Tam the Tall TaleTeller, Chapter 64: Smelling Salts

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Dawson
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“Looks like you’ve had some powerful influence on them two boys,” I told Marie, passing her the binoculars. She adjusted the focus, glassed the line cabin area fer a few seconds–and chuckled.

“Looks like you’re right, husband. I can’t argue with the evidence before my very own eyes.”

We were lying up under a rock overhang, studying the timbered area half a mile downslope. It had become a ritual whenever time allowed, riding out on Boy Check with my Blue Eyed Angel of Death.

The young Utes had taken to their roles as full time buffalo protectors like young ducks to water, but it still made sense to pull intermittent surveillance on the kids doing Box Watch. Fer most of the day, they were nowhere to be seen, doing their two daily circuits around the perimeter, studying the buffs and watching fer predators either animal or human. This time of day, though, near sunset, we could catch them back at the cabin.

Except they weren’t in the cabin, nor were they splitting firewood or doing other chores. Manny and Rock–we’d shortened their Indian names some fer convenience and general laziness–were, in fact, doing acrobatics. Or trying to, anyway. The smaller boy, Rock, seemed to be getting the hang of cartwheels, but Manny fell on either his butt or his face every time he attempted a front flip. Leaf was working in the barn with Jack, making sure the tack was properly oiled; he’d be escorted out in the morning to relieve Rock.

“That’s downright amazing. They only seen me do that routine the one time. Looks like we hijacked us one little, two little, three little smart, athletic Indians. I’m impressed.”

“Me too, honey. Except they’re not gonna be all that little fer long. Manny is getting some kind of growth spurt fer real.” My gunslinging sweetie’s midnight blue eyes were glued to the glasses. Hated to tear her away from watching the mini-warriors who’d clearly decided at least one Woman Warrior of the Medicine Bull clan was worth emulating as a role model despite their people’s cultural bias, but…. “Time to ride, baby, unless we want to miss out on Laughing Brook’s pot roast.”

She handed the binoculars back fer me to put away, her eyes jist a-sparkling. “That,” she shoook her head, “would be purely unacceptable. Let’s ride.”

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It was maybe two hours before daylight when we heard the shots. Three of ’em in rapid succession, standard distress signal, distant but unmistakeable.

Laughing Brook had the lamps lit and was handing Tam his winter coat by the time I hit the door. None of us spoke; we’d worked and fought side by side fer too many years to feel the need fer words.

Jack met us at the barn door, torches already lit.

I’d jist gotten the bridle on Joker when I realized my wife was saddling her big gray mare in the next stall. Opened my mouth to ask her what the Hell she thought she was doing.

Shut it jist in time.

She could often read my mind, no question about it, but occasionally it worked the other way around as well. Like this time. We’d convinced the Utes our clan boasted mighty Women Warriors; how would it look to them boys iffen a Medicine Bull war party rode to battle with nary a female among ’em?

Besides, them boys idolized her. You don’t go letting down a kid who idolizes you, ‘specially when he’s in trouble.

I hadn’t seen when Cougar come in the barn, but he was sure enough first out, Charger hitting a full gallop before they was even clear of the yard. No torch; we’d be moving too fast to keep ’em alight, anyway. The moonlight on the snow would have to do.

Nobody was waiting fer anybody, not on a run like this. We’d armed the boys with my old .44-40 Winchester, although I’d bought us a new one–which I passed to Marie, scabbard and all. Despite taking the time to lash it up under her right stirrup leather, she still made it out one jump ahead of me.

Tam was last, but only by a hair. The three of us thundered after Coug, Hell bent fer leather.

Nobody spoke, but we all heard ’em. Four more shots, not quick-together but spaced. Manny was shooting at something, and he was taking time to aim in the doing of it. It wouldn’t be easy, sighting by moonlight, but it could be done.

Something, or somebody, was after the buffalo. Or after the boys. We’d armed ’em with the rifle, all right, but only given ’em one load of cartridges. Fifteen rounds in the tube. Seven gone, eight left.

Another shot. Seven bullets left.

