The bull left the squeeze chute with an insulted snort, ignoring his scorched hide as he trotted off to rejoin his cows.
“That’s the last of ’em,” Cougar straightened from the fire he’d been stoking nonstop to keep the branding irons hot, “except fer the late calves.”
“Still time enough left to help Jack get that ridgepole up on the bunkhouse,” I noted, “so’s he can start roofing–rider coming.”
We kept on working, cleaning up our tools from the day’s work but keeping an eye on the visitor. Burly kind of fellow, two-forty if he weighed a pound. One short gun, worn fer a lefthanded crossdraw.
“Hello the ranch!”
Tam did the honors. “And hello to you, traveler! What can we do you for?”
He pulled up. Had to pull some, too; his mount looked to be at least half work horse and more than a mite cold-mouthed. No cowhorse, this one, but able to carry the big man’s weight easy enough.
“Name’s Potter Harris. I’m a bounty hunter by trade. Came out Walsenburg way on a rumor a lowlife shootist by the name of Snake Jenkins was in these parts. There’s a warrant fer him in Kansas.”
“Heard about that,” the tale teller replied, his voice as mild as milk. Out of the corner of my eye, I seen Coug shift his stance. I was ready myself, fer that matter, but Tam never turned a hair. One more reminder never to git in a high stakes poker game with the man. “But the last I heard, he’d moved on.”
“Oh, he has, he has.” Potter waved a hand in dismissal, adding, “That’s not why I’m here. Matter of fact, I’m here to see you–” he looked straight at Cougar “–iffen you’d be Cougar Tamson.”
“According to my mother.”
“Yes. Well. Couple of things. Fred Walsen tells me you and your Dad are likely the best trackers I’ll find this side of Apache country, and I need your help. Either one or the both of you. See, there were four men hit the bank yesterday. It didn’t go all that smooth fer ’em, bullets started flying, and only three made it back out of town alive. All of which wouldn’t make no nevermind to me; I never have had much truck with banks.” He spat contemplatively, politely and off to the side, before asking, “You gents mind if I step down? I ain’t exactly saddlesore, but–
“Please do, Mr. Harris,” I spoke up, “Tie off your horse and come on up to the house. The women always got a pot of coffee on, and I’m betting Marie’s got them rhubarb pies cooled off enough by now to make ’em worth eating.”
“Rhubarb pie?” His eyes lit up. Dark, almost coal black those eyes were, but they did come alive some at the mention of rhubarb pie. “Not that slop-mix with strawberries in it to spoil the flavor?”
“Genuine rhubarb,” I grinned, having fer whatever reason taken an immediate liking to this oversized bounty hunter who was not looking fer Snake Jenkins on our land today. “And plenty of it.”
Harris was polite enough to chew with his mouth closed, so we had to wait till he’d inhaled a quarter of a pie before he got going again.
“The thing is, the three gang members that got away–we don’t even know their names yet–they got a hostage. Excuse me, two hostages. The widow Schmidt happened to be in the bank lobby with her daughter when the robbers busted through the front doors. When things turned nasty, they got nabbed. The woman and her daughter, that is, not the robbers.”
“What about the Sheriff?” Tam asked.
“That’s the thing. Sheriff Olsen deputized a posse on the spot. Not more’n twenty minutes after the bank robbers left, he thundered on out of town after ’em with more’n a dozen men following.”
“So the Sheriff’s an idjit.”
We purty well knew that already, but there had to be more. We waited.
“See, Olsen went out after ’em all right, but he ain’t no tracker, nor does he have one such in his entire posse. Them robbers headed west with Miz Schmidt and the girl. The little one is…five years old, I think. And I also forgot to mention the lady is pregnant, got knocked up–‘scuse my French, ladies–by her husband shortly before he got killed in a mine cave-in. The miners say a chunk of hanging come down on him.”
Laughing Brook was right there, refilling our coffee cups. She was fully healed from her ordeal, or so it seemed, and not about to miss a word of this little war council.
“Thankee, Ma’am. The thing is, see, them outlaws headed out west, and that’s the way the posse went. Only, when the bad guys cut to the north, them tin-packers missed it entirely. Far as I know, they’re still pointed toward the sunset.”
Cougar hauled out one of his pistols, accepted the kit his wife handed him, and went to cleaning the weapon. “And you know all this how, Potter?”
“Iffen you can track, why do you need me? Or Tam?”
“The short of it is, yeah, I can track–but I ain’t that good. I managed to cut their trail, all right, but when they come to a place where they started across a patch of really rocky ground, I couldn’t follow ’em any farther. Plus…there is more’n one of ’em. I could use the help. Besides which, Cougar, I owe you one.”
“Yep. Remember the Schraft brothers?”
“Huh.” Coug looked up from his cleaning at that. “Yeah. I remember ’em.”
