“While you were rassling that avalanche, Tam, why couldn’t you figure a way to save a bit of all that ice and snow fer a day like this?” It would get hotter; we were barely into summer by man’s arbitrary calendar, but today was hot enough. Maybe not over a hunnert degrees, but close. Sweat ran down every body part we had. We’d be needing to find shade iffen we could. Hole up fer siesta time.
Not that we’d have that option on the return trip. This year was a big one fer herds heading north. Matter of fact, we’d sorta lost count of how many we’d passed already, their noses pushing north while we meandered steadily against the flow. Most times, we’d jist swing out to one side of the herd till the passing was done, sometimes greeting a drover we knew here and there as they plodded on toward Abilene.
I jist realized I hadn’t mentioned that in these notes until now. Too routine, I guess. Didn’t seem worth discussing. That was about to change some, though I didn’t know it jist yet.
“Sweat’s good for ya, cowboy.” Tam sagely observed. “Gits all the poisons outa your system.”
“Huh. My poisons are so far out, I ain’t seen ’em in a coon’s age.”
“Looks to be Gary Harnoff up ahead.” He changed the subject, indicating the man riding easy, heading our way. “Which would make that the HOH herd.”
Which it was. The HOH traill boss had some information fer us, too. Or more specifically, fer me. Gary was a friend of mine, more or less. We go way back, long before the tale teller and I’d even met each other. “You might want to know, Dawson,” he told me after we’d exchanged pleasantries, “Speed Jenkins is riding left flank.”
I shrugged. “Don’t reckon I can avoid the fellow forever.”
Harnoff spat in the dirt, barely missing a highly indignant scorpion. “Ain’t nobody thinking you’re ducking him.”
“Maybe not yet. If I suddenly, jist sorta accidentally decided the right flank was the way to pass the herd today, though, folks would sure enough start thinking.”
“I reckon. Do me one favor. Make sure you stall him enough so’s Maury Black gits up close enough to witness him reaching first. With two witnesses, one of mine and one of yours, none of the hands will think a thing of leaving him fer the buzzards. Matter of fact, you’d be doing us a favor.
“Tale teller,” he touched the brim of his hat in a sort of mini-salute to Tam and rode on. We’d been able to tell him the Shearson Tank looked to have enough water fer the herd, but he’d need to see fer himself.
My partner never said a word, but I seen him out of the corner of my eye, jist sorta casually checking to make sure his .45 Colt was loose in its holster and the Winchester none too tight in the scabbard. I done similar, though it wouldn’t make no nevermind in the end. Speed Jenkins wasn’t near as fast as he liked to think despite his name, but he was a fair bit quicker out of the leather than me on my best day.
“Tam,” I said, “You up fer a little fun?”
He looked over at me, one eyebrow raised. My idea of fun and his weren’t always exactly the same, but he was listening.
“Dammit, Trask,” my self-appointed enemy snarled, “You gonna go fer your gun or do I have to blast you plumb outa the saddle to git yer attention?”
“Jist a second, Sammy,” I replied calmly around a mouthful of short-smoked rattlesnake meat. “I need to honor the diamondback what donated this here feast.” Tall and thin, Jenkins wasn’t a bad hand at all when it come to droving, but he did purely hate being called Sammy. Which was how I’d come to git on his bad side in the first place, way back in the day, till he couldn’t take it no more. Poked at him, then poked at him some more .
I wasn’t always the nice guy you see before you today.
He was fuming now fer sure. Time fer Tam to put in his two cents’ worth.
“It’s purty good, Jenkins. I don’t reckon you’ll want any, but Maury might.” This last referred to the other flank rider, jist arriving on the scene and close enough to swear if Sammy Speed gunned down an innocent man while he was having his lunch.
Something in Tam’s observation caught Sammy’s attention. “Why wouldn’t I want any? Rattler’s good eatin’.”
Did I mention that Jenkins is known fer being easily distracted?
“Oh, nothing.” My partner dripped innocence.
“Yeah? I say it’s something. Fill me in.”
