Penny’s labor had us all scared ahead of time after what Laughing Brook had gone through, but little Phyllis Tamson popped out of her Mommy right on schedule, nothing to it. Proud Daddy Cougar said his wife had them great child-bearing hips, doncha know, and we needn’t have worried.
After the cord was cut, he said that.
The fenced-in cemetery on the knoll held its first permanent resident. His wife hadn’t been ready to travel yet, so Tam and I took the wagon into Walsenburg to git the stone. He settled on a pink granite with the simplest of inscriptions. Not “Baby Tamson”, though. Neither parent could stand those markers that might as well have been saying, “Here lies a kid we couldn’t bother to name.” They gave it some serious thought, finally decided what to call the stillborn. Gave him a male name once worn by a distant ancestor of Tam’s even though gender equipment fer either side of the bed had been present in the tiny form. The stonecutter figured they might want a cherub or something, too, but he didn’t push the point, jist let the matter drop and chiseled what he was told.
===April 12, 1874===
With Marie still two months away from delivery (the good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise), we felt safe enough leaving Cougar to cover the home place when Tam and I headed back out to find some cattle. So far, we had exactly nothing on the Flywheel Ranch in the way of money makers.
“What do you gentlemen need?” It was kind of a dumb question, coming from Old Man Jones as it did. Nobody ever remembered his first name, if he even had one. Jist called him Jones to his face or Old Man Jones behind his back, though he weren’t much past fifty. Called himself a facilitator. Which was, as far as either Tam or I could tell, kind of a fancy word meaning information shyster. If you needed something, Old Man Jones had it, knew where to find it, or right soon would know where to find it. He was really kind of a sneaky gent by nature, but you couldn’t help liking him regardless. Sort of a growed-up version of what they call a scamp.
Tam was ready fer him, though, and I determined to let the tale teller do the talking. A rogue like this one could skin me alive and I’d never even know I’d been peeled.
“Simple enough,” my partner said, pulling out the list and handing it over. “It’s all right there.” Which it was. Watching Jones scan the thing, it was kind of fun seeing his eyebrows climb right up into his hair.
1. Cow-calf pairs, Longhorn………….1,000 each.*
*No animals from south of Waco, Texas. No cow older than 5 years.
2. Bulls…………………………………………..20 each.**
**At least 1/4 Brahma bloodline preferred.
“You look a mite surprised, Jones,” I put in. So much fer letting my horse trading expert partner do all the talking.
“I–well, yes, this does surprise me just a little. The cows…I’ll need to send a few telegrams. But the bulls…do you care what they look like?”
“We’d prefer they not look like rattlesnakes or armadillos,” Tam drawled in almost perfect imitation of Marie’s accent at her most southern. “You might want to be a bit more specific.”
“No, no. I mean…there’s a rancher from Texas–”
“South or north?”
“North Texas. Up in the panhandle, actually. He raises these–well, I don’t know all of the breeding he’s done, but he’s been working with these Brahman bulls , crossing them on jist about any kind of cows he can find. Jist a few weeks back, he sent me a telegram, said he had a batch of two year old bulls–is that too young for you men?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the critter.”
“Ah. Well. He told me he had these young bulls, they all come out looking funny, and he couldn’t seem to find a market fer ’em. Didn’t want to use ’em as herd sires, didn’t want to make steers out of ’em with that good Brahman blood in ’em either–”
“Hold on a sec.” Me again. No drawl, jist curiosity. “Funny looking how? Also, how much Brahma are they?”
He pretended to think really hard. We knew better; all sorts of people had warned us about Old Man Jones. “Their Daddy was a fullblood Brahman straight from India, so that’s half. They got some Longhorn in ’em on the mother’s side; you can see that right off. Good set of fighting horns, at least on the one he sent me fer a demonstrator.”
“Dawson,” the tale teller drawled, “shall we go see this funny looking critter nobody seems to want?”
I shrugged. “Might as well. Where’s this bovine master of the comic art located, Jones?”
“Right this way, gentlemen,” the facilitator said, heading fer the corral out back of his barn. “Right this way.”
Tam jist grinned, but I cracked up laughing fit to bust a gut. Couldn’t help it. Jones was right; this was a funny looking bull. There was nothing wrong with his conformation; it was his coloring. How on Earth had a breeder produced a result like this? Not jist once. either; there was supposedly a whole batch of these beasties.
“He looks like somebody tarred and feathered his face,” I managed when I could git my breath, “only they forgot the feathers.”
