Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (8 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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In the split second that the man's hand was on the lever of his Winchester, Cole aimed and fired. The bullet caught him on the jaw and the lower part of his face exploded upward in a pink cloud.

It was not so much a running gun battle as a swirling gun battle. The horse herd had been grazing when it all started, with individual horses facing in every direction of the compass. Therefore, when the stampede began, it was a stampede that went nowhere but to turn like a cyclone, folding in upon itself and creating confusion and panic among the undisciplined herd.

Some of the renegades were in the midst of this, first trying to straighten the herd, then just trying not to be knocked off and trampled.

Other renegades were on the outside the cyclone. One fired at Cole. The miss was so close that Cole heard the lead hiss past his head like an angry hornet. When Cole's return shot struck the man's chest, he knew that it was a fatal hit.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw three riders coming at full gallop from the woods, firing as they came. In the center was Natoya-I-nis'kim. The Colt looked like a cannon in her small hand, yet she held it as steady as if it were bolted to her horse.

She had shed her buffalo robe, and it was obvious—at least to Cole—that her slender, bare arms were not those of a man. What would the renegades do when they saw that they were being attacked by a woman?

The answer was a split second of disbelief on the part of the nearest horse thief as she entered the fray, a split second that cost the man his life. Cole saw the big pistol buck in her hand and the man topple awkwardly from his horse.

Suddenly, Cole watched in unanticipated disbelief as she pointed the Colt directly at
him
! For a moment, he froze as he stared down the muzzle with her riding directly at him. She was scarcely fifteen feet away when he found himself staring down a muzzle flash.

Almost at the same moment, he heard a horrific shriek that seemed to come from his own shoulder.

He turned to see a man hovering in the air, almost on top of him. Blood was splattering everywhere, and the contorted expression on his face was that of the most frightening banshee imaginable.

As Natoya and her horse raced past him like a rocket, so close that Cole could feel the heat of her sweating mount, he realized what had happened. While he was distracted by the sight of her coming into the fight, one of the renegades had come within two feet of him for a certain kill.

Natoya-I-nis'kim had just saved his life.

*   *   *

T
HE THUNDER OF HOOVES—BOTH PANICKED AND PURPOSEFUL
, clamoring within an immense and growing cloud of dust—was punctuated by screams of anger and screams of pain—and by gunshots.

Bladen Cole looked around. His eyes probed the choking yellow dust. He had emptied his revolver, dropping three men. He had now drawn his Winchester from its scabbard, and his eyes searched for more targets. Suddenly, he saw them, two riders who had bolted, leaving the scene and riding north at top speed.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder, sighted, and squeezed the trigger.

One man tumbled off his horse.

He hated to shoot a man in the back, but there was a job to be done. Again he aimed, but this time, before he could fire, he heard the crack of another rifle.

The rider jumped slightly, but did not fall. The dust from his horse faded and disappeared into the distance.

Cole looked down. Ikutsikakatósi was just lowering his Trapdoor Springfield.

As the dust settled, he saw Natoya, riding hard to round up the stragglers from the stampeded herd. Realizing that she was the one working while her companions merely gawked at the battlefield, Cole went into action, chasing some stragglers and getting them back to the group.

Benjamin McGaugh, who had started the day with a simple horse-buying trip, sat on the ground staring at the lifeless body of his hired man and gripping a blood-soaked sleeve.

He was uncharacteristically speechless when Bladen Cole knelt beside him, ripped off his shirt, and constructed a tourniquet.

“You seem to know what you're doing,” he said weakly.

“Learned it in the war,” Cole said succinctly.

“Oh yeah,” said McGaugh with a nod. “The war.”

The two men could tell by their respective accents that they had been on opposite sides. It had been a long time, but nobody who was there would ever forget the war.

Cole stood him up and walked him to the nearby stream so that he could get a drink.

As McGaugh sat at the edge of the water, he began to shake, not from the cold, because the afternoon had proved to be fairly warm, but from the onset of shock.

