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Authors: Don Bendell

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BOOK: Blood Feather
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He saw a blur as a giant hand shot up out of the green and clutched his windpipe like a vise, while there was also the movement of another hand coming out of the green lower down and something slammed into his stomach. The pain was unbearable and the power of the stroke knocked the wind out of him. He struggled to get air, but panicked as he could not, and he could not cry out either, such was the grip on his throat. He was able to see that the arm below was very large and muscular and was holding the handle of a large, very large, knife, now penetrating his intestines and stuck all the way into his spine. He saw the predator's face as it came out of the green, and the eyes were unforgettable. In an instant Blackjack flashed back to his brief stint as a seaman on a fishing trawler out of San Francisco. A large great white shark had gotten entangled in a big net, and although his shipmates marveled at the fish's size and gigantic mouth, Blackjack was fascinated by the dark, lifeless, untelling eyes. He was staring into such eyes now, as the life drained out of him, the pain and shock preventing him from reaching for either gun. He died thinking of the entrancing and haunting eyes of the shark, not knowing his heart would soon be taken from his chest, and eaten raw by this Lakota Sioux serial murderer,
We Wiyake
.
We Wiyake
meant “Blood Feather,” and after eating the now dead Pinkerton agent's heart, he would follow his pattern. First, he would dip a feather of an eagle or red-tailed hawk into the blood of his victim's chest cavity and then place the bloody feather on the victim's lifeless face. This would be the fate of the late Jack Colvin in less than an hour, in the rocks up above, after
We Wiyake
carried the body effortlessly slung over his right shoulder without detection. This was part of the exhilaration that made him feel alive each time he made a kill, carefully planned to be red-skinned one time and white-skinned the next time. Not only did he carry Jack's body up to his hidden lair among the ledges and boulders above, but Blood Feather only stepped on rocks, not wanting to leave moccasin prints.

As always, feeling he had taken the spirit and the strength of another prey by eating Blackjack's heart,
We Wiyake
would sleep for hours over several days. He would then start thinking about his next kill, and would head back up north to hunt a red man or woman.

2

Joshua

The rider dismounted and walked in the narrow doorway of the Western Union office. His shoulders were so broad he had to turn at an angle to fit through the narrow door. The jingle-bob spurs over his tan rough-out boots made a loud tinkling sound in the small room as he walked over to the counter. The Western Union telegrapher had never seen anybody wearing Levi's before, and they could not hide the man's leg muscles. His antelope-skin shirt did little to hide the bulging muscles of his chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms, and the neck came together in a V-shape, with fringe dangling down and accentuating the chest muscles even more so. The man's face was chiseled and dark coppery, with high cheekbones and very intelligent dark brown eyes that always had a hint of a smile. His hair was shiny black in a long ponytail, and his head was covered by a black, flat-brimmed hat with a round crown and wide, beaded headband. What stood out as well was his gunbelt and holster, in which rode the pearl-handled Colt .45 Peacemaker with the miniature marshal's star on the grip, left him by his stepfather, a quiet, respected town marshal. Then, on the left side of the tooled, brown gunbelt, was the fancy, fringed, porcupine-quilled, and beaded knife sheath and the Bowie-sized, elk antler–handled knife left him by his late father, a mighty Lakota warrior named Claw Marks.

The telegrapher said, “Howdy, Mr. Strongheart. Have a short message for you from the Pinkertons.”

Joshua, a friendly smile on his handsome face, said, “Thank you. I want to send one, too.” He read the message:

Blackjack bringing msg for you STOP Assignment change STOP Meet my stage Fort Lyons next Friday STOP Lucky END

The tall Pinkerton agent wrote out a message and handed it to the telegrapher. The man transmitted the message the Pinkerton detective had written.:

Lucky STOP Blackjack missing from stagecoach STOP I will find him STOP Blackjack and I will be at stage STOP Joshua END

“Is that what you want, sir?”

Joshua smiled, saying, “Not quite. My pa was sir. Please call me Joshua.”

He shook hands with the telegrapher, paid him, and left the office.

François Luc Des Champs, better known as Frank Champ and even better known as Lucky, was the boss of Joshua Strongheart and his staunchest supporter. Reading the message, Lucky became very concerned. The phrase “Blackjack missing from stagecoach” really concerned him. Blackjack was extremely reliable. The only relief was the other phrase “Blackjack and I will be at stage.” Of all the people Lucky had ever known, Joshua Strongheart was the one man who would be willing to die keeping his word. He proved that when he made a promise to a beautiful young widow after a stage holdup, that he would track down the robbers and get her ring back. He did just that, going through a series of shoot-outs and life-threatening situations. The young woman, Annabelle Ebert, was the lady that Joshua now loved. Joshua almost died, but he kept his word and got her ring back.

