It turned out Tam had been buying up land in Colorado Territory fer years, a solid start on a spread that had the Huerfano River running through it, plenty of springs, and–fer whatever reason–a distant view of the mountains where Chief Dangerous Man of the Comanche had made his last stand, back in the day.
“The price was right, and I’d met men who could make sure I held good title when everything was all shaken out,” he told us. “Most of that country is still inhabited by the Utes and Arapahoes, but I’ve met with any number of them people, and we have an understanding. The day’s coming when they’ll git shoved onto a Reservation jist like every other member of the red race in these United States–you can see it coming–but in the meantime, they know they’re welcome to camp and hunt in the area.
“We’ll lose a few cattle to ’em, but a dang sight fewer than to white rustlers iffen the Indians weren’t there, I’m thinking.”
Cougar and I both thought about that fer a bit, though I was first to break the silence. “I’ve not been in that part of the country, Tam. Why’d you pick it, exactly? I mean, beyond the reasons you jist stated.”
“Bunch of reasons. One was the contacts I made, men I trust, which meant I wouldn’t be pounding sand down a rathole when I poured my hard earned pesos into the project. Then again, I like the climate. It’s not as all-fired hot and dust-blown as Oklahoma or Texas, got four seasons with sometimes a deep-snow winter. But then again, it’s nothing like the glacier country, either. The grass is good, and the hills on what I’ve bought are mostly rolling–not them straight up-and-down sidehill gouger sorta things.
“Plus, there’s a strong bit of mining going on around Walsenburg, which is the closest town and a fair market fer a lot of beef without having to trail the critters to Hell and gone. Good mix of open slopes fer grazing, timber fer cover, and game up the wazoo. Not to mention,” he shrugged, “My gut has told me from day one it’ll stay wilder and freer a bit longer, maybe, than places to the north, south, west, or east of it.”
“Sounds good to me,” his son put in, and I nodded my assent.
It was roughly midafternoon of the following day when we ran into Custer.
“Sergeant,” the man said with that way he had of making it sound like he was doing you a favor, talking to a subordinate.
“General,” I replied, crossing my forearms across the saddle horn as I relaxed and spit. The brown liquid splashed on a rock a couple of feet shy of his fancy bay horse’s white sock. Me and General George Armstrong Custer didn’t overmuch like one another.
Tam flanked me on the left, Cougar on the right. If it come to shooting, we’d die right enough–ain’t no three guns ever come out ahead against two hundred nineteen hardened cavalry troopers that I know of, anyway–but G-PAC would ride the road to Hell right along with us. That much, I was sure of.
G-PAC? Ah, that’s jist what some of us called the rat bastard behind his back during the War and since, but most especially since his Indian Wars practice of claiming the slaughter of old men, women, children, dogs, and ponies as great military victories. G-PAC. George Piss-Ant Custer.
Someday I’ll tell you how I really feel about the fellow.
He reached up and adjusted that flashy red scarf around his neck, a nervous habit he had when somebody’d really ticked him off, and his left eye started twitching. Iffen you didn’t suck up to the worst-scoring graduate West Point ever put out, you were pond scum. Unfortunately, my sucking-up skills were not the best.
Around G-PAC, they were nonexistent.
“We should have shot you when we had the chance,” he huffed, trying to stare me down.
I’m not that good at losing stare-downs, neither.
“Seems to me I beat that court martial, Georgie.” I informed him calmly. “But you didn’t beat yours, did you? What, they only sidelined you fer a year fer being AWOL, humping your honey while your unit was getting its ass beat? Tsk! Tsk!”
He almost drew on me then. I kind of hoped he would; trading my own life to rid the world of this menace to humanity and his lapdog brothers seemed more than worth the price. Of course, it wasn’t jist my life I was playing with. There was that. George Armstrong Coward Custer contained himself, though–barely, but he managed–and I knew why.
What? You think I’m overstating? Well, maybe he weren’t no coward by normal standards. He did lead from the front; I’ll give him that. But when we were staring each other in the eye, he knew fer a fact he was looking at Death. I got my old man’s eyes, see? When I reach that point, my eyes jist go dead. There’s no life in ’em. He seen that, he knew he was slower’n even me with them fancy pearl-handled revolvers he’s so proud of, and it was jist enough to keep him from reaching. Instead, he run his mouth, which he was always good at.
