There was a kind of intensity to the way Tam’s told his tales these days. Had been, ever since our encounter on the trail with Crazy Abigail.
“Stand ready,” the seer had told him. “The time is near.”
Neither of us needed a PI, a Prophecy Interpreter, to understand that could only mean one thing. The old mountain man had either died or was fixing to. The message telling Crazy Rifle to honor his promise was likely on its way even now. A month or two, probably no more, and he’d be getting the word as to where his long-beloved Laughing Brook waited. He’d be headed north then, riding hard.
Where did that leave me?
The more I thought on it, that left me trailing along with him on that run. I knew the man by now. Or at least I thought I did, though he still managed every once in a while to surprise me all over again. When that messenger showed up, the tale teller would drop everything and go. It could happen before we made it back to south Texas, but even if it was in the middle of a trail drive, he’d be outa there in a heartbeat and the herd could go straight to Hell fer all he’d care.
It’d be better fer our reputations and fer the drive itself if that didn’t happen. Losing two top hands suddenly like that would put some kind of strain on the rest of the crew, no doubt about it. Most of the cowboys pushing longhorns to Abilene were jist that. Cow boys, generally fourteen to eighteen years of age, though some were younger and lying about their ages.
If my calculations were correct, Tam was thirty-four this year–a terribly old man fer the Chisholm Trail unless you were the trail boss. Most people had more sense by that age.
Me…how old was I, anyway? I had to think some on that one. Twenty-seven…no. Twenty-eight. I was purty sure I was twenty-eight. Close, anyway.
“Where’d you git to, Dawson?”
Tam’s question startled me back to myself. Not wanting to let him in on my thinking jist yet, I blurted out the first fool thing that come to mind.
“You think a wild woman like Crazy A could go fer somebody like me?”
I don’t remember ever blowing Tam’s mind before, but he like to dropped the coffee pot and did drop his jaw, staring at me in amazement. “That’s where you been, lost in your head, off mooning about Abigail? Cowboy, that woman is either absolutely out of her mind or else she’s one of them spirit people, not really human in the first place. Git yer head outa yer–”
He stopped, realizing he’d jist about stepped over the line. Even if I was to mate up with a seven foot female diamondback rattlesnake, it wasn’t up to him to advise me otherwise, nor vice versa. But I hadn’t been serious in the first place, jist hoping to distract him from my real thinking.
Which it looked liked I’d done. Time to let him off the hook. “I mighta been mooning over a dangerous apparition of the desert, tale teller, but you done rescued me. I feel much better now!”
Said it straight-faced, too. We looked at each other fer a spell. He broke first, grinning jug ear to jug ear. “Glad to hear it. Iffen we’re going to pack one more tale in before racking out, we’d best be getting to it.
“It turned out Believer and the Army had a history.”
Tall Pine left me about a mile north of Fort Benton. “It may be dangerous even for such a one as you here, Crazy Rifle,” he said, “but much moreso for a lone Blackfoot warrior. There are those among the whites who would backshoot a Piegan simply for sport, and I have heard the Crow sometimes come to this place as well.”
“I understand, my friend,” I told him, and I meant it. Not only human enemies, but diseases for which his people had no defenses might find him in a place where he could not breathe the clean air of the mountains. “Besides, you will want to know how the negotiations for Rain Woman have gone. You have guided me well. I will stop at Bear Breath’s encampment when I can.”
“Hang onto your hair,” he replied, and then he was gone.
The home of Georges Chouteau was nothing special, jist another log structure on the bank of the Missouri River like all the others, though it did possess a second story. Chouteau himself, however, was definitely special. I could see it in his eyes, the way he held himself, his precise movements as he poured tea–not coffe, tea!–fer both of us. What was a Frenchman doing with such an English habit?
“I will do your surgery,” he told me quietly, “and it will be successful.”
“That’s good to hear. What will it cost?” Believer had said this man would likely do the job fer no more than my busted-up cougar-bashing rifle, but we hadn’t discussed that yet.
“For Believer’s friend, nothing material.”
I stared at him. “Nothing?”
“Nothing material. There is a price. Few men are brave enough to come to me for what you would call elective surgery. That means–”
“I know what the word elective means.”
“Ah. Good. Well then, I’ve never before had any man, let alone a young man, come to me to repair a joint before the damage made him utterly miserable and unable to continue. Being able to document the procedure in your case will advance my cause noticeably.”
“Your cause?” I’d not thought about surgeons having causes. It seemed like jist fixing things wrong with the human body ought to be enough to be going on with.
“I believe there are many people, both men and women, who could benefit from the surgeon’s scalpel. So much so that the extension and quality of their lives would make it well worth the misery of undergoing an operation. I would like you to write me a letter at least once a year, telling me how the shoulder is doing and what benefits, if any, you received during the year from having a fully functional–and hopefully pain free–joint.”
That certainly sounded easy enough…and the price was right. “What else?”
“Just one thing. More tea?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know how he could stand the stuff.
“The other thing,” he continued, “would be for you to carry a letter to Believer when you return to his cabin. Rather, not a letter, really, but a copy of my notes detailing the operation and your response to the procedure I’ll be doing.”
“I reckon I could do that,” I said slowly, “but why?”
He smiled then, and his whole face lit up. “Quite simply, Tam, because our friend Believer has a huge audience. His readers back East run in the hundreds of thousands. If he will include my notes in his narratives, and I’ve no doubt he will, my work will be widely disseminated throughout the States.”
