We cut the Kiowas’ trail shortly after sunup. As usual, Tam swung down to inspect the tracks while I stayed mounted, scanning in all directions fer the renegade child-stealers.
“I should have thought of that.”
My partner had settled on his haunches, staring out the way them tracks were pointing. “Them Kiowa we shot in the back when they was running. I’d figured a couple of the others would abandon Blue Sky and take the dead and wounded back to their people, which would have left Blue Sky free to continue on his way. But apparently not. I believe he took his casualties back to the tribe first, before heading back out to find a buyer fer the girls.”
“Which means,” I noted with considerable interest, “That we could still catch the rat bastard.”
“Yep,” he agreed.
He remounted, and we veered off to follow the tracks without another word.
So much fer all his fine talk about a man knowing his own limitations, I thought. Knowing eleven year old Sissy Harris and her little sister, Laura, were in Kiowa hands…well, it’d been enough to sour our usual sunny dispositions something fierce. There’d been more than a dozen warriors in the party at last count. Could be a lot more by now, or maybe a few less.
At this point, neither one of us give a damn.
We found them by the light of the full moon. Easterners somehow got this fool idea that Indians won’t fight at night, which they will iffen the price is right, but when it comes to a war party on the move, they prefer the darkness. Tall Pine had told me about that, how Piegan war parties would head out on horse raids that covered pretty much the entire West. They’d be gone two years, sometimes, covering all that ground, and never be seen by the enemy.
You don’t do that meandering across the open plains under the light of the noonday sun.
“They’ll stop to rest fer a few hours at sunup,” Tam opined, handing me the glass. His telescope might be little, but it brought Blue Sky into focus–even by moonlight–as clear as day and twice as ugly. And there, doubled up on a single pony in the middle of the pack, the Harris girls rode with their hands unbound.
Their mount’s war bridle was handled by a warrior riding jist ahead of ’em, though.
“You got a plan?” I asked. I surely didn’t. If we started shooting, the Kiowa would slit their captives’ throats first thing. Guaranteed.
“What, you don’t?” Tam actually chuckled. Guess it felt good to be doing something about the situation. Whatever that something might turn out to be. “Yeah, I been getting a bit of an idea. Which involves some of them circus tricks I been teaching Smokey, and maybe you doing some fancy shooting.”
“Me? Hell, cowboy, you’re half again as fast and three times as accurate as me on my best day! What’s got into your thinking cap?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Dawson. You might not slick a short gun out of the leather quite as quick as some, but at a hunnert yards, you can plink crab apples all day long with that .44-40.”
“Kiowa ain’t crab apples.”
“Nope. They’re a dang sight bigger target. Now, do you want to hear my thinking on this, or not?”
Blue Sky stared in astonishment, blown away by his good fortune. This was too good to be true! Not half a mile ahead of his column of warriors, a lame horse followed a lone white man, hobbling helplessly across the plains. But wait! There was more! Not only the horse, but the cowboy also limped!
He pointed, yelling to the others. “Our enemy, the one the Blackfeet call Crazy Rifle! He is alone! His horse is lame! He is lame! Today he dies!”
He charged, uttering the ululating sound designed to chill enemy hearts throughout the land….and eleven warriors followed suit. Three stayed with the Harris girls at first, but only fer a matter of seconds. Then one man, unwilling to miss out on the fun, heeled his war pony into a gallop and went after the others as fast as his mount could go.
It is said by many white explorers that the Indian you don’t see is the one that kills you. True enough, unless you’re a child-stealing Kiowa, and then it’s the pissed-off white man you don’t see who kills you. I’d been lying under that blanket of sand fer so long I was purty sure there had to be an entire nest of scorpions making babies in my britches by now, but the warrior holding the war bridle went down with my first slug through his back, spraying blood from the exit wound in his chest as he fell.
The other one looked purely confused fer a second, till he seen the cloud of black powder smoke hanging right in front of my favorite bush.
It’s a good thing it don’t take long to chamber a round in a Winchester lever action.
We set up camp that night in high spirits. At my end, it had turned out Sissy Harris understood horses right well, even at her young age. The moment she’d seen the first Kiowa go down, she’d slipped from that pony’s back and snagged the lead on his war bridle before the little mustang could think to bolt. From there, it was a matter of her persuading Laura to double up behind me on Joker, and the three of us got the Hell out of Dodge.
So to speak.
Down at the other end, Tam had waited till the Kiowa were about halfway to him, then vaulted into the saddle and put the spurs to Smokey. I don’t know that I ever mentioned it, but the grulla can scat. He jist flat outrun them Indians. Blue Sky was so in denial, refusing to believe he’d been fooled by a smart white man’s smart horse, he kept chasing after my partner till his pony was plumb tuckered out, and most of the others done the same.
By the time they realized their girl-holders were dead and the captives gone, they had neither the confidence in their medicine nor the freshness in their ponies to go chasing after me and the kids.
