I fell silent fer a moment, remembering that day. My partners waited, seeing I needed time to spit it out.
“Thing was, first off, you had to know Moson. He was typical Army, big bull of a man, arms like a danged gorilla and jist about as hairy as one. Sergeants in the Army are known fer beating their own men into line, and Moson was a beater’s beater. Matter of fact, he’d beat one of my friends so bad he was crippled fer life, had to be discharged from service.
“Then there was the Reb. He was jist a kid, looked to be no more’n ten or maybe at most a scared-witless eleven. He was backed in a corner, didn’t have a weapon one left on him, jist shaking like a leaf, knowing he was going to die hard.
“See, the Sergeant wouldn’t even bother to waste a bullet on him. He was about to stick the kid to the wall with his bayonet and enjoy doing it, too.”
“So you shot him?” Tam asked quietly.
“Nope. First, I hollered, Sergeant! He jist kinda looked back over his shoulder, sorta snarled at me, and turned back to make the thrust.
“Then I shot him.”
“Still can’t believe your lawyer got you outa that one,” Cougar muttered. We were pulling our cinches, getting ready to mount up.
“Neither could I. The whole danged Army wanted me facing the firing squad, including some of my own men. Half a dozen of ’em had seen me fire through the planks into that stall.”
Granger Byers had been one helluva lawyer. “We’re gonna tell ’em you were shooting fer the Reb and missed,” he’d told me.
“I missed at a range of ten, maybe twelve feet?” I’d gaped at him fer that one.
“That’s the story, and we’re sticking to it. It’s war. People make mistakes. The kid drew a hideout gun the Sergeant never saw coming, and he was gonna git shot before he could stick him with the bayonet. You were trying to save your superior noncom’s life.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
But he’d made it work. None of my men had been close enough to see if the Reb had actually had the gun in his hand, there was a pistol lying in the straw that he’d dropped in his terror, and Byers actually sold the story to the Court.
That was the day I’d realized there really is such a thing as too much honesty, that the truth will not always set you free but a lie sold convincingly may jist save your tail.
In fact, the truth could get purty ugly, as Tam had illustrated the previous evening when he’d told us the tale of Rain before Dawn.
Our reception at Bear Breath’s winter encampment was boisterously welcoming to say the least. The four horses and I arrived just before midday. The sun was shining, warm enough to melt a little snow without turning the entire meadow to muddy mush.
Most of the hunters were back in in from their early morning forays with enough fresh meat to feast the rest of the day and through the night. Women and girls of all ages were hard at work, cooking, working the fresh hides, sewing, even doing a bit of early spring cleaning…and of course ogling the fancy young warriors parading back and forth through the camp in all their finery on their finest ponies. A few of the younger girls even giggled openly when a particularly purty man would strut-step his mount past their worksites. This marked a really happy mood for the band. A properly virtuous, demure, hardworking Piegan maiden was expected to maintain a rather adult demeanor, not go around giggling foolishly. The simple fact that no one seemed bothered by their silliness meant that today must be something special.
I could not locate Tall Pine at first, and so spoke to one of the youngest warriors, Whip Tail.
This young man bore great promise among the Piegan, having used a bullwhip obtained from the whites by his father to count coup on three separate, fully adult Crow warriors. This had taken place during his first war party when he was eleven years of age.
Was he still eleven now, or had he turned twelve? I could not remember.
The Blackfeet had slipped in close to a Crow band’s horse herd on foot, deep in the night, leaving their youngest member to hold their own ponies while they attempted to steal many more from their hated enemies. Unfortunately, they were detected, the alarm was raised, and they fled back toward their mounts as fast as they could run.
In the meantime, the young boy was very afraid–he told me this, in private where none of his own people could hear–because he saw he and the held ponies were discovered by three mounted Crow. They rushed upon him, and he knew it was his time to die. Yet he did not wish to die in the moonlight in enemy lands, so he fought as he could, using the long bullwhip to lash out against his attackers.
His first flick of the whip snapped against a pony’s leg.
The horse shied, nearly unseating its rider, whereupon the long tail of the whip snaked out again, luckily slicing across the eyes of the man whose lance would have skewered him in another second.
Momentarily blinded, the warrior chose the path of discretion, allowing his mount to carry him away from this Demon Blackfoot Child to safety.
His third swing of the whip had not been so lucky, merely striking a Crow warrior’s leg and the pony’s flank, but it was enough that the animal flinched as it ran, throwing off the man’s aim. The arrow should have taken him in the chest, but he earned only a small nick in the left ear as the missile whizzed past his head.
The final Crow would have killed him, but the boy’s people had returned in time, the war chief’s bullet blowing a hole in the attacker’s gut. The whip sliced the fatally wounded man’s face as he lay on the ground. Which counted as a coup, since he was not dead yet and retained a grip on his bow if nothing else.