“That he does,” Jones agreed. “Sorta made me chuckle the first time I seen him, too.”
“Huh?” I looked at the tale teller. Oh, Hell, he was in his Crazy Rifle mode. I could suddenly see the Indian in him. What was he up to now?
“Not you. I was apologizing to the bull.”
Jones looked like he was suddenly worried he mighta hooked up with a couple of crazies. I made a note to ask Tam–later–what the bull had said.
“Forty-one bulls!” We were celebrating at the Singlejack Saloon. Jist a little, stopping in to thank Jack Prosser fer his timely warning about the late Snake Jenkins. There weren’t but the three of us in the building at the moment. Another half hour, and the first shift miners would start pouring through them doors, looking to wash down the miseries of working underground fer another day. I couldn’t imagine crawling under a mountain fer anything.
“Forty-one bulls!” I hoisted my glass, and we clinked ’em together before throwing down the best beer I’d had in a coon’s age. Which didn’t mean much, since I basically don’t drink. Never could afford it if I was going to buy me a ranch someday.
“Fer the price of ten!”
“Fer the price of ten!” One more, and we’d need to git going. I wasn’t drunk, though that second round had me some buzzed. Buzzed enough I nearly forgot…but not quite.
“Mr. Prosser, sir, do you fancy wiping that bar with that moldy old rag fer the rest of your born days, or would you consider rassling stinky cow butts in the burning heat and freezing cold fer a pittance in pay to be a step up in this here world of golden opportunities in the land of milk and honey and the pursssuit of hapiness?”
“You offering me a job at Flywheel?”
“Yep! Thass what I’m offering! That is, iffen my partner here, and my other partner there, don’t disagree? Do you disssagree, Tam?”
“Nope. You’re welcome if you want the job, Jack.”
“Ann..ann…ann do you think Coug–Cougar will object, eh? Eh?”
“That I do not. Tell you what, though, White Bear. You’re more Indian than you admit.”
The bartender-about-to-turn-ranch-hand raised an eyebrow. “Trask is part Indian?”
“Must be,” the tale teller said as I slid gracefully toward the floor. “Seeing how well he handles his firewater.”
It was a beautiful night fer the ride back to the ranch. The full moon come over the horizon looking big enough to swallow us right up, we had all the seed bulls we’d need fer some time arranged for, and eight hundred head of cow-calf pairs would be starting our way from Wyoming Territory in the morning. I couldn’t remember a time I’d enjoyed myself more.
Dawson pulled Joker to a stop so’s he could puke from the saddle without falling off, which he definitely did not want to do. It had taken me and Jack Prosser some minutes to git him hoisted up there in the first place; I wouldn’t want to try it without the bartender’s help.
Bartender fer now. Jack would be giving the owner his two weeks’ notice in the morning. First task we’d give the fellow would be to build the bunkhouse, with or without help, depending on the day. Then the barn. Unless he turned out to be a clumsy carpenter, but that didn’t seem likely.
“I’m more or less a jack of all trades,” he’d told us, “but a master of some, and I like to build. My ex-wife was always telling me, You don’t know jack, Jack! But she was some biased.”
“How you feeling, cowboy?” My tone was all fake sympathy. I’d never seen this man drunk before, nor ever expected to again, but I fully intended to enjoy the experience while it was here to enjoy.
“Some better than after rassling that bear,” he croaked, “but not by much.”
I chuckled, and we rode on.
Until we reached Catamount Cut, that is.
The seventeen miles between the near edge of Walsenburg and our ranch yard is mostly purty straightforward…except fer the Cut. Even in daylight, you want to be a mite watchful going through there. Boulders as high as the peak of a barn roof litter both sides of the trail, good places fer mountain lions or human wolves to lie in wait.
Plus, there’s a strange sound effect in the area. Iffen you raise yer voice much, you’ll git an echo back that somehow don’t sound right. Twisted, distorted like–well, not everybody, but some folks who’ve gone through Catamount Cut at night swear up, down, and sideways the place is haunted. On the south side, there’s a tiny box canyon nobody could find unless they knew it was there and sometimes not then; it could be that’s what made voices sound funny.
Nobody knew fer sure.
Fortunately, neither Dawson nor I worried overmuch about spirits. If a few ghosts of old enemies wanted to come a-haunting, let ’em. We’d killed ’em once; we could do it again. But that didn’t mean we weren’t wary about going through there. In fact, we pulled up a couple hunnert yards short so’s Trask could haul out his binoculars and glass the place. They gathered moonlight better than my telescope did; you could see through ’em on a night like this almost like it was day.