True, we’d still be running hard, back toward the Harris place, if the Army patrol hadn’t come along. Forty cavalry troopers under the command of one Captain James Kromman. Turned out they’d been commissioned to do the job we’d jist done fer ’em, chase down the renegade Kiowa and rescue them girls.
Which would never have happened. Captain Kromman was headed in the wrong direction by more’n ninety degrees, and if he had caught up to the Indians–yeah, right!–the girls woulda been the first ones dead.
But he was more than happy to turn around and escort them kids back to their Dad & Mom. His orders had been to bring the girls back safe, after all. They could kill the Kiowa later.
“Damn Kiowa,” Tam cussed as he tried to find a comfortable way to sit with that shot-up leg. Smokey had outrun ’em, true enough, but somebody in the pack of wild Indians had gotten in a lucky shot, cut a furrow on the outside of his left thigh, back to front. We had the thing disinfected and wrapped. He’d be okay…in time.
But his days in the saddle were going to be a mite uncomfortable fer a while. I could understand his irritation, which I knew to be a minor thing in the face of the pleasure we both felt at humiliating the Kiowa and freeing the Harris girls all at the same time. He shook his head ruefully, summing up the situation nicely in a single sentence.
“I never have done all that well with the tribes whose names start with a K. And I reckon you deserve to hear how that got started.”
The structure looked deserted, but it was not. Made of small branches propped against a large, low-hanging branch of a great pine, it struck me as containing elements of an Apache wickiup, a northern plains tipi, and the playhouse my friends and I had built in the woods jist outside of town when I was ten.
Someone was in there. Not moving, and no tracks coming or going since the last snowfall, so whoever it was might well be dead. Or not. I was in no mood to take chances.
After all, it was not so long ago I’d nearly been killed by a dead wolf.
Medicine Coyote had showed me this thing, this dwelling of sorts, in a dream. Not only that, but little Lynette Lynx had gotten into that one too, shaking her furry head, saying only, “Nunh-uh!”
I didn’t know what to make of that. The young wildcat was growing by literal leaps and bounds, far too curious and far too athletic fer the good of the cabin. On the other hand, she went exploring outside a lot. Two days ago, the kitten had killed her first rabbit. She could feed herself now, and she was wise about avoiding danger. The night the Ghost Pack of Heyókȟa wolves had come, little Lynette had been nowhere to be seen. She still visited the cabin often, eating strips of elk meat from Laughing Brook’s hand, but she was no pet. Not any more.
A friend, though? Perhaps.
It was time. Leaving the Appaloosa stud and the bay filly tethered to a small tree, I stalked the strange shelter. One cautious, silent step at a time, the Hall carbine in my hands cocked and ready to fire.
My caution had been unnecessary. Laudable, no doubt, but the young boy inside was beyond caring. Dead, I first thought, though on closer inspection…not quite. In the last stages of starvation, clearly, and fevered. In what they called a coma, the final step before crossing to the great beyond.
But not dead. Not yet.
His shelter sat not half a mile from the place where Believer and I had flanked the Kootenai, killing the warchief and routing their party as they fought our friends, the Piegan. Believer had told me how to recognize them, and this boy was definitely Kootenai. He must have been with them, crouching in his hiding place behind some tree or rock, perhaps frozen in fear and unable to flee when the others ran to their ponies and galloped westward, away from this place of bad medicine.
Why was he still here?
As I lifted him from the meager wrapping of his two trade blankets, over which he had piled juniper boughs in an attempt to further insulate himself from the cold, I found the answer. His left leg was twisted oddly. My fingers explored carefully. Yes. There, a bit below center in the thighbone, what our sawbones back home called the femur. It was healed now, but badly, with a large lump under the skin.
He’d had a broken leg. It had not been set properly, and had healed in this twisted form. The toes of this foot, I now saw, turned in to point more at his other leg than at any trail he might walk in the future. If he lived–which seemed unlikely–he would never walk straight again, nor would this leg ever be without pain.
I carried him to the horses, noting with amazement that he weighed almost nothing. What had he eaten to stay alive this long? Not much, obviously, but there had to have been something. Why had no predator stopped by to release him from this mortal coil? Here I’d been a healthy warrior, well fed and possessing the finest weapons of our time, and wolves had tried to eat me. How could such a one as this have escaped notice?
Belly down over the second best saddle taken from the Army deserters, he made the filly nervous. She fidgeted endlessly as I lashed her human cargo in place. Wrapped in his own tattered, dirty blankets, riding that way, he might be dead before we reached the cabin.
If so, so be it. I had learned. I no longer traveled after dark unless the reasons were compelling, and I wasn’t about to be encumbered with an unconscious child when I might find myself engaged in mortal combat at any instant.
I rode wary, never again foolish and cocky, senses questing endlessly.
Having no idea the greatest danger rode draped over the filly’s saddle behind me.
“He has to go.” Believer said, reaching for his pipe now that the threat had been dealt with for the moment. “Now.”
“Slit his throat and feed him to Medicine Coyote’s family,” Laughing Brook added, “so that his presence will have brought some good to our home.”
I stared at her. She was serious. There wasn’t much I could add at the moment, though, so I held my peace.
