From the moment we’d come together in a blaze of gunfire on a street in Waco, Texas, the three of us had forged a bond that was something else. Part of that made sense. After all, Tam and Cougar were in fact father and son despite the inconvenience of never having laid eyes on each other till that day.
Plus, as we found out, both Believer and the Cheyenne girl had let her sons know about their biological father, giving them his name and making sure they knew the tale teller was somebody to be proud of.
Which did not explain my own connection with Cougar.
With that self-doubt percolating in my mind, it was no wonder I got a little nervous when one of our evening bull sessions turned to the topic of land and cattle.
“Dawson wants me to throw in with him on a ranch,” Tam began with no preamble, “And I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea. You give any thought to babysitting cows fer a living, son?”
Cougar pondered a moment, then said, “Don’t see why not. I’ve worked on a few ranches here and there. Even did one trail drive once. Jist a little thing, forty mile or so. Nothing like the Chisholm Trail.”
“That jist shows your good sense,” I commented. “The Trail ain’t nothing to brag about.”
Right then, my partner showed off some of his insight into me that made me wonder sometimes if he was one of them psychics. “We might should talk about the money side of such a venture, then. You think?”
Now I was really getting nervous. It didn’t git any better when Tam’s son said what he said next.
“It hadn’t come up yet, but Believer left every dime he owned to me and Laughing Wolf. Jumped right past his wife, but he figured what the Hell. Every shyster within a thousand miles would be hounding after a woman with money, even an Indian woman, and he knew her sons would never let her starve.
“Of course, he also knew my brother was no good with money. So he set up what they call a Trust. Laughing Wolf gits sent a chunk of money twice a year. It’s gone almost before it hits his hands, but he does git it.
“Me, the mountain man trusted near as much as he did you, so my half of the estate come to me free and clear.”
By the time everybody had showed their hand, revealed jist how much cash wealth they could invest in our potential three-partner cow outfit, we’d come to our first roadblock.
“I got a problem here,” I announced, not happily but not able to avoid laying my cards on the table, either. “I’m coming up low man on the totem pole by more than half. Not complaining, mind you, jist explaining. I’ve banked every dime I could scrounge since the War, but it ain’t even half of what you’re putting in, Cougar.”
He looked at me like I was a stone blind idiot. “You been running with my old man fer all these–what, four years now? All that time, and you don’t know yet this ain’t all about money? Dawson, I’d figured you fer a smarter man than that.”
“Easy fer you to say.”
“Damn right it’s easy fer me to say. You didn’t know me from Adam’s off ox, not related to me, never met me, and still you go and save my life, shooting that drygulcher in the Longhorn. I guess you don’t figure my life is worth much, eh?”
He looked purty serious, so I kind of figured keeping my lips zipped was enough to be going on with fer the moment. Besides, it seemed obvious he had more to say on the subject.
“Look, Dawson, I don’t think you quite git it. Sure, I knew Andy Clay wouldn’t brace me out in the open like that without somebody trying to git at my back. Clay was a lot of things, but courageous never was one of ’em. So Hell yeah, I was looking fer the backshooter. But only the one Dad popped for me; that one I’d spotted. Iffen you two hadn’t decided to take a hand before you even had a clue who I was, I’d definitely have been pushing up daisies.”
He paused, gathering his thoughts. “See, I might have been able to take that one out on my own. No guarantee, but my plan was to put two fast rounds into Clay while I was diving fer the dirt. I can do that and still hit my target, practiced it a lot. Then, if I was still in one piece, I’d twist around and fire from the ground at the backshooter in Callie’s. It weren’t no great shakes as a plan, but at least it was something.”
I nodded, jist now beginning to see where this one was heading.
“But Hell, I didn’t even dare look at the Longhorn. The sun was so bright off that front, I’d have gone blind on the spot, at least long enough fer Clay himself to ventilate my hide. I couldn’t do much about that, so I jist put it out of my mind and hoped to live through the day.”
“So you’re saying….”
“What I’m saying, Dawson Trask, is that your partner Tam and his son Cougar figure you gotta be in this or else, even split all the way around.”
I thought about that fer all of about three seconds. “All fer one and one fer all? The Three Musketeers?”
“Close enough,” he laughed. “Now, dear parental unit of the Tam variety, how ’bout one of your famous tall tales? I been hearing about your storytelling since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Besides which, I’ve long suspected you were Hell on wheels with the ladies in your day, and you might want to clue me in before we get to the Greasy Grass. Mom can be kind of a jealous woman, specially when it comes to you.”
“Believe me,” Tam said drily. “I know.”
“Well, how ’bout it?”
“Why not? Might as well start with Jenny Smokes and a case of MHW.”