“They’d been raising hell around Helena fer months, till you showed up. They were out on the east side at the Mercantile, pestering some young lady, when you rode up and asked if they’d like to pick on somebody their own size. I was working as a freighter back then, jist coming in with a load fer the store, and I seen it all.
“Can’t say as I remember you being there.”
“You wouldn’t have. I was still out on the road a ways, but I’m farsighted. Don’t do too well at reading distance without my specs, but I can spot a mouse a mile away, sort of like an eagle. I didn’t hear the conversation, of course; got that later from the other parties who were present at the time.
“Anyway, you weren’t very old then, I’m guessing maybe fourteen or so, and you looked about ten. Fresh faced, innocent air to you despite them two tied-down guns. Everybody figures the Schrafts took one look at all that, figured you was all blow and no show, and they’d teach you a lesson.”
“Yeah,” Coug nodded, “that’s about the way it went. Them two were slow and stupid, both.”
“Dead, too, when all was said and done. But here’s the interesting part. You rode off with the girl they’d been pestering, said you’d see her home safely, and she didn’t seem to mind none.”
The bounty hunter’s eyes widened suddenly, realizing this might be talking out of school if Cougar had never told his wife the story. “I do hope I haven’t offended anybody, telling that.”
“Not hardly,” Penny commented drily from the other room where she was changing a particularly nasty diaper on Phyillis, “Considering that girl was me. That’s how we met.”
“Oh. Well, that would explain why you didn’t hang around to collect the rewards, Cougar.”
“You didn’t know? No…no, I suppose not. Lee and August Schraft were wanted Dead or Alive. Seems the other men they’d braced over the years hadn’t been near as sudden as young Cougar Tamson, nor had the brothers been terribly particular who they robbed to git the coin fer their next meal or their next whore. ‘Scuse my French, ladies. Cut up a couple of girls, too, so’s their faces didn’t make ’em near the money they once had.
“Anyway, you and your–uh, future Mrs.–”
“My name is Penny!”
“Thank you! You and Penny hadn’t been gone long when a federal Marshal rode up to the Mercantile. Said there was $2,500 on Lee’s head and August was worth a grand. But he didn’t know who to tell the government to pay fer the killings, so he reckoned maybe–
“And I jumped in. See, I’m shamed to say this, but I lied my butt off. Told that Marshal I was a bounty hunter–which till that day I never had even thought of being–and I sometimes worked with the famous shootist, Cougar Tamson. I’d be happy to collect the reward money and git it to my partner.”
We all looked at the big man right funny at that. He shifted nervously in his chair–making it creak with his weight–and held up both hands so maybe none of us would jist haul off and slap him fer what he’d done.
“Take it easy, folks. Please. I know I done wrong, and I got no excuse fer it. I hated my freight job with a purple passion, I was dead flat broke, but that don’t make no excuse fer my bad behavior.
“But I have come to believe in rectifying past mistakes where I can, so when I got to Walsenburg and heard Cougar Tamson, plus Tam the tall tale teller–who turned out to be the famous shootist’s father, which amazed me some in its own right–and a third man by the name of Trask had started up the Flywheel Ranch…well, I thought maybe I could finally fix things.”
Tam cocked an eyebrow, which was at least some better’n cocking that brand new hair trigger .45 Colt he’d had gunsmithed in town jist the way he liked it. “That’s a powerful long sentence you jist spit out, Harris. How do you figure to fix things?”
“Well…I’m going after this gang–the three that’s left of it–one way or the other. But if you could see your way clear to join me in the search, Cougar, I’m not interested in the reward money the town has put up. Not that I’m sure jist how much that might add up to, but–”
“You want me to have this reward money to even out fer the reward money you sort of appropriated back in Helena?”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“Tell you what.” Cougar shoved his second shooter back in its holster and rose to his feet. “I will say, I haven’t known many men who’d own up like you jist done, especially face to face with the notorious shootist, the deadly dangerous and horribly quick-tempered Cougar Two Gun Tamson. But it weren’t about money then, and it ain’t about money now. I hope you can sit a faster horse than that plow critter you rode up on. Dawson, you and Jack be okay covering the place fer a while?”
“Done and done.”
“You coming, Crazy Rifle?”
“Thought you’d never ask, son.”
“Come on, Mister Accidental Bounty Hunter. We got a pregnant widow and a little girl to find.”
The first thing we done was wow and amaze Potter Harris with our night vision. Mine had always been better’n most, and Coug’s is even better. Not that we could track on an overcast moonless night, but fer us, the half-moon that come up around midnight was almost as good as sunup.
My son and I joked about that, said maybe there’d been a werewolf in our ancestry somewhere.
“They’re headed fer Greenwood County.” I had no doubt about it.
Cougar didn’t know that country the way I did, so he jist nodded. Harris, however, asked, “Where’s that?”
