Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 34: Dangerous Man

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We caught up to Yorik Jensen’s bunch late in the day. They were heading south on the same trail, supposedly figuring to do the same thing we were. That is, git back to southern Texas in time to hire on with another cattle drive headed fer the Chisholm Trail.

Which wasn’t likely. Tam and I’d run into York, as everyone but his mother called him, a number of times in the past. None of them times amounted to much, simply because Jensen himself didn’t amount to much. “Half an ounce of brains and three tons of attitude” was the way one Sheriff put it.

He claimed to be–York Jensen, not the Sheriff–a drover intimate with the secrets of the Chisholm Trail, the best bronc rider ever spawned in Texas, and Hell on wheels with a wheelgun. None of which got close enough to the truth fer a sniff test. Stocky as a small ox, mean as a rattler with a knot in its tail, dumb as a box or rocks, he was a small time outlaw with pretensions to greatness, period.

He was inimate with every jail along the Chisholm Trail; we’d give him that. Right now he was out, though, and when he was out, he was trouble.

Forgot to mention: He was also a hater. A generic hater if you will. Hated everything Indian. In the dictionary under “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” it says, See York Jensen. If you had a single drop of Indian blood running in your veins, you were dead meat to York iffen he could git at your back. Nah, he wouldn’t call you out man to man on it; he weren’t that stupid.

But almost.

Which made at least a small problem fer the two of us, since Tam would stand up fer his fractional Comanche ancestry any day, all day long. We’d spotted the gang from way back. They hadn’t seen us yet, but it wouldn’t be a good idea to jist pass ’em up on the trail, poking along as they were. York Jensen and the four followers in his current pack were not the sort of folks you knowingly put at your back.

“You up fer some fun?” Tam asked suddenly, and I looked over at him with one eyebrow raised. The tale teller’s idea of fun didn’t always quite match my own, but I was listening.

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“No kidding, boys,” the jug-eared storyteller began, “It’s true as the blue, blue sky. Tell ’em, Dawson.”

We were all sitting around the campfire with the Jensen gang like old buddies, never mind that any one of this mangy bunch would backshoot us fer either one of our horses, let alone the Winchester 73 rifles and the short guns. I done my best to look all somber and sincere, saying, “That’s what they said. Fifty dollars one way, forty the other.”

“Damn.” The greed flared right up in York’s eyes. Couple that with the fact that he was one of them men with eyes that look in two different directions at once and you had yourself a right eerie effect.

We’d ridden on into their camp at sunset, jist when they’d had the coffee ready. We’d already eaten, knowing they wouldn’t feed us anyway and not trusting their cleanliness to produce a mess of beans that wouldn’t kill you on contact. Joshing Jensen out of a few cups of coffee, though…why not? Even this guy couldn’t mess up coffee.

Okay, so I was wrong about that. We drank it anyway.

One of Jensen’s hooligans had at least a tiny glimmer of smarts, though, asking, “Ain’t the Comanche and the Kiowa sorta friends?”

“Allies,” Tam nodded, knowing that was way too big a word fer this bunch but using it anyway. “Yep, they are. Rather, they were. Turns out this randy Kiowa girl, daughter to that war chief, Blue Sky, got the hots fer a young Comanche buck, and vice versa. They got caught doing their thing. The Kiowa complained to the Comanche. The Comanche told the Kiowa their precious Princess was nothing but a red slut, one thing led to another, and the war was on.”

“How come I ain’t heard word one about no war between them two tribes?”

Wow. Jensen had come up with a logical question on his own. I was impressed. Tam had that one covered, though.

“They’re trying to keep it down. Maybe afraid they’ll rub each other out if they don’t. Got me. But the Horse War, that’s a fact. Turns out them people have been finding Spanish gold hidden around fer years. They don’t know what the yellow metal is worth, so they throw the stuff around purty easy, but that’s the deal. Iffen a man–even a white man–shows up with a horse he stole from the Kiowa, the Comanche will pay forty bucks a head. Iffen it’s the other way around, the Kiowa will pay fifty. Except that Blue Sky renegade. He’s a tightass, only pays forty-five.”

“Damn.” York said again, and we knew we had them.

