Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (9 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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“I do not know this word.”

“It means rascal . . . troublemaker.”

“I do not think this of Isoko-yo-kinni,” she said. “He is self-important, and he likes to have property and
nápikoan
things, but he is not
bad
. I think the trader sees him as a rival. Not every
nápikoan
who sleeps in Isoko-yo-kinni's camp . . . who rides in Siksikáwa land . . . comes to make trouble.”

Cole nodded in agreement.
He
was a
nápikoan
who was riding in Siksikáwa land.

Just as it was stirring to life for the day, they arrived on a bluff near the heart-shaped butte from which the settlement took its name.

There were many tipis and a few clapboard buildings, making it a metropolis by comparison with the other places that Cole had visited in Blackfeet country. Around and among the tipis, a few women were stirring cooking fires to life while their men still slept. A couple of kids were running about, shouting and laughing.

“You should wait here,” Natoya said. “I will ride down and see what I can discover.”

She was right. A white man with a Colt on his hip would attract a great deal of unwanted attention. A lone Indian woman appearing in an awakening settlement would blend in seamlessly—so long as her own Colt remained discreetly concealed beneath her robe.

Cole watched as she dismounted and led her horse through the fringes of the encampment. He could see her breath in the cold air as she spoke to the women who were cooking the morning meal. He could see her gestures and those of the women with whom she spoke.

Demonstrating no particular urgency, she worked her way through the camp toward the cluster of wooden buildings.

At last, he watched as her head turned directly, though very briefly, toward him. Her quick, though characteristically graceful hand gesture indicated that it was time for the
nápikoan
to ride into town.

Following her lead, he came slowly and casually, winding his way, rather than riding directly toward the building near which she stood. His heart skipped a beat, however, when he saw her go inside.

*   *   *

G
IDEON AND
E
NOCH
P
ORTER SAT AT A TABLE EATING A
porridge of venison, while Jimmy Goode poured a cup of coffee—a distinct rarity in Blackfeet country—near a cookstove, which was another rarity in this country. Double Runner, wearing a white man's shirt and vest, sat at the table with the Porter boys.

Their conversation stopped when the door opened and a young woman stepped in.


Oki, i'taamikskanaotonni
,” Double Runner said, greeting her and bidding her good morning.


Tsa niita'piiwa, Isoko-yo-kinni
?” she said politely and appropriately for a young person speaking to an elder, asking after his health.


Tsiiksi'taami'tsihp nomohkootsiito'toohpa, Natoya-I-nis'kim
,” he said, recognizing her, and knowing that she was a relative of O-mis-tai-po-kah, whom he knew well, and saying that he was pleased to have her visit his home.


Tsiikaahsi'tsihp nito'toohs
,” she said with a smile, replying that she was happy to be there.

The white men sat in stunned silence, reacting to Natoya's uncommon beauty as Bladen Cole had when he first met her.

“Who's this pretty little thing that's just walked in here?” Enoch Porter said, pushing the tin plate of porridge aside and rising to his feet.

“Sit down and finish your goddamn breakfast,” Gideon snarled at his impulsively brazen younger brother.

“To hell with eatin' breakfast,” Enoch said, taking a step toward Natoya. “I'd be wanting me a little taste of
squaw
.”


Tahkaa kiisto?
” she said angrily, demanding to know who he thought he was.

“Got a tongue on ya, doncha?” Enoch laughed. “Betcha this squaw knows how to buck.”

“Sit down and leave her be!” Double Runner demanded, standing up and reaching for his rifle.

“Don't do it,” Gideon said, firmly gripping the gun and pulling it away from its owner.

Turning to Enoch, he repeated his demand that his little brother sit back down.

Again, his brother ignored him.

“Gimme little kiss,
squaw
,” he said, grabbing her arm.

As his face neared hers, the disgusting odor of his breath nearly gagged her, but she managed to let fly and spit into his face with as much force as she could muster.

He staggered backward, momentarily stunned.

“Oh, you
are
a fighter, you little bitch,” he said as he wiped his face with his sleeve. “If it's a fight you want, a fight you shall have!”

With a laugh, he seized and twisted her wrist, and her buffalo robe fell to the floor.

With her other hand, she drew her old Colt.

Without hesitation, as his eyes grew to the size of the plate from which he had been eating porridge, she squeezed the trigger.

Cli-ick.

The sound of the misfire echoed through the room, which was suddenly devoid of all other sound.

Enoch angrily snatched the gun from her small hand and threw it hard across the room.

Pushing her onto the floor, he grabbed roughly at her clothing and drew his knife.