It was only a mile or so as the crow flies, but more like one and a half the way we had to go, looping up left around the spring, across an open patch, picking up the game trail as it entered the higher timber. That was the worst of the climbing, but no way to shorten the run out across the ridge, back into the big canyon, zig-zagging down to the open area to reach the cabin situated some ninety yards to one side of the smaller box canyon’s entrance.

Smaller in relative terms.

Marie’s mare stumbled, stubbing her hoof on a rock in the dark, and I nearly pissed my pants. Pitching eleven hundred pounds of big gray mare head over heels, crushing my beloved against a downsope tree–not my favorite image.

Another shot. Six left.

By the time Cougar burst out of the timber, we were all bunched up on his tail. There’d been no catching him on the flats, but winding trails through nighttime forest was a different matter.

The boys had a fire going, built up so’s they could see what was coming at ’em. Not a great idea against human enemies, but it worked fer the wolves. The kid knew what he was doing, back to the fire to protect his night vision, Winchester in his hands, scanning, scanning, scanning the night. Rock was doing the same on the other side, except that his bow was mostly good fer small game.

You work with what you got, and these two had done a job of it. In fact, it turned out they’d left us nothing to shoot.

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“We found wolf sign on our second circuit of the day,” Manny told us, using a mixture of English, Ute, and sign language. Tam had to interpret here and there, but not that much and not that often. Many Bulls had a gift fer language. “Up by the southeast corner where game trails go around both sides of the great boulder. They were many, but they followed the elk. We did not see their tracks turn to look at the Box, so we did not worry much about them.”

“When it became dark, we heard their howls. They were closer. Now we thought about them. We did not sleep. Instead, we built up the fire so that we could quickly light a torch. At last, we went outside and lit the fire in the snow.”

The fire in the snow. It hadn’t been planned ahead; the brush had simply been piled in one spot to git it out of the way when we were clearing a space fer the cabin. Worked out well, though.

“When the wolves came to the fence, I think it was because of the new calf. A buffalo cow had her baby early, dropped it near the gate. She was a bad mother and did not eat the afterbirth.” Manny shrugged, looking a bit sheepish. “We were bad Box Watchers and did not remove the afterbirth far away from the fence. This is perhaps my fault, that the wolves came.”

“Hardly,” Marie put in. “From what you’ve been telling us, this is likely the same pack we’ve been trying to put out of business from the day we got here. They’re a big family; one itty bitty batch of afterbirth wouldn’t have done anything but whet their appetites.”

The Ute looked confused until Tam translated that. Then he–well, beamed is the only word fer it I can think of. I’d been right; these kids had put my woman on a pedestal near as high as I’d placed her myself. She’d been right, too; it was a good thing she was here.

Encouraged, the boy continued his narrative. “We had the fire going and thought that might be enough. It was not. They came, and I saw their eyes first, before Rock in Water saw them. I fired the rifle in the air three times, fast like you said, and the eyes went away. We thought that might be enough. It was not. They came again and again, in ones and twos and threes. Not after us, but after the buffalo. When they came out of the trees, I could see more than their eyes, so I shot at them, carefully because they were many and I had one rifle and few bullets. Then you came.”

“You done good, warriors,” Tam said in Ute, causing both boys to square their shoulders noticeably. It suddenly occurred to me that Manny, at least, was about the age the tale teller had been when he clubbed a mountain lion to death in close quarters combat; he understood their feelings if anybody did. Then something else hit me, and I had to put in my two cents worth.

“Wolf Eyes a good name fer a warrior, you think?”

Turned out every one of us agreed that was a fine moniker fer a bold young Ute Box Boy and wolf shooter. We’d have likely gone to celebrating on the spot…if Rock in Water hadn’t spoiled the party.

“Wolf Eyes, you did not mean them to misunderstand, but I don’t think they know.”

“Know what?” Cougar asked.

“The wolves. The ones that were too many to kill. They did not run away into the trees. The wolves that lived went through the fence.

“They are in with the buffalo.”

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Tam
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Cougar volunteered to let the others at the ranch know what was going on. “I should be back by first light. With Penny; she ain’t about to be left out of this wolf hunt. Them buffs are like her own babies to her.”