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We’d all hit our rolls, pretending an interest in sleep. Jensen’s bunch, every manjack of ’em, was jist waiting fer Tam and me to start snoring so’s they could blast us to ribbons, but they weren’t brave enough by half to tackle us until then. My partner had a rep fer surviving gunplay, and it seemed like I was starting to get a bit of a one myself.

“Think they’re sound enough asleep?” He asked in a stage whisper intended to carry; there was no doubt them five characters were stretching their ears listening.

“Ain’t heard no snoring yet.”

We heard some immediately then, of course, but not believable and not much. It’s not easy to eavesdrop and snore at the same time. Okay. My turn.

“I thought you was gonna spill the whole damn pot of beans.”

“Why?” He sounded so injured I like to busted out laughing on the spot, which would have sorta spoiled the effect we were going for. “I didn’t say nothing about the chest.”

“Everything but.” I put all the censure I could manage into that one. It sounded purty authentic to me. “If you’d have told ’em that Kiowa talked after we’d only about half skinned him, they surely would have taken an untimely interest in the proceedings.”

“Well,” my sneaky, mischievous partner finished up, “As long as they don’t know the chest is buried under the outhouse at Thiggett’s old homestead, we’re still okay. Jist remember to be quiet as a mouse when we git up at midnight. Any noise at all could bring Blue Sky’s bunch down on us.”

That last bit, about Blue Sky maybe being somewhere close by, was tossed in jist to save our mangy hides. Now the outlaws would be afraid to shoot us fer fear of ending up staked out over red ant hills by the renegade Kiowa.

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We climbed back into our saddles, turning Joker and Smokey south once again. Fer a bit, we rode silent, me mentally admiring Tam’s scheme to pass the time. Thiggett’s old place was situated jist short of thirty miles to the west, and over some rough country at that.

York Jensen would push hard all the way, too, convinced we’d be hot on his heels, trying to beat him to all that Spanish gold. Which of course was rightfully his, by his lights. If he hadn’t drygulched at least one or two of his gang members before he got back to the trail, jist on general principles after finding nothing but stale poop, I’d eat my hat. Without salt.

“Man,” I shook my head, though by the little moonlight we had, he didn’t likely see it, “That is one noisy bunch. By the time they sneaked outa camp, I was looking to locate a bass drum fer the parade.”

“True enough. They ain’t exactly feather-footed, and that’s a fact. What say we keep going till daylight, stop fer breakfast, then ride on through the day? All that Kiowa-chasing and girl-rescuing put us a mite behind schedule.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll even cook outa turn iffen you’re willing to do story time while I’m at it. Save time without missing out on the entertainment. But I got a question.” I paused fer a moment, listening to the coyotes sounding off, looking fer dinner. “I realize the picture of York and his followers digging down beneath the contents of that old tumbledown outhouse looking fer gold is hilarious. Likewise, I do surely understand that the likelihood of them boys getting within a mile of the Comanche or Kiowa, either one…ain’t likely.”

“But what if they do? Blue Sky or Quanah Parker either one, they’ll go through them two-bit tinhorn outlaws like a hot knife through butter.”

“Iffen they do,” Tam said calmly, “Then good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“Tale teller,” I observed, not fer the first time, “You are one dangerous man.”

“You don’t know the half of it, cowboy,” he replied, “But maybe it’s time you did.”

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Tam speaks
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The drifts were blocking most of the pass, if not all of it. I studied the situation in the fading light and decided there was no way the horses and I were going to tackle that in the dark. There’d be no moon tonight, jist starlight. That wasn’t good enough.

Well, I’d spotted a possible hunker-down place on the way west. It was time to take a closer look. Wolf and the filly were both willing, but all three of us were bone tired from traveling. That, and from boning per se. It turned out that while I’d been holed up during the blizzard in a teepee full of horny Salish women, the little bay filly had come into heat and the big Appaloosa stud had settled her, gentleman that he was.

If I had my calendar figured right, the foal would be born in the fall. An odd time fer young animals to come into the world, but it happens. Maybe I’d trade these two at Fort Benton; with her carrying, they’d be highly valuable commodities in that town. Not that I wanted to part with either critter, especially the wolf-stomping, wolf-chomping stallion, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

We’d see, when the time came.

