Marie spoke, lips to my ear, quietly in the dark. “Husband, do you wish to have more children soon?”
That question is not the sort any married man takes lightly. Not if he’s got a brain in his head, he don’t. I got the feeling this had been percolating in my wife’s mind fer more than a while. Tam and Laughing Brook were asleep in the other room, so we’d still need to keep our voices down if we didn’t want to disturb them, but the sense of space and freedom I felt at this moment was downright impressive.
It’s amazing how much bigger a house seems after you move six people out of the place.
Cougar and Penny plus their four ankle-biters now had their own quarters, a brand new home that was actually larger than this one. We now had some degree of privacy.
But…why was the love of my life asking this particular question at this particular time? Was she wanting to get pregnant again and wondering why she hadn’t? Leery of all that hassle and not wanting any more kids, at least fer a while? Worried about not pleasing me iffen she didn’t have enough, or worried about not pleasing me in bed if she was knocked up or healing up all the time? I didn’t have a clue–
I’d taken too long thinking about it. “I was thinking, honey. Hadn’t really thought much about it before.”
“Nope. Guess things jist seemed to be kind of going along, more’n enough to do, and the kid thing was sorta taking care of itself.”
She said nothing to that until I asked, “Wife?”
“I…we have a choice. Did you know that?”
Uh-oh. “Well…I know if we don’t make any more whoopee, we don’t have any more baby. I do dearly hope you’re not leading up to something like that, though.”
Her stifled giggle set my mind at ease on that score. “No, no, never that. Babies optional. Whoopee required.”
I grinned so big, she likely seen my teeth flashing in the hint of moonlight coming through the curtains. “That’s good to hear, honey. Right good to hear. How about–”
“In a minute, silly. About the babies, first. Laughing Brook taught me. There is a medicine I can take–she knows the plants and how to fix them–if we do not want me to quicken. Or, there is even another way to make me more fertile, if….” She trailed off.
“You’ve been taking the no-kid mix, haven’t you?”
“Are you mad?”
“Never. I could never be mad at you. I do wonder why you didn’t bring this up earlier.”
She sighed, a soft breath that almost made me forget what we’d been talking about. Blow in my ear, my little blue-eyed gunslinging sweetie, and I’ll mount you anywhere. We weren’t done with the conversation jist yet, though.
“It was impossible. The house was so full of people, you men had to step outside to fart. A whisper in a man’s ear would have been heard by one of them little jugs with big ears, or worse, by Penny.”
That surprised me. “Penny ain’t in on this?”
“No, darling. Jist me and Laughing Brook. And now you. Not even Tam.”
“Huh. Well…honey, I truly don’t care how many kids we have or when we have ’em, long as you don’t decide to go for it after you git as old as Laughing Brook.”
“Good.” All the tension went out of her body; she melted to me in the way only Marie had ever been able to do. “We can talk more in the morning.”
The four of us headed out right after breakfast. Sitting atop Joker, still and ever the tallest horse in the herd, I towered over the women riding along on either side of me and the big pinto. Even on the big gray mare she’d been riding the first time we seen her, Marie looked every bit the part of the little woman with her papoose on her back, flanking her awesome warrior, the high and mighty White Bear.
On the other side–the right; Marie rode on my left–Laughing Brook come across as absolutely tiny. The Cheyenne woman still favored what white folks generally called Indian ponies, the Spanish-blood mustangs.
Cougar would be riding up Tyler Creek today, with Tam covering the Prince Peak area. We believed in rotating, so that every one of us knew every acre of the graze that fed our herds.
My travel would take me–us, rather–through Dry Gulch Pass to the nine Hidden Lakes. The snow that had hit the night Reggie ran off had melted; it was a fine, sunshiny, blue-sky day in mid-October. Indian summer. There wouldn’t be any more of these check-on-the-cattle rides this year; next week, we’d start moving ’em out of the hills, pushing the Longhorn cow-calf pairs and funny face half-Brahma bulls down to the low, open meadows fer the winter.
