When I finished reading the article aloud, I handed the newspaper back to Tam. He handed it to Penny fer tucking into storage in one of the packs. The reporter, obviously obsessed with alliteration, had luridly titled the piece: Deadly Teddy Cobb Gang Decimated by Deadlier Dragoons. Never mind that dragoons were never any match fer true cavalry or that the United States Army had never used dragoons in the first place.
What does that word mean, anyway, I thought irrelevantly, Goons in drag?
There was a silence fer a time, broken only by the crackling of the flames and the welcome sound of fresh coffee being poured. We all watched our Marie, trying not to be too obvious about it. Our Marie? No. My Marie. Last night, our first night of rest since we’d begun our flight from the Laramie area, she’d joined me under my blankets. Not romantically, you understand.
Neither one of us could have stayed awake…and there’s something about knowing you need to be careful not to bump a girl’s bullet-holed, busted arm that sort of puts a touch of hesitation in a man. In this man, anyway. Not that the parts I was in contact with had turned me off any fer as long as I was awake.
“It’s a wonder it took this long.” My Marie spoke, lifting her head, looking around the circle, staring each and every one of us in the eye. Lord, but the girl was stunning. I’d read about sun-gold hair, but this was the first time I’d seen it. Laughing Brook said we needed to dye that. She was right, of course, so I drank in the look of it this one evening. She’d be a brunette by bedtime.
“How so?” I asked quietly, afraid a loud word might shatter something I didn’t want shattered.
She took a deep breath, let it out, and told us. “Without our mother, there never would have been a Teddy Cobb gang in the first place. During the War, Father served with distinction, went all the way to Major, even served fer a while on General Lee’s personal staff. But when the War was over, Mrs. Lucinda Louella Cobb destroyed the man.”
Cougar looked a mite confused, likely from the way she talked about her folks. “This Lucinda Louella–your Mom?”
“My mother,” she corrected Coug, but easy-like. There didn’t seem to be the slightest hardness in her, which was a wonder and then some. “I never had a Mom. Not in the sense of someone you could–we were never close. I’m already closer to Laughing Brook and Penny than I ever was to Lucy Lou.”
It seemed like a real good idea fer us men not to interrupt no more, so we shut up.
“Lucy Lou whined and nagged at Father, pushed him to leave Virginia to the carpetbaggers, come out West and git a new start. I’m not sure if she thought he could strike gold or horse trade his way to fame and fortune, or what. That was early ’66, and I weren’t but nine at the time. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention.”
Nine in ’66? But this was only ’73, seven years later–she was sixteen? Or maybe seventeen, depending on her birthday. Well, so I was twenty-eight; so what? At least she weren’t fourteen or eleven like them gals Tam had been trying to line me up with. And she was some developed sixteen, both physically and mentally.
Sixteen. I could go with that.
“The thing was,” she took down a sip of coffee, looking contemplative as could be, “A lot of people look down on men who wore the gray. Father couldn’t git hired a lot of places, or when he did, purty soon he got fired and had to start all over again. Meantime, Lucy Lou was demanding things. A new dress, or fine food that cost an arm and a leg and maybe more’n that. Father struggled and struggled to make her happy, but there was no way to do such a thing with that woman. Fer four years, he hung in there…and then one day he snapped.”
“I’d jist turned thirteen, so it must have been in November. I remember there was snow on the ground, up in the Utah country. Them Mormons had been sometimes helpful and sometimes not. That day, Major Theodore J. Cobb turned bandit, became Teddy Cobb the highwayman. He held up a stage single handed–we didn’t know that’s what he’d done, not at first, but he came riding back to camp with money, a pretty necklace for Lucy Lou, and a whole load of groceries we hadn’t seen in a coon’s age.”
Penny hadn’t said a thing before this, but she had to ask. “Was the necklace bought with money from the holdup or taken from a passenger?”
Marie looked at her redheaded friend and new big sister in horror. “Father would never take a lady’s jewelry, Pen! He’d bought it at a store, a place right next to where he’d gotten the groceries.”
“No offense, honey. I jist needed to understand fer sure.”
“No,no, he was an honest man. I mean, in that way he was honest. But there was a posse. They found us. You’d think a man who’d been a Major in the War could hide his tracks, but however it happened, they found us. I remember it was after dark. We had a little campfire, didn’t put it out at dusk like you folks do, I think because Lucy Lou insisted. That man never could say no to that woman.
“He’d have talked his way out of it, too, I truly believe he would have, but Lucy Lou had to start running her mouth. By the time she got done describing the ancestry of the Sheriff and every single one of those seven men he’d deputized fer the chase, she’d also said way too many of the wrong things. It was obvious they had the right man, and the lawman told Father he was under arrest.”
