***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright ©2016 Keith McCafferty
Kettle of Blood
“I suppose a gun would be too much to ask for.”
Harold Little Feather stared across the river. A small group of gawkers, two fishing guides and the couples who were their clients, gathered at his back. Moaning sounds emanating from the tree and willow tangle at the base of the cliffs were spaced farther apart now, just in the thirty minutes since he’d driven up from Ennis. He’d been sitting down to breakfast when he got the call. His day off, a date to meet Martha and cast a fly in the braids of the Madison, hence unarmed.
“I mean, this being Montana and all, land of free men and open carry, I’d think somebody would be packin’.”
If Martha was here she’d have her Ruger, day off or not. Strapping up was part of her a.m. ritual, like turning Goldie out for a run while she steeped her tea, running a ChapStick across her lips and looking at her face critically in the mirror before squaring her hat. On nights when Harold slept over he’d step up behind her, bring his big hands to her face, chestnut against white, lift the corners of her mouth so she saw herself smile.
“I got a two-two.”
Harold turned around. He’d heard the crunch of gravel a few minutes before as another truck pulled up. It was Peachy Morris hauling his ClackaCraft, the one with the pink ribbon on the hull to show his support for breast cancer research, though anyone who knew Peachy knew the only breast research he was interested in was the hands-on kind. The lanky fishing guide crinkled up his eyes, a What do we have here? look on his face. Harold’s glance took in Peachy’s clients, a tall, sandy-haired man he recognized as a member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club, though he had forgotten the name, and a small girl who looked maybe seven.
“And what’s your name?” Harold asked the girl.
The girl hid her face behind a wing of straw-colored hair. It’s because I’m Indian, he thought. When she’d boldly pronounced her armament, he’d been facing away from her.
The sandy-haired man extended his hand. “Robin Hurt Cowdry. We’ve met.”
“Sure. You’re from Zimbabwe, you import the African artifacts.”
“Botswana,” the man corrected. “Mugabe redistributed my keister all the way to Botswana. This is Doris, my niece.” And to the girl, “Mind your manners.”
She shyly faced Harold. “You can have my two-two,” she said, “but it’s back at the house.”
“I might need something bigger than that,” Harold said. His eyes turned to the cliffs as the moaning picked up in volume.
“Sounds like a bloody pride of lions,” Cowdry said.
Harold’s nod was half an inch. “It’s bison. Guy on the Tenderfoot Creek game range saw them on the escarpment last night, maybe a part of the herd that came out of Yellowstone onto the Hebgen Plateau, reported it to Fish, Wildlife, and Parks this morning. A guide putting in heard the ruckus”—Harold jerked his head to indicate the group standing at the boat ramp—“so he called the county and here I am with my hands in my pockets.”
“So you figure they fell over the cliffs?” Peachy Morris was tugging on his rowing gloves. “Fourth of July. All that racket down in the valley, people setting off fireworks. They could have panicked.”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Then let me see what I can come up with.”
Harold crossed his arms against the bite of morning chill, caught the girl staring at his tattoos, the weasel tracks hunting around his left upper biceps, the hooves of elk following each other around his right.
“Are you an Indian?” she said, pushing the hair out of her face. “I’ve never seen an Indian.”
“Absolutely,” Harold said.
“I saw a Zulu warrior dance. They’re fiercer than you.”
“That’s because I didn’t put on my paint this morning.”
Peachy was back, handing over a revolver in a leather holster.
“It’s a .454 Casull. The loads are just snake shot, but there’s some hard cast rounds floating around in my boat bag. Shoot through thirty inches of wet phone books.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Jah, you could right donner them with that. Couldn’t he, Uncle Robin?”
“Speak American, Dorry,” Cowdry said.
Morris produced five hard cast loads with the comment that they might not be enough. “How many you think there are?” he said.
“Sounds like a few.” Harold tipped out the cylinder to eject the snake loads and fed in the full-power rounds. He turned to Cowdry. “I left a message with the sheriff. She comes, she’ll have donuts. Tell her to save me one of the glazed. Make sure your niece gets one.”
He raised his chin to the guide. “Peachy, you think you could row me across?”
He spoke briefly to the group who’d been standing on the bank, telling them to wait until he’d crossed before launching and to stay in their boats until they were through the cliffs. He left them stringing fly rods and pushed off with Peachy at the oars of the driftboat, making for a backwater on the far bank.
“You want me to come with you?” Peachy dropped the anchor.
“No, I got it.”
Harold ran his eyes to the tops of the cliffs, which were known as the Palisades and stood sentinel for a solid mile over the river’s west bank. The moaning sounds were louder here and sounded more like growling, though the reverberation on the rock walls made them hard to place. He drew the Casull from the holster to double-check the loads. “I won’t be needing this,” he said, and tossed the holster to Peachy. He started hiking up the bank, holding the heavy handgun at his side.