Joshua Strongheart walked into the café on Main Street in Cañon City as the two cowboys sitting at the far table were placing their orders for lunch. Their waitress was ravishing. She was Annabelle Ebert.

One of the cowboys said, “Look at thet. I hate when these uppity blanket niggahs think they can jest go inta any white man's place they want. They oughta.”

He was interrupted by Annabelle pouring a pitcher of water on his head.

Through gritted teeth she said, “Mister, I will not have that kind of talk in my establishment. You and your partner, leave now.”

Drenched in water and shocked, the puncher jumped up with fists clenched. Joshua started forward, but Annabelle's hand held palm out stopped him. She wanted to handle this.

She spoke very quietly but firmly. “This is my business and I said leave. I will not speak again.”

The puncher glared at her, and his riding partner grabbed his upper arm, guiding him toward the door. There was something in Annabelle's beautiful eyes that made the cowboys feel like she had the upper hand, even if they could not figure out what that was. They turned and stormed out the door, brushing against Joshua on the way. He grinned across the room at Annabelle.

He walked over to the table and picked up the men's dishes and headed toward the kitchen. Annabelle cleared off the glasses and tablecloth and followed him. In the kitchen, he swept her into his arms and they kissed long and softly.

Joshua briefly told her about Blackjack being reported missing from the stage, and that he had told Lucky he would find him.

She jumped up and walked to the stove, saying, “I will make you up some food to carry. You go saddle up Gabe and get your saddlebags and clothes ready.”

* * *

The sixteen-and-a-half-hands-tall red-and-white overo paint gelding Gabriel ate up the miles on Copper Gulch Stage Coach Road with a floating trot as Joshua rode toward the rest stop where Blackjack Colvin had disappeared. The road twisted and turned through a rocky piñon and stunted cedar canyon, climbing steadily for five miles. Finally, at almost eight thousand feet elevation, the canyon opened out into a wide mountain valley, and at the west end the majestic, towering snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range rose up into the sky, rocky sentinels against angry storm clouds attacking from the west. The granite sentinels had clouds stack against them almost daily, releasing their bladders over the San Luis Valley on the other side. Joshua Strongheart, like many travelers who came this way, never tired of this view. Sangre de Cristo means “blood of Christ,” and the mountains were so named for the red hue on the many snowcapped peaks in the early morning, when the sun came up over the Wet Mountains, which rose up on the east side of the valley, though nowhere nearly as tall as the thirteen– and fourteen-thousand-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. Many were already describing this as the most beautiful mountain range in the entire world.

This route brought back many memories and was the place where several major scars had been born on the Pinkerton's body. It was also where Annabelle and Joshua had first spoken to each other, riding another stage up this hard-packed canyon road.

Shortly after the valley opened up, the land spread its arms in welcome to the majesty of God's sculpturing of the Sangres, or the Big Range, as the locals called them. It was here that Road Gulch Stage Road branched off to Strongheart's right, and he trotted in that direction across a small prairie section a few miles wide. Now, to his front, in the northwest, was the Collegiate Range, towering over distant Poncha Springs. Joshua trotted Gabe downhill on Road Gulch, a stage road very similar to Copper Gulch but with shorter ridges on both sides. To his right front rose the lone sentinel of Lookout Mountain, where Joshua had had several gunfights the previous couple of years and where
We Wiyake
had laid out his ambush plans and taken his prey.

After four miles, Joshua came to the spring where Blackjack had disappeared. First, he watered Gabe, then he ground-reined him under the tree where the passengers had eaten lunch. He had read the statements of each passenger and was familiar with the area, so Joshua knew right where to go. The area where the spring was had an S-curve which wound between a couple major rock outcroppings. Joshua lay on his belly studying the undergrowth around the spring and branch by branch started pulling the thick green foliage away, tossing it to the side.

In a half hour, he had carefully removed all greenery where
We Wiyake
had lain. He saw the indentations in the sand where the predator's body had been, and by positioning himself next to it, he discovered that the man was close to seven feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, probably close to three hundred. He got up and saw where the upward thrust of the knife had caused a great deal of blood and greenish bile to spill through the greenery and onto the dirt. He hung his head, certain now that Blackjack was dead, and that his friend had been stabbed in the stomach or intestinal area. He saw the giant moccasin prints in the ground leading up to the spot and could tell they were Plains Indian moccasins, possibly from his own nation, the Lakota, or its close friends the Cheyenne or Arapaho.

He knew the arduous task of tracking an expert at concealment and stealth lay before him, as he had given his word he would meet Lucky along with Blackjack. Now he understood it would be Blackjack's body and him, but his word had been given, so that was that.

He found his first two prints leaving the scene, and they were much deeper than when the killer had come. The right one was especially deeper, so he knew that the killer had picked up Blackjack and carried him over his right shoulder. He was probably right-handed.

