A scout must rescue a woman from hostile territory in this classic western from Charles G. West...
When the daughter of a prominent Chicago newspaperman runs off to experience the wild frontier for herself, the U.S. Cavalry calls on Jason Coles to track her down. Her trail leads to the Big Horn country, known for the proud Sioux nations. Coles has no difficulty finding the headstrong young lady, but getting her out alive may be the last thing he'll ever do. Traveling through territory swarming with war parties, treacherous white traders, and an unforgiving environment, Coles is pushed to the limits of human endurance.
“The West as it really was—savage, heroic, and unforgettable.”—Ralph Compton
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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“Give me your knife.”
Jason pulled out his skinning knife and placed it in Talking Owl’s hand. The Indian drew the blade across his wrist, bringing blood. He handed the knife back to Jason and nodded his head toward Jason’s wrist. Jason understood. He drew the blade across his own wrist and pressed it tightly against Talking Owl’s wrist. “Now we are brothers, Jason Coles. You are not an enemy of the Cheyenne people. You must tell Two Moon this.”
That done, Talking Owl sank back again and sighed. It had all happened so quickly. Talking Owl was quiet then and closed his eyes to sleep. Jason turned back to the meat roasting over the fire. When he turned again to Talking Owl, the Cheyenne was dead…
Table of Contents
Jason Coles was not in a happy frame of mind. His disposition was caused primarily by the fact that it was necessary for him to be flat on his belly, crawling cautiously up to the top of a low rise in the prairie, when he should be on his way to Fort Lincoln. This little delay in his journey had already cost him half a day and it might be a couple of hours more by the time he took care of the problem.
He raised his head slightly, just enough to peer over the top of the rise. It was just as he figured. Below him, on the other side of the rise, the two young bucks who had stolen his horse were busily going through his pack, taking inventory of the supplies they figured were now their property. Jason shook his head, disgusted. It didn’t bother him that the two young Sioux braves had stolen his horse—that was a natural way of life for Indians and he didn’t blame them for that. He also didn’t really blame them for stealing the supplies he had packed on the horse. What irritated him was the mess they were now making of the pack. There was no call for that.
He backed away from the top of the hill and circled around to the west in order to have the sun at his back. Keeping low to take advantage of the cover the slope afforded, he worked his way up through the buffalo grass until he was within thirty yards of the two young Indians. They were far too engrossed in their newly gained goods to be on the alert for an attack by a white man.
Jason paused to survey the situation before moving in to recover his property. Two Sioux boys, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, one broken-down sorrel horse for the two of them, no weapons other than bows and knives—they were a pretty scrawny-looking pair of warriors. He felt ashamed of himself for letting them sneak up to his camp and run one of his horses off. They had hit him at sunup when he was saddling his other horse. He had reacted in time to stop them, and he would have if they had been grown men. Before they had made fifty yards, his Winchester was out and he had drawn a bead on the skinny back of one of them. He was about to pull the trigger when he realized they were just boys. He had lowered his rifle, cursing himself for being too softhearted. They must have figured they could easily cover their tracks and lose the white man. Now here they were, thinking they had stolen themselves a fine Appaloosa pony.
Jason sighed as if resigning himself to take care of a bothersome chore, stood up, and started walking toward the two boys, who were still unaware of his presence. When he was within twenty yards of them, he raised the Winchester hip high and started firing in rapid succession, spraying the sand around them, the bullets flying only inches from their feet. The sudden explosion of rifle fire startled the two so severely that they both jumped up in a panic, not knowing which way to run. In their panic, they collided with each other, landing both of them on the ground. When they tried to scramble to their feet again, they were stopped cold by a bullet neatly placed on each side of them. In an instant, both pairs of hands were up in surrender.
“Boys,” Jason started, speaking to them in the Lakota tongue, “you’ve put me to a great deal of trouble.” He stood over them, calmly reloading his rifle. One of the boys, seeing this, started to get to his feet. He was stopped cold by the simple movement of Jason’s hand coming to rest on the handle of the pistol in his belt. When the young Sioux settled back again, Jason resumed the loading of his rifle. “Now, what should I do with you two thieves?”
The two boys looked at each other and exchanged puzzled expressions. They had assumed that, having caught them, he was now going to shoot them. Jason studied their faces for a long moment. They were still within the reservation although a long way from the agency. From the look of them, they weren’t hunting. Jason didn’t have to think hard to guess where they were going. He didn’t blame them.
“Going to join Sitting Bull?” He paused. They did not answer. “Crazy Horse?” Still there was no answer. “While you’re sitting there, suppose you start putting that stuff back in that pack.”
They did as he directed. When they finished, he took the pack and put it on his horse. He glanced at the two skinny Sioux boys and, before he tied the pack down, he pulled some jerky out and tossed it to them. Still puzzled, they backed away from it as if suspecting a trick.
Jason smiled. “You better take it. You’re gonna need something to eat if you’re planning to ride that broken-down nag there all the way to the Big Horn country.”
