“Iffen we run one line of fence across that saddle,” I pointed out, “the horses are likely to stay on this side of the ridge altogether.”
Tam studied on that, both of us leaning our forearms across our saddle horns while we pondered the problem. We always kept a minimum of eight saddle mounts in the small pasture we’d fenced off near the house, but there weren’t near enough graze in that little five-acre meadow to handle the entire herd. The rest of ’em ran loose when we didn’t need ’em, and that was turning out to be a problem. Mostly, they stayed within a couple of miles of ranch headquarters…but not always.
My partner came to a conclusion. “Yeah, Dawson, I don’t see why that wouldn’t–”
“Hold on. Who’s that?”
Where the timber petered out, maybe half a mile downslope from us, a lone rider had come into view from the west. The back way from Walsenburg, that would be, over the ridges. Shorter, but a hard way and seldom done unless the need was great.
We turned our glasses that way–his telescope, my binoculars–and took a closer look.
“Looks like young Johnny Spence. He’s pushed that pony hard, too. Don’t look like he’s got much left.”
Without another word, we lifted the reins, turned our horses, and headed downslope. Johnny seen us about that time and turned up our way, but he didn’t git very far. His ride really was done in. Something was up, something that was more’n likely to ruin our fine spring day. The snow was gone except fer a few patches, birds were singing, and we’d escaped the women.
Three pregnant females in the same snowbound log house fer a full winter can be enough to send even a sane man right over the edge.
Both Laughing Brook and Penny were due in another month at most, lugging them big bellies around and trying to be sweet but getting a mite snappish even so. My Marie, three months behind ’em on the babymaking calendar, wasn’t carrying near as big a load jist yet, nor had she shown any tendency to be irritable, but I was kind of waiting fer the axe to fall.
“Sergeant Dawson Trask?” Johnny asked when we hauled up.
“Once upon a time. You’d be Johnny Spence, carries messages fer anybody who’ll pay fer it?”
“That’s me. Fer you.” He proferred a regular letter-size envelope, sealed, with some kind of symbol on the front. Looked like a lazy 8 with a fence post through it. I thumbed the thing open, scanned the contents…and seen the look in Tam’s eyes when my face turned white. Without another moment’s hesitation, I dug in my jeans pocket, hauled out a double eagle and flipped it over to Johnny. He stared at the twenty dollar gold piece, his jaw dropping.
“Don’t spend it all in one place, kid,” I told him, then turned to the tale teller. “We gotta ride. I’ll explain on the way.”
We had both horses in a medium gallop before we hit the first rise on the way back home. Tam didn’t ask; we’d worked side by side enough years. I didn’t even look back to see if Johnny Spence, all of twelve years old, had lifted the reins on the horse he’d windbroke getting to us or not. It made no difference what he did now; he’d earned the money.
Explaining on a running horse wouldn’t be easy fer a tenderfoot, but then nothing is easy fer a tenderfoot. We had two miles to cover in a hurry…and maybe one mile to safely converse while doing it.
“Code,” I explained. “You know I didn’t know how to read back then, but we rigged a code I could handle jist fine. Pictures and symbols mostly, plus some numbers.”
Tam nodded, his head swiveling around the same as mine was doing, watching fer enemies as we went. You don’t git careless jist ’cause your mouth is running.
“That straight mark on the envelope meant it was from the man I was with at Gettysburg. The man on the fife at our wedding. The lazy 8 meant it was fer me.”
An early rattlesnake felt the thunder of our horses’ hooves and coiled, sensing danger. It was right in Joker’s path, but he jist jumped over the buzzing thing, five feet in the air and gone.
“Got a shootist, on his way, looking fer Cougar.”
“Damn!” Tam swore, picturing–as was I–a shootout around three very pregnant women and three very young children.
“There’s more. You ever heard of Snake Jenkins?”
“Thought he got his neck stretched in Kansas fer raping a school teacher.”
“Guess not. How good is he?”
