It was an ordinary day full of ordinary dust. I’d been riding drag, the most hated position in any major Chisholm Trail drive. Being one of the better and more experienced hands, having in fact worked for this same trail boss on three earlier occasions, I usually rode the left flank of the herd, sometimes even point.
But there’d been some truly green kids back there, so it had fallen to me to get ’em lined out, show the youngsters there were a few tricks to the trade even when you didn’t look like you were doing much but following all them cow butts in front of you.
A couple of ’em were finally getting to where they could flick a blacksnake out there without always calling it a bullwhip, sometimes without even missing so badly as to make their horses head shy fer good reason. In fact, one–Josey, no more’n twelve years of age or I missed my guess–could even git a decent – crack!- outa the whip nine times out of ten now. All the rest of them kids would be jealous and working hard to match or beat Josey’s accomplishment; my work there was near done.
By the time I’d curried down my roan and turned him in with the rest of the remuda, knocked most of the dust out of my bandana, and grabbed my plate of beans and round steak, Tam was already getting warmed up. He was asking the fellers iffen they’d heard of an old mountain man by the name of Rabbit. Nobody had–not every loner in the high country had name recognition like Jim Bridger or Liver Eatin’ Johnston–but we all figgered the tall tale teller was sure enough fixin’ to remedy that lack in our western education.
We was right.
Boys, you ain’t ever heard me tell a story in first person, but in this case, I got it to do. See, I wasn’t always a drover. Before ever Texas was graced with my everlovin’ presence, I was a young buck who’d gotten sick and tired of grubbing soil fer a living on my Daddy’s farm, so I headed west–not as young as a couple of my brothers were when they left the place, I was all of twelve that summer, thirteen by the end of it.
Now, truth be told, the old man was a banker first, a farmer second. He’d foreclosed on the farm we’d all learned to hate, but worse than that, my sire had me pegged to follow him into the banking business. I hated that idea worse than I did following an old green-lipped Missouri mule around them plow furrows, so betwixt and between, I was outa there. Had been figuring to make my move since my ninth birthday, though that’s another story.
Amyway, thought I’d head fer the wild country, trap a bunch of beaver and mink and whatnot, make what you might call an easy living fer a few years. Shows you what I knew. I was big fer my age in the body, but made up fer that by being dumber in the head, I can tell you that.
By the time winter come around, one thing led to another, and I found myself running fer my life through the snow in the dead of night, following the bouncing white cheeks of a mountain man called Rabbit, both of us naked as the day we was born….
“Hold up!” I gasped, sure this wiry old bugger was about to get us killed quicker than them jumpers that had taken my horse and pack, not to mention everything else either Rabbit or I owned in the world including our weapons and the buckskins we’d been wearing.
Rabbit didn’t even slow down. Without turning his head, he snarled something I couldn’t quite make out at first. Then it sank in, finally. “Run or die!” That was it.
Well, I figgered dying was most likely gonna be the way of it regardless, but I didn’t hanker to do it alone in the high country of the Black Hills in Dakota Territory with Crazy Horse still out there slaughtering gold miners, so–somehow–I kept running. My icy bare feet were already pretty much numb with the cold, and my brain was getting that way, but I did begin to wonder how it had come down to this.
See, Rabbit didn’t have to be there. Them outlaws, six of ’em, had the drop on me–I’d meandered right into their ambush like the green kid I was–but the old mountain man weren’t in that trap even one little bit. Hell, he coulda picked ’em off with that old Sharps, but no, he’d ridden right into the middle of the whole mess, done some kinda talking, and the net result was, them losers had made us strip and start running fer the timber jist as nightfall hit. They was laughing; I’ll never forget the way they laughed.
We’d run a long time, miles fer sure, when Rabbit suddenly stopped cold. My lungs were likely frostbit from sucking in all that freezing air, and I danged near rearended the old coot. I was way too far gone to even be embarrassed about that, though, and my guide was talking, low and insistent, like he knew fer a fact there was worse things out there in the darkness than any mere half a dozen bad white men.
