The wedding was well attended, partly–we strongly suspected–from the town’s desire to see such a wide woman walk down the aisle. Hattie Morgan wasn’t really that short fer a female, standing even with my five-foot-five Marie when you got ’em next to each other. With Jack at her side, though, they could have passed fer a bowling pin and a bowling ball. Except that Hattie was more blocky than she was round….
Forget it. There ain’t no way to properly describe the woman. I’d always thought Tam was exaggerating when he talked about her granddad, Daniel. Shoulda knowed better.
The important thing was, our friend Jack Prosser was more’n happy with the lady of his choice, and that was all that mattered. “I did ask her,” he told us once, “what made her decide to take the radical step of putting herself on the marriage market as a mail order bride. Know what she told me?”
“Nope,” Coug had grinned at him, “but I reckon you’re fixing to tell us.” That had been during our final card game prior to the wedding. The ranch women were all at the hotel in Walsenburg fer the night, helping the bride to be, fussing over this and that.
Woman stuff. No men allowed.
There hadn’t been time to build the happy couple a new log house, nor did we have enough logs cut and barked to dry fer the project, but we’d bartered fer enough canvas and brought in enough lodgepoles to knock together a serviceable tipi. Despite being city raised, the girl made no fuss about living Indian style fer a few months.
“I am indeed fixing to tell you,” Jack grinned right back at the younger Tamson. “What she told me, she said, dear Jack, do you have any idea how few proposals a young lady of my girth receives in a place like Philadelphia? One–one in all my twenty-three years, and that from a sixty year old man with one glass eye and a drinking problem!
“So she talked with her family about it, Daniel promising to help her screen the western men who showed interest, and put herself out there. By the time she accepted my proposal, she’d received a good two dozen offers from other fellows, all the way from a south Texas rancher to some rounder who owns a saloon up near the Canadian border. I’m a lucky man, and that mostly because I’d written about my working arrangement with Tam Tamson and his partners.”
“You really are a fortunate fellow,” I told him, and I meant it. Hattie didn’t much like guns, but Flywheel Ranch already sported more capable gunslingers than a hot night in Tombstone, so that shouldn’t be a problem. She’d been around her beloved grandfather Daniel long enough to know why we wore iron; that was good enough.
Aside from that–from what she told us, and you could take this woman’s word to the bank–the future Mrs. Prosser was healthy as a horse, strong as an ox, and had a pair of broad green thumbs when it come to gardening.
“Name the plant, order in the seed, hand me a number two shovel and a garden hoe, and I’ll feed half the county year ’round,” she promised. “You like corn on the cob? Cucumbers? Peas fresh-picked? Beans of every kind? Tomatoes? Carrots? Raspberries? Strawberries?”
As it happened. we did like all of those things and more; it was jist that none of us–man or woman–had found the time to be messing with such. I wasn’t too sure Hattie wasn’t going to end up turning Jack’s JP Ranch into something of a truck farm, a possibility we’d certainly not foreseen when we ceded the land to him.
No complaints, you understand.
“We’ll git you all the seed and garden tools you want,” Tam had told her, “and you can repay us in fresh produce when the vegetables are ready. What about potatoes?”
“Lots of those,” she nodded enthusiastically. “Can’t forget potatoes.”
There was a little bit of something bothering me about my friend’s intended. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I had a spy in place, a detective who could be trusted to find out the answer.
“Henry,” I’d told the five year old boy, “When you’re with all them women tonight, I need you to listen up, catch every word they’re saying. Could you do that fer me?”
“Of course,” he’d replied in that serious beyond-his-years way he had about him. “I always do.”
There’d been a bond between me and Cougar’s eldest son from the beginning, strong to start and getting stronger all the time. Little kid or not, he was wise enough to know he could come to me with anything and never have to worry about getting ratted out…and telling him a secret was like tossing it down an abandoned mine shaft.
I did figure he might need to know what I was looking for, but I couldn’t tell him much.
“It seems like she sometimes…looks at me a little funny.”
Quite frankly, I’m not much fer weddings, but this one was worth it fer the entertainment value alone. Jack looked right fine in his funeral suit, and Hattie was indeed a sight to behold. The newspaper editor likely would have run a headline over the wedding story with a smart alecky flavor like Wide Load in a White Dress iffen he’d had the cojones, but it really was the bride’s day. In fact, I begun to truly appreciate the wiles of women.
Laughing Brook and Marie, both petite by comparison with the girl built like the LIberty Bell, stayed well away so’s not to make her look even bigger than she was. Redheaded Penny, three inches taller and no wilting violet herself, acted as matron of honor and wore a sort of tan-colored dress that let the bride shine like the sun.
“How do they do that?” I asked Cougar out of the side of my mouth jist about the time the preacher said You may kiss the bride.
