My horse was down, with a broken leg and a neck gash. My left leg was under him.
He wasn't going to move, and I couldn't but he'd been good to me, that fine animal.
I put a round in his head, thankful he was out of his misery. Some people will know my misery in a flash, a ton of it on the soul.
The shot also brought company, a young Indian standing still with a rough iron knife in his hand, a strange weapon for him to wield. I was willing to bet he'd honed it every day of its creation from who-knows-what-piece-of-junk he had found on the trail to somewhere, Oregon most likely.
We were in the Idaho territory of the Bannock tribe, and stories had been told for years of Chief Buffalo Horn all over the region not only saying how heroic he was but wise as any sage of the west. Two generals he'd served under, Howard and Custer, trusted him until he found out that settlers were cutting up land where the Bannocks raised camas roots, one of their main food sources.
It was hell to pay for from then to his death and when he was buried near a fort.
The connection came in a hurry; just what I needed, This young Indian waved the knife, pointed at my dead horse in mock surprise, and began to make some subtle cutting movements. He even looked hungry to add to his message, and pointed at my pistol, shaking his head.
Then he cut meat from the horse; the knife was indeed sharp, honed to the keenest edge and thick slices came away in his free hand.
I detected a smile on his face, at first saying that he had sliced well and had a meal coming, then I thought it was he had gained something from me, then I thought it was a sign of peace between us: it was evident he was the only one who could help me.
I hope it didn't have to wait until the carving was completed.
He walked off and soon I smelled fire first, then meat cooking, and he was back, the knife put away, and a strong-looking pole over his shoulder, thick and long. When that pole was shoved under a portion of my horse, I felt the ache and pain leave me temporarily, and then my leg was loose.
This stranger pulled me free from my dead horse, all the way.
When he smiled and made a gesture of inhaling, it was the aroma of cooked meat he had caught. He smiled again and helped me to his fire site in a nearby wooded area, smoke curling up through the trees, the leaves caught in a steady breeze.
We chewed on the meat side by side, cowboy and Indian, the late sun telling me I had been trapped for half the day and might not have made it through the night ahead of me, ahead of us.
He did not speak any English, at least said nothing in English, and when I said, as clear as I could over a bite of horsemeat, "Chief Buffalo Horn," he kept saying the words back to me, "Chief Buffalo Horn, Chief Buffalo Horn," hitting his chest with proud thumps. I knew he was declaring himself to be a member of the Bannock tribe. This was followed by his saying slowly and clearly, while tapping his chest, "Etu Chatka," as he introduced himself, the first Indian I had ever talked to.
In response, I repeated several times while pointing at him, "Etu Chatka, Etu Chatka," at which his smile grew wider and wider.
Tapping my own chest, I said, "Bob Parsons. Bob Parsons," until he said it many times while pointing at me, like we had momentarily swapped places.
Holding my hands as if on a horse, I exaggerated my urgent signals at speed and my savior and new friend understood me right away, using the same antics to signify his point of view, at which he kept smiling and nodding at me, friendly as the Ace of Spades in a tight game.
With the introductions done, I hoped it was notice that he was going to get me mounted again, though I saw no mount of his own anywhere in the vicinity.
Urging me with motions to stay seated, he went off, running swiftly but in an easy pace, as though he could run for hours.
And he was gone for hours; darkness had come down and my saddle and blankets were available for a night's sleep as I arranged my comfort. The night animals sounded from every direction in their searches as they prowled about me and the remains of my horse. The moon leaped from behind a cloud bank and a hunk of mountain between here and there, the moon strong enough to throw shadows in the heart of night. And, I thought, light enough to show the trail to Etu Chatka on return.
I was sure he'd come back, his nobility and gentility backing up my assurances.
I might have gone off to sleep for a few hours in the soft moonlight, and then was wakened by clomping sounds close by, followed by horse talk. In the moonlight Etu Chatka staked two horses to a tree, flipped a blanket on the ground near me, and abruptly went to sleep.
I kept counting my good luck until morning sounds woke me again, day already spilled atop us, the sun pointing out the mountain, Borah's Peak, was higher than I realized, dawn was sweeter than nightfall, friends can entwine when darkness drops below a blanket of stars or rises when that cover is rolled back.
