Something had been troubling me about Tam’s last tale.
“Partner,” I asked, “That story about the wolf pack seemed kind of…unfinished.”
He tucked the telescope back into the saddlebag before responding. We’d been double-itchy ever since running off Blue Sky and his renegade Kiowa from the Harris place. I thought it likely he might be hoping to run into the rat bastards again despite his warning to me that we couldn’t take ’em on by ourselves and hope to win. Them warriors had gotten away with the two Harris girls. He could talk discretion all he wanted, but I still figured he’d count getting them kids back a fair trade fer his own life, iffen he had half a chance to give it a try. As would I.
“Unfinished in what way?” He asked it casual-like, but I sensed there was something more.
“As in…I know they was only wolves, but they kind of struck me as being a bit like Bear Claw. You know, unlikely to take a licking and jist let it go. Like they’d take it personal, you and your stud horse hurting the pack like you done. I know it don’t make no sense, but it jist feels like they weren’t no…well, no ordinary pack.”
“You’re dead right.” He nodded, eyes scanning left to right, eyes to the horizon and back, moving constantly. As were mine. “They were Heyókȟa.”
He laughed. Damn, but it was good to hear that man laugh. Neither one of of us had so much as cracked a smile since the taking of litlle Sissy and Laura Harris.
“Takes a while to explain,” he said, “But yonder’s as good a spot to camp fer the night as any. We’ll have time fer a little longer story than usual.”
“Tonight, you git to hear the tale of the Ghost Pack.”
“My warrior!” Laughing Brook came from the cabin on a dead run, kicking up snow, laughing with delight. “You’re home!”
Well, that made it purty obvious her husband wasn’t home at the moment. Part of me wanted to know what could have taken him away from the Cheyenne girl on a cold winter day, but the bigger part saw an opportunity and seized it. By the time she’d flown down the gentle slope to where we were, I’d stepped down from the Appaloosa and was braced to catch her as she launched into my arms.
Good thing, too, or we’d have both been rolling in the snow.
“My warrior,” she murmered into my ear, all four limbs wrapped around me something fierce.
“Miss me?” I was hanging onto her fairly snuglike my own self, I noticed.
“Yes,” she said simply, and we jist stood there fer a time until Wolf snorted to remind me that he and his filly hadn’t had a bite to eat in hours; could we take care of business first and then git a room or something?
I do believe I set a world record fer stripping a horse of his tack, rubbing him down, turning the two into the corral with Laughing Brook’s mustang, and forking an extra amount of feed into the manger. The most beautiful girl in the world–women really do glow when they’re pregnant, I could see–puppy-dogged me around till the chores were done and we could git back into the nice, warm, safe cabin where no ravening wolves could ever go.
Which is when reality reasserted itself with a bit of a thud. Believer was out somewhere on the dun, him and the Hawken rifle. There was plenty of daylight left; in fact, I’d come in no more than an hour after he’d pulled out at dawn’s gray light. But what was he up to? Why?
His wife explained as she served up a double helping of elk-and-potato stew with a scalding hot cup of coffee on the side.
“The Ghost Pack has come. My husband went out to see if he could cut their trail.”
“Ghost Pack?” I asked it, but I already knew what she was going to say. Shivers ran up and down my spine, tap-dancing along the way.
“You did not know of them?” She stared at me, eyes suddenly wide. “Oh, my–! Everyone knows of them, but…Crazy Rifle, you fit this world so well. It–it slipped our minds that you are new to the Territories, not even one year old! I am sorry!”
Well, I thought drily, that makes me sound a right infant. Thanks a lot. But I held my peace, proving I was gaining a bit of wisdom despite nearly having gotten myself and my horses eaten to death during the night. Like they say, better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
“So,” I mumbled around a particularly delectable chunk of meat, “Fill me in now, eh?”
She nodded, taking a seat on a pile of skins as she explained.
“Some winters ago, no one knows exactly how many, stories began to circulate among the tribes of a pack of wolves that was not…normal. It was almost as if these animals were Heyókȟa–”
I held up a hand to interrupt. “Heyókȟa?”