“I’ve no time to spend with the scurrilous likes of you! There’s a railroad survey party needing my protection from the Lakota in Dakota Territory! Good day to you, sirs!”
He wheeled that fancy bay and thundered off, his 7th Cavalry following his skinny butt off to the east. I called out to his retreating back, “You be careful of them Lakota, General!”
I ended up humming that little rhyme fer nearly the next hour. Lakota in Dakota…Lakota in Dakota…Lakota in Dakota…wondering if he even knew the difference between the Lakota, the Dakota, and the Nakota.
None of us had said much after the Custer encounter till we got camp set up a good thirty miles north of where he’d seen us last.
“You do have a way with words, Dawson.” Cougar mentioned as he was putting the beans in the pot to heat. “What was that about a court martial?”
“Mine or his?”
“Tell you all about it another day. Tomorrow, maybe. Fer now, though, I’d jist as soon wind down fer the night, happy to hear from the horse’s ass’s mouth that he’s not headed toward the Greasy Grass. Which means we got time to git Laughing Brook and head out without interference from the U.S. Cavalry.”
“Well,” Tam opined, “I reckon I know a topic that might work fer that. How be we three figure out what we’re going to register fer a brand?”
“Sounds good to me.”
By the time we were settled in fer the night, we had it.
“All straight bars,” Cougar noted. “That’s a good thing. Three T’s, but not called the Triple T. Too many of those out there already. And not in a straight line, so nobody comes first and nobody’s left sucking hind teat.”
“Yep.” This from the tale teller. “Me, I’d call it the Flywheel Ranch, though we may find a few of the less imaginative folks out there will end up saying it’s the Rafter Y Bar.
“How be I tell the tale of the benefits of a reputation?”
Them two had been on my trail since Benton. It was starting to eat on me some, so I figured it was time to do something about it.
They’d gotten closer since sunup, pushing to close the gap before I got too deep into the land where Piegan winter encampments were thick as fleas hopping off a dead rabbit. Or at least that was my best guess. Iffen they intended to git close enough to draw a bead with one of them buffalo rifles they carried, they’d want to do it without getting swarmed by irritated warriors wanting to know why they’d drygulched their friend, Crazy Rifle.
I had a purty good idea of who they were, or at least what they were. Both were big men, neither as wide as Daniel nor as tall as Believer, but big enough to stand out against the snow as dwarfing the horses they rode. They’d been around Fort Benton during my five weeks in residence, not eating at Halter’s–or I’d have a better fix on ’em–but drinking hearty and generally stinking up the town.
When Doc Chouteau had finally give me the okay to head out, it hadn’t taken me long to git moving. With the big Appaloosa under me and the bay filly as happy to head fer home as any of us, we were making tracks.
Which them two were following.
Now, there’s about nine or ten reasons fer two men to follow a lone rider’s tracks, and eleven of ’em have to do with intentions of the less than honorable kind. Them boys were most likely after the flashy stud I rode, or the bay with her surprising load of gifts the good folks of Fort Benton had heaped upon me when they learned I was leaving…or both.
Most likely both.
There weren’t a whole lot of pine trees along this section of the Marias River, but I found a patch of winter-bare cottonwoods that would break up our outlines well enough. From this concealment, I watched ’em coming fer a while…and thought. Oftentimes, figuring my options, I’d go “by the numbers”, listing possible courses of action in my head. This time, the list was short.
1. I could outrun ’em. Even with the filly loaded like she was, them two oversized lumps had to be weighing down their horses something fierce. I didn’t like that idea much, though.
2. I could ride back straight at ’em, confront ’em with their folly. I didn’t like that idea much, either. What if they cut and run, then circled back to pick up my trail after my charge fizzled out? Or if they stood their ground yet swore up, down and sideways they were innocent, jist traveling in the same direction, what was I going to do? Gun ’em down in cold blood?
I might at that, come to think of it. That realization should maybe have shocked me at myself, but it didn’t.
Fer a time, I couldn’t think of any option number three…but then I did.
“Looking fer me, boys?”
I wish you could’ve seen the expressions on their faces when they yanked their heads around to gawk in my direction. I was sitting on Wolf, looking down on ’em jist a bit due to their horses being kinda short-legged, and not twenty feet behind ’em. They’d been so intent on following them tracks that my soft-stepping horses, moving in the snow, had slipped right up on ’em.
