Authors: Bill Yenne
HE FOUR WHITE MENâA BOUNTY HUNTER, HIS TWO PRISONERS
, and the remains of the late Enoch Porterâwere on the trail even as the sun was a cold sliver on the eastern horizon.
Estoneapesta, whom the Blackfeet believed to be responsible for bringing the cold weather, had been plying his trade. It had not snowed overnight, but the frost was thick on the windblown prairie grass, and everyone's breath was visible, except Enoch's of course. At least the freezing temperatures made transporting a corpse more tolerable than it would have been in the heat of summer.
The two men from Double Runner's band who had ridden with them from Heart Butte had headed home, but as a friendly gesture, O-mis-tai-po-kah had assigned IkutsikakatÃ³si and Ãmahkaatsistawa to ride with “Mr. Cool” as far as the Marias River.
He welcomed the company.
Though they were manacled to their saddles, the two felons still presented the potential for danger. So long as Porter and Goode were outnumbered three to two, they were unlikely to try anything, but once he was across the Marias, Cole knew that the tables would be turned.
As he had the previous day, Cole brought up the rear, positioning himself where he could watch without being watched. His helpers, meanwhile, functioned as outriders, ranging right and left of the manacled men. Because the country was so open, it was easy for four widely separated riders to travel abreast.
He had tied the horses ridden by Porter and Goode together with a forty-foot rope and ordered them to remain that far separated. Being tied together, and with Enoch Porter's horse tied to his brother's, they were unlikely to try to make an escape. This arrangement would also reduce, if not prevent, their talking to one another without him overhearing what they said.
It was not that either man was doing a great deal of talking. As yesterday, they sat silently and sullenly as the miles ticked slowly by.
Jimmy Goode, the young oaf who had, like so many young oafs, gotten himself in over his head with bad company, displayed a jittery fear more than any other emotion. He feared being brought to justice and hanged, of course, but he also feared the wrath of Gideon Porter if they ever came within an arm's length of each other. Then too Gideon had told him that they were within a hair's breadthâas Gideon had sarcastically phrased it in an aside the day beforeâof having their hair lifted with a Blackfeet hunting knife.
Gideon Porter's expression betrayed anger, directed both at the world at large and, for their being caught, at the hapless Jimmy Goode, simply for being, as usual, good for nothing.
As Goode twitched and Porter stewed, Cole's mind wandered.
The only element absent from yesterday in his carefully arranged procession across the Plains was the company of Natoya-I-nis'kim. Though it was his preference to ride alone, he missed the pleasure of her shy smile and the pleasure of her company during long hours in the saddle in monotonous terrain.
Â .Â .Â . we'll meet again” were the last words that Natoya had spoken as she waved good-bye that morning.
He was left to ponder whether she meant the phrase merely as a perfunctory “see you later” or as a more purposeful “we
see one another again.” She probably meant him to ponder itâin a half-flirting, half “I hope you don't forget me” way. And so he pondered, all morning and into the afternoon.
She was perceptive beyond her years and no doubt knew how he felt. Like him, she recognized that they had developed a friendship that was and would remain, despite the unique bond of mutual life-saving, just and only that.
Soon she would be out of his mindâor so he insisted to himself.
They camped for the night overlooking the Marias. Of the four, five, or more sleeps to come, this would be the last one when Cole would not be alone with his captives. He had decided to avoid Fort Benton and stick to the open country as he headed south. The potential for complications associated with riding into an essentially lawless town with two criminals, two Indians, and a dead body was just too great.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
OLE AWOKE WITH A START.
It was bitter cold, but quiet. Had the north wind not died down, he never would have heard it.
There it was again.
It was a crushing, snapping sound like a bear might make. He glanced quickly to where the horses were. They were standing calmly. Had there been a bear or a wolf in the vicinity, they would have been snorting and pawing the ground. They were not.
As he got his hand on his Colt and began to roll out of his bedroll, he saw something, or someone, moving. A moment later, he identified this something and squeezed his trigger.
In the cold, still air, the sound of aÂ .45-caliber round being fired had the comparative effect of five pounds of dynamite going off.
In the muzzle flash, he caught a quick view of an angry face.
Gideon Porter, who had tried to sneak noiselessly to where the horses were tied, had been caught in the act and needed an alternate plan, immediately.
