“You know, Tam,” I observed, adding another bit of brushwood to the fire under our noon pot of coffee, “You’re up to something.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “And what might that be?”
“Not sure,” I admitted, “But I’ll tell you what I think. I think these tales you been telling me lately, about your own life, you ain’t about to relate to nobody else.”
“Well, ’cause they’re jist too personal. If it was jist the battles and such, sure, we all do that. But you’re not a man to let the whole world into your bedroom.”
“Right now, cowboy,” he pointed out, “My bedroom, as you put it, is a patch of sand out in the Oklahoma brush.”
“You know what I mean. I think you decided to tell me all this ’cause you’re figuring to have us throw in together on that ranch, and you were figuring it long before I asked you about it. In other words, you sneaky bastard,” I grinned, “You set me up!”
He pondered that a bit. “Not so much set up, Dawson, as I fgured you had a right to know. And I know you don’t talk out of school.”
“So…you still got to check them messages when we git back up to Abilene, right? Before you can make a decision?”
“Seeing if Believer is still alive, maybe? Checking to see if it’s time to go snag the newly widowed love of yer life yet? And by the way, how old is that man?”
He laughed, genuinely amused. “The messages don’t have to do with that. I’ve been making some investments, purty much from the day them folks and I parted company more’n twenty years back. Jist need to see where those stand at the moment and go from there. The word to go git Laughing Brook…that’ll be coming from a different angle.”
“Hm. What angle might that be?”
“Don’t know myself,” he admitted. “But I know I won’t be that hard to find. Why do you think I been working so hard all this time to build myself a rep as the Tall Tale Teller? Anybody that asks can find out my general whereabouts without even trying.”
“I’ll be–you are one smart sumbitch. I never would never have figured that out on my own in a thousand years. Coffee’s ready.” I got up, snagged the salt out of a saddlebag, and threw a pinch in the pot to settle the grounds.
“Sometimes I ain’t half as smart as I’d like to be,” Tam corrected me, not bothering to git up from his squatting position as he held out both cups to be filled. “Like the time I decided to follow a boy home.”
The filly’s limp was gone and her ribs seemed fine. Medicine Coyote, having taken full advantage of his Crooked Leg Coyote Crib (he hadn’t liked either name I’d suggested), was nearly back up to full speed, flinching occasionally when he ran but putting his full weight on the injured leg with every step. Everything was fine in the healing department.
Except fer my shoulder. Avalanches jist seemed to have a bit of a negative influence on it. Laughing Brook’s mustang had nearly yanked the arm out of the socket when the Chinook wind threw a mountain at us. Later, my own reckless shooting slammed another mountain our way, bounced the filly off me, and did dislocate the shoulder.
Silly thing wouldn’t heal right.
“I’ve done all I can,” Believer admitted, “and so have you. Nothing is quite fixing the joint. I can guess the problem–probably three to one odds I’m figuring it right.”
“So…what’s your diagnosis?”
“I’m thinking, when you had to slam your shoulder back into the socket against that fir tree, maybe a little piece of torn cartilage, or a bone chip, mighta got shoved in there right along with everything else.”
“That’s why it pops whenever I raise my elbow? It don’t hurt all that much these days.”
“That’s why. And the hurting part at age thirteen…Tam, iffen you don’t git this fixed right, it could come back and bite you hard later in life. Believe me, I’m talking from experience here.”
“So…what’s to be done?” It didn’t seem that bad. Not really.
“Kid, you need a sawbones.”
I turned white. “Surgery?”
He nodded somberly. “Yep.”
“I’d say that sums it up.”
“But, but,” I stammered, looking fer a way out, “but…ain’t…ain’t there more horror stories out there about bad cutters messing people up fer life…?”
“Son, there’s maybe one cutter in two hundred I’d trust to take a knife to one of my joints without shooting me first. Really top drawer surgeons are rare as hen’s teeth. Maybe moreso. But it jist happens I do know one. Georges Chouteau. Some distant relation to the fur trappers Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, or so I heard, though he never said and I never asked. Last I heard, he was wintering in Fort Benton.”
Relief surged through me. I could put this off. “Ah. So, when we all head out in the spring, I could maybe get it done then? Though I might have to trade off the filly to pay fer it.”
The old mountain man shook his massive head. “Wrong on both counts. He aint that greedy. Not that kind of man. You could likely trade your old busted-up rifle and he’d do it fer that. But it can’t wait till the snows melt. Soon as the ice is off the Missouri and the first steamboat makes it to Benton, he’ll be on it and gone downriver. And another thing. I’ve seen a lot of these injuries, and the longer you wait, the tougher they are to fix right.
