“My warrior!” Legs flashing beneath her white antelope skin dress, Laughing Brook ran like an antelope, leaping to wrap her limbs around me in gleeful ferocity. I’d been ready, having seen this before. and had myself well braced fer the assault.
“My warrior!” She breathed into my neck, hanging on fer dear life.
Okay, truth be told, I was clutching the woman some myself.
Neither of us knew how much time passed before our son said firmly, “Wow, guys, git a tipi!” No, not Cougar. Our other son. Laughing Wolf. The Heyókȟa. His Mom and I untangled ourselves and turned to our second born. “Hello, son,” I said, sticking out my hand.
“Goodbye, father,” he responded solemnly, lifting his moccasined right foot and placing it in my palm. We shook like that, him standing on one leg, the other knee pumping in the air.
Not everybody deals well with having a Heyókȟa in the family. He was all warrior, though, contrarian or no, and I felt my heart swell with pride in this man every bit as much as it did fer Cougar. Which was saying a fair bit. Laughing Wolf fit him. Fit him well. He was shorter than his brother, maybe five-six, but compact and…limber, I guess would be the word. Limber and quick. I had a strong hunch that an enemy who struck at him would find nothing but air until the counterstroke from an unexpected angle took off his head. More than any other man since the super-wide Daniel, my shooting instructor in Fort Benton all those years ago, Laughing Wolf was a man I would not wish to fight. His eyes did indeed laugh, and they would continue laughing as he took your scalp.
All the rest of ’em realized I was taking him in with my eyes, measuring, calculating what sort of man he’d become. It was a blessing to me that they waited patiently while I done it. All but the man himself, who pirouetted like one of them ballet dancers, kicking high in the air as he showed off..
Over his own head high.
“Do you like what you see, o’ long tail puller of the western plains?”
“Actually, I do,” I grinned at him, “Except, why’d you have to go and spoil what looks like a handsome, fullblood Cheyenne with them ridiculous ears?” I realized those ears must be my genetic marker. A hunnert generations from now, people would be saying, “Look, he’s descended from Crazy Rifle, all right; lookit them ears!”
“Ah, my ears!” He grinned back, and I realized maybe he’d gotten my grin, too. “The better to smell you with!” Whereupon he turned sideways, grabbing one big earlobe and flapping the thing at me.
I couldn’t help it. I busted up laughing.
My woman’s people feasted us fer days. They’d sewn us a small lodge, jist large enough fer the two of us to be private in comfort. I’d like to say I got all rested up from the hard run north, but I’d be lying like a rug. The passion between us…most would say it was what they call the honeymoon period, that it’d fade and settle in over time.
Most people would be wrong.
But in addition to that, we talked fer hours upon hours on end. Twenty-one years of catch-up, with Believer and the boys filling the gaping hole in my memory, took some serious doing. Then there were the things we each needed to know.
“My warrior,” she asked one day, “Do you think your friend–your partner, as you say–do you think he likes me?”
“Dawson? Honey, iffen it weren’t fer me being in the way, that man would be courting you himself.”
“My warrior, what do you think of the way Laughing Wolf wears his weapons?”
Now that one, few Indian women would have brought up. But my bride, the mother of my children, was no ordinary woman of any sort, Indian or otherwise.
“I think,” I said slowly, “Enemies will be confused by him, and will die of that confusion. I would be surprised if some have not already done so.”
She nodded, which I took to mean our second son was no stranger to battle. But I’d been thinking about the Heyókȟa’s getup; it was good to put it into words.
“He wears his bow in a great holster at his hip, so that the tip of the thing rises above his left shoulder. It looks ridiculous, or at least weird–deliberately so, by his choice. The arrows he carries not in a quiver but points-up, wrapped around his head like a crown. In front, he even has to peer between their shafts and push them apart in front of his mouth when he eats. I have seen other Cheyenne marvel at this, but I’ve also noticed something. Each arrow is tied with a narrow buckskin lace in a quick-release bow. I suspect those arrows will remain securely tied in place where others would dump their quivers on the ground, yet he can–again I’m guessing–pop them laces loose and nock an arrow faster’n most.”
His mother’s eyes were shining, whether from pride in her Heyókȟa son or pride in his father for understanding how his combat rigging actually functioned, I had no idea.
“He’s your favorite, isn’t he?” I asked softly.
“How about the fact that he carries no rifle?” She asked all too innocently.
