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Western Short Story
The Cottonwood Incident
Mickey Bellman

Western Short Story

Bert figured he would have to get south of Helena before he was in the clear. That meant getting past Great Falls with a very low profile. Maybe he could find a drover’s job someplace in Idaho, but that was still 400 miles away. He turned round in his saddle and scanned the prairie—no, he was alone except for a couple of mule deer and stray steers that ignored his passing.

The gunfight at the High Line shack had left four men in their graves—his deputy father and three vengeful cowboys. The saloon drunk in Miles City was just an unfortunate accident, but the sheriff had put out a $1000 Wanted poster on Bert. With five dead men in his wake, Bert knew someone would be looking for him.

The easy trail was through Fort Benton and Great Falls, but that would invite recognition. East meant a Missouri River crossing, difficult at best, deadly at worst. A trail west of Great Falls meant Blackfoot Indian country. The Indians would not know of the bounty on his head, but his head also grew a nice scalp they might covet.

“Rosie, what you think? You want to drown in the Missouri or get scalped?” Rosie stood motionless; all she wanted was to get shed of the saddle and rider.

“OK if you won’t decide, then I will. We stay west.” Bert gently nudged Rosie towards the distant Rockies and she started off at a slow, steady walk.

Without a cloud in the Big Sky, Bert was enjoying the slow ride. It was a good day for a ride surrounded by sagebrush and prairie grass, even if it was a matter of his life or death.

The warm sun and gentle breeze became a balm for both rider and horse. Rosie felt the slack in her reins and ambled about the prairie. Bert’s head bobbed under his father’s Stetson.

“An unobservant man could get scalped out here.”

Bert jerked awake and instantly reached for the ebony-handled Colt tied to his leg. The shocking voice came from behind. He reined Rosie around in a tight circle while the .45 slipped from its holster.

“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, there White Eyes! Don’t shoot me yet! I thought you might want to know where you are heading.” A bronze, 20-something Indian sat bareback astride a pinto pony. He wore only a breech cloth while his scraggily, black hair hung down to his shoulders. He carried a sheathed hunting knife in a belt once worn by a calvary trooper.

Bert eased back in his saddle, .45 still in hand, still groggy from his mid-day saddle nap. “What you mean sneaking’ up on me like that? I could shoot you right now….”

“Yes you could, cowboy, but then you would not know about the burial grounds you are about to blunder into. My relatives may not take kindly to you desecrating their sacred grounds.” The Indian sat calmly on his pony looking at Bert.

“Who the hell are you? You ain’t no renegade.”

“My name is Comach. I am of the Blackfoot tribe, Nitawyiks band. I was taken to the school of the Black Robes—Jesuits as you call them—and educated there for several years. Only now am I returning to my people near the Canadian border. Is that sufficient information?”

Bert was in a real flummox. A civilized, educated Indian out on the prairie? Was this still a dream? He shook his head and rubbed his eyes but an Indian on a pinto pony still stood there not twenty feet away.

“I am glad I have not lost all my native skills. Obviously, you did not hear of my approach.” With that, Comach dismounted and squatted on the ground. “I saw you riding towards the burial grounds of my ancestors and thought you may not want to join them very soon. I have intervened to warn you. What is your name?”

Bert was speechless. He slowly holstered his pistol and slipped from his saddle. “Much obliged for that. I just want to get ‘round Great Falls and head south. Bert is my handle. And you are…Comach?”

“Yes. At the missionary school they weren’t quite sure what I was, so they baptized me Comach. Well, whatever.” The young Indian stared at Bert and then scanned the surrounding prairie. Not much to see but Comach knew there might be many eyes watching them. “Why don’t we just backtrack a bit. There’s a small grove of cottonwoods just over that low ridge. It would be a good place to water the horses and camp for the night.” With that Comach leaped aboard his pony, like a frog leaving a lily pad, and reined his pony northward. Dumbfounded, Bert stepped into his stirrups and followed. A half hour later they were enjoying the shade and the cool spring water.

Bert was still cautious about this surprise meeting as he loosened the cinch on Rosie. “So Injun…Comach, I’m still trying to figure this out.”

“Oh, no worries, Bert. I am just heading north and you are heading south. This chance encounter of ours is just a delightful, unplanned rendezvous in the wilderness. Do you have anything to eat besides pemmican? I have never developed a taste for that sort of food. Coffee and some bacon would be ideal.” Comach flashed a smile at Bert while he gathered some dry branches for a fire.

“Yeah, sure. I’ve got a little bit left. ‘might even find some stale biscuits in my saddlebags.”