Now, going around throwing them commanding tones at the tale teller ain’t the brightest move in the world, but I had to cut the guy some slack. He’d heard of Tam, but only as a drover who told some whoppers. Tam weren’t me, and he could’ve had a third bullet outa the barrel of his Colt before old Speed there got his iron clear of the leather. But it weren’t Crazy Rifle’s fight, and he weren’t in the least offended. He was jist having a bit of fun.
“Well…” he said with obvious reluctance. “This damfool Dawson you’ve taken such a disliking to…he’s an idiot.”
Jenkins snorted. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“And he likes to make dumb bets.”
“Yeah…he does. I seen him do that more’n once. So?”
“So, the way we come by this rattler meat, he offered to bet me he could shoot off a rattler’s head, drawing from the leather, shooting from the hip, one shot.”
“Big deal. I done that lotsa times.” Which was no doubt a serious bit of exaggeration, but we didn’t mind. He knew he was faster, and that was the hook. Which Tam promptly set.
“Yeah. We all have, I reckon. But not quite like he done it. See, this crazy bastard, he offered to bet me–what he done was, this big old boy, you can see from the size of these meat strips how big he was, nine footer if an inch, a hunnert pounds at least. What that fool,” he looked at me in amazed disgust, “What that fool done was walk right up so’s he was within striking distance of that monster, pissed-off snake, then he kicked trail dust at it till it went fer him.
” He shot that giant-assed rattler’s head off, all right, but he done it during the rattler’s strike.”
Watching Jenkins, I was having a hard time not busting a gut. His eyes were wide, jaw dropped down so his mouth hung open, such was the persuasive power of a tall tale with Tam doing the telling.
“Rattler struck him, too,” he finished, “But by the time it smacked into his crotch, it was only the splat of the bloody neck that whacked him. Although,” Tam looked suddenly thoughtful, as if remembering, “He did kind of walk funny fer the rest of the day.”
We were miles past the HOH herd, and our guts still hurt from laughing so hard. “You told that whopper so well,” I grinned, trying to hold it to that, “I was believing you myself.”
“Hey, don’t look at me. You’re the one who come up with the script. I jist followed my lines.”
“I am beginning to think my evil influence. is starting to wear off on you some, though. A year or two back, you never would have come up with an idea like that.”
“You’re probably right,” I admitted.
“Well, that’s about all the hilarity I can stand fer one day. How be we change topics.”
“Why not.” My sides would probably hurt fer a week as it was. “Something serious?”
“Absolutely. There ain’t nothing more serious than a jealous woman.”
“You’ve growed some,” Believer observed. I’d taken a night, no more than ten miles out, to git a decent night’s sleep. Making it over the pass had taken a lot out of me, and it had felt highly important to come in looking good. Which I had done, the filly’s mild limp no worse and the shallow gash along Wolf’s right hip scabbed over well enough.
It was obvious I was favoring my bad shoulder, but nobody was bringing that up till I was ready to talk about it.
“So has your wife.”
“Hey, it looks good on me!” The Cheyenne girl was not showing her pregnancy yet, not as such, but she’d packed on a few pounds. She was right, of course; it did look good on her. Everything looked good on that woman. “Is the great Crazy Rifle going to recount his many coups or talk about a woman’s weight?”
“I’ll recount coups, and gladly at that,” I said, smiling. It was good to jist sit, watching Laughing Brook heat up the stew and fix a fresh pot of coffee, knowing I didn’t have to do a thing but be sociable. “But I’d as soon hear how things have been going here first.”
“Well,” the mountain man nodded, “Our end of it’ll most certainly take less time to tell. Guess the first thing we need to tell you is, Devil Dog ain’t been to the feeding place fer the past three days.”
“Medicine Coyote’s medicine has failed him?” I asked it quietly, but we all knew I was hit hard.
“Can’t say fer sure. We all know there’s a ton of reasons he could be away fer a while. But yeah, it’s a tough world out there, even fer a smart coyote. My gut ain’t telling me to git my hopes up.”
“Nor mine,” Laughing Brook admitted.
The cabin was quiet fer a moment while I processed my thoughts. “Once I’ve eaten and thrown down a cup of coffee, gotten warmed up and all, I’ll need to go see fer myself.”
