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Authors: Don Bendell

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BOOK: Blood Feather
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“Good, good,” General Sheridan replied. “I have been more concerned with that than his surrender.”

Strongheart said, “He's not going to surrender, General.”

“The pompous ass,” the general hissed. “Do you know how to get to his stronghold?”

“Yes, I do,” Joshua responded.

“Good, good,” the general replied. “I will want you to lead us there. We will start out in two days.”

Strongheart said, “Sorry, General. I can't do it.”

“Don't worry. I will clear it with your superiors,” Sheridan replied.

Strongheart said, “No, you don't understand. Quanah Parker took me to his stronghold because I gave my word that I would not divulge its whereabouts to anybody.”

“Wait a minute, Strongheart. Do you have the temerity to tell me you will not lead us there because you gave your word to a Comanche?”

“No,” Joshua replied, “because I gave my word, period. A man is only as good as his word. I do not break my word for anybody, for any reason.”

The general, red-faced, stood up, saying, “I'll see you in irons!”

Strongheart said, “I am a civilian, General Sheridan, not one of your soldiers. I was going to brief you as a courtesy, but not when you speak to me like that. If you have a problem with that, take it up with Allan Pinkerton. I am leaving. Good day, General. Colt, you take care now.”

Chris winked at him and said, “I live by the same code, Joshua. Have a safe trip.”

The general glared at Chris Colt, who looked back at him with his firm jaw set on his chiseled face.

Strongheart strode toward the door and Sheridan jumped up.

He said, “Wait! Please!”

Joshua turned.

Sheridan said, “Very well, Mr. Strongheart. Army officers have a code of conduct, too. I clearly see you are half-red, so I can understand your strong feelings about giving your word to a savage.”

Very angry and insulted, Strongheart said, “If Quanah Parker makes peace, I would not be surprised to see him wearing an army general's uniform someday or whatever he sets his mind to, General Sheridan. He is a leader and a man I respect.”

Sheridan was flustered.

He replied, “Was your mother an Indian or your father?”

“My father was Lakota, but I never met him, just his people, my people, but the whites are my people, too,” Joshua replied. “All Americans are.”

“Well, we started wrong here, and I would very much like you to proceed with the briefing, Mr. Strongheart. I understand your commitment to keep your word.”

Joshua told the general about the trip and his conversations with Quanah Parker, his feelings about him, and his personal observations. He could not wait to leave Fort Union.

It was after noon before Strongheart could get away from the general and his other officers, many apparently wanting to impress the famous general with what they felt were intelligent questions.

It was late fall, and the sun went down much earlier, so Chris Colt said, “Joshua, why don't you stay here and pull out after first light?”

Strongheart grinned, saying, “I appreciate it, Chris, but I cannot wait to get away from that son of a buck. I'll hole up somewhere north of here in a few hours.”

Colt grinned from ear to ear. “Can't say as I blame you. I made a commitment to scout for the army, and they tell me I'll be going up north to scout for the Seventh Cavalry and will be chief of scouts.”

Little did Colt know he would end up having a major battle and test of wills with former brevet general Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, which would keep him from being killed himself at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in little more than a year and a half.

The two men shook hands, giving each other that knowing look only two men like them could share, and Colt mounted up and rode away without looking back.

7

The Predator Returns

Annabelle lay nude on the bank of the tumbling, crashing, churning, angry white water of the Arkansas River. The sight of her near perfect body was something Joshua Strongheart dreamt about. The moonlight from the full moon overhead shining down on her beauty only made it more spectacular.

Joshua would surprise her with a soft, lingering kiss, he thought, as he grinned to himself, crawling forward on his belly on the soft sand where the river had receded away. She slept peacefully, and he wondered why she did not seem cold in her nudity. There was certainly a chill to the night air. He did notice he could see it on her skin, even if she was peacefully sleeping.

Closer and closer he silently moved, and suddenly something grabbed at his ankle. He looked down and both ankles were caught in a tangle of branches that had drifted downriver and accumulated like an oversized bird's nest. He tried to quietly pull his legs free and looked up to see if she was stirring. Joshua looked right into the eyes of the predator and his heart skipped a beat, and he panicked trying to jerk his legs free.

We Wiyake
had deep, lifeless eyes that told nothing. They were blank and dark, but they bored right into Strongheart's own panicked stare. He struggled against the driftwood and tried to cry out to Annabelle, as he saw the moonlight flash on the blade of the giant knife. Blood Feather had slithered out of the river like a human serpent, and his long black hair hung down soaked with river water. He raised the knife and grinned at Strongheart. Joshua tried to scream, but nothing would come out, and he sat up suddenly, looking around. His mighty chest heaved and his heart pounded in his ears like the big bass drum he always enjoyed at parades. Strongheart's feet were tangled in his bedroll, and he kicked them free, stood, and walked away from his fire to relieve his bladder. He felt a shiver go down his spine as he did so. The nightmare had really unnerved him, but he was south of Raton, still in New Mexico Territory, and he still had several days' travel to Cañon City. He looked at the night sky and figured it was getting close to dawn. He went back to bed, after checking on Gabe, who was grazing peacefully nearby.