“Oh please, not stale biscuits! I’ve had quite enough of those at the school. Unless, of course, you have some jams or jellies to go with them. On the other hand, I should not be to particular as I am quite famished. Stale biscuits will be just fine.

“Nice pistol belt you have there. Very professional. Are you a pistolero? A gun for hire? Just curious as I have not seen many cowboys with that quality of rig before. Usually, the ones I see are pretty beat up with lots of rust. It is a fine looking weapon you have there.”

“Aw, yeah, well, it was my pa’s. It is purty, isn’t it? Bert slipped the Colt from its holster and twirled it about. “Sure feels nice,” and he aimed it straight at Comach. “Shoots real straight, too, if you get my drift.”

Comach winced and then settled back into a friendly squat. “Oh, I understand perfectly. Perhaps now we can have a nice campfire and watch the smoke drift.”

Bert allowed himself a small smile. Maybe this Indian wasn’t so bad after all.

The Big Sky of Montana darkened and then lit up with a dazzling ceiling of stars. Bert and Comah lingered around the campfire embers. They talked idly of their histories—Bert careful not to mention gunfights or Wanted posters. Comach told of a time when his people hunted the dwindling buffalo herds, of a nomadic prairie existence, of the hostile encounters between Indians and soldiers. He was careful to say nothing about the calvary belt or how he came to own it. Worn out from so much history, both men settled down and were soon breathing softly.

Bert awoke with a start when a bronzed hand gently nudged him awake. In the early dawn light Comach squatted nearby making a hand signal to be quiet. Bert lay there listening and then heard the sound of horse hooves and distant voices. Posse or Indians, he didn’t know which, but he wanted to meet neither one of them. Both men crept to the edge of the trees; in the dim light they could see four horses and riders approaching. All wore hats, so that meant more white eyes. The fourth rider slouched in the saddle, barely able to stay astride.

Bert exhaled with some relief—not a war party but maybe a posse. Comach sucked in his breath—not any of his relatives, but maybe scalp hunters. They eased themselves back into the grove. “What you think, Injun? Do we wait or ride?”

“From their appearance, I’m judging they are not friendly. The last rider seems to be seriously injured the way he bobs about in the saddle. Number 2 rider carries a long rifle across his saddle as though he expects trouble. Number 3 rider wears a bandolier across his chest and wears his pistol tied low on his hip—surely a gunfighter. Number 1

rider wears a sombrero and is constantly scanning the horizon. I think she is trying to get away from something….”

She? Bert was not ready for that. “How do you figure ‘she’?”

“Look at her closely. She is smaller than the others, rides a bit more erect, and has two nice bumps on her chest. Her hair is long though rather well combed, and she wears a knife strapped to her left arm. The bridle is adorned with silver buckles and so is the saddle. I think she is also leader of this band,” Comach replied. “Perhaps they will ride on, but they travel at night so as not to be seen.”

Just then Rosie sensed the other horses and nickered. The riders all reined in and stared at the grove of trees. There was a hushed conversation as the riders separated in two groups to approach the trees from opposite sides.

With that, Bert was suddenly alone. Comach had slipped away into the trees without a sound. Bert muttered to himself, “Why that no good….”

Bert was suddenly surrounded by the four riders, all with guns drawn. Bert smiled and tried to be relaxed and be friendly. “Howdy. Out for a morning ride?” The fourth rider wavered in his saddle and fell to the ground. The female leader momentarily lost interest in Bert and gave a sharp command.

“Jake. Conner. See what you can do for Lance. I’ll tend to this one” as she fixed her eyes back on Bert. “Who are you and what you doin’ out here?”

“Well, I could ask you the same question,” and Bert eased his hand towards his own gun.

“Don’t try it, mister, or you’ll be soon dead. I asked you a question and I want an answer.”

Jake and Conner had rolled Lance on his back. Fresh blood covered his chest.

He had been gut-shot and could only moan in delirious pain. “He ain’t gonna last much longer if we don’t find a doc real soon.”

Sadie scanned the prairie all around and then smirked. “You see anything that looks like a doc’s office around here? So much for Lance but that’s one less to split with. Do what you can for him and we’ll leave him here. This lonesome stranger can tend to him. What’s you name, mister?”

“Bert. I’m just headin’ south lookin’ for work.”

“Fancy rig you got there. ‘mind if you just unbuckle it and let it drop? I want to keep this friendly.”

Bert slowly unbuckled his black leather gunbelt and let it slip to the ground. Sadie stepped out of her saddle. Beneath her sombrero, Bert could see black raven eyes and hair to match. She was a good looker and there were two nice chest bumps to admire.