“Naturally.” The coyote was my medicine animal, and this particular coyote had warned of danger many times, sometimes right out in the open, sometimes in the dream state. My heart was torn. I knew what I must do to repair that tear, to keep myself from breaking down in front of these people.
But I must do it soon.
There were three remaining steaks from the batch Butterfly had sent with me. These went into a pouch. You never knew.
Hope springs eternal.
“I’ll put away your travel pack for you while you’re out,” Laughing Brook said gently.
“Thanks,” I nodded, almost choking up at the compassion in her voice as well as her eyes. Believer said nothing to me, nor I to him. What was there to say? “I’ll be needing the bone saw.”
The girl handed me the small, fine toothed tool. Picking up the Hall carbine, I slipped out into the late afternoon sunshine.
The big man had it right, of course. There were no tracks anywhere near the feeding area except for those of Believer himself. And now mine. One slow, grim circuit around the place was enough, and then I began digging in the snow, looking for the perfect bone. There’d be nothing human; the two men my host had butchered in the fall had landed here before first snowfall. Plenty of scavengers around then. No bone left behind.
Found it. Two precise cuts with the saw did the trick.
When I looked up from my task, Medicine Coyote was jist emerging from the juniper thicket, headed my way. Or more likely, headed toward this place of food, my presence being an unimportant detail.
He was injured, hobbling well enough on three feet but holding the right hind as high up under his body as he could. It was painful to watch, undoubtedly more painful to experience, but my heart leaped.
“Welcome, Brother,” I spoke softly. Reverently, as one of them preachers might say. “What does the other guy look like?”
He stopped and sat right down at the sound of my voice, grinning at me as if to say, “I’m here, ain’t I?”
Reaching into the pouch hanging at my belt, I fished out one of the Butterfly steaks and lobbed it high so’s he’d know it was sky food, not a missile coming at him. His eyes followed the thing, and those quick jaws snapped it right out of the air on the way down.
“Nice catch,” I told him, but he’d already gone to work on that meat. “There’s two more, and that’s it.”
When he was done, he laid down in the snow, head up and jist watching me with them big ears pricked forward to catch my every word. I told him how glad I was to see him, that it was obvious we’d both been having adventures of the potentially deadly sort, and a few hunnert other things I couldn’t share with any human friend.
And then I got an idea.
“No clue where you’re denning these days, but I’m betting it’s a distance. How ’bout I build you a hunker-down place here, where you can rest up from time to time iffen it don’t seem worth the effort of commuting?”
Before long, I’d built him a doghouse, a pure dee replica of the fancy double-sided leanto in which the young and hateful Kootenai boy had survived fer more than two months of deepfreeze winter. Crooked Leg…coyote’s hind leg…I’d ponder that later.
“There,” I nodded with satisfaction. “At least you got an option now. S’pose we should name it–Medicine Lodge or Coyote House, whichever. What do you think?”
Medicine Coyote didn’t reply as such, but he did git to his feet and start hobbling over to inspect my handiwork. I left him to it and sat down, leaning back against an aspen tree, staring out toward the west ridge as the sun finished dropping out of sight, jist thinking how much I had to be grateful for since I’d come to this place. It was enough to humble a man.
Then I felt him lean up against my side, his chin plopping down on my forearm.
We watched the final glory of the sunset together.
My sense of inner peace was too strong to shatter, but Laughing Brook surely dented it some.
“This is beautiful!” She remarked…in a tone that shouted loud enough to start another avalanche from the not-so-hidden, icy fury of it. “This is beautiful” meant, as I understood it in that moment, “What woman cared enough to make this for you, and how many times did you mount her to make her care so much? You bastard!”
Now, you gotta realize, there were a whole lot of remarkable things happening all at once. First and foremost, it was remarkable that I understood woman-language, understood the real meaning behind words another man might have taken at face value. I was still but thirteen years old, yet I got that much of it.
It was also remarkable that she had figured out so much from the mere presence of the little beaded medicine pouch she was waving in my face. I hadn’t even had the time to sit down and tell them about my journey west of the pass yet. Beyond that, I wasn’t even half dumb enough to go bragging to the love of my life about hunkering down under the blankets with an entire tipi full of Salish women.
