Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (7 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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Nor did it bother him to be riding alone. He had long preferred it that way, he thought to himself. But, thinking of Will, he recalled that he had not
always
felt that way.

As they rode westward toward the descending sun of mid-afternoon, he thought about the Porter boys and about their biblical names. From what he recalled about his own Bible learning, which was not that much, Gideon's biblical namesake was called “the Destroyer,” but he did his destroying on orders from God. There were a couple of Enochs in the Bible, but Cole could remember only the one who was the son of Cain, who had committed the world's first homicide. He wondered whether the missionaries had taught the Blackfeet children about these men.

The Porter boys were his reason for being out here in the first place, and his thoughts turned to their whereabouts, and how long it would take to find them in this country. They were at least a day ahead of him, but having crossed north of the Marias, they had crossed north of their past, and they would no longer be running. Their pace would have slackened, and they would have relaxed and made their presence known to the locals.

If not Natoya's band, then some other Siksikáwa band or other out here would have seen them, and word would spread. That word would not spread to ears accustomed to English, but it would spread, and sooner or later, Cole would know.

As he had done since crossing the Marias, Cole was keeping his eyes on the horizon. Yesterday, he'd had
potential
enemies in anyone who might choose to distrust a stranger. Now that he had taken a side in a civil war, he had
real
enemies. He could count on the wary eyes of his two companions to see danger first, but still, he kept his eyes on the horizon.

The last place that he had expected to see that horizon populated was in the direction straight behind him—yet there it was, a rider coming up from behind at a gallop.

The two Siksikáwa men reined up their horses and exchanged words which Cole did not understand, except that they were more of aversion than alarm.

Cole could see why. The rider was Natoya-I-nis'kim, loping toward them on a paint, her braids swirling about her head as she came.


Iiksoka'pii kitsinohsi
!” she said to the two men, laughing as she brought her horse to a stop. Even back home in Virginia, where women took to riding with great pride of accomplishment, Cole had never seen a woman who could handle a horse with such skill.

They spoke with her angrily, pointing their fingers back in the direction of their village. Cole chuckled as she told them off. At last, the argument reached an impasse. They turned their backs on her and resumed the westward trek, ignoring her as they had been ignoring the white man.

“What was that all about?” Cole asked.

“I told Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa I am happy to see them,” she said, smiling mischievously.

“They aren't happy to see
you
.”

“I don't care,” she said playfully.

“Why are you here?”

“Uncle told me to come,” she explained. “There will be a need to translate. Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa would not speak to you if they
could
, but they
cannot
.”

“They don't want to speak to
you
either . . . at least not to say a civil word.”

“This is not a place for a woman, they said,” Natoya explained with a smirk.

“It isn't,” Cole agreed. “This will be dangerous.”


I
will be dangerous,” she said with a slight grin, pulling back the edge of her buffalo robe to show him that she had a holster strapped around her waist that contained an older model Colt Navy revolver.

“Where did you get that?”

“Trader.”

“Have you used it?”

“Yes.”

Bladen Cole held his tongue. It really
wasn't
a place for a woman, even if she could handle a horse and use a gun. Where there was the probability of a gunfight, it was a bad place for a woman, but it was, he decided, not his place to tell an Indian girl, especially one displaying such confidence, that she was in the wrong place.

On the other hand, the old man was right, an interpreter
could
prove useful—not only in accomplishing the old man's purpose, but in accomplishing Cole's as well. It was just a pity, he felt, that there were so few men in the camp that the chief had to send his young niece.

“When will the other men be back from their buffalo hunt?”

“Before the snow,” she said, looking to the north and speaking without her previous assurance.

“Your uncle is named after the white buffalo?” Cole said, making conversation after a mile or so of riding in silence.

“Yes, a calf was born when he was born.”

“You didn't tell be the meaning of
your
name,” he said.


Inis'kim
is the ‘Medicine Stone,'” she said. “‘Medicine
Buffalo
Stone.'”