“When I'm finished with this pretty little doe . . .” he said, licking his lips and touching her cheek with the steel blade. “I'm gonna mess up this pretty little face so's I'm the last one who ever lays eyes on—”

His words were swallowed by the thunder of an explosion, followed immediately by another.

The porridge of bone and flesh that had once been the back of Enoch Porter's head distributed itself randomly on the far wall of the room.

Jimmy Goode's quivering hand lost its grip on his coffee cup.

Gideon Porter's hand went for his own gun.

Bladen Cole's reproachful advice, supported by a gun aimed directly at Gideon's head, was that he should
not
do that.

Chapter 10

R
ELIEVED OF HIS SIDEARM, A SULLEN
G
IDEON
P
ORTER SAT
upon his horse, his wrists restrained by old army-issue prison manacles. The chain was looped through the gullet beneath his saddle horn, inextricably fastening him to the saddle. He bit his lip in reaction to the biting cold and to the bitter realization that he had been caught.

He watched as his little brother, now a rapidly cooling corpse wrapped in a cast-off scrap of canvas, was tied across the saddle on which he had ridden into Heart Butte the day before.

“Damn you, Enoch,” his brother hissed quietly. Had it not been for Enoch's uncontrolled sadism, Mary Phillips would still be alive, and the cycle of events that had been neither anticipated nor desired by anyone would never have led to this humiliating moment.

They had gone to a house to kill three men, but by Gideon's reasoning, Enoch's killing a woman with no good reason had ignited the fires of outrage that had put a bounty hunter on their trail—a bounty hunter who had apparently not feared following that trail into Blackfeet country.

Gideon had assumed they would be safe in this land of barbarians.

Gideon had been wrong.

“Damn you, Enoch,” his brother hissed quietly. “Why the hell did you have to go after that damnable squaw?”

Had it not been for Enoch's impetuous, hotheaded lust, there would have been three guns to take on the bounty hunter. At least there would have been
two
—because, after all, Jimmy Goode was good for
nothing
.

Barely fifteen minutes ago, Jimmy had been enjoying a cup of coffee—poor coffee, but still coffee—but now both he and Gideon were manacled to their saddles in the icy arctic wind. Events had unfolded more quickly and with more complexity than the limited capabilities of Jimmy Goode's mind could process.

A squaw on the floor, and Enoch's brains on the wall.

A
very angry
squaw with Enoch's knife, and Enoch's manhood in Double Runner's potbellied heating stove.

Normally, Double Runner would have been displeased to have guests treated so harshly and blood spattered all around his parlor, but after what he had seen Enoch try to do to Natoya-I-nis'kim, he agreed entirely with the fate meted out to Enoch Porter by the bounty hunter.

After what Cole had told him about them, Double Runner was doubly pleased to be rid of the surviving strangers.

The Siksikáwa leader was also delighted that Cole had made the gesture of presenting him with Enoch's finely tooled leather boots, a pair which Cole had seen him admiring. Double Runner was pleased with this favor and called for his son and two other young men to ride with the bounty hunter and his prisoners as far as O-mis-tai-po-kah's camp.

As they rode out, all were silent.

There was nothing much to be said.

The two outlaws rode in the center, their horses roped together, flanked by the Blackfeet men, who were as eager to see them going away to justice as the bounty hunter. Cole rode behind, where he could watch his prisoners. He was flanked by Natoya, who rode parallel to him at a distance of about a dozen yards.

As Cole watched, over the first few miles, the taut muscles in her face gradually relaxed. Rage had turned to anger. Anger had been slowly but surely consumed by the soothing mitigation of retribution having been exacted.

At last she shot him a glance, and he saw that for the first time, the frown had disappeared from her face. It was not exactly a smile, but it was an expression of thanks.

Cole nodded and touched the brim of his hat.

In the space of two days, they had each saved the other in dramatic fashion, thereby establishing a bond not unlike that of soldiers.

Cole had experienced this in those frenzied final days of the war, when the skirmishing seemed to run the length and breadth of Virginia's fields and farmsteads. He had saved a man's life, actually several lives on several occasions, and found his own preserved by the intervention of others more than once.

His mind wandered to those days, and to the lives preserved and the lives lost. Back then, momentous events involving tens of thousands of lives moved rapidly. In those days, there would have been no way to imagine long hours on these infinite, windswept plains where the mind could be allowed to sink into the monotonous reverie of contemplation.

“How many sleeps?” Natoya asked, pointing to the two prisoners and the distant horizon.

“Maybe four,” Cole said.

His mind, having been allowed to sink into reverie, had just been contemplating the immense scale of the West in the abstract. Making conversation in an attempt to break the icy silence that had prevailed between them, Natoya had brought him back from the abstract to the real.