“If you’re gonna do it, it’s gotta be now.”
Leave-taking was no fun whatsoever. Old Believer had seen the elephant and had his emotions under firm control, but he was the only one who did. Had Laughing Brook not been carrying, we might have all three made the trek together, but neither the big man nor I cared to risk our woman and his-or-my child to the rigors of a north country winter on the open plains.
The Cheyenne girl had put my travel pack together with her own two hands, an obvious apology for flaring in jealousy when she first discovered the beaded medicine pouch donated by some “other woman”. Thank God she had no way to know it had been not one but four other women, all in one tipi.
“I will miss you, my warrior,” she murmered in my ear, though she’d had to jump up a bit and hang her arms around me to get up that far. “I’ll miss you too, my little spitfire,” I murmered back.
“Hang onto your hair,” was all the big man offered, which I thought was a purty sensible bit of advice.
“You too,” I replied, and turned the Appaloosa toward the encampment of Bear Breath’s band, trailing the filly behind us on her usual long lead, and the roan colt behind her, tied off to her tail.
My wet face froze solid before we made it down the gentle slope to the main trail.
My friend Tall Pine finished putting out the fire and we turned in. It hadn’t been hard to talk him into coming along fer the ride to Fort Benton to serve as my guide. The basic concept was simple enough: Follow the Marias River downstream. When it dumped into the Missouri, that was Benton.
But basic concepts aren’t always so simple to execute. In the open country east of the Rockies, I’d not be running into snowblocked mountain passes–but there wasn’t much to block the wind, either. Many a man, red and white alike, had become disoriented during a whiteout blizzard, begun stumbling in circles, and frozen to death.
Besides, there were the Gros Ventres. According to my sources, those being Believer and the Blackfoot warrior who rode at my side, the Piik-siik-sii-naa were dangerouis. While I was listening with half an ear, trying to figure out the unfamiliar word, he’d explained.
“We were friends to the Piik-siik-sii-naa for many years. But these Piik-siik-sii-naa are not to be trusted. Our cultures, our traditions were very different, and because of this they left us to ally with our enemies the Crow. Even now, though, we Piegan have not declared these grass creepers to be our enemies. Only Piik-siik-sii-naa.”
Ah. Snakes. My friends the Blackfeet called the Gros Ventre snakes.
Well, I was no snake lover, and I trusted my friend’s judgment. I would beware these snake people.
About Tall Pine’s judgment. When it cames to matters of war, yes, I trusted his judgment absolutely. Together, we had brought down the insane Cree renegade, Lynx Killer. I rode Lynx Killer’s big Appaloosa horse. Tall Pine possessed his stinky scalp.
I was quite certain I’d gotten the better of that deal.
When it came to matters of the heart…I trusted my friend’s judgment not quite so much. He was in love, head over heels in love with Rain Woman. His family was already in negotiations with her father in hopes of obtaining her as his first wife.
As I listened politely to him prattling on about her many virtues, I somehow failed to mention my near certainty that it was Rain Woman who had slit the side of his father’s lodge, slithering inside to wrestle me into sexual submission beneath my blankets.
Early this day, we had come upon three of the scorned snake people, a subchief in his prime and two boys who might have been his sons. They were, the mature warrior said in sign, hunting buffalo. It was a good time fer the young to learn the ways of a winter hunt. They had been gone from their encampment to the east, along the Milk River, fer some days. Had we seen buffalo?
It was Tall Pine’s show, but I wouldn’t have handled it quite the way he did. The Gros Ventre man had been dignified and courteous in his address to us, and he was clearly a man of courage and skill or he’d not have been hunting with only two youngsters fer backup. Unfortunately, my Piegan friend did not see it that way. It was not in his words but in his arrogant demeanor as he curtly informed the hunters that we had seen nothing but snow and flying ravens.
If it were me, I’d have been offended, maybe enough to plan a way of getting even. And there were my horses to consider, especially Wolf.
Many men, I was coming to realize, envied me the Appaloosa stallion. Such a horse gave his rider automatic stature among red men and white men alike. I was sure the Gros Ventre–I preferred not to think of him as Piik-siik-sii-naa–had marked out my stud. All men did.
But we were two obviously seasoned and heavily armed warriors, one a feared Piegan and the other an apparently white man strong enough to run with the Blackfeet. We rode stronger horses than theirs, and we had rifles while they did not. They went on their way, and we went on ours.