“To the north of us and some west. It’s only been a county since ’70, cut out of some of the Cheyenne and Arapaho territory plus a piece of Huerfano County. Likely won’t be a county much longer, the way the lawmakers are talking, but fer now, it is.
“And that means?”
“That,” I straightened from my study of the ground and stepped back up on Smokey, “means we don’t have to worry about tracking ’em fer a while. They have to go through Mace’s Hole, and we can pick up their trail from there. ”
“Mace’s Hole? Ain’t that where Juan Mace used to hide out? Why wouldn’t they stop there?”
“Huh! You’re not hardly up on current events, Potter. Mace’s Hole is an entire town nowadays. Even got themselves a Post Office last year. I hear it may not be called Mace’s Hole forever, though.”
“Some Bible thumper, got a hair up his butt about calling a town a man’s Hole. He’s agitating to get the place renamed Beulah. Which, he says anyway, means married.” I lifted the reins, and we set out to cover some ground. “Of course, some folks think that’s plumb ridiculous, so they’ve started referring to the town as Beulah’s Hole. Not around the preacher, though. He’s a mite touchy on the subject.”
We found ’em jist before dawn on our second day out. Cougar and I’d taken turns in the lead, with the second man asleep in his saddle as the need arose, but the bounty hunter wasn’t used to this sort of thing. He knew better than to complain, I’d give him that, but he eventually started nodding off without warning. The man even fell out of his saddle once, hanging up his offside boot in the stirrup so he come to with his knuckles scraping the ground, suspended upside down like a beef carcass hanging in the meat market.
On an ordinary horse, such a fool stunt could well have gotten him killed, but we’d used our heads when we’d picked out a mount fer this run. Hammer was a Roman nosed, jugheaded sort of crowbait sorrel, but he was also tough as nails and gentle as a house-raised kitten. He jist stopped, looked back and down at the fool, waiting patiently fer us to extricate the fellow from his predicament.
The outlaws hadn’t been there long–since midnight, maybe–but they’d known where to find an old log cabin with a corral to one side. A place long since abandoned by one of the old mountain man trappers, most likely. All four horses were there, including the one on which widow Schmidt and her daughter had been forced to ride double. Their saddles and bridles were hung on some of the top rails…and that was it.
No sign of life.
“They’ll be hogtied,” Potter spoke quietly. Now that it was coming down to it, he seemed…relaxed. Some men are like that.
“No doubt. What do you think, son?”
“They won’t wake up till the sun cooks ’em outa there fer the day,” Cougar said thoughtfully. “We need to git this done before then.”
“Son of the Morning Star?” I asked.
“What?” The bounty hunter was clearly confused.
“It’s a name the Indians call Custer. Son of the Morning Star. I’ll explain later, except to say Coug and I are talking about hitting ’em now, while they’re still asleep and we aren’t.”
“Speak fer yourself,” Cougar muttered, but he weren’t serious. “Can’t know fer sure how they might have that door blocked, and the windows are shuttered.”
“You got a way of belaboring the obvious, Coug.”
“Fer a father, you sound a lot like my wife. How be we steal their horses? They buttoned themselves up so tight, even if one of ’em was awake, he’d be blind as a bat.”
Potter frowned. “What good would that do?” I begun to see that while this guy wasn’t stupid–certainly not as stupid as our local Sheriff–he weren’t necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer, either.
“Why don’t you wait and see, Mister Bounty Hunter. My son’s got the right idea. Here’s how we’re going to do it.”
Putting the pieces together later, we learned the gang leader’s name was Horst Michaels, known mostly as Horse. The two geniuses following his lead were Thomas Johnson, called TJ, and a black man known only as (what else) Whitey.
Whitey turned out to be by far the smartest and most dangerous individual of the three, the first out of his roll when one of the horses screamed like a mountain lion had jumped on its neck. Without bothering to dress, he grabbed his rifle, yanked the door open, and dived outside, rolling over his own shoulder and coming up in a knee crouch, ready to shoot whatever was bothering the animals, be it wildcat or human.
Fer the longest moment, absolutely nothing happened after that. I mean, nobody moved. The woman and child inside the cabin were not only hogtied as expected but gagged to boot; they weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Horse and TJ were still clawing their way back outa the land of Nod, not sure where they were or what was going on.
Whitey was frozen in shock:
There were no horses. A rail was down; they must have gone that way. But what had that scream been about?
Fer Cougar’s part, he had his .44-40 lined up on Whitey’s midsection from a position jist inside the timber, but he hesitated to pull the trigger. He was jist plumb amazed at the apparition before him. He’d seen black men, but he’d never seen one wearing red long handled underwear in the middle of the summer. Adding to the effect was the fact that the buttons on the flap had come loose when the man done that tuck-and-roll thing, so now his rear end was right out there fer God and everybody to admire.
Top to bottom, it truly was an amazing sight.
