The new barn was incredible. Jist think, it had magically appeared without effort on our part.
No effort beyond helping bring in a few bank robbers, that is. Banker Newsome had backed water on his promise of a $20,000 reward for the capture of the entire gang. In the end, he’d eventually managed to twist things around to the point of not putting out one red copper penny. His reasoning had been convoluted, disengenuous, worthy of a Presidential-level politician.
Some said he had eyes on the Governorship of Colorado Territory.
A lot of the good citizens of Walsenburg, starting with Fred Walsen himself, were incensed by Newsome’s perfidy…and decided to do something about it.
The barn raising, involving more than fifty hardworking men and boys from the community, had been accomplished in one surpirse-party dawn-to-dusk day. Their women had even brought food, food, and more food; all our ladies had needed to do was point the visitors toward the spring on the knoll so pail after pail of water could be lugged down to the ranch yard.
Summertime construction is thirsty work.
Since we couldn’t see our host of benefactors having to “work and run”, we’d grabbed the shovels, hastily dug a few fire pits, and fer a time lit up the night with festivities worthy of a wedding jubilee. Not that we’d be able to remember the names of all of our new friends, but they certainly knew who we were.
Four year old Henry Tamson had been allowed to stay up until the last guests pulled out, an entire family piled into their high sided Democrat wagon pulled by a matched team of black horses, each with a white star on its forehead.
“Time fer bed, kiddo,” Cougar told his eldest son, scooping the boy up in his arms.
“Da-ad! I can walk myself!”
“You can? Will wonders never cease–”
“Hello the ranch!”
“Wha–at this time of night?” Penny sounded more than a little indignant, and I couldn’t blame her. It had been a fantastic day but a long one; we were all more than ready to wind down.
“Come on in, Sheriff!” Coug’s night vision was still and always the best we had; he’d put the voice and the glint of moonlight off the man’s badge together in a hurry.
Sheriff Olsen rode into the yard, and he looked like he meant business. Not aggressive or anything, jist serious. He didn’t git down off his bay mare, simply give us the word from the saddle with the fading firelight flickering off his face.
“Flywheel, I need your help.”
That’s the sort of opening that’ll git your attention, especially coming from a tin-packer we’d highly embarrassed in the not too distant past.
“What’s up?” Tam cut right to the chase.
“Explosion at the Deeprock Mine. Or maybe jist one helluva lot of hanging rock come down where it shouldn’t have. There’s twenty-seven miners trapped down there.”
“And…how can we be of help, Olsen?” I had an awful feeling about this. Potter Harris had missed the barn raising in favor of keeping his job at the Deeprock.
“Well…there’s plenty of miners champing at the bit to go in after ’em. But there’s two problems. One’s jist a matter of time; them boys tell me one and all that any rescue attempt is impossible till the smoke and dust clears outa there. They figure it’ll be safe enough to breathe by daylight, give or take.
“The other problem is the mine owner. You gents know how them mines work?”
“Not a lick,” Tam admitted.
“Well…they’re hard places, but the owners are mostly even harder. The Deeprock ain’t one of the big company outfits, but the owner ain’t got no more heart than one of them corporations. His name is Richard Clausson, as nasty a piece of work as I’ve seen, and he’s set up out there at the mine portal with more’n thirty toughs, all armed to the teeth. He says nobody’s going down that hole, the accident has ruined the mine, there’s no rescuing them men.
“Gentlemen, he’s figuring to blast that thing shut like one giant tomb and start over with a new hole elsewhere on his property.”
“Robert,” I asked, using the lawman’s first name fer the first time ever, “You’re the law. You couldn’t dissuade him none?”
He shook his head and spat. It’s amazing how much expression a man can put into a simple brown stream of tobacco juice. “I went out and talked to the man. Like talking to the wind. And I don’t have no jurisdiction on mine property lessen he’s committed a crime. Which in this case, Judge Johnson tells me he’s not done. Says it’s a judgment call, and I’m plumb outa luck.”
“You figure we can help, how?” The tale teller’s voice had gone mighty quiet, never a good sign fer folks who might be thinking of getting in his way.
