“I owe your folks an apology.” Tam said it quietly but with conviction as we sorted through the packs, picking out a few things we’d be wanting to keep handier and trying to remember where he’d stashed the antique Colt Paterson. It still worked, there’d been a batch of cartridges to fit, and his muscles still remembered how to use it.
It’d be a sight better than nothing till we could git to Walsenburg. There, he’d told us, he knew a gunsmith who could fine tune him a replacement .45 Colt the way he wanted it.
Oh. “If you’re gonna tell me you figured my parents died from their own error in that river, tale teller, I”m way ahead of you.”
“Yep.” I straightened, triumphantly brandishing the old pistol. He grinned, snagging it out of the air when I tossed it to him. “Fer quite some years, I blamed ’em fer dying on me like that. Not that I ever talked about it to anybody, but I kept thinking, they’d run that buckboard across that river fer years. Never a problem. Therefore, they done something stupid or they wouldn’t be dead.”
Tam checked the cylinder, looked down the barrel to make sure it was clear, and began loading the first sidearm he’d ever owned. I’d never seen one like that, with the folding trigger and all. Wouldn’t have wanted to try to learn it, either.
“But I got cured of that nonsense by Lieutenant Sherrod T. Hamlin of the U. S. Army. He took over our infantry company in the middle of the War. Brand new West Point graduate. I’d made Sergeant a month earlier, so we could talk–not like either one of us fraternizing with the privates, you know.”
“Nope. I don’t know. Never was in the military.”
“Figure of speech. Anyway, we got purty tight over time, shared a few things we’d never told another Soul. One day, I admitted I was still pissed at my parents, and you know what he said? Karma is as karma does, Sergeant.”
“First time I’d ever heard the term, so he explained a bit. Told me he believed everything happened fer a reason, whether or not some Almighty God was behind it or not he couldn’t say, but that if my folks died crossing a river, they was meant to die crossing a river. Took me a year or more to swallow that one, but I got it down eventually.
“By which time the Lieutenant was meant to die riddled with grapeshot, apparently, since that’s what he’d done.”
My partner had finished fixing up his new-old shooter to his satisfaction and was in the process of swapping out holsters. There was a reverence to the way he handled that Colt Paterson.
“You’re saying, fer example,” he raised one eyebrow at me, “That iffen Tam the tall tale taller got himself knocked colder’n a mackerel in the middle of the Yellowstone, he was meant to do that? That there was a reason fer what happened today?”
“Yep,” I said, adding with a straight face, “Even if that reason was a matter of having less common sense than your horse, as a certain Cheyenne lady pointed out rather clearly.”
That made him chuckle. I grinned back, and we headed fer the fire. Cougar’d be done checking the horses over shortly, and whatever the women were cooking up reminded us we hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“Dawson, would you mind snagging us a few fistfuls of them choke cherries fer dessert?” Penny Tamson indicated the patch of little trees in the draw, some eighty yards distant, with a nod of her head.
Why not? Our man-chores were done till it was time fer me to go on sentry duty, but I’d made the mistake of hunkering down by the fire without looking obviously busy. Tam was working a fresh edge to his skinning knife, Cougar was using a rock to hammer a heel back on one of his boots after the thing had fallen right off, and I was the obvious dumbass sitting there waiting fer a woman to put him to work.
“Not at all, Pen,” I said graciously. It always pays to be gracious to a redhead. “Toss me that parfleche. Coming, Squirt?”
Four-year-old Henry jumped up like a red ant had bit him in the butt. “Yes!” Not almost-four any more; today–I’d jist been informed–was the boy’s birthday. How them women kept track of the calendar is beyond me, but they’d never been proven wrong yet.
“Beware the bear,” Cougar threw in, jist fer seasoning. We all said that when one or more of us was headed fer a berry patch at this time of year. Not that we’d seen a solitary bruin all day, but that didn’t mean much. Bears are like Indians that way; it’s the one you don’t see that kills you.
Little Henry turned out to be a mighty fine choke cherry picker despite the fact that more of the tart black cherries found their way into his mouth than into his bag. He’d likely be sick by dark, but he’d learned not to swallow the pits, so he’d survive the experience–
When the boy speaks in that tone, all excitement, you pay attention. I looked up from stripping a particularly productive cluster of cherries–and every warning ever wired into my body went off at once.
“Henry!” I snapped it out, quiet but command tone. “Don’t move!”
Two black bear cubs were rolling down through the open timber, having a great old time, rassling and play-fighting with each other like there was no tomorrow. The foot of that grade fetched up right smack between me and the kid. I might git to him before they did if I made a run fer it, but a man running without knowing exactly where Mama Bear might be is asking fer it.
I froze, and thank the good Lord and all His angels, so did the youngster. He’d been learning fast, especially since the flower patch incident. Knew enough to do what I said. I hoped.
“Henry, I’m going to yell real loud, jist one time. I want you to hold real still. Okay?”