“Maybe more,” Cole said with a lessened conviction that begged and received the addition of the phrase “maybe a week . . . or so.”

She nodded.

Like him, she understood that it would take him longer to return with prisoners than it had for him to get here alone. A lone rider in pursuit of a quarry moves much more quickly than a man slowed by a pair of charges who would just as soon cut his throat as cast him a cutting glance.

Indeed, it might take a week. He would just have to see.

Montana Territory was a big place.

Around noon, as the glow of the autumn sun stood as high in the overcast sky as it would that day, he pulled a scrap of pemmican from his pocket and shared it with her.

For the first time since Heart Butte, she smiled.

So did he.

How could he not smile at the bashful way that she grinned and looked away with her face, but not her eyes. It was like when he had thanked her for saving his life.

After that, they made small talk. He asked about the missionary school. She asked about the place from which he came and wrinkled her forehead in bewilderment as he tried to explain how far away it was.

The West was a big place, and the East was still many, many sleeps beyond. He wondered what she would make of a place like Denver, or Kansas City, or Richmond.

*   *   *

T
HE LIGHT WAS FADING WHEN THEY FIRST SAW THE MANY
smokes of O-mis-tai-po-kah's camp on the horizon, and nearly gone when they crested the ridge and saw the campfires.

The size of the camp had nearly doubled since Cole had seen it last, and the level of activity spread out before him between the tipis told him that the men who had traveled to the east to hunt buffalo had come home. By the looks of things, they had not returned empty-handed.

Riding through the edges of the camp, Cole noticed that Natoya-I-nis'kim was looking around intently.

Suddenly, she nudged the withers of her horse and galloped ahead a short distance, to where a group of hunters were unloading the fruits of their labors.

With one, graceful, fluid motion, she slid off her horse, shed her buffalo robe, and jumped on one of the men. Had he not been a tall, powerfully built man, she would have knocked him over. Instead, it was he who pulled her off her feet, raising her face to meet his. As they embraced, Cole understood in a moment who he was, and what he meant to her.

At last, as the hunter let her feet once again touch the ground, she turned and pointed to Cole. Pulling the man's hand, she practically dragged him to where the bounty hunter was dismounting.

Natoya introduced the tall man as Sinopaa, the man she loved and planned to marry.

As Cole signed a greeting, the man's expression said that her description of this
nápikoan
stranger with whom his fiancée had spent the last several days had painted him as one of the good guys.


Oki . . . napi
,” Sinopaa said, grabbing Cole's hand in a reasonable facsimile of a white man's handshake. The bounty hunter knew enough Blackfeet to know that the greeting was a formal one, meaning “hello, friend,” and was reserved for use between men who truly respected each other. “
Tsiiksi'taami'tsihp nomohkootsiito'toohpa, Mr. Cool
.”

“He is happy to call you friend, and he is happy you are here,” Natoya translated.

“Tell him that I am too,” Cole replied.

*   *   *

O
-MIS-TAI-PO-KAH ROLLED OUT A WARM WELCOME FOR
“Mr. Cool,” inviting him to spend the night and to join in the celebration being held to welcome home the hunting party.

Even Ikutsikakatósi and Ómahkaatsistawa greeted Cole cordially. Though the two men had taken
most
of the credit for recovering the horses, they
had
acknowledged that the
nápikoan
gunman had participated bravely. Cole could tell by O-mis-tai-po-kah's wry grin that he understood the extent to which the two men had embellished the details. He was just glad to have his horses back.

The hunt having been successful, there were copious quantities of fresh meat, happily consumed by people who gathered around large fires near the center of the encampment. Being a guest, Cole was offered a hump steak, considered to be the prime cut, which he enjoyed. Porter and Goode, who spent the night chained to a pair of cottonwoods near the stream, were fed less desirable parts of the buffalo.

As the dinner party unfolded, Cole's eye was drawn, naturally, to his young friend, Natoya-I-nis'kim. He watched in the flickering firelight as she and Sinopaa sat beside each other on the periphery of the crowd, talking—and even giggling—like the young lovers they were.

He was happy for her, happy that she had a man who cared for her as much as he obviously did. At the same time, though, he could not help being jealous of Sinopaa. She was a beautiful woman for whom he had, himself, developed a great fondness.

Though Cole had imagined himself with her, he knew that such imaginings were unrealistic in the extreme. There was no place for her in the world of the
nápikoan
, or for him in her world. Sinopaa was a lucky man, and Cole knew that he knew it.

At one point, Cole glanced away to converse briefly with a man seated near him, and when he glanced back, Natoya and Sinopaa were no longer there. He smiled and reached to slice off another piece from the meat that hung over the fragrantly crackling cottonwood.

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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