Iffen you ever git troubled by a woman with MHW, you’ll never forget it. That’s what the proprietor of Halter’s Eats called it: MHW, short for Mooneyed Hee-ro Worship. Ever since I’d plugged the worthless sack of suet who’d been beating and raping on her, Jenny Smokes had been stuck on me like a burr stuck under a saddle with the cinch pulled down.
And it was getting worse.
The pressure was getting to me, too, enough so’s I didn’t even quite know what day it was any more. Six days after the shooting, I thought, but I wouldn’t have bet my toenail trimmings that was right. The short, squat mixed-Indian-but-no-dam-Cherokee girl had been a good friend in the beginning, sharp as a tack with a wicked sense of humor, but all of that seemed to have flown out the window.
She had her cap set for me in no uncertain terms.
Of course, she didn’t have no cap, but you can bet she did up them braids every morning with the famous white Blackfoot warrior Crazy Rifle firmly in mind. My friend Daniel had warned me I’d gain a rep sooner or later, but I’d always figured he meant a reputation as a shootist.
I’d had no clue my rep as Most Eligible Bachelor was destined to be a thousand times more dangerous than some mere gunhand looking to take me down.
“She’s out there again,” the blocky man told me, and I sighed like Job petitioning God fer relief from his boils. My shooting instructor’s cabin, where I was staying while my shoulder healed, was a good four miles south of town. We’d played our final game of cribbage fer the night–which Daniel won handily, with me worrying more about my stalker than I was about my cards–and had been about to blow out the candle. I was tired, ready fer bed and then some.
But I couldn’t ignore Jenny. She wouldn’t go so far as to knock on the door. Instead, hunkered down in her buffalo robe, jist a dark lump in the falling snow, she kept vigil from a spot by the woodpile where the wind didn’t hit quite so hard.
Watching the building that held her man.
I couldn’t bring myself to wish the girl harm or even to be mean to her, but I was seriously thinking of shooting myself.
It was close to midnight by the time I got back from escorting her safely to Ragtown. She wouldn’t double back on me; at least there was that. Riding the filly while her great white Blackfoot warrior led the way through the night on his powerful Appaloosa stallion was obviously one jump away from Heaven fer Jenny Smokes; her MHW would be satiated fer the rest of the night. Enough to git at least an hour’s more sleep than I would, anyway.
Yes, yes, I did consider actually going under the blankets with the girl. So she’d been raped a bunch of times by fat Hiram Odders and also had to sell her body here and there to keep body and Soul together; so what? I didn’t hold that against her, nor against any female fer that matter. But young as I was, I kind of knew mounting the Hee-ro Worshiper would make things even worse and I’d never git rid of her, no matter what.
I had my cousin Jarvis to thank fer that bit of insight. Back home, when I was about nine and he was sixteen or so, he’d had a preacher’s daughter all Mooneyed over him. Couldn’t git rid of her, surely not as bad a case as Jenny Smokes, but bad enough fer Jarvis. One day he got the bright idea, hey, if I force her, she’ll surely git the Hell away from me then.
So he did, but she didn’t.
What on God’s green Earth was I going to do about this situation?
“What on God’s green Earth are you going to do about this situation?” Daniel spoke around a mouthful of omelette, indicating the kitchen with a nod of his head. Neither one of us was about to let Jenny’s MHW run us out of Halter’s–me especially, since I was getting fed fer free these days as a thank-you fer ridding the town of Oddball Odders and His Odious Posse–but there she was, peering out at me when she was supposed to be doing dishes.
Why did Halter put up with it?
“Truthfully, Daniel, I have no idea.” I was making a fair job of wading through a stack of pancakes suitable fer fueling an axe-swinging lumberjack, mostly able to retain my appetite because of knowing Jenny would stick to her job at the restaurant till after dark. During the day, there was the illusion of sanity.
After dark, it was the Jenny Smokes Horror Show.
“I been thinking,” my friend said, and I looked across the table at him, hoping against hope.
“And I believe I might be able to help. Only if you take a week off and go hunting, though. Git outa town. Disappear. Maybe hang out in the breaks fer a while. There’s plenty of game out that way, not to mention hollows where the wind minds its own business.”
Disappear. Man, that sounded like a great idea. But there was a problem. “Doc Choteau still wants me checking in every third or fourth day so’s he can check that shoulder.”
“Leave Doc to me. It shouldn’t be too hard to convince him Jenny will plumb chase you to death iffen you don’t git clear fer a while.”
“My shoulder’s feeling better and better, but the rifle–”
“Don’t use your rifle. You’ve demonstrated you can kill men with a revlolver. Go prove you can drop an elk jist as easy. Loading a full sized wapiti on the filly without fully using your right arm will be a good exercise fer that fertile mind of yours.”
That was my final objection. The horses and I were gone before noon.
Nobody was home at Daniel’s when I rode up to the cabin shortly after daylight on the seventh day. He’d be chowing down at Halter’s, most likely. It would be enjoyable, watching my friend’s eyes light up when he seen the big cow elk strung up high enough off the ground so’s the coyotes and wolves couldn’t git at her.
