The first man I saw in my out of body wanderings was the old mountain man, Believer. Not that we’d met before, but I knew him all right, and vice versa. He didn’t look nothing like the ninety-five he’d been when he passed. A hale and hearty sixty, maybe. If that. All he said was,
“It don’t git any easier, does it?
“Nope,” I replied, “It don’t.”
Most of the places I couldn’t remember later, let alone the people, but every so often one would stick with me. My sainted mother, fer example, thanked me after I come across her being pestered by half a dozen bully boys. After I knocked some sense into two of ’em, they all ran. Whereupon I looked at Mom and–on a hunch, I guess, asked,
“You do know you died, don’t you?”
“Can it be true?”
I left her marveling over that and moved on.
At some later point–much later–the scene was different, meaning someplace other than America. It appeared to be mostly harsh desert, but with heavily wooded slopes to break up the monotony. There was a baldheaded fellow walking along, mean looking bugger. I didn’t like him much, and neither did the sizeable bunch of bratty boys and girls following him like a pack of undersized wolves trying to figure out how to hamstring an old bull buffalo bull.
“Go up, thou bald head!” They yelled that at the man, time and again. “Go up, thou bald head!”
I could feel the man’s anger, turning to pure fury it was, and I knew what was coming. In fact, at one instant it seemed I was watching this all happen, but then again, I’d be that man. Back and forth, sometimes almost two awarenesses in one.
It’s hard to explain.
Anyway, I knew what was coming. From the part of me that was him, there was nothing but the burgeoning resentment of those little ankle-biting yapper-pup punks. Their folks should have known better, should have kept them damned kids leashed. But their folks weren’t much better; I’d been prophesying to ’em in the name of the Lord, and they hadn’t listened.
Few ever did.
I couldn’t take it any more. The rage boiled up and over, and I raised my hand, cursed ’em in the name of the Lord.
Two she-bears came charging outa the woods and tore the little monsters to ribbons. I turned and stalked off, satisfied with their screams and their dying. Served the little rat bastards right.
I awoke jist at sunup, gasping out a single word, “Elisha!”
Next thing I knew, my whole clan was around me. All but Cougar. On sentry duty, maybe. I’d worry about that later. Right now, it was time to deal with the pain that come crashing in at me from all sides. My left leg felt like it had been cut plumb off; I had to touch the heavy bandaging to make sure it wasn’t covering a stump. Breathing deep hurt like a sumbitch, so I quit that crap right smart-like. Right arm hurt, head hurt, but–what the Hell, I was alive?
“Glad to see you decided to hang around, cowboy.” Tam squatted beside me, working an Indian backrest in behind so’s I could half sit up without screaming. “What’s that thing you jist yelled? Iffen you remember, that is.”
“Kind of surprised I’m still here, myself,” I admitted, panting, trying to git a handle on this new situation. “I could use a drink of water. I said Elisha. It’s a name.” Laughing Brook scrambled to git me a dipper to drink from while I paused to gather my strength. What there was of it, which wasn’t much. “Pen…Penny…you got that Bible of yours handy?”
“Sure, Dawson.” She looked concerned–blaming herself?–but fished out the Good Book from her travel pack in short order. “Here it is.”
“No. Don’t think I got the strength…to hold it. Kings…no, Second Kings, I think. The passage about…Elisha and the bears. Can you find it?”
“Uh–yeah. Don’t see why not.”
While she was thumbing through the pages, I looked at Tam. “Status report? Henry?”
“Henry’s fine.” The tale teller glanced longingly at the fire, but Laughing Brook was jist now getting the thing going. It’d be a bit before the coffee was ready. “You done fer the cubs, and Penny took out the mother bear the second she was close enough to git a clear shot–a clear ten shots–without hitting you.”
I nodded, which encouraged my head to remind me not to do that again fer a while.
“Biggest question mark fer you now, White Bear, is that leg. It’s gonna take a while to heal, whether or not it heals plumb right. I can’t imagine you’re gonna be able to sit a saddle fer a while. Oh, and you’ll need to shoot left-handed fer a bit.”
“Huh. But I’m alive, right?”
