It must have been the bullet furrow creasing his thigh troubling him. Had to be, jist talking malarkey to keep his mind from the pain. He couldn’t tolerate wearing his chaps at the moment, had ’em stuffed in a saddlebag instead of covering his legs, so he must have been hurting some.
That was the excuse I made fer Tam, anyway, at least to the point that I didn’t cuss him out openly. He was getting on my nerves some, though.
“I tell ya, cowboy,” he insisted fer the umptenth time that day, “That Sissy Harris ain’t gonna forget you. Not in a month of Sundays.”
“Fer Pete’s sake, Tam, she’s eleven years old.”
“Yep. Eleven. Same age Laughing Brook was when Believer acquired her from her Piegan master. Jist a little eleven year old Cheyenne splittail known to the band as Stupid Slave Slut.”
“Eleven years old fer a slave to the Blackfeet ain’t exactly the same as eleven years old to a white rancher’s daughter,” I pointed out with a sense of triumph. “Bob and Berta ain’t likely to let her go running off to git herself in trouble with nobody, specially a broken down drover with nothing to his name but a horse and saddle.”
The tale teller laughed. Not that we were avoiding our lookout-fer-the-Kiowa duties as we drifted south, but yeah, he actually laughed. “You really think Bob and Berta are gonna have any say in it? That Sissy has got a mind of her own, or she wouldn’t have been off that pony and gotten ahold of his war bridle before the first warrior you shot even hit the ground dead.
“Hell, man, you rescued her from them red savages single handed! You leap over tall Kiowa in a single bound. You’re her hee-ro!”
“That cuts it.” I’d thought I was being all understanding, but my B.S. tolerance blew without warning like one of them steam boilers on a mishandled locomotive. “Damn it, tale teller, you’re starting to jist plumb aggravate me! First you tell me Sandy what’s-her-last-name has set her cap fer me, and she ain’t but fourteen. Now you’re telling me I need to worry about Sissy Harris, and she’s eleven. ‘Fore I know it, you’ll be matchmaking me with a child still in some poor innocent woman’s womb!”
Tam roared with laughter so hard at that, I calmed down right quick-like, worrying he might fall off Smokey and reopen that wound.
“You were pulling my leg?” I asked mildly, back to Earth jist that sudden. Which is how it works with me and always has.
“Not exactly,” he spluttered, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve, “But I can see how you might think that. You’re a hand in the saddle, Dawson, no denying. But you got a heap to learn about women…and yes, I’d say they do start scheming when they’re still in the womb. Maybe when they’re nothing but a gleam in their old man’s eye.”
Hm. Well, my partner might have a point at that. Truth be told, the only girls I’d ever diddled were harlots, and even I wasn’t green enough to miss the point that pay fer play is jist that. As fer female friends, like maybe a mother or a sister or something, there’d been little enough in that category. Maybe I should listen to this guy. He might sling a fair load of bull, but he’d been closer to more women than I had from the moment he moved in with the mountain man and his child bride fer the winter at thirteen years of age.
At least I oughta be able to git a story out of it, make the lesson less…personal.
“So,” I asked, “I’m guessing you got a tale about women versus their ages?”
He grinned from ear to ear, and with them jug ears of his, I gotta tell ya that’s some kind of grin. “Might be able to think of one.”
I was between a rock and a hard place. The storm had driven me and the horses south of my planned route back toward Believer’s mountain cabin. Now I sat the Appaloosa, staring at the lake in astonishment.
Salish Lake. Had to be. The mountain man had told me the thing was big, but…holy crap.
I was looking at an inland sea.
Or at least, so it seemed to me, landlocked as I’d been from the day of my birth. Rivers I understood, and lakes of ordinary size. But this?
My mentor had known it might come to this, me setting out to tote that ingrate Crooked Leg back to his people in the middle of a double-down, triple-hard winter. “Iffen it gits too bad,” he’d said, “Git out of the north country fast. The lake, and right around it, got a milder climate than we do, and that might save your life. Find a place to hunker down, weather the storm before you move on. Mean weather ain’t nothing to fool with in these parts.”
I well understood that. From the day the Chinook wind had thrown an avalanche at us and missed by a cat’s whisker, I’d understood about the weather.
Forcing myself back on track, I began to look around fer a place to stay the night. Maybe several nights; you never knew with a storm like this. There’d be plenty of snow, even here, but the difference in temperature might jist let me pull through without getting froze to death or even seriously frostbit. Pick a tree, maybe quick-like build a leanto along the lines of the strange structure in which Crooked Leg had survived some serious cold snaps.