She frowned prettily–the way she did everything. “It means…it is…you have no word for it in English. The word is Lakota. One who is Heyókȟa is…backward-forward.”
“Eh?” I scratched my head, unfortuntately with the hand still holding a spoonful of stew.
“That’s it!” She jumped up and began the cleaning process–laughing at me, I assure you, not with me–as she did so. “What you just did was pure Heyókȟa. Some say the Heyókȟa man–for some reason they are nearly always men–is simply backward-forward, a contrary. For example, a Heyókȟa warrior may ride his war pony to battle like any other but face the animal’s rump as he does so. Or he will wash with dirt and dry with water.
“But thinking of the Heyókȟa as simply opposite, or even the sacred clown as some call him, does not capture the essence. Rather, he is unpredictable. You never know what he will do. He may joke, he will always break the mold of your thinking, he can never be expected to act like a normal person.”
“He might,” I grinned at her, “Dump a spoonful of stew on top of his head instead of into his mouth?”
“Exactly!” She clapped her hands in delight. “By George, I think he’s got it!”
Did I mention that Believer had not only taught his Cheyenne child bride a heap of English but had thrown in a lot of dumb sayings to boot?
We sat in war council, the three of us. Believer had returned a bit before sunset, late enough to have me and Laughing Brook worried half to death but early enough we managed not to show it.
“Do you think they will come against us here,” the Cheyenne girl asked, “at the cabin?” Then she caught herself and added. “Never mind. I spoke foolishly. They are Heyókȟa. The Heyókȟa will do what the Heyókȟa will do. We cannot know their strange minds.”
Believer lit his pipe, drawing in his first great lungful of smoke before answering. “I don’t know, Little One.”
Medicine Coyote’s face abruptly appeared in my inner vistion. He looked…worried. Which made sense; the coyote’s best and only survival tactic against the wolf is to do a lot of running, very fast and very far. Wolves kill coyotes any chance they get, and my friend knew it.
“They will come,” he said. “They are angry.”
“They will come,” I said quietly. “They are not happy that the stud–with precious little help from me–hurt their pack and drove them off last night. This Ghost Pack is not only Heyókȟa; it also understands the concept of vengeance.”
The big man lifted an eyebrow. “And you know this, how?”
“Ah. Well, that settles that.”
We were silent for a time, each lost in his or her own thoughts. How does one prepare to defend against an unpredictable enemy? Believer had in fact cut their trail, early in the afternoon, far beyond the north ridge. Beyond that, he’d actually managed a glimpse of the pack in motion, trotting along easily, skylining themselves as if showing off, daring their enemies to come against them. They’d not seen him, he thought, but he’d been able to study them with the aid of his sea captain’s telescope for many seconds before they disappeared into the treeline.
Fourteen, he said. By all the angels and half the little cherubs, the horses and I had been lucky. I’d thought maybe nine at most, minus the two Wolf the horse had chomped and stomped, which would be seven. There were twice as many as I’d guessed in the dark. Had I not winged the white pack leader, Wolf and the filly and I might well be nothing but wolf poop right about now.
The white one limped a little, Believer thought. That was good. Or maybe bad, if the injured leg was the reason fer the pack’s anger toward us.
No. Not toward us. Toward me. It was the stud who had hurt the pack the most in terms of numbers, but it was me who had made the leader feel pain. This wolf might have a white coat, but the white was not a spiritual thing. It was, I thought, more like the white hot of the iron in the forge.
They would come.
Believer and I had taken shifts, one of us posted on a pile of hay in the hay corral at all times. This was not a bad thing in terms of safety, since the corral fence was truly no fence at all but a stockade. Realizing every major predator in the mountains considered horseflesh a delicacy, he’d constructed a wall of lodgepole posts, their butts sunk two feet deep into the Earth and their tops rising an even six feet into the sky.
As he had admitted, however, that wouldn’t be enough. “I got lazy, Tam,” he’d said, “or I would’ve gone a lot higher with them posts. Plus, topping out at six feet like they do, I didn’t dare bring ’em to points, either. Horses can be plumb stupid and would surely have found a way to hurt themselves if I’d done that.”
He’d built the thing in a rush, always figuring to rebuild higher and better and never quite getting around to it.