“Listen close, kid,” he told me, “We’re going into a cave right up ahead. It ain’t no ordinary cave, I’ll explain later, but here’s what you need to know. Keep yer trap shut and throw yer fear out yer ass before we take another step.”
“No time to discuss the matter. Let’s go.”
Which he did, but no more running. He was walking slow-like now, not a hunter’s tread, more like a friend coming to call. There weren’t no moon out, and it had started to snow, which was good fer covering our tracks if anybody cared, but I jist about couldn’t see his butt cheeks to follow ’em any more.
Danged if I was gonna try working this parade by touch, though.
The cave was low of opening, so’s you had to go in on hands and knees, though it raised up some after that. We’d jist straightened up, keenly aware of what felt like a welcome-home fire in the hearth after being jaybird naked in the snow all that time, when a cough sounded from farther back in the place. Not no human cough; it was a deep and dangerous thing, made me feel ten times as exposed, jist that quick.
“Sorry to trouble ya, Tom,” I heard Rabbit say, calm as if he was asking a neighbor in one of them back East cities fer the loan of a cup of sugar. “We’ll jist be in the side room.”
The cough wasn’t repeated–thankfully–but the smell was rank. Then, stone blind in the dark stone cave, I had to follow Rabbit into what he’d rightfully called the side room. No hands and knees fer that; you had to go through a spot so low you was on yer belly, scraping everything God give you on that rough stone floor. We could sit up in that side room, though, which was good. The smell was different in there, more musty than rank, and the surface under our butts was softer, though I couldn’t quite identify it.
Then something growled. Not the big critter-cough from the main room. Something else I didn’t like, but again Rabbit jist spoke quietly. “Jist in fer the night, Chuck. We’ll jist be right out here, gone at daylight.”
That was all the talking anybody done that night.
Come daylight, sure enough, we eased back on out of that place. Only we weren’t naked no more. Turned out the old mountain man had a major cache in that cave, buried down on bedrock under two feet of rockchuck pellets–which was that softer stuff we’d slept on, and in, after working our toes and fingers back to some semblance of life. Hard to believe, but neither of us had so much as frostbit a single digit.
Close enough call fer guvmint work, though.
There’s plenty more I could tell here, boys. Like how old Rabbit had figured them bandits would have jist shot me and been done with it iffen he’d begun picking ’em off from cover, so he’d put himself at mortal risk by riding in and convincing ’em it’d be more fun to set us adrift in a high country Dakota winter like that. He did admit he’d not really counted on being forced to strip naked first.
Or I could tell how the two of us hunted down them bad boys, all the end results of the two months that required.
But that’s another story. Fer tonight, I’ll jist say this: Rabbit leading me to that Black Hills cave was the beginning of my reputation. See, that there cave was unique in that the main room was occupied by an old tom cougar, and the side room–with that low, squinchy entrance–belonged to an equally old rockchuck. I’d never heard of them two critters rooming together like that, before or since, but there it was.
When the bandit hunting was done, I told Rabbit, “Old man, I think I’ve learned enough out here in these hills to know I’m not cut out to be no mountain man. The life is jist a little too exciting fer me after all. Think I’ll drift on down Texas way, see iffen I can git me some work on one a them big ranches or something.”
The mountain man nodded, said, “A feller’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. Tell ya what–would you like an edge, a way fer people to remember you fondly? A thing like that helps, sometimes.”
I raised an eyebrow, plumb curious. “Course I would.”
“Well then. Here it is, Tam. We’ve spent a bit of time together now, and I’ve learned you got a way with words. When you tell a story, I swear a pack of wolves will stop their hunt long enough to give you a listen. So what you do is, tell folks the story of that cave. Tell ’em you spent a midwinter night all cozy in the same underground rock palace with a Rabbit, a mountain lion, and a rockchuck. Ain’t nobody going to believe you fer a minute. Purty soon, you’ll be known far and wide as a tall tale teller. Tam, the tall tale teller.”
That’s about it, boys. I can see in yer eyes you ain’t believing this one. That’s fine with me; I lived it, and it’s not all that easy fer me to believe, either.