Laughing Brook and Marie had known this, had schemed and plotted together to go with me this one time.
“Crazy Rifle,” the woman had said jist this morning when the eggs and bacon were down and the coffee doing its thing, “I would very much like to see these Hidden Lakes about which you wax so poetic. Which one of you is headed that way today?”
She knew very well that Dawson Trask aka White Bear aka the pawn fer these conniving females was the fellow headed that way, of course. And I knew enough to sit there like I didn’t know what was up and sip my coffee in silence.
Marie and baby Sadie had been added to the group as an “afterthought”. Uh-huh. Right.
Made me wonder how many times it was me who’d been duped, no idea what was going on, jist happily ignorant in the belief I was at least one third in charge of this Flywheel Ranch operation.
Females, I was coming to realize, are sneaky.
Not that it upset me none, or at least not very much. I understood their reasoning. Big, redheaded Penny Tamson was a perfect wife fer Cougar; you could see it in ’em. But she did set some store by her King James version of the Bible, or at least by her interpretations of it. She took the injunction to be fruitful and multiply at face value; if she didn’t wind up pumping out a dozen or more baby Tamsons before she was done, it wouldn’t be fer lack of trying. We loved her, no question, but she was not a gal you’d pick fer a discussion on birth control.
Nor could either Tam or Coug be told what we were up to. Tam would tell Cougar, Cougar would tell Penny, and she’d end up being offended, hurt inside if nothing else. Sure we were headed fer Hell.
Personally, I figured torturing ol’ Ham the wannabe rapist fer three days before dumping what was left of him down an endless hole was more likely to earn me some time in the Eternal Fires, but you can’t argue with a believer. It jist don’t work.
“We couldn’t wait any longer.” Laughing Brook spoke up, now that we were well away from the others. “The plants I need must be harvested at this time of year, and I’m about out of the little bit I had with me.”
“You say you’re purty sure they grow near the lakes?”
“I’ve always found them near water,” she shrugged, “so the odds are good.”
It was right at seven miles to git where we were going, which give us time to either talk or travel in companionable silence like we’d done all the way down from Montana Territory. After a bit, the quiet having done its magic, I realized I had a question that had been nagging at me some.
“Mrs. Tamson,” I began, “I understand how and why my wife takes the tack she takes. Penny’s like a big sister to her, but a big sister who can’t handle certain subjects, so those subjects jist don’t git brought up. You and Marie can talk about literally anything, and that’s a truly good situation. In a way, the Tamson men are none of her business, and she don’t feel obliged to make every bit of her business theirs.
“But you, now…I know you idolize your man and your son, yet you picked me to hear about these herbs, this woman thing most females would never share with any man. I can understand about you keeping secrets from Tam and Coug. What I don’t git is…why me?”
“Why’d we open up to you and not to the other men?”
“White Bear,” she said gravely, “I would tell my warrior, but it would be unfair to him. He would be put in a situation of either ratting out his wife or hiding information from his son. Many women do such things to their men without thinking. I do not, or at least I try not to.”
“Ah. And Coug…he’d either be ratting out his mother or hiding information from his wife. An even worse situation. I git it. By George, I think I git it.”
Both women laughed. My wife shook her head. “Not totally, you don’t. Tell him, Laughing Brook.”
“White Bear, there is a…solidity about you. There is in my eyes no greater man in the world than my warrior, my tall tale teller. There is almost nothing he cannot do well except swim. Likewise, there is nothing he will not do for me or mine–twenty-one years of waiting is certainly proof of that. Nor is my son any slouch at taking care of business. But you are…different.” she turned to look up at me, her dark-eyed gaze intense. “You are our rock, Dawson Trask. There is a force in you, an essence that–as I have said before–somehow reminds me more and more of Believer.” She smacked her forehead with her hand. “I am not explaining this well.”