He might be one hateful young Kootenai, but the boy did know some survival tricks.
Minutes later, easing along the treeline, still not satisfied with any spot I’d found to pitch camp, I pulled Wolf up short. That dim shape…tipi. There were people here. This could be a bad thing or a good thing. Salish, these would be, according to what the big man had told me. Maybe easier to deal with as long as they didn’t figure me for an ally to the Blackfeet like Crooked Leg had done.
It should be doable, passing myself off as a pure dee white man. My buckskins were done in the Cheyenne style, thanks to Laughing Brook, and the Salish had no direct animosity toward the Cheyenne that I knew of. Why there’d be jist the one lodge out here all by itself, though–that was a puzzlement.
Only one way to find out. I’d jist have to guard my mouth, let the inhabitants of that nice, warm tipi do most of the talking, and hope I wasn’t walking into a lodge full of Crooked Legs.
“Let’s go see what’s fer dinner,” I told the big stud, “And hope it ain’t us.”
“I do speak English, remember,” the headwoman reminded me. She said it gentle-like, though, so I knew she wasn’t trying to get on my bad side. My experience with the horny Piegan tipi creeper had woke me up some to the ways of lonely women, and this one qualified.
“Thank you fer reminding me,” I said, doing my best to sound sincere without sucking up. Ain’t no female going to respect a weak man. I’d be needing to walk a fine line here, between ornery and nervous. Which didn’t look like it was going to end up being any great chore; I was already feeling dangerously comfortable with these people. Four of ’em, all women, fallen on hard times.
The speaker had been first wife to a Salish man called Large Trout–a name which made me wonder some at its origin. The band had all been camped here, twenty-one lodges, back before the first snowfall. Large Trout had gone hunting one morning in the shoreside mountains and had not returned. The band had moved southward, away from this place, at first snowfall, but Pretty Bird had refused to move with them. Her man might yet survive, she declared. What if he was wounded, came dragging himself out of those mountains one day, and his lodge had moved? It might mean his death. She would not move.
She had now come to accept that her Large Trout was dead, but now she could not move. The others would not come for her; when she had refused even the blackrobe’s entreaty to relent before it was too late, her people had decided she was abandoning God, and they turned their backs.
“Good Catholics?” I’d asked, one brow raised.
“Catholics,” she agreed. “About the good, who knows?”
Which was a more charitable viewpoint than my own by a fair bit.
There were no children in the lodge; all of those were in the boarding school at the Mission. Most of the Salish, like most of the Kootenai, had converted to Catholicism fer a simple reason: They’d seen the Jesuit priests as men of great power and had hoped their medicine would help them against the deadly Blackfeet. Large Trout had made a compromise with the missionairies: He and his wives would not convert–quite likely, I suspected, because the man wasn’t about to give up the advantages of having multiple wives in the first place–but he would allow his children to be properly brainwashed.
Or words to that effect. I paraphrase here. Large Trout, I decided, had been a wiffle-waffling nincompoop who deserved to die in the mountains. Not that I shot off my mouth on that score. Pretty Bird was a big woman, and she handled that skinning knife like she dang well knew how to use it.
Pretty Bird. That name, too, made me wonder. I surely couldn’t have called her purty. Handsome once, maybe, but the woman was well past her prime–which admittedly comes early for a lot of Indian females. She was not only big, but kinda shapeless, slump-sloped shoulders and breasts that were both large and mismatched, not to mention pendulous.
Pendulous? Look it up, cowboy. We bought you that pocket dictionary fer a reason.
Where was–oh, yeah. Pretty Bird. Her hair was gone past gray to nearly white. Her face had a pile of wrinkles and creases already, and her eyes tended to wander off like she’d forgotten where she was at the moment. Inside the tipi, where it was warm enough to take off her outer wraps, she wore the wildest green shirt, with a bright orange head cover that made me think of them Arabian turbans.
And she figured to crawl under my blankets once we’d all turned in; my woman-radar had tuned itself up enough to know that fer a fact. I was kind of gritting my teeth a bit, but had more or less made my peace with the idea. Truth be told, I was almost looking forward to it, though still mighty glad she wasn’t looking to jump my bones in broad daylight.
Which was fading fast. Outside, the wind had risen to a howl worthy of the white Heyókȟa wolf mourning the black I’d killed, snow was coming down in an absolute whiteout, and bedding them three women looked to be well worth the price of the whistle.