As Bladen Cole came toward him, he reached for the nearest weapon that he could see in the light of the quarter moonâIkutsikakatÃ³si's Trapdoor Springfield.
Meanwhile, IkutsikakatÃ³si had awakened suddenly at the sound of the pistol shot, and he reacted by grabbing his rifle back.
Cole's instinct told him to take an easy shot and send Gideon Porter to join his brother at the Devil's table, but instinct was outweighed by his commitment to justice. For that to be done back in Gallatin City, Gideon Porter would have to point his finger at the man who planned the crime that the Porter boys had carried out, and dead men can't point fingers.
He fired a second shot, aiming to miss the shadowy form of Gideon Porter, but to do so by as narrow a margin as possible.
Both IkutsikakatÃ³si and Porter paused, but only for the second that it took Cole to reach them.
In the split second that followed, Cole saw the flash of IkutsikakatÃ³si's knife coming out of its sheath like a bolt of lightning.
In the flash of a further second, split narrower than the sharp edge of IkutsikakatÃ³si's blade, Cole slugged Porter in the face with his gun hand.
The impact of a metal weapon striking his face with the tremendous force of Cole's blow, combined with poor footing on dark, uneven terrain, sent Porter sprawling backward.
Two men moved like pouncing cougars toward the fallen man.
One reached him by a margin of a split second, sliced as thinly as a split second can be sliced.
Bladen Cole stomped his boot on Porter's neck, both because he knew it would immobilize him and because he knew that this neck was the destination of IkutsikakatÃ³si's eight-inch blade.
Cole fired a third shot into the ground eight inches above Porter's head. The feel of the gravel kicked up by such an impact was frighteningly indistinguishable from being hit.
As Cole had hoped, IkutsikakatÃ³si paused.
Cole dragged Porter to his feet in the moonlight, noticing that his face was sheeted by the dark shadows of blood, flowing both from his face and from his scalp.
Feeling IkutsikakatÃ³si nudging closer, with the probable intention of relieving Porter of that bloody scalp, Cole slugged the outlaw once again.
This time, Porter fell with a thud and made no effort to get up.
A half minute of gunsmoke and spattering blood was followed by nearly ten minutes of diplomacy as Cole tried, using sign language in the dim moonlight, to convince IkutsikakatÃ³si and Ãmahkaatsistawa not to finish what Cole had left unfinished.
Finally, the negotiations reached a compromise.
IkutsikakatÃ³si agreed to forgo the taking of Porter's scalp in exchange for his boots, finely tooled like those of his brother, which were now on Double Runner's feet.
Cole also agreed to Ãmahkaatsistawa's insistence that they throw in Enoch Porter's saddle, though not without some demonstrative complaining. Cole really didn't care. He argued only in the spirit of keeping up the bargaining, to add perceived value to the saddle. Enoch would certainly not be needing it.
With light already starting to appear in the east, the two SiksikÃ¡wa decided that it was time to get an early start on their trip home.
They said their farewells to “Mr. Cool,” claiming, as he did to them, that they would be friends forever.
Nevertheless, Cole waited for about an hour before he made his way down to the river to get water to clean Gideon Porter's wounds. He was not fully convinced that these impetuous young men would not double back in the hope of catching Porter unattended.
In the gathering light of the promise of daytime, Cole could see what had happened. He had manacled Porter to a small aspenâmainly because there were no
aspen out here where the punishing winds blewâand the resourceful miscreant had actually climbed the tree to get the chain over the top. In so doing, he had bent the small tree over. The sound that awoke Cole had been that of the tree snapping back when Porter climbed off.
Just as Porter realized that he had dodged three bullets from Cole's gun in a literal way, Cole knew that he too had dodged a bullet of the figurative kind, whose potential was no less deadly.
If he had, as Natoya-I-nis'kim believed, inherited the medicine of the grizzly, such power had failed him.
Or had it?
ATHER, YOU HAVE A LETTER HERE FROM YOUR BOUNTY
hunter,” Hannah Ransdell said. She had just returned to the bank from the post office and was sorting the mail, as she typically did each morning.