“That sounds important.”

“My mother found one when I was in her belly,” she explained. “It is the stone which sings. It is the stone bringing good luck. Long ago, in the winter that the
iiníí
 . . . the buffalo went away, a woman found the first stone in a cottonwood tree when she went to a stream to get water for cooking. The
Inis'kim
sang to her and told her to take it home to her lodge. It said that buffalo will return and hearts will be glad.”

“Did it work?”

“She taught the
Inis'kim
song to her husband and the elders. They knew that it was powerful. They sang. They prayed. The buffalo
came
.”

“Does your mother still have it?”

“My mother has gone . . . Absaroka raiders. My father too.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” Cole said meekly, knowing that he had touched a nerve.

“That's when I went to the mission school,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

Cole made another innocuous comment about the weather and the approach of winter, and afterward, they rode on without talking.

Chapter 8

T
HE WISTFUL GIRL WITH THE TEAR ON HER CHEEK
REASSERTED
herself at the camp that night. When the Siksikáwa men, each a head taller than she, insisted that water be fetched for cooking, an argument ensued. It ended with Ikutsikakatósi taking the basket to the stream.

Bladen Cole found this greatly amusing.

“We'd better build this fire good so we don't get a visit from a grizzly tonight,” Cole said, shoving some cottonwood sticks into the fire.

“Yes . . . you are right,” Natoya agreed. “It is a dangerous animal . . . and a powerful animal in many ways.”

“That's for sure,” Cole agreed.

“And he is a very powerful animal with
nátosini
 . . . um . . . how to you say . . . medicine?”

“Supernatural power?”

“Yes . . . supernatural power,
nátosini
.”

“So the grizzly is sacred to the Siksikáwa?” Cole asked.

“In the way that everything in the world is sacred,” Natoya explained. “In the way that the black robes thought we ‘worshipped' trees and badgers.”

Poking a stick to turn a piece of cottonwood in the fire, she continued her recollections of the missionaries.

“There was
one
black robe who understood . . . but mostly they did not, and we laughed at them behind their backs. That is not very polite, I know . . . but we were children . . .”

“I think it's funny,” Cole chuckled, imagining a bevy of Blackfeet girls giggling about the inability of the missionaries to understand the people they were teaching.

“Of all the
kiááyo
, all the bears, the
apóhkiááyo
 . . . you call him ‘grizzly,' is feared and respected above all,” Natoya continued.

“So that makes him
sacred
?”

“I do not have the
Naapi'powahsin
 . . . the English words to explain. It is not ‘sacred' in the missionary way of being sacred, just as we do not ‘worship' trees in the missionary way of worshipping.
Apóhkiááyo
is
important
to the Siksikáwa . . . not the same way as the buffalo . . . but . . . I don't have the words . . .
apóhkiááyo
is greatly feared
and
greatly respected. I'm sorry that is the best I can explain.”

Cole disagreed. “You have very good English words,” he said. “I know a lot of white people who do less of a job explaining things.”

“Don't let me be selfish,” she said.

“How do you mean?”

“I am so happy to have someone . . . so I can speak my
Naapi'powahsin
 . . . my English words.”

“You're not selfish at all . . . I'm happy to have someone to speak English words with myself.”

She smiled and turned away.

“But about the grizzly . . . and it being sacred in the way that it is . . . and I know that's the wrong English word . . . There's something that I gotta tell you . . . gotta admit to.”

“What's that?”

“I killed one yesterday. I killed a grizzly.”

Natoya-I-nis'kim looked at him with a mixture of shock and bewilderment.

“Yeah, I was coming across the plains and I came across a fresh elk kill,” he said. “The thing reared up and charged before I knew what was happening. I got off three shots . . . the last one was a lucky shot. So I killed a sacred bear. I'm sorry to say that, knowing that they're important to your people . . . to the Siksikáwa . . . but it was him or me.”

“It is a very great thing to overcome
apóhkiááyo
in a fight,” Natoya said.

