Marie had been in labor since jist before daylight, and I’d been fighting panic pretty much ever since. She wanted me there, so that was good.
Seeing her in pain? Not so much.
Remembering how close we come to losing Laughing Brook? Not good at all.
This was a girl who’d mostly sailed through having her arm busted by an Army bullet, at least once the bone was set and splinted, but she wasn’t sailing through this delivery.
“First calf heifer,” Coug reminded me. “They hardly ever have it easy the first time.”
That did help some, knowing I’d seen countless cows drop their calves. The first time fer any new mother was always–or almost always–the toughest. It’d been the other way around fer Laughing Brook, of course, but Doc Chouteau said that could have been at least partly due to her age. She’d been thirty-seven when stillborn Thaddeus nearly killed her, and while lots of women had kids after that age, more of ’em also had problems.
Marie was barely seventeen.
“I haven’t cussed you yet, husband,” my wife reminded me when I went back inside. “I’m doing purty good, huh.” I’d jist had to take a break, git some air. I’m not generally claustrophobic, but them walls had plumb been closing in on me. I tried not to look at the clock, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Absolutely, baby,” I said, taking her sweaty hand in mine. “You’re doing fantabulous.” At least, I hoped she was. Her dyed-dark hair was starting to show sungold roots; they’d need to be fixing that up again before long.
“The baby’s crowned, but you need to push a bit harder, honey, git that head on through the exit gate.” Penny should know; she’d had four so far.
“I’m trying, Pen, but I’m awful worn. I jist don’t know how much push I got left in me.”
I looked over at Laughing Brook, our resident matron. The Cheyenne woman hadn’t said a whole lot during this entire labor, but there was something in her expression as she moved over so she and Marie had a clear fix on each other’s faces. Then, without warning, timing her outburst jist so, she commanded the girl on the bed to git the job done.
“PUSH that PAIN AWAY, Marie! PUSH IT AWAY!”
And danged if it didn’t work. My woman bore down something fierce. That kid shot out of her like nobody’s business–if Penny hadn’t been ready jist in case, I swear our firstborn would have overshot the end of the bed and ended up on the floor.
A girl, all the fingers and toes and eyes and ears and female parts in the right places. Congratulations all around, one relieved mother, and a Daddy that could breathe again.
“You want to cut the cord?”
“No. You do it.” I didn’t even know who asked the question–had to be one of the women, but whoever it was, better them than me snipping that former lifeline. If I done it, you can bet I’d tie the knot wrong and our daughter would end up with an outie.
I sat beside the bed, hand on my wife’s shoulder as she nursed our newborn. Baby humans don’t generally do much fer me, but I figured I’d have to make some sort of exception fer this one. Especially after I took one look at her and got this pure rush of good will toward the tiny tyke, a feeling I’d only ever felt before toward one other person.
Yes, her mother. Who else?
“We’re sticking with Sadie Marie? That’s still okay?”
My beloved gunslinging sweetie looked up at me, nothing but love in those midnight blue eyes. “More than okay. She told me that’s her name.”
“Oh. Well, then.” I grinned like a fool at them both. “That reminds me of something. Tam, you never did say what that bull told you.”
“Number One. The bull Old Man Jones showed us first off. I was laughing at his funny face, and you said Sorry. Told me you were apologizing to the bull. I figured he must have said something fer you to do that, so what was it?”
“Oh.” The tale teller shrugged. “Nothing much.”
“All right, then. You asked fer it. You know how you been going bald, right?”
“You tipped your hat back, scratched your head when you seen that bull. I think the shine mighta given the critter a headache, hurt his eyes or something. Then when you liked to busted a gut laughing, he jist said, He’s hairless and he’s laughing at me?!”
I was right sorry I’d asked. “Hey, I ain’t totally hairless. Not yet, anyway.”
“Nope. Your eyebrows are still growing like crazy. You did ask. Besides, what do you expect in the way of smart comebacks from a he-cow, anyway?”
“And you apologized fer me?”
“Didn’t want an offended young herd sire mounting all them cows in heat. You never know what kind of calves might result form such a union.”
Penny interrupted. “Are you two done being plumb ridiculous? Mother and child are asleep, in case you hadn’t noticed. I realize I’m not the strawboss around here, but Cougar did say he and Jack could use a little help on the corral fence whenever the birthing was done.”
“Partner,” Tam said, reaching fer his hat, “I do believe these womenfolk have had about all of our witty banter and awesome good looks they can stand fer the moment.”
On the way out, I looked at the clock one final time. 3:48 p.m. This evening, I’d ask Laughing Brook exactly when Sadie Marie Trask had come into the world. Better yet, I’d jist look in the book where she already had it recorded.
Jack Prosser and Coug were making serious progress on the round corral. Plenty of ranchers break their broncs the simple way, jist git a twister aboard, yank off the blindfold, and give the pair of ’em plenty of prairie to work things out. That was fer the usual cowboy types; none of the three of us had ever been as rough–even with wild horses–as most of our peers. Neither Cougar nor I had any recollection of horses talking to us the way they sometimes did to Crazy Rifle, but we definitely recognized ’em as people.