Now, y’all know it had to’ve been me doing that horse-scream thing, which it was. Beyond that, I was situated with a tree fer cover so’s Coug and I had anybody coming out of that cabin in a crossfire. The idea had been to lure ’em all outa there if possible, in which case it wouldn’t have been any problem whatsoever to gun ’em down with little risk to the captives.
But any battle plan purty much goes out the window once the first move is made, and we hadn’t counted on Potter Harris going all stupid on us. We didn’t really know the man, true enough, but still. Once we’d gotten all the outlaws to come out, come out, wherever you are, the better to shoot you with, his assignment was to git inside the cabin and either free the females or protect ’em till it was safe to do so. You know, plug any rounder that tried to git back in.
With that in mind, he’d been lurking jist around the corner of the cabin–and now he come out, way too early, bent over in a low run that reminded me more of a charging grizzly than anything else I could think of at the moment. He was roaring, too, a sound like…no, I never heard any sound quite like the one he made.
Whitey heard him coming, got about halfway twisted around and halfway to his feet when Potter hit him like a runaway locomotive. Smashed that red-and-chocolate delight right to the ground.
Which shoulda settled the black man down some, but it didn’t. His rifle had flown clean off in the bushes somewhere from the impact, he’d jist been flattened like a pancake by a fellow who had at least forty pounds on him, and he still had a ton of fight left. It looked like them two was gonna be occupied fer a while.
“That tore it!” I heard somebody yell, not realizing it musta been me. The cabin door was open now, Cougar was a bit farther away than I was, and I knew I had it to do.
I blacked out.
Cougar asked me, “How’s your shoulder?”
“Not bad. Why?”
“Crazy Rifle, you still don’t know your own power, I swear you don’t. The one they call TJ had jist slammed that door shut when you hit it with your shoulder. Hard. I ain’t never seen a man hit anything that hard. You had some head of steam behind you. I never seen anyone with that kind of footspeed, neither.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not till after hitting the door. That brought me back to the world. I sometimes have these combat blackouts, remember?”
“I remember. Jist hadn’t seen you in action during a blackout before.”
It turned out I’d knocked TJ cold when that door flew back in his face, then to finish off, I’d kicked boss man Horse toe-first up under the chin while he was reaching fer his revolver. Broke his jaw in three places, near as we could tell.
Coug and I’d gotten so spoiled by our own marvelous warrior women that it surprised us at first when Clara Schmidt and her daughter, Carolyn, both decided Potter Harris–not the renowned White Blackfoot warrior Crazy Rifle–was the hero of the day. They’d been hogtied and gagged, all right, but not blindfolded, and they’d been watching Whitey out there in front of the cabin when Super Harris tackled him like a wild man.
Turned out they’d been more afraid of Whitey than of the others from the start. Not because of his color, but because he obviously wasn’t near as dumb as the other two. As Clara put it later in an interview with the newspaper,
“I believed there was a real chance Horse and TJ would get careless, and we’d have a chance to escape. But not Whitey. When I saw Mr. Harris take him down that morning, I knew I was safe. He’s a wonderful man, Mr. Potter Harris is. A wonderful man.”
Some said Whitey was evil because he was black, but the town would have hung any man fer daring to kidnap a woman and her little girl. In the end, all three outlaws got their necks stretched more or less equally, regardless of color. Which was one Hell of a price to pay fer the amount of money they’d gotten from the bank. Seventy-three dollars and twenty-seven cents. Less than twenty bucks a head iffen you figured in the fourth man who’d died on the street in front of the bank. Not even a month’s pay.
The Sheriff likely would have preferred to see us hang, too, fer making him out the fool he was, but he couldn’t see a way clear to make that happen. Plus, there was Cougar’s rep as a shootist, and Olsen didn’t seem to fancy wearing a perforated vest to his own funeral.
After the hangings, which Coug and I felt obligated to attend, we dropped off Potter’s big, cold-mouthed horse at Jed’s Livery and picked up our Roman-nosed sorrel. Jed grinned at us. “Potter will be right glad to get old Thumper back. Your Hammer is jist about too much horse fer the man.”
“How about the widow Clara Schmidt?” I asked. “Think she might be too much woman fer the man?”
The liveryman laughed aloud. “Might be at that. At any rate, our famous bounty hunter has done hung up his leg irons. Got him a job in the mines. Seems he’s figuring on hanging around. Not that he’s admitting Miz Clara–or fer that matter little Carolyn–could have anything to do with his decision, mind you.”
“Of course not.” We tipped our hats to the fellow who was fast becoming our second best friend among the town’s businessmen, turned our horses, and headed on out toward Flywheel.
No, of course Potter Harris wouldn’t realize he’d been hooked and landed as easy as any trout in the river. He might be some smarter than our esteemed Sheriff, but he was far from the sharpest knife in the drawer.