“I’ll be along in a bit,” Cougar said. “Meet you at Ethel’s.”
“Fair enough.” Joker and I headed on down the street. I had business at the Mercantile, while the younger Tamson wanted to look over a couple new horses the liveryman said were worth considering.
Fred Walsen wrote up our order fer 1,500 feet of iron pipe plus fittings and an assortment of pipe wrenches. We were getting close to being tapped out with this big purchase, but with the land paid for and no bank involved anywhere in our operation, the finances would work out. Tam had set up a contract with Johnson’s slaughterhouse to process our beeves at a reasonable rate and a dozen more with local businesses delighted to discover quality local meat available at decent wholesale prices.
Decent on both sides. Cattle trailed from Texas to Wichita this year were going fer forty bucks a head at best. By processing and selling the meat itself in Walsenburg, by the pound–rather than letting go of the steer on the hoof–the tale teller was getting us close to $90 per animal, net. Without trailing ’em any farther than the Flywheel to Johnson’s, eighteen and a half miles gate to gate.
I’d jist signed the purchase order when I overheard two words that made me drop the pen on Fred’s desk and hit the side door at a dead run.
“Gunfight…”, the man had said, and “…Tamson.”
I was too late.
It weren’t more’n a quarter mile up to Ethel’s Eats, one of the fine restaurants in Walsenburg where you’d soon be able to order a steak certified as Flywheel Beef. A quarter mile. Three city blocks. I was still a block short, puffing and blowing and cussing myself fer having left my partner without his back covered, when it all went down.
Right in front of the restaurant, in the middle of the street, Coug stood at the ready, his hands hanging easy, jist inches from them matched .45 Colts. He was facing three–no, four men, spread out across the street with their backs to me. I didn’t have any qualms about shooting men in the back, witnesses or no witnesses, under these conditions.
But there was no way. The sidwalks were jammed with stupid-assed city gawkers who apparently chose to risk eating somebody’s lead fer the pleasure of watching men kill each other. I couldn’t shoot from the sidewalk, and quite frankly, winded as I was, there was no guarantee of accuracy at this range, either.
If I stepped out in the middle of the street, any bullet of Coug’s that missed an enemy might find me. Or vice versa.
My kingdom fer a rifle. Which was in the scabbard on Joker’s saddle. Back at the hitch rail in front of the Mercantile. I should have brought the damned horse, but it was kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of situation. By the time I could’ve made it around front and got mounted…
Six of one, half dozen of the other.
I kept running, angling up near the lefthand sidewalk but in the street some. If I could jist git a few more steps closer before–
They all went fer their guns . Mine was out, hammer back, but there weren’t nobody left to shoot. Coug had took ’em all.
But he’d soaked up some lead himself, and he was down. I kept going, easing the hammer back down, shoving my .44 Russian back into the holster. Missed. The pistol hit the ground, bouncing once before it came to rest in the dirt like my friend was in the dirt. I never knew it was gone, never even missed it till some little girl–nine or ten, never knew her name–brought it to me.
She wasn’t there yet when I knelt by the shootist. “Hang in, Coug,” I told him.
He’d taken what looked like three rounds at least, one through the left arm–like Marie, I thought, only from the front–one in the lower left gut, and–
“Gotta do this,” I said, unbuckling his gun belt to git the lefthand holster outa the way. What was it with this bunch, always on the left?
“Schraft cousins,” he muttered. I thought maybe he was gone into shock already, but his eyes were clear.
“Somebody git Doc Choteau!” I yelled at the crowd of gawkers, “Git–”
“No need to yell, son. I’m already here.” The onlookers made way fer the trim little man like the Red Sea making way fer Moses.
“Ah!” The breath left me in a rush. “Good! Three rounds, flesh wound arm, lower left gut, worst is the femoral artery.”
The old surgeon was already down on his knees beside the fallen man, his nimble fingers fairly flying. How did he do that? I didn’t know…but I did know my friend had a chance.
“You can back away now,” a prim female voice said. “I’ll take over.”
I looked up, stared into the cold gray eyes of the good doctor’s longtime lady assistant. The one Tam couldn’t stand, and I could see why. “Like Hell you will,” I replied politely, except folks told me later it come out in kind of a snarl.
She jist raised one old-lady plucked eyebrow. Then Chouteau told her without so much as looking up from his work, “It’s all right, Julie. Get the operating table ready; we’ll be needing it shortly.”
“As you say, Doctor,” she said in a tone that meant, “I don’t know what you see in these barbarians.” She did leave, though, which was all that mattered.
“You did well with that tourniquet, Dawson.”
“Although I’ve never seen one tightened with the handle of a BlackSteel fighting knife. Do you always do it that way?”
“Figured to use my gun barrel,” I admitted, “But I dropped the pistol back down the street somewhere.”
“How did you know about the femoral artery?”
What was this, chit-chat time? But the man’s fingers were still working away, so…. “During the War. Saw a lot of men die from jist about every kind of wound you can imagine.”
