blackfoot warrior, ally to the Blackfeet and near-stepson to the mountain man, Believer. Hear me roar.
In other words, I’d gotten so puffed-up full of myself I needed to be taken down a peg or two, and the angels that watch over us knew jist how to do it.
Most times, when either Believer or I had journeyed between the big man’s cabin and the winter encampment of Bear Breath’s band, we’d start our journey at first light. In the time of deep snows, this was most important, since the distance made fer a full day’s ride when the days were short. Even at the best of such times, our destination would be reached no earlier than dusk, but we’d usually avoid needing to travel through the night.
But this time, I had not left at dawn. The Piegan enjoyed me, and I enjoyed them. Midmorning came and went, and still I dawdled. It was, in fact, midafternoon before the big Appaloosa bore me westward, up the slopes and over the ridges toward my mentor and his young Cheyenne bride, the stunning–and pregnant–Laughing Brook.
I was not worried in the least, and I was returning with a second horse, gifted to me by Long Walker himself. My host did not let on the real reason, that he felt I deserved something fer having had to endure the tipi-creeping attentions of a very horny Piegan girl in the middle of the night, nor did I let on that I understood.
After all, she was a very fine filly.
The gift horse, not the tipi-creeping girl. I never saw the girl, only felt her, and like men say, all women look the same in the dark.
Laughing Brook did not. I could have told them as much, but it would not have been wise to do so.
It was cold enough and would undoubtedly fall to well below zero during the night. I would need to travel through most of the dark hours, maybe even all of them. But so what? Believer and I had done so. Tall Pine and I had done so. I had gone against three U.S. Army deserters and also against Bear Claw in the dark. Even my Dream Enemy, the ghost of Lynx Killer–who turned out to be the old medicine man, Groundhog–had been vanquished.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for I am the meanest sumbitch in the valley. At least until spring, when the grizzly bears come forth from their dens full of hunger and little else, the dark could hold no terrors for me.
Or so I thought.
Until I heard the wolves.
My first reaction was terror. It caught me off guard, that feeling, and I had to fight myself something fierce to force it down deep inside. The call of the wolf triggers something in man that defies explanation. I’d not thought about them, the Wolf People, mostly ’cause they’d not been seen in the high country all winter, but they were ba-a-ack. Why at this particular place at this particular time, who knew?
Not that I was worried about explaining it. Jist surviving it.
They were some distance away, but not fer long. I knew this, knew they’d picked up our trail. They shouldn’t have been hungry enough to be hunting this hard; most times, deep snows work to the wolf’s advantage and he fills his belly in winter with relatively little effort. But as Believer had told me more than once, “Too many men should all over themselves.” You go with what is. I could feel the hunger in the pack, and it was no small thing.
They would be on us in minutes. I had to use at least a couple of those minutes to think. What was the reality of the situation? Not what my insides turning to water wanted to tell me, but the truth. Before long, there’d be no time for puzzling things out; it was now or never.
One. Lots of namby pamby city folks swear up, down, and sideways that a wolf will never attack a man. But meat is meat, and those folks are idiots. If I had jist one of ’em here right now, I could serve him up for Wolf Supper and be done with it.
Two. They’d be trying fer the filly. It shames me to say it, but it crossed my mind to cut her loose when they got close, let the pack have her, so’s I could make my escape on the big stud. I felt her fear when I thought that and got hold of myself in a hurry, told her aloud,
“They shall not have you.”
She understood; I swear she did. In fact, she did a smart thing then, pushed right up close behind us so’s the lead tied off to the saddle horn hung loose and low to the snow. I took up the slack with my hand and went back to thinking.
Three. If I could take out the pack leader, they’d give up the chase. I believed that. But how could I pick out the leader on a night like this? I could barely make out the Appaloosa’s ears right in front of me at the end of his neck. Besides, anybody who tells you he can shoot straight on a cloudy night is as full of it as the proverbial Christmas goose. I’d seen a man, a crack shot in the daylight, empty his revolver in the dark at a rattlesnake coiled not ten feet from his boots–and all he accomplished was to warm up the barrel on his pistol.