Marie came to her friend’s rescue. “Husband,” she said simply, “It’s jist that we know we can come to you anytime, with anything, no limits.”
What could I say to that? We rode on, once again in silence, listening to the horses beneath us and their hooves upon the Earth.
Laughing Brook found the plants she wanted, growing on the banks of Hook Lake as she’d thought she would. Roaming the woods and meadows in the area, we counted two hundred and forty-three pairs plus ten bulls, jist three cows and one bull short of the bunch we’d pushed through the pass in early summer.
We were heading back around Eyeball Lake when Marie spotted a baby rabbit, nibbling grass but so small it clearly needed a Mommy.
“Can we catch it?” She asked excitedly. The girl had never had a pet, and I suspected the Cheyenne woman’s story of raising Lynette Lynx from kittenhood had gotten to her.
“We can try. No guarantees; them itty bitty things can still jump ten feet.” I didn’t know if that was exactly true or not, but it sounded good. My wife swung her leg over and stepped down in one fluid motion…thereby saving the lives of both herself and the baby riding on her back.
The rifle slug smacked into a pine tree, right in line with where she’d been setting on Dolly.
By the time the report caught up to us, I had the Winchester half out of its scabbard.
“Git into the woods!” I yelled at the women, hoping I’d got the message out before the first round left the barrel.
The shot had come from across the little lake, maybe two thirds of the way up the timbered slope toward the first ridge to the southeast. Buffalo gun, big bore, maybe a Sharps. Had it hit my family, there’d have been nothing left to bury but scraps, or close enough to it. The cloud of smoke marked the general spot where the shooter had stood, but that whole slope was tight-packed fulll of pine, fir, and spruce. There was no way in Hell I was gonna hit the rat bastard.
I jist needed to buy ’em enough time to git under cover.
There are benefits to having a wife who once spent several years on the run as a notorious outlaw with a price on her head. Laughing Brook weren’t no slouch under fire, neither, and we were well hidden inside the tree line before I’d half emptied the fifteen round tube on the .44-40. The sniper hadn’t got off a second round, either because he was slow reloading that big single shot long rifle or because I’d actually come close enough to spook him a little.
“Head fer the pass,” I snapped the command, “Laughing Brook in the lead, Marie in the middle, me at rear guard. Move!”
They moved, leaving their revolvers in their holsters. We’d seen enough combat, all of us had, to know this wasn’t a situation fer short guns.
Mostly, it wasn’t a situation fer shooting. My job now was to git my wife and baby daughter–and yes, Tam’s wife as well–to safety. At the ranch. This drygulcher, whoever he was, wouldn’t be likely to tackle the whole hornet’s nest at Flywheel headquarters. Git ’em home.
Then worry about tracking down the stupid sumbitch who seemed to think shooting at a woman with a papoose on her back in Flywheel territory was a good idea.
“I realize it hurt to have to run,” I told Dawson, “But you done the right thing.”
Flywheel Ranch was buttoned down. We’d hauled enough water to fill every available container, the food and firewood situations were squared away, and Jack Prosser–bless his heart–turned out to possess a spyglass of his own. Until we bagged this drygulcher, nobody at the home place was to move a foot outside after dark. Windows were to stay shuttered at night as well.
Unless it come down to shooting, in which case the three occupied buildings would open up jist enough to allow supporting fire fer each other. Jack had the military experience, all three women had seen the wolf more’n once…it should be all right.
“We’ll git him, girls.” Cougar made it sound more a guarantee than a mere pomise, and I was glad fer the thousandth time that my two-gun son was on our side.
We headed fer the lakes. It was jist now full dark; we’d be through the pass well before midnight.
“He ain’t no woodsman,” I muttered more or less to myself.
“Nope. ‘Bout as clumsy in the tall timber as you in the water, old man.”
“Hey, hey! A little respect fer your esteemed sire, Coug, why doncha have some!”