“Ah. I can imagine rather a lot, but I take your meaning. Gentlemen,” he addressed the crowd, “I could use a few good men to assist in the transportation of Mr. Tamson from the middle of the street to my office. He’s lost consciousness, so he won’t feel it, but I do promise you there will be serious repercussions if you jostle my patient.”
I was beginning to like this old guy a lot.
Once Cougar was deposited–gently, I might add–on the operating room table, Chouteau shooed the excess carriers out, then turned to me. “Julie really is a most excellent assistant, especially during surgery.”
“I git it, Doc. I’ll back off.”
He nodded as if he’d expected nothing else. “One more thing, Dawson. I can’t tell you yet if Tam’s son will make it. He’s lost a lot of blood. But I can tell you this: If he does survive, it will be because of your quick action, not my tardy arrival. Do you remember from your combat experience how long it took men to die from an injury of this type?”
“All too well. Ten minutes, never more than fifteen, and they were dead on the spot. Bled right out.”
“Potter,” I told the big man when I found him buying tobacco at the Mercantile, “Are you working today?”
“I was scheduled fer second shift at the Blessing,” he said, “But iffen you need me, I’m yours.”
“I need you. Need you to take a fast horse to the Flywheel. Tell ’em Cougar’s alive, all four of the men that braced him are either dead or dying, but he’s low on blood, unconscious, and Chouteau’s operating on him as we speak. Femoral artery. Tell Tam, femoral artery. He’ll know what that means.”
“Okay, but–my only horse ain’t exactly fast.”
“Mine is, and so’s Coug’s. He ain’t gonna be needing Charger fer a while. The bay knows you; he’ll let you climb aboard without fussing about it. Point him toward the ranch, tell him Cougar’s in trouble, and let him have his head.”
“Uh…all right. The horse speaks English?”
“Prob’ly a sight better than we do.”
Then I hiked on up to the Mercantile, untied Joker from the hitch rail, and rode on back to Chouteau’s place. From the shortness of the shadows, I took it to be high noon.
It was going to be a long day.
Jack was holding down the fort at the Flywheel and Marie was taking care of all five kids in the hotel room. The rest of us were crammed into the little recovery room Georges Chouteau maintained at his office.
If it sounds more like a mini-hospital than an ordinary doctor’s office, it was. Doc was as unique among physicians as Believer had been among mountain men. “Quite frankly, Tam,” he’d once told me, clear back in Fort Benton all those years ago, “I don’t trust hospitals any more than you do. People die in hospitals. I don’t like it when my patients die for no good reason.”
Cougar had been awake off and on since late afternoon, white as a sheet and weak as a newborn kitten from the triple hit of hot lead and massive blood loss. He swore he wasn’t going anywhere, though, and Choteau seemed cheerful enough I was inclined to believe him.
His wife didn’t seem so sure. Or maybe she was jist making sure. At the moment, not long after the town had awakened to a new business day, she was off somewhere with a bunch of them church ladies. Praying her heart out, I reckoned, giving thanks to the Lord fer saving her man’s life. Personally, I kind of figured Coug’s own shooting, Dawson’s lightning move to git the bleeding stanched, and Doc Chouteau’s supreme surgery skills had more to do with it than anything. God helps them that help themselves, with a little help from their friends.
“You’re looking awful thoughtful there, Crazy Rifle.”
I turned from the window overlooking the street. My gunfighting son was awake again. Looking a fair bit better, too. He’d slept near three hours this last stretch, and his color was some improved.
“Dangerous pasttime, Coug,” I told him. “Ask your mother.”
“It’s true, son.” Laughing Brook dimpled. “Your father always did think too much for his own good.”
“What?” The shootist wasn’t letting it go that easy.
“The town.” I sighed. “Walsenburg ain’t Dodge City. They don’t go around having shootouts on the street here, not as a general rule. I’m some concerned the good citizens of the town might start forgetting what good we’ve done ’em. We been welcome here so far, but–”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t have stood my ground?”
“No, no. You know me better’n that. What you did, had to be done. Them Schraft cousins had been hunting you fer the past eight years, ever since the day you met Penny Holloway and them two fools decided to test you.” Holloway had been Penny’s maiden name, her Daddy a good man but crippled from a bullet lodged above his right hip, near the spine where nobody dared cut it out. Choteau coulda done it, but they hadn’t known of the man back then.
“No, it’s jist that I’m worried word might git spread the wrong way, encourage every tinhorn gunhand west of the Mississip to come looking fer Cougar Two Gun Tamson, see iffen they can be the one to take him down.”
“Husband,” the Cheyenne woman spoke softly, “there’s nothing we can do–what’s that? Is Doctor Chouteau whistling?”
He was. The dapper little surgeon came bouncing through the door with a spring in his step, waving the morning newspaper on high, whistling. He stopped by the chair Dawson was sitting in, grinned like some crazed hyena–very uncharacteristic fer the man–and suggested,
“White Bear, why don’t you read this aloud for the entire assemblage to enjoy. There was never any shootout!”
