I hated it when Tam did one of them cliffhanger endings, but we’d both been more tuckered out than we’d realized. Still, this one was going to drive me bonkers, trying to figure out how them snake people were going to respond when Crazy Rifle and Tall Pine rode right up to ’em.
“Here’s your dead folks. We caught ’em trespassing. The other kid’s a born liar, so don’t be believing anything he’s told you about how it went down. Have a nice day.”
We wouldn’t be doing storytime at our noon break today, either, because we wouldn’t be taking a noon break. It wasn’t likely to make the history books, but some of us Chisholm Trail veterans called this area Parker’s Parking Place. The great Comanche warchief Quanah Parker had more hidey-holes within spitting distance of this section of trail than President Grant had cases of whiskey stashed in the White House.
It was not an area where you let down your guard. Not even if you were the literal incarnation of the earlier and equally great Chief, Dangerous Man.
Maybe especially not then.
Between fretting over the conclusion to Tam’s tale about the Gros Ventres and fretting over knowing I’d be missing my midday coffee, I made the serious mistake of starting to wish fer some sorta distraction to take my mind off things I could do absolutely nothing about. Be careful what you wish for; you jist may git it.
The distraction turned out to by Crazy Abigail, leaping out from behind an elderberry bush some thirty yards ahead of us, capering and cackling like she always done.
Tam asked the one question that needed asking, “What is she doing up this way?”
“No clue,” I admitted. Which was about the extent of my intelligent conversation around Crazy A, as most men called her. Abigail tended to turn up in northern Texas, not southern Oklahoma. She went where she chose, though, and from the look of her had been doing right well since we’d last seen her some three…no, four trail drives back.
Decked out in Kiowa moccasins and a white woman’s dress in light blue, crazy as a kid on a triple dose of peyote, healthy as a horse fer all anybody could tell, the lady remained an enigma. A downright attractive enigma iffen you were the kind of man to see through the dirt smudging her cheeks and weren’t too worried about the possibility she might not be quite human. She was tall with dark eyes and turned me on every time I seen her
Tam figured that was my suicidal impulse on a hard gallop.
Some people speculated she’d been a sodbuster’s kid at one time, captured by one or another band of red savages, driven insane by seeing her family slaughtered before her eyes and forced to service her monstrous captors. Tam assured me that tale was made up outa whole cloth, though, and he should know. Both the Kiowa and the Comanche treated the woman with respect, but neither tribe admitted having had their hands on her as such.
She was safe enough alone, even out here in Parker’s Parking Place, as long as she stayed clear of the Comancheros and general riffraff riding the Trail these days.
“Ma’am,” Tam nodded, tipping his hat back and pulling Smokey to a halt as he did so. I stopped Joker the same way, but there weren’t much point to me joining in with the Ma’am-ing and the hat tipping. Crazy A never wanted to talk to me, only to Crazy Rifle.
She stopped her jigging jist like that and stood staring up at my partner. Now, you might think it was kind of disrespectful, us not stepping down jist to be polite, but not so. Crazy A would talk to a few folks every now and then, but only if they were mounted and stayed that way. Hit the ground, and you might wind up sprouting the hilt of one of them throwing knives she wore strung around on her hip belt like so many dragon’s teeth, but you’d never hear a word of prophecy from her insanely kissable lips.
I’ve been told I have a thing fer dangerous women.
“Tale Teller,” she pronounced, and I swear her voice didn’t sound female no more, nor maybe even human fer that matter, “Crazy Rifle. Dangerous Man.”
“Them’s my names. Don’t wear ’em out.”
Seemed to me Tam was taking a risk, talking flippant to her like that, but she went right on like she never heard a word he said.
“Stand ready. The time is near.”
Then she shook herself like a dog coming out of water, blinked them dark eyes that held such depth I could fall into ’em forever, and walked off behind that same elderberrry bush. I stared hard at that bush fer a bit.
“Don’t waste yer time. There won’t be nobody there.”
“Yeah, I know.” I sighed and picked up the reins. “There never is. The time is near, eh?”
We moved on, desiring mightily to be clear of the Parking Place well before sunset. The elderberry bush was maybe a mile behind us when he said, “Well, Dawson, iffen the time is getting short, I’d best be picking up the pace on my tale telling. Maybe go from one to two per evening fer a while, starting with the story about the worm people while I’m cooking supper tonight.
“There’s still a fair bit of my winter with Believer and Laughing Brook you need to hear about.”
We were three days on the boy’s trail when we met them. Forty warriors, all heavily armed and looking like they knew how to use what they had. Unconsciously, I pressed a fist against my chest in order to sense the presence of the beaded medicine pouch fastened around my neck with a soft buckskin thong. Inside the pouch was jist one item, though I’d be adding more over time…if I lived. I’d polished the three inch piece of leg bone I’d cut from the doe’s remains till it shone like ivory. Many Indian warriors carried with them something from their medicine animal. Tarabivo Naritgant, Dangerous Man, had done this. But I was mostly white, and that didn’t seem exactly right to me. Rather, I had chosen to carry something marked by my medicine animal. Medicine Coyote had gnawed this piece of bone; the grooves from his teeth were deep and obvious.
It was strange enough to be going on with, I thought. Part Comanche by blood, Piegan by influence, loving a Cheyenne woman and being hated by a Kootenai boy. Beyond that, bedding a whole passel of Salish women…and now becoming entangled with these Gros Ventres, the Piik-siik-sii-naa, the snake people.
