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By Rosanne Bittner
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Rosanne Bittner
All rights reserved.
"TAKE A LOOK!" Cooper Baird handed his spyglass to his friend, Clement Dees. "First one I've ever seen. I've heard of white buffalo, but in all the years I've trapped and hunted out here, I've never seen one."
Clement steadied the spyglass while Cooper remained crouched beside him. "It's a white buffalo skin all right," Clement answered. He kept his voice to a low whisper. "From what I can tell, there's nobody down there but one brave and his squaw." He handed back the spyglass. "Shouldn't be too hard a job for four men."
Cooper swatted at a fly on his cheek. "You never can tell with the Sioux. There's likely plenty more nearby. Don't forget what happened to them soldiers under that Lieutenant Grattan. The Sioux are feelin' their oats, right boastful and ready for more killin', most likely; kind of like a wolf. Once it gets the scent of blood, it's ready for more."
"In this case it's one man and his squaw, not a whole war party," Clement argued.
Both men slithered down the rise that hid them from the Indian camp below. Cooper shoved his spyglass into a loop on his belt. "As long as we keep things quiet and don't end up with a war party on us. I seen the remains of Grattan and his men. It weren't a pretty sight, let me tell you. Most of the bodies could hardly be recognized, all chopped up and riddled with arrows." He brushed off his already-soiled buckskins. "Still in all, we can get good money for somethin' like that white robe, it bein' so rare and all. I say we try for it."
Clement shrugged. "You're the one who was just gripin' about the mood the Sioux are in. It's a big risk."
Cooper headed toward the gully where he and his hunting party were camped. He whistled softly to signal two more men waiting in the brush. Clement was right. This was not a good time to be out here hunting buffalo, but the animal's hide was garnering a damn good price back in St. Louis. Hunting the great beasts was becoming the new sport, a damned exciting one for men who liked the challenge, and Cooper liked nothing better than trying something he'd never done before, including the idea of stealing a white buffalo robe from the Sioux.
He ducked into the thick brush surrounding his camp, followed by Clement. Bob Powers and Jim Liskey waited there for them, both men holding pieces of jerky in their hands, their most practical nourishment in times when making a fire meant danger. No white man in these parts wanted to be spotted by the enemy. Sidearms, knives, and rifles were kept handy.
Liskey nodded to both arriving men before biting off a piece of the hard, dry meat. "See any buffalo?" He wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his stained buckskin shirt.
Cooper winced at the sight of Liskey's left eye, which was really nothing but a sewn-up hole. A large white scar ran from above the eye down across the man's cheek and lips. A drunken Sioux brave had done that to him. No one hated Indians more than Jim Liskey. "Saw somethin' even better than buffalo. There's a white buffalo robe spread out on a tepee the other side of the hill."
Liskey's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "White?"
"White. Never seen anything like it, and it's already cleaned and stretched. All we need to do is go down there and take it from an Indian camp."
"That easy, huh?" Powers replied, snorting in laughter. "No, thanks."
"There's only one tepee, a man and woman camped alone."
"And probably a couple thousand more nearby," Liskey grumbled. "You know how wily the Sioux are. Least ways, I know. If you want your hide roasted over an open fire, go get the damned robe by yourself."
"I've got an idea for gettin' it with no trouble," Cooper answered.
"The robe is laid out over tepee skins, maybe to air out," Clement added. "Looks like some squaw is down there lookin' for turnips or somethin'. There's a brave with her, sittin' off smokin' his pipe. Looks to us like they're alone, probably feelin' right cocky after the Grattan thing; but that don't matter much, long as it's just the one Indian."
Liskey shrugged. "If it's true they're alone, why don't you just pick off the man with your buffalo gun and go get the robe? You could bring along the squaw for all of us to share."
"Sounds tempting," Cooper answered. "But you were right that there could be a couple thousand more someplace nearby. Them bastards can pop up out of the tall grass like prairie dogs. Don't forget that any Sioux in these parts are likely ripe for another fight. I don't aim to go shootin' off my gun to let them know we're here."
Powers chuckled. "That damn fool Grattan deserved what he got, goin' up against half the Sioux nation with a lousy thirty inexperienced soldiers. And what for? Just because one Sioux warrior shot an old, lame cow that belonged to a damned Mormon. The cow wasn't worth a shit to begin with."
"I don't give a damn about how many soldiers died or what the reason was," Cooper grumbled. "All I know is I want that white robe. You other three willing to help me get it?"
The other three glanced at one another warily.
"I don't know," Powers answered skeptically.
"What's your plan?" Clement asked.
"I figure on sneakin' down there and doin' it quietly, after dark," Cooper said. "If one or two of you can create some kind of distraction, I can make off with the robe. We could have our horses someplace nearby and ride off, hard and fast, right toward Fort Kearny. We're only a day's ride from there. Fact is, the soldiers would probably be right glad to know there's some Sioux so close by. Last I heard, they was gettin' ready for a new campaign against the murderin' bastards under a General Harney, I think. We can furnish them some information when we get there."