“Never mind. Let’s git in line. Don’t wanna miss out on kissing the bride.”
Nor did I, but again there was that sense of something being slightly off. She didn’t obviously duck me or nothing, but I got the distinct feeling she’d rather have kissed a rattlesnake. Nothing obvious, jist a feeling.
It was time to head on in fer supper, but Henry and I had one more chore to finish, rationing out oats to the riding stock we kept in the barn. I was kind of itching to ask the youngster if he had anything for me, but he’d tell me if he did. Sooner or later.
Turned out to be sooner.
“I heard something.”
“Figured you would. And?”
“Mom and everybody were talking about Dad and you and Jack and Grandpa Tam. Kind of in the middle of it, Hattie said she was scared of you.”
“Scared?” I stopped in the middle of putting the lid back on the oats barrel and stared at Henry. “You sure?”
“Huh. Scared of me. Wonder why?”
“That’s what the others asked her. They all said how you were a good man, and why–I mean, what was there about you that scared her?”
“And? Did she answer?”
“Yeah. She said she sees a hardness in you. The others kind of laughed and said all the Flywheel men are hard, that they have to be ’cause this is a hard land. Soft men don’t last long here.”
“That’s true enough. You forgot to latch the gate on Charger’s stall.”
“Oops.” The lad trotted over to correct the situation before continuing. “Hattie said she understood that, but you were harder than the others. Different somehow. Like if something made you mad enough, you’d tear up the whole world and think nothing of it.”
Jist then, the big dinner bell sounded, seven peals. “Well, sport, time to go wash up and grab ourselves some chow. I do thank you fer the fine detective work.”
“Yep. One more thing,” he added as we closed the barn door behind us and headed across the yard. “Marie said when she thought about it, Hattie was right.”
“She did?” I was suddenly alarmed. My beloved blue-eyed sweetie afraid of me? I wasn’t sure I could deal with that!
“Yep. She said Hattie was right. Said if somebody tried to hurt us, you really would tear up the whole world and think nothing of it…and that’s why she loves you.”
Calving season was intense. Most ranchers tended to jist let the cows do what they could on their own and the Devil take the hindmost. If a mother died giving birth or the calf was too weak to git to its feet after hitting the ground, so be it.
Flywheel, on the other hand, took every loss personally. Near eight hundred head of mama cows is a bunch fer four men and two women to cover adequately, but we did everything we possibly could.
I say “two women” because on any given day, it was two of the ladies who went out among the herds. Laughing Brook rode with Tam every day, in the saddle by first light from the first day of March forward, tallying new calves on the ground and looking fer cows in trouble. Marie and Penny alternated. One day, my wife would ride with me while the redhead stayed home to watch the kids and git the next meal ready; the next day, Penny would ride with Cougar while Marie did the domestic honors.
Hattie Prosser was no cowgirl nor much inclined to become one, but she pitched in to help whichever kid-sitter gal fer much of the day, only returning to her husband’s tipi in midafternoon to prepare the evening meal fer the two of ’em.
Overall, despite a more or less permanent state of exhaustion–short on sleep, sometimes even pulling a calf by torchlight–we were more than pleased with the way things were going. This calf crop was the first sired by our funny-face Medicine Bulls, and about half of the newcomers wore the comical black head in contrast to the rest of their bodies which covered every color known to cow. The Brahma blood seemed to throw easy calves; combined with the good calving genetics Longhorns were known for, most of ’em popped right on outa there, no trouble at all.
Those that had needed help would be culled from the herd when the time was right, but in the meantime, every calf saved in the spring meant another net $90 in the bank by the time it was sold. Every calf pulled would be sold, not raised as a brood cow. If your mama had trouble dropping you, sorry, the whole line goes to market.
Which meant a lot of note-taking. On cattle, our Flywheel brand went on the left ribs, but every critter was actually double-branded. On the left hip, Mama Cow wore a number.
If you had trouble calving once, your number went in the book. Later, when it was time to cull the herd, your number was up.
Today, it had been my turn to ride alone; Marie was handling house duty, and Penny was checking the west herd with Coug. I’d taken the east bunch, Tam and Laughing Brook the center. In truth, while I treasured the days with my honey riding at my side, today had gone better than most. Thirteen new babies on the ground, nobody in calving trouble, and I was done with the run a good hour early.
The way home took me past the Prosser tipi as the east herd always did. There was no smoke coming outa the smoke hole, kind of unusual fer this time of day. Maybe Hattie had jist gotten back from helping Marie with the kids. I would have stopped to check on her, but knowing she had this fear of me, it didn’t seem like the greatest idea on the planet.
Until Joker took a hard look over at the cottonwood stand situated thirty yards behind the tipi. The big pinto can smell an Indian better’n a mule, and he don’t give false alarms. Not saying this was an Indian, but something–or somebody–was defiitely tucked into them trees.