Strongheart lay there and kept thinking about the briefing and General Sheridan. He could not sleep, and he got up after about twenty minutes of trying. He built the fire back up and put on coffee and started breakfast.

In less than a half hour, Strongheart was in the saddle, astride the tall red-and-white overo pinto, moving north at a fast trot. The dream was too real to him, and he wanted to get to Annabelle as quickly as possible.

One-third of all cowboys on the frontier, the American West, were white, one-third were black, and one-third were American Indian or Mexican. Finally, on the fourth ranch he had been watching, Blood Feather had found what he wanted—a cowboy who was a Lakota. Now he was making his stalk.

The one place where the red cowboy would be segregated from the others would be when he went to the outhouse. Blood Feather did not want to eat this man's heart. There was nothing special about him. He had no special medicine.

Johnny Rabbit Legs was a full-blooded Lakota of the Hunkpapa tribe or clan. In his mid-twenties, he had been cowboying for close to ten years now and thoroughly enjoyed everything about the cattle business. His goal was to become so good at handling cows and men that someday he would be entrusted to be a foreman on a big spread. He already had cowboys ask him for advice, especially on trail drives, and it made him feel like he was making some kind of contribution.

He had also survived a gunfight, and that made him quite a celebrity with the other cowboys. They had been on a drive, and the whole crew had been paid and given some time off in El Dorado, Kansas, when he and some of his ranch hands were in a local saloon having a good time. Johnny was small in stature and slight of body, but he had practiced drawing and dry-shooting his .44 many times, just in case. Most cowboys did not actually practice shooting live rounds, because of the cost of ammunition, but they did practice fast draws a lot, and Johnny was pretty good. A cull who, being a typical bully, rode roughshod on many people because of his immense size, picked Johnny out of the crowd in the saloon. This character had practiced quick draw a lot, but as it usually was, neither he nor Johnny had practiced shooting and hitting small targets while their adrenaline was pumping. Johnny had met a shootist one time and listened carefully to his every word, which included the sage advice that it was much more important to accurately aim and hit someone than to outdraw someone.

The bully picked the fight, and both men emptied their six-shooters at each other, scrambling around two large poker tables in the bar and missing with almost every shot. With the eighth and twelfth bullet fired, Johnny hit the bully twice in the groin area, severing the femoral artery. He died a minute or so later. Johnny became a hero among the cowpunchers.

We Wiyake
had already seen the pistol and his hand flashing for it several times, as if he was going to quick draw, which told him the Sioux at least had a good familiarity with getting the weapon into action fast. He knew that white men had to undo their gunbelts and holsters and set them aside, then drop their drawers to go to the bathroom.

It took Blood Feather a full day of patient crawling to position himself near the outhouse, watching the comings and goings of the various ranch hands. He waited until he thought Johnny would soon go to the small building, and then he slithered to the outhouse and into his hiding place in the darkness. The outhouse had a crescent moon on the front door, which Blood Feather felt was odd.

He hid in the darkness and waited for his newest prey.

Johnny Rabbit Legs entered the outhouse, removed his gunbelt and holster and set them aside, dropped his pants, and sat down. Something was wrong. He sensed it and a shiver ran up and down his spine. He looked down into the blackness in the hole below him and wondered if some creature could be down there in that stench. Instinctively and protectively, he grabbed a hold of his groin and held it while he performed his functions. His eyes strained as he peered intently down into the toilet opening, wondering why his warrior sense was warning him of danger. Johnny was very scared now but did not know why. He looked over at his gun and could not reach it. He pulled up his pants slowly, still looking down into that hole.

Suddenly, it was too late. He felt the impending attack coming and tried to turn upward as Blood Feather's seven-foot frame dropped silently out of the rafters and enveloped him with force. The red cowboy lay unconscious on the floor of the outhouse, while Blood Feather dropped the gunbelt and holster down the hole. Scooping Johnny up under his arm like a small sack of grain, the murderer looked through the crescent moon and saw no ranch hands, and he made it out and trotted away while keeping the outhouse between him and the bunkhouse.

Johnny Rabbit Legs awakened ten minutes later, as he trotted through trees on his own horse. It was being led by a giant Lakota, and Johnny's wrists were tied to the saddle horn, his ankles were tied, and the rope was joined under the horse's chest. If he got his hands free and tried to run off, or if he fell off, he would fall under the horse and perish to flailing hooves.

His head was swimming and he did not know what had happened. As mile after mile fell behind, his head started to clear, and he recalled the feelings of fear in the outhouse, something crashing onto him from above, and waking up on his trotting horse. This Indian before him had stolen Johnny's horse as well as his saddle and tack. He had never seen a man this large before, and the sight of his kidnapper's broad back frightened him. The man was on a draft horse.

At noon they stopped at a creek so the horses could water and rest. By this time, everybody at the ranch was talking about how strange it was that Johnny Rabbit Legs had pulled up stakes and left without talking to anybody.

In Lakota, Johnny said, “Why did you steal me away?”

Blood Feather said, “I need an interpreter. You will speak to the
wasicun
for me. I want to know about man named Strongheart.”

