Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 49: The River Crossing



The river crossing didn’t look too bad, but it scared me half to death. This Yellowstone Park country…I could see why the Blackfeet give up on John Colter when he ran through here to save his naked butt from the warriors that were hunting him fer sport.

Of course, some versions of the story said he’d long since thrown ’em off his trail by hiding in a beaver lodge, but no matter how you cut it, he’d known they wouldn’t go into this place of stinky-smelling, boiling water, some of ’em fountainy–geysers, Tam said they were called. Bad spirits or whatever.

Right now, I was sympathizing with the Blackfeet. And with Laughing Brook, who didn’t look none too comfortable, neither. Kind of green around the gills and strained around the eyes.

All the rest of the clan seemed to think this was a fine vacation. At first, when we seen the lake, I’d swore up, down, and sideways we must’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up at the Pacific Ocean. They all laughed at me fer that, though most likely they were bluffing. Far as I knew, not even the widely traveled tale teller had seen anything like it in his lifetime. I surely didn’t believe him when he said it weren’t a patch on Flathead Lake, up north of Missoula.

It give me the creeps.

The river had to be crossed iffen we intended to head on out of this place, this unbelievably monstrous caldera. Good Lord, if this volcano ever woke back up fully–and with all the hot water bubbling up out of the ground here and there, splashing bright mineral colors around, it weren’t but half asleep even now–if this thing ever reared up and roared, it’d blow the entire United States of America clean down to Australia.

It weren’t like I’d never crossed a river. Hell, I’d crossed more of ’em than you could shake a stick at, and a fair number had been running faster, deeper, and wider’n this one. Maybe it was the overall Park itself, or the stinky air, or maybe–I didn’t know fer sure about all that.

I did know this crossing looked almost exactly like the one where my folks had drowned.

That had been a thousand miles east of here and two dozen years back, but some things you don’t forget. I hadn’t known why they were late getting home that night till Johnny Cooper showed up at the door, hollering to let me know not to shoot him on his way in. Bill and Belinda Trask’s buckboard had washed up on the sandbar out behind their corrals, the dead horse still tangled in the traces.

Three days later, as jist one member of a twenty-man search, it was me that found Mom, hung up in the branches of a fallen cottonwood along the east bank. I never did remember who found Dad, but it weren’t until the next day and another quarter mile downstream.

What bothered me the most of all was the separation, the fact they’d ended up so far apart in all that water. We’d laid ’em together in the little cemetery on the hill out back with a couple of stone markers and a fence around the place. Didn’t mean the next owner of the ranch let ’em be, but I’d done what I could before pulling up stakes.

“Well, Dawson,” Tam said, watching me and Joker drip water as we come up the bank. “Looks like a man on a tall horse does all right.”

“Yeah. But he dang near went down from the current, stumbled sideways with all that water pushing at him, and there ain’t another sixteen-two mount in the herd. Some of the smaller animals are going to tip over and have to come up swimming. Which don’t exactly explain how we git either the packs or the kids across.”

“Sure it does.” Cougar’s redheaded wife wasn’t a real talky woman, but she could flat-out speak her mind when her babies were involved. “You have to ride ’em over, one at a time.”

Her husband looked doubtful at that, almost half as doubtful as I felt. “Honey, that pinto of Dawson’s is one helluva horse, no two ways about it, but you’re talking six more trips across that water. Doing it that way, even Joker is gonna wear out.”

“I agree.” Tam put in, saving me from the brunt of Penny’s storm cloud looks.

I’d had an idea, though. “Coug, how be we dig into the pack that’s got all our spare Crow-tripping rope? There might be a way to git this done.”


We’d waited till morning to try it out, hoping maybe one of us would come up with a better thought. None of us had.

Joker and I’d made jist the one trip back across, right after breakfast. The water level seemed a touch lower, maybe inch or two. At any rate, the big pinto hadn’t stumbled once this time around, despite the hard pull of nearly 300 feet of rope bellying out in the hard current behind and dowstream from us.

Tam’s grulla, Smokey, had set his mind to it, once I was across and my end tied off to a stout spruce. I’d climbed up there with that loose rope, so my end was anchored some fifteen feet off the ground.

It was always fun to watch Smokey do them circus tricks Tam had taught him. Sometimes they come in right handy, like the time horse and cowboy both limped across the prairie pretending to be lame so’s Blue Sky and his renegade Kiowa would think they were easy prey.

This time, Tam tied his end of that river-crossing line hard and fast to the saddle horn. Then he lined up that trick horse of his so’s when he backed up hard, it pulled that rope taut as a bowstring. The bank on his side was higher than mine, putting the rope almost level across the water. I’d wondered how he was gonna keep that tension when he tied that rope off, but I shoulda known.

He backed the horse around the tree at some distance. When Smokey’s butt came around and hit the taut line, he ducked under it and kept on backing up! One…two…three…four wraps around the base of that big pine snag before Cougar took a two handed grip on the tail end.

Smokey eased off, Tam untied the line from the saddle horn and retied it to the crossing line.

I’d remember that one, but I never would of thought of it by myself.


Judging by the sun, it was midafternoon. All the horses and packs were safely across, as well as all the humans except fer the tale teller. I’d lost count of how many horses had gone swimming, wildeyed and ready to be carried downstream but fer the safety line loop-anchored on the “ferry rope”. All four of us adults on the “pull” side–Cougar, Laughing Brook, Penny,and I–were plumb exhausted from hauling drifting animals and packs safely to shore. I didn’t go looking, but if my hands were any indication, we were all blistered and raw as well.

