The sickness hit us an hour after sunup.
We’d called a one day halt, sent Cougar off to hunt us up some fresh meat. Tam was convinced I wouldn’t finish healing up right without it, and I was still slow enough to git going in the mornings that arguing didn’t seem a good idea. Besides, fried liver sounded like the second best thing in the world at the moment.
Penny and Laughing Brook went down first, puking their guts out in the sagebrush. In between bouts, the younger woman managed to nurse her daughter, but I was some worried about that. What if she was passing this thing on to little Susan? Which was stupid of me, and I knew it. The baby no doubt already had it, whatever it was.
“What do you think, Tam? What’re we looking at here? And where’d we catch it from?”
“I dunno,” the tale teller admitted. “The only people we’ve even got close to in the last couple of weeks are Moon Dog and Jules Fraggett.”
I looked at him in horror. “That means….”
“Yep. Either I carried this bug back from the Arapahoe, or you brung it from the shootist.”
Either way, it was scary. Vomiting first often meant poison, but it couldn’t be that. We hadn’t eaten anything different than we always did…unless there was something nasty upstream in the creek near which we’d camped. A dead horse, or old mine tailings, something like that.
My partner wasn’t looking too good, I suddenly realized. On the heels of that thought came the queasiness in my own belly.
“Cougar,” I said, and my friend looked me in the eye.
“Iffen he gits sick before he gits back, he’ll know to give Charger his head. That horse’ll made a beeline back here.”
“Yeah. Iffen Coug don’t pass out, fall outa the saddle. Which Laughing Brook nearly did, you notice? Pass out, I mean.”
“Yep. I noticed.”
“The symptoms don’t fit the pox, or the plague….”
“You men,” Laughing Brook smiled, turning the aromatic liver in the frypan as if the smell wouldn’t have turned her green a couple of hours earlier, “We have morning sickness. It is not catching–we are pregnant!”
“Both of you?” I gawked; there’s no other word for it. Cougar and Tam both looked as pole-axed as I felt; it’s doubtful either one of ’em could have managed to ask even a dumb question like that.
“Yes, both of us,” Penny said, cleaning up Susan without so much as wrinkling her nose. “You thought maybe my mother in law was sympathy vomiting?”
That set them wicked women to giggling at us like there was no tomorrow.
“Tam, what on Earth kind of herbs you think Laughing Brook brewed up to stop the morning sickness?”
“Dumb question, cowboy. Them girls ain’t about to tell us. Woman’s work. Take a look at this.”
He handed me the Wanted poster he’d torn down from the telegraph pole. It wouldn’t be missed; somebody had tacked up more’n a dozen of the things.
“WANTED, Dead or Alive,” I read aloud. “The Teddy Cobb Gang. How come there ain’t no picture, you think?”
He shrugged. “Maybe no photos exist. Could be no two people describe Cobb the same way. Most likely, though, they figured the numbers would do the talking.”
“Loudly, too.” The number of numbers was even impressive. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen nine outlaws listed on the same paper, tale teller. Let’s see…Cobb himself goes fer $50,000? Whoa! They even number the number of numbers.”
They had indeed, whoever “they” were. The banks, stages, and railroads the Cobbs had clobbered, most likely. I stared, adding everything up in my head.
1. Teddy Cobb………………………$50,000
2. Ben Cobb………………………….$40,000
3. Trisha Cobb……………………….$10,000
4. Casey Jarrett……………………..$ 5,000
5. Tim Jarrett…………………………$ 2,500
6-9. All the Cummings……….$ 1,000 each
“You asked me what I make of it?”
“That’s what I asked.”
“Well…first off, I’d say iffen we come across this here Teddy Cobb gang, we jist shoot the bunch of ’em, lash ’em over the backs of some of our horses, and haul ’em in wherever fer the ree-ward. Adds up to a cool $111,500 altogether, unless I added wrong. We could buy some purty fancy seed bulls with an extra bag of gold like that.”
“The female too?”
“Iffen she’s ugly enough. Or if she’s really, really good looking, I’ll drop a hint that she’s set her cap fer you, Tam. Then Laughing Brook will shoot her.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why not say she’s set her cap fer Cougar? It’s his wife who put ten rounds in that bear, and she didn’t take no extensive amount of time doing it, either.”