“Let’s take a look, Joke,” I told him quietly, reaching down to slip the hammer thong from the .44 Russian riding my right hip. We didn’t make no bones about it, jist rode up to the trees–partway, which was close enough to make out three saddled horses tied off to tree limbs.
That, and a tiny sound leaked out through the canvas of that tipi. A kind of little mew, like maybe a kitten would make. Except the Prossers didn’t have no cat. Three horses, three men most likely in there with Hattie. Three men…and that number triggered a recognition I could’ve done without. Sheriff Olsen had stopped by seven, maybe eight days back. Wanted to let us know there were three men on the run from Virginia City, Montana. They’d been caught doing something really nasty–couldn’t recall jist what–and made it out of Montana one jump ahead of a whole pack of vigilantes.
Rumor had it they’d been seen traveling through Denver, heading south.
What to do? Rather, not what to do, but how to do it? Whatever plan I come up with, it had to be quick. Jack’s new wife was getting killed or raped in there, or both, and seconds mattered. Trouble was, Tam gives me tons of credit fer coming up with great plans, but most of the tme I don’t have to think fast to do it. Haste makes waste and all that.
Well. I had it to do this time. Not around by the front flap; if they were watching their own backs at all, that’s where they’d be looking. I took off my hat and set it on the ground. Maybe my bald head would blind ’em or something.
No time to take off the spurs.
My razor-edged BlackSteel fighting knife sliced the tipi canvas opposite the doorflap in one long motion from head height to near the ground. Blade in one hand, pistol in the other, I dove through the slit–and landed on top of the rat bastard who was in fact on top of Hattie.
It was darker in the tipi than outside; my enemies were but dimly seen.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to see all that well to gut-shoot the one that come up at me from the right. On the left, I think the fellow was reaching fer his gun–couldn’t tell fer sure in the dimness–but a backhand sweep of the knife caught him across the bridge of the nose, taking out both eyes along the way.
The one under of me was bucking some, but not fer long, not after I dropped the .44 outa my right hand, grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and cut his throat. The blood sprayed all over Hattie’s face, but there’d been no other way to do it. None of the three outlaws had been dead yet, meaning they were all dangerous, and shooting the man perched on my friend’s wife would have would have been way too risky.
“Let me jist take out the trash,” I told Mrs. Prosser, “And I’ll give you privacy to clean up a bit.”
“How is she?” I asked when Penny come over to the house where Marie and I still lived with Tam and Laughing Brook.
“She’s quit shaking now that she decided a double shot of whiskey might jist be what the doctor ordered after all.” The whole crew was finally in from cow check. Tam, Coug, and I had hunkered down, fixing our own supper and hosting the kids fer a change while Jack and our womenfolk tended to his wife. The gutshot rapist had died, so Sheriff Olsen would only have one live (albeit blinded) prisoner to hold in jail till the circuit judge could authorize a hanging.
“I really am sorry about having to spray her like that.”
“She understands, Dawson. She really does. We’ve all been talking. A lot. White Bear, you got to realize, this is a girl who’d never been outside the Philadelphia city limits till she climbed on the train to come marry a cowboy in Walsenburg, Colorado.”
“I do realize that, Pen. I’m jist sorry I didn’t git there a little quicker. Before–”
She held up a hand to stop me. “Before nothing. Sergeant, you did git there in time.”
I wondered if I looked as puzzled as I felt. “How so? That one feller was–”
“Was running his mouth, is what he was. Turns out them three weren’t the outlaws running from the Montana vigilantes at all. See, that guy on her, he was jist getting around to it, had barely dropped his pants, hadn’t done her yet. Didn’t happen to be in that tipi by accident, neither.
“Turns out he was one of the men who’d written her with a proposal of marriage. Daniel read the letter through once and told her to turn him down, but be careful how she done it, because he come across as a really bad character.”
“Wait a minute,” Tam said. “You’re saying this yahoo and his trusty hench-idjits come all the way from–
“Idaho Territory. They come from Idaho.”
“Because a woman he never even met jist said she didn’t wanna marry him? That’s it?”
“Yep. That’s it.”
“And I got there in time.”
“You’re sure, Jack?”
“About you, Sergeant, I been sure fer a damn long time.”
I ducked through the tipi flap. Hattie Prosser, purty of face and wide as a barn door, looked up from her seat at the little table. She indicated the other chair, Jack’s usual perch.
“Won’t you have a seat, Dawson?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, having some curiosity regarding what she might be going to say. You really are a hard sumbitch, spraying that man’s blood all over my poor face! Something like that? Maybe.
She rose, amazingly graceful fer what had to be a good three hunnert pounds of hard-muscled female, fetched the coffee pot from its tripod over the flames, and filled the waiting mugs.
Her first words were a surprise.