Again they exchanged puzzled glances. Then one of them finally spoke. “You are not going to shoot us?” Jason shook his head no. “We will not go back to the reservation,” the boy said, his jaw jutting out defiantly.
Jason shrugged. “I don’t care where you go. I’m just telling you you’re not going on my horse.”
They stared at him in disbelief, still expecting to be shot at any moment, or tied up and dragged back to the reservation. Jason did not tell them that he would not make anyone return to the sorry life the government forced on reservation Indians.
“Now, the two of you climb up on that horse of yours and get going.” He pointed his rifle toward the northwest. “Sitting Bull is that way.”
Still wary, they got to their feet, collected their scant belongings, and climbed up on the sorrel. Both boys watched the tall white scout with suspicious eyes, finding it hard to believe he was going to let them go. When it appeared he was not going to stop them, one of them, the one who had remained silent until then, spoke. “You are Jason Coles, aren’t you?”
Jason was surprised but answered simply, “I reckon.”
He watched them until the sorrel disappeared over the second rise before leading his packhorse back to his other Appaloosa.
* * *
Jason sat easy in the saddle, even though he had ridden four hours without a break since starting out at sunup. It was time to step down for a while and stretch his stiffening muscles. The line of cottonwoods in the distance indicated a stream and he figured to reach it at a point where it cut through a low flat in the rolling plains. He would rest his horses there.
He glanced back at the Appaloosa on a line behind him. “You didn’t put up much of a fight when those two young bucks ran off with you yesterday. Maybe I should have let them have you.” He had named the horse White because she was predominately white, with black spots on her rump. The horse he rode was called Black for the obvious reason that he was mostly black. Jason was not a man to put a great deal of thought into the naming of an animal, although he had on occasion become especially attached to a particular horse. Both horses were Appaloosas and the last remnants of Jason’s only attempt to settle down in one spot. His thought had been to breed the animals, but these two, Black and White, were all he had left of the original fourteen.
As he neared the cottonwoods on the east bank of the stream, his thoughts turned to the reason he was heading to Fort Lincoln. Once again he was responding to a summons from Colonel Holder. The telegram had mentioned nothing about the nature of the trouble and had only requested that Jason come as quickly as he could. That won’t be anytime real soon, he thought. Fort Lincoln was ten days to two weeks away, depending on how hard he pushed his horses. Jason felt no real urgency, to get there as soon as possible, in spite of Colonel Holder’s request. If there had been any real urgency, Holder would have told him what it was. Jason suspected the colonel was just dissatisfied with his present complement of scouts and simply wanted someone he had confidence in. So, I reckon I’ll get there when I get there, Jason thought.
It was still June but the warm dry weather seemed more suited to July or August. Man and horses were glad to reach the shade of the trees. Jason dismounted and led his horses to the stream, which, although down to less than half its normal size, pushed enough water through to satisfy their thirst. While the horses drank, he scanned the horizon in all directions. Just because he was riding through the great Sioux reservation didn’t mean any Indians he encountered would be friendly.
Most of the people in Washington thought there were only two classifications of Indians—those who had come to the reservation and those who had not. They saw the reservation Indians as “tame” Indians, while the bands still running free were regarded as “hostile.” Jason knew it wasn’t that simple. The reservation Indians were finding that the Great White Father was not taking care of them like he had promised and every month more and more of them were slipping out of the reservation to join their free brothers in the Powder River and Big Horn country. Jason didn’t blame them. He didn’t like what he had seen at Camp Supply in Oklahoma Territory, and the Red Cloud Agency, part of which he was now crossing, wasn’t much better. The Indians living on these reservations were a pathetic looking bunch of people. Once proud and fierce warriors were being turned into “Loafer Indians.” He had to admit one thing—the government had been highly successful in convincing the Indian that it was a helluva lot better to die fighting than to rot away on one of their reservations. Too bad the folks in Washington failed to see that the lesson the Indians were learning was the opposite of the one the government intended to teach them.
He leaned back against the trunk of a large cottonwood and bit on a piece of hardtack. “Damn,” he uttered. “I’m gonna have to hunt up some fresh meat.” He’d made many a meal on the army’s hardtack but he didn’t like it any more than the next man. Still, it kept his belly from rumbling when there wasn’t anything else. There was also a sack of jerked buffalo meat in his kit, but he was saving that back for supper. He took another large piece of hardtack from his saddlepack and broke it in two with the butt of his pistol, put half of it back in the sack, and started gnawing on the other half. He was comfortable sitting in the shade of the trees and, after another look around the horizon to make sure he was alone in this part of the world, he settled back to relax for a few minutes before getting back in the saddle. Without conscious effort, his thoughts wandered back to his early years on the frontier and where they had led him.
