We rode hard, changing horses every hour, pushing north at a rate of eighty miles a day. Twelve hours of daylight riding, stopping fer twelve at night regardless of the fact that there were more than twelve hours of light at this time of year. The horses could not do more than that and arrive at the Greasy Grass on their feet.
Most horses could not have done even that much, but these were no ordinary critters. We’d begun with my pinto Joker, Tam’s grulla Smokey, and a rugged bay with three white socks Cougar called Charger. There’d been plenty of horseflesh available for sale in Waco; we’d picked our three additional mounts per rider with care.
The forced rests allowed our little remuda to recuperate, drink their fill, stuff their bellies with grass, munch down a ration of oats doled out from the lightly laden pack horses, and still git a few hours of sleep. Some slept on their feet in the way of horses; others were so tired they lay down flat on their sides and gave powerful imitations of dead beasts before once again reveille sounded and they were called upon to travel.
We humans slept little. There was much to talk about, fer one thing. Laughing Brook awaited her warrior and her gunfighting son with a great summer encampment of Cheyenne at the Greasy Grass of Montana Territory, along the river the whites called the Little Big Horn. She had borne Tam not one but two sons, the shootist Cougar and a twin–but not an identical twin–who was different from all of them.
“He is called Laughing Wolf,” he told us one evening after we’d picketed the horses. “But I think it is the Creator who laughs. My brother–you would know him, Tam, as Heyókȟa. He is a good man, he is my brother, but his mind is such that no other may know its workings.”
“Interesting,” the tale teller mused. “I have known several Heyókȟa, but I have to admit…he stays with the Cheyenne always, doesn’t he?”
Cougar nodded. “Yep.” I found it interesting, this young shootist’s way of speaking, flipping from Indian cadence to cowboy and back, you never knew when. “The Cheyenne have a place in their culture for the Heyókȟa. The whites do not, except to lock them up and torture them.”
“Tell me, son, how did Believer go?”
This made the younger man throw back his head and roar with laughter. “He went as he chose,” he explained. “Defying the gods and the U.S. Government to interfere with his will. President Grant had jist started his second term in the Fraud House when some Army bureaucrat went to him with a request to reopen the ancient case of Believer’s supposed desertion from the Army after the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
“No kidding?” I couldn’t help myself. “It got that ridiculous? Nigh on seventy years ago, and they reopened the case?”
“They did,” he nodded.
I could see he was busting to tell the rest of it, so I shut up and listened.
“It was even more ridiculous because of Believer’s connections. As an author writing of the western mountains, he was–he is–famous and beloved by uncounted hordes of fans. Despite living the life of a near-hermit, but for our little family, he was wealthy. And wealth begets the ability to tell the President of these United States of America to stick it where the sun don’t shine!”
I wasn’t quite sure where this was heading, but I was beginning to get the grins myself. Tam’s eyes were twinkling, too.
“The President was–I think suckered would be the right word–into signing an authorization to send an entire company of U.S. Cavalry after Believer, to bring him back–”
“Dead or alive!” All three of us spit that out at once, so loud we ’bout spooked the horses.
“The Cavalry company, under one truly star-crossed Major by the name of Oscar DeBoer, was jinxed from the git-go. Before they’d so much as set foot in Montana Territory, the list of mishaps that beset them was already legend. Rattlesnakes in great numbers showed up in the middle of the night in their encampments. Indian raiders taunted them with feints that tempted them to go out of route to chase the red devils, who always disappeared like smoke.
“The ferry they took across the Missouri broke apart and spilled the lot into the river. Bank robberies took place in nearly every town they went through, with the local bankers and Sheriffs appealing to them to help catch the miscreants. They were nearly overcome by a wildfire that rushed upon their flanks, seemingly sprung out of nowhere.”
“Sounds like Believer, all right.” Tam was chuckling regularly now. I didn’t quite git it until Cougar explained.
“Yep, it was Believer, all right. When he got word of the Army coming against him, his agent back East offered to get some crack attorneys on the job, fire up the press against both the President and the Army, all of that and more. But the big man would have none of it. I’ve got it under control, he telegraphed the agent, and he did.
“See, there’s a…I guess you could call it a Believer’s Fan Club out there. He came down outa the mountains, set up shop in Fort Benton, and was telegraphing key people every day during the late summer last year and all through the winter. He’d send out a little hint where it would do the most good, suggesting a trick on DeBoer’s column, and magic would happen.”
“That’s purty good,” I put in, sorta feeling I had to say something.
“Yep. But that ain’t the best of it. The best of it is, he wrote in detail about every single one of them escapades, making the Army and ol’ Grant look jist every bit as dumb as they were acting, and set it all up to be published after his death.”
The younger Tamson stopped there fer a bit. His Dad had jist signaled supper was ready, and vittles purely had precedence. Once we’d filled our bellies, sand-washed the dishes, and checked the horses over fer hoof problems and the like, it was time to coffee up…and finish the story of Believer and the Army.
“Coug,” the tale teller said, “It would seem the Army must have come against the old man on the mountain soon enough despite all the delaying tactics. He didn’t hang around Benton fer the finish, did he?”
