Western Short Story
The old bull elk forced his way through yet another snowdrift. He had been on the run for over an hour, and this drift was particularly challenging to push through. He was tired, and the snow had drifted deep enough to make him shove his way through with his broad chest. Bright red blood from the many wounds in his hindquarters stained the path he was making.
When he reached an open area, he stumbled and almost fell. It was time to make a stand. This bull had sired hundreds of calves during his lifetime. He had defeated many younger elks during the rutting season and was a champion known throughout the mountains. The passage of time had taken its toll, and he was past his prime. Now he was a target.
A pack of gray wolves surrounded the elk where he stood, barely able to remain upright. His lowered head sported a massive rack of sharp antlers, and he slowly swung it from side to side while snorting blood and foam in a display of resistance. His life was about to come to an end, and there was little he could do about it.
The wolf pack had chased this elk through five miles of snowdrifts and forests. Every time the elk stopped, several of the wolves would attack it. Soon they would bring it down onto its side where it would finish bleeding to death.
The wolves had fed upon many elk during the life of this pack. They knew this one was finished and ready for the kill. Each member knew its role in the kill and subsequent feast. Three females distracted the elk by dashing at its face before turning away. Several males attacked it from the rear and tore at its hindquarters, inflicting bloody wounds. The elk bellowed in pain and went down onto its side. As it fell, the largest pack member, a black female, gripped its snout with her jaws and constricted its breathing. As its struggles weakened, the rest of the pack joined in on the kill.
The elk died a violent death, and the pack would live on its flesh for another week or two. Then another hunt will take place.
As the wolf pack fed upon its kill, two hunters were making their way through the forest two miles to the east at a lower elevation. The drifts were more scattered than at the higher elevations and tended to have a layer of ice that supported the hunters’ weight.
Night Buffalo and Snow Woman had heard the wolves in the distance and knew they had a problem. When a wolf pack is actively chasing prey, all the larger game animals within miles become scarce. They would have to hunt in a different part of the forest if they wanted anything more substantial than a rabbit.
Stopping in a snow-free space beneath a large pine tree, they sat next to each other to plan their next move.
Night Buffalo and Snow Woman had been together for almost exactly four years. She was a Crow woman, and he was a former First Sergeant named James Washington. Known to the Crow as Night Buffalo, his dark skin and curly hair was powerful medicine for the tribe.
Night Buffalo spoke first. He said, “The wolves are busy this winter. The members always look well-fed when I spot one on our hunts. Nightwalker is a good leader.”
“Do you think she remembers us?” Snow Woman asked.
Of course, she does. You raised her from a pup. But her loyalty is now to her pack. If we meet them, things might become difficult,” Night Buffalo said as he gathered some kindling from under the tree.
“We might as well have some hot food before we move farther east into the lower valley. The smoke won’t disturb any game. It has already gone away thanks to the wolf pack,” Snow Woman said as she made a small pile of fluff and dried needles next to the little woodpile.
“The valley is farther than we had planned on going, but we should be far enough from the pack to find some game,” Night Buffalo said as he struck flint and steel to make sparks into the fluff and get the fire started.
The strips of dried meat were starting to sizzle when Night Buffalo’s black stallion, sired by Nightshade, gave a slight nicker and stomped one of his front hooves.
Forgetting the hot food, Night Buffalo and Snow Woman moved to opposite sides of the little clearing and held their rifles ready to fire.
A lone Cheyenne brave walked into view at a thin spot in the surrounding forest. He just stood there with his right hand raised into the air.
Night Buffalo stood and raised his right hand in response. The Cheyenne turned and signaled to someone out of view. Two other Cheyenne came into view leading three ponies. They stopped next to the first man.
Snow Woman stood and walked over to Night Buffalo. “You know these men?” she asked.
“The first warrior is a Cheyenne Dog Soldier named Laughing Wolf. The two men with him are unknown to me but also appear to be dog soldiers.”
“He is the blood brother you have told me many stories about.”
“That is him. I wonder what he is doing here in Crow territory.”
As they were speaking, the three Cheyenne moved slowly in their direction. They stopped within easy speaking distance.
Night Buffalo handed his rifle to Snow Woman and walked next to Laughing Wolf. He extended his right hand, and Laughing Wolf gripped it in his own.
“It is good to see my brother once more,” Night Buffalo said.
“I am also pleased, but we did not come into the land of the Crow for a visit,” Laughing Wolf said.
