Our women were getting spoiled. After all, Tam and I didn’t figure to be gone more’n a month at most, maybe only half that. Sure, it was deep enough into winter; we could run into a blizzard or three along the way or the Utes could decide Tam wasn’t their friend after all or a thousand other things; so what? It was all in a day’s work. Or to be more accurate, a winter’s work.
Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to being away from Marie and little Sadie fer that long, either, and Tam’s earlier twenty-one year separation from Laughing Brook was most likely plenty fer him as well. But we had it to do. Blackmailing a few young Utes to serve as Box Boys watching over our hidden herd of “seed buffalo” couldn’t wait. Come spring, the young bucks would likely be either jumping the Reservation or looking fer trouble with the ever-invasive white gold miners. In either case, the ones we wanted could be mighty hard to find.
Better to go to ’em now.
Not empty-handed, though. “Never seen an Indian Agent yet that didn’t manage to mess things up,” Tam told the assembled Flywheel Ranch clan. “They ain’t all crooked, but near enough as to make no nevermind, ‘specially since the honest ones seem to be dumb enough they git the wool pulled over their eyes left and right. And iffen they don’t fit either one of them categories, they come up with idiot plans like trying to teach Indians to take up farming. That ain’t happened with the Utes yet, but mark my words….
“What I’m saying is, we take ’em a pile of fresh meat without disrupting their hunting or offering to dig around fer gold, and we’ll stand out. We’ll feast ’em, and then we’ll sit down in council to hijack their boys.”
The buffalo that refused to go along peaceful-like to git boxed in the canyon paid the price. Some of ’em, anyway. By the time the tale teller and I’d said our goodbyes and were headed toward the western side of Colorado Territory, we’d lined out a dozen horses in the pack string trailing behind us.
“Now I know you’re running away from home,” Marie said, blue eyes still twinkling but showing some pain, too. We’d not been apart fer more’n a night or two since we met, her running from the Army with a bullet hole through her arm and me catching her when she fell; this separation was gonna smart some. I felt the need to explain, ticking the tally off on my fingers even though I knew she already understood.
“Seven critters carrying roughly two hundred pounds of buffalo meat each, two packing our winter gear including that new little tipi you women put together fer us, three fer the boys to ride back on in style. That’s a dozen, all right, and not a one too many.”
“You are taking the southern route? Not Wolf Creek Pass?”
“Honey, Wolf Creek gits plumb snowed in at the drop of a hat. We ain’t that dumb. Really.”
“Well, okay, then.” Her smile was brave enough, but she was faking it all the way. It’s always harder on the ones waiting at home. Or so I’ve heard.
“Bring us back some Indians, Uncle Dawson, Granddad!” This from five year old Henry, echoed immediately by three-and-a-half year old Reggie.
Cougar was over the ridge somewhere, checking on the buffalo herd in the Box, making sure nothing or nobody had made it either in or out through the ten-foot fence we’d erected across the box canyon’s opening. As we’d found out early on, a buff can jump a six-footer and never skin the top rail.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the goodbyes between Tam and his brood. In any event, it was time to go, nodding to Jack as we headed out the yard gate. He give us a thumbs up, and we were on our way.
Nine days out, the blizzard hit. Things had been looking good up till then. We’d gotten word Squirrel Talker and his band were winter-camped no more’n a dozen miles to the west of Animas City, and that settlement was behind us.
No way we were going to locate their hidden valley today, though. The gray sky was sitting right down on top of us, the snow was so thick we hadn’t been able to see one end of the pack string from the other fer what had to be at least a couple of hours now, and the wind was picking up.
“How about there?” I asked my partner, pointing with a mittened hand toward a barely visible, dense-looking patch of woods ahead and to the right. The trees filled a steep draw, spilling out and spreading across the opening like the Big Muddy reaching the Delta.
“Good as any,” he replied. “And way better’n nothing.”
We had the horses picketed, the packs offloaded and our riding animals unsaddled, when I found it. It was getting hard to see your hand before your face despite the fact it couldn’t have been more’n an hour past high noon. Kicking snow sideways with my boot to clear a place fer the tipi, I hit a buried rock that had way too much give to it to be made of granite.
“Body. Dead most likely….” I began mitten brushing the snow from the buried human. Kind of reminded me of one a them archeological digs, ‘cept I couldn’t take the time to be near as careful as them folks claim to be with three thousand year old artifiacts.
In a matter of seconds, both of us were at it.
“I don’t believe he’s quite dead yet,” Tam decided.
“Well. In that case, reckon the best thing we can do is git the tipi up and the fire going. Thaw him out and see what’s left of the fellow. Ute, ain’t he?”