Liskey rubbed at his shriveled eye socket. "I hope they kill every last one of the bastards."
Cooper snorted, gathering phlegm at the back of his throat, then coughing it up and spitting it out. "We ain't gonna' kill these. Not if we can help it. That's my orders."
"Why not?" Clement asked. "Seems to me the easiest way to get the robe."
Cooper scratched at the several-day-old stubble on his face. "And that's the best way to bring the whole lot of them after us. All I want is the robe, and with nobody hurt and no horses stole, they won't be so likely to come after us. They might not even know why we were there till later. That will give us time to get away." He grinned. "And as far as I know, we'll be the first to arrive in St. Louis with an albino robe."
"They're sacred, you know." Powers said.
"Sacred?" Clement removed a floppy, leather hat.
"The white buffalo. The Sioux consider them sacred. You can bet that robe means a hell of a lot to whoever owns it. And if you steal it, you might regret it."
Cooper chuckled. "How's that?"
Powers shrugged. "Who knows? You might have all kinds of bad luck once you steal it. The Sioux religion is pretty powerful stuff. You mess with somethin' sacred to them, and you could have a heap of trouble on your hands."
Cooper shared in the snickers of Liskey and Clement, shaking his head. "It's their religion, not mine," Cooper said derisively. "I don't have any religion, and I ain't superstitious. I ain't worried about some damn object a bunch of wild Indians think has magical powers. The only magical powers that robe has is the magic to put money in our pockets."
"Whoever is in charge at Fort Kearny won't take kindly to us stirrin' up the Sioux again," Clement reminded him.
"They don't need to know nothin' about it. We'll hide the white robe and just ride in like a huntin' party done with its job. Besides, the Sioux are riled up over other things. They'll stir up enough trouble all on their own." He took a piece of jerked meat from his pants pocket and bit down on one end of it, yanking off a piece. "You three gonna help me?"
They all grinned and nodded, and Cooper thought how nice it was going to be getting back to St. Louis. He wouldn't mind being the center of attention over that fine white robe. He bit off another piece of meat, feeling very satisfied.CHAPTER 2
BUFFALO DREAMER LAY next to Rising Eagle, listening to the distant cries of coyotes. A west wind rustled the leaves of the nearby cottonwood trees. Her husband sighed and rolled to his side, resting his head on his hand as he faced her.
"There is much change in the air," he said softly.
Buffalo Dreamer stared up at the twinkle of a few stars she could see through the smoke hole of the tepee. The view was clear tonight, for she'd made no fire. "A new season will come soon," she answered.
"It is not just the seasons of which I speak," Rising Eagle answered. "Our children are mostly grown. Brave Horse is a man now, a warrior of twenty-one summers; and one day soon we will give our adopted daughter away in marriage. Little Turtle is growing fast and already doing well in the warrior games, anxious to become a man. Songbird is already learning much from Running Elk Woman. She is still young, but eager to be grown."
"Running Elk Woman has been a good replacement for my mother. Your aunt has become like a grandmother to our daughter." Buffalo Dreamer swallowed against a sudden urge to cry. "I still miss my mother so."
Rising Eagle sighed deeply. "I often think about all the loved ones we lost to the white man's spotted disease, all the friends who have left us over the years, so many due to the white men and their soldiers. When we were young life was good, free and happy. Now all these changes because of the wasicus. No matter what we do, they keep coming. All the soldiers we killed not long ago will be replaced by twice as many ... and they will come again."
"And we will continue defeating them until they give up," Buffalo Dreamer assured him. She reached up in the darkness and touched his face. "Don't forget that in my dream of long ago, our people surrounded and killed many more soldiers than those who were killed last summer. That means we have more victories ahead of us, and as long as we possess the robe of the white buffalo, we have much power."
Rising Eagle moved on top of her, resting on his elbows. "It will all have to happen soon. My hair is showing gray at the edges. Soon I will be considered an elder, and I will not have so much power and strength riding against the enemy."
Buffalo Dreamer laughed lightly in spite of her misty eyes. She could not see him well in the darkness of only a sliver of a moon; but she knew her husband was also smiling. "You will always have power," she answered, running her hands over his still-muscled arms. "You are a holy man, a man of vision, one who has seen and heard the words of the Feathered One. As far as your physical strength ..." She moved her hands up and over his shoulders. "You have not changed, my husband, and you still do not have the big belly of an elder."
Rising Eagle leaned down and licked at her lips. "You are the one who has not changed. We have been together for twenty-three summers, and still your hair shows no gray. You have borne many children." He ran a hand over a naked breast, down over her waist, and around under her hips. "But your body is still that of a young woman ... and I still burn for you."