Pointing to each of his companions, Laughing Wolf said, “Red Pony and Gray Beaver are also dog soldiers. We hunt Blackfeet who have stolen ponies and taken my daughter as prisoner. They pass through the land of the Crow as they hurry to their lands in the north.”
Pointing to Snow Woman, Night Buffalo said, “This is Snow Woman, my wife. We are hunting for elk, but a large wolf pack has chased the game from this area. We were eating some meat before moving farther east into a lower valley.”
Pointing to the meat warming by the fire, Night Buffalo continued, “Come and sit by our fire and share what meat we have. It is not much, but you are welcome to some of it. Then we can talk about the Blackfeet and how we can help.”
“We will join you, my brother,” Laughing Wolf said, reaching across the top of his pony and grabbing a line holding two dead rabbits. He tossed the rabbits next to the fire and continued, “Your squaw can clean and cook this meat while we men talk and smoke a pipe.”
As Snow Woman reached for the rabbits, Night Buffalo winced a bit. He was afraid of her reaction to being treated in such a brusque manner. He was relieved when she took care of the rabbits without any comment and quickly had them on a spit over the fire.
While she was working on them, Night Buffalo told Laughing Wolf and his friends the story about how he had met her. He finished by saying that eight of the scalps on the pole outside their lodge belonged to her.
When the rabbits were ready, Laughing Wolf left space for her to sit with them while they ate. She took part in their stories, the slight forgotten.
As the two men with Laughing Wolf disappeared into the forest, moving toward the west, he and Night Buffalo griped each other’s wrist before Laughing Wolf mounted his pony. Before riding after his friends, he said, “We wait ahead of the pony herd driven by the Blackfeet. That will cause much confusion and frighten them. They are not seasoned warriors, and they know a large group of Cheyenne follow their tracks. If you can make some confusion from behind, we will attack from the front and find my daughter.
Night Buffalo replied, “We will do our best. Blackfeet do not belong here.”
As he stepped back, Night Buffalo raised his hand in farewell. Laughing Wolf turned and did the same, just before he disappeared into the forest after his friends.
“Your blood brother moves toward Night Walker’s pack where they feed on their kill,” Snow Woman said.
“They expect the Blackfoot raiding party to come through that region. Its system of valleys and ridges provides an easy route through the mountains toward their territory. When they are sure about which valley they are following, they will be waiting for them.”
“Five against twenty are not good odds, even if the twenty are young, untried warriors.”
“The Blackfeet will be tired and nervous. That will make them careless and give us a good chance to help Laughing Wolf save his daughter.”
Handing him his rifle and scooping some snow to put out the fire, Snow Woman said, “The war party of Cheyenne chasing them will also be tired. They will be too far back to be any help, even if they are close enough to hear the sounds of our fighting.”
“I suspect the Blackfeet are moving slower than expected since they are moving a herd of ponies through wolf country in late winter. Wolves are probably moving around the herd and keeping the ponies nervous and skittish. If they get the scent of the fresh kill, the ponies will be close to scattering through the forest and hard to control.”
After extinguishing their fire, they moved off toward the southwest, planning to find the trail left by the Blackfeet and their herd of ponies.
It was getting late in the day when they cut across the trail of the Blackfoot raiding party. It cut a wide swath through the forest, and it appeared as if the pony herd was giving them a terrible time.
As Night Buffalo dismounted to study the trail left by the Blackfeet, he said, “Wolves disturb the ponies. Tonight will be a difficult night for the Blackfeet.”
Snow Woman kept scanning their surroundings as she said, “It will be a good night to visit their camp. We will teach them a lesson about what happens when they come uninvited to Crow Territory.”
As he remounted, Night Buffalo noticed furtive movements at several points deeper into the forest.
“We have some visitors watching us, “he said.
“They are wolves following the ponies. They are not interested in bothering us when there is so much more food just a short distance ahead,” Snow Woman said.
“I don’t think they are from Nightwalker’s pack. These wolves are from another pack that has been led into this area by the Blackfeet. They have been careless as they hurry away from the Cheyenne who chase them,” Night Buffalo said. “It appears to be a pretty large pack, and they are moving toward the Blackfeet.
A half-mile west of the track, a massive female wolf lay with a full belly watching her pack members tear flesh from the dead elk. She was the Alpha Female of the pack and more feared than the Alpha Male.