“Where do you need us, Jack?” Tam asked. Tamson, Trask, & Tamson might be on the ownership papers fer this place, but Prosser had turned out to be our resident genius when it come to putting stuff together.
“Reckon one could finish putting up them rails on the far side. There’s jist the one post hole left to dig, fer the lefthand side of the gate.”
“I’ll take that,” I said. “Help me work out all that desire to panic, watching my woman go through the calving process.”
None of us brought up the bottom line reason fer all that fear. Penny birthing little Phyllis as easy as she done…that did help a lot to offset the scare Laughing Brook give us in April, but you never knew if a girl was going to be able to drop a baby on her own the first time or not.
Coug had kept Charger saddled throughout the day, jist in case. Doc Chouteau hadn’t been needed, but if he had….
The number two shovel and spud bar flew downhole fer the first two feet, till I hit a rock near as big as the hole itself. This was a good thing; fighting the fifty pound chunk of granite outa there would get me sweated up proper, a sure prescription fer settling a man’s nerves.
I’d been chipping and prying and working at the thing fer some minutes, lost in the task but still seeing my wife lying there with tiny Sadie all tucked up to her, when Jack’s voice pulled me out my…contemplation, I guess you could call it.
“Lookit that,” I heard him say. At first, I thought he was talking about me grunting over the boulder in that hole like some demented pig over a fresh pile of slop in its trough, but when I straightened up, he was pointing up over my head. Tam and Coug were already looking where he was pointing, shading their eyes with gloved hands.
“What?” I said, and looked up.
Straight above me, standing out brightly against the brilliant blue sky, two yellow butterflies were dancing. There’s no other word fer it. Dancing. Flitting about in figure-eight patterns or no pattern at all, first one chasing the other and then vice versa, yet somehow always staying straight up over me. I stared till the crick in my neck threatened to hurt me fer real, and still they danced.
“You believe in signs, Sergeant?”
“Never give ’em much thought before now,” I admitted. “But this one would be kind of hard to ignore.”
With Jack Prosser working around the home place, a capable man there to back up the women any time it was needed, we three had gained a fair measure of freedom. This fine late-summer morning, each of us had gone a different direction, checking on three different batches of cattle. Back in the hills on their summer graze, they seemed to be doing well, fattening both themselves and their calves on strong grass and good milk.
But you never wanted to take these things fer granted. Dawson was headed up Tyler Creek, as we’d named the little seasonal runoff spilling down from Bearpaw Spring. Cougar had the middle fork, which included Wilderness Draw and Prince Peak. That left me the Hidden Lakes part of our range, by far my favorite. None of the nine lakes amounted to much, covering no more than than eighty or ninety acres in total, but it was possible to ride into that high valley and believe you were the first man ever to set sight on the place.
Until today. “Easy, Smokey,” I murmered to the grulla, “No sudden moves.”
Coming out of Dry Gulch–so named fer its lack of water, nothing else–we were confronted with a bit of a situation. A band of Utes, camped between the gulch and Eyeball Lake.
This should not have been a problem. Fer years, I’d had an arrangement with these people. They were welcome to camp and hunt on our land any time, consider it the same at theirs until the day they got forced onto a Reservation–except we’d lucked out, and they’d gotten forced the same year we founded the Flywheel fer real.
They were even welcome to a bit of beef now and then, as long as they stopped by the ranch house before taking it. One or more of us–usually more–would ride out with the hunters, cut out a cow that had lost her calf to a mountain lion or a bear or the one pack of wolves that still plagued us, and the Indians would feast.
Trouble was, this bunch hadn’t asked, and the meat hanging on their racks hadn’t come from no calfless cow. From the looks of the hides, we’d jist lost a prime cow-calf pair…and one of our extremely valuable, funny-faced seed bulls.
They’d seen me, of course. Not before I’d seen them, but soon enough.
These folks should have been on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, situated far to the west. The Army would come and chase them back if they knew where they were
Their leader came out alone to meet me, which was a good sign. The man had courage. Nothing is as dangerous as a coward caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.
“You are the tale teller,” he signed.
“You know me?”
“All know Crazy Rifle, great White Blackfoot warrior, good friend to Ute.”
Well, that was a start, anyway.
We sat in council, passing the pipe and attempting to work out a solution. Chief Squirrel Talker–that’s the way he signed his name–knew his people had done wrong. He jist didn’t quite know what to do about it. Three young boys had slipped away from the band before daylight, a story that reminded me more than a little bit of the preacher’s sons and his buddies trying to rustle our horse herd. Shortly after sunup, the Indian boys had returned covered with beef blood, proudly carrying the head of the bull and boasting about their great hunting prowess.
“You cannot be pleased by this. All white ranchers prize their herd bulls. I have scratched my head but find no answers to this problem.”
Served him right fer trusting any underaged male. I could see my grandson, Henry, sneaking off to do something jist that stupid when he got a little older.
