Wilderness #61:

The Scalp Hunters David


A Killer’s Creed

Logan darted around his mount and drew both flintlocks.

Dega did the only thing he could think of; he spun and ran. He braced for a searing pain in his back but no shots boomed. Veering to avoid an oak, he spotted a thicket and without hesitation dived in, holding the bow at his side so it wouldn’t become entangled. He went several steps and crouched.

“You’re as dumb as a stump, boy.”

Dega peered through the interwoven limbs and leaves. He hadn’t moved fast enough. The white man was at the thicket, both guns leveled.

“Not that you’ll live long enough for it to do you any good, but here’s some advice. Never talk when you should kill. Never let yourself be distracted. Now come on out with your hands empty and I might let you live a bit.”

Dedicated to Judy, Joshua and Shane.

And to Beatrice Bean, with the most loving regard.

Chapter One

The four were young and eager for excitement. They liked to explore and roam where whim took them. Only one had counted coup. That didn’t matter since they were careful to avoid their many enemies.

Short Bull in particular was tired of the same old haunts, the same old hunting grounds. He wanted to set eyes on country he had never seen before. So on the tenth night of their wandering, as he and his friends were hunkered around a crackling fire, he announced, “I am not ready to go back to our village. I want to see more of the prairie.”

Plenty Elk grunted. “What is there to see but grass and more grass?”

Across the fire from them Wolf’s Tooth said, “Were it up to you, we would not ride out of sight of our lodges.”

Right Hand laughed. He had the best disposition. His mother liked to say that when he was born the sun lit his eyes and had burned bright ever since. “We have already come farther than any of our people have ever come. What is another five or six sleeps?”

They were young and they were Arapaho. The Sariet-tethka, some tribes called them; the Dog Eaters. The Arapaho liked dog meat. To them it was delicious. To the other tribes it was the same as eating one’s grandmother.

All four wore finely crafted buckskins and moccasins that each bore the personal stamp of the wearer. Right Hand’s moccasins were white, to represent snow, with large blue triangles, the symbol for lakes. Wolf’s Tooth’s were mostly brown but had red squares that stood for buffalo guts. Plenty Elk’s moccasins were brown, too, but with green rectangles to betoken the breath of life. Short Bull’s had red markings that symbolized red crayfish.

Only Short Bull had an eagle feather in his hair. He was the one who had counted coup. “So we are agreed? We continue east?”

“I am for it,” Right Hand said.

“And I,” Wolf’s Tooth declared.

Plenty Elk poked the fire with a stick and sparks rose into the air. “You are my friends. I will go where you go. But I am not as fond of grass as the rest of you. I am against this.”

Right Hand grinned at the others, then said casually, “I have heard you are fond of antelope.”

“Especially Small Antelope,” Wolf’s Tooth said, “even though she has two legs and not four.”

Plenty Elk waited for their mirth to end before saying, “You envy me because she is as beautiful as a sunrise.”

“Now she is,” Wolf’s Tooth agreed. “Have you seen her mother? That is how she will look in fifty winters.”

“I would not shed tears if the Utes took your hair,” Plenty Elk parried.

They were young, and they were best friends. Ever since they could remember they did everything together. They learned to ride together, to hunt together, to shoot bows together. Short Bull’s father was a member of the Spear Society, warriors who vowed never to retreat in battle and taught them to throw a lance.

They had been to many places together. Up into the mountains where the snow stayed on the highest peaks even in the heat of summer. To the Black Hills, the sacred territory of the fierce Lakotas. To the geyser country with the longtime ally of the Arapahos, the Cheyenne.

But the four had never been this far out on the prairie.

It was the Thunder Moon, and the prairie teemed with life. Elk hid in the thick timber that fringed the streams. Deer could be flushed from the cottonwoods. Raccoons, possum, fox, coyotes, all called the prairie home. So did the wolf and the bear and the tawny cats with their sharp claws and fangs. Prairie dogs popped out of their burrows to whistle in alarm. Hawks soared on high, perpetually on the hunt. Birds sang and warbled and chirped. Vultures circled, doing their aerial dance of the dead.

It was the Thunder Moon, and their world was bountiful. Although they were far from Arapaho country, they were far from the country of tribes who might do them harm.

They felt safe traveling farther.

Two mornings later they were wending through a maze of rolling hillocks and gullies. The scent of the green grass was strong in their nostrils, the warm breeze strong on their backs. Puffy white clouds floated in the blue sky.

The four friends came around a bend and beheld a ribbon of water. They drew rein to let their mounts drink.

Short Bull was in the lead, as was his habit, and he was the first to swing down. He stretched, then froze, his brown eyes fixed on the soft earth at the water’s edge. From his lips came two words that stiffened the others. “White men.”

The evidence was plain. Tracks of shod horses pockmarked the ground. Only white men rode shod horses. Mixed with the hoofprints were footprints of men in hard-soled boots. Only white men wore boots.

Wolf’s Tooth was the best tracker. He squatted and read the sign. “I count nine. They came from the southeast and went that way.” He pointed to the north. Rising, he examined a circle of trampled grass. “This is where they camped for the night. See? That is where a heavy one slept. They broke camp at sunrise. They cannot

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