Finally, I’d put together as much of a plan as I could. The filly’s long lead was untied from the saddle horn and looped around my own right wrist. The Appaloosa’s reins were knotted so’s they could be dropped over the saddle horn, giving him enough head to reach the snow without getting too much in his way. I was risking the loss of the animal iffen he ran, or he might twist wrong and put a hoof through those reins, but I jist couldn’t see any other way that gave us half a chance.
They were here.
My night vision’s better’n most, always has been, and that did help some. I could jist make out several dark shapes that had to be grays, one big black that stood out even on a night like this, and–yep, a damned white wolf, pretty much completely invisible against the snow. If that one was the pack leader, we were dead already. They came ghosting, silent now, a wave of death looking to hamstring the filly if at all possible.
I brought the stud to a halt, turned him toward the onrushing pack, yanked the Hall carbine from its scabbard–and rolled out of the saddle. The filly’s panicked attempt to run pulled me around, what with her lead being tied off to my wrist and all, but I still had her. And the rifle.
And, of considerable surprise to me and the wolves both, one pissed off stud horse. You’ve heard a stud’s warcry, and that’s what the Appaloosa let loose with. He didn’t stand and wait fer ’em, neither; that crazy bastard charged the pack. He done it so fast that before either me or the hunters could react, he’d struck one gray with his front hooves and smashed its ribcage. The wolf’s death scream was near as bad as the sound coming from the stallion.
Another darted in from the side, but the horse twisted around and chomped down on the critter’s neck, slick as you please. I’d never been horse-bit, and after seeing that–even in the dark I could see the flash of the stud’s teeth–I’ve made extra sure not to get chomped. He lifted that wolf three feet in the air, whipped his neck side to side like a terrier shaking a rat, then flung the predator far enough out that I lost track of where it went in the darkness.
Which wouldn’t of been enough all by itself, had I not finally got my head out of my ass and taken a hand in the proceedings. My own attention was snapping back and forth near as fast as the stud’s, trying to keep track of the black wolf that was arrowing in to hamstring the Appaloosa and the white that seemed to have similar designs on the filly.
I’d only have time fer one round, and I had to make a decision. Save the filly, or save the stud?
So naturally I did the dumb thing. Ignored the big black wolf that was the better target and who was aiming fer a stud horse worth ten of the filly…and snapped my one shot from the hip at the white beast I could barely see against the snow.
Talk about luck, I’ll tell you what. It was lucky the bullet hit the wolf at all. It was lucky the rest of the pack didn’t swarm me while I was stone night-blind from the muzzle flash. Most of all, it was lucky I’d picked the wrong wolf to shoot at, since it turned to be the right choice after all.
By the time I could see again, even a little bit, the pack had pulled out. How many there’d been, I couldn’t rightly say. Maybe seven in all, or maybe as few as five. It’s hard to tell when the sounds of battle are totally confusing and you can’t see a thing.
I couldn’t even tell which way they’d gone.
The white wolf had disappeared, wounded but not killed. If I had to guess, that had been the pack leader. I was also guessing the black had taken a kick in the head from the stud and decided he wasn’t hungry after all. Two of the grays were dead, or at least so I believed, though I couldn’t see their bodies from where we stood. Hell, I dang near couldn’t see my nose in front of my face.
Both horses were okay, though after sunup I did find a scratch jist below the hock on the filly’s right hind. The white wolf come that close before my bullet knocked the critter off course and it decided to call it a night. Tha Appaloosa hadn’t run, obviously, but had turned to fight like I never knew a horse could fight. My respect fer them Nez Perce that breed the critters shot up a bunch of notches.
“So,” I told the big fellow as we lined out fer home, “I don’t know whether you should be called Wolf Stomper, or maybe Wolf Chomper. Come to think on it, either one’s a shade long fer a mere horse. Even an Appaloosa. Reckon we’ll jist have to settle, call you Wolf fer short.”
I thought a minute, then added, “And my full name should be Jackass, fer putting you guys at risk like that fer no good reason ‘cept my own egotistical, arrogant stupidity. If Jackass seems a mite long, you can call me Jack fer short. I won’t mind. And by the way, Wolf, I do thank you fer saving my life back there.”
Now, cowboy, this is one of them parts that few believe, but that stud turned his head when I said that last, looked on past me at the purty little filly trailing along happily on her lead rope, and spoke in my mind, clear as day,
“You think I did it fer you?”