“I hope that he has some good news,” Isham Ransdell said, approaching his daughter's desk. Hannah had started working at her father's bank when she was still in high school, but her duties had gradually increased and evolved and had long since warranted her maintaining a well-used desk not far from that of Mr. Duffy, the accountant who kept the ledgers. Duffy may have been the custodian of the numbers, but Hannah was the custodian of the customers. She knew them all by name and knew what sorts of accounts they all had at the bank.
“When was it mailed?” Isham Ransdell asked.
“A week ago from Fort Benton,” she said, looking at the postmark.
“Never thought I'd see the day when you could get a letter all the way from Fort Benton to Gallatin City in just a week,” Ransdell said, taking the letter.
“It'll be a lot faster than a steamer down the Missouri to Fort Union when the telegraph goes in,” Hannah observed, handing her father a letter opener.
She watched curiously as he slit open the envelope and took out two pieces of paper, one a letter and the other an official-looking document. He handed the latter to Hannah out of force of habit. Through her experience at his bank, she had become so adept at grasping the legal wording of official documents that he often joked with her that he did not need the high-priced legal services of his associate, the attorney Virgil Stocker.
“Mr. Cole writes that Milton Waller is deceased,” Isham said, scanning the handwritten note. “He goes on to say that he will be pursuing the Porter boys into Blackfeet country. What does that document have to tell us?”
“Much the same,” Hannah said, handing it to her father. “It's a death certificate for Mr. Waller, signed by the Choteau County sheriff and the coroner. The cause of death is âcomplications due to a gunshot.'”
“Well, it seems as though Mr. Cole has earned part of his fee,” Ransdell observed. “I wish him luck among the savages in Blackfeet country. I can recall the day when you had to worry about the Indians even in these parts.”
“Yes, Father,” Hannah said with a smile, humoring him as she always did when he reminisced about the “old days.” Even though the “Custer Massacre” had taken place but three years before in the same territory where they were, the days of the epic struggle between two irreconcilably distinct civilizations seemed distant in time and place.
“In Blackfeet country, it's different,” her father insisted. “General Miles may have run the Sioux and the Nez Perce to ground out here, but north of the Marias, it is an untamed world, untouched by civilization.”
“Yes, Father,” Hannah said with a serious face.
Hannah went back to sorting the mail, delivering three more letters to her father, and handing off a couple that required the attention of Mr. Duffy. She then set to work responding to the remaining queries and missives herself, as she typically did.
Most of the communications were as dry as the dust on Gallatin City's main street in August, but as she systematically worked her way through the pile, she came across one that she found particularly touching.
It was from Mr. Dawson Phillips, Jr., the son of the couple who had been murdered at the Blaine residence. In his letter to the bank, he expressed the great sadness of losing both parents to a violent criminal, and wrote that he would be coming to Gallatin City from Denver to settle the affairs of his late parents. He requested a meeting with Isham Ransdell, who was, of course, his father's banker.
Hannah checked the calendar that she kept of her father's appointments and noted that he would have time available in the week of Mr. Phillips's estimated arrival. She wrote back that a meeting could be arranged.
When she had finished the paperwork that required her immediate attention, she stamped the letters and put them into her bag.
“Father, may I get you anything?” Hannah said, sticking her head into her father's office. “I'm going to the post office with the outgoing and to Mr. Blaine's store for some ink and banker's pins.”
“I find a lump in my throat at each mention of âBlaine's store,'” he said sadly, looking up from his desk and wistfully removing his glasses. “It's hard to truly grasp the idea that he is gone.”
“Yes, I understand,” she said. “I feel that way myself.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Goods, known locally as “Mr. Blaine's store,” was still draped in black bunting. Leticia Blaine had insisted on it, and the store's general manager saw no reason to argue with his boss's widow.
The whole town was taking it hard. The hierarchy of society in any community will have its highs and its lows. It will have its center, and it will have its fringe. In the society of Gallatin City, the front and center had, until recently, been occupied by the Big Four of Blaine, Phillips, Ransdell, and Stocker. The loss of two men and Mrs. Phillips from among the most prominent figures in the community had left a tangible and powerful void.
For Hannah Ransdell, the black bunting prompted an eerie feeling. Since that night, she had been haunted by the notion that a bullet meant for her father had gone untriggered in that room. She had come within the minute thickness of a hair from losing her father and everything that mattered in her life.