“Dunno fer sure. Maybe as good as Coug, almost. He’s a bad one.”
“Damn.” My turn to cuss. “The sumbitch been hanging at the Singlejack Saloon where my man works. Rounded him up a bunch of outa work miners, real losers. Led by a fellow name of Ham Norris. Now here’s the worst of it.”
“This Ham and his bunch add up to thirteen toughs, plus Snake, and every lowlife sumbitch is in it fer the rape. Some want the Injun squaw, some the big redhead. Most want a piece of the bride they seen at the wedding.”
I’d seen my partner kill men before, but I’d never seen the look that come over him right then. What he seen in my eyes, I have no idea. He paused fer a couple of horse jumps before speaking up, though, and I knew that lightning mind of his was fully engaged.
“They don’t know you and me. Or the women, fer that matter. They think two-gun Cougar Tamson is their only real danger.”
“Yep. Gotta be that, or they’d have dang sure brought more’n fourteen whiskey-soaked idjits to this party. Ah! One more thing, tale teller. My man indicated nobody but him knows where they went, or when, or why. They knew they was undertaking a venture that would get ’em all hung iffen they got caught, and maybe castrated first into the bargain, so they was trying to be sneaky. Forgetting about the bartender, of course.”
He looked at me this time with a feral light in his eyes and a grin like you see on a fighting wolf jist before he tears your throat out. “No witnesses.”
“No witnesses,” I agreed.
“I’ll take the point.”
“I’ll take the draw.”
Which was all the time we had to be discussing it. Barely half a dozen strides later, we crossed paths with each other, me and Joker barreling off to the left to circle the big knoll that sat up behind the house while he and Smokey charged around to the right.
I left the pinto’s reins tied to a tree, took my .44-40 Winchester from the scabbard and a container of cartridges from the saddle bag, and slipped quietly through the timber to my shooting spot. A boulder taller than my head sat there with a deadfall tree lodged against it jist right to serve as both a bulwark and a shooting rest.
I got situated none too soon. The enemy was already there.
From my flanking position, I could see the group of wannabe murderers and rapists bunched up in two little clumps. There was a wide clear space behind the man facing Cougar, who stood well away from the house. The door was closed, but the shutters on the windows were open. Two of the women were likely to start shooting from there.
Not my wife, though. Marie Thorpe Trask was right out in the open, protruding belly and all, with her holstered .44 Russian–a perfect match to my own except fer the way she’d rigged the hammer–hugging her beautiful hip.
It took me a moment to git hold of myself when I seen that, but only a moment. If there had ever been a time when I couldn’t afford to be ruled by emotion, this was it. I had to shoot a bit downward, allow fer the elevation drop, but from this distance, holding the bead on a man’s gut would do the job.
Tam would be in his knee crouch, over there in the brush.
Snake Jenkins went fer his guns.
In the time it took me to finish squeezing off my first shot, taking out the rearmost man from the clump of fools on my side, a number of things were proven fer all time. Fer one thing, Jenkins weren’t near as fast as Cougar Tamson after all; his pistols hadn’t cleared leather when he was blown clean off his feet.
Fer another, the very pregnant Blue Eyed Angel of Death had not been misnamed whatsoever. I was kind of busy myself at the moment, so I had to check with the others later to confirm it, but it was true. She was even faster than Coug…and she was a fanner. Her six shots rolled outa that barrel like it was a midget Gatling gun, took down three of ’em, jist like that.
When all was said and done between the six of us, we hit ’em with a total of forty-one chunks of lead. Our women plus Cougar emptied every one of their short guns in the time I’d spit two rounds from my Winchester and Tam had done three.
And still, one man remained upright on his horse and managed to make a run for it. Sort of.
Cougar turned and run fer the house, undoubtedly going after his .45-70 Government, while my Marie jist stood there spraddle-legged, calmly reloading. Tam had a bad angle from that low draw with too many people and horses in the way of a clean shot.