Nightwalker had been raised and named by Snow Woman. As a young wolf, she would often visit the village and spend time with Snow Woman and her children in her lodge. Later, as she became more involved with a pack, she would pass the village from afar and seldom visit. It had been almost a year since Nightwalker last glimpsed Snow Woman from afar.
Today she should feel a sense of satisfaction and well-being, but something made her uneasy. Distant noises and strange scents were in the air.
The pack sensed Nightwalker’s uneasiness. It was a large pack with thirty members and ruthlessly defended its territory against other packs and lone wolves. Twelve of the members were especially fierce and powerful. They were the progeny of Nightwalker and the Alpha Male. He was called Satan by the few white hunters who had tried to kill him for his jet-black fur.
One of the white hunters who had survived an attack said his eyes glowed bright red when he looked at him after tearing the throat out of his partner.
Satan was slightly smaller than Nightwalker and every bit as vicious when necessary. They had a fondness for each other that showed in the way they ruled the pack. It was a shared responsibility.
Satan did not understand Nightwalker’s affection for some humans, but he had learned early on to respect it.
Nightwalker stood and shook some snow and pine needles off her fur. Then she growled and barked a signal before starting toward the east. The pack members stopped whatever they were doing and followed her into the forest. They were all moving toward the source of the strange sounds and scents coming from that direction.
The pack moved cautiously and soon became aware of a large group of humans traveling through the forest with many ponies. These humans had a smell different from the ones who frequented this section of their territory. They also seemed to be in a hurry and not very careful. It would be easy to kill some of them. After dark, the pack could easily take some of the ponies for food, if they had not just fed.
As the pack spread along one of the ridges to watch the humans move through a valley, they became aware of strange wolves following the humans and their ponies. They were not from Nightwalker’s pack. Other wolves were not allowed in the pack’s territory.
Several of the pack’s members growled and started moving off the ridge. Nightwalker’s growl stopped them. Satan mimicked her actions, and everyone settled back into their original positions.
The strange wolves were so intent upon the ponies that they did not notice Nightwalker’s pack watching them. The winter had been a hard one, and they were starving. The presence of so much food had made them reckless and careless.
There were fourteen wolves in the starving pack, and many were in a weakened condition. When the humans stopped for the night, they would attack the herd and scatter them. Individual ponies would be easy prey for the pack.
Nightwalker watched the progress of the wolves and calculated that they would charge into the ponies and humans soon after it got dark. She would view the attack, and her pack would take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself.
As they watched the humans stop and set up their camp, she saw the strange wolves take up positions a short distance away from them. Focused upon their prey, those wolves had no idea that a large, well-fed pack was waiting for an opportunity to assert their dominance and ownership of this territory.
Nightwalker, Satan, and ten of the senior pack members moved off the ridge and went to the other side of the human camp. The strange wolves did not notice them. They were too intent upon their prey. As the pack members settled down and kept watch, Nightwalker noticed a familiar scent in the air. A slight air movement from down the valley was carrying the smell.
Nightwalker and Satan moved toward the source of the scent. By staying on a ridge, they avoided the strange pack.
Night Buffalo and Snow Woman were moving up the valley behind the Blackfeet. They were on a slight overlook on the side of a ridge. They reached a spot where they could see the Blackfeet setting up their camp. As they watched the twenty or so warriors settle in for the night, they made some final plans about the attack.
“They do not seem to be concerned about traveling through Crow Territory. They have several fires lit where most of them are settling down for the night. They must be concerned about the wolves in the area,” Snow Woman said.
“I think they fear the wolves in the area more than they fear any human enemies. They believe the Cheyenne are far behind and hesitant to enter Crow Territory, and that the Crow are staying near their villages.”
“They have several children near the center of their camp by the largest fire. Laughing Wolf’s daughter must be among them,” Snow Woman said, moving behind the rise to take care of their ponies.
Placing her rifle in its scabbard, she took a bow and a quiver of steel-pointed arrows from a pack on her pony’s back.
Night Buffalo figured on letting her do the silent work. He would use his Henry and his pistol when it was time to make some noise.
“We will strike quietly from the darkness when it is time to confuse the Blackfeet. With luck, we will be able to reach the children or make it possible for Laughing Wolf to do so,” Night Buffalo said. Then he checked his Bowie knife and tomahawk to make sure they were securely attached to his belt.
Snow Woman also had a tomahawk in her belt. Still, instead of a Bowie knife, she had a shorter, finely tapered scalping knife with a razor-sharp edge.