She seemed impressed, rather than upset, a fact that caused Cole to breathe a sigh of relief.

“Because of their strength, and their great
nátosini
 . . . It is hard to kill him in a fight. Most men cannot. Most men die. A man who kills him in a fight inherits his power.”

“How does that work?” Cole asked.

“Power . . . medicine . . . comes to all animals from
Natosiwa
, the sun. When
apóhkiááyo
is beaten in a fight, his power is then granted to the man. The man receives the character and spirit of
apóhkiááyo
. Of course he was powerful in the start . . . the man. He has to be to overcome
apóhkiááyo
. You are a powerful man, Mr. Cool.”

“I didn't feel any different,” Cole admitted, “except kind of dirty from having this sweaty bear dead on top of me.”

Natoya laughed.

“By the way,” he said. “Since you seem to appreciate the grizzly, I'd like you to have this.”

He reached into his pocket and took out a sharp and frightening six-inch grizzly claw.

“I took this from that one yesterday,” he said, handing it to her. “I want you to have it.”

She took the object as though it were a religious artifact, for to be given a grizzly claw by a man who had triumphed over
apóhkiááyo
in battle was an amazing gesture.

She looked at it with an expression of awe. It was, Cole thought, like having handed a white woman a fistful of diamonds.

Natoya then looked at him with an expression of speechless gratitude.

*   *   *

I
N THE MORNING, ONLY
N
ATOYA-
I
-NIS'KIM AMONG THE
three Siksikáwa accepted the coffee that Cole offered, though she found it not to her liking.

By the middle of the day, the jagged peaks of the Rockies could be clearly seen, rising abruptly from the Plains.


Mistákists Ikánatsiaw
,” Natoya said with a nod as Cole pointed toward the snowcapped peaks. The trail of the horse thieves led toward the mountains, just as O-mis-tai-po-kah had predicted. They had not been hard to follow. It is hard to move a herd of a couple dozen
ponokáómitaa
without leaving ample evidence of their passing.

Cole could tell by the fragrance of the “ample evidence” that it was more recent than it had been during the previous day. Thanks to Natoya's having insisted that they break camp very early, they were now only a matter of hours behind their quarry. The fact that the thieves' pace had slowed meant that the renegades were confident of not being followed. Just like the Porter boys, Cole hoped.

Gradually, they passed out of the rolling hills dotted mainly with aspen and came to a ridge whose western, windward slope was covered with gnarled and windblown spruce. As they crossed the ridge, they were greeted with a breeze which blew colder than what they had experienced thus far.

Natoya reined up her horse and pointed through the trees.

In the distance, they could see a long, slender lake hugging the base of the mountains. The winter, which all expected, had already come to the high country. The jagged peaks were heavily cloaked in snow.

Natoya identified the lake as Natoákiomahksikimi, but she translated the names of the peaks they saw. There were Red Eagle and Little Chief, and occupying a prominent place above the lake was Going-to-the-Sun. To the left, she pointed out one named for a man called Imazí-imita, whose name, Natoya explained, meant “Almost-a-Dog.”

A short distance down into the valley of the lake, the horse thieves had steered their purloined herd onto a broad trail. Natoya identified it as being a main thoroughfare for the Siksikáwa which led down into the valley of the lakes.

The “ample evidence” was now exceedingly fresh, and the Siksikáwa men pulled their rifles from the scabbards. Cole instinctively drew his Colt and spun the cylinder to count the cartridges. He knew it was loaded—this was just a ritual. As he undid the leather thong that secured his Winchester in its scabbard, he noticed that Natoya's hand was resting on her holstered weapon as well.

They rounded a bend near the base of the ridge, and the landscape of the valley revealed itself. There, not far below and swirling about in a meadow near a stream, was the stolen herd. Cole counted eight men.

As he and his companions watched, their number increased by two with the approach of a pair of
nápikoan
riders.

Cole squinted hard, determining that these white men were not the Porter boys. One might have been, but the other was much too fat.