“What are you–” I started, then decided to shut up and listen. Which turned out to be a good decision.
Dawson’s eyes widened the moment he read the headline, let alone the rest of it.
ACTING TROUPE FOOLS WALSENBURG WITH GUNFIGHTING HOAX
Our quiet mining town saw excitement yesterday worthy of Tombstone, Arizona or Virginia City, Montana or even Dodge City, Kansas. Four men claiming to be cousins of the Schraft brothers, gunned down years ago by renowned shootist Cougar Tamson in Helena, Montana, came looking for revenge. They braced the two-gun son of lightning near high noon in front of Ethel’s Eats.
Nearly a hundred good citizens watched as the lean young Tamson faced his opponents. Four of them, remember! Villains do not believe in fair play!
When the smoke cleared, the shootist had sent all four to meet their maker but lay gravely wounded himself, bleeding from multiple perforations.
Only after emergency aid was administered by a ranching partner of Tamson’s and our own esteemed Dr. Georges Chouteau, and the gravely wounded man had been carried off to hospital, did the truth emerge.
It was all a play.
Ransome deFollette, leader of Follette’s Follies, an acting troupe known for entertaining large audiences even to performances for the crowned heads of Europe, came to see this editor after the fact. There had been no gunfight, he explained. The four “Schraft cousins” had been professional actors, not vengeful gunmen. Their deaths were faked; the blood on their clothing and liberally splattered about the dusty street had been chicken blood, artfully applied as they fell and writhed in their utterly imaginary death throes.
The Cougar Tamson who fell in mock battle, the Flywheel Ranch partner who attended to the fallen man, and our own Dr. Georges Chouteau were all monuments to the art of the expert in disguises and stage makeup. I met the gentlemen; out of costume, they look as little like the real thing as Longhorns look like Brahmas.
I asked Mr. deFollette why on Earth he would do such a thing, frighten the entire town like that without so much as a fair warning. The devilish fellow simply laughed and said, “To see if it could be done, my good man! To ascertain if it was really so, that people see what they expect to see, not what parades truly before their lying eyes!”
Many of us are not happy with the recklessness of his actions. Sheriff Olsen has been notified and wishes to speak with this Ransome deFollette. Unfortunately, the actors are nowhere to be found. Not even the bodies of the four bogus “Schraft cousins”, first believed to have been carted off to the undertaker’s office, have ever been seen by the real Dr. Georges Chouteau.
People, we’ve been had. We’ve been had so thoroughly that I could not bring myself to believe it even as deFollette himself was explaining what he’d done. Until he mentioned one detail. During the fight, the man who was seen to run to the fallen “Cougar Tamson’s” aid was supposedly the third partner in the Flywheel Ranch operation, a man by the name of Dawson Trask. Now here’s the thing.
Dawson Trask served in the Union Army during the Civil War, seeing endless combat and rising to the rank of Sergeant. After the war, he became a cowboy and for some years helped push herd after herd of south Texas cattle up the long Chisholm Trail to Kansas. He is a working man, but a working man who has a lifetime familiarity with firearms and with the horror of seeing men fall under fire.
Yet dozens of witnesses saw “Mr. Trask” drop his pistol in his rush to help his fallen comrade.
That convinced me. No real soldier, cowboy, and rancher would drop his sidearm in the dirt at such a time or any other time. It’s simply inconceivable. The man who did that was an actor.
We’ve been had. We’ve really been had
It was mighty quiet in that recovery room fer some time. I was still sorting it all out in my head when Cougar spoke up from the bed.
“Couple of questions, Doc.”
“I presumed there would be.”
“Well…using Dad’s by-the-numbers format…number one. Will they buy it?”
Chouteau moved to the window and stood looking out over the street, speaking with the calm assurance he always projected. “Why wouldn’t they? For the most part, people really do see what they expect to see, you know. They also expect the newspaper to print the truth, never mind the false stories often planted by mine owners, railroad men, and politicians of every stripe. Yes,” he turned back around, smiling at his patient, “I suspect they will buy it. You’ll need to heal rather quickly so you can move around town without wincing as soon as possible, of course.”
“Huh. Okay. Kind of ruins my faith in the overall intelligence of mankind, but okay. Number two. Why?”
“Why have the movers and shakers of Walsenburg gone to such extreme lengths to cover this up?”
“Several reasons, Cougar Tamson. We don’t need the notoriety of a Dodge City here in Colorado Territory, for one. For my part, I have personal reasons that date back to the mountain man, Believer, and a thirteen year old White Blackfoot warrior with a damaged shoulder. The biggest factor for most, the clincher, is the positive energy the Flywheel has brought to Huerfano County. Ever since you folks arrived, good people have been noticeably safer while undesirable elements seem to quietly… disappear with some regularity.”
“There is an old Army saying I presume Sergeant Trask knows well.” He nodded toward Dawson. “RHIP. Rank Hath Its Privileges. Here in Walsenburg, you might say we have our own little homily. BP-CHIP.
“Being a Pillar of the Community Hath Its Privileges as well.”