He sucked in his breath sharp-like.
“Cut’s clear. But on the other side, about…I’d say a quarter mile off, coming at a trot. There’s a horse herd, Tam. And somebody’s pushing ’em.”
We looked at each other, our eyes shadowed under the brims of our hats in the moonlight. There was only one herd of horses out this way.
“How do you wanna play it?” I could plot and scheme with the best of ’em, but hung over or not, the man the Cheyenne called White Bear tended to come up with the best tactical plans I ever seen.
He lowered the glasses. “Dolly’s in the lead. You think you could wait on the side, out of sight, till she comes through the Cut proper? And then call her in to that box of rocks?”
“Don’t see why not. What else you got in mind?” Dolly was Marie’s big gray mare, the one she’d been riding as Trisha Cobb when she come busting into our midst with a bullet-busted arm and the Army hunting to take her down. Every horse herd is led on the move by a boss mare, and Dolly had established her leadership early on. Plus, she truly seemed to like me fer some odd reason. All I had to do was ask her to come see me, nice and quiet-like, and she’d do it. She’d do the same fer Marie, too, but not fer Dawson or any of the others.
“One of your early escapades from your time with Believer is giving me the glimmer of an idea,” he said. “Jist make sure when you git ’em all into that box, you and Smokey station yourselves at the entrance. I might be making some noises that could git the whole herd jittery.”
The last horse trotted right on in. I sat on Smokey in the gateway–it weren’t much wider than that–and listened to the horse thieves register their confusion. I couldn’t see ’em, or them me, but their voices carried clear on a night like this.
Young voices. These rustlers were nothing but boys.
“Where the–? Kendall, them horses ain’t on the road no more! ”
“Whaddya mean, they ain’t–”
And then Dawson cut loose. I knew it had to be him, though I’d neve heard him make no sound like it in all our years of working and living side by side. It was kind of high pitched, not girly exactly, but more like a ghost had got crossed with one a them banshees or some such.
The words were clear enough, though.
“Horse thief boy meat!” Them were the words. They repeated, three or four times maybe, every time sounding like a different spook was saying ’em–and coming from every direction at once. “Horse thief boy meat!” Horse thief boy meat!” Then the message started changing.
“Satan will eat well tonight!” “He will reward us well!” “Save the nuts fer me-e-e-!” “Boys! Boys! Horse thief boys! The other white meat!”
Okay. I got it now. But I weren’t about to leave all the fun to my partner. Them kids was screaming like girls that seen a mouse, or a rattlesnake, or a rattlesnake eating a mouse. They barreled their mounts past my spot. It had been a long time, but I reached down deep inside, pulled the power up from my toes, and let fly with some of them screams that had sent three Army deserters flying outa the woods without even their saddles so very, very long ago.
Once they were plumb out of sight, disappeared around the bend and still digging in their heels, I turned to the herd. “Come on, Dolly. Let’s go home.”
“I take it you decided they didn’t need hanging.” Cougar had stoked up the fire when he’d heard us ride in, hollering to announce our presence. Laughing Brook would have done it, but we were all still spoiling her a little. Penny was nursing Phyllis, and Marie had the Big Belly Exemption, so Tam’s son did the honors.
I shrugged. “Dawson’s call, but I’d say he got it right. They never seen us whatsoever, but we got a purty clear look at each and every one of them. The one that seemed to be the leader was the preacher’s son.”
“Him?” Laughing Brook sounded impressed. “He can’t be but ten, maybe eleven.”
“Or maybe twelve. He is a mite small fer his age. We didn’t recognize the other two, but they didn’t look to be no senior citizens, neither.”
“Huh. So, my warrior, how did your screaming work out when you spanked their tails after White Bear got them going? Were they impressed?”
Dawson laughed, then answered for me. “Your man forgot, I think, that his voice hadn’t fully changed when he screamed them Army deserters out of Blackfoot country. But what he lacked in soprano, he made up in sheer volume. The best I can describe the sound he made–think of an old boar grizzly with his nuts caught in a bear trap.”
“Ew-w-w-w-w,” Marie shuddered. “I don’t even have nuts and that still sounds painful.”
“Oh, it was, especially fer them wannabe horse stealers. And that part about Satan? I jist threw that in there after I seen it was the preacher’s son and his mini-gang. I’d say them boys are going to be doing some serious Bible study fer quite some time to come.”