“How many left?” I asked the boys.

It was Rock who answered, maybe because Wolf Eyes had been too busy shooting predators to worry much about counting ’em as such. “Between fifteen and twenty, I think.”

“That many?” Dawson sounded surprised. To tell the truth, so was I; you didn’t often see a pack that large except in starvation winters when smaller packs sometimes joined together in desperation to bring down larger game. This winter hadn’t been that bad.

“I do not lie,” the youngster said a bit stiffly.

“Didn’t mean it that way. That’s jist…a lot of wolves. Especially since we’ve counted four on the ground that Wolf Eyes done fer. That many wolves, and only twenty-four full-growed buffs in there…”

“I don’t like the sound of it, either, White Bear,” I told him, “But there ain’t a heck of a lot we can do till daylight.”

“No, I know that. Jist saying.”

“Been cussing myself fer not putting up a stockade fence instead of them open rails.”

“Tam, you said that black wolf back on the mountain come right over the top of Believer’s stockade corral, coming after you.”

“Yeah, but that weren’t no ten feet tall. We coulda made this wolf-proof. Still could, once we git these vermin cleaned outa there.”

“Uh-huh. I been thinking ’bout that, too. But you’re forgetting one thing. You can’t see through a stockade. Wouldn’t be able to jist take a looksee at how the buffalo are doing without setting up a watch tower.”

“Well?” The idea had merit. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Oh, couple of things. Fer one, any stray human being who happens through this way will wonder right off what a fort is doing out here in the middle of nowhere. Right now, all we got fer wandering eyes to see is a little line cabin and a short fence. A high fence, true enough, but maybe one used to trap wild horses or some such. Nothing that would seem out of place on ranch property. But a fort…

“Huh. I take yer meaning. All right, then. Let’s git to thinking, git our plan together fer finally making the Flywheel a wolf-free zone.”

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Some folks who’ve never hunted wolves seem to think having the critters contained in a box canyon must be like shooting fish in a barrel. Them folks, of course, are idjits. Much of the Box was prime graze, but a fair amount was also dotted with stands of pine, juniper, and more than a little sagebrush. Not to mention a few hundred scattered boulders, some of ’em as big as a prime buffalo bull. Once wolves know they’re being hunted, they can jist about turn invisible in terrain like that. In Europe, nobles sometimes turned out entire villages with endless lengths of wolf-catching netting. In this country, wolfers often shot a deer or an elk and stuffed the meat with poison on the theory that all is fair in love, war, and bounty hunting. We didn’t have no villagers or nets, and none of us much cottoned to the idea of poison.

As both a rancher and a man who’d fought the critters at close range, it wouldn’t bother me none to see ’em go extinct. But not that way.

In the end, what we had fer a plan wasn’t much to brag about. Dawson with his Sharps and Coug with the .45-70 Government were our best long range shooters, so we set them up on the canyon rim. Adjusting fer the drop down to the canyon floor didn’t bother my son much, though Trask figured he was as likely to miss as not. Be that as it may, we didn’t have no better idea. Marie and the boys stayed right near the dying coals of the fire outside the fence. “Iffen any of ’em come back out,” I told her, “let ’em. It ain’t but thirty, forty yards from there to the treeline, and you can feel free to pop ’em once they’re clear of the Box. But only then. It’s more important to get ’em away from the buffs than it is to kill ’em.”

The woman cocked an eyebrow at that. “Even if they hunt down more of the cattle?”

“Even then. The herds have shown us they’ve dealt with wolves all their lives. I don’t mean jist let a wolf git off scot free, but we got a total of thirty-six buffalo trapped in there–twelve of ’em short yearlings–with nowhere to run and nothing but them stubby little horns to fight with. Every one of our cows has got a serious set of spears on her head, and there’s jist under eight hunnert of them.”

“All right, Tam. You’re the boss.”

Then Penny and I opened the gate and rode in, right under the big guns of the men on the rim.