Their horses had flicked their ears at us as we closed in, letting us know they knew we were there, but these louts obviously didn’t pay much attention to the animals they rode.
“T-t-tam!” One of ’em stuttered out my name, which fer some reason triggered my memory. Dave and Donald. Two Metis fur trappers, mixed-blood French Canadians, both ugly but Donald wining the prize by virtue of being the only crosseyed Indian I’d ever seen.
“You boys always follow every traveler that follows the Marias upstream?” I asked quietly. It’s a funny thing, but folks tend to be a lot more scared of a man who talks quiet than one who blusters like the north wind in the middle of a blizzard. I could see I’d scared this pair, sneaking up on ’em a whole lot better than they’d been sneaking up on me, and shame on me, but I was enjoying myself.
There didn’t seem much point in accusing them of bad intentions, though. They’d jist try to lie their way out of it. So, fer lack of a better idea, I jist laid it out there.
“Donald, Dave, you two got yourselves a conundrum right here.”
“A…what? A cunning drum?”
” A dilemma, Dave, a dilemma. You do know what a dilemma is, don’t you?”
I sighed theatrically. “A paradox.”
Donald’s turn, looking extremely confused. “Two…?”
“Donald, Donald, let me put it in a way you two geniuses can maybe understand. You’re in a pickle, and I’m the pickle jar.”
Dave’s turn. I thought they must have some sort of rule between ’em about taking turns talking. “Uh…l-l-lookee here, Tam, we was jist out riding–”
I raised a hand. “I’ll shoot the next man who tells me another fib, and then I’ll shoot the man next to him. Now, you were saying?”
“Uh…never mind. What–what are you gonna do? Or–what do you maybe want us to do?”
Now, let me say, he shouldn’t have said that last thing. ‘Cause, see, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I might want them to do something. But now Dumbo Dave had gone and got me to thinking…
“You’d prefer not to have a little shootout, you know, right here in the snow among the cottonwood trees? It’s a right nice setting…”
“No, no!” Donald again. “We–we seen you shoot, Tam. In Benton. We–we don’t want no part of that.”
“Well, now, ” I did my best to look puzzled, “Why on Earth would two rounders such as yourselves, who want no part of little old me, trail me from the moment I left town? Hmmm??? Never mind; the question was rhetorical.”
I raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t go there, Dave. What passes fer your little pea brain is already overheated enough. But I figure you two do need to pay the FT toll.”
Both of them this time. “Huh? FT? Toll?”
“Sure,” I nodded sagely. “The Following Tam toll. Unless of course you’d prefer to jist shoot it out after all.”
The little telescope Donald had carried in his lefthand saddle bag made it easy to track their progress back toward Fort Benton. On foot, of course. I’d left ’em their clothing, not wishing ’em any real harm. Naked, they might have made it all the way to Benton without freezing, but then again, maybe not.
In between the spot checks on my victims, I took inventory of my haul–all of which, naturally, was duly authorized and certified by the Bill of Sale I’d drawn up on the spot. Donald could only make his mark, but Dave–surprise of surprises–had actually shown he could sign his name. They’d sold me everything they owned but the clothes on their backs fer one silver dollar.
Will wonders never cease.
I now owned two stocky, serviceable horses I’d give to Tall Pine as a wedding gift along with one of the buffalo rifles. The other would go to Believer; his old Hawken still shot straight, but a second rifle in the house is always a good thing. There was a sizeable batch of awesome pemmican which I’d keep fer myself–not mentioning it to Laughing Brook, lest she think I’d mounted another woman to git it–and two of the best skinning knives on the market.
Which I’d also keep fer myself. A man can’t have too many blades.
Finally, satisfied that Dave and Donald really did intend to keep hoofing it back to town–what else were they going to do, with no weapons and no horses?–I turned Wolf back onto our original course, leading our three other critters tied nose-to-tail.
“You know, Wolf,” I told the big stud, “Fer the first time, I’m beginning to see there might be some advantages to having a rep as a shootist. This here is one fine little telescope. Why, I can see that coyote sneaking along the ridgeline near a mile off!”
“You,” the horse spoke into my head, “Are becoming a bully.”
He didn’t sound like he thought that was a bad thing, though. He mostly jist sounded amused.