The discussion, half joking and half serious, soon extended to include every member of the clan. Even four year old Henry volunteered to shoot somebody, iffen we’d only give him a gun. Laughing Brook got into the spirit of things and started calling her .45 Colt “TCC”, short fer Trisha Cobb Clobberer. Cougar seemed concerned we might not leave any of the killing fer him, what with there being only nine members of the gang.
On the eighth day after this silliness begun, we topped a rise and seen ’em hard at work, practicing the trade of their chosen profession. How the gang had gotten the train stopped, we didn’t know, but it was sure enough stopped. Didn’t have to be the Cobb gang, of course, but when you count nine saddle horses with two men holding ’em and the Wanted poster in your saddlebag lists nine desperadoes, what are the odds?
“Purty bold, this close to Laramie.”
“Never mind them, Dawson. We need to git our bunch under cover.”
“Good point, Coug. How be you hop back over that hill, bring ’em down around on the left. It looked a little rocky, but that patch of trees should keep us from being seen if we ain’t been already. You and I were only skylined fer a few seconds. Hell, the holdup is a good mile off. If we weren’t using glasses….”
“Got it. See you at the trees. You go git the place scouted out.”
We were jist stringing the picket line when the shooting started. Not that it took us long to git situated where we could eyeball the little war going on down there at the tracks. Tam had himself leaned up against a tree trunk with the scope steadied over a branch before I could get my field glasses focused.
When I did, the picture weren’t purty. The Teddy Cobb gang had run into a buzzsaw. Turned out that train had been hauling a bunch of Army troops, back in the rear cars jist ahead of the caboose. Must have taken their armorer a while to issue their weapons, or else whoever was in charge was a sneaky sumbitch. Either way, the robbers had been working the train front-to-back fer a good ten, fifteen minutes before the fireworks commenced.
Buzzsaw, Hell. That was an absolute meat grinder. The soldiers had spilled from the boxcars, no fancy travel arrangements fer Uncle Sam’s finest, shooting as they came.
Nine outlaws with short guns were no match fer forty ticked-off soldiers with carbines. Hell, through the glasses I could see some of ’em had even fixed bayonets. They thought they needed to stick these bandits, too? It was like watching a farmer with a scythe, mowing down a field of wheat. Except that a couple of soldier boys had also bit the dust, crumpling face down in that unmistakeable way that meant they wouldn’t be getting back up under their own power. A field of wheat don’t shoot back on the way down. Three of the nine hung on long enough to git mounted and dig in the spurs, which mostly meant they got shot in the back instead of the front. One slumped over his horse’s neck almost immediately, falling down off the left side a few jumps later. They were maybe a hunnert yards from the tracks when number two threw up his hands like a character in one of them dime novels, shot through back to front., and down he went. Jist the one left, mounted on a gray that looked like it could scat near as quick as Tam’s grulla, finally getting out of easy range fer the average Army shooter.
Despite all our previous banter about murdering this bunch fer the reward money, I was about half sick to my stomach. The Teddy Cobb gang was no more–not unless that lone rider was Teddy his own self, which it wasn’t. Wounded, reins held in the right hand with the left hanging useless, the only gang member to escape the ambush was rather obviously female. Trisha Cobb was bent low over the saddle, urging her mount up the slope fer all she was worth.
Headed straight fer our little patch of timber.
Our powwow had been necessarily brief, but when the horse burst in among us, we were ready. Tam caught the animal’s bridle reins. She blew snot all over him, trying to git her wind back. Cougar ripped the shooter outa the girl’s hand when she tried to draw on us…and I caught her when she fell.
Laughing Brook had to work fast, what with them Army boys finally getting some of their horses unloaded and saddling up. We didn’t have long.
Fortunately, the Cheyenne woman didn’t take long.
Cougar held a pint of whiskey to the patient’s lips; she took down a quarter of it without coming up fer air. From there it was a matter of me holding on, stuffing a rag in her mouth before clamping my hand over her mouth. Her scream when Laughing Brook set the bone weren’t near as loud as the breathing by her lathered horse, and I didn’t git bit. Much.
Tam had the splints ready, jist that fast. We didn’t have time to brew up any of that fancy herbal antiseptic, so the second quarter of that whiskey bottle went into and over the bullet holes–two of ’em, back to front, so at least she wasn’t holding any lead inside.