“Huh,” Tam put in. “I hadn’t heard that Teddy Cobb had ever been arrested even once.”
“He never was, no. The Sheriff said it, but my crazy kid brother–Benny was twelve at the time–had been laying in our wagon all this time. The posse didn’t even know he was there. Dumb kid poked his old squirrel gun out there about that time and shot the Sheriff right between the eyes.”
“Oops!” Laughing Brook said. Marie looked at her, grinned out of one side of her mouth, and agreed.
“Oops indeed. There was a lot of lead flying immediately after that, the most I ever seen till that day at the tracks. Benny lived through that night ’cause he was jist lucky, no other reason. I made it ’cause I had the sense to dive headlong behind some bushes and scramble through the snow till I could get hidden good. Didn’t lift my head till the shooting was done.
“Father, as one might expect of a veteran with his experience, done what any crazy man would do after he seen his stunningly beautiful but exceedingly stupid wife go down hard, riddled stem to stern with wild shots from them seven deputies. He got to her long enough to see she was fer sure dead or dying, bleeding like a stuck pig and her eyes glazing already. Then he turned on that posse.
“Killed ’em all but one, and that one ran long enough and hard enough to tell the story. From then on, it was root hog or die. From the moment Benny squeezed that trigger, I ain’t had a moment day or night I wasn’t scared somebody was gonna gun us down…till last night, Dawson.”
She looked at me then, her midnight blue eyes so open and full of trust, I ’bout choked up jist sitting there minding my own business.
“Last night, when you held me through the night. When Cougar and Tam split the sentry duty, dead on their feet but doing it ’cause they had it to do. When Laughing Brook and Penny both somehow woke up every couple of hours and checked on us, jist to make sure my arm was okay, even though they didn’t know I knew.
“I knew, but barely, and I’d go right back to sleep safe and sound.
“Folks,” she finished up, “I knew when Lucy Lou like to got us all shot to ribbons that no Cobb would ever have a moment’s peace till every last one of us was rubbed out, gone from this Earth. The only thing I didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that Marie Thorpe would rise from the ashes of Trisha Cobb’s death. I owe all y’all everything.
“My life is yours.”
There were tears running down her purty face. I may be a tad dense at times, but that surely did sound like my cue. Before I knew it, I had the girl hugged up about as much as was humanly possible without bumping that bum arm.
“All fer one and one fer all,” I told her. “It cuts both ways.”
It had been a long trek from the Greasy Grass, west to take in Yellowstone National Park–where both Dawson and I had nearly ended up dead, with young Henry having a couple closer calls than the boy knew. Add to that the acquisition of a soon-to-be wife fer Dawson, the former Blue Eyed Angel of Death now known as Marie Thorpe, and even one of them dime novel writers would have to agree we’d covered some ground.
A long trek, but we were here now. The Flywheel Ranch was our home, even though the place was abandoned fer the day.
It was October third, 1873. No snow yet this far south, and with the sun shining, we’d gone ahead, set up the wedding to be held in the big open space out back of Walsen Mercantile. Fred Walsen had been more than gracious, especially once he’d met the stunning young bride to be. Marie Thorpe, of the Virginia Thorpes that had been wiped out during the War, an orphaned young southern belle, could charm the socks off any man without half trying. With her jet black hair, midnight blue eyes, and that slight southern drawl she could thicken when she needed to lay on the honey, y’all….
Let’s jist say my friend Fred was more than willing to help make sure this was a wedding the town would remember fer some time to come.
We, the Flywheel clan, had decided the best way to protect Marie was to hide her right out in the open, let the local newsrag put her wedding picture in the paper, parade her around a bit as a new ranch wife, come from afar. Not the sungold hair, naturally; that would be pushing things. Our Marie would need to have the other women keep coloring her naturally glorious tresses till she turned gray of old age.
A small price to pay fer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with a man like Dawson Trask.
The Wedding March sounded, not played on a pipe organ–there being none handy–but on fife and drum. Played by men who’d served in the War, one of whom had known Sergeant Trask back at Gettysburg.
“There’s our song, daughter,” I said quietly out of the side of my mouth. “You ready?”
“I was born ready fer this,” the girl at my side replied. “Dad.”
We weren’t pretending to the world that I was her real father, of course, jist that I was standing in fer her dearly departed sire. She linked her arm in mine, and we begun the slow, stately tread toward the makeshift altar where the groom waited. My store bought suit itched and scratched some, but if I looked as good in it as Dawson did in his, it was worth the misery.
Besides, this was Marie’s day, anyway. Men don’t give a hoot nor a holler about the wedding itself; they jist want to survive the nuptials long enough to git to the wedding night. Or so I’ve been told.
