Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (6 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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Chapter 7

himself off and watering his roan in the trickle of a stream that ran there.

He awoke suddenly to the hot breath of an animal on his face, immediately imagining it to be another grizzly, but it was merely his horse. He now realized how his subconscious mind had shifted into wilderness mode. Would he have mistaken his horse for a grizzly two nights earlier when he went to sleep with the lights of Diamond City twinkling in the distance? He had not and probably would not have before the experience of the day just passed.

Waiting for his coffee to boil, he watched the stars wink out in the lightening sky of dawn. He thought of what he had read of seafaring people using the stars as navigational tools, and of how he had always used the North Star as a reference point in unfamiliar territory.

As he rode north with the gathering dawn and turned westward in the direction of the Rocky Mountains, he saw a small group of pronghorns at a great distance, but aside from that, the only sign of life was the usual companionship of the meadowlarks and a hawk circling in the distance.

Shortly after his lunch, which consisted of a scrap of hardtack eaten in the saddle as he rode, he saw them. Two riders had materialized out of nowhere, or so it seemed. One minute, the hill about a quarter mile ahead and to the right had been deserted, and now there were two men there. He could make out the golden hue of their buckskin shirts and the long black hair that framed their heads. The fact that he had seen them at all signified that they wanted to be seen.

Cole raised his hand to signify that he saw them and meant no hostility. The men returned the gesture and waited for him to reach them.

“Good morning, fellows,” he said in English, more to establish that his intention was to greet them than in the belief that they could understand his words. “My name's Bladen Cole.”

They responded with a gesture to the tongue, which signified their not being conversant in his language.

Cole knew a few Lakota words—as did most white men on the northern Plains, because the two groups had had much contact over the past three decades—but almost nothing of the totally unrelated Blackfeet language. What he did know pretty well, and what did unite the tribes on the Plains who could not communicate verbally, was the universal sign language.

Using this, Cole was able to explain that he was looking for three men, three
men, who had come into Blackfeet country in the previous couple of days.

Without saying whether or not they had seen the Porter boys, the two men replied that they had problems of their own. There was some sort of intertribal squabble going on, and they were on one side of it.

One of them pointed to the Winchester Model 1873 rifle that Cole had in the scabbard attached to his saddle. At first, he thought that they were proposing to trade. One of them carried an older model, U.S. Army–issue “Trapdoor” Springfield, and he could see the distinctive bronze-colored breech of the Winchester '66 carried by the other. Neither gun was desirable in a trade for a '73 Winchester, so he declined.

At this, the man who was doing all the talking said that Cole was mistaken. They didn't want his Winchester, they wanted
. They indicated that their head man had sent them to “volunteer” his services as a rifleman.

Cole found it hard to stifle the laugh, which, when he suddenly guffawed, noticeably startled his new Siksikáwa friends. Bladen Cole, the hired gun, was being hired for a second job in parallel to that which had brought him north of the Marias.

The two men were looking at each other with bewildered expressions, when Cole let it be known that he
help them.

On one hand, allowing himself to become embroiled in a Blackfeet civil war was an unnecessary distraction from his purpose, but if he had any hope of completing a successful manhunt in this enormous land, he needed friends. And he was about to make some.

They had ridden together for about an hour when Cole started to see the blue haze of many campfires in the distance. At last, as the sweet smell of smoldering cottonwood reached his nostrils, they came over a rise and saw a village below. There were more than a dozen tipis clustered along a quarter-mile stretch of a stream. People were going about their daily chores, and horses grazed on the hillsides.

As they rode through the camp, Cole smiled broadly at the children who eyed him curiously. One group of preteen girls giggled and turned away as he caught their eyes.

They stopped before a large tipi which was decorated with a variety of pictograms painted in both red and black. By its location in the center of the camp, Cole concluded that this was the chief's house.

The three riders dismounted, and one of the Siksikáwa men approached the open flap of the lodge. He spoke to someone inside and gestured for Cole to come in. The bounty hunter grabbed a knot of smoking tobacco from a parcel that he carried in his saddlebag and approached the opening. He wasn't fully conversant in native customs, but he did know that among the people of the Plains, it was always good manners to present your host with a token gift of tobacco.

Assa, nápikoan, oki
,” the man said cordially as Cole appeared in his doorway.

Though he claimed less than the barest understanding of the language, Cole did recognize the greeting “
” and term for “white man,” “
.” He had always appreciated that it was a more literal translation than the Lakota word for his race, which was the derogatory “
,” meaning “the one who steals the bacon fat.”

Cole handed the chief the tobacco, a gesture which the chief seemed to appreciate. With this, the old man shot a glance toward one of the younger men which needed no translation. It said pointedly that “this white man isn't as discourteous as you thought.”

,” the old man said to the young man, who immediately spread a buffalo robe for Cole to sit on.

The chief had a leathery, lined face that was deeply tanned in contrast to his long, snow white hair. His eyes were bright and sharp, and it was hard to judge his age. By those eyes, he could have been thirty. By the texture of his skin and the color of his hair, he could have been a hundred.

Nitsinihka'sim O-mis-tai-po-kah
,” he said. introducing himself. “
Kiistawa, tsa kitanikkoowa
?” he continued, pointing at his guest.