He shrugged. “It appears so, at least fer the moment.”
“Got it!” Penny announced. “Second Kings 2:23-24.
” 23: And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up that way, there came forth little children of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; Go up, thou bald head.
“24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them.”
“That’s it,” I said, sighing deeply enough the others noticed my wince. “Thanks, Pen.”
Laughing Brook had her curiosity fired up by now, right along with the campfire. “What’s it, Dawson? What about Elisha and the bears?”
I looked at the beautiful Cheyenne woman, which wasn’t a really good idea fer me to do in my weakened condition, so I moved my gaze right on over to my partner. “Tam, you remember telling me about you having been Chief Dangerous Man of the Comanche, right?”
“Yep.” He’d seen where I was heading, but the women hadn’t yet.
“Well…looks like I might have been that bad-tempered prophet in the Old Testament. Called down them bears on a pack of stupid little kids that didn’t know no better. Forty-two of ’em, the Book says got torn up. Payback’s a bitch.”
A child’s quiet voice spoke. “Karma is as karma does?”
Four year old Henry Tamson stood right there in front of me, them deep eyes far older than you’d ever expect in a child of that age. If he hadn’t been the very first kid them she-bears had torn to shreds, I’d eat my horse…and the boy knew it.
“You got it, Squirt,” I told him jist as quietly. “Karma is as karma does.”
Two weeks and three days after the bear attack, Dawson was showing amazing improvement. Amazing, but not enough. He practiced drawing his .44 Russian out of the lefthand holster that had once held the .45 Colt I’d lost in the Yellowstone, and he was getting purty fair at it, too. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me none if he ended up being a mite faster on his left side than his right.
As expected, it was the leg that remained a problem. He could walk, and did, pushing himself daily as hard as he dared. Anybody with a brain who lived our kind of life learned early where those edges were, jist exactly what kind of pain meant you were working out an injury and what kind meant you were making it worse. Dawson was as good at that as anybody I’d ever known.
Even so, he still limped purty heavy on that side, and there was no way the man could step up on a tall horse, or any horse fer that matter. Thankfully, he could lift the leg fairly well, but it wouldn’t take his full weight.
“There,” I grunted in satisfaction, tying off the last knot. “Here we go, folks! Let’s git this done and hit the trail!”
My masterpiece was a folding stepladder, made of stout pine limbs and rawhide hinges lashed up firmly at the folding end. I’m-too-tough-to-die White Bear swore he could sit a saddle iffen we could boost him up there, and this was part of the booster.
Cougar had to help him climb the thing the first time, and he had to swing that bad leg over Joker’s back from the right side, but it worked. Of course, the whole process had to be done all over in reverse to git him back down in one piece, but our little caravan was mobile again. Finally. Winter wasn’t here yet, but it wasn’t all that far away, either.
My friend never let on when he’d had all he could take. Not by word or so much as a flinch, he didn’t. But whoever was closest kept a constant eye on him–carefully, so’s he wouldn’t notice enough to take offense. When his skin lost all color fer more than a few minutes at any one stretch, it was time to make camp.
He’d have been better off riding in with the women, but nary a one of us had the guts to even hint at that. We did overrule him about scouting, though. No way were we letting the man out of our sight till he was better healed.
Two hours of travel the first day, often improving fer a couple of days and then backsliding some, but by the end of one month after the Day of the Bears, we were back on our usual schedule. I still refused to let him go on scout, and the rest backed me up, talked him out of it, but we were moving south at a steady enough pace.
We might have to live in canvas tipis the first winter, lacking enough lead time to put up a log house, but our clan was all accounted for and functional. We had no complaints.
One evening, after we’d eaten but before storytime, Penny sprang her surprise.
“Wha–you didn’t!” Dawson exclaimed, but we could tell he was pleased. The woman blushed some at his obvious delight, right up to her hair roots. Ain’t nobody can beat a good redheaded Irish girl when it comes to blushing, I can tell you that much.
“I did!” She retorted, waiting fer our White Bear to take off his hat so’s she could hang the bear claw necklace on him. “Laughing Brook showed me what to do, but I did every bit of it myself!”