No new horses for the raiders but no man lost, either, and at least one Crow down fer the count.
“Ho, Whip Tail!” I greeted him cheerfully. It was impossible not to do so; good cheer was in the very air this day.
“Ho, Crazy Rifle! Come to my father’s tipi! There is much meat. We will feast, and two of his mares are in heat. Your great stallion Wolf will feast also!” He laughed heartily, as was his way on even a fairly difficult day.
“So,” I belched loudly in appreciation of the fine meat, “Tall Pine is now married? His bride is with him in their new lodge?”
“He is.” Whip Tail’s father, Black Wolf, belched also. His wives, all seven of them, beamed in appreciation at our compliments on their cooking. “And the band rejoices.”
“Rain Woman?” I asked innocently–and every pair of eyes in the tipi locked onto me in shocked silence.
At length, Black Wolf spoke quietly to his son. “He does not know?”
“No, father. We came straight to the lodge after introducing Wolf to the mares. There was no time to tell him.”
Tell me what? I wanted to ask, but then again I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
I was right.
The stocky warrior–stocky fer the generally long, lean Piegan–sighed deeply. “Well, Crazy Rifle, you are our honored guest and a good friend to our people. You deserve to know. Rain Woman is dead. She was killed by the All Comrades for slipping under another man’s blankets.”
Damn. I had to handle this, though, not show what I felt. Come to think of it, what did I feel?
“Talll Pine had her killed?”
He shook his head. “Not exactly. The two fathers had come to agreement, that she and Tall Pine would wed, that she would be his sits-beside-him wife, ruling over all others to come in the future. It was a great step up for her in our society, and while there were those among us who remained uncertain of her virtue, no objection was raised. But that very night, even before the days of ritual between agreement and marriage, she was caught in the act of adultery. She was very strong for a woman and had forced her way upon a young warrior not much older than Whip Tail. The young man admitted she had been doing this for some time.
“The sentence was death, and was carried out immediately.”
A flood of mixed emotions cascaded through me. Now I knew what I was feeling.
I was feeling relief, fer one thing. The lusty young woman, able to escape her father’s lodge at night because of the old man’s infirmity and the indifference of his wives, would never again attempt to overpower me as she had once nearly done. But I was also feeling, or at least thinking, There but for the grace of God go I. Rain Woman had defied her culture’s mores in a simple but unforgiveable way–to them unforgiveable–and paid the ultimate price. I had defied my own culture’s mores by running away from The Banking Bastard’s demand that I join him in his business…and I prosperred.
Remind me never to incarnate as a female if there’s any way to talk the Lords of Karma out of it.
It was impossible fer me to seriously consider marrying any woman, now or ever, who would not yield to my will. Much as the Piegan, much as any man who is a real man, I would always be the head of my own household in truth, not merely in name. To that extent, I saw through Blackfoot eyes. Yet I could not kill or even beat a female fer running around on me. Throw her out? Maybe, depending on a whole host of factors. But, do her in? No.
I’d known this about many of the Indian tribes, but this was the first time I’d known a girl personally–even slightly–who had been ritually slaughtered as a result of no more than being too horny fer her own good. It wasn’t because I was 7/8 white, either. I knew plenty of Caucasian men who’d killed their women fer a mild case of wandering eye.
Finally, having thought it through, I got hold of myself and asked, “Who, then, is the bride? The camp rejoices; she must be a virtuous woman from a good family, eh?”
“Oh, she is!” Whip Tail jumped on the chance to lighten the mood, and his father let him run with it. “Her name is Spring Dawn When the Air is Crisp and Cool on a Bright Morning, though most of us simply refer to her as Dawn.”
“I can see why,” I grinned, reaching fer another chunk of meat, and the somber tension in the tipi evaporated.
“I was so in love with her.” The young warrior sighed theatrically. Black Wolf and I both laughed.
“Well, I was. And so were half of the other young men, whether they admit it or not. Dawn is the most beautiful, sweet-Souled, clean-limbed, hardworking, virtuous Piegan maiden ever permitted flesh by the Creator.”
“C’mon, Whip Tail, why don’t you tell us how you really feel about the girl?”
Black Wolf finished explaining. “It is a fine marriage, connecting two fine families. Tall Pine adjusted rather quickly once Dawn’s father proposed her in marriage. The negotiations between the families were concluded in record time.”
“That’s good,” I said, nodding, and I meant it. The only thing I’d not learned about my friend Tall Pine’s situation and his happiness after the death of Rain Woman was…jist exactly how the All Comrades had done the killing. Which detail I promptly and firmly put out of my mind.
That detail, I knew I did not need to know.