Tall Pine made the sign for Truce to ’em. Their leader didn’t sign back, but he didn’t raise his rifle to his shoulder, either, so that was good. They didn’t even do the usual got-you-surrounded-sucker thing when we reached each other, jist stopped…and then started signing. Before long, the cold-stiffened bodies of their subchief and his son had been reverently removed from their face-down positions atop the bay filly and reverently placed face down over the backs of two separate pack ponies and then reverently lashed into place.
To say we were escorted under heavy guard fer the half-day’s ride back to their encampment on the Milk River would be kind of an understatement, but one thing led to another, and eventually we got to tell our side of the story, sort of. Not with great and friendly ceremony inside a nice warm lodge, but on our feet under the blazing yet frigid sun of a northern Montana winter day. That we were not considered nice guys was…kind of obvious.
I didn’t pay any attention to the Chief’s name, but his point was that offing his people in the dead of night under any circumstances was a sort of unneighborly thing to do. Then it was Leaping Frog’s turn–that was the liar boy, still running on his child’s name–to have his say. It quickly became obvious I’d called it right, that he wasn’t on real close acquaintance with the truth. I started thinking of him as Leaping Fraud, but that wouldn’t translate, so I kept it to myself.
“We met these two on the hunt,” he began, “and exchanged words of friendship. But then they came to steal our horses in the night. When our father challenged them, they shot him without warning, and then my brother. I wished to attack them, but my father commanded me with his dying breath to flee home as fast as I could, to tell the People what the Piegan and his white slave had done.”
White slave? I was a slave now, was I? Jist that quick, I went from trying not to laugh at this punk with the high voice that had not yet changed to feeling a bit of a head of steam building. Slave?
Not all white, neither, fer that matter.
When our turn came, Tall Pine spoke well, telling these snake people how it had truly gone down. I began to see why the Piegan saw them as Piik-siik-sii-naa. Ostensibly, they were letting my friend have his say, including the fact that the wound in the boy’s gut had been made by a wide-blade knife, not a round lead bullet. Also the fact that the massive wound in the father’s body would not have left the man time fer any dying words. No matter; it was more than obvious they didn’t believe us fer one tenth of a tenth of a second. They thought we were lying.
Now, you’ve known me fer a few years, and you’ve likely figured I can’t stand being called a liar. I didn’t believe Tall Pine liked it much, either, but he never showed a thing on his face, jist calm, cool, collected–I was as proud of him as I was irritated with these Big Belly people.
When my friend finished talking, there was a silence. He didn’t figure there was anything more he could say, and these idiots weren’t exactly going to allow the white slave to put in a few words, no indeed they weren’t! We’d dismounted fer the telling, but we still had hold of our horses, so we jist mounted up and turned to ride on outa there.
Except about that time we heard a sound, don’t know the Piik-siik-sii-naa words, but it sounded to me like, “Not so fast!”
We turned back around, and glory be, there was something like eighty rifles and at least a hundred arrows aiming at what passed fer our hearts.
Now, iffen I’d held my peace, I reckon Tall Pine mighta talked some sense into ’em. He knew his Indian politics, and he would likely have shamed ’em into acting like honorable men even if they wasn’t. Looking back, I suppose it weren’t really their fault. They’d lost a prized member of their society, two iffen you count the wannabe coup counting kid, and we’d jist labeled the dead man’s surviving son a barefaced liar. Lots of folks that wouldn’t settle right with, not jist Gros Ventres.
But I didn’t much like being thought a liar, and being thought a slave was jist too insulting fer words, and–I lost it. I really lost it.
“I am Dangerous Man!” I thundered at ’em in Blackfoot, which they understood well enough. “Warchief of the Comanche! Hurl your puny arrows and your soft bullets! My medicine is strong! Your weapons cannot touch me! The Spanish believed they killed me, yet I live! Fire at me, fire at my friend the great warrior of the powerful Blackfeet Confederacy! Do this, and he will watch with nothing to do while I destroy you all, men, women, lying children, dogs, and horses! The Piegan call you Piik-siik-sii-naa, the snake people, but you are worms. I spit on your smallness!”
And I did. Spit on the ground, that is, not kill ’em. Turned around again, and walked Wolf out of their camp, the filly following and Tall Pine riding beside me.
I did not fear the arrow or the bullet at my back. They were worms. Their weapons had no medicine.
There had been no -whisk!- of arrow through the air, no -whump!- of a bullet meeting flesh. Jist silence, until the Piegan and I were out of hearing range entirely.
“That went well,” I said to Tall Pine, and he nearly fell off his horse laughing. I jist shook my head, but I did have a question to ask–once he settled down.
“Think they still believe I’m a white slave?”
He cracked up all over again. “No,” he assured me after he had himself under control. “I do not believe they think that at this point.”
I nodded in satisfaction. “That’s good. Think they bought that, about me being old Cuerno Verde?”
He looked at me in puzzlement. “Cuerno Verde? That is not what you named yourself. You said Dangerous Man. Why do you now use the name given by the Spanish instead of your own?”
“You think what I said was real?”
“No,” he said slowly. “I know what you said was real. At least if this Dangerous Man wears a buffalo headdress with green-tinted horns.”
“That is what I saw.”