I considered that. “Looks to me like he’s working to fool his enemies into thinking he’s a poor, arrow-slinging Indian with no access to firearms. But if there ain’t some sort of shooter in that quiver he’s got flapped over on top and laced shut, I’ll eat my boots. There’s no way he growed up under the same roof with you and Believer without comprehending the value of black powder, Heyókȟa or no Heyókȟa.”
She sighed contentedly. “You understand him well, my warrior. Now…are you rested enough? You must mount me many more times before you will have forgotten twenty-one years of strange women.”
I didn’t bother to answer that. Not in words, anyway.
From the moment I first seen the love of his life running fer Tam with legs a-flashing like she done, I understood the man who’d been my partner on the trail fer the past four years. It had occurred to me more’n once that the tale teller’s memory might have built Laughing Brook up to be something beyond human, that he had her on some kind of fairy tale princess pedestal or something.
Turned out I was wrong. He hadn’t but half done her justice.
She had to be…what, thirty-six or so by this time? Most Indian women I’d known were showing the miles by that age, but not this one. She could have passed fer sixteen. Five-three at a guess, maybe weighing one-twenty of World’s Most Incredible Woman. Her curves had curves, yet it was obvious there was a hard-muscled, athletic female under all that.
Ah. I don’t need to be going on about another man’s woman. Tam had caught me looking at her, of course.
He’d jist grinned and winked, gave me a thumbs-up behind her back.
Them two, it was obvious, were gonna be lost in each other fer a while. I was sorta jist left standing there like a fool after they disappeared into the lodge her people had made special, jist fer this occasion. There had to be a couple thousand Cheyenne in this big, loud, stinky encampment. My white butt was starting to feel more than a mite conspicuous when Laughing Wolf came to my rescue.
I had no idea where Cougar had got to. Didn’t see him fer six days, not until Tam was ready and it was time to head out.
“Black man!” Tam’s number two son addressed me in that ebullient way of his, doing his Heyókȟa thing by calling one of the whitest cowboys west of the Mississippi “black”.
“Red clown!” I replied, unconsciously mimicking his delivery perfectly. Which happens to be both a talent and a bad habit of mine. It’s not something I do consciously, and it usually pops up at the most inopportune times. Like now. Fortunately, it worked okay this go-round. He grinned his Dad’s grin, did one of them spinaround moves, kicking up over his own head with them arrows strung around his skull doing a little jig along the way, laughing like there was no tomorrow.
I’d not care to fight this man.
“Go!” he said, meaning come, “You are a villain among the Cheyenne!”
Say what? If these folks took a disliking to me–oh.
“I’m a hee-ro? How come?”
He was leading the way, walking backward the whole time. Or…not exactly walking. More like sort of jigging, fer lack of a better word.
“Ask the pussycat! She’s the two who tale your told of Custer-love!”
By the time I’d sorted that out, we were deep within the encampment, joining a sizeable circle of warriors who’d apparently set up this shindig in my honor–at least from the way all them deadly men smiled and signed me to have a seat in the place of honor and then passed me the pipe to smoke, anyway. Turned out I really was well regarded by the Cheyenne, thanks to Cougar. Laughing Wolf didn’t hang around, having delivered me safely. I suspected dignified proceedings like this one were way too organized and formal fer his comfort level. But the shootist–wherever he’d got to–had been telling tales on me already. These folks had already been informed I’d saved their relative’s life (Cougar’s) in Waco, then spit at Yellow Hair.
Defending their people and defying their most hated enemy? Most hated since the massacre on the Washita, anyway. Yep, I was definitely a white man in good standing. Daring Custer to draw on me when my side was outnumbered 219 to 3, that alone would have been enough.
Using sign, we told stories until the wee hours of the morning, moving into one giant-assed tipi after the sun was down and it got cool enough. I’d eaten more and smoked more and swapped more tall tales than any one man could count by the time it was over. Except it wasn’t over. The Chief of this bunch, a downright handsome fellow by the name of Hunts Enemy, threw some sign at me that took me by surprise.
“We did not know of you until today, White Bear, but our women have been busy. There is a lodge for your sleeping and a wife to keep you warm.”
Okay, now the comfortable summer night had turned into skating on thin ice, jist like that. I signed back, “I do not understand. I did not come to the encampment of the Cheyenne to find a bride.” To put it mildly.