He looked down, fingering one shiny, curved claw, then grinned at Penny’s husband. “If you ain’t jealous, Cougar, you oughta be!”
My son laughed. “Dawson, I ain’t jealous, and I ain’t volunteering to go rassle a bear like you done jist to git me one of those, neither!”
“Don’t I git one?” Henry asked, and fer a minute I thought there might be trouble brewing. Should’ve known grandma would never miss a lick.
Laughing Brook told her eldest grandson, “Of course you do, Henry. As long as you don’t mind if Reggie gets one, too. You don’t mind, do you?”
The boy started literally jumping up and down with excitement. “As long as mine’s bigger!”
“Well, it is, a little. Here, let me put this on you. Reggie, your Mom has yours.”
Danged if them women hadn’t salvaged the claws from them cubs as well as the old she-bear.
“I rassled a bear too, for mine!” Henry announced. “Almost!”
“Almost, son,” Cougar agreed. “Almost.
The wind-driven prairie of the Wind River Indian Reservation didn’t do that much fer me. Too much like the Tornado Alley dust country to suit my taste, jist with enough more elevation to make it a bit cooler in summer and a pure icebox in winter.
One good thing, though. Without all them mountains around us fer enemies to hide in, we didn’t need to push our scouts out so far ahead. I rode a mere quarter mile in front of Dawson; he had the point position this time around.
Camp Brown was coming right up, too distant yet fer the naked eye but clearly seen through my telescope, when the rider found us. Arapahoe, looked like, even though this was Shoshone land. Sacajawea was buried here, or so I’d heard. What was that fellow doing out here alone, looking like he had places to go and people to see?
Turned out the people he needed to see was me.
“Ho!” The warrior signed from a good hundred yards off, close enough fer big-motion arm signs but far enough to give him a chance iffen I decided to start shooting at him. “You are Crazy Rifle?”
“Ho!” I’d recognized him now, I thought. “You are Moon Dog?”
We went on like that a bit, jist exchanging pleasantries till we got close enough to pull up and chat like human beings. I knew this man. Not personally, but he’d been recommended to me by friends I could trust.
“He’s headed on back.” I told the rest, “Jist wanted us to know he’d heard we were headed this way. So have others, including Jules Fraggett.”
“Huh.” Cougar rubbed his chin in thought, another bad habit he’d picked up from me. “Well, that would be me he’s looking to find, then.”
Dawson was the last to step down fer our little war council, the women starting a fire fer coffee but sticking close enough to listen in. The man didn’t use my fancy homemade stepladder no more, though he was still kind of careful how he moved.
“Shootist?” He asked.
“Yep. One of them tomfool idjits looking to git known well enough fer the dime novel writers to take an interest. Believes everything them Easterners put to print, despite not being able to read.”
“He can’t read?”
“Nope. Not a lick. Don’t care to learn, neither. Shot the last man who offered to teach him.”
Dawson and I looked at each other and busted out laughing. The former Sergeant hadn’t been able to read, either, till I’d helped him learn. Sounded right funny, the idea of him drawing iron on me fer offering to play tutor.
Specially since I was faster and neither of us made any bones about that fact.
“Well, Coug, how do you want to play it?” It didn’t make no nevermind to me, one way or the other.
“That’s a good question. I ain’t too worried about him beating me, but then again we got the whole family with us. Whatever Fraggett does, it won’t be right at Camp Brown; the Army would hang the bunch of us fer disturbing the peace. Which means out in the open, sagebrush and all…and that means stray lead flying around. I don’t much care fer the thought of that.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his wife nodding her head, but she knew not to pipe up on this one. There’s some things women got no say in, whether or not the life of their man is involved.
“He can’t read? Not a lick?”
“Dawson, I already said that. Your leg bothering you so much again you can’t remember, or what?”
“It’s not that,” he waved a hand dismissively. “I jist got me an idea.”
Every one of us except the men–women, kids and horses–were hunkered down in a deep wash not half a mile from the Army post. Cougar and I were lying out in the sage with a clear view of the proceedings–me with my ‘scope and Coug with Dawson’s field glasses–when our partner rode up to Jules Fraggett’s camp, invited himself fer coffee, and started jawing.