I got bit a little more that time.
Splinted and wrapped, and then it was up to me to git my point across, since this was my show from the git-go.
“Trisha Cobb,” I got my face down so’s we were eye to eye. Hers were the deepest blue I’d ever seen, though filled with pain and fear at the moment. “Listen up. Can you focus?”
The girl weren’t stupid. By this time, it was obvious we’d been treating her fer her own good, and I seen that awareness begin to dawn, seeping in, pushing some of that fear back. She nodded, jist a little.
It would have to do.
“I’m going to take the gag out, okay? But you’ve got to be dead quiet, or you’ll be dead. Them Army boys will be coming. Your life depends on doing exactly what I say. You understand?”
She nodded again. When I removed the wad from her mouth, she didn’t even bite. Nice teeth, though.
“Now,” I told her, “We can talk about the why of it later. Fer now, my friends are going to hide you in a little hollow we’ve dug out, cover you with a pile of leaves.”
Her good hand lunged suddenly, grabbed my wrist. Strong grip, too. “You?” she asked, jist the one word, but I felt that word to my bones.
“I got a job to do,” I said quietly, “But I’ll be back.”
“Where the Hell did you come from, cowboy? You hooked up with them fools?” The Corporal hooked a thumb back toward the corpses now being loaded into one of the boxcars. He was no kid and no stranger to battle, this one, though the three that followed him looked about as green as any three teenaged privates could look.
“Nope.” I sat atop Joker, using the pinto’s height to put me on even footing with the soldiers on their half-Thoroughbred remounts. “Jist got here from Camp Brown.”
“Brown? What was you doing around there?”
I shrugged. “Looking fer a rancher who gits along with the Shoshone. I’d heard the Indians let him graze some prize seed bulls on the Rez in return fer a few steers every now and then. Needed to find out his price.”
“You’re a rancher?” The noncom’s attitude wasn’t domineering or scornful, nothing like some I”d seen, but he hadn’t made up his mind yet; I could see that.
“Yep. Colorado Territory, down by Walsenburg. Place called the Flywheel Ranch. Me and a couple of partners.”
“Ah. Well. Did you see–” He gestured again.
“Yep. Barely. Topped the rise jist in time fer the fireworks. Like to flashed me back to Gettysburg.”
That got his attention. “You were there?”
I nodded, spitting a brown stream fer punctuation. Off to the side, though, not at the Corporal like I’d done to Custer. This man, I did not want mad at me. “Slept among the bodies like everybody else.”
He nodded and spit. Man stuff. We was bonding. “Been there, done that.” He moved his horse closer, stuck out his hand, and I took it. “Corporal James Q. Bodeen, at your service.”
“Sergeant Dawson Trask, retired,” I replied. “Bodeen. James Q. Weren’t you packing a set of Captain’s bars during the War?”
“That I was.”
“Took a swing at that sumbitch Custer.” Bodeen grinned, lighting up with pleasure at the memory.
“Hit him, I hope.”
“Knocked the rat bastard right on his skinny ass.”
“Damn. The best I ever done was a couple of months back. Spit at him, splashed a little ‘baccy juice on that fancy bay’s white sock.”
Corporal James Q. Bodeen rocked back in his saddle and roared with laughter, leaving them wet-behind-the-ears privates looking totally confused. They’d come here tracking a wounded woman outlaw…hadn’t they?
“Well, Trask, I got busted clean back to private fer that, and it’s took me all these years to make back even these two stripes, but it was damn well worth it. Now, I suppose I should mention, you likely seen one rider make it clear, eh?”
“Of all things, it was the female. Daughter to Teddy, sister to Ben, iffen I understood it right, but she weren’t tagging along jist fer the ride. Seems she’s plugged three men on her own account, so we got it to do, take in slumped over her saddle or draped over the thing. You know?”
“I do know.”
“See which way she went?”
“Lost her when she headed into that draw,” I said with a straight face, indicating a brush-choked ravine a good quarter mile to the west.
“Ah. Well…” he squinted toward the setting sun, “We’ll be losing light shortly. The Lieutenant–a damned shavetail, his first command–took a round through the gut. That leaves me in charge, and if the Looey is to have half a chance, we’ll be needing to back that train all the way to Laramie. Not much more we can do till daylight.”