The shootist rolled a cigarette expertly and lit it with a sliver from the fire before answering. “Nope. DeBoer and his men did ride into Fort Benton, sure enough, but Believer was long gone by that time, back to the cabin. It was early April, still plenty of snow on the ground up in the high country where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam.
“The major wasn’t a total idiot. He’d figured out he was being toyed with, and it steamed his moustache purty good. Plus, they’d acquired themselves an Indian scout, a Crow who didn’t much care fer the Blackfeet or the mountain man. They fought through one hellacious spring blizzard, and by golly, finally made it on toward the pass, humping on up over that final rise. DeBoer had his bugler ready to blow fer the charge up to the aspen grove; no ninety-five year old sumbitch was gonna beat the U.S. by God cavalry on his watch!”
Cougar stopped there, building our anticipation, pouring himself another cup of coffee while he waited fer one of us to break and ask him to git on with it. But his Dad and I had seen the elephant; we’d played this game before and jist held out our cups fer him to top off while he was at it.
The man might be half Cheyenne, but except fer being a bit darker of skin and some leaner, he was the spitting image of his old man, right down to the jug ears and the twinkle in his eyes when he was about to spring a good one on his listening audience. He finally seen he weren’t going to git the better of us this time around, so he went on with it.
“Them troopers topped that rise at a canter, eager and ready sink in the spurs, rush up there to rub out the Army deserting, Injun loving, trick playing, older than dirt fellow that had stirred up all this trouble fer ’em…and then the major pulled ’em up. They all sat there, staring in shock. The entire aspen grove was on fire. Cabin, corral, barn, shed, even the doors to the root cellar were engulfed in flames. They’d have seen the black smoke earlier had the sky been blue on that fine, crisp spring morning–but it was already snowing again, and the smoke had been hidden until that moment.
“He went the way he always planned, then,” Tam observed, and I had to ask what he meant.
“The year I wintered with him and your Mom,” he addressed his son, “Believer once told me he’d always known how he’d go. He’d know the day and the hour. It would be in winter, in a cabin, alone by himself, and he’d have things rigged to go up in flames the moment his body cooled. Sort of like the Vikings, a flaming burial at sea, only in the mountains.”
Cougar nodded. “That’s the way he rigged it. Except me and Mom were there when he went. He and I set up the fire starters. The night he passed, he stayed up late, a little stiff in his limbs but mentally sharp as ever. Told us he’d be gone by daylight, and he was. Went to sleep and left the body, jist like that.”
Laughing Brook had held the horses, waiting a few yards downslope while her son set the grove afire. The snow was still deep, so there was no risk of the blaze spreading, but nothing would be left of the place one of the greatest mountain men of all time had called home fer nearly twenty-five years.
I looked over at Tam and then looked quickly away. There was pain in his eyes, pain that needed to be alone with its own memories. Gone was the big man who’d picked him up from where he’d fallen face first, unconscious, taking him under his own roof to care for as a son. Gone, too, the corral where the black wolf had come at him in the dark, his life saved only by a sliver of firelight sent by his lover. No more the juniper grove where the original cougar had stalked the young Cheyenne girl and from which had emerged a limping Medicine Coyote they’d all thought was dead.
Cougar cleared his throat and said, “I brought along a copy of the last words he ever wrote.” He fished a folded paper out of his shirt pocket and made to hand it to his father, but my partner shook his head.
“Dawson’s jist learned to read this past year. Let him do the honors.” I strongly suspected the man who could hold any audience spellbound with his endless storytelling didn’t trust his voice right then.
Smoothing the paper across my knee, I scanned through the writing to make sure there weren’t any unfamiliar words I’d stumble over in the reading of it, then read aloud.
“And so, dear readers, we come to my point, which is this: The States ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. From that day forward, We the People of this great land, we who threw off the yoke of the English king, have had it in writing. When pressed, we are able to point to our own Constitution, not as giving us the right to defend ourselves against oppressive government whenever the need arises, but merely to underscore that right in terms no thinking man, woman or child can fail to understand.
“I fulfilled my contracted term of service in the United States Army. When that term had been completed, and honorably so, the clerks shuffled my paperwork and told me I was still indentured to them for three more months. Most men, I suspect, would have been unhappy about that, even furious, but would have suffered the indignity.
“I saw more deeply, saw that this was oppressive government action, and I chose not to accept my lot as inevitable but to act as a sovereign citizen.
“When the case was reopened this year, I could have fought them through so-called traditional means, but I saw this as a way to demonstrate to one and all that true power resides in the individual, not in the organization as most would have you believe. Thus, in the end, you have my chronicles of The Debacle of Major DeBoer as a shining example of what you can do to stand against tyranny should the need arise.
“May the flag ever wave,
There was one thing left to do, and as the only military veteran present, it fell to me to point it out. It didn’t take much explaining, nor was there the slightest hint of disagreement among us.
We turned to our saddles, pulled our rifles from the scabbards, and walked a distance off into the brush until we found a suitable spot where we lined up, side by side by side. There was no bugler, yet I heard every crisp, clear note as Taps was played.
As the final note trailed away on the evening air, I could feel the old chevrons on my sleeves, could sense his presence. Once again, Sergeant Dawson Trask of the United States Army honored a fallen warrior, calling cadence as we faced the sunset and fired our 21-gun salute to the man who had made Believers out of all of us.