The ornery sumbitch wouldn’t tell us how he figured to pull this off, so were were more than jist a little bit curious.
Fraggett looked purty calm at first, likely seeing no threat in a fellow who only wore the one shooter on his left hip, and that not tied down. He himself had two, long-barreled things it looked like, tied off so tight it’s a wonder his legs didn’t fall off like them rubber-banded sets of sheep testicles. Most folks hadn’t even heard of such a thing, but I’d known one farmer who’d brought a batch of them–rubber bands, not sheep nuts–over from England, and that’s what he did with ’em.
Please don’t ask how a cowboy come to know a sheep farmer.
Things seemed to be heating up a bit now, though. First, the Cougar hunter started waving his arms around some so’s it looked like he spilled his coffee. Then he jumped up and started pacing, waving the whole time. Runnng his mouth, too. After a bit, we could see Dawson git to his feet as well, moving kind of easy-like so’s he didn’t give away how stove up he still was.
Next think we knew, it appeared they shook hands goodbye–couldn’t be sure; Dawson’s back was to us at this point. By the time our man had climbed back up on Joker, that other fellow had thrown his own saddle on a stocky red roan, yanked up the cinch, climbed aboard, and dug in the spurs.
All we seen after that was dust, headed north.
Dawson insisted on looking way too innocent, refusing to spill the beans till he’d had a plateful of ’em with a pound of steak to tamp things down. The Hell with that bear; I was about ready to kill the man myself.
When he did finally git around to telling his tale, though, it turned out to be worth the wait.
“Jules Fraggett can’t read, right? So here’s what I did. Told the fellow about this new dime novel I’d acquired, the story of the most famous-notorious gunfighter in all of Montana Territory, a young stroke of greased lightning by the name of Cougar Tamson.”
“Oh man,” My son groaned, putting his head in his hands. “You didn’t!”
“Sure did. Well, right naturally, our friend wanted to know more about this here new book. ‘Cause, see, he himself jist happened to be in that line of business–as if a blind man couldn’t tell–and he’d like to maybe make the acquaintance of a gentleman who’d made it to the top of his profession. No kidding, that’s exactly how he put it. A gentleman who’d made it to the top of his profession.”
Cougar nodded without bothering to look up. “Fraggett talks all educated like that jist to throw people off.”
“And I’ll bet it even works every now and then. Anyway, when I showed him your book–”
“I ain’t got no book!”
“When I showed him your book, he jist had to have it, specially since I told him there was exact directions in it to your current place of residence up near Fort Benton.”
I had the picture now, except fer one thing. “Dawson, the only dime novel you had in your gear was the one about Rattlesnake Dick Barter!”
He looked at me with that the-Devil-made-me-do-it gleam in his eye, grinned like an old dog wolf who’s jist been told his female is in heat, and said, “Exactly.”
While I was rolling on the ground clutching my sides, I heard Cougar say, “Hell, cowboy, Barter’s time of notoriety was spent in California, not to mention he’s been dead since ’59!”
“You don’t think Fraggett is gonna figure out he’s been shucked and git turned around any time soon, though…do you?”
“I do not. See, you were right. He’s a powerful jealous man, wouldn’t want anyone else killing you before he could. He’ll ride his butt off, maybe even kill a couple of horses getting there, but he won’t let nobody git a peek at that book till he’s clean to Benton or close to it. Then he’ll pick out some innocent bystander, have The Tale of Cougar Tamson read aloud to him.
“Of course, he may very well shoot the first half dozen men who tell him that ain’t what the book’s about. In which case, them Montanans will have a tendency to hang him fer his troubles.”
Dawson stopped talking and reached fer the makings. .
“Tell you what, White Bear,” I said, having gotten control of myself fer the moment, “Iffen Jules I-wanna-be-famous Fraggett survives this, you’re likely to jump ahead of my son on his To Kill list. But fer now, at least, I’m glad you’re still with us.
“Every once in a while, you can be entertaining as all git-out.”