Even little Henry, who’d insisted on helping pull. We hadn’t minded. It kept him from looking fer a hillside full of wildflowers.

Tam untied his end of the rope, flipping it off into the river fer us to pull on across. He was done with it.

“Dammit, Tam, ” I bellowed through cupped hands across the river, “Why didn’t you hang onto your end of that? Jist in case!”

He didn’t answer, jist stepped up on Smokey and started across. I had a hunch he weren’t about to use a safety line since I hadn’t, nor had his son when he crossed. But the man had worked his butt off all day, readying horse after horse, pulling the empty line back, rehooking to a new animal, and then the big packs. He had to be worn down some. What if–

“Coug,” I said softly to the young shootist so’s the women wouldn’t hear. “I’d say that water’s come up a good four, maybe six inches since sunup. You think?”

“There’s a pair of moccasins in my saddle bags,” he answered jist as softly, and went to get ’em.

I started shucking my boots, chaps, hat, shirt, everything but the canvas pants. Those would weigh me down some, but hopefully not a fatal amount. Smokey forged steadily toward us. He’d be stepping down into the deepest part any moment now, and I willed Cougar to hurry up with them moccasins.

Tam couldn’t swim.


When I heard Dawson yell, I kind of figured he was still overreacting from having lost his folks all them years ago. He did git a little funny at river crossings from time to time. Besides, I didn’t have any intention of letting my younger partner and my son show me up. Smokey was fresh, and away we went.

Not until he stepped in that hole and the water hit up over my knees, soaking the bottom half of my holstered .45 Colt, did it even cross my mind that there might have been a touch more to the man’s yelling than mere paranoia. Even allowing fer the difference in height between Smokey and Joker, I didn’t remember the water being that high earlier in the day. But I still didn’t git to the point of what you could call worrying. I did divide my attention some, between watching the flowing water–which has always fascinated me, running water has–and wondering what on Earth Dawson had in mind. He’d shucked his shirt like he was getting ready fer a sun dance or some such, which made no sense whatsoever.

What the–? Now he was stripping off his boots! Had he decided to go fer a swim? This was the Yellowstone by God River, not no backwater swimming hole. Besides, there could be enemies over in them trees; somebody ought to be keeping some kind of eye out!

Right at that point is when the grulla stepped down into the second, deeper hole. Had I known what was coming, I’d have already been slid back off of the horse’s butt, letting him git to swimming with me hanging onto his tail. The oldest trick in the book, and one I’d used a thousand times if I’d used it once.

Had I known what was coming..

My mount stepped down in that deeper hole, and I’m thinking one of them round river rocks must have rolled under his foot. However that may be, he went down on the right front, jist a little stumble-step that wouldn’t have meant nothing on open ground, but with the water suddenly up to his back, he kind of rolled a bit, went under some before he got himself squared away swimming…

…and the force of that water pushed me clean out of the saddle. I made a grab fer the horn, but reaching underwater like that, danged if I didn’t miss. First time in twenty years I’d gone to pull leather, and now I couldn’t even find it.

Served me right.

So did the panic that pushed up like one of them geysers boiling up to the Earth’s surface, steaming to git free. I hung on to that as best I could, kept it at bay a little bit. Let go of the reins! If I didn’t, I’d pull Smokey’s head around, slam his ears underwater with his nose facing up to drown him when he went under. Living to see another day didn’t seem that likely, but taking my horse with me was not an option.

I let go and started swimming.

The trouble being, swimming is kind of a relative term fer me. I like bathing well enough, at least when there ain’t no other option, and I can dog paddle a little bit, but basically I swim like a rock.

Straight down.

Plus, my boots were waterlogged, pulling me under, and the leather chaps weren’t helping so’s you’d notice. The water was flipping me around like one of them southland alligators taking a body down in a death roll before stashing it underwater fer a few days to properly tenderize. The river played around like that some, laughing ever time I got more or less straight up and down in the water and still couldn’t touch bottom, till finally–if I understood what I seen coming at me while choking from having swallowed a quart of river water and likely half a dozen minnows–one of my own horse’s churning hind hooves caught me upside the head and knocked me stone cold out.


When I come to, there was sure enough a headache to remember the date by. My gut also hurt like Hell, my throat was sandpaper-raw, and my back didn’t feel all that fine, neither–mostly because Cougar was holding me belly-down over a deadfall tree while Dawson whacked the river water outa me.

“S-s-sSmokey!” I gasped. First words outa my mouth after puking fer a while.

“Your horse has a heap more sense than you do, husband,” Laughing Brook said, squatting down so’s I could see her from my undignified, head-down position. “He made it to the bank under his own power.”

Pausing a moment, she added, “Your grownup horse did, that is.”

“What do you mean, my grownup horse did?”

“She means,” Dawson explained, a note of genuine sympathy in his voice, “That while I was playing mermaid with Cougar’s lariat tied to my tail, your Colt went to sleep with the fishes.”

My left hand slapped the empty holster.

To this day, I can’t quite decide which was worse: The humiliation of having my common sense short out like that or the pain of losing the finest hair-trigger short gun I’d ever owned.

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