Fear of the impending surgery to my shoulder saved our lives, or at least our horses. Had I been asleep, I’d likely not have heard Wolf’s soft snort until it was too late. Or perhaps he would have fought. There was a bond between us. Whether it was enough to kill a man as the great stallion had shown he could kill a wolf, I did not know.
All I do know is that I heard him and, being wide awake despite the hour, knew what it meant.
I had tried to sleep. Tried hard. But sleep would not come, held at bay by the terror of the surgeon’s knife. My favorite aunt had died under such a blade, and a cousin had been mutilated fer life. My cousin had told me of the pain, the memory of which woke him screaming in the night at least once a week.
Although Believer had said this “good cutter”, this Georges Chouteau who might or might not be related to the fur trapping Chouteau brothers, would have ether. Ether, the mountain man promised, would knock a man out when he breathed it, and the knife would not be felt.
I trusted Believer, but I had not experienced this ether, or fer that matter even heard of it. Thus I courted sleep, but sleep resisted my advances.
Tall Pine woke instantly at my touch, but it was my Hall carbine that spoke first into the night. A form materialized above our blankets, and my friend’s knife flashed upward, stifling the attacker’s cry as the blade drove through his gut and up through the diaphragm, buried to the hilt in one savage stroke.
It was over that quickly, though it took us much longer to assess the situation completely.
The Gros Ventre warrior in his prime, a man of importance among these Piik-siik-sii-naa, lay sprawled in the snow where the lead from my rifle had torn through his body. One hand still reached toward the Appaloosa’s tether, the other holding the knife intended to cut the rawhide before leading the horse away from us into the darkness.
Nearly touching our blankets, the other, much smaller form was unarmed except fer a small knife still in the sheath at his belt and a freshly cut branch of choke cherry wood some two feet long, perhaps as thick as my index finger.
“Coup stick,” I breathed in quiet horror. The emotion, I hoped, could not be heard in my voice.
“Coup stick,” Tall Pine agreed in a much more matter-of-fact tone.
This child could not have been more than–what, twelve? Damn, twelve was looking younger and younger these days. While his father had gone to steal the stud, this baby had decided he would count coups on the two great Piegan warriors asleep in their blankets. Whether the Gros Ventre did such things, or whether he had simply decided to emulate the mighty Blackfeet, I did not know.
Had his father known his son would attempt such a thing? I doubted it. He certainly had to know the boy carried the stick, but…no, the father had not known.
“We have to take their bodies to their people,” I said aloud.
Tall Pine was silent fer a time. This was not a thing he understood. Then he asked, “Why?”
“The older boy escaped with their horses,” I told him. “He is even now running fer home. We cannot catch him, even if we had eyes that could track his every move on a cloudy night. He is light of weight, and he will know to change horses when the pony under him gits tired. Therefore, he will reach their lodges safely, and he will tell what happened here.”
“Yes,” My friend agreed. Had he been a white man, he would have added, “So, what’s your point?”
“From the moment he tells his story, we will have made enemies of the entire Gros Ventre nation for all time.”
“Piik-siik-sii-naa,” he corrected me, “And the Piik-siik-sii-naa are not great enough to be called a nation.”
“That’s not my point. The point is, if we do nothing–”
He interrupted. “There is no reason for even the Piik-siik-sii-naa to declare war on us for what happened here. We were under attack. Raiders die. It is Nature.”
I shook my head, forgetting fer the moment how dark it was without the torch we’d lit briefly to identify the raiders. “You would be correct, my friend, but fer one thing. The boy that escaped is a liar. I saw it in him when we talked with his father earlier in the day. He will lie on us, say we attacked them without provocation. And they will believe him unless we challenge his telling.”
Tall PIne thought about that, but only briefly. “All right. We may die for our foolishness.”
“Yeah. I got that.”
“But it is a thing only a Piegan would do–a Piegan, or perhaps the great White Blackfoot warrior Crazy Rifle. No Piik-siik-sii-naa would dare ride into the middle of our people and call out one of our children as a liar. If we die for it, they will sing our songs forever. Let us do this thing.”
The great Appaloosa stallion was less impressed. It would be slow tracking until daylight, but by the time we’d reloaded the horses and mounted up, that wasn’t far off. As I slackened the reins, signalling Wolf that it was time to move out, he spoke into my head fer the first time since the avalanche.
“This is as crazy as shooting a mountain.”
“Yes, my friend,” I said aloud, “I reckon it is.”
“Jist talking to the horse, Tall Pine. Jist talking to the horse.”