In the meantime…wow. Better than I’d dared hope. It wasn’t a true box canyon, jist a kind of artistic jumble of rocks, but what a jumble! Granite boulders ten times the height of a tall Indian loomed up on three sides, open to the east, but even there sheltered from some of the weather by a thick stand of fir trees with a few towering blue spruce mixed in. The opening into the “courtyard”, as I immediately thought of it, looked to be no more than twenty feet across. There was enough rope in the filly’s pack to fence that off, at least as long as I tied off a couple of tree branches to serve as makeshift fenceposts in the center.

“Honey,” I called aloud to the enclosure, “We’re ho-ome!”

Not the brightest thing to do, making noise like that in Indian country, but if there was anybody else in earshot as crazy as Crazy Rifle, tackling the pass after a big snowfall in the deadest dead-dead-dead of winter…nope. I jist didn’t figure there could be two of us. The old man used to say they’d broke the mold when they made me, and fer once he’d been purty much on target.

By the time I’d offloaded the horses and turned them loose to paw through mere inches of snow down to what appeared to be fairly decent grass, the light was gone. But here, in this place, on this night, I dared build a fire. Ten minutes of flint, steel, and dry moss later, we had light. Warmth too, fer that matter, but light first and foremost.

There was only one deep drift in that place, piled up against the southside rock wall. I hadn’t dug a snow cave since I was a kid–okay, I wouldn’t turn fourteen till late August as it was, but you know what I mean. It had been pure fun when I was eight, and it was even more fun on this subzero night in the high lonesome, making short work of the project with the little sawed-off shovel Believer had insisted I include in the travel pack.

Tiny Butterfly had cooked up a mess of steaks fer my journey, so all I had to do was pry one loose, hang it on a stick held over the flames fer long enough to take the frost out, and chow down. I missed that little one, I realized. Not like I missed Laughing Brook, not even close, but she’d swiped a corner of my heart without a doubt.

The others? Big, shapeless Pretty Bird and the warrior-named Sees Elk? Not so much. Fer dang sure I didn’t miss old Yellow Snow, the ancient, toothless hag who’d tricked my little head into convincing my big head she was Pretty Bird fer three snowbound predawn mornings in a row. I didn’t hold it against her–praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, should I be able to warm the blankets like that when I got to be her age! In fact, I had to admire her sneaky cunning more than a little bit.

But I didn’t miss her.

Supper done and Nature’s call handled, I crawled into my snow cave, arranging the saddles in front at the opening to serve as both cover and, if need be, a shooting rest. Then, the Hall carbine cradled in my arms and myself curled snug in the buffalo robe, I drifted off to sleep, completely at peace at every level fer the first time in my life I could remember. In fact, my last thought on my way to the Land of Dreams was, “This is the life.”

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I woke in The Dream. It was the same, always the same. Hundreds of times I had been here. Thousands. And it was always the same.

There was the searing memory, the realization that everything for which I had fought, everything for which my father had fought, was lost to us forever. For long, our people had been Lords of the Southern Plains. Yet for these past two years, this hated Warchief of the Spanish, this Juan Batista de Anza, had pursued us–especially me, Tabivo Naritgant, Dangerous Man.

I should have listened to the medicine man. “The raid on Taos will not succeed,” he had told me, blunt as always, “Nor will you live long after, if you do this thing.” I should have listened, but I had not. I was the Feared One, taking on my father’s mantle when he fell in battle against these Spanish, taking on his quest to kill them all as well as his great leather headdress with the green-tinted buffalo horns so that the invaders called me Cuerno Verde in their language. Green Horn.

“Not only will you perish, and those with you,” the shaman had said, “But it shall be known that you, Tabivo Naritgant, were the first Comanche warchief ever to lose against these Spaniards. Your family’s name will be shamed, and many descendants will pretend you were not their grandfather.”

These had not been things I wanted to hear, and so my ears were stopped. I heard nothing, only now remembering what he had said.

When the Spanish lead claimed my life, I knew it not. Physical pain and suffering meant nothing to me beside the agony of shame and humiliation for having failed my people. This shame, I did know.

And I knew it was not over.

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When I sat up abruptly in the snow cave, it was the sudden contact between the frozen ceiling and my skull that brought me back to awareness. I was panting deeply. Sweat poured from my body.