“These Blackfeet are mostly young warriors, probably on their first raid. Their guards are too close to the campfires to see anything moving around in the darkness. They also have their ponies mixed in with the stolen ones. If they are panicked and chased through the camp, it should provide us with the distraction we need,” Night Buffalo said.
“Let us remove the guards from the pony herd. Then we can stampede them,” Snow Woman said, nocking an arrow to her bow.
They led their ponies farther back into the forest and were securing them when a knicker from Raven, his mare sired by Nightshade, got their attention. They stared into the gloom of the descending darkness and saw a pair of feral, yellow eyes staring back.
Raven started snorting and pawing the ground. Night Buffalo drew his Bowie and prepared to defend himself as a large, black wolf slowly moved into view.
Before he could react, another, more massive black wolf rushed from the gloom behind Snow Woman and knocked her down. She landed with a roll and came up on one knee with her knife drawn.
She stopped when the wolf yipped and stood still with its tongue hanging out. “Nightwalker,” was all she said, sheathing her knife.
She had no sooner sheathed her knife than Nightwalker was rushing forward, and the two of them wrestled each other to the ground. Night Buffalo watched the other wolf until it laid down on its belly and started licking its paws.
Snow Woman rubbed Nightwalker behind the ears and put her arms around her. Night Buffalo went to Raven and rubbed his snout to ease any nervousness. When she saw that all was well, any nervousness disappeared, and she helped calm Snow Woman’s pony. The uneasiness of the two horses was no longer apparent. The ease with which their riders accepted the two wolves made them almost comfortable for the time being.
Nightwalker sniffed at Night Buffalo as she walked over to Satan and stood beside him. As she stood there, Satan nuzzled her and then barked into the surrounding darkness.
Ten other giant wolves came into view. Nightwalker and Satan spoke to them, causing them all to sit or lay with puzzled expressions on their faces. After a bit, they lost all interest in humans and their horses.
Night Buffalo picketed the horses away from the pack before returning to Snow Woman’s side. “Do you think the pack might be able to help us?” he said quietly.
Before she could answer, they heard snorting and stomping from the horses. Hurrying toward them, they saw four gaunt-looking wolves circling them. When the humans came into view, the largest one turned toward Snow Woman and appeared ready to pounce.
Night Walker and Satan knocked Snow Woman aside as they jumped the wolf and tore it to pieces. The other three strangers had no time to react before the rest of the pack swarmed over them.
“It looks like there are two wolf packs at work here,” Night Buffalo said, helping Snow Woman to her feet.
“Since this is Nightwalker’s territory, any other wolves are not welcome,” she replied, walking over to examine one of the dead wolves.
After a moment, she stood up and said, “This wolf is half-starved. That made it careless and explains why its pack is following the Blackfeet.”
“Let’s continue with our plan. If that other pack attacks first, they’ll attract a lot of attention and make things that much easier,” Night Buffalo said, starting toward the Blackfoot camp.
As they moved to a ridge near the pony herd, the night had brightened somewhat with the rising of the full moon. A ghostly light lit the area, and shadows were becoming apparent.
They knew Nightwalker and Satan had brought the pack with them but were surprised to see closer to thirty pairs of eyes around them. They appeared to be alert and non-threatening but exhibited a tenseness as if waiting for something to happen.
There was activity around the campfires toward the upper end of the camp. Some shadowy figures had come out of the forest and attacked the men sleeping around the farthest fire. One of the men got off a scream, and the whole camp came to life. It was as if someone had stirred an anthill with a stick.
Most of the Blackfeet had moved toward the center of the camp and formed a knot around their leader. A small group ran toward the source of the scream and discovered three Cheyenne adorned with Raven-feathered headdresses standing some distance away from each other. They had even tied themselves to long sashes pinned to the ground with long war lances.
The Blackfeet paused for a moment. They realized they were facing Cheyenne Dog Soldiers who would fight to the death before unpinning their sashes. They outnumbered them but had heard frightening stories about these fearsome warriors.
The largest group of Blackfeet was distracted by a scream from the area of the pony herd. The starving wolf pack had attacked and killed one of the guards and was attacking the ponies. They had already pulled one down and had the others wild with fear. The ropes holding them were close to being torn loose.
Several of the Blackfeet hurried toward the ponies and the attacking wolves. As they started killing the wolves, the others decided to rush the three dog soldiers.
Arrows started coming out of the darkness, and two of the warriors attacking the wolves fell dead. They retreated just as a wave of thirty fierce wolves hit into the ponies and stampeded them into the camp.
