This time, we dearly hoped, our card game would not be interrupted by a screaming woman reporting a missing child. Or any other crisis, fer that matter. Four men gathered around a poker table could git a lot done.
We did have an observer. Wolf Eyes watched every move we made and listened to everything we said. Which was fine with us. The Utes, like most Indians, have a thing fer gambling. Wouldn’t surprise us none iffen the young warrior was planning to introduce five card draw to his people when he got back to the Rez.
“Raise you ten,” Cougar decided.
“I’ll see that.” I was looking at a small straight, two through six, filled on a one card draw. Coug and Tam had both taken three. Jack, like me, had held four, drawn one, but Jack had an easy tell: His nostrils flared jist a hair whenever he filled his hand the way he wanted.
There’d been no flare.
Tam called and Jack folded. Cougar showed his hand. A flush, all hearts.
“You pulled that on a three-card draw?” I shook my head. “What the heck were you holding?”
“That’s fer me to know and you to blow,” he grinned. I prob’ly should mention, neither Tamson had the tiniest sort of tell I’d ever been able to figure out. Most likely they’d spotted one on me, though if they had, they’d never let me in on the secret in a million years. Wouldn’t let each other in on it, either. Competitive poker runs thicker’n blood any old day of the week.
The shootist raked in the pot. Fifty-two cents. High stakes.
“I need to see a man about a dog,” Jack said, getting up from the table and heading fer the door.
Tam got up next to fetch the coffee pot and the plate of roast beef sandwiches Penny had squared away fer our evening out in the bunkhouse, saying, “Dawson, I jist remembered. You told me you had some ideas fer being able to pay Sergeant James Q. Bodeen a decent wage iffen he decides to leave the Army and come with us in May. Care to share?”
“Yep. Shoulda done so already, though we have been jist a mite busy here and there.”
“Can’t argue that.”
“Well, anyway. It occurred to me, we don’t have the money on hand to be taking on another man jist yet iffen we have to pay him in cash every month like we been doing fer Jack, but maybe there’s another way.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
Jist then, speak of the Devil, Prosser came back in and headed fer his chair.
“You might as well hear this, J.P. We’re talking about taking on another man and how to do it, but iffen you like the idea I’m about to spit out, it could apply to you too. If Tam and Coug both think it makes sense, that is.”
“Which we’ll never be able to decide iffen you keep fumbling around about it, cowboy,” the tale teller noted. “Spit it out.”
“Getting there. First, one question. Would you two agree Flywheel is a bit on the side of being land poor?”
Father and son both nodded. They looked to be busy chewing, though, so I summed it up fer all of us. “The way it’s worked out, a ranch can never have too much land, but we’ve got an awful lot of the stuff we’re not using to its full capacity. After culling the cows and figuring which of last year’s calves to market and which ones to keep as future brood cows, we’re running barely a thousand head on graze that can handle three thousand easy, maybe as many as four.
“My idea is to give up part of the land–sort of. Tell me, gentlemen, what is the very worst part of punching cows fer the average cowboy? Nah, you don’t have to answer; I’ll answer for you. It’s that most punchers can’t ever git enough ahead to end up with a place of their own. Right? Right.”
I had their attention riveted now; that much was obvious. Whether fer good or ill…that remained to be seen.
“What I propose is this: We continue to hire men as we can find ’em, but only the best. Men we know we can trust like Jack here and also like Jim Bodeen. Then we give ’em a stake in the place. So many acres of their own plus so many cows they’re welcome to run on our graze fer free fer as long as they choose to work here. If a man quits us after the first year, fer whatever reason, or gits fired, he keeps the property iffen he’s been here a year or more–unless he wants to sell, in which case Flywheel gits the option to buy it back.”
Coug had a question. “What if one day we misjudge a hand and fire the sumbitch but don’t want him under our noses no more? You know, say he’s a really bad man.”
Jack answered that one for me. “You three can be mighty persuasive when you want to. I’m guessing that really bad man would suddenly discover he really wanted to sell and move on, right out of the county.”
This turn of conversation purty much finished the poker game fer the night, but by the time we’d fired up the third pot of coffee and finished off the last of the sandwiches, we had a new ranch policy fer employees–not counting Ute Box Boys, who came under another set of “rules” entirely. Tam would head into Walsenburg in the morning, git the paperwork going according to the guidelines he’d scribbled down as we went along.
Ranch Hand Agreement: Compensation
1. For the first year, Hand receives ten dollars per month and found.
1a. From the second year forward, Hand receives thirty dollars per month and found.
2. As of date of hire, Hand receives contract for 80 (eighty) acres of Land. Title to be transferred after one year of employment.
3. As of date of hire, Hand receives right to run up to 80 cow-calf pairs on Flywheel graze. Bull service to be provided by Flywheel bulls. Longhorn and/or Brahma cows only, no south Texas stock.
4. Should Hand leave Flywheel employ for any reason (quits or is fired), grazing rights cease thirty days later. Land ownership continues unless (former) Hand wishes to sell, in which case Flywheel has first option to repurchase at eighty percent (80%) of market value at time of Hand’s original date of employment.
There’d be more once the lawyers got hold of it. There always was.
“Ready, Tam?” Jack asked
“I was born ready. Let’s go see this eighty you’ve picked out fer your very own.” He hadn’t said exactly what chunk of our place he’d selected, so I was plumb curious.