It weren’t till I handed the girl off to my partner and stepped to the side that I was really able to relax and eyeball what the women had come up with fer finery. My wife was Cheyenne and proud of it, so she’d gone with a beaded antelope skin, but when we told her only the bride should be wearing white, she’d got plumb creative. How she’d colored that skin a light turquoise blue, I had no idea whatsoever, but she done it.
Redheaded Penny was a treat fer the eyes her ownself, having matched that color in a dress that made it clear her height–five foot eight–did not mean she lacked curves. Brick red hair plus sky blue eyes above a turquoise dress, I discovered, made fer a nice combination.
Cougar, at his wife’s side, was the only one of us Flywheel men who looked totally at ease in his fancy suit. My son had the sartorial instincts of a dandy.
Ah, but the bride. Five-five, one twenty-five, and one hunnert and ten percent female. That jet black hair, fake color or not, went jist fine with them midnight blue eyes. Laughing Brook had made her own dress, Penny had lucked out and found one at the Mercantile that only had to be fitted a little bit, but fer Marie, we’d gone all out. Hired a seamstress who happened to be visiting from Denver with her husband.
Don’t ask me all the fashion details; that ain’t my strong suit. But I can tell you it fit her right, there was lace at the neck and cuffs, it sort of gleamed in places–satin, maybe–and the overall effect was to make every man in attendance hog wild jealous of Dawson, right on the spot.
“Do you take this man…” the preacher said, and when she said kind of breathy-like, “I do,” she added a bit extra. “Always and forever.”
The thing was, them two hadn’t even done it yet. I’d never thought of the great fighting White Bear, my friend and partner Dawson Trask, as any kind of prude, but he’d somehow managed to hold that girl under the blankets every night fer the past two months and four days without once mounting her.
Which had driven young Marie some crazy; I can tell you that much. One night, still out on the trail, my jug ears had caught her barely audible whisper to her man.
“Don’t you want me?”
“With all my heart and…uh…a few other things,” he’d replied, “But we can wait till we stand up in front of a preacher.”
You could tell she was choking back a giggle when she said, “From what I”m feeling back there, I think one of those other things kind of disagrees about that!”
I’d spaced off, remembering. Marie was staring up at her man in absolute adoration, Dawson was looking all strong, cool and collected, and the preacher was saying, “You may kiss the bride.”
Which he did. Right through her veil, not quite remembering to lift the thing first.
The crowd of more than two hundred laughed uproariously at that–of course, half of ’em was drunk already–and the bride got the giggles fer real. Her husband grinned at the way he’d blown his own image of the guy who had it under control, lifted the veil, and done it right this time.
Which stopped them giggles right sudden-like.
“Storm’s a-coming,” Cougar remarked, telling us what we already knew. “Snow by dark.”
I finished the notch in the log, but the axe blade needed a bit of sharpening. Time to set a bit, work the thing over with the bastard file. “The walls are high enough. Iffen we throw a temporary ridgepole across the top, there’d be time enough to drape canvas fer a roof.”
“Wouldn’t be enough pitch to keep a major snow load from dumping everything in on top of us,” Dawson observed, “But if one of us patrolled every hour or so till the storm passed, we could keep enough scraped off to git through fer a while.”
Why not? It should beat living in the tipi, all crammed in on top of one another. This first log house would be only one of three–four, actually, if you counted the bunkhouse fer the crew we’d be hiring when the time was right. The twelve-inch logs had been salvaged from deadfalls we’d found lying on the ground. Or rather, lying with their branches still holding them a bit up off the ground fer the most part.
Living trees would need to be cut to build the other houses; there weren’t near enough non-rotted deadfall timber or standing dead timber within dragging distance fer those. We’d log in the spring, bark the logs, and leave ’em to dry till late summer.
Then build like madmen.
For now, though, our entire clan would sleep a whole lot better inside four stout log walls. Such a place can be defended without the need to post sentries, fer one thing.
The wind howled outside enough to flap the jury rigged canvas roof more than a bit, but the Franklin stove warmed the entire place jist fine. Four year old Henry sat with his grandfather–that would be me–learning to sharpen the axe. His Dad had decided he was old enough to start splitting firewood, his first chore, and the little guy was some excited about that.
Reggie, about to turn three, was as sound asleep as his little sister.
“I’ve never had a stove you could actually cook on, Tam,” Laughing Brook beamed at me, “Do you realize that?”
“I have,” Penny said, “But not fer some time now. I do believe I’m going to adapt to this stay-in-one-place ranching life jist fine.”
“Me too,” Marie Thorpe Trask agreed, midnight blue eyes sparkling, “Especially since I’m purty sure my husband done put a bun in my oven.”