Still green on the vine when he first hired on as a scout for Captain Phil Sawyer, riding out of Fort Cobb, Jason was quick to learn that he didn’t care much for the Pawnee scouts assigned to the company. At that tender age it was easy for him to make a general distinction between red man and white—he worked for the army and Indians were the enemy. The army told him that the red man refused to go to the reservation where he belonged, instead raiding the settlements and killing innocent whites, attacking army patrols and mutilating prisoners. It was easy to see a clear line between the savages and civilized man. With experience and years of seasoning, however, that attitude changed until now things were not that simple. Jason no longer accepted his earlier impression that there was a clear-cut line between right and wrong. After many encounters with Indians, he had come to know the red man as an individual and had begun to see that there was another side to the conflict—the Indian side. That didn’t mean there were no bad Indians—he could readily think of a few that he had personally sent to meet the Great Spirit. But he had found that the army’s way was not always the right way and he was lately becoming more and more uncomfortable with his role as an invader in the Indian’s homeland.
He had not been consciously aware of the changes in his attitude—they had been gradual over the years. But they had consequently transformed him into a loner. Oh, he had many friends, both in the army and among the various villages of Lakota and Cheyenne. He had even lived briefly with a young woman of the Osage tribe. But he worked best alone. He continued to scout for the army, but on his own terms. He was a free man.
After the horses were rested, he climbed on Black and splashed across the shallow stream, up through the cottonwoods on the opposite bank, and set out to the north again, keeping well west of the Red Cloud Agency. He let Black set the pace. All that day he rode on without sighting any recent sign of Indian traffic. The trails he came upon were old and he figured them to be left by hunting parties from the agency. He had traveled this country many times before, so he set a course that would ensure a supply of water. He was to find, however, that streams that had always been dependable before were now dried beds of sand, baking under the relentless sun of the dry season. After several unsuccessful attempts to dig up water for his horses in dry stream beds, he decided to take a more westerly direction. This way he would strike the south fork of the Cheyenne River and then cross over to the Cheyenne, east of Pumpkin Buttes. It would take him a little out of his way but he knew he would at least have water.
There were two more days of riding before he struck the river and it was early afternoon when he led his horses down to the water’s edge to drink. There was still enough daylight to make four or five more hours, but he decided to make camp there and rest the horses. He felt a strong hankering for something for supper other than jerky and hardtack, so he decided to hobble his horses and do a little hunting along the riverbanks. Although he had left the boundaries of the reservation some miles behind him and was now in hostile territory, he decided there was not much risk in firing his rifle. After all, he had ridden all day without finding any sign that indicated anyone had recently passed that way.
After the horses were hobbled out of sight in one of the many coulees that broke down to the river, he took his Winchester and started up the riverbank on foot. Within a hundred yards of his camp, he came upon a narrow cut in the bluffs where there were so many tracks that it was obviously a favorite watering hole for antelope. He had hoped to find something like this. Made to order for supper, he thought, this is as good a spot as I’m likely to find. Checking the breeze to make sure he was downwind of the watering hole, he settled himself in a patch of young willows and waited.
After an estimated hour had passed with no visitors to the watering hole but a few dragonflies and one thrasher, he was beginning to believe he was going to have to settle for hardtack and jerky after all. He was about to get up and hunt farther on upstream when one lone antelope appeared at the top of the bluff. The animal stood there for a few moments, looking at the water below.
“Well, come on down for your evening drink,” Jason muttered under his breath. It was unusual to see one of the fleet-footed animals alone. The antelope hesitated, jerking his head around from side to side as if unsure about going down to the water. What the hell’s bothering you? Jason thought. He knew the animal could hardly sense his presence. He was downwind and well concealed. Maybe the antelope was not a loner after all and was waiting for his friends to catch up. Something’s bothering him, Jason concluded. At that moment, the antelope made up his mind and, after nervously stamping his front hooves a few times, descended gracefully from the bluff and made his way to the river’s edge.
Jason waited to let the animal have one last drink, then slowly raised his rifle and drew down on him. Almost without realizing he was doing it, he whispered a brief Lakota prayer of thanks to the antelope for sacrificing his life for his survival. Then he dropped the animal with one shot placed neatly behind the shoulder and through the heart.
As a precaution, Jason waited a few minutes, listening and watching before he moved out of the willows to retrieve his kill. He had not taken more than a dozen steps toward the slain antelope when he stopped dead in his tracks. A sound, at first unidentifiable, caused him to drop to one knee, his rifle ready. He listened while his eyes searched the edges of the river on both sides…nothing! He was about to suspect his mind was playing tricks on him when he heard it again. This time he identified it as a low moan. He had killed hundreds of antelope in his time but he had damn sure never heard one moan. Yet the sound seemed to come from the dead beast, where it lay on the sandy edge of the river.
Exercising extreme caution, he advanced slowly toward the carcass. It was not until he was within a few yards of the antelope that he realized the moaning came from beyond and, at the same instant, he realized the sound he was hearing was a Cheyenne death song. His senses totally sharpened now, he immediately flattened himself behind a small rise in the bank and quickly scanned the river beyond. He could not pinpoint the source of the chant. Weak and feeble, the moaning stopped for a while, then started again. The river was skirted by a series of bluffs and gullies and the source had to be in one of the many gullies that led down to the river.