“Our little camping tipi ain’t no Taj Mahal,” I observed, “But the girls definitely made it nice and weatherproof.”
Tam grinned. “You better hope it ain’t no Taj Mahal, cowboy. You do know the Taj Mahal is a tomb, doncha? Hey, it lives!”
“Wargh!” The frozen Ute had unfrozen enough to realize he was in the company of two accursed white men; his fumbling fingers were trying without much success to wrap themselves around the hilt of his skinning knife. Our two revolvers, once drawn and pointed in his general direction, seemed to convince him that was a bad idea.
We put our pistols back in the leather, and Tam began signing, his hands casting great shadows on the tipi wall. “We are Crazy Rifle and White Bear of the Medicine Bull clan. You were frozen.”
The warrior considered fer a bit, then signed back. “I am still frozen.”
“Be warm. Meat ready soon.”
“Why you help?
“Long time friend Ute. Go see Squirrel Talker.”
“I thought you could talk Ute,” I muttered under my breath.
“Not time yet. Let him git used to us a little.”
It turned out we’d jist rescued the renowned Ute warrior (to hear him tell it, anyway) known as Thunder Butt. That is, until Tam figured out he’d interpreted it wrong; the man’s name properly translated as Loud in Battle.
Loud in Battle, it turned out, had been hunting alone, tracking a bull elk with a great rack, when his pony had stepped into a hidden hole while crossing a small stream. The animal had broken a leg in the process. His rider, now afoot, had been thrown into the water and was soaked to the bone.
The blizzard would not have been a problem, he explained, but having his buckskins turn to ice had taken his strength. Knowing what happens to men who fall asleep in the freezing cold, he’d expected to awaken in the Happy Hunting Ground.
Discovering himself among white men, he’d logically assumed the Great Spirit had been unhappy with him for some unknown reason and had sent him to an Unhappy Hunting Ground. Until Tam identifed himself–and me, though he’d never heard of me.
He clearly liked my cooking well enough, though. Loud in Battle, despite having discovered he was likely to lose a few fingers and toes from frostbite before all was said and done, had a truly healthy appetite; his name should have been Big in Belly. Of course, then he’d a been a Gros Ventre, and that would have meant a whole new set of problems. The Gros Ventres and Crazy Rifle weren’t exactly bosom buddies.
Tam had finally let our new friend know he could speak the language, though he had to stop every so often to bring me up to date.
“I am of Squirrel Talker’s band,” the warrior told us. “The one who hunted Medicine Bull is my brother. He will be a great warrior if he does not die early of his boldness.”
“He’s a bold one, all right. Though I don’t remember his name.”
“He has a new name since shaming our people. He is now called Many Bulls, since his action forced Medicine Bull to become many Medicine Bulls. It is still a childhood name,” he shrugged, “which he may leave behind when he earns his warrior name.” Fer punctuation, Loud in Battle rolled up on one hip and blasted out a fart that liked to blowed the fire out…and his rear end was pointed the other way when he done it.
Maybe Tam got it right the first time. Maybe this fellow’s name really was Thunder Butt. Not that I got any right to complain. Been known to lift a few blankets myself.
“You’re a marvel, tale teller. A freaking marvel.”
“How so?” Dawson’s observation purty much required me to ask that with a straight face and that air of extreme innocence he knew to be extremely false.
I turned to glance back at the three boys following between us and the pack string, mounted on three of our third-best horses. Flywheel’s third best still amounted to stock a cut or two above most Indian ponies; them little redskin rounders looked right proud to be straddling critters most of the grown warriors in their band couldn’t afford.
“Well, let’s see now. Let me count the ways. You save the Chief’s nephew–never mind that the medicine woman fixed up that frostbite. How’d she do that anyway? And how come a woman? I thought Indians had medicine men.”
“We saved the Chief’s nephew. As fer the medicine woman thing, the Utes go either way. The women do most of the work, jist like you’re used to seeing with the other tribes, but fer traditional medicine–or storytelling, fer that matter–either gender is welcome to the job if they got the talent.”
“Ah. So, we save ol’ Squirrel Talker’s nephew. That’s one. Then you feast the band like nobody’s business, which of course was part of the original plan. That’s two.”
“Go on.” It was an all right thing, heading down the trail with Dawson Trask, jawing at each other along the way. Jist like old times, almost. True, we hadn’t done any Chisholm Trail drives in midwinter, and I couldn’t recall having ever having had any Ute kids tagging along as apprentice drovers, but still. The weather had lightened up considerable, blue sky and sunshine, somewhere around thirty degrees. Perfect weather fer making time.