“BEAR!” The bellow that left my lungs echoed among the peaks, bouncing back at me. I kept scanning the slope where Mama would have to be coming from, following them two babies to choke cherry heaven. Didn’t dare look back at the camp. But they’d have heard that. Anybody in a ten mile radius likely heard that, mountains or no mountains.
Then I seen Mama Bear, a-coming and a-huffing, and the situation couldn’t have been much worse. Not being a complete idiot, I’d kept the boy between me and the others, so at least I was the one standing deeper into the choke cherry tree cluster. Unfortunately, that was purty much the end of the good news. Them cubs had been born early this year. They weren’t quite up to yearling standards, but either one of ’em had to go a hunnert pounds or close to it. Iffen you ain’t ever known this, or been told, a hunnert pounds of baby bear is a different deal than a hunnert pounds of human. More than anything, bears are built fer power. Them two rowdy little buggers had come to a screeching halt–dead center between me and Henry, a dozen yards to go either way to fetch up against a two-legged.
And I was now in the one place no man in his right mind ever wants to be, namely between Mama Bear and her babies. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if that she-bear had followed her playful offspring straight down that hill, but no-o-o, she had to go and loop around a bit, put me in the middle.
My yell hadn’t scared her off none, but it surely did help her lock in on her target, which was me. At least I hadn’t been dumb enough to leave my rifle behind this time, though if you’ve met the man who can be sure of stopping a charging mother bear with a .44-40 before she runs over the top of him, I’d love to hire that fellow fer a bodyguard. Bears can be unbelievably fast, not to mention unbelievably hard to stop. I’d seen a black, a long yearling not half the size of this enraged mother, git shot straight through the heart and still make three more jumps straight up a pine tree before falling outa the thing. Plus, that weren’t the worst of it.
The cubs had decided Henry looked like a dandy chew toy.
They were ambling in his direction, jist ambling, but I surely did not have time to shoot Mommy and still git swung back around before they reached the kid I’d jist told not to move. Not that he could’ve outrun ’em iffen he tried; jist saying.
Well, I had it to do.
The Winchester barked once, lever, once again, and both cubs were down. Thank God, I thought, I can still hit what I’m shooting at with a rifle. Already levering a third round into the chamber, I spun back to my left. Got fully halfway turned when Mama Bear hit me. Fer a bit, it was all teeth and claws and bad bear breath; I wasn’t the least bit sure I’d even got a round off before the shooter was torn from my hands. There was blood in my eyes, couldn’t see a thing, and I was purty sure ribs were getting broke left and right.
Fer one long moment, before I lost it entirely, I could hear popping, rapid fire short guns, none of which were likely to stop my getting ripped stem to stern before it was too late.
Hell, I thought, It’s already too damn late.
The last sound I registered was the solid boom of Cougar’s .45-70 Government, and then I was gone.
“Will he be alive?”
I looked at Henry, standing there with his arm around his little brother’s shoulders, watching us work on Dawson. A lot of white folks back East would’ve lied in their teeth at a time like this, but out here you don’t blow smoke at a kid jist ’cause he’s a kid.
“I don’t know, Henry. He’s a tough sumbitch, but some of them gashes are deep, and a couple of places he’s got bites clear to the bone. He lost a lot of blood before we got it all stopped, and the pain alone would kill most men.”
“He’ll live,” a feminine voice declared firmly, and I looked up, a little surprised at the fierce intent I seen in Penny’s face. “He wouldn’t even have gone to pick them damn choke cherries iffen I hadn’t asked him to.”
Laughing Brook looked up from where she was washing out a long rip in my partner’s right forearm. “Karma is as karma does, Penny.”
“Whatever the Hell that means,” the redheaded girl muttered, but at least she shut up. Fer the moment.
Between the two of ’em, my wife and my son had soaked up a fair bit of Believer’s healing knowledge. The three of us split up the job according to our skills, moving as fast as we dared without making a botch of things. Cougar turned out to be handy with the various herbs in Pack #3, as we’d labeled it, so he’d taken care of brewing up and then cooling a sort of tea that–he said–outshone whiskey as a disinfectant.
Which it had better. A dirty bear tooth puncture to the bone was a prime candidate fer infection.
Nobody could beat Laughing Brook with needle and thread, so she took care of that end, stitching the man back together again. Then a paste made of herbs boiled and mashed. That stuff, Cougar and Laughing Brook and I all knew, would draw out the inflammation, keep outside dirt and such from causing infection, and generally make a mess.
Where needed, the treated wound-plus-paste was wrapped with pieces of white antelope skin my beloved had cut from her fancy dress. We’d have to git her a new hide to replace that. If Dawson lived.
If he didn’t, nobody was going to feel much like dancing, anyway.
“Is it my fault?”