Jason decided it best to climb up the bluffs and work his way upstream so he could search the gullies from above, figuring that whoever was doing the moaning might be watching the river downstream. Working his way carefully past the numerous coulees and cuts, he came upon a narrow gully that descended to a grassy flat, hard by the water’s edge. There, lying among the willows, he discovered the origin of the death song.
The man, a Cheyenne warrior from the look of him, appeared to be alone and, even from his position up on the bluff, Jason could see that he was seriously wounded. Obviously dying, the warrior was too weak to take a defensive position. Instead, he was lying on his back, seemingly indifferent to who or what might happen upon him. This was the reason the antelope was so jumpy. He had no doubt gotten scent of the Indian.
Jason remained on the bluff and watched the stricken man below him for a while. The Indian would lie still for a few minutes and then start his death song again until, exhausted, he lay quiet again. Jason looked carefully around, making sure the Indian was indeed alone. He didn’t want to stumble into an ambush. Satisfied that there was no one else hiding in the gullies, Jason finally made his way down to the water, his rifle ready. A bullet from a dying Indian was just as fatal as one from a healthy one.
There was no need for caution. The wounded man made no effort to defend himself when Jason stood over him. In fact, Jason wasn’t sure at first if the man was even aware of him. It took but a moment for Jason to realize there was nothing he could do for the man other than possibly ease his discomfort a bit. He was not a young man, and was respected in his village, judging by the three eagle feathers he wore. Jason surmised the warrior had been wounded in battle before, maybe once for each feather. He had been gut shot and the wound looked bad. His belly was swollen from internal bleeding and there was a smell of gangrene about him. After a moment, he opened his eyes. He registered no surprise when he saw the tall white scout standing over him.
“I can run no more; my strength is gone. You would not have caught me, but my wound is bad. I am ready to die.”
Jason was surprised. “I wasn’t chasing you,” he replied, answering in the warrior’s tongue.
“You are not with the soldiers who attacked our camp?”
“No, I’m not with the soldiers. I just happened to stumble on you.” He knelt down for a closer look at the warrior’s wound. “I’ll help you if I can.” Looking at the wound, he knew that he couldn’t.
“Water,” the warrior said.
Seeing an empty water skin lying beside the wounded man, Jason picked it up and went to the edge of the river to fill it. When he returned, the warrior took it eagerly but, with no strength left in his arms, he dropped the skin bag. Jason picked it up and held it to the Cheyenne’s lips. Jason knew that it probably didn’t do the man’s wound any good to give him water but he couldn’t see any sense in denying him some little comfort in his remaining moments. The warrior drank in great gulps until he started to vomit some of it back, mixed with blood.
After retching uncontrollably for a few moments, the warrior seemed to relax. “Thank you,” he gasped weakly.
Jason looked into the man’s face for a long moment, not knowing what to do for him. Finally he told him that he was going to fetch his horses and the antelope he had just killed. Then he would return to make camp there and do what he could for him. The warrior nodded, understanding. Jason got to his feet and walked back down the river. As he told the warrior, he would return and make camp there, but he halfway expected the man to be dead by the time he got back.
To his surprise, the Cheyenne was still alive when he returned and even appeared to be resting more comfortably. The warrior, in turn, was surprised that Jason had come back. He smiled weakly at the scout when he came to check on him.
“I’ll see about building us a fire and then I’ll cut up some of this meat to cook.” He glanced back at the warrior. “Can you eat something?” he asked, knowing that it was not a good idea.
“Yes. I would like to taste some meat before I die.” Jason hurried to skin and butcher the antelope, afraid he could not get it done before the Indian died. The Cheyenne studied his unlikely benefactor with curiosity. “How are you called?”
“My name’s Jason Coles,” Jason replied as he busied himself with the butchering.
“Coles,” he whispered. “I have heard that name. I am Talking Owl of the Cheyenne.” In weak and halting phrases, he went on to tell Jason how he happened to be there beside the Cheyenne River, dying. He and his wife were in Tall Bull’s village on the Powder, visiting her relatives, when the village was attacked by soldiers. The people tried to fight but they were badly outnumbered and forced to flee for their lives. Talking Owl’s wife was cut down as she ran from their tipi. He was shot in the stomach when he tried to go to her aid. After that, all the people fled into the hills. He managed to catch his pony and escape, hoping to reach Two Moon’s village on the Tongue River.
Some soldiers chased him for a few miles, he said, but they gave up when they realized they were too far from their brothers. Talking Owl’s wound became worse and worse, and he knew his insides were torn apart. Finally he became too weak to ride and he lay down to rest here by the river. A day passed and he found that he could not summon the strength to get to his feet. He lay there another day. His pony wandered off sometime during the second night and he resigned himself to face death. When he heard Jason’s rifle, he assumed more soldiers had tracked him and he started to sing his death song.
Jason cut some strips of meat and set them over the fire to cook. While they roasted, he got some water from the river and cleaned Talking Owl’s wound. There was nothing more he could do for it—the damage was all inside and, in Jason’s opinion, even a doctor wouldn’t have been able to do anything to save the Indian. The Cheyenne had already accepted the inevitable and seemed to be at peace with it. When the meat was done, Jason propped his saddlepack behind the wounded man so he could sit up a little, and for a little while Talking Owl almost appeared to be getting better. He ate the hot meat eagerly, even though it caused him painful spasms and he could only manage a few bites before giving up. He laid back and watched Jason while the white scout ate.