Natoya, who had retrieved her buffalo robe, rode up, dismounted, and without a word, wrapped it around his shoulders.

With that, she lay down and submerged her face in the gurgling waters of the creek. After what seemed to Cole and McGaugh to have been about two minutes, she sat up abruptly, shook her wet braids vigorously and, obviously refreshed, smiled a smile which, had Cole been a poet—which he was not—he would have called angelic.

“Thank you,” Cole said, looking at her, she who had been
his
guardian angel. “Thanks for saving my life out there.”

She looked down and then off to the horizon, still smiling, and began to blush.

The only sounds were the gurgling of the stream and the background racket of Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa searching for trophies among their fallen enemies.

Chapter 9

T
HE SUN WAS DROPPING INTO THE STORM CLOUDS ENVELOPING
the peaks of the Rockies when four horses and three riders lumbered into the isolated trading post on the river which the Siksikáwa called “Two Medicine” because it flowed out of the mountain valley where the sundance lodges of rival Siksikáwa bands stood side by side in a celebration of tribal unity. It was ironic, Cole thought, after a day marked by such deadly tribal
disunity
.

Across the saddle of the riderless horse was tied the body of the half-breed named Mason, whose Yankee father had wed a Siksikáwa woman in this land many years ago.

Bladen Cole and young Natoya-I-nis'kim had accompanied the wounded Benjamin McGaugh to this place, having agreed to a proposal made by Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa that they be allowed to return the herd of recovered
ponokáómitaa
to O-mis-tai-po-kah. They had wished to do this because it would allow them to save face in light of the fact that the bloody work of actually killing the thieves and the mundane work of rounding up the heard had been done mainly by a
nápikoan
and a
woman
.

Cole was happy to go along with this. He had done his part and paid the dues that bought him the credentials and credibility among the Siksikáwa that he would need to move about in their land and continue his manhunt.

Natoya was happy to do this as well. She was tired of the jealous taunting of the young men and relished the respect that she had earned, and now enjoyed, from this stranger from a distant world.

Benjamin McGaugh had begun to regain his composure by the time that he was delivered into the capable hands of the trader at the Two Medicine trading post. The trader and his wife were decidedly more conversant than the Porter boys in how to doctor a bullet wound, and therefore, the would-be horse buyer was spared the anguished fate that had been that of poor Milton Waller.

When the bullet had been removed, the wound cauterized, and a whiskey-sated McGaugh was left snoring in another room, Cole sat down with the trader to ask some questions.

“Three white men?” the man asked rhetorically in reply to the bounty hunter's query. “Yes, done heard tell . . . about three days ago . . . over around Heart Butte.”

“Three
nápikoan
gunslingers show up out here, and people tend to notice,” the man's wife interjected. “Talk is going around that these characters are hoping to winter out in these parts.”

“Damn fool thing to contemplate,” the trader added.

“Guess that makes you and me a coupla damned fools,” his wife said with an ironic grin.

At this, the two of them laughed hysterically.

The bounty hunter merely smiled. The phrase “stir crazy” entered his mind but went unverbalized.

Natoya stared without expression. Either she didn't quite grasp the joke, or she felt it insulting that someone would consider it foolish to winter where her people had wintered since the beginning of time.

“Where
exactly
would they be wintering, if they
did
winter out here?” Cole asked.

“Oh probably over at Heart Butte,” the wife said.

“Yeah,” said her husband. “That would be old Double Runner's band. He's been known to take in all manner of scalawags and fugitives from down south of the Marias. Law can't touch 'em up here, and he likes using them as hired guns.”

“I've seen that happen in this country,” Cole nodded, with a knowing look at Natoya.

*   *   *

C
OLE AND
N
ATOYA-
I
-NIS'KIM ACCEPTED THE HOSPITALITY
of the trader, ate his food, and camped near the three-room building that constituted the trading post.