Henry again. “No, son,” his father assured him. “It is no one’s fault. Not yours, not Dawson’s, not Penny’s. Nobody’s. These things happen. Your Uncle Dawson did not come upon those bears without being aware of their presence. They simply came running down out of the woods with no warning.” He shook his head. “I have lived most of my life in bear country, Henry, and I have never seen anything like that. It’s jist one of those things. Young bears like to play, jist as you and Reggie like to play. Mother bears worry about their babies, jist as your mother worries about you boys. It’s jist…one of those things.”
“Karma is as karma does?”
“Little pitchers,” I noted drily, “Have big ears. Sometimes even big jug ears.”
“There is that.”
We fell silent, dishing up a late supper as it turned full dark. The Hell with potential enemies; this fire would be kept going throughout the night. It got chill in these mountains later on, summer or no summer. My friend’s body didn’t need to be fighting fer warmth along with everything else, nor did we have any intention of covering his wounded form with a heavy buffalo robe.
Cougar finished eating first, rolled his evening smoke, poured himself a cup of coffee, and began the evening’s discussion. “You know, wife, Dawson did save Henry’s life–again–”
“You don’t think I know that?” Penny interrupted, but at least she done it quietly this time. The girl come from good stock; she’d git through this whether Dawson did or not.
“Easy, sweetheart. Yes, I know you know that. What I was about to say was, iffen he does pull through, it’s you that gits the credit.”
She looked up at her man, puzzled. “How can you say that? The bear was still mauling him when my guns ran empty.”
Cougar shook his head. “Not really. The critter was still moving, sort of, but more in her death throes. She weren’t really trying to git at Dawson at that point.”
“No,” she shook her head, “I don’t believe it. You’re jist trying to make me feel better.”
Laughing Brook reached over, placed her small hand on the bigger woman’s shoulder. “Daughter in law, will you believe what I say? We’ve known each other a long time; have I ever lied to make you feel better?”
“No. You would not do that. I know you wouldn’t.” Not like these men, she might as well have added.
“Then listen to me, Penny, and hear well. My son tells the truth. You put ten rounds of .45 long Colt into that bear. Not one missed. You were faster than anyone else in camp to shoot the animal, and you shot it more times. It was good that Cougar finished it with the .45-70 to be sure, but it was like the first time Tam and I fought together, killing the mountain lion that gave your husband its name. I lanced that cougar to the ground, but your father in law had already beaten it to death.”
Huh. I never had known about that part of it fer sure, not till this moment.
“O-okay,” Penny murmered almost inaudibly. I didn’t think she’d dwell on the topic quite as much now. Hopefully.
“His injuries are bad,” I told her, now that my wife had gotten that sort of glazed look in the younger woman’s eyes to go away fer a moment, “But they could be worse.”
“How? He’s tore up from head to toe!”
“Looks that way at first…but not quite. Let me summarize for you, okay?” I started ticking off my points on my fingers. “Them two gashes across his scalp caused a lot of blood to flow, but the claws barely broke the skin, jist enough to make him look kind of dead on arrival. The skull bone ain’t scored none, and the scars will end up under his hat fer the most part. He won’t even lose his good looks.
“From there, he lucked out down to the chest. There ain’t a mark one on the rest of his head, nothing at all on his neck or even the tops of his shoulders. The right forearm is gashed deep, but I’ve seen a lot of damaged meat, and I’m thinking it should heal purty well over time. He’s likely gonna have to learn to draw and shoot left handed fer a while, but with luck, nothing permanent. His gut didn’t git punctured at all, and I don’t have to tell you how good that makes me feel. The worst chewing he got was that left thigh. There’s definitely some muscle damage there, which we might have got squared away, or then again we might not have. And he’s got a passel of cracked ribs.”
“You know, Tam,” Cougar put in, “Fer setting out to paint an encouraging picture, you’re doing a piss-poor job of it so far.”
I chuckled. Briefly. “Guess it does sound that way. But I really am getting to the point, which is this: Again, top to bottom, the good news. He ain’t got no likelihood of damage to his brain, spine, or gut that I can see. None of them cracked ribs caved in much, and he didn’t git no deep puncture wounds from tooth or claw in his chest, so likely his heart and lungs are okay, too.”
Penny, got up, stepped around the fire to kneel beside the fallen man. “So you’re saying White Bear has got a purty fair chance of surviving his tussle with the black bear. But why won’t he wake up?”
“Honey,” I said gently, “If you were tore up like that, would you want to wake up jist yet?”
She shook her head. “I’m not sure I’d ever want to wake up.”
“You would, Penny. You would.”
“So…how long before we know? You know…one way or the other.”
I thought about that fer a bit. At length, sighing in resignation, I got to my feet. With Sergeant Dawson Trask out of action, it was going to be up to me to pull first shift at sentry. “I’d say, if he’s still with us come daylight, he’ll likely to refuse to die.” I picked up my rifle and turned away from the fire, letting my eyes adjust before moving off in sentry mode, having my final say without looking at the people behind me.
“But how long it’ll take fer him to make it all the way back to the world…that’s another thing altogether.”