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The Sharps fired first, maybe half an hour after we come through the gate. Not that we’d seen a single wolf. We hadn’t, though we’d been following their tracks, nor did any of the buffalo seem alarmed enough to indicate predators nearby. Of course, buffs tend to ignore wolves that ain’t showing hunting behavior at the moment.

We didn’t even see where Dawson had aimed till we come past a cluster of boulders a couple hunnert yards farther on. The big gray was terminated as terminated could be, holed purty much dead center. Even when my partner has doubts about himself, he tends to hit what he’s looking at with a long gun.

The pack was obviously aware of us now, jist slipping on ahead a bit at a time, changing course regularly but fooling nobody when there was snow on the ground.

Penny popped the second one. I seen her draw from the corner of my eye, but I’d been looking the wrong way to catch sight of the black slipping through a juniper stand. Of three rounds she pumped out of her lefthand .45, two of ’em hit her target. Didn’t stop him immediately; we had to follow the blood trail fer a bit before I got the chance to finish the job with my Winchester.

What it is about me and good-looking women teaming up to kill black wolves, I have no idea.

Then Dawson again. Then Coug. Back and forth, with me and Penny never getting another clear shot. Until finally, along about noon, the remaining members of the pack got it figured out they was in a death trap and doubled back on us, then made a beeline fer the fence. We seen ’em streaking low and fast, already too far off to make pulling a trigger worth the effort.

Time to copy the heads-up Wolf Eyes had give us in the wee hours. I triggered three .44-40 rounds into the sky, fast as I could work the lever.

What we didn’t know was, Wolf Eyes the wolf shooter, along with Marie the fanner and both bow-and-arrow boys, had snuck themselves into position much closer to the gate. Dang near on top of it, in fact, jist crouched down behind a bit of sagebrush.

Iffen you’ve never seen the kind of sagebrush we grow in southern Colorado, you may not git the picture. Let’s jist say they had decent cover, close enough fer the Blue Eyed Angel of Death to use her short gun and even fer the two younger Utes to let fly an arrow or two, and the wind was right.

No, no, of course not. You think Rock in Water was willing to go off duty when a wolf hunt was happening? Git real!

Where was I…oh, yeah. When the pack come diving under that fence–some of ’em, others went through between the rails–It was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt them young Indians did in fact worship the ground Dawson’s Warrior Woman walked on. “On my mark,” she told ’em, and not a one let loose till she decided the leaders were half a jump from the woods and hollered, “Fire!”

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“Marie was so fast,” Rock told us around the supper table that night, “Wolf Eyes was ready to shoot that leader, but the wolf fell before he could finish squeezing the trigger. He had to change targets!”

We hadn’t got ’em all; our Marie Squad reported at least three of the buggers making it safely into the timber, running fer their lives back toward the high country. Maybe they’d stick to stalking deer fer a while or something. Like all raiders, wolves tend to take the path of least resistance.

“You know, ” I addressed the boy, “You Box Boys saved us a great deal of trouble. Not only that, but you had to retrieve two arrows from the last wolf killed. I’ll not exaggerate and say it was the arrows that did him in, since it looked like Wolf Eyes also put a bullet up its butt, but you shot well. We all talked it over, and we decided you three–yes, including Leaf–deserve a reward.

“We’ll be collecting bounty on eighteen wolves, plus selling the hides. We’ll hang onto the money from that fer a while, but when it gits close to time fer you three to git escorted on back to your people, we’ll give you that money on one condition.”

Rock in Water looked so wary at that, Dawson busted out laughing. “Your reputation precedes you, Tam. This intelligent young man has already learned that when Crazy Rifle starts talking conditions, he’d best hang onto his breechclout fer dear life. Tell him before he has a heart attack.”

“Sure. Rock, it’s jist that you and your partners will need to use that money fer things your family or your band needs. Not keep it fer yourselves.”

“How much?”

“Mm…let’s put it in terms you can understand. More than you’d have to pay fer a good horse. . Enough that only truly rich men could gift their friends and relatives with such treasure. That much.

“Honey,” I addressed Laughing Brook, “would you be kind enough to go git the smelling salts? He ain’t had no heart attack, but I do believe our wealthy young Ute friend done fainted dead away.”

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