I could relate to that.
Sitting there, wide awake in the cold–who could sleep while waiting fer an almost supernaturally feared, oversized pack of wolves to drop in fer a midnight snack?–I realized what was bothering me most.
This was the first time I’d been hunted instead of being the hunter.
I pondered that, as much as a way to stay awake as anything. Was it–yes, it was true. Always before, I’d been the hunter. Against them three Army deserters, I’d tracked ’em down to their foolish campfire and scared ’em clean out of the mountains; they hadn’t even known I was there, or at least not that I was anything human. Bear Claw I had hunted in the dark as he piled brush against the cabin in preparation to burn us out. The Kootenai war chief, killed almost accidentally, hadn’t known I was there, either. Tall Pine and I’d spent eight days and nights hunting down Lynx Killer.
But these wolves hunted me. They’d hunted me last night, and they were hunting me tonight. Medicine Coyote said so, and he’d never been wrong yet.
This new sensation, the fear of the hunted rabbit rather than the hunting predator, I found I did not like very much. Not very much at all.
They came straight to the corral. I heard the snuffling outside the stockade and the Appaloosa’s soft snort at the same instant…and then the big black wolf came scrambling up over the wall. He’d not exactly cleared it in a single bound, but no matter. Wolf inside is wolf inside, no matter how he got there.
I thought to yell out a warning to Believer, hiding jist inside the root cellar doors, but chose not to do so. My enemy might not know exactly where I was in that hay corral yet; I didn’t figure to give him any edge he didn’t already have.
But it was darker in the aspen grove, even, than it had been out on the flats when we’d fought less than twenty-four hours ago. Laughing Brook was barricaded in the cabin with the windows shuttered and strict orders to stay put. Yes, she had put a lance clean through an old tom mountain lion and pinned him to the ground, but this was different. This was man’s work, root hog or die.
Wolf the horse was pacing in the corral but not letting out any warcries jist yet. He was a smart sumbitch, that horse, and likely figured to save his yelling fer when it might do some good. The big black killer was in with me in a place the stud couldn’t git to iffen he tried.
Had I been wrong? Was this one the alpha male and the white one his wife? I could see him being pissed iffen I’d dinged his woman.
I could not see him. Or her. Or it. What the Hell ever, I could not see a damned thing!
But I could hear. What I heard was an almost silent shifting of hay giving way slightly under heavy wolf feet. He was coming closer. If he sprang before I could figure out enough to shoot him, or it, or whatever, I was going to die. Tonight. Here. Now.
The thought didn’t comfort me much.
And then there was light.
Not much, but a flicker of firelight made it over the stockade wall, and I seen the black bastard. Seen him jist as he made his move, launched himself from no more’n six feet away, less total distance than the length of him, stretched out as he was. His lips were peeled back. I had the sudden, horrible recall of an article I’d read somewhere that a wolf has ten times the closing power in his jaws than the Almighty awarded to the domestic dog.
Looking at them jaws coming at me, I could believe it.
I don’t remember triggering the Hall carbine, jist trying to line it up on the animal. ‘Cause I’d been way off, the muzzle of my weapon pointed dang near ninety degrees from where the beast truly was. Not that it mattered. The Heyókȟa Ghost Pack black wolf crashed into me. I went down, hitting the back of my head on the edge of the manger, and went unconscious then and there.
The last thing I seen was them jaws lunging down at me. This was it, I was going to wake up dead, but that weren’t the worst of it.
His breath stunk like rotten meat.
Jist as on the day Believer had found me face down on the slope, blacked out from starvation, I woke up in the cabin. Trying to turn my head shot a bolt of pain through my skull from ear to ear this time, though; that was different.
“Easy, my warrior,” my beloved’s voice crooned, “If you would live to be whole again.”
Huh. Well, I was awake, and obviously not dead. I could take my time learning the damages. Which was a good thing, since it took Laughing Brook a bit of time in the telling.
Bottom line, it turned out I owed my life to the girl. Not simply the girl, to be accurate, but to the girl’s deliberate defiance of Believer’s orders. Her husband had left strict instructions not to unshutter the windows or un-barricade the door come Hell or high water…but she didn’t like waiting, and especially not knowing, any better than I did.