“You know anything about doctorin’?” Bert shook his head. “Well, no matter, you are one now. See what you can do for Lance.”

“Sadie, we can’t do 6calpin’ more. Leave Lance to Bert and let’s ride out,” Conner snarled.

“In good time, all in good time. Let’s see what Bert has to offer. There’s a nice saddle and horse. Two horses! You alone, Mr. Bert?”

“Yeah. Just picked up the Indian pony and was gonna sell him someplace.”

“Well, consider him sold. You can keep Lance and his horse.”

Bert winced at this, but maybe he’d at least keep his hide intact.

“Jake. Gather up the horses and saddles. We’ve got a ways to go before the posse finds our trail. Leave Lance’s belongings but make sure you’ve got all the guns. Mr. Bert won’t need them anyhow.”

Bert felt as lonesome as a skunk in a spotlight. He’d be shot down if he tried to run. His Winchester was still in its scabbard near his saddle. The three outlaws were in a hurry to leave. Bert had to act quickly.

“Suppose I told you you’re in Blackfoot country. Suppose I told you I saw a war party camped not a mile from here. Suppose I told you that you are in their sacred burial grounds.”

Jake and Conner looked at each other with a bit of panic. They knew of the massacres, tortures and 6calping.

“Suppose you just shut up, Mr. Bert!” Sadie snapped. “We don’t intend to be here much longer.”

The seeds of fear and doubt had been sown. The threesome nervously looked about the trees. Then came a soft hiss in the air followed by an audile thunk. Conner crumpled to the ground—blood and brains spilling out above his ear. A fist-size rock lay nearby covered with blood. Jake and Sadie rushed over to the suddenly deceased outlaw and then crouched low scanning the trees. A nervous Jake fired three quick shots at a shadow in the trees, then three more times. Sadie searched all around for a target but saw nothing.

Well, I’ll be…Bert thought to himself. Comach is still out there somewhere.

“What was that? Where’d it come from? Who’s out there, Bert?” Sadie was getting a bit rattled.

“I told you there were Blackfeet hereabouts. Maybe they’re here already,” Bert dryly replied.

Jake began backing away from Conner’s body with no doubt he was dead already. Still pointing his gun at the shadows, he realized too late that he was looking in the wrong direction.

Comach erupted from a screen of brush with a war cry and a 6-foot long sapling sharpened to a fine point. Jake took the spear in the back, right through his heart. Sadie whirled about and fired her Colt at the Indian but a cottonwood tree intervened. Comach dodged among the trees and back into the shadows while Sadie blazed away. Jake now looked like an olive stuck on a toothpick .

Bert sprang like a cougar at Sadie. She was bowled over and her pistol stripped from her hand. In an instant she was back on her feet and slipped the wicked knife from its sheath. Bert backed away from the steel blade as Sadie stalked him with a murderous look in her eyes. A cruel smile crossed her lips; she had a knife and knew how to use it.

The Winchester and other guns were too far away before the deadly vixen would be on him. She slowly closed the distance as Bert stumbled and fell backwards to the ground. He grabbed up a handful of dirt and threw it into her face as he rolled to the side, but not quick enough. Sadie leaped at him and her sharp blade slashed a nasty

gash across his back. Bert scrambled to his feet while Sadie rolled over still wearing that fiendish smile to stare into Bert’s eyes.

For only a second Bert was mesmerized by the beauty of this deadly vixen—hair and eyes black as the bottom of a mine, fair white skin soft enough to stroke, a small mouth showing a fine set of teeth clenched in hate. A cute upturned nose….

Bert made his choice. He grabbed up a piece of firewood and brought it crashing down on the pretty face. Her dark eyes showed a look of bewilderment as she made another thrust with her knife and found Bert’s forearm. Again, Bert brought the club to her head with all the force he could muster. She made a last gasp and quivered, and died.

“For a moment there, I thought I would have to finish all this gruesome business myself.” Comach stood a few feet away, knife in hand. “I understand this is the Wild West, but all this is getting out of hand.”

Dazed, Bert surveyed the bloody carnage all around. Lance was all but dead. Comach had used a rock and a spear to kill two of the outlaws. Bert had clubbed Sadie to death—she was no longer very pretty to look at.

“Bert, you’ve been afflicted with a couple of nasty gashes. Would you trust some savage Native American to minister to you?”

Bert slowly turned his head towards the young Indian. “I suppose they taught you doctoring at that missionary school, too.” He staggered towards Comach and collapsed to his knees. “Sure, go ahead, but don’t get no ideas about my scalp.” He flashed a crooked smile at Comach.

“Aw, but it is such a fine scalp….”