Turned out I couldn’t have done better myself. “That’ll work,” I told him. “We’ll git the surveyor out here as soon as we can.” The JP Ranch, as Jack Prosser had decided to call his place, was perfectly situated. He’d already gotten his brand registered, so why not? A man’s got a piece of land and a brand, he can call it anything he wants.
Twice as long as it was wide–half a mile one way, a quarter the other–the parcel had everything. A sloping grade over most of it, maybe three percent, that’d guarantee drainage during spring runoff. No spring, no creek, but cottonwood trees that showed groundwater close to the surface and plenty of it. One side bordered the road from Walsenburg, so he’d not be completely surrounded by Flywheel property. Best of all, it was well within shouting distance of the main ranch yard; the two places could easily support each other in time of trouble.
“Looks good,” I told him. “We’ll have the papers ready to sign by the end of the week.”
“Thanks, boss,” Prosser said gravely, “And, uh, you might want to write up a set fer a similar parcel right next to mine, on the east side. It’s about as good a piece. That way, whoever hires on next–Bodeen or whoever–could have his papers signed the first day and be done with it. If it makes sense to you.”
“It does make sense to me, now that I look that way with an eighty in mind,” I admitted. “You’re a man of many talents, Jack Prosser.”
“Aw, shucks. I bet you say that to all the peons.”
“Nope. Can’t. I ain’t ever met all the peons.”
One thing our new resident landowner hadn’t figured on was the ribbing. It came from all directions, specially around the dnner table and–even more intensely–around the supper table when the chores were done fer the day. With the exception of whichever young Ute happened to be with us that day, there were no holds barred or close to it.
“So, Jack, you figuring on building yourself a three-story log mansion at the JP ?”
“Better git your running iron on a few cows before them funny-face Medicine Bulls all git too pooped to pop or you ain’t gonna see a calf one.”
“There’s a fine looking young schoolmarm jist came in last week on the train from back East somewhere, Jack. Now that you’re respectable and all, you think maybe you might wanna court her a bit before all them dirty-face miners beat you to her?”
Even five year old Henry got into the act, asking, “Jack, why don’t you write one a them mail order bride ladies? Bet they’d wanna marry you.”
Cougar laughed and ruffled his son’s hair fer that one, but we never realized our man had taken the boy’s suggestion seriously till the evening he asked if he could have the next day off.
“Miss Hattie Morgan from Philadelphia comes in on the early train tomorrow,” he told us, “and I need to be at the station to meet her when she gits here.”
We jist sat there and stared at him, all but Henry. The boy clapped his hands in delight and crowed, “I knew you should do it! I knew you should!”
I had to say something, seeing as how our best (and only) hand was starting to look more than a little uncomfortable with our silence. “You want me and Dawson to come along, Jack? Jist as a way of showing she’s welcome at the Flywheel?”
“Would you?” The man looked relieved. “I ain’t never proposed marriage to no lady before, let alone one I hadn’t even met. I’m kinda…this is sorta new territory fer me.”
Marie happened to be passing behind him at that moment, bringing the apple pies to the table. She patted him on the shoulder. “Mr. Mail Order Bridegroom, this is sorta new territory fer all of us.”
“You’d think it’d be impossible to sweat in this weather,” our nervous friend muttered, fingering the starched collar that was chafing his neck something fierce.
“You’d think. Hey–would that be her? Miss Morgan?”
The female who stepped down from the train as I was saying that would not be easily forgotten. Nor would any one of our own wives, but–okay, she was young, she was kind of purty in her own way, and she was wide as a barn door. I don’t mean fat; the girl looked–I knew where I’d seen that shape before. Daniel, the shootist who wintered near Fort Benton the year he taught me how to shoot the Colt Paterson with the folding trigger and do it right. Wide as he was tall, no exaggeration, and solid as a block of granite. I literally rubbed my eyes from the strength of the flashback. When I opened ’em again, it was to discover I’d been left behind. I hastened to catch up.
“Mister Jack Prosser, I presume,” she was saying, “and this gentleman would be?”
“Uh, Hattie–I mean, Miss Hattie–”
“Hattie will do fine, now that we’ve established our identites. Jack.” She dimpled, and I realized this big girl had more than a body that could block a charging buffalo going for her. Her voice was pleasant, somewhere in that medium girl range but with sort of a tinkle underneath there somewhere.
I’d never heard any other woman but Laughing Brook have a voice that tinkled.
“Hattie,” Jack started over, “this here is Dawson Trask. He’s one a them three bosses of mine I told you about. And this here’s–”
She cut him off. “Tam the tall tale teller, or I miss my guess. Also known as Crazy Rifle, the great white Blackfoot warrior from the land where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam.” She grinned at me then, which is quite some sight in a face that wide. “I must apologize in one sense, Jack, for using this fine jug-eared, lefthanded, greased-lightning gunfighter cowboy as the basis for my choosing you to be my husband.”
By this time, Prosser and I both had our jaws hung open; Dawson was the only one of us who still looked to have his wits about him.
“You see, Crazy Rifle,” she patted me gently on the shoulder with a paw the size of my face, ” I knew if you trusted Jack Prosser enough to set him up with his own eighty acres and free graze for his future cattle, he had to be a good man. My grandfather told me a great deal about you, including the fact that you are an extremely good judge of character.”