“I think you are a good man, Jason Coles. I’m sorry we could not have fought on the same side.” He studied the scout’s face for a long time, making up his mind before he spoke again. His decision made, he continued. “There is a bundle under me, under the robe I lie on.” With a weak gesture of his hand he indicated the left side of the deer hide he had made his bed upon.
Jason reached under the edge of the robe and got the bundle. There were four arrows with stone heads, wrapped in a strip of fur. He looked at them for a moment, wondering, and then it came to him. Four arrows, wrapped in fur—from the back of a coyote, he’d bet. The shafts were expertly fashioned and decorated. These were the tribe’s medicine arrows—Talking Owl was the Keeper of the Medicine Arrows and consequently a very respected man in his village. He glanced up at the Cheyenne warrior and found the Indian studying his face intently.
“You know what they are.” It was a statement, for Talking Owl had read the reaction in Jason’s face.
“Yes,” Jason answered. “They are the medicine arrows.”
Talking Owl nodded solemnly. “If you know this, then you know how sacred they are to my village.” Jason nodded. “They must be carried safely to Two Moon’s camp and returned to my people.”
Jason could see the desperation written in Talking Owl’s face. He knew the importance the Cheyenne people placed on the medicine arrows. They, along with the medicine hat, were the two most important symbols in their religion. Without the sacred arrows, they would not usually go to war. They were so sacred that the women of the tribe were not permitted to even look at them. Yes, he knew the importance of the arrows and he also knew what Talking Owl was going to ask him to do.
“I am dying, Jason Coles. For the sake of my people, will you take the arrows to Two Moon’s camp?”
Jason didn’t know what to say. It was no small request, asking him to ride deep into hostile territory, right into a hornet’s nest of angry Cheyennes. Most likely they’d skin him alive for even having the arrows in his possession. He gazed directly into Talking Owl’s eyes when he answered. “I thought it would destroy the medicine if an enemy touched the sacred arrows. I have fought the Cheyenne. Two Moon would see me as an enemy.”
“The medicine cannot be destroyed as long as the arrows are returned to the people. There is no other way. I am going under. You are the only way.” Talking Owl’s eyes gleamed in the reflection of the campfire as he pleaded with Jason. “The arrows must not be lost!”
“I understand the importance of returning the arrows, but I don’t like my chances of coming back with my scalp if I do what you ask.”
“You will not be harmed for returning the arrows,” Talking Owl stated.
Jason was not convinced. “How will they know I didn’t steal them…killed you and took ’em off you?”
“They will know your heart is good because you will bring the arrows back to the people. They will also know that we are brothers. They will not harm you.”
Jason began to wish he had taken another trail to Fort Lincoln. He didn’t like the odds of riding into a Cheyenne camp with the present state of hostilities between the army and the Indians. But, looking into the desperate eyes of the Keeper of the Medicine Arrows, he couldn’t refuse the dying man’s request. Damn, he thought, it won’t be the first damn fool thing I’ve done. To Talking Owl he nodded and said, “All right, I’ll take them back for you.”
Talking Owl smiled and sank back against the saddlepack. “I knew I had read your heart correctly. Give me your knife.” Jason pulled out his skinning knife and placed it in Talking Owl’s hand. The Indian drew the blade across his wrist, bringing blood. He handed the knife back to Jason and nodded his head toward Jason’s wrist. Jason understood. He drew the blade across his own wrist and pressed it tightly against Talking Owl’s wrist. “Now we are brothers, Jason Coles. You are not an enemy of the Cheyenne people. You must tell Two Moon this.”
That done, Talking Owl sank back again and sighed. It had all happened so quickly that Jason was almost stunned. He looked at his wrist in disbelief. Talking Owl was quiet then and closed his eyes to sleep. Jason turned back to the meat roasting over the fire. When he turned again to Talking Owl, the Cheyenne was dead. The awesome responsibility of the medicine arrows was the only thing that had been keeping him alive. Jason looked at the peaceful face of the dead warrior and then at the insignificant-looking bundle he had been entrusted with, then back at the face of the Indian. “Yeah, you look peaceful enough now. Your worries are over. My hind end is to the fire now.”
The next morning, Jason scratched out a shallow grave for Talking Owl. There were not many rocks to be found near the river, so he dragged a dead log over the grave to discourage scavengers from digging up the Cheyenne’s remains. When he had done as well as he could for him, he stood over the grave for a moment. He felt like he should say something, but Jason was not a praying man. Finally he looked up toward the tops of the cottonwoods and mumbled, “Lord, here comes another one. I reckon you know whether he was good or bad.”