Most remarkable of all, it was downright impressive how them women had stitched and beaded that bag while I was right in the middle of ’em without me noticing, and then stashed it so deep in my travel pack that I’d not uncovered it on the way home. Who’d done the work? Butterfly, I hoped. But not necessarily.
The pregnant and very beautiful Cheyenne girl placed the bag most gently in my hands, eased over by the door, and shrugged into her heavy buffalo robe. Grabbing a parfleche in one hand and the old buffalo lance in the other–which was good, since if she’d put two hands on that lance, I’d have been expecting to git it through my middle about then–and eased on out the door.
“We need potatoes, onions, and meat from the root cellar,” she said quietly, and was gone.
“She ain’t got much light left,” I muttered.
“Enough.” Believer finished scraping out the bowl of his pipe and held it up fer inspection. “That girl can see in the dark even better than the mighty White Blackfoot warrior, Crazy Rifle.”
“Huh. I didn’t even know that medicine pouch was in there.”
Looking at him fer the first time–the girl’s fury had sort of held my attention there fer a while–I realized my mentor’s eyes were twinkling like crazy. He thought this was funny!
“It ain’t that hilarious, you know.”
“Oh, but it is. Tam, iffen you’d care to tell an old, over-the-hill fellow, I’d be happy to hear what you’re not likely to share with my little spitfire wife. Up to you, of course.”
So I told him. About the Salish lodge, the three horny widows, and the toothless old grandmother who’d snuck under my blankets every predawn morning fer three nights in a row. As I more or less expected, he lost it when I got to that part, roaring with laughter fit to wake the dead. Laughing Brook heard him, of course. So did Medicine Coyote. Likely, so did the entire encampment of Bear Breath’s band situated one full day’s ride away to the east.
When he finally got hold of himself, I had to ask.
“That was jealousy, right? That is one jealous woman.”
“As classic a case as ever I’ve seen. Yep.”
“But…why? I mean, she’s married to you, and it’s not like you don’t take care of her every way a man could take care of a woman. She’s got no call to get all fumed like that on my account.”
He sobered quickly. “You treat her well, too, kid. You’re closer to her age by about a hunnert years, and you’ve fast become a force to be reckoned with in these parts. I reckon any woman with a heart in her body would want you, once you’d smashed a full sized mountain lion to pulp fer daring to charge at her. That impacts a woman some, son. It ain’t that she don’t want me in her life; she does. But she wants you, too. Why do you think she calls you my warrior every chance she gits?”
Oh. “Believer, I’m sor–”
He held up a hand to stop me. “Don’t be.”
He got up to git himself a fresh cup of coffee, pouring one fer me while he was at it. “Crazy Rifle, you’d stay on if I give the word. I know that, and believe me, I appreciate it. And I could live with it. Hell, kid, there’s thousands of warriors among the plains tribes with as many as half a dozen wives sharing blankets in one lodge, and some of ’em even make the arrangement work. You don’t hear about it going the other way, but I suspect that’s mostly due to so many red men working so hard to die young. There’s jist plain more Indian women to go around than there are possible husbands.
“White folks, especially those who call themselves Christians, call it sin. But the Muslims, one man among them can have…I think it’s up to four wives, iffen he can care for ’em all.”
I sipped my coffee, noting with pleasure that it was as always a sight better brew than I’d yet managed to produce on the trail. My jug ears picked up Laughing Brook’s light step, jist exiting the root cellar. We didn’t have much time.
“You said, I’d stay on if you give the word. But you won’t.”
“Nope. Not now. You’re one helluva talent, Tam, but you need seasoning. You need to broaden your horizons, see a sight more of how the world works. Hell, you likely need to sow a few more wild oats fer that matter.
“But I won’t last forever. It’s like a friend of mine once put it, jist passing through and getting late in the day. When night comes, I’d like to be able to shuffle off this mortal coil knowing a message can be sent to you and you’ll come fer her.”
I stared the big right man right in the eye, sticking out my hand fer him to shake.
“Know it,” I said. “Guaranteed.”