Night Buffalo was in the middle of the wolf pack. He ran directly through the ponies toward the center of the camp. The large knot of warriors had scattered, leaving the leader and two others standing near the children.
In all the confusion, Night Buffalo was able to run past several of the Blackfeet. He carried his tomahawk in one hand and his Bowie knife in the other. His rifle lay by Snow Woman.
One of the Blackfeet noticed him and raised an old rifle to take a shot. He never fired it. An arrow entered the side of his chest and ruptured his left lung. He went down coughing blood, and Night Buffalo raised his tomahawk high, acknowledging Snow Woman’s good shooting.
Night Buffalo reached the leader accompanied by several of the fastest ponies and a few wolves. He tomahawked the leader before he could draw a weapon. Then the ponies and wolves were streaming around him, and one of the other two Blackfeet was knocked to the ground and trampled while the third was taken out by Satan. The children were huddled together and kept safe by Night Buffalo and several of the wolves.
The Blackfeet were in a panic. In their fear, the ponies had trampled several of them. Others had been killed by arrows or mauled by wolves. Many had either run off or been able to grab a pony and ride up the valley past the three dog soldiers. Nightwalker’s pack members were killing all of the trespassing wolves. They had also mauled some of the strange-smelling humans that Nightwalker had indicated were their enemies.
The group of Blackfeet threatening the three dog soldiers had been broken up by the stampede and short fight. Several members of the group ignored everything else and pressed home their attack. To kill a Cheyenne Dog Soldier in battle was a great honor, and the warrior who did so would be spoken of for many moons throughout the village.
Four of the Blackfeet lay dead from knife and tomahawk wounds. Gray Beaver also lay dead while Red Pony fought with an enemy on each side. One big warrior faced Laughing Wolf. His tomahawk was red with Gray Beaver’s blood. He grinned and said something to Laughing Wolf just before he stabbed at him with a knife he had kept hidden in his other hand.
Laughing Wolf had feigned tripping over the Blackfoot, who lay dead at his feet. He recovered nicely as the big man lunged and pivoted, slicing deeply into the man’s neck as he fell forward.
Red Pony deftly killed one of the warriors threatening him and laughed at the other as he turned and ran to the north with other fleeing Blackfeet.
The snarling sounds of wolves finishing off any injured members of the trespassing pack punctuated the sudden quiet that had descended upon the small battlefield. The two surviving Cheyenne would soon quiet the moans of any injured Blackfeet.
Snow Woman joined Night Buffalo, and the two of them stood by the children as the wolfpack reformed nearby. They had killed most of the trespassing pack and would feed upon the three dead ponies in the area. Since the wolves had other food and were well-fed, thanks to Nightwalker and Satan, they would ignore the dead Blackfeet. Besides, this pack had no taste for human flesh.
Laughing Wolf and Red Pony joined them with big smiles on their faces. They were wary of the wolves and looked at Snow Woman with more than just a little respect.
“I thank my blood brother and Snow Woman, for their help in saving my daughter and the other children from becoming slaves in a Blackfoot village. I am in your debt,” Laughing Wolf said.
“We were glad to help my brother. Besides, the Blackfeet must learn that they cannot enter Crow lands any time they wish. Tomorrow, warriors from our village will be here to find any ponies that remain and to make sure the Blackfeet who survive have gone,” Night Buffalo said.
“We will journey back along the trail used by the Blackfeet until we meet with our Cheyenne brothers. Can we visit your village to trade for any of our ponies that you find?”
“They will belong to the Crow since they are on Crow land, but I believe we can do some fair trading. Let us meet on this site in three days. The Cheyenne and the Crow should not always be enemies.”
The two dog soldiers finished any wounded Blackfeet and took their scalps. At sunrise, Laughing Wolf and Red Pony left the battle site with Gray Beaver’s body and the four children.
Nightwalker’s wolves had disappeared during the night, but they were not far away. The pack had recently devoured an elk and would return after the last humans had left the area. Only a part of the pack would feed on the ponies.
Night Buffalo and Snow Woman had retrieved their horses and left for their village soon after the Cheyenne had gone. Nightwalker watched them leave.
Riding into the village without any game tied onto their ponies was unusual for them. The tribal members were surprised until they saw the six Blackfoot scalps they carried. There would be some good storytelling around the central campfire in the village center. Everyone looked forward to it.