He saddled White and loaded his pack on Black. He picked up the bundle of medicine arrows and looked at them with a curious eye. “A helluva thing,” he muttered. “On my way to Fort Lincoln and here I am with the Cheyennes’ big medicine.” He glanced down at the cut on his wrist. “Blood brother to a dead Cheyenne,” he added. “Helluva thing!” He tucked the bundle into his pack.
White protested a bit when Jason tried to step up in the saddle, causing Jason to hop around in a circle on one foot, the other in the stirrup, while he chased the reluctant horse. “Dammit, White! You’re getting too damn rank. You ain’t been pulling your share of the load.” When he finally got a good handful of mane and pulled himself up, White took a couple of steps sideways, then settled down when she felt the solid weight of the scout in the saddle. Since Jason favored the black Appaloosa, he didn’t work White as much as he should, so this routine was one he almost always went through when he decided to ride her. He glanced back at Black. The horse tossed his head up and down as if mocking him. “You know you’re the favorite, don’t you?”
Jason rode to the river’s edge and paused. He had to decide. He didn’t take lightly his promise to a dying man, unreasonable as Talking Owl’s request seemed. But he was on his way to Fort Lincoln. The telegram said, “Get here as soon as you can.” In all likelihood, he would be riding for the army again, maybe against Two Moon’s village for all he knew. “Dammit! Why the hell did I have to come this way?” Talking Owl had said he believed Two Moon was camped on the Tongue, near the fork of the lower branch. That was a good bit deeper into hostile territory than Jason had planned to go.
The thought occurred to him that he was in possession of the sacred arrows. As a rule, the Cheyennes didn’t like to go to war without the medicine arrows. It might be a devastating blow to the Indians’ morale if he took the arrows to Fort Lincoln and sent word to Two Moon that the army had captured the medicine arrows. Colonel Holder would like that well enough. So would that flamboyant rakehell with the Seventh Calvary, Custer. He’d love to get his hands on them. When it all boiled down, however, there really wasn’t much deciding to do. Jason had given his word. A promise was a promise—white man or red man, it was all the same. He pulled White’s reins to the left and the other side of the river toward the Powder and the Wolf Mountains beyond.
Leaving the Little Powder, Jason pushed hard for all of that day, not permitting White to settle into a leisurely pace. Once the decision was made to take the arrows to Two Moon’s camp, he wanted to get it done. Heading due west, he hoped to make the Powder that night. It would be a long day but his horses were rested and fed, and they were a strong breed. He should strike the river by nightfall.
Talking Owl said Two Moon was camped on the Tongue. Even though he had told him approximately where he was on that river, it still left a lot of territory to search in. It was hard to say how long the village would stay put before moving on to another site. And there were other concerns to keep in mind as well. When he left Fort Fetterman, scouts had reported that Crazy Horse’s band of Lakotas were camped somewhere on the Little Horn, and that Sitting Bull had moved his village north, somewhere on the Yellowstone. That meant they should be nowhere near Two Moon’s Cheyennes, but Jason knew that information was several weeks old. He hadn’t hung on to his hair after this many years by being careless, and it was always a good idea to assume you weren’t alone in Indian territory because you generally were not. Although he saw no one, there was plenty of sign so he kept a sharp eye as he encouraged his horses to keep up the pace.
A little before dark, he struck the Powder and, after scouting up and down the river for a considerable distance, he picked his campsite on the western bank. Before making his camp, he took care of his horses. Although both horses had done a good day’s work, White was still ornery enough to kick her hind legs when Jason went around behind her after pulling the pack off of Black. Jason, wary of the animal’s disposition, easily avoided the hooves. It was not a vicious kick, but more a halfhearted effort, meant to register her displeasure rather than to maim.
“You don’t like toting me around, do you?” Jason talked to the spotted white Appaloosa while he pulled the saddle off of her. “Well, you can carry that light pack tomorrow and I’ll ride Black. He ain’t so damn temperamental.”
Late the next day, Jason found the place Talking Owl had described on the lower Tongue. There had been a large camp there, all right, but it was gone now. Their pony herd had just about used up the grass, and probably the game in the area too, Jason figured. From the wide trail left by the horses and travois, it was apparent they had moved farther up past the fork of the river. Jason looked around the campsite for a little while, calculating the size of the village. They had remained there for several weeks, judging by the circles left in the grass where the tipis had stood. After studying the trail north, he figured they had moved out two days before. “Well, they won’t be hard to find,” he mumbled and climbed aboard Black.
He followed the trail for what he estimated to be about eight miles before darkness overtook him again and he made camp in a shallow ravine that ran down to the river. The Cheyennes had held close to the river and had passed several likely looking campsites. They must have figured they had run all the game off for quite a ways, he thought. He was in the saddle again at sunup.
A little before the sun was straight overhead, he stopped near the top of a low ridge. In the valley below him, some two or three miles ahead, lay the village of Two Moon.
Well now, he thought as he dismounted to observe the village for a few minutes. So much for the easy part. Now all I have to do is figure how to ride down there and give them the arrows and ride out again with all my parts. With the heated situation on the frontier, he knew there was a better than even chance he would be shot on sight if he rode into the village, even if he waved a white flag. He never liked taking the short odds when it was a matter of saving his hair, so he decided what he needed was an escort. He stepped up on Black again and rode down the ridge toward the river bluffs.