The Sheriff sighed, pushed his hat back on his head, and laid his cards on the table. “I don’t actually know that you can, Tam. But I will say this. My sister’s boy is down in that hole. So is your friend Potter Harris and a lot of other good men. The rules say I can’t beat Clausson at his game…so I figure it’s time to say the Hell with the rules.
“Ever since two ranchers by the names of Tam and Cougar Tamson made me look as dumb as cow sh*t by bringing in them three kidnapping bank robbers I couldn’t even find–alive, no less–I been making inquiries. On you two, and on Dawson Trask as well. What I found out is, every manjack one of you seems to have some kind of history of pulling off the impossible. This is jist about as impossible as I’ve seen, so I’m jist sorta hoping. That’s all.”
I’d heard enough. “I’m in, Crazy Rifle,” I said, and I felt Marie squeeze my hand when I said it. “How ’bout it?”
“Ain’t done nothing crazy fer near a fortnight. Reckon I’m overdue. Son?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Sheriff Robert Olsen didn’t respond verbally to that. Frankly, I had a hunch he might be too choked up to trust his voice. He jist nodded, turned his bay, and rode back out toward town. Horse and rider had already been swallowed up in the darkness when I heard him call back, loud and clear.
“Iffen you have to kill ever one of them bastards, you’ll have the whole damn town backing you up, swear you done it in self defense.”
“That list of character witnesses include you, Sheriiff?”
“Better believe it. Give them miners a chance to dig my nephew outa there, Flywheel. That’s all I ask.”
He was still moving, voice fading with distance as he repeated himself. “That’s all I ask.”
We lay on our bellies, Dawson using his binoculars to study the layout below us. Maybe one more hour till gray light; if we intended to make a move under cover of darkness, it would have to be soon.
“The mine portal’s surrounded by torches. Two men on either side, two out front. Six total, looking purty much awake. The rest of ’em are in their rolls, sawing logs.”
“Can you tell which one’s Clausson?”
“Nope…but I think maybe I can do better’n that. There’s a little building off to the right. It’s got one guard in front of the door. Looks to be asleep at his post, but I’m betting that’s where the boss man is sleeping the sleep of the wicked as we speak.”
“Can’t tell about the left side or the back from here. There’s one on the right. Looks to be real glass, and I think…yep. It’s open some.”
I rubbed my chin in thought. “Coug, we ain’t never discussed this till now, but I presume you played Indian at one time or another during your growing-up years with Believer?”
“Does a Blackfoot warrior mount multiple wives?”
“He does, often as not. He truly does. Let’s git them packs Laughing Brook fixed fer us.”
Skinning down off a ridge on your belly, slithering like a snake over rocks and through sagebrush while hoping you don’t come eyeball to eyeball with any real snakes, all to sneak up on a bad guy’s bedroom window before the sun comes up and makes you look the idjit you are…ain’t as easy at thirty-five as it was when I was fifteen.
Cougar made it look easy. It was the first time I’d ever thought I could learn to hate my own son.
White Bear had the easy part, lying up on that ridge with all three rifles by his side, not a thing to do unless we got in trouble. The third time I run my knee up against a prickly pear, I begun to believe I didn’t like him very much, either.
Naturally, all that would go by the wayside iffen we did end up needing his services. Coug was something else with his .45-70 Government, but no man alive could outshoot Dawson Trask with a Winchester ’73. Or a pair of ’em.
My slithering partner touched my shoulder. We were there.
The window was indeed open a mite. Equally important, we could hear snoring coming from inside. Richard Clausson didn’t let a little thing like the lives of twenty-seven employees disturb his beauty rest. Dawson figured he’d be alone in there. Said the man had a rep fer thinking he was God’s gift to the Universe, wouldn’t be likely to share his accommodations with the peasants.
He’d better be right.
The window went up the rest of the way easy enough. I boosted Coug up, and he slithered right on through. Made just a mite of noise though–and the snoring stopped.
Jumping up, dragging my aging carcass through the opening, reminded me once again: I’m getting too old fer this crap! It was darker inside; only the wild thumping from the bed guided me toward the action. Cougar had our target in a choke hold; it was up to me to throw myself across his legs till the bugger went unconscious fer real.
“Not all the way!” I hiss-whispered. “We don’t wanna carry his dead weight all the way up that hill!”