As Cole stoked the fire so that it would be with them through the entire night, Natoya reclined on the opposite side of the fire wrapped in her buffalo robe. She continued to relish the opportunity to use her English words with a willing listener.

“Do you know the story of A-koch-kit-ope . . . the one who the
nápikoan
call the ‘Medicine Grizzly'?” she asked as the conversation turned to the powerful and magic creature of which they had spoken the night before.

“Nope, but I'd sure be happy to hear
you
tell it . . . and I like stories told around campfires . . .”

He was going to add the phrase “by beautiful girls with the firelight flickering in their deep, dark eyes,” but he did not.

“If it was a
nápikoan
story it would start with ‘once upon a time,'” she laughed.

Cole laughed too. He liked her sense of humor and her ability to make word jokes in a language not her own.

“Go ahead and tell it that way,” he said with a smile.

“Okay, once upon a time, Stock-stchi, whose name means ‘Bear Cub,' was telling stories about a war party he had led across the mountains to attack the Kotoksspi, the people who live over there to the west. You know, the people who the
nápikoan
calls the ‘Flathead.' It was a warm summer night . . . not like this one . . . and he sent his wife to get water. She saw a stranger in the light of the moon.”

Cole enjoyed the smoothness of her gestures as she signed the expression for getting water, then pointed to the moon.

“The stranger was part of a raiding party from the Piik-siik-sii-naa people, who call themselves A'aninin.”

“What does Piik-siik-sii-naa mean?” Cole asked.

“‘Snakes,'” Natoya said.

“‘Snakes'?” Cole repeated with mock indignation.

“You white people call them by the name Gros Ventre, which means ‘big bellies,'” she laughed.

Cole couldn't help shaking his head with an ironic half grin. Outsiders from all sides seemed to have unflattering nicknames for the poor A'aninin people. Of course, people everywhere seem to have derogatory names for
other
tribes. He recalled the names that his fellow Virginians had for the freed slaves, and how the Lakota had named white people “bacon thieves.”

“The Siksikáwa attacked the A'aninin before they could attack,” she continued, making a point of using the tribe's name for its own people. “And they killed the whole raiding party except one man, who was a
natoápina
, a medicine man. They shot many arrows at him, but he could not be killed.”

“Reminds me of what my people say about the grizzly,” Cole interjected, “that it can't be killed.”


Exactly
,” Natoya said. “You are understanding the story already. The man shouted that his name was A-koch-kit-ope, and he had powerful medicine . . . and the Siksikáwa believed he did. He said he would stay to guard his dead brothers so the Siksikáwa would not take trophies.”

“Scalps?” Cole asked, more as a statement than a question.

Natoya nodded, then continued.

“The next day, they killed A-koch-kit-ope, but it took all of them to do it. They discovered that he had an
apóhkiááyo
claw . . . like the one you gave to me last night . . . tied into his hair. They realized that he had the spirit and power of the grizzly, and they were frightened. So they burned his body.”

Natoya nodded toward their own fire and explained, gesturing as she did, how they captured all the embers that escaped so that they could destroy and contain his grizzly medicine.

“Did it work?” Cole asked, entranced by the motions of her hands as she told the story.

“No,” she said with a graceful shrug that eloquently added, “They should have known better.”

“A-koch-kit-ope reappeared as the Medicine Grizzly,” she said, signing that it was a fait accompli. “This huge
apóhkiááyo
followed their trail and killed many of them the next time they made camp. When the Siksikáwa went back the next year to camp in the place where the story started, a large
apóhkiááyo
came into their camp the first night, scaring the horses and killing the dogs. The people were so scared when they saw it was A-koch-kit-ope. They did not dare to shoot at him. Even now, he is seen in the same place by a lake . . . deep inside the mountains. He is seen only by night, and he is never attacked because he is A-koch-kit-ope, the Medicine Grizzly.”

Natoya-I-nis'kim smiled and reached to a narrow rawhide thong that she had around her neck. She pulled it from beneath the front of her buckskin dress and showed it to him. Woven to the end, in an elaborate and intricate pattern crafted by herself, was the grizzly claw that he had given her the night before.