The runner, unfortunately fer him, had to ride right past my position.
I didn’t shoot him. I shot his horse. Nothing against the poor animal, but it was a bigger target, and this was no time fer taking chances. The man managed to scramble out from under the downed critter after a bit, but by that time my long stride had gotten me in position. He had no rifle and his pistol was gone, but he did have a big Bowie in a sheath on his left hip, crossdraw style.
He had it half pulled when I planted my bootheel squarely in his teeth, which slowed him down considerable. “Norris?” I asked. “Ham Norris?” He didn’t answer, but I seen from his eyes it was him.
It took Mister Norris three days to die. The other bodies were long since disposed of, some four miles upcountry from the house, tossed unceremoniously into an opening in the rocks that led straight down. How far was hard to tell, but no smell ever come back up outa there if that’s any indication.
I’d thought to use his own Bowie fer the occasion, but the blade turned out to be a piece of crap, so that had gone downhole with the rest of the trash. What was left of the fellow couldn’t talk, since it didn’t have no tongue remaining, but I’d left one eye and one ear in place so’s we could conversate.
“This’ll be our final communication,” I told the thing, “Iffen you’re lucky. Now, Mister Ham Norris, you’re about to go see the Judge of the Dead. When you do, I suggest–merely suggest, mind you, it’s entirely up to you–that you pass the word. Pass the word to everyone you see. Stay the Hell away from Flywheel Ranch.”
You may think I’m crazy, but I seen it in that one remaining eye. We had us an understanding.
Whereupon I shoved his not-quite-dead remains over the edge and down the hole. I would have some serious karma fer the way I’d handled my end of this deal. No doubt about it; there would be karma.. Which didn’t matter a bit, not since I’d come to understand one thing bright and clear. Nobody goes up against my Marie without suffering the consequences.
Laughing Brook was in trouble.
“Like the wind, son,” I said, and Cougar thundered out of the yard on a high lope. Not even Charger could keep up that pace all the way to Walsenburg, but horse and rider wouldn’t be dallying none. Give ’em two hours to town, an hour to find the right doctor, maybe three hours back if the sawbones had a horse fer his buckboard capable of trotting the distance.
Back inside, Marie asked if I could handle something to eat. “No, sweetheart. No appetite. You might wanna take something out to Dawson, though. He’s been on watch since before daylight.”
“I know, Tam. I’m on my way, jist had to boil up a fresh pot of coffee to go with his lunch. Anything you want me to tell him?”
Tell him? Tell him…. “Yeah. Tell him Cougar’s gone after the best sawbones he can find in Walsenburg. There’s a couple to choose from, maybe three by now. He’ll ask Fred Walsen, grab the doc, and beats feet back here. Tell him…tell him Laughing Brook’s fevered even worse, still showing no labor, bleeding some. And barely conscious. Tell him that.”
“My warrior….” The weak voice yanked me across the room like a puppet on a string.
“My wife,” I told the panting woman on the bed. Panting like a dog in hunnert degree heat, she was, but not a labor pain one. I took her hand in mine. She was burning up. “I’m here.”
Penny waited on the two of us hand and foot. The love of my life seemed near death to me, and I seen enough death in my time to know the look. The big clock on the wall said 3:30. Midafternoon. She hadn’t spoke in more’n an hour. Coug had ridden out at 12:07.
The way things were going, he could end up getting back home jist in time to find a dead mother.
“You think the other day–?” The redhead cut off her own question in midsentence.
“No.” I shook my head. “This is the sixth day after Snake and his bunch. My girl’s seen the wolf many a time; she don’t let a little thing like a shootout in the front yard so much as throw her off her feed, let alone this. Besides, she was fine till about midnight. Whatever this is…I dunno, but it ain’t that.”
The clock said 3:31.
She weren’t exactly panting no more, but her breathing was still labored, her body on fire…and the flow of blood between her thighs had increased. There was no stopping it; all we could was wad up a series of clean rags to catch it all.