The man had been right; figuring a way to load that carcass on a fidgety filly without overusing my right hand had been a great exercise fer my fertile mind. I looked forward to telling him about it.
By midmorning, with the skinning done and the hide wrapped in a roll behind Wolf’s saddle, I headed fer Benton. The tannery might be willing to do a special job on this one or it might not. We’d see.
I wasn’t prepared fer the sight that greeted my eyes in what passed fer the town square. It looked like at least half of the citizenry had turned out fer a wedding, judging by the preacher jist stepping up in front of the happy couple with his Bible. Me and Wolf were still some distance away, though, and barely made it close enough to hear the sky pilot’s final pronouncement,
“You may kiss the bride.”
Robert Tanner, Tanner the tanner, bent down and planted a big one square on the upturned lips of a beaming–and crying–Jenny Smokes.
I didn’t even bother to git down from my horse. Jist sat there in shock.
Halter was having to do his own dishes now, him and his wife, but neither one of ’em seemed to mind. They’d gladly accepted the elk liver, a piled-high plate of which–along with fried onions and fried potatoes–had soon found its way down my gullet.
Mrs. Jenny Smokes Tanner, they said, would be extremely busy helping her new husband with his business.
“All right, Daniel,” I finally asked, “How the dickens did you do it?”
Halter overheard that and called out, “How the dickens did we do it, doncha mean!”
It turned out the curing of Jenny’s case of MHW had required a conspiracy that included half a dozen different Bentonites.
“See, Tam,” Daniel explained, “There ain’t many women this far west.”
“And even among the few that do exist, there ain’t many that’ll go within a hunnert yards of a tanner. The smell is jist too powerful.”
I nodded at that. Any man who worked sunup to sundown tanning hides automatically had two things wrong with him. Number one, his hands–and sometimes more’n that–were permanently stained from the dyes he used to color the hides. Number two, and the most important by far, a tanner smelled bad. Always. It weren’t his fault; no man could work around hides all day long and not ended up permanently smelling like rotten meat his own self.
“I git that,” I admitted, “But I don’t see what that has to do with Jenny.”
“Hold yer horses,” the restaurant owner grinned, “Let Daniel finish his telling.”
“Well, I been knowing Tanner since way back. He’s a good man, and I kind of figured he’d be more’n happy to have a hard worker like Jenny Smokes fer a wife…if he could git her. I was right, and when I explained my plan–with the Halters and several others putting bugs in Jenny’s ear from start to finish–he began courting the girl.
“Now, he couldn’t have done it if you’d been in town, but Robert started dropping off gifts fer his intended bride right here at the cafe. He didn’t dare come in fer fear the smell of him would sicken the customers, so he’d pay one of the kids on the street a nickel to carry in a package labeled, “For the most beautiful woman in the world from her intended husband.”
I whistled. “Subtle!”
They all laughed. “It had to be kind of in-your-face to compete with what you done, Crazy Rifle,” Halter pointed out. “Gunning down two men with one shot and all, jist to defend her honor.”
I started to protest but didn’t. This story really was getting purty good.
Daniel continued, “Tanner’s had his business going from the time Fort Benton was founded, and he don’t waste his money. Frankly, he ain’t had much to waste it on, at least up till now. So you might say money was no object. We all sorta come up with his gift list fer Jenny by committee. The first one was a pure white doeskin the likes of which a mixed-blood girl like Jenny Smokes could never have hoped to see in her life.”
“That got her attention, I would imagine.”
“Oh, it did. Then he come up with a tourquoise and silver necklace you don’t usually see anywhere but among the wealthy–red or white–in the southwest. It went like that fer five days. On the sixth, Robert asked Jenny to marry him–another thing she never could have hoped for in reality, no matter how she pursued you. We all ganged up on her and made it endlessly clear how far she’d be outa her mind to turn Tanner down, and the rest is history.”
That explained it, and I was definitely relieved to be rid of my stalker, but what they’d done still bothered me more’n a bit.
“So…you all kinda bullied her and/or bought her way into marriage with a man whose stink will haunt her fer the rest of her life? That seems kinda–”
“No, no, no.” Daniel waved both hands to stop my protest. “I fergot to say. See, a couple of months before you come to town to git your shoulder fixed, Hiram Odders beat Jenny worse than usual. Blacked both eyes, broke her nose, lumped her up something fierce.”
“Damn, I’m glad I shot that sumbitch.” I barely breathed the words, heartfelt as they were.
“So are we, Tam. But here’s the thing. Doc Chouteau fixed her up, even got her nose straightened back out so’s you can’t tell it was ever broke. But he had to do some serious cutting and patching to accomplish the task. She looks all right, but Jenny Smokes Tanner won’t be quite the same ever again.”
“She can’t smell one single solitary thing.”