The buffalo robe was warm, but it was not that warm.

Clutching the Hall carbine tightly with both hands, I peered desperately past the saddles, straining to see the muskets spit their lead balls at me. For one horrible second, the Appaloosa asleep on his feet appeared as my enemy, and I nearly gunned down my favorite horse and best friend.

Once my Spirit had returned to the Here and Now–which it did not do easily–I knew I would sleep no more this night. Under the starlight, I rose, a small bear out of hibernation early, and relit the fire. Believer’s spare coffee pot, a battered old thing yet still able to hold water, was pressed into service. Once the flames were ready and a tripod in place, I hung the pot to boil.

And sat down to think.

Fer the first time after countless repetitions of The Dream over the past thirteen years of my young life, I understood. Perhaps this thing could not be understood until I had become the White Blackfoot warrior, the feared Crazy Rifle. Perhaps. I did not know. But I did understand The Dream.

My banker father was all European white, a mix of English, German, and–if I’d gotten it right–the stingiest native of Scotland ever to emigrate to America. But Mom was half French, a quarter Irish…and a quarter Comanche.

In his own way, I think my old man may have loved his wife somewhat, but mostly, she was a trophy. Half his age and twice his intellect, though she had to hide her excellent mind or be punished. She was exquisitely beautiful, almost in a China doll sort of way. No bigger of body than tiny Butterfly–that was it, I realized. The little Salish woman–girl, really–had triggered this new awareness. Reminded me of my mother, but from an Indian perspective.

Not that Mom looked Indian. Only her high cheekbones gave her away, and then only to those who knew a member of the red race when they saw one. Which was jist the way The Banking Bastard, as I’d come to think of my sire, liked it.

“Keep your damned redskin taint the Hell out of sight,” I’d overheard him tell her more than once, “Or by God pay the price.”

Mom was a good woman, a saintly woman, and she by God obeyed her husband. Not once did she let on to me, the eldest of her three sons, that I had Comanche ancestors. By all counts, I should have grown up knowing myself as white and nothing else; certainly, my unimaginative, less-than-genius brothers were probably doing that even now.

But I’d found her papers.

I always was a sneaky little sumbitch when it came to snooping out my parents’ secrets. I could tell you stories about The Banking Bastard’s perverted sexual tastes that’d curl your hair. Not today, though; you’d be sick fer a week.

Anyway, Mom had a little black book. Well…not black, really. It was a little brown book, a sort of mini-journal, in which she’d recorded thoughts and data she didn’t dare expose to the open light of day. I’d come across it, tucked back in one corner of her lingerie drawer, which I’d been investigating for educational purposes, and I knew it was important the moment I touched the cover.

There was a lot of stuff in there I’d never understand in a million years and a lot more I frankly didn’t care about, but the thunderbolt was this:

Her father had been Jock O’Hara, half Comanche and half Irish.

Jock’s mother had been a fullblood Comanche woman named Flower In Wind, though that had been Anglicized to Flora O’Hara when she’d married Sean O’Hara, a first generation Irish immigrant.

Flower In Wind’s parents were not identified–but her grandfather had been…Tabivo Naritgant. Dangerous Man.

That would make me an eighth Comanche. Physically. Spiritually was another matter altogether.

Sitting there on a small log in the snow, calmed down finally, sipping coffee by the fire under the stars while Wolf and his wife slept standing in the way of horses, I finally understood at least one great mystery of my life. These days, many part-Indians who could pass fer white hid their non-white heritage, as did many of those part-blacks who could pass, and fer much the same reasons. My sainted mother had been forced by The Banking Bastard to follow that practice, but in her heart of hearts I think she rebelled.

And that rebellion had burst into full bloom in her son, the warrior Crazy Rifle. I had not mentioned my one eighth Comanche blood to anyone, ever, but that was about to change. I would learn about my people–I knew more about the Salish than I did the Comanche at this point–and I would let all who knew me well understand that part of me whether they liked it or not.

Tabivo Naritgant of the Comanche lived again. His name this time might be Tam, or Frightens Enemy, or Woman’s Dress, or Crazy Rifle. The name did not matter.

He was still a Dangerous Man.

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