Johnny said, “I have heard of him. He is a mighty warrior, half-white and half-Lakota.”

We Wiyake
said, “What else do you know of him?”

“He loves a woman in Cañon City, a
wasicun
woman. He fought many men in a gun battle in Florence and was shot many times, but he killed them all,” Johnny replied. “He has very strong medicine.”

Blood Feather said, “We will go there and find this woman and find where he stays.”

“Will you let me go then?” Johnny asked.

We Wiyake
said, “Maybe, or maybe I will kill you. I will decide.”

He meant that, too. He killed when he felt like killing and did not kill when he didn't feel like it.

Blood Feather handed Johnny some beef jerky and hardtack. He indicated that the cowboy should drink from the stream. Johnny did and filled his canteen with water. After the horses rested, they mounted up and
We Wiyake
tied Johnny to his horse again. They continued toward Cañon City.

It was two more days before they reached the outreaches of the city and made camp in the area called Garden Park. Strongheart could have made it in just one more day, but Blood Feather was close to four hundred pounds of muscle, and it was hard on any of the draft horses he stole to carry him very far.

He tied Johnny to a tree and went to sleep in the shadows away from the fire.
We Wiyake
lay on the ground thinking of eating the heart of Joshua Strongheart. It made him feel somewhat alive and was the only thing now that made him feel that way. In the early days, sometimes he would set fire to houses and watch them burn and that would make him feel alive somewhat, but now he only got that feeling by killing someone with special medicine and eating his heart. Very few things could make him not sleep, but this did make him keep his eyes open, staring into the darkness for some time.

The large killer got up and found a forked stick. He pulled out his knife and whittled the end of it into a point, then stuck it in the ground near his sleeping place. He then removed his finger necklace and hanged it from the forked stick so he could view it in the moonlight. The necklace contained many little fingers, every other one red, interspersed with white fingers in between. There was also a bone hair pipe in between each finger. Besides eating the victim's heart,
We Wiyake
also always amputated the little finger on each victim's left hand. Two years earlier, he'd passed up killing a Lakota warrior he had picked out with “special medicine,” because the man had lost the little finger and ring finger of his left hand in a trapper's beaver trap when he was a boy.

Blood Feather lay in his spot looking at his finger necklace, recalling the events when each of the thirty-one fingers had been obtained. He fell asleep while staring at the necklace.

The next night they camped in an apple orchard on the south side of the Arkansas River, in an area called Lincoln Park. Nobody would come around as the fruit was all gone at this time of the year. They noticed how many large branches were broken and both men wondered why. Actually, two big bears, at different times, had decimated the trees in this orchard that spring, breaking the larger branches as they pulled them down to get at the succulent fruit.

The following day they started moving around the Lincoln Park area, sticking to the trees and close to the river. Blood Feather spotted a rider approaching on a strawberry roan. The man had a slight build, and his eyes opened when he saw the behemoth walk out of the trees and block the trail. He clawed for his pistol tucked into his waistline, but Blood Feather's giant hand reached out, grabbed the horse's bridle, and jerked down, sending the horse sideways to the ground. The man, Timothy LeDoux, was a ranch hand from a small spread south of Florence, along Hardscrabble Creek. Timothy sprawled on the ground, his pistol flying out ten feet to his front.

We Wiyake
jerked him up like he was a ragdoll and dragged him off into the orchard. He walked him back deep into the trees, and Johnny asked questions and translated.

Blood Feather spoke in Lakota and Johnny said to the man, “Do you know Joshua Strongheart?”

“Yes,” he replied. “He's famous hereabouts, and I met him in Annabelle Ebert's café on Main Street. I jest wanted ta shake his hand.”

“Where does he live?” Johnny translated.

“He don't live here. Jest comes a lot. He and thet widow woman Annabelle Ebert are sweet on each other,” the nervous cowpoke replied. “I heerd thet he stays at the Hot Springs Hotel on the west end a town a lot, where Grape Creek come inta the Arkansas. Kin I go now?”

We Wiyake
ignored his request and had Johnny ask, “Is he there now?”

Timothy answered, “Ah don't know. I heerd he was here a few weeks back and was comin' back, but Ah don't know when.”

Johnny said, “What else can you tell us about him?”

“He is famous around heah,” the man said, “real famous. He had him a gunfight in Florence and kept getting shot and jest kept on a-fightin'. He kilt I don't know how many men. I heard everything from nine ta twenty men in thet shoot-out. Almost died, but thet widow woman nursed him back ta health.”

The cowboy went on. “He also is famous cuz he was in a stage holdup southwest a heah, on Copper Gulch Stage Road. He had a shoot-out then, too, but thet widow woman had her weddin' ring stole, and he give her his word he'd get it back, and he hunted down everyone a them banditos and done 'em in. He got her thet ring back, by golly. Now I been hearin' he got mauled by a big ole grizzly up near Lookout Mountain a few months back. Kilt it with his knife I heered.”

“What else do you know?” Johnny asked, nervous himself.

“Nothin',” Timothy replied, his knees shaking and heart pounding. “I swear that is it. Kin I go now, please?”

BOOK: Blood Feather
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