Hannah loved her father, but she had
come to derive great satisfaction from her job. Her father knew, without having commented, that she had deliberately made herself indispensable to the running of the family business. Mr. Duffy knew it, and was happy with the situation. He was nervous around people, more comfortable beneath his green eyeshade working with his numbers, while Hannah's cheerful demeanor and intuitive personal skills had become the face of the Gallatin City Bank and Trust Company.
Edward J. Olson, on the other hand, was a man who believed that a woman's place was not in the affairs of a bank, or in business matters of any kind. Though he spent most of his time managing Isham Ransdell's other affairs and was rarely at the bank, Hannah's father often referred to him as his “right-hand man.”
Despite the role that Hannah had carved out for herself, her father had never referred to her as his “right-hand woman.” Hannah knew that if anything ever happened to her father, his right-hand man would ensure that there would be no woman of any hand at the Gallatin City Bank.
This would leave her having to start considering offers from eligible bachelors, which was something she had resisted, knowing that few men in Gallatin City and its environs would be pleased with a wife who spent her days at a job outside the home.
“Hello, Miss Ransdell, how
you today, dear?”
The voice greeted Hannah almost the moment that she entered the store. It was Sarah Stocker. She was much more composed than she had been that night when she was found running down the street screaming about having witnessed the murders.
“Good day, Mrs. Stocker,” Hannah said formally, affecting a slight curtsey, as was expected of younger women greeting older women in polite company. “I'm wellÂ .Â .Â . and you?”
“Thank you for asking,” she said with a flourish. “It has been hard. The terrible memoriesÂ .Â .Â . the nightmaresÂ .Â .Â . and poor Virgil.”
getting on?” Hannah inquired.
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances. The wounds are healingÂ .Â .Â . the physical ones, of courseÂ .Â .Â . but the doctor says there will be scarring on his forehead. The one on his chinÂ .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â . you know men and their beards.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Hannah smiled. She liked the look of a man with a beard.
“He is still haunted by the deaths of his colleagues, of course,” Mrs. Stocker continued. “Your father must feel that way as well.”
“Yes, ma'am, but of course he did not have to
the horror of the attacks as Mr. Stocker didÂ .Â .Â . and
“It is the worst terror of my life,
I can recall the war coming dreadfully close to our home in Pennsylvania.”
“They say it was about revenge?” Hannah said, expressing her statement as a question. The killings had been, and continued to be, the talk of the town, and everyone had taken as fact the assumption that the motive had been revenge directed at John Blaine. Nevertheless, the wheels that turned in the back of Hannah's mind had left her wondering if there was more to it than that.
“Of course,” Mrs. Stocker said, reacting to a skeptical tone which the younger woman had unsuccessfully disguised. “They burst in and started killing people.”
“The first thing when they broke in, they started killing people?”
“Well,” Sarah Stocker said thoughtfully. Though the events of that evening gave her nightmares, they had also given her an element of celebrity in the town. She had come to take a certain perverse pleasure in the attention and the sympathy she received from her victimhood.
thing was that they asked for Mr. BlaineÂ .Â .Â . next, my husband was struck. Then Gideon shot John Blaine and that wicked Enoch Porter shot poor Mary.”
“You mentioned when we spoke before about Gideon Porter having said that the women were not
to be hurt,” Hannah reminded her. “What do you think he meant by that?”
“I don't knowÂ .Â .Â . maybe even Gideon Porter realized that his heinous brother had crossed the line into the sort of unbridled savagery that we normally associate with the Indians.”
“I still wonder why, if they were after Mr. Blaine, they killed the others?” Hannah said, again phrasing her statement as a question.
,” Sarah Stocker said, raising her voice, “the Porter boys are baleful monstersÂ .Â .Â . and if you will pardon me for being unladylikeÂ .Â .Â . they should all be hanged from the highest yard arm in Gallatin City and left hanging there until their bones are picked clean by the buzzards.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Hannah nodded, imagining the sight of skeletons covered by buzzards dangling on Main Street.
Sarah Stocker quickly regained her composure, and the two women politely bade each other “good day.”
As Hannah turned her attention to a display of writing ink, the whirring motion of the wheels that turned in the back of her mind had slowed not in the least.