What? Oh. Sorry, partner. Let me restate that. Large Trout had left behind three wives and one aged grandmother. The yaya–the grandmother–was purty well out of it, looked to be a hunnert years old if she was a day. She had her little spot in the tipi and never left it except to ease on outside whenever she had to pee, which was often enough to keep the tipi from ever getting too warm for very long at any one time. The crone still had enough mind left to retain her sense of humor, though. Called herself Yellow Snow.
Wife #2–I can’t quite recall–Sees Elk, that was it. Her name was Sees Elk. Sounded to me more like a warrior’s name, but that’s what they said. She was a lot better looking than Pretty Bird, I can tell you that, and I was definitely looking forward to her time under my blankets.
As long as they come one by one, didn’t swarm me all at once. I hadn’t thought of that possibility, and it did give me pause.
Then the baby of the bunch, Wife #3. Butterfly, and I could see why. She was soft and purty as the wings on a tiger swallowtail, and not much bigger. I didn’t dare ask her age fer fear of issuing some insult I’d never intended, but if I had to guess, I’d say she was around my age or maybe even a bit younger. She had her woman-buds started, but they were a long ways from hitting full bloom. And she was tiny, no bigger’n a minute. She had the lust going in them eyes, though; I could see that. It was impossible to think of her as a child despite her size. Or lack of it.
You what? Oh, come on! I’ve told you about a crazy renegade Cree and beating a mountain lion to death with a clubbed rifle and a bunch of other unbelievable stuff, and you never turned a hair. Now you’re doubting my word about a little hanky panky going on with three lonely women? Huh!
Man, you done derailed my tale telling. Let me think…Large Trout’s widows. Well, I’ll admit I did forget to mention one thing. When I come to their tipi, I had a fresh-killed doe lashed over the filly’s saddle. Hadn’t even stopped long enough to chow down on the liver or the heart. Large Trout had left ’em well stocked on the day he disappeared, but they’d run out of provisions a couple of days before I showed up. Let me tell you, there’s no better introduction to a bunch of starving women than a hunnert pounds of fresh meat. By the time we hit the hay, that liver was gone and the heart was looking nervous.
Now does it make sense? It does? Good.
That first night–of three I had to spend with them women before the storm played out–I was lying there thinking not about big old Pretty Bird or her sister-wives but about how I’d need to hunt fer these people before I pulled out. So to speak. Then that big Salish woman did sure enough make her move, and I was some busy fer the rest of the night…and fer every night thereafter. It got so intense by the second day that I was napping during the day about half the time, jist to make up fer lost sleep.
They’d come one by one, so at least there was no swarming, but they didn’t cut me no slack, neither. Pretty Bird would wear me out fer a while. The moment she went back to her own blankets, Sees Elk would slide in beside me. Not that I could perform right off, you know; I ain’t no sex god. I tell you, though, that woman knew how to be patient but persistent.
Then tiny Butterfly would wing on in, and wait until I made my move. She was the only one who did that, and I was some grateful. In fact, I even got to fantasizing that if I could magically have Laughing Brook for a first wife and Butterfly fer a second, life would be paradise. I knew better, of course. Jist saying.
Had that been all of it, I might not have had to nap so much, but that headwoman, that so-called Pretty Bird–she was a lusty thing, I’ll tell you. She’d wait, most likely git herself some sleep, and then here she’d come again, last hour before daylight, making sure she got a second helping. It was her right, her tipi, and I couldn’t hardly say no, but it did weary me some.
The morning after the third day, the storm had finally broken. I dressed, checked over my weapons–the Hall carbine and belt knife–before heading out to gather these women some meat. The drifts would be deep, and the elk would have been pushed down low, off the mountains and into the valley. I had a purty fair idea where to find a few. Two good sized animals ought to see these folks through the remainder of the winter. These women could eat, even toothless old Yellow Snow, but two should do it.
Looking across the fire pit at Pretty Bird as I stood to go, I grinned and said, “You girls have been precious bed warmers. I have to say, at my tender age this has been the experience of a lifetime. Although, Pretty Bird, if you’d have shown a little mercy instead of going fer Round Two before breakfast every morning, I might have been able to stay awake better.”
She stared at me flatly. “I have never been in your blankets before breakfast.”
The gleeful cackle of the ancient crone, Yellow Snow, chased me all the way to the treeline.