“Buyers,” Natoya whispered.

Cole nodded. It was obvious that the two white men had been invited here to purchase the stolen herd.

“I think something better happen before this transaction is completed,” he said under his breath.

Natoya nodded and repeated this to the Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa, who nodded their agreement.

“Cover me,” Cole said as he spurred the roan forward.

A few minutes later, the ten riders in the valley turned their heads at his approach. Hands tensed and touched guns.

Cole raised his hand in greeting and rode toward the two white men.

“Good morning, sir,” the heavyset man said cautiously. “To what do we owe the pleasure of seeing you here?”

“Good morning, sir,” Cole said, extending his hand. “My name is Bladen Cole. If I'm not mistaken, you're here to buy some Indian ponies.”

“Name's McGaugh,” the man said, taking Cole's offered hand. “Benjamin McGaugh. You'd be correct in your supposition. We were informed at the Indian Agency that a herd would be available here this morning. I'm here to pick out four or five of the finest of these ponies.”

“Would it make any difference to your plans if I was to tell you that these animals are a herd stolen from my friend White Buffalo Calf, whose lodge stands about two days' ride east of here?”

“If that were to be a fact, it would certainly make a difference. I am not in the business of accepting stolen property . . . certainly not Blackfeet property on Blackfeet land.”

“I hoped that would be your position,” Cole said.

“Mason,” the big man said, turning to his companion. “Ask these boys about that.
Is
this a stolen herd?”

The other man, who looked to be part Blackfeet himself, queried the apparent leader of the horse thieves, who vehemently denied the assertion. However, the opposite message was conveyed by the nervous apprehension of the others when they heard the question asked.

“There we have it,” the man said. “A denial from the man with whom I am about to consummate a transaction.”

“And an admission from the expression of the others,” Cole added.

“Were I to accept the discrepancy that you have pointed out,” said the man, who was certainly not one to use one word when three would do. “Then I would say that we are at a bit of an impasse. For argument's sake, if I were to accept this discrepancy and agree with your opinion, then I would be faced with refusing the deal being offered and riding away without my friends getting the gold which they desire.”

“That would probably be the case,” Cole agreed.

“This would make my friends angry,” McGaugh continued. “I would not want them angry, nor would
you
. May I remind you, sir, that we are several days' ride inside Blackfeet country and outnumbered. I suggest that our conversation never happened, and you may convey my heartfelt condolences to your friend, Mr. White Calf.”

“If I had ridden all this way from Mr. White Buffalo Calf's camp alone,” Cole began, “and if we really
were
outnumbered, I would be strongly inclined to agree with you . . . but that is not the case.”

Turning toward the hillside, he raised his fist.

As the eyes of everyone in the valley turned to follow his gesture, Ómahkaatsistawa rode out onto a bluff, raised his rifle over his head and shouted the Siksikáwa greeting “
Oki
!”

Moments later, Ikutsikakatósi, in a far removed place, repeated the greeting. Cole was pleased that they had moved apart. This suggested that a much larger contingent was present.

Realizing that the deal was off and their position compromised, the horse thieves immediately moved to secure their assets and get out of their present predicament. The only way to do this was to stampede the herd and make a run for it.

There was a crackle of rifle fire to spook the horses, and the mass began to move.

Cole knew that the first volley was meant to stampede the horses, but any second volley would be designed to remove the inconvenient
nápikoan
, so he drew his Colt.

Almost immediately, he watched the leader of the thieves draw a bead on a startled Benjamin McGaugh.

Hoping that he had the range to make a difference, Cole aimed and fired.

He watched the man jerk sideways and tumble off his horse as his rifle flew through the air.

Mason had pulled a rifle from his scabbard and gotten off a couple of shots, but McGaugh was having too much trouble controlling his spooked horse to draw his gun.

Another of the renegades rode at Cole firing his rifle.

Keeping low, Cole ran at him rather than retreating, which seemed to surprise him a little.

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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