“I have a story to tell,” I replied, getting to my feet. Fer the tall tale I was about to spin, I needed freedom of movement.
“It is true that we ranchers prize our herd bulls,” I began, pacing my words, shifting my gaze around the gathering to take in every one of the thirty-some men and boys gathered in the meadow, “but there is a greater problem here than the mere hunting of a white man’s animal. I did not own this bull. My partner White Bear did not own this bull, nor did my son, the great half-Cheyenne gunfighter, Cougar Two Gun Tamson, own this bull.”
“No, my friends,” I paused, letting the moment build, “no human owned this bull or could own this bull. This bull was a Medicine Animal, an arm of the Great Spirit, a message from the very Creator.”
“This one bull owned every Longhorn cow and every calf in these mountains. He was given dominion over the land, the sky, the water, and the grass. He allowed our Flywheel Clan to come to the Heurfano River, to build our small buildings, to live our small lives, because we respected his ways. We burned fat in sacrifice, allowing me, Crazy Rifle, descendant of the great Comanche Warchief known as Dangerous Man, to understand his language”.
My audience was wrapped up in my telling–trust me; I know when that’s the case and when it’s not–bound in a combination of fascination with my yarn and horror at what they’d done, offending this great Medicine Bull by shooting him full of arrows, cutting off his head, and eating his body. I had ’em, and I was about to stick it to ’em good.
“The first time Medicine Bull appeared to us, my partner White Bear laughed at his funny black face. The bull spoke into my mind, advising me to tell White Bear he looked odd enough himself with his shiny bald head.”
Another pause, to let ’em enjoy that. Not a Ute one but sported a full head of hair into old age; to them, a bald-headed white man really did look funny.
“But Medicine Bull was gracious, and still agreed to let us live on this land.
“Now, however,” and here my tone became ominous, “Your young men have done the unforgiveable. Not unforgiveable by me; I am human and understand the need for warriors to hunt meat and to bring their trophies from the hunt back to camp. But unforgiveable by Medicine Bull himself, and by the Creator to which he reports.
“He has told me he must do the awful thing.”
Yet another pause, the final tension builder, before I sunk the hook.
“He must multiply himself. Where there was one Medicine Bull with his red hide and funny black face, there must now be forty. He hopes he can stop it at that, hopes the Creator will not force him to make even more copies of himself, hopes he-as-forty will be allowed to remain strictly within the boundaries of the Flywheel Ranch.
“But he is not sure, and the longer the Ute are camped here in this medicine place sacred to his kind, the less sure he becomes. He fears, he greatly fears, that if he is offended again in this manner, he will lose control and be required to return to the Fire Mountain whence he came with his face burned black, taking the First People with him so they burn like the sun fer all time.”
“So has Medicine Bull spoken into my mind. I am afraid. I am very afraid.”
The entire Reservation-jumping batch of ’em was gone within ten minutes after we headed out. Smokey and I watched from my favorite spot, using the telescope to mark their progress till the last boy had disappeared through the pass, looking behind him nervously with every third step of his pony. Squirrel Talker had been more than amenable to my suggestions regarding his route, which would take him through at least four meadows where he and his mighty warrior-boys would see a Medicine Bull or two with a bunch of cows.
It would be crystal clear to the Utes that the funny-faced Spirit Being had indeed multiplied himself as he had said he would do. Not even we owners could tell them bulls apart unless we run ’em into the squeeze chute and parted the hair to scrutinize the tiny number branded on the left hip.
Once the coast was clear, Smokey carried me back down to the little meadow by the lake. They’d taken the cow, hide, hair, horns and all, but only the meat from the bull…and nothing from the calf. All according to my not so subtle recommendations, of course.
“Hope you don’t mind acting as a pack horse fer a while, Smoke,” I told the grulla. He didn’t comment about that one way or the other. It would be a long hike back to the house–seven miles, more or less–but we’d not had veal in a coon’s age. The head of the bull was some awkward to lash onto the load, riding saddles and pack saddles not exactly being equivalent, but I wanted the horns and Laughing Brook would want the brains fer tanning.
Then the hide, covering everything else, and we were good to go. The hide that had the number “1” branded neatly on the left hip.
“Well,” I said more or less to myself as we started the long hike back up Dry Gulch toward the pass, “At least them Utes might think twice about taking advantage of our hospitality in the future.” Which is when I seen that #1 bull in my mind’s eye, clear as could be.
“Thanks. I’ll be back.”
“Good,” I told him. “We’ll be glad to have you.”
Despite having answered appropriately, I’d startled some when he said that. He’d be back? Reincarnated as a new calf, maybe. I’d have to keep a close eye on next year’s crop, jist in case. The big Appaloosa stud, Wolf, had come back as Smokey; why couldn’t a herd bull do the same thing were he to so desire?
Too deep a thought fer my shallow mind at the moment, but I did know I’d demonstrated one thing here today. Crazy Rifle or no Crazy Rifle, there’s a reason they call me Tam the tall tale teller.