Apóhkiááyo
gave you the power of his spirit,” she said, the reflection of the fire twinkling in her eyes like stars. “And you gave that to me, and that was how you were saved from the Káínawa bullet today.”

And that was the story told by the fireside that night.

*   *   *

B
LADEN
C
OLE AWOKE TO THE FEEL OF WARM BREATH
against his cheek. His first thought was naturally of the grizzly, but this was not a grizzly.

Had it been only two days since he had awakened to the hot breathing of the roan nuzzling him awake?

Then, it was a snorting, nudging, rude awakening. Today—or, more properly, tonight, as no sun warmed the world—the bounty hunter opened his eyes to the most divine of apparitions.

It was a phantom that drifted like sweet incense in the indistinct dimension between dream and dream-come-true.

Above him in the moonlight knelt Natoya-I-nis'kim. Her body, the most perfect of bodies, was clothed as it had been at the moment of her birth. Her long, jet-black hair, freed from the tightly wound braids, moved and flowed freely and most elegantly in the light breeze.

“Wake up,” the Siksikáwa maiden whispered in a tone as rude to the dreamer as had been the prodding of the roan. “We must go . . . quickly.”

It was, alas, a vision that quickly melded into reality, as she moved to clothe her most perfect of bodies as it had been clothed yesterday.

Their plan had been to start out at dawn, but Cole saw no dawn on any horizon, only the billion tiny campfires that dotted the heavens from edge to edge.

“It's the middle of the night,” he pleaded weakly as he watched her put on her buckskin dress and gather up her robe. He did not bother to look at the watch in his pocket, but guessed it to be no later than four.

“We must go,” she insisted. “We must be in Moisskitsipahpiistaki . . . Heart Butte . . . at dawn. I wakened with a thought in my mind. As the words of three men coming were being told across this country, words of
you
are spreading as well. You have heard of
them
. They will hear of
you
. We must go quickly.”

As much as he would have rather spent the next hour—or the next lifetime—watching her in the moonlight, Cole knew that she was right.

They bade good-bye to the trader's wife, who was making her way to the outhouse as they mounted their horses, and rode away, guided by the stars.

*   *   *


K
OKUMEKIS KOKATOSIX KUMMOKIT SPUMMOKIT!

N
ATOYA
said happily, looking up.

“Yeah, I agree . . . it's fun to look at the stars,” Cole laughed, presuming that her words celebrated the heavenly spectacle of a clear night on the cusp of winter.

“That is a saying we have,” she said, continuing to gaze skyward. “I guess it is sort of a prayer . . . asking the moon and stars to give me strength.”

“I sort of guessed that,” Cole said, putting the stress on the phrase “sort of.”

“They
hated
this prayer at the mission school . . . they wouldn't let us say things like that. Finally an old padre came and asked about our prayers. At last, there was a black robe who understood . . . He thought it was splendid too.”

“Me too,” Cole agreed, looking at the stars.

“He was also one who understood about the
nátosini
, the power of Es-tonea-pesta,” she laughed, pulling her buffalo robe tight about her.

“Who's
that
?”

“The maker of cold weather,” she smiled.

“Yeah, he's sure working overtime tonight,” Cole agreed.

In the predawn darkness, Es-tonea-pesta had the temperature near zero by the reckoning of the white man named Fahrenheit, but Bladen Cole felt sufficiently warmed merely by the presence of the girl named for the elusive Buffalo Stone.

“Tell me about Double Runner,” he said after they had ridden for about another half hour.

“His name is Isokoyokinni in Siksikáwa,” she said. “He is named for the footrace between the antelope and the deer. He lives
nápikoan
-style in a wooden house and takes in strangers. You can always find at least one
nápikoan
in his camp.”

“The trader made him sound like as much of a scalawag as the scalawags he takes in,” Cole said.

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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