“If you two are done with your happy humor, how ’bout you humor me?” Dawson asked, serious yet light of heart. We were all feeling it, the relief of not only being in action but picking up the trail at first light. A man–iffen you care to call him that–who’ll drygulch women and babies with a Sharps .50 is either a total coward or an officer in the United States Cavalry who stole the weapon from a buffalo hunter. Or both; them two categories ain’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
A coward and a fool. What had he been thinking? Or had he been thinking? Shoot a woman, steal a horse? Shoot a woman, hope the man in the bunch rushes to her aid long enough so’s you can reload your single shot and shoot him, too? Forgetting all about the little Indian female, which in Laughing Brook’s case was never a good idea?
“Okay, great masters of woodcraft,” our partner said, “I know if even little old me can read a paragraph here, you two can quote book, chapter and verse. Fill in this poor unenlightened one.”
“Sure,” I got into it, adopting kind of a lawyery pose, pointing to Exhibits A through Whatever. “Here we have the tracks of one man and only one man. He’s not as big as any of the three of us–it’s a wonder that buffalo gun didn’t knock him on his butt, or maybe it did–and he’s no cowboy. Them are workboot prints of some sort, nothing you’d want hanging up in a stirrup.”
Dawson’s eyes twinkled. “Ah so! Now pontificate upon the bloodstain there upon yon shrub, oh mighty detective of the woodland maze!”
“Ladies and gente-squirrels of the Forest Court!” I was on a roll now, Crazy Rifle at the bar. “Behold, yon Limping Man! He moves with a hitch in his gait on the left leg, suspiciously the same side as this preciously expressive bloodstain!”
“Crazy Rile,” Cougar said drily, “You may be the tall tale teller, but this is ridiculous. You’re plumb out of your element. How be we go kill this rat bastard first and talk stupid later.”
“You got a point, son. Let’s git to it.
Despite the fellow having had a sixteen-hour head start, it only took us three hours to track the shooter down once we’d picked up his trail. His squatter’s hut was nothing but a leanto. Reminded me of my old Kootenai enemy, except that boy–busted leg and starving as he was–had done a lot more workmanlike job of construction.
Of course, it also weren’t quite winter yet, and this character weren’t starving. He was, in fact, turning what looked like an entire roast on a spit over a fire that looked fair to set the woods ablaze iffen he weren’t careful. Nice roast, too. Nice beef roast.
Did I mention there’s only one herd of cattle grazing in these parts?
We took our time, laying out the plan, using sign to do it so’s the only warning the man had was a big gray squirrel chittering up over our heads. Which weren’t no warning at all, ’cause like I already said, our target weren’t no woodsman. The squirrel was yelling loud as could be, “Dirty rotten strangers right there in the brush below my favorite tree! Git outa there, you rounders! Ch-ch-ch-ree-ee!”
This guy was so dumb, we actually heard him tell the squirrel to shut the Hell up.
When Mr. Squirrel did shut up, mainly ’cause we’d separated to start moving in on the rustler who used women and babies fer target practice, it was too late.
“So, Mister Mine Owner, how’d you come to figure it was us out there at the Deeprock?”
“I didn’t! I swear I didn’t! You got to believe me!” Richard Clausson didn’t look like he’d exactly prosperred since we’d left him naked, gagged, and hooded to figure his own way out of his predicament. At least he’d acquired a full set of clothing, including a heavy winter coat and a pair of sturdy miner’s workboots.
And a Sharps.
“Well, now, Richard, you see, it don’t much matter whether we believe you or not.” Cougar sat on a deadfall, pulling out his pistols, twirling ’em a bit, slinging ’em back in the leather. The man who’d once planned to blow a portal shut on top of twenty-seven trapped miners seemed fascinated by that. Couldn’t take his eyes off them guns. “The problems are several. It’s getting late in the season, but that fire could spread easy as anything. Burn up half the timber across this entire mountain chain.”