The words made no more sense to Bladen than water gurgling over rocks in a stream bed, but by the gestures, he understood that the man had introduced himself and wanted to know his name.

“Bladen Cole,” he replied, pointing to himself.

“Ahhh, Bladencool,” the man said, leaning back on his buffalo robe.

With this, evidently believing now that “Bladencool” understood some of the rudiments of the
lingua franca
, the man began relating some sort of story. Though it was accompanied by gestures, Cole became completely lost. He recognized the sign for “horse,” but beyond that, he couldn't follow the man's narrative at all.

Finally, this confusion became apparent, and the chief impatiently turned to one of the younger men, who got up and left, as though he had been sent to fetch something.

The chief continued, but with simpler and easier to understand sign language. The fellow was making what amounted to small talk. He asked how far Cole had come and nodded his understanding when Cole explained that he had been following the three men for four sleeps.

They were deep into their conversation when a shadow appeared in the doorway.

Cole looked up to see a young woman with dark, riveting eyes, who looked to be in her early twenties. Her features were as smooth and delicate as the old man's were hard-edged and textured. Her long hair, which she wore in braids, was as black as his was white. She was wearing a double-row necklace made of elk teeth and a buckskin dress, lightly decorated with porcupine quills.

She listened intently as the old man spoke to her, nodding periodically and glancing occasionally at the white man. Cole could not take his eyes off her and savored the grace of her movements as she was invited to sit on a buffalo robe near him.

“Mr. Bladencool,” she said looking at him, appearing to work hard to choose her words. “My name is Natoya-I-nis'kim. My uncle . . . his name is O-mis-tai-po-kah . . . has requested me to translate his words to you.”

She smiled bashfully and asked, “Do you understand my words? I have not spoken in English for many months.”

“Yes, I understand you just fine,” Cole replied, trying to enunciate clearly. “Actually my name is Bladen Cole . . . two words.”

“I'm sorry . . . Mr. Cool. I understand. Two names . . . yes, I understand.”

“You speak English very good,” he said to compliment her. “Where did you learn . . . way out here?”

“I was taught at the mission school. I attended as a girl. I am happy I remember the words.”

“Your uncle seems proud of you,” Cole said.

“My uncle, who is named O-mis-tai-po-kah for the white medicine buffalo calf who was born at the same time as he, is
, very powerful with spirit power . . . great medicine.”

“What is it that your uncle wants with me? I understood something about horses . . . but that was about it.”

“There were Pikuni Siksikáwa renegades who stole many
 . . . many horses . . . from us,” she said, gesturing elegantly. “They have become into one band with the Káínawa Siksikáwa who live in the red coats' country.”

“So that I understand,” Cole recapped, “some people from your own tribe stole some of your horses and they're running with some people from the Káínawa Blackfeet up in Canada?”


“And your uncle wants
help in getting the horses back?”

“Yes . . . and also to punish the Pikuni for riding with our enemy.”

As with many tribes, including the pale-skinned ones from Cole's world, people who seemed indistinguishable to outsiders were often rivals—or worse. The Pikuni Siksikáwa of Montana and the Káínawa in Canada shared a language and a culture, yet they had been openly hostile with one another forever. Of course, in Cole's own generation, the Civil War had consumed nearly a million lives of men, men just like him, men who were on two sides but who nevertheless spoke the same language.

“Where are they now, the renegades and the Káínawa?” Cole asked. “Did they go back into Canada?”

“No . . . they went to the
Mistákists Ikánatsiaw
, the mountains which go to the sun,” she said, “. . . one or two sleeps toward the place of the setting sun . . . to the west from here.”

“Why does he need an outsider for this?” Cole asked.

“Because most of our young men have gone away to hunt the
 . . . the buffalo . . . far to the east . . . many sleeps. They stole the horses because we were in a moment of weakness. We need help.”

“How did you decide to pick me?”

“Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa,” she said, nodding to the two young men. “They spotted you this morning as the sun rose. They told my uncle about the white man riding where white men usually do not come. He said to get the white man to help.”

“You don't see too many white men out here, then?”

“No, not this side of the trading posts, not in many moons.”

“I was told there were three others who came this way a day or two ago.”

“I haven't heard of them, they must have gone some other way,” she said. Her expression agreed with her words.

“Must have,” Cole said.

The old man said something, but Cole didn't hear it; his rapt attention had been on watching Natoya's graceful gesture as she pointed to the west.

She heard it though and quickly translated.

“You will go now . . . you will go
 . . . westward at once.”

The chief said something to the men that caused them to grimace and Natoya to giggle slightly.

“I have one more question,” Cole said, turning to Natoya. “Why me? Why did I get singled out for this escapade?”

“Because Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa could see by your guns that you were a man who could fight . . . O-mis-tai-po-kah could see by your eyes that you are a fighter who does not like to lose.”

“If I would
have come with them . . . if I wouldn't have agreed to this . . . ?”

“They would kill you and take your guns,” she replied, her expression very matter of fact.

*   *   *

when they crested the hill at the far side of the river valley, the Blackfeet reined their horses ahead of Cole's, deliberately shunning him. It was obviously a matter of hurt pride that a
had to be hired to help them do their job. Being thusly ostracized did not bother Cole in the least. If it was him, he would have felt the same way.

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
4.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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