It took us a while, straightening out the misunderstanding–which was mostly due to a few gaps in my sign language vocabulary. Turned out these people weren’t any fonder of young girls engaging in premarital sex than the Blackfeet were, but there were many widows in the camp. It was one of these who waited fer me, and I would not be expected to take her with me when I left.
Which was a powerful bit of relief right there, I’m telling ya!
It was time to go. Stone Woman give me that stoic-red-woman look which didn’t fool me fer a heartbeat. It was best to leave her some dignity, though, to cover the hurt at losing her six-day husband. Her previous man, a strong warrior known as Kills Crow, had ironically enough been killed by the Crow two summers back. She’d not been held since that time, to my understanding.
Well, we’d made up fer some of that. She weren’t no Laughing Brook, but neither was she made of stone. She’d also explained why the Cheyenne now thought of me as White Bear.
“You are white and you fight like the bear. You do not back up, even against one such as Yellow Hair and his warriors.”
I reckoned these people were giving me way too much credit, but like my late Daddy always said, don’t go looking a gift horse in the mouth.
“It is time,” I signed.
“Love,” she replied, and cast her eyes down in embarrassment at having been so bold.
The Flywheel Ranch crew had grown some by the time we left the Cheyenne behind. In addition to the three fighting men and the all important Laughing Brook, our herd of horses now numbered nineteen, six of them seriously laden with packs containing treasures of every imaginable sort. That would have been impressive all by itself, but we hadn’t counted on Cougar’s little surprise. He was married. Not only married, but married with children. His wife, riding astride a sturdy black mare, was kind of plain-looking in the face…until you noticed them lake-deep, sky blue eyes. Her hair, cascading down from a man’s drover-style hat, could only be described as a fiery red.
She loved her some Cougar; you could see that much. Her eyes were on him more than they were on the countryside ahead or anything in it. She did pay attention to her little ones, but if I ever seen a woman idol worship her man, Penny Tamson qualified.
What? Oh–yeah, I shoulda thought of that! But her hair was a lot brighter red than any newly minted copper penny. Brick red, maybe, but that don’t do it justice, either. Anyway, she was a big girl, strong boned. I figured she’d likely turn out to be as good a ranch wife fer Tam’s son as he could have chosen.
The three kids, two boys and a girl, were still purty small. It’d take me a while to remember their names; I tend to ignore most youngsters at least till they git big enough to sass me back. They rode on a travois, Indian style, which meant our forward progress would be some limited, day to day. That bothered me, them kids on that travois. How much danger did they add to our party, slowing us down like that? We were acting like an Indian village on the move, but a village with only three warriors to its name. With all these horses, we’d look a rich prize to any raiders we come across–or who come across us.
It went all right the first day, and on the second. A bit after high noon on the third day out, though, my fears were realized. Big time. Tam closed the little telescope and returned it to the saddlebag. “Crow scout,” he told us grimly, “and he seen us. We’re not gonna git a shot at him, and he’s too far off to catch without leaving the family with too little protection.”
Cougar knew this country better than we did. “They’ll try to hit us before we can reach a place where we can hold ’em off. There’s a good place to fight if we can git there, a little hollow right on top of a little rise, jist enough trees fer shooting cover without helping them and a year-round spring. The spring dries out on the surface sometimes, but there’s always water underneath iffen you dig a bit.”
Another old habit of mine kicked in, the military veteran Sergeant Dawson Trask coming to the fore. In other words, jist like that, I took over command of this little expedition. “Room enough fer the horses?”
“Let’s cut that travois loose. Penny, how many of your babies can ride with you? Fer real now, don’t go doing the Mommy thing on me.”
“Two,” the redhead snapped back in the same curt tone. I was liking this girl better and better already. “I can hold Susan. Sit Henry behind me, lash around us both so he can’t fall off.”
“Done,” I said, and Cougar was already lifting his eldest son up from the travois. “Grandma, you git the other one.”
Turned out his name was Reggie, but nobody mentioned it at the time.
With nineteen horses to chivvy on, we men rode in triangle formation with Cougar at point, since he knew the way. Not until we were underway did I think to holler up at the young shootist, “How far?”
“Four miles, give or take!”
I put that into my brainpan, swirled it around a bit, and yelled again, “Change pace, on my mark! GALLOP!”
And we did. Not fer the whole distance; we’d lose most of the bunch that way. But fer a while, then walk, trot, gallop. Walk, trot, gallop.
It was the best we could do. I hoped it would be enough.