Tam’s story from the night before kept eating at me. If the tall tale teller knew that much about Indians, not jist cowboy adventures and misadventures…what else did he know? I’d met the jug-eared storyteller some years back. Together, we’d driven more herds up this trouble-infested Chishom Trail than most. I’d thought I kind of knew the feller.
Clearly, I was wrong.
It shouldn’t have mattered. Out here in the West, you don’t go asking a man about his past. He might offer, but you didn’t go digging. Not unless you’re a bounty hunter tracking an outlaw or a wide-eyed schoolmarm hoping to avoid marrying a beast, you don’t. Fer most of us, asking is impolite at best, unhealthy fer your longevity at worst.
No, it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. Sort of. I was riding on the left flank of the herd, my usual and most favorite position. The cattle were moseying on without any fuss, and that gave me time to think.
Always a dangerous situation.
Not that woolgathering can’t be plumb unwise fer any drover on the Trail at any time, as witness them Utes that hit us yesterday. Red warriors or no, they shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on us like that. The trail boss hadn’t said a word about it, but we all knew what he was thinking. So I did manage to keep half an eye on what I was doing. When my bay flicked an ear toward a patch of scrub brush, I was sharp enough to turn him over that way, roust out the old mossyhorn who’d thought he’d pull a slip-and-hide.
By the time the day was done and we’d all hunkered down over plates piled high with slices of a roast Cookie had managed by building what he called a Dutch oven right onto the back of the chuckwagon–of all things–I’d come up with a plan. A way, maybe, to smoke Tam out a bit without him realizing that’s what I was doing.
“Tam,” I spoke around a mouthful of roast beef, “You remember Wayne Brown?”
“Wayne Brown from Texas, or Wayne Brown from Montana Territory?”
“Texas. I don’t know the other one. Anyway, I got to thinking about him today. Did you know he’s gone to writing? Dime novels and short stories. Selling some, too, from what I hear. S’posed to be pretty good stuff, makes me wonder iffen I ought to try to learn to read.”
“Reading can be helpful,” Tam shrugged, “Especially when it comes to keeping folks from cheating you if you ever git that ranch your heart is set on. Or to impress the ladies. But anyway, yeah, I heard about that. Never read any of his stories, though.”
“No? Well, I didn’t, either, but the last time I was in town, a couple of months before the boss started cranking up fer this drive, I run into Wayne down at the Texas Load Saloon. It was a good thing, too, ’cause I’d already spent every dime of my pay, and he bought me half a bottle of whiskey–not rotgut, either–in return fer me listening to his latest short story.”
“No kidding?” The storyteller cocked one eyebrow at that as he tipped his cup for a long swallow of coffee that would have scalded the lining right out of the throat on any mere mortal man. Without looking, I could tell the rest of the hands munching quietly on their vittles were all paying close attention as well. “Was it worth the price?”
“It was.” I nodded thoughtfully. “He’d written about a feller who’d gotten himself beat up by a bunch of barflies, after which the man’s brother came to town and ran a bluff on the bullies. Nicely done, it was.”
“Huh.” Tam responded.
“Well, I been kind of wondering. Fer your story tonight, do you happen to have one about a feller who run a bluff like that? I mean, it probably couldn’t be as good as a tale by a published writer like Wayne Brown, but–”
I stopped, laughing inside but being sure not to let that amusement show in my eyes. There was fire in the tale teller’s orbs. How dare I insult him like that, say his storytelling likely took a back seat to–
–Oh. He suddenly got it. I’d jist jacked him up, pulled his leg, sent him a huffin’ and a puffin’ to blow the house down. Within seconds, all of us, excluding only Tam himself, were roaring in laughter. Jared’s coffee sprayed all over the campfire and dang near put it plumb out. Old Horace pointed one long, bony finger at Tam, hooting,
“He got you on that one, tale teller! You took the man plumb serious!”
By this time, Tam was actually blushing, his face red as the south Kansas sunset. He was all man, though, sheepish or not. Looked us straight in the eyes, one by one, as he admitted, “He did that. He got me good. But,” he added, “It does so happen I know jist one story about running a bluff.”
The laughter started all over again when he said that. “Careful, boys,” old Horace put in, “This goes on much longer, you’re gonna make me pee my pants!”
That didn’t slow us down much.
Finally, when things had settled enough that he could be heard, Tam shrugged. “It ain’t a big story. Not like some of ’em. Truth be told, boys, it’s probably not a patch on what Wayne Brown’s been writing, not if he’s getting his stories sold to one of them back East publishers and all. It’s jist a little incident between a banker and a bullwhacker.”
We finished quieting down immediately after that. Funnin’ was one thing, but Tam’s tales needed to be taken serious.
Lawrence Kopeck was thought of as a banker by most in Dodge City, though in truth he was little more than a glorified clerk. Today, his work had run late.
Paper to shuffle, paper to hate
Paper to pile in a pile and wait
He couldn’t remember which teller had come up with that one, but if the shoe fits, wear the blasted thing.