He turned to the three privates who’d been listening as hard as they could. “Men, I need to go over the Sergeant’s testimony one more time, but that train needs to git ready to move. Ramey, you’re in charge. Tell that stoker to start shoveling coal.”
Once the others had lifted their mounts to a trot and put a bit of distance between us, Bodeen turned back to me. Very quietly, he said,
“That blood trail leads straight into the trees, but it’s looking to rain before morning. By daylight, the railroad will have a dozen men here and a Crow tracker with ’em.”
There wasn’t much a man could say to that. Except, “Them boys with you don’t see much?”
“Them boys,” he shook his head, “Couldn’t find their butts if their pants was on fire. Take good care of her, Sergeant.”
“Take care of your Looey, Corporal.”
One side of his mouth lifted. “The Looey ain’t got a prayer in Hell.”
He lifted the reins, turned the big brown gelding, and headed on downslope.
We moved out the second the train disappeared around the bend and didn’t stop fer two nights and two days. Moving that far that fast wasn’t easy fer any of us, let alone the girl with the bullet-holed arm, but nobody complained. I don’t believe the entire U.S. Army could have kept Dawson from taking that wounded bandit chick under his wing.
More and more, the man reminded me of Believer.
Obviously, by taking in an outlaw with a price on her head, defying the authorites and all, he’d put our entire clan at risk. But so what? It wasn’t like a one of us could fault him fer that, now was it? Without Dawson Trask doing his White Bear fighting thing, there wouldn’t be a Tamson clan. I’d be dead, Cougar would be dead, Henry would be dead, and the women would likely have committed suicide out of sheer frustration.
Nope, no two ways about it, Dawson had himself a girl. She had him, too. You couldn’t pry them two apart with a stick of dynamite. She didn’t cling or nothing like that; she was way too Western to play that game. But she was head over heels fer the man who’d took up fer her in her time of need, no doubt about it, and he returned her affection with interest.
She’d needed a makeover, of course. Couldn’t go around announcing to the world, “Hey, meet the future Mrs. Dawson Trask, also known as Trisha Cobb, the outlaw mankiller with a $10,000 price tag on her head! She cooks, too!”
We’d all worked on coming up with a new moniker, but naturally she went with the one Dawson suggested: Marie Thorpe. If Dawson liked it, that was good enough for Tr–Marie.
Once we’d gotten settled into camp, everybody needing sleep, I’d had to wait till morning to convince the rest of ’em. Our campsite was well hidden. We were deep into Colorado Territory and away from Wyoming. It should be safe enough to rest up a day, spend a second night in this spot…and we needed to know which way the wind was blowing.
I’d ridden into Fort Collins alone, jist one more saddle tramp on the move. In Rosie’s Restaurant, tucking myself around a ribeye steak with fried spuds and corn on the cob, I tackled the newspaper.
The massacre of the Teddy Cobb gang in Wyoming Territory near Laramie was all over the front page. Teddy and Ben had both expired on the spot, as had most of the others. Casey Jarrett and two of the Cummings boys were expected to survive their injuries long enough to be hung.
Trisha Cobb, the Blue Eyed Angel of Death–that’s what they called her, the Blue Eyed Angel of Death–had been seriously wounded and was believed to have died in the wilds of her injuries, according to the expert eyewitness account of one Corporal James Q. Bodeen, U.S. Army.
The Lieutenant had been DOA at Laramie; Bodeen had been right about that, too.
It had been a fine meal in congenial surroundings. Time to git back. On the way past the rail office, I dropped off the letter I’d written at the table. Hopefully, it would reach CJ and Molly’s place in time, before young Sandy made it out the door on the run fer Colorado. She was a fine girl, would have made Dawson a fine wife, but she weren’t no competition fer the likes of the Blue Eyed Angel of Death.
Fer my part, I added one more resolution to my promise not to try crossing any more rivers with my head where the sun don’t shine. I now promised, long as the sun shall shine and the grass shall grow, never again would I even think about matchmaking fer another man.
When all was said and done, the afternoon thunderstorm having cleared and Smokey striding along, strong under me on this God-given beautiful day, I couldn’t have felt any better. Not even when the horse spoke into my head.
“You’re learning, boss. Finally.”