The first buffalo was dead, a jagged edge of cannon bone sticking through the skin of its foreleg, its bowels evacuated, its enormous eye glazed over. A cow, fingers of shaggy winter coat hanging off it like brown moss. The cow had rolled after falling off the cliff, carving a wide swale through the brush. Twenty yards farther up, where willows choked the river bottom, was a second cow. Its cavernous rib cage expanded, then collapsed like an accordion. With each exhalation, a ragged gurgling sound blew bubbles in the blood covering its nose and mouth. Its eye followed Harold as he walked around it, but it lacked the strength to turn its head. Harold clenched his jaw. He extended his right arm and shot it in the back of its skull.
At the shot, Harold’s arm jerked up and back, spinning him halfway around. He brought the barrel down out of recoil, feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder from the wrenching of his arm. Jesus, the thing was a cannon. His ears ringing, he sat down beside the dead bison. The roaring of other bison had become an undertone, dull and muted from the concussion. Eventually the underwater sensation subsided and the sounds of the dying animals came back.
Harold tucked his braid under the back of his shirt and fought through brush. He climbed until he reached the base of the cliffs, which was scree rock and sagebrush studded about with giant slabs of stone that had broken away from the cliff face. The rattling, guttural sighs seemed to surround him. He found another dead cow and then three bison still clinging to life, two of them lying down, one on its knees, feebly pushing its short horns against the withers of one of the fallen animals. Harold tore strips from his bandana and wadded them into his ears. He looked away for a few moments, putting off the inevitable. Then he grasped the rubberized grips of the revolver with both hands, extending his arms, and shot the bison that was on its knees. It rolled over and was still. He moved a few feet, sat down, and shot the next one, and then the third. The great heads rocked with the impacts and the moaning stopped.
Harold got to his feet. He pulled the cotton out of his ears. Except for the river running, he heard nothing, and the relative silence seemed oppressive. That must be the lot, he thought. He had gone a long way inside himself to find that still place where the hunter went when he killed, had gone so far as to regard the bison as “it” rather than he or she, something no Indian would do without conscious decision for they were his brothers, his sisters, and only now did he take in a bigger picture. Harold was Blackfeet, his people were buffalo people, nomads who had followed the herds until there were no more herds to follow. For thousands of years his ancestors had driven bison over cliffs similar to those above him. In fact, Harold thought, it was entirely likely that they had driven bison over these very cliffs, for this had been a Blackfeet hunting ground and the cliffs formed what was called a pishkun in the tribal language, a “deep blood kettle.” But that was before the white man came with his seeds and his cattle, before the Sharps rifles spoke and the Sun Dances held on the reservation became only ceremony.
Harold squatted on his heels, facing the river. He watched the occasional car pass by on the highway, a quarter mile to the east. If you lifted your eyes it was Eden as his grandfather’s grandfathers had seen it, the mountains uncolored by time. The irony of what he had done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years, was not lost on him, and the tears that hung on the high bones of his cheeks were the tears of his people. He ignored them as a white, boxy-looking vehicle slowed and turned onto the access road. That would be Martha’s Cherokee. Well, he’d better get back across and give her the news.
The slope he’d climbed earlier was choked with willow and alder, and he looked for an easier route down to the river. To his right the gradient eased, and he’d descended a few yards when he saw the bushes above him bulging and heard a sound like rocks clashing. The head of a bison emerged from the brush, strings of bloody mucus hanging from its nostrils. It was striking its hooves against the stone scree, pawing it. The bison was thirty feet away and it came in a stumbling charge. A bull, its great hump standing taller than Harold’s head, coming on three good legs, one rear leg flopping. Harold cocked the hammer on the last round in the Casull and held his fire. Twenty feet, ten, the bison’s head dropping to toss him with its thick, incurved horns. Harold brought the muzzle level with its forehead and pulled the trigger, then jumped to the side as the bull fell heavily, its nose plowing into the scree. For a moment it lay still. Then, slowly, it began to slide down the hill. It picked up speed, rolled over once, and came to rest against the trunk of a limber pine tree.
Harold had felt the earth shake as the bison fell, and now he couldn’t feel his feet underneath him. Where he’d been standing, blood painted the stones. He worked his way down to where the beast lay dead, into the envelope of its heavy odor, into their collective past. The underwater sensation was back and he shook his head. Such a magnificent animal. Such a waste of life.
That’s when he heard the bleating. It was not loud, but higher-pitched than the moaning he’d heard earlier. He knew it must be a calf. He thought about going back to the landing, waiting for Martha, borrowing her .357 to finish it off.
No, do it now. Get it over with. He reached for the bone-handled knife on his hip.