To top everything else off, Spartacus had thrown a shoe. With abruptly unemployed drovers from three separate trail drives in town, every one of them with gold and silver coins burning holes in their pockets, it had taken a while before the blacksmith could get to him. By the time he pulled his wagon to a halt across the street from Carrie’s Eats, the light was failing. Blast! No place to park. Vehicles of every sort bordered the walks, nose to tail, as far as the eye could see. The snowstorm was early, the drives had been late…blast! The Hell with it; he left the team ground tied in the street and hurried acrosss, knocking the snow from his overcoat as he stepped into the cafe.
“I’ll be ready in a minute!” Bonnie called out as she hustled an armload of steaming plates to a far corner table.
Double blast. The young clerk turned, looking nervously back across the street. His wagon and team were blocking at least two other rigs, not to mention narrowing the thoroughfare considerably. If the Marshal came along….
Hurry up, woman! He thought it, but of course that wasn’t something you said aloud, either in front of witnesses or to Bonnie Kopeck under any circumstances. He’d eaten enough burnt suppers to know that much.
But if he got caught double parked like some redneck from the sticks who didn’t know any better….
Hurry up, woman!
By the time little Bonnie had doffed her apron and donned her coat, there was trouble brewing, all right…and it wasn’t the Marshal. A bullwhacker belonging to one of the high-sided freight wagons had come storming out of the alley, his boots slamming furiously down onto the freezing snow with every step. Whatever business he’d had back there had clearly not gone well. Lawrence couldn’t quite make out what the man was saying, but he was purty sure it wasn’t fit fer Bonnie’s tender ears. Not only that, but the enraged fellow was huge. No taller than the banking clerk himself, most likely, but at least a hundred pounds heavier and all of it muscle.
Worst of all, his freight wagon was one of those blocked in by the the Kopeck rig.
This was not good.
The bullwhacker had reached his outfit. Looked at the town feller’s fancy four horse team with the neatly oiled harness showing not a stain on it. Cussed some more.
Bonnie was finally out the door, heading with her husband to their wagon, purty much straight into the dragon’s mouth. Lawrence called out, “I’ll have it out of your way in a moment, friend!”
“I ain’t yer friend!” The hulking brute snarled, fixing his gaze on the splinter of a city slicker coming across the street. “You unnerstand?!”
“Yes,” the clerk replied quietly. “I understand.”
At that, the freighter began to puff right up. This splinter-sized sissy in the wool coat, cravat and all, he knew who was boss on this street, damn straight!
As Bonnie stepped up onto the wagon seat, Lawrence followed, taking the reins in one hand and reaching down beside the box to release the wheel brake with the other. He wasn’t done with the conversation yet, however. Allowing jist one good beat after telling the bully he understood, he added–still quietly, totally calm,
And then he waited, motionless. The musclebound giant in dirty buckskins stared up at him. The man’s jaw worked, rage building. His entire body went rigid with the effort of holding himself back.
But he didn’t know. He couldn’t be sure, now that it come down to it, what he might be getting himself into. The puny little feller up there on the wagon seat wasn’t afraid of him. He should be afraid. But he wasn’t. That far hand of his, hanging down there out of sight like that–was he hanging onto the wheel brake handle, or did he maybe have a Greener stashed in a scabbard on that side? Plus, the feller was holding his gaze, jist looking right at him like he had a right, not a worry in the world.
In the end, the big man turned away, seething but tending to his own business and pretending to ignore the skinny cheater who would have gunned him down without mercy. And where would he be then? He was from out of town; this guy looked like he worked at the local bank or something. Who would the law believe?
He sure enough knew the answer to that. No, best to leave these foul smelling city folk behind, be on his way, fergit about it.
The following day, Lawrence and the Marshal had their usual lunch together at Callie’s. Bonnie dimpled at the big lawman–near a double fer the bullwhacker from the previous day, though a much nicer individual–and went to dish up their order.
“So, Lawrence,” the star packer asked when the younger man had finished his little story, “Did the bullwhacker have it right? Were you breaking the law? Have a shooter stashed on the wagon?”
“You know better than that.” Kopeck shook his head. “Your rules are scary enough, but Bonnie would skin me alive if I brought a gun to town.”
“Yeah, reckon I believe that right enough. So, if that old boy had decided to call yer bluff, you think you coulda whupped him?”
The banker snorted. “Not hardly. With that packed snow out there on the street, and me wearing those brand new shoes, I’d have fallen on my butt without him doing a thing. Danged near did exactly that just crossing the street. He’d have killed me for sure, either with his bare hands or just laughing so hard that I died from the shame of it. But, Marshal, I didn’t run that bluff just because it was the manly thing to do. I did it because I’m a coward.”
“No, don’t raise your eyebrow at me like that. I really am a coward. See, Bonnie’s the light of my life. You know that. She thinks I walk on water, Marshal; she truly does. There was nothing brave about what I did; it was simply a matter of caving in to the greater of my fears.”
“The idea of letting her see I was afraid of a common bullwhacker was a great deal more frightening than the thought of merely being stomped to death by that man’s boots.”