“Go on, he says. Okay. Come to think on it, you and him–Squirrel Talker, I mean–was more negotiating than anything else, there at the end. Right?”
“More or less,” I admitted. “He’s a canny bugger in his own right. But we got us a workable deal all around in the end. Young Many Bulls and his followers–the littlest one is called Leaf Shield, don’t ask me why, and the other one is Rock in Water–them boys will learn some English, figure out a bit about cowboying, and after a year’s service, they all go home with horses of their own. We don’t let ’em know that till the day they head back, though,” I cautioned. “Them knowing too soon could lead to all sorts of problems.”
“Got it. But what was that I caught the Chief saying about eggs? Eggs and bugs ?”
“Huh. That part …. I didn’t know about it before, either. The Utes purely love chowing down on grasshoppers and other insects in season–”
“–but they also consider eating eggs to be an absolutely disgusting habit. Squirrel Talker made me promise not to force no eggs down them boys’ throats.”
“That ought to be interesting come breakfast time. Ain’t a one of us don’t love our bacon and eggs when we can git ’em. Ain’t a one of us likely to start snacking on ‘hoppers, either.”
“True enough. We’ll have to pull a Flywheel council session on that one and a few other, shall we say, cultural differences. See what we can come up with.”
“I’ll say.” Trask left off with that, turning his mount out and around to ride back along the line. Ostensibly, he was checking the pack string, making sure every horse was moving along right, no pack saddle slipping, things like that. Which weren’t likely, especially with the panniers all being empty.
Utes might not be Gros Ventres, but they surely did know how to eat.
“Army patrol. They seen us.” Not a good thing. Dawson had planned this bit, and it had been as good a plan as any. Matter of fact, I never seen him come up with a bad one.
“Slip on by Fort Garland before sunup,” he’d said. “Them troops are in garrison. It’s winter time; the Utes ain’t been giving no trouble this far east fer months now. No way they’ll be sending out patrols before daylight.”
He was the military veteran; he should know.
Here they came, though, mounted patrol in force, cantering right for us by the light of the waning moon. Three days later, it’d a been dark of the moon. Haste makes waste.
We pulled up, the Indian boys behind us still as stone, only a couple of restless critters in the pack string making any noise at all beyond breathing. Not light enough to see faces yet, not really, but them stripes on the Sergeant leading the patrol stood out clear enough. No officer? Still in bed, maybe.
“Good morning, gentlemen.” A familiar voice. Who–?
“And a fine morning to you, Sergeant Bodeen. I see you got another stripe back already.”
“Yes indeed, Sergeant Trask. Not quite ten years now, jist climbing back up the ladder like a squirrel up an oak tree. Explain about them Ute boys trailing with you there, would you? You know them fellows all need to be on the Reservation.”
“That I do,” Dawson replied calmly. He sounded plumb at ease, and I guess with the leader of this patrol being the sames James Q. Bodeen that’d helped save Marie’s life when she was still Trisha Cobb, the Blue Eyed Angel of Death, maybe he had a right to be.
Personally, I didn’t much like the look of them two dozen men behind him. Overall, they seemed plumb cranky, having been rousted outa their blankets and into their saddles at this ungodly hour. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut around the military, let the vet do the talking.
“That I do,” my partner was saying, “In most cases. But there’s exceptions fer family members.”
“You’re related to these three?” I had to give Bodeen credit; he never turned a hair at the idea.
“By adoption. The Utes adopted me, call me White Bear. Marie and I adopted these boys in return.”
“Marie? You two’re married, then?”
“Yep. Been taking good care of her like I was told. Got us a little girl, too.”
“Damn, Trask, that’s good to hear. Well, our new commanding officer wants us covering serious ground by noon. Can’t have any hostile Rez-jumpers sneaking up on Walsenburg, doncha know.”
“Carry on, then. Except…when you getting out, Jim?”
“Got a hitch wrapping up come springtime. May fifteenth. Why? You got something in mind?”
“Definitely. Iffen you decide to call it a day with the Cavalry, look us up at the Flywheel. Details on request.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
The sergeant lifted a hand, barked a command, and the column moved out…with no more’n half a dozen of the troopers sneaking dirty looks at our filthy redskins as they rode by.
“Huh,” I commented once we were in the clear and moving again, “I take it you jist hired another hand?”
“Only iffen you and Coug agree, Tam. You know that.”