“I’ll put it out! I’ll put it out!”
“I s’pose you would, at least if we untied you long enough to do it. But see, Richard, that’s the smallest infraction we got here.”
The wildly notorious and short-tempered shootist, Cougar Two Gun Tampson, waved a hand as if he were shooing away flies. “A doing of what you shouldn’t have been doing, Richard. The fire is the least of that. The next, more serious infraction was shooting that poor innocent cow in the first place. Which jist happens to be on our land and whose hide jist happens to be wearing our brand. You familiar with the Flywheel brand, Richard?”
“I–uh, yeah. Everybody in the county knows that brand. But I didn’t–”
“No, no. Stop right there, Richard. You might jist dig yourself in deeper. Right now, we’re kind of in a hurry to git back home, so you’ll likely die quick and easy. Um,” he thought a second and corrected himself. “Quick, anyway. But iffen you keep trying to weasel-talk your way out of it, we might have to take some time. Git a bit more creative.”
It was instructive, watching my son go to work on what was left of the former mine owner’s mind. Sure, I knew he’d grown up with masters of the psychological warfare arts, people like Believer and every Blackfoot ever birthed and even his own people by his mother’s blood, the Cheyenne. But this was the first time I’d seen him apply them skills.
Turns out my boy ain’t jist a shootist; he’s a well rounded torturer. I was plumb proud of him. Made me kind of choke up inside.
“I-I-I–” Our prisoner’s spluttering drew me back to the action. “I–you’re going to kill me?” His eyes had been crazy the moment we drew down on him, but they were crazier now. Bloodshot, too, and the right one was twitching like mad.
“Well, sure we are. Or,” Coug rubbed his chin in deep thought, “At least one of us is. We ain’t got the time fer everybody to take a hand. Don’t wanna be home late fer supper. The ladies might be some miffed about that. Which reminds me.” He stopped gun-twirling, got up, and went to stand in front of the fellow whose arms were stretched straight out behind him, wrists tightly bound behind that tree so’s he purty much had to stand upright.
Which couldn’t have been easy, what with them knees knocking like that.
“Now, speaking of the ladies, Sir Richard. Before we wrap this thing up, we’d kinda like to know, iffen you didn’t know us from the mine thing…what made you decide to try to put a round through a purty little lady packing a papoose on her back? Huh?”
“Come on, man. Spit it out.”
“I–” He gulped once, swallowed hard. “I was…I was aiming fer the man on the big pinto. I-I needed a horse, figured the women would run iffen I shot the cowboy they was with. If I could catch the horse, I’d have a way outa Colorado Territory. Head up to the mines in Montana, maybe. Heard there’s opportunity there.”
We all looked at each other in astonishment fer a long moment. I couldn’t believe it.
“You mean, a good man come near losing his entire family simply ’cause you can’t shoot fer sh*t?”
There was no answer.
Finally, I turned to my partner, lifting my hands in a what’re you gonna do? gesture.
“It’s your wife and baby almost bit the big one, White Bear. You wanna do the honors?”
“It would by my pleasure.” Sergeant Dawson Trask’s eyes were ice. He took his time drawing the .44 Russian, pulling the hammer back, holding the muzzle down close to the man’s face so’s his eyes crossed looking at it. “Hope you work out better as fertilizer than you ever did as a human being, Clausson. May you rot in Hell.”
The big slug drilled a proper hole in through the front and blew a spray of brains and blood out the back, splattering all over the innocent pine tree.
“Sorry,” Trask said, but he was talking to the tree, not the man he’d jist killed.
This one we didn’t bother to hide. Without sparing the corpse so much as another glance, we made sure the fire was also dead, stepped up on our horses and rode out, leaving the carcass fer the vultures. The former mine owner’s carcass, that is.
The cow meat we took with us, chewing on slices of roast beef as we went. Richard Clausson hadn’t been worth much in the scheme of things, but the man could cook.