“Teach your grandma to suck eggs!” He hissed back.
I should mention, Coug don’t much like being Mommied at times like this.
It seemed like it took forever and a day, but we finally got the owner of the Deeprock Mine trussed up like a Christmas turkey with a knotted piece of rawhide fer a gag and an old parfleche over his head fer a hood. If we were to have the slightest chance of doing this thing without killing, our prisoner couldn’t be allowed to see us.
By far the toughest part of the process was shipping his sorry butt back out through the window. His naked butt. The idjit slept with no clothes on. Thankfully, he weren’t really a big man–in any sense of the word. Maybe five-eight, one-forty.
He still got accidentally dropped on his head in the dirt outside the window. Oops.
“It weren’t that hard to convince him to crawl up the hill under his own power,” Cougar pointed out, “once Crazy Rifle promised to cut his cojones off and feed ’em to him if he didn’t.”
“No,” Dawson grinned. “I don’t suppose it was.”
“I’d call this shooting light, gentlemen. If you’re ready.”
I stayed put while my partners spread out along the ridge. Didn’t hate either one of ’em any more.
“On my command,” Sergeant Dawson Trask called out, “Fire!”
By the time we’d emptied our rifles as fast as we could lever ’em, making sure we didn’t hit nobody but spraying a lot of gravel where it’d do the most good, the area near the mine portal more resembled a kicked anthill than it did a bunch of humans. Fer a bit, near half of ’em went running inside the portal itself, less afraid of rock coming down on ’em than getting shot fer no good reason.
The sleepy guard was wide awake now. Having received no answer when he hollered fer the boss, he’d finally had the good sense to kick the door in.
“He’s gone!” His yell carried up to our positions with absolute clarity, both the wording and the desperation of it. “Mister Clausson is GONE!”
It didn’t take long after that. Not all those men had horses–in fact, most of ’em didn’t–so they started running down the road toward town, flogging shank’s mare fer all she was worth. The bunch that had taken cover in the mine were the last to leave, but not by much.
“Looks like that’s the end of ’em. White Bear, you got the strongest voice. Do your thing.”
Dawson took a breath clean down to his toes, cupped his hands around his mouth, and bellowed out to the dozens of men who’d been restlessly waiting some distance from the mine shaft,
“Go git them miners outa there! Nobody will stop you! Nobody will blow the portal! GUARANTEED!”
It took three days. Shortly after sunset on day three, two begrimed miners exited the portal with a third man supported between them. The extrication process wasn’t speedy even then; not until near midnight did the last body issue forth from the bowels of the Earth.
Nine of the twenty-seven trapped miners were dead, but at least their families would have something to bury.
Sheriff Olsen’s nephew came out alive but terrified fer life; he would never go underground again.
In all them three days, we hadn’t fed nor watered Richard Clausson. His employees had run out of supplies early on, and we jist knew he’d want to share their suffering. He’d also been naked the entire time. Did I mention the fool slept that way? We hadn’t been real interested in dressing a grown man who ought to know better. If he’d managed to expire from the chilly nights or the sunburn he’d racked up by day, we’d have been fine with that.
But no, the rat bastard jist shivered and sweated and burned without having the simple courtesy to politely pass on, so we were kind of stuck with giving him his final instructions before we rode out. Dawson did the honors; he seemed to have kind of a knack fer this sort of thing.
“Clausson,” he told the hooded figure, “We’ll be taking off now. Your hands are still tied behind your back, but we’ve left you a little wiggle room there. Given time, you can likely get outa that rawhide and git that bag off your head. Then, once you yank the gag outa your mouth, you can holler fer help.
“That is, iffen you choose to do so. You’ll be naked, except maybe you could find something sharp down at your old abandoned mine. You could either cut up that hood leather to make yourself a loincloth, or maybe a pair of moccasins, or you could cut your own wrists. Nobody in the county much cares which.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s outa them bonds and that old parfleche hood by now, honey,” I told Laughing Brook. “More importantly, I forgot to say, Potter Harris didn’t die; looks like he’ll live to marry Clara Schmidt yet. But he was the last one out. Refused to come up with the rescuers until he’d made sure there was no man left behind.
“Our big friend still ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he’s all man. And then some.”