The clock said 4:13.
Dawson Trask threw the door open so hard it banged back against the wall. “Rider! No, two riders! Coming hard!”
Damn. Barely four hours after Cougar had pulled out. No way he could–
I grabbed my Winchester and followed my partner back out the door. Whoever the hell this was–
“Damned if it ain’t Cougar after all,” I said, grounding the butt of my rifle, “and I’m willing to bet that’s a sawbones with him.”
The two lathered horses come to a halt purty much on their own, standing spread-legged, heaving and blowing. The doctor stepped down almost daintily–he was a compact man, had that sort of precise way of moving. I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.
“You can explain later why you’ve not sent any reports on your shoulder for the last three years, Crazy Rifle,” he said in that crisp tone of his. “After we’ve seen to Laughing Brook.”
That was the moment I knew absolutely and forevermore that miracles do exist. I turned and followed Doctor Georges Chouteau into the house.
The doc finished cleaning the last of his surgical implements, closed up his bag, and gratefully accepted the coffee cup tendered by Marie.
“She’ll…make it?” I asked, unable to use the words be okay.
“She will. Barring interference by the Devil himself.” He looked around at our clan, taking us in one by one, even the children. “And I doubt the Devil himself could reach her through the protection you people provide. In all my years, tale teller, I’ve never seen a stronger family than this one. Anywhere.”
He looked at me inquiringly.
“There’s always a but,” I insisted. “Always, when somebody’s come back from knocking on death’s door. So, what is it? Oh, and by the way, where’s your lady assistant?”
“You never did like her very much, did you? Which is fine; she doesn’t like you, either. Julie’s waiting in Walsenburg, explaining to people why I’m not there. I’ve set up a bit of a practice in town, acting undertaker and all that. At least for the next year or so. Lots of bodies to study, thanks to the many deaths in the mines.”
“Huh. I suppose so.”
“She doesn’t ride, you know. From what your son told me, I knew there was no time for the buckboard.” He glanced briefly at his patient, all cut up and patched up and stitched back up as she was. “Another ten minutes at most. That’s how close she came.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, gazing at my beloved Cheyenne wife’s sleeping form. Sleeping. Jist out from under the ether long enough to let us know she was still with us–still with me–then back down into that deep, healing sleep. Not a coma. Not dying. Sleeping. “I knew she was about out of time.”
“Penny and Marie are fine assistants,” he changed the subject, smiling, “so I didn’t end up missing Julie’s presence all that much.”
The two women blushed furiously.
“But, you asked for the but. Tam, you know the baby was stillborn and that it was not right. Even had the child lived, a normal life would not have been possible. There’s no telling why. These things happen. Most important, I suppose, is the fact that she can have no more children.”
“It’s too dangerous?” I asked.
“Not now. In order to stop the bleeding, or at least to stop it in time, I had to remove the entire uterus. I meant she literally cannot quicken. The–what you cowboys sometimes call the oven is…gone.”
“Oh. Sure. I knew that. Will it be safe to–” I couldn’t finish that sentence, either.
“Physical intimacy? Yes. Absolutely safe. After she’s had a couple of months to heal. Do you have any aloe vera on hand?”
“Yeah. The Apaches taught me to use it fer burns a few years back.”
“It’s good for much more than that. If her surgery scar starts getting ropy, gel it down a few times a day. It works wonders.” He looked around as if seeing the place fer the first time. A neat, well ordered headquarters, this Flywheel Ranch house, ranging from the rifles hanging on the wall to the cabinets Cougar had crafted. He had a knack fer fine woodwork, my son did.
“Now,” the surgeon said, stretching out his legs and eyeing Penny’s green apple pie with obvious interest, “Oh great white Blackfoot warrior, how about bringing me up to date on your adventures for the past three years?”
“That,” I admitted, “Will take a bit of time. I do hope Julie can handle your office fer a month or two.”