“And you know there’s no man I’d rather see joining up with us that the lifetime soldier James Q. Bodeen after what he done to help convince the world Trisha Cobb died in Wyoming. But I don’t know as we can afford another man jist yet. We surely got more’n enough work to keep him busy, but until we can get the herd built up a bit more….”
“I got some ideas about that, but let’s wait till we can sit down with Coug to see if they make sense. In the meantime, if them Ute boys puke at the sight of an egg going down a white man’s gullet, how the dickens are we gonna git ’em to take orders from our women? That’s gotta be tougher’n swallowing a danged egg.”
I waggled my eyebrows and my jug ears at him, all at the same time. “Now that, I have some ideas about. Jist wait.”
“Warrior women!” I thundered in Ute, “Warrior women have walked the Earth since time immemorial!” None of the other Flywheel regulars understood a word I was saying, but the boys did, and that’s what mattered. “I have told you of Medicine Bull, how he came to this land from the Fire Mountain, how he has dominion over this land. What you know not, what you cannot have known until now, is that women warriors, when and where they exist, are more powerful, more deadly dangerous than any mere male warriors could ever hope to be!
“Now,” I commanded them, “BEHOLD!”
The doors to the main house flew open and Laughing Brook leaped into the arena–uh, the ranch yard. She was in her fine blue-tourquoise antelope-skin dress, her jet black hair pulled back in two tight braids. She was Cheyenne to the hilt–and she was in war paint. My beloved leaped, she cavorted, she shrieked Cheyenne war cries that sounded somehow even more terrifying coming from a female throat.
And she danced, a white man’s heavy revolver belted at her hip. Danced her war dance to the center of the yard…and suddenly stopped, still as a statue, facing the targets we had set up to the south of her position, some forty feet away.
To say the Ute boys were frozen in position would have been an extreme understatement. We’d made sure they had nothing on ’em fer weapons at this moment but their belt knives, but ever one of ’em had a death grip on a knife hilt. They kept ’em in their sheaths, though, which was a good thing.
Flywheel Ranch Theater had barely begun. Ransome deFollette, eat yer fictional heart out.
Next came Penny, nothing fancy at all, jist stalking out big and fierce, her brick red hair and sky blue eyes offsetting the worn hat any drover would be proud to claim. She wore a plain work shirt and men’s jeans over riding boots as she did every day she weren’t headed fer town, and her matched pair of .45 Colts were tied down to thighs so shapely I caught two of the three boys openly gawking. Not a sound, jist striding out there, taking up her place alongside Laughing Brook, but with a space left between ’em.
On cue, Marie came vaulting from the house. We’d not known it till this very morning, but the girl had trained as an acrobat in her early years, way back before her selfish mother had nagged her father to go West. She’d been secretly practicing out in the barn, bored with housework but doing something about it when no one was around, and she was ready. Where Laughing Brook had danced Indian style, a style the Utes could not fail to recognize, Marie blew ’em away with a style they’d never even have believed possible. She did cartwheels, silent in the moves themselves but whooping it up in between. She did front flips and back flips, even walked on her hands fer all of three paces.
I figured she must have had at least one past life as a court jester. Dawson’s wife scared me sometimes.
Her face was painted, too, but in theater style: black on the left, white on the right.
Timing is everything. When they were all in place, Marie in the center, I stepped forward, ringmaster of the greatest scam–uh, I mean show–on Earth.
“Behold!” I thundered, sweeping an arm to indicate the row of firewood blocks we’d set up. Each target consisted of two pieces of wood: A half-round approximately eight inces high and eight inches wide set atop a three foot on-end log. Heads on bodies. Twelve of ’em, side by side by side.
While the boys had their eyes glued to the targets, the women quietly slipped the retaining thongs from their weapons and got ready to draw.
“Behold!” I thundered, “The Women Warriors of Medicine Bull Clan!”
With the young Utes now staring openmouthed at the girls, I hollered, “FIRE!”
The thunder of them short guns was impressive as Hell. Never mind the boys; my own attention was focused on Marie the fanner. The Blue Eyed Angel of Death really was fast; calling her pistol a midget Gatling gun fit.
It was almost like all twelve of them head-blocks blew up at the same time. Not really, of course, but the eye couldn’t follow it all. We’d set it up so’s the girls had two rounds available fer every block, jist in case anybody missed.
Not once did we ever have a bit of trouble with a Ute boy sassing one of our women or failing to obey instructions when they were given. Other ranchers tried hiring young Indians as herders, but unless they started ’em out a lot younger than ours, they always had trouble with ’em. They never could understand why we didn’t, and we never told ’em.
We did discover one huge problem, though. Teaching a young red man to use a smelly outhouse turned out to be a well nigh impossible task.