Dawn has majesties, but being alive, even if hurting, heads the list. And there came Etu Chatka riding one horse and leading another by a rope. I felt better; my leg felt better, and this new friend had climbed the scales of friendships; I swore to myself I would stand between him and Hell.
And that was bound to happen no matter where we were in the west.
It didn't take long on the trail. Three on horses, guns drawn, stood in front of us at a narrow spot in the trail.
"Whatcha got there, sonny boy, your own injun slave?" His tone was loaded with malice and hate that leaped from him, looks, moves and otherwise, even as he nodded at his comrades, and said, "Ain't we surprised, boys, to find a redskin this easy this early in the day? Hell, it ain't even lunchtime yet, and we got us a live injun to play with."
I made sure I was between Etu Chatka and the trio, and said, "You don't play with my Indian friend unless you want to play with me, and that you don't want to do, because, you there, big mouth, gets the first round where your last shirt button in not yet buttoned."
My pistol. Drawn like spilled grease, was in my hand, and his expression changed on the spot, my eyes steady, my gun hand not wavering for the fraction of a second.
He looked over his shoulder, as if he was expecting help from his pals but neither one moved a muscle. That's when I motioned them, with my gun hand, to step aside so we could pass by them. The two quiet ones moved right away, and then big mouth thought better of the situation and also moved.
We passed by them and looked back as they stood at harmless ease, though in discomfort.
A few hours later we were hailed from a slight rise off the trail. "Where are you headed, son, with an Indian by your side? I hope you're not going into town."
"What town is that?" I said.
"So, that's Keeping Horse up ahead of you and they'll be trouble for sure. You should let him go his own way right now unless you got bad plans for him."
"I have no bad plans for him, mister, and I've been there before. Why don't you ride in ahead of us by an hour or so and tell folks, like the sheriff, Bill Swanton, that Harry Parson's son Bob is coming to visit with my Indian friend. Etu Chatka, grandson of Chief Buffalo Horn of the Bannock tribe is with me after saving my life back there in the hills."
Surprise jumped from him. "Old Harry Parson's your pap? He still with us? I hope so. We rode a few trails together in the past. Likable man, your pa, all I got to say, 'cept I'll tell all of Keeping Horse you're coming along soon. Yes sir, Harry Parson's boy Bob."
He spurted past us and was out of sight in minutes.
I had no idea what a turnout would result from the mention of my father's name, but a dozen or so men stood in welcome fashion at the door of the saloon, not a mock hello in the bunch, respect casting a mark on the gathering. For a moment I was stunned by the reception, before a near full recollection came from the back of my mind of how he was living his life to the coming end.
One man stepped out and said, "It's been a long haul since him and I were pards, son, but I sure hope he's still with us. The world's a better place with him in it. If you and the injun are friends, as it appears, it's okay with me and all these others here. Ain't that right, boys?"
It was like he was in charge of the whole shootin' match without any shooting.
I managed to say, "Is it always this quiet here?" I stretched my arms wide to include all of Keeping Horse.
"It is for about twenty seconds, son. Come on in."
He led the way into the Keeping Horse Saloon, the bar already loaded with full drinks, a few select tables reserved at one end of the bar.
Etu Chatka refused a drink, I took my first sip in days. Wonder worked its edges on me.
The apparent man in charge of the whole reception said, "Son, I'm the sheriff here, by name of Chill Brentwood. If yore pap ever shows up in Keeping Horse, he'll own the town and your injun friend could be a deputy of mine in a second. You too."
"I'm flabbergasted," I said. "I had no idea of what he had been through, what he had done."
"It's a funny thing, son, but we hardly ever know what we should know. Most of us are blind to what counts all the way from the beginning, every foot of the way."
"What have I missed," I asked. "Have I been blind?"
"Son, don't you know he saved the president once and sat him down with Chief Buffalo Horn for a session loaded for peace?"
"Who was the president?"
"Why, it was Ulysses S. Grant himself, comrades of battle once from what I understand. I don't know the whole story, but who gets to save a man who becomes president? Not many, that's who. Not many did but your pap did. Wouldn't take no medal either."
"I never knew that about him. He never told me a word about it."
"You know what it really means, don't you? You own the place, you and your injun, for this night anyway." He turned to the gathering, and said, "Hoist 'em, gents, for Harry Parson's son and his injun pal. We won't see many like this pair, and you can swaller your Adam's Apple on that."