We regarded the young Kootenai, bound hand and foot and staring at us with hate in his eyes. I’d never truly seen naked hatred before, not even when fighting Lynx Killer. The renegade Cree had been a wild-eyed, insane fanatic…but this was something else.
They had known, the old mountain man and the Cheyenne girl. They had known this scrawny Indian would be trouble…and yet Believer had worked his healing magic anyway, brought the nearly dead boy back to life. The youngster had recovered with amazing speed, save for his permanently crippled leg. He’d not spoken, though. Not one word.
But he had tried to kill the woman we both loved, heart, body, mind and Soul. With my knife. Aiming at her back. I’d been faster, disarmed him and choked him out from behind, and Believer had tied him up.
Still, I would not see him killed. Had he reached her with that blade, I’d have literally skinned him alive without the least compunction or one bit of remorse, and been slow in the doing of it. But he had not.
Believer had tried to tell me. Warned me about the Blackfeet and the Kootenai being traditional enemies. It would not matter that Laughing Brook was Cheyenne; this youngster would not likely know the difference, nor care if he had known. The mountain man had even gone into great length about the Jesuit missionaires west of the mountains who’d successfully converted the vast majority of the Kootenai to the Catholic faith.
Some man of God, this one.
“He’s jist a kid,” I said.
“Probably twelve or so, same age you were when you run from home. Old enough they allowed him to come along on their war party.”
“Huh.” Twelve, especially an underfed twelve, was looking mighty young these days. I thought fer a minute, then decided, “I will take him back home. They’ll be glad to have him, and he’s not likely to tackle our side of the mountains again, burning with hate or not. They’ll know where he belongs if I can get him anywhere close to the St. Ignatius Mission.”
That done it. Our silent snake-in-the-cabin started babbling at a downright impressive rate of speed. All three of us stared at him in astonishment. He was shaking his head like he had fleas and talking up a blue streak. Which none of us understood a word of.
Believer started sign-talking at him, and he settled down immediately. “Do you sign talk?” The big man asked. The young Indian nodded. “If I untie your hands, will you mind your manners and talk?” Another nod.
The resulting confab was…instructive. The boy wouldn’t give us his name–names have power–but he did explain a few things. I will not go to the Mission. Real warriors do not bow to the cross of the white man. Take me to the Lake.
There was more, but it wasn’t long before Believer had it figured out. “Turns out there’s still a few Kootenai who don’t appreciate the white man’s preaching. They’ve split off from the others, in some cases won’t have nothing to do with ’em as long as they continue to associate with the blackrobes. The bunch Tall Pine run into, with this one among ’em, were doing exactly what you guessed–they’d heard the Blackfeet were done for, and figured to find out if was maybe safe to move on east of the Rockies.”
“Faulty intelligence and then some,” I put in drily.
“You still say you ain’t had no military training?”
“Still. Not a bit.”
“Well, anyway, this Lake our most courteous house guest is referring to, where he wants to go, that has to be the one the Frenchies called Lake Pend Oreille. It’s a bit of distance from here, but I reckon you could git him there, if you think that’s what you want to do.”
“Not want, so much,” I admitted. “But I can’t see feeding him to the animals. He’d likely make Medicine Coyote’s whole family sick.”
They actually smiled at that. Briefly.
I manhandled Crooked Leg down from the filly’s saddle and cut his bonds. The kid was tough; he didn’t even bother to rub his wrists where the rawhide had chafed ’em raw.
It had been a harrowing journey, traveling entirely at night except fer this final day’s travel, during which I’d had to save my captive’s life twice. The details of those encounters were unimportant; he certainly gave no sign of gratitidue for my actions on his behalf.
Do not attempt to warn your people of my presence before you reach the lodges, I signed at him, Or I will be forced to kill many of them. You first, and then many others. With this, I indicated the Hall carbin still in its scabbard on Wolf’s saddle, I killed your war chief with one shot. My eyes are like those of the eagle; the medicine in this rifle is strong. Should your people pursue from the lodges, I will swat them like flies.
The one shot that killed the war chief was a lucky ricochet, of course, and there was a fair amount of bald-faced lying involved in the rest of it. At this range–well over a mile–the people jist beginning to move about on their morning rounds looked like flies. I’d be lucky to hit a danged tipi, should there be occasion to try.
That hateful little bugger wasn’t buying it, anway. He gave no sign of having heard me until he was maybe thirty yards off, but then he turned and began signing.
You are called Crazy Rifle, friend to my enemies the Blackfeet. The war chief you killed was my father. I name you Coward From Ambush. The next time I see you, I will kill you slowly. Then I will kill the whore Cheyenne and the old man. You are spit beneath my feet.
Ah, Hell. Why is it, at times like that you’re generally at a loss fer words? All I could think of to sign back at him was, Why, you ungrateful little sumbitch! But he’d already turned and begun hobbling steadily toward the lodges. Little rat bastard had even gotten in the last word.
Like I told you, cowboy, I ain’t never done well with tribes whose names start with a K.