He didn’t have to wait long. His horses back out of sight in a narrow gully, he crouched beside a scrubby bush near the bottom of the coulee. He had picked this spot because it was an obvious trail to and from the village on the other side of the river. He waited.
He could hear their voices long before they rode into view following the winding trail through the coulee. There were six of them in the party. They were joking with each other, laughing. It must have been a good hunt, he figured. The laughing stopped abruptly when they rounded the bend in the trail and found themselves confronted by the tall white scout. Stunned by the sudden appearance of the buckskin-clad white man, they were speechless at first. Jason spoke before they could recover from their surprise.
“I have come in peace. I have a message for your chief, Two Moon.”
Still stunned, the hunters looked at each other with blank, confused faces. Then, as if hearing a signal, they looked frantically from side to side, expecting to discover soldiers. Three of them carried rifles slung on rawhide straps behind their backs and they reached for them.
Jason held his Winchester up and cocked it. “I come in peace,” he repeated. “I have come to talk with Two Moon.”
The formidable image that confronted them quickly persuaded the hunters, two of whom were little more than boys, that it might be best to hear what the white man had to say. Still there was a vein of defiance that prompted the necessity to voice their distrust. One, a short, solidly built man, obviously older than his companions, spoke for them.
“What are you doing here in our land, white man?” His tone was menacing like the hissing of a snake; the words sounded blunt and threatening in the Cheyenne tongue.
“As I told you, I have come to talk to Two Moon.” Jason’s face was passive, his eyes unblinking and fixed on the warriors.
“Where are the soldiers?” the warrior demanded. “You have come to attack us in our own land, kill our women and children!”
Jason remained stoic. “I told you I’ve come to talk with Two Moon. Now take me to him.”
“Why should we? You are one man, alone. Why shouldn’t we kill you, white man?” He looked from side to side at his companions. They all seemed to nod their heads in agreement.
Jason studied the warrior’s face intently for a moment. “Because I come in peace, for one reason. Another reason is because I’d cut three of you down before you could get those rifles off your backs.” He brought the barrel of his Winchester slowly around to bear on the warrior doing the talking.
There was a long moment of silence while the Cheyenne thought this over. Jason concluded that the man might be hot blooded but he evidently was not stupid because he accurately sized up the situation.
“I will take you to Two Moon because you have come in peace.”
Jason fetched his horses and climbed in the saddle, his rifle cradled across his thighs. With the hunting party flanking him, he crossed the river and rode into the Cheyenne camp.
All activity in the busy village stopped when the small hunting party escorting the white scout splashed across the shallow ford. A group of women who had been scraping hides paused in their tasks to stare at the riders. Some of the men came out to watch, partly out of curiosity and partly to admire the two Appaloosas. As the party rode into the circle of tipis, the crowd of curious Cheyennes grew and closed in behind the riders as they made for the lodge of Two Moon. Jason rested his Winchester on his thigh, holding it straight up with a piece of white cloth tied to the barrel. He wanted to make sure the village knew he was coming in on his own under a white flag and not as a prisoner of the hunting party.
The hunters halted in front of a tipi in the center of the village. For a few moments they stood silent, all eyes on the white scout. Jason looked around him at the sea of faces looking up. In most faces he saw only wonder and curiosity, but in others there was open hostility. An angry word was spoken here and there among the crowd of onlookers and an under-current of angry mumbling began to build. Jason didn’t like the look of it but he knew the best thing for him at that moment was to remain stoic and maintain a calm, fearless facade. Already a couple of young braves were examining his horses. He could well imagine the thoughts running through their heads. White didn’t care much for the close inspection and kicked at one young warrior who passed a little too close to her hind legs. He leaped in time to avoid getting kicked, causing a ripple of laughter among the crowd.
One young brave pushed his way through the gathering until he was almost touching Jason’s stirrup. He stared up at Jason in open defiance and undisguised hatred. When Jason glanced down at him, the warrior sneered. Jason would remember him well. He had the look of a young mountain lion and there was a distinctive scar that ran from his chin across his cheekbone. He looked as if he was about to pull Jason from his horse. Jason continued to stare impassively at the young brave but in his mind he was thinking, If I get pulled off this horse, I’m going right down your throat.
He was saved from having to take that action, however, for at that moment Two Moon emerged from the tipi. The mob of people quieted down at once as the chief stepped forward. He stood before Jason for a few moments before speaking. The hunter who led Jason into the camp spoke first.
“He says he has a message for Two Moon.” He looked back at Jason for a moment then back to his chief. “He is either a very brave man or a very foolish one.”
Two Moon nodded but still did not speak. He returned his gaze to Jason, who nodded to affirm what the hunter had said.
“I come in peace.” Looking around him at the sea of hostile faces, Jason figured he’d better play all his cards. “I bring a message from my blood brother, Talking Owl.” This caused a renewed murmur in the gathering. “He asked me to return a sacred bundle to the Cheyenne people.”
“Where is Talking Owl?” These were the first words Two Moon spoke.
Jason looked around him at the people still closing in on him. “He is dead.” There was a gasp from the crowd and a woman’s voice could be heard to moan. “I am sorry to have to bring the news of his death. I did the best I could for him, but he was too badly wounded to live. As I promised Talking Owl, I have brought the medicine arrows back to the people.”
The crowd, especially the women, backed away a few steps at the mention of the sacred totem. Two Moon did not change expression but has eyes widened briefly before returning to their steady gaze. “You have the sacred arrows?”
Jason nodded. “In my pack.”
Two Moon appreciated the fact that the white man had enough sense not to display the arrows before the crowd. His stoic expression relaxed and he invited the scout to dismount and talk with him. He had feared that Talking Owl was dead. Some others of that village had escaped and told of seeing the Keeper of the Arrows shot down by the soldiers as he tried to flee. He assumed that the white scout was part of the attack on the village, riding with the soldiers, and he was curious as to why he had brought the arrows back. Also, he would have to examine the arrows himself to determine if they were in fact the medicine arrows. The white man obviously knew the importance of the arrows but there may be some trick involved to gain the Cheyennes’ confidence. Two Moon would have to see.
Jason stepped down and went to his pack. Exhibiting a great deal of care, he pulled the bundle from the pack, taking the precaution to wrap another skin around it to make sure none of the arrows could be seen. He could tell from the chief’s expression that Two Moon was impressed. The chief turned and led him into his lodge. The scar-faced warrior reluctantly moved back to let Jason pass.
The air was still and warm inside the tipi. It would have been a great deal more comfortable to sit outside in the shade of the lodge, but Jason understood the need for privacy while the chief examined the arrows. Two Moon motioned for Jason to sit while he settled himself on a buffalo robe. He waited while a woman brought a pot of boiled meat and placed it before them and left the tipi. Two Moon motioned toward the pot and Jason took some of the shredded meat, even though he was not hungry. He chewed slowly while he watched the chief unwrap the bundle, looking carefully at each of the four arrows. It took but a moment for him to realize they were, indeed, the sacred arrows of his tribe. Satisfied that they were genuine, he was curious about the man who risked his life to deliver them.
“How are you called?”
“Ah.” There was a glint of recognition in his eyes. He had heard the name before. He carefully wrapped the arrows in the coyote-hide strip. “Why did you bring the arrows to me? Why didn’t you keep them after you captured them?”
“I didn’t capture them. Talking Owl gave them to me when he knew he could not return with them himself.”
“You rode with the soldiers who attacked his village?”
Jason shook his head. “Nope,” he said. Then, in Cheyenne, he replied, “No, I found him wounded on the Cheyenne River.”
“Ah.” Two Moon’s face relaxed into a smile. “You did not shoot Talking Owl?”
“No. Talking Owl is my brother,” Jason replied and held his wrist up to remind Two Moon.
Two Moon looked deep into the scout’s eyes for what seemed like long minutes to Jason. “I see no deceit in your eyes, Jason Coles. What do you want in return for this honorable thing you have done for my people?”
Jason shrugged. “Nothing. I was just keeping a promise to Talking Owl.”
“You want nothing?”
Jason shrugged again. “Maybe to get myself out of here with my hair still on my head.”
Two Moon laughed. “I will gladly give you that.”
Outside the lodge, the crowd of people still waited, quiet and patient, until the two men appeared. A small gathering of half a dozen or more stood off to one side, waiting to hear their chief’s words. Conspicuous among these, the scar-faced warrior stood defiantly, his arms folded across his chest, his feet planted firmly.
Jason cast a wary eye in the direction of Scarface and his friends. He knew if trouble started it would come from that group of warriors. Then Two Moon turned to a young man in the gathering and motioned for him to come forward.
“This man is Red Hawk,” Two Moon said. “He is Talking Owl’s son.”
Red Hawk came up to Jason and stood close to him, looking directly into Jason’s eyes. Jason returned the steady gaze, unblinking. They faced each other for a long moment before the young man spoke. “I was told that my father was shot down when the soldiers attacked the village. Some of the people saw him go down.”
“That’s true,” Jason replied. “He was shot but he wasn’t dead. When I found him, he was trying to return the sacred arrows to his people but his wounds were too bad. I tried to do for him the best I could but his time was up. I promised him I would bury him and bring the arrows back for him.”
Red Hawk considered what Jason had told him. Then he reached down and took Jason’s hand and turned it over to examine the still-tender wound across his wrist. “My father traded blood with you?” Jason nodded. Red Hawk turned to his chief, his eyes seeking Two Moon’s guidance.
Two Moon smiled. “In my mind, this man speaks the truth. He has returned the arrows to us and asks nothing in return. He has taken a great risk in coming here but he did so because it was the right thing to do. He came as a friend.”
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Your books have all gotten to be the same. Have Hero chase bad guys, staying one step behind,catch then after they have butchered and raped all the good characters. Then swearing i'll get him for this if its the last thing I ever do