The warm night required no clothing. Buffalo Dreamer could feel her husband's hardness pressing against her groin. "Then I should put out the fire," she said seductively, moving her own hands down along his back, to his bare hips, around to touch that part of him that still made her ache to feel him inside her. She opened herself to him, groaning when he entered her, taking delight in these two days they had chosen to spend alone while others watched over their two youngest children. There were times when a man and woman had to do these things, knowing hard times may lie ahead, knowing their own bodies were aging, and that moments like this could become more rare.
For the next several minutes they reveled in lovemaking, taking and giving, sharing each other's ecstasy, loving in the most intimate, most intense way a man and woman could love.
Buffalo Dreamer's pride in Rising Eagle had not waned over the years. She was herself a holy woman, the only one among their People who'd seen and touched the white buffalo. Her dreams often evoked visions of the future.
Rising Eagle was a man of even greater vision, a man with healing powers, and the only warrior in generations who'd seen and heard the Feathered One, the great Being who spoke for Wakan-Tanka. He was a man held in high esteem by the entire Lakota Nation, and he'd chosen her because of a vision. A stranger when first he came for her, she'd learned to love him deeply.
She felt his life spill into her. She would never stop wishing that life could take hold again, but she knew it was not to be. Instinctively, she'd known that after the birth of her youngest child, Songbird, she would never have another. Now it was grandchildren she must look forward to, but she still enjoyed the pleasures of lovemaking.
Rising Eagle could have his pick of any young maidens he chose, yet he had kept his long-ago promise that he would never take another wife. He was a man who honored his word, unlike the white man. He seemed to honor nothing he promised, and it was a white man's disease that had stolen away two of their children, her own mother, and many friends and loved ones ... the white man's disease that had left small, white, pitted scars on Rising Eagle's handsome face.
He rolled away. "Tomorrow we will return to the main camp. We need to hunt more buffalo before the weather changes. Those who go to Laramie for promised supplies bring back only rotten meat and blankets eaten by moths. It is just as I told the others when I refused to sign any treaties. We cannot depend on the white man to keep one promise he has ever made. We can only rely on the hunt for survival. We will move into Crow and Shoshoni country if that is the only way to find more buffalo. We will drive them out, as we have done in the past, in spite of the white man's orders to make no more war against other tribes."
"Apparently the soldiers learned a good lesson last summer when we killed all those who attacked Conquering Bear and the Brule. They have not disturbed us since."
"Perhaps not. But we must remember we cannot ever trust them. We must always be on guard."
Just then one of the four horses tethered outside whinnied. Then another.
Rising Eagle and Buffalo Dreamer both quickly sat up. Rising Eagle grabbed his hatchet and a knife, and Buffalo Dreamer reached for her tunic, slipping it over her head as her husband, still naked, ducked outside to determine what had disturbed the horses. Buffalo Dreamer thought she heard something behind the tepee. She quickly grabbed her own knife and darted outside. "Who is there?" she shouted in her own tongue.
She heard a man cry out then, over near the horses. She ran in that direction, yelling Rising Eagle's name.
"I am here!" he called to her.
She hurried toward the sound of his voice, several yards past where the horses were tethered. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see Rising Eagle standing over a man writhing on the ground. The culprit wore buckskins, and his hair was dark and tangled. She did not need to see him well to tell that he was a white man. She could tell by his smell, a sweet, sweaty, dirty smell she'd already learned most white men carried. It made her nose curl.
"He was trying to steal a horse," Rising Eagle told her. He looked around. "I think there were more. I heard them running away."
"What were white men doing out here with so many of our people close by? Don't they know we'll kill any white man we see?"
"They're probably buffalo hunters," Rising Eagle sneered. "The kind who kill the sacred beast just for its hide, leaving the rest to rot!" He looked down at the man he'd just caught and stabbed. He kicked him onto his back, and the man groaned. "Good. He is still alive. We will take him to the bigger camp and let the women and elders decide what to do with him!"
Buffalo Dreamer could feel the eagerness in his voice. They would make this man suffer for the way he and his kind were destroying the buffalo. The Lakota would make an example of this white man for others who dared to come into their hunting grounds. He would not die quickly or easily.
"We should bring the horses closer," she said.
Buffalo Dreamer quieted as her husband listened with keen ears. Then she, too, heard the sound of horses riding off.
"They are going," Rising Eagle said quietly. "They have left their wounded friend behind. I'm not surprised." He looked down once more at the man at his feet. "We can leave the horses where they are. I do not think they will be back."
"Are you hurt, Rising Eagle?"
"No." He kicked at the wounded man once more. "We will leave this one here until morning. Let him suffer." He put a hand to her waist and walked with her back to their tepee.
Excerpted from Mystic Warriors by Rosanne Bittner. Copyright © 2001 Rosanne Bittner. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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