Hundreds of thousands? Believer was famous?
“Works for me,” I nodded, and we shook hands.
I can’t tell you much about the operation itself, since of course I was knocked out on ether fer the duration. The big shock came after I come back to the world. The shoulder hurt like Hell, of course, but no worse than I’d felt before; that wasn’t the shock.
Chouteau said the operation had been a complete success and showed me the bone chip he’d fished out of the socket. It was larger than he’d expected and smaller than I’d pictured, a shell-thin, ragged oval an eighth of an inch wide by a quarter inch long. That went into the medicine pouch along with the deer bone.
His assistant sniffed in disapproval when I told Georges I’d be hanging onto the bone chip. She was a brown-haired lady whose age I couldn’t guess one way or the other if my life depended on it. His wife? His mother? His daughter? Extremely efficient. There was something cold about the woman; I didn’t like her much.
The hard part, the shock, came when the good surgeon mentioned the part about recovery time. I’d need to wait around in Fort Benton fer maybe up to a month before saddling up and heading out. If I didn’t, sure as God made little green apples, I’d wind up overusing the shoulder joint before it was healed and make things worse than ever.
Which was how I came to be at loose ends, making acquaintances around the town, and came to meet Hank Rogerson.
Handy, as he preferred to be called, was a gunsmith by trade. Not the one who owed Believer a favor, but another man entirely. We hit it off, one thing led to another, and when I showed him the twisted remains of my cougar-bashing rifle, my life changed forever. Again.
“Crazy Rifle,” he said, addressing me by the name he used whenever there seemed to be no other white men in earshot, “I don’t believe you realize what you got here.”
“A busted shooter?”
He looked at me in disgust. One thing Handy lacked was a sense of humor when it came to firearms.
“A Kennedy double,” he said, “with exactly the parts I happen to be lacking to put together a complete restoration. I’ve wanted one of these fer years.”
“Take it,” I told him. “It’s no use to me the way it is.”
That offended him. “Are you out of your mind? I couldn’t do that. But,” he said thoughtfully, “I do have a short gun I’d be willing to trade you for it. And I know a shootist who can teach you how to handle the thing right. He’s wintering in a cabin a few miles down the river, bored out of his skull, cabin fevered up like nobody’s business. Fair enough?”
Boy howdy. “Shake,” I said, extending my hand, and we did.
“A .36 Colt Paterson?!” Daniel’s eyebrows rose. “That fool Handy give you ten times the better deal. He always was a fool fer Kennedy doubles, though.”
“So,” I asked the cabin fevered shootist, “This is is a good pistol? I’ve never so much as handled any kind of short gun before. Don’t have a clue what I’m looking at, except this one does seem to be well made.”
“State of the art,” he nodded. “The folding trigger does take some getting used to, but you done good coming to me. Been bored outa my skull, and this danged winter ain’t showing no sign of letting up any time soon. Which hand’s your prime?”
“Left,” I told him, though I was purty sure he’d noticed already. Daniel Morgan was not the sort of fellow to miss much. Nor was he any taller than he was wide. Not an ounce of fat on him, simply the blockiest man I ever seen, then or since.
I’d not have wanted to fight him.
He had a lot to teach me, and before long my thinking had changed some. One month might not be long enough to learn the half of what I needed to learn from Daniel.
Part of that learning involved Believer. My pistol instructor knew a lot about the mountain man. Which was good, since Believer never talked much about his past except fer the tale of how he beat Bear Breath at the bone game to save his own life and acquired Laughing Brook in the process.
“I don’t know everything there is to know about him,” Daniel told me, “But I do know he was one of the Army privates that accompanied Lewis and Clark. They say he was even the man that killed a Blackfoot over some horses during that expedition, which had a little something to do with the Piegan not being fond of him when he first moved into their territory. Of course, he weren’t called Believer back then, and I never did git the name of the private. But I’ve no reason to doubt the story, either.”
Interesting. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had been more than forty years back. My mentor really was old.
Daniel had one more tidbit of information I found…entirely believable. “When he left the Army, there was some kind of disagreement. Seems the guvmint thought he owed ’em some time yet, and Believer disagreed. In the end, he pulled up stakes without the issue being resolved and headed back out west.”
“He was a deserter?” I thought of the three low types I’d frightened off by screaming in the night. Believer didn’t fit that mold at all.
“Not necessarily; I wouldn’t quite put it that way. He figured his hitch was up, and from what I know of the man, he probably had it figured right. But the Army is what it is. They disagreed. “So he did get listed as a deserter, and over the years they sent out…some say as many as a dozen or more sorties with orders to bring him back dead or alive. It should have been simple enough; the man wasn’t bothering to hide his tracks, and there were always at least two Army soldiers, sometimes a lot more, when they went up against him. Not one of those men was ever heard from again. They knew he’d killed ’em, but they couldn’t upgrade his status from deserter to murderer of guvmint property without some sort of evidence…and finally they jist give up trying. He’s the only man I ever heard of who licked the United States Army single-handed.”
I thought about the two rounders who’d come against us in the cabin that first night. The big mountain man had slithered out the door into the snow on his belly, hunting the hunters with nothing but his skinning knife. He’d butchered them two, literally, and fed their body parts to the coyotes, then disposed of their horses to the Blackfeet.
It was no wonder them Army boys had lost their war against this man. They’d been seriously outnumbered.