So she’d set out to be disobedient from the beginning. First, she’d stoked up the fire some, then set the steel shutter in front of the fireplace, keeping the cabin’s interior in darkness. From there, she’d not only unshuttered the windows on all four sides, but opened the glass as well. It was possible a wolf could have leaped through those openings, so she kept the old buffalo lance close at hand.
While she waited, she’d fashioned torches from bundles of dried willow sticks kept in one corner of the cabin. These were mostly used as kindling, but the girl was expert in their use and constructed bundle after bundle, tied with rawhide lacing.
Her thought had been to light a torch when the wolves came, startling and confusing the animals while providing her men light by which to shoot.
“So,” I asked, having found I could speak and even sit up if I was careful how I moved my head, “That was light from your torch that allowed me to see the black wolf?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It never got that far. I didn’t even see the black one go over the stockade wall after you, but instead sensed a gray shadow and knew the Ghost Pack was here. I turned to go light a torch–when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d been an idiot. If I lit a torch in the fireplace, the odds were I’d set the whole cabin on fire before I could get the thing across the room and thrust out through the window. I did not dare risk that.
“So I did the only thing I could to give my men light. I yanked the steel shutter away from the fireplace and threw bundle after bundle into the fire. The fire was already quite hot, burning fiercely, and the willow sticks flared brightly.
“What light you had, came from that.”
“Coming in!” Believer came stomping through the door, brushing snow from his buckskins along the way. He propped his old Hawken rifle in its usual corner and sat down with obvious intentions of not getting back up fer a while.
“Looks like you’re back in the land of the living, kid. I’d have to say that’s a good thing.”
“Seems to to me,” I agreed wholeheartedly. Damn, but it was good to see this man, filling the place with his energy as he always did. “Laughing Brook’s been bringing me up to speed.”
“I figured. Honey, would you jist pour me some coffee? I need to wind down a bit before I’ll have much appetite.”
She jumped to do as her husband commanded, leaving the rest of the explanations to him.
“You went down hard, Tam.”
“Yeah. I can tell.”
“Cracked your skull on the edge of that manger with the black wolf coming right down on top of you. Got yourself a bit of a concussion, but–how you feeling?”
“Like moldy crap iffen I turn my head wrong. Otherwise, not so bad.”
He nodded. “That’s about as good as we could’ve hoped for. I’ll need to keep an eye on you fer a day or two, but I’m thinking you come through okay.”
“What about the wolf? Last I had eyes to see–and smell, fer that matter–he was fixing to eat me and well on his way to getting it done.”
“That he was,” the lines around the old mountain man’s eyes crinkled, “Except fer one thing. A dead wolf don’t need no dinner.”
“Yep. You done fer him. That .52 caliber slug ripped straight through the critter’s heart and took out a chunk of spine to boot. Point blank range from that Hall of yours, I’d not care to be on the receiving end.” He patted his pockets, then realized his pipe was sitting in the ashtray.
I thought fer a second, trying to make my split head work enough to remember my next question. Oh, yeah. “So–he was in full flight, landed on me, drove me back and down, but he was already dying when he done it?”
Believer snorted. “Crazy Rifle, by the time his body hit your body, he wasn’t dying–he was already dead.”
Huh. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I mean, how crappy is it to git almost killed by a dead wolf? That thinking seemed kind of ungrateful somehow, though, so I went on to the next thing. “The white?”
“Now, there’s an interesting thing. Sweetheart, you want to tell that part? After you dish me up a bowl of stew, that is. I do believe I done found my appetite.”
“The white wolf was truly Heyókȟa,” she began quietly after serving her husband. “In that it did what no one expected. We do not know which one was the pack leader and which was the wife, but the white one knew when the black wolf died. It sat outside the stockade, lifted its muzzle to the sky, and howled its grieving until my husband shot it through its broken heart.”
I was puzzled. “You couldn’t tell which was the pack leader and which the top female?” I asked. “Why not?”
She looked at me, stunningly beautiful in the firelight, and there were tears in her eyes. “They were both males,” she said softly. “How Heyókȟa is that?”