Strongheart moved up slowly over the rocks, finding a drop of blood here, a scuff there. His eyes swept in arcs left to right directly in front of him, moving out in ten-foot increments. He would stop every ten steps and look behind him, all around, and overhead if he was near large trees or rocks. He lost the trail. He continued to walk in the same direction, sweeping back and forth left to right again, his eyes scouring the rocks and ground for more sign. Soon, he spotted a faint scuff on the edge of a rock, and he looked to where the next left or right foot might have stepped, and in four paces he found where a dry stick had broken under a left foot and there was a deep impression from a heel in the ground between rocks.

Joshua stopped and did not move. He listened intently, his eyes now carefully sweeping the terrain before him in wide arcs. This went on for five minutes, then he slowly, very slowly turned around to face the way he'd come, always checking his backtrail. He sat like this, unmoving, for five minutes, then slowly moved upward and onward and continued this pattern.

The Pinkerton was amazed that the killer had not obviously stopped yet to set the body down momentarily and take a break.
He must be incredibly strong
, Joshua thought.

After another hour, he spotted what he'd hoped he would not see: Two birds took off from the rocks maybe two hundred feet above him. Both birds were large, and one circled higher then swooped back down. The other rose higher, with large wingspan, and soon started soaring on the cliffside thermals. By the way both birds soared when their wings were not flapping, a slow, steady gliding, but with a slight wobbling of their wings side to side, told him at a distance that these were not eagles, but buzzards. The higher bird descended again and disappeared as had the previous one, in the rocky perch.

Joshua let down his guard a little and moved up the mountain ridge faster than he had been traveling. He was certain he would find what was left of his friend there in the rocks. It was a mistake on his part that he did not often make, but it was human nature that he wanted to avoid having the vultures feeding on his remains any more than they already had.

Gabe patiently fed on grasses down below. He was ground-reined and would not move very far from where Strongheart had left him.

The half-breed crawled up over the rocks where needed and scrambled up the rest of the time using his hands and knees. So anxious was he now that he was really letting his guard down, while the large brown eyes stared at his movements. The rapidity of movement now away from the predator made him more interested in attacking this seemingly fleeing prey. Joshua stopped looking again for new tracks, and the big boar grizzly now stood on his hind legs testing the wind.

The nose of the bruin was incredible, and his mind automatically catalogued what he smelled on the mountain breeze: a porcupine over the next ridge; a rotting winterkill elk carcass a mile away; the bacon and eggs Joshua had eaten for breakfast, as well as coffee; Joshua's human smell, and the smell of his horse on Joshua's legs; pine and cedar; the rotting carcass of Joshua's friend; and a variety of other smells.

Bears have horrible eyesight, but this bear could tell that this prey was moving rapidly away from him. This excited his pursue-and-attack instinct, and he immediately dropped to all fours and began his uphill charge. Bears cannot run downhill well, but uphill, with their powerful leg muscles, they can move like a runaway freight train. That is exactly how this monster bruin charged for Joshua Strongheart, who now was seeing his friend's decomposing body for the first time. Strongheart was visibly upset as he got to the body of Blackjack Colvin, now simply decaying meat with some semblance of his handsome features.

Joshua was thinking about his next course of action. First, out of respect, he removed Blackjack's gunbelt with his giant knife, and stripped off his antelope-skin shirt. After removing the shirt, he placed it over the head and torso of his buzzard-scavanged friend. He would wrap him up in the bedroll from his saddle down below and deliver the body as promised to Lucky.

No sooner had he placed the shirt over the body than he heard the movement behind him and spun around, reaching for his pistol, which was ten paces away. Shocked, he saw before him the blur of the charging grizzly; it was well over seven feet long and over a half a ton in weight. Joshua had no time to do anything or react in any way. A grizzly bear can outrun a thoroughbred race horse for short sprints, and this bear was no exception. The twelve-hundred-pound bruin slammed into Strongheart, sending the big man flying back, breaking Joshua's left forearm as it slammed into a rock. In an instant the bear was covering Joshua's body with his massive hulk and trying to bite Joshua's skull, but Joshua tried to ward it off with his broken left arm and his right. The weight was crushing, and he could barely breathe. He punched the bear in the nose several times with the heel of his hand, as the nose is the most sensitive part of a bear's body.

Strongheart was pinned to the ground and knew he was in for the fight of his life. The bear, whose breath reeked of a rotten carrion smell, opened its mouth and almost swallowed Joshua's face. He felt the canine teeth crunch down on his head and felt the warm flush of blood as it rushed over his face. He fought to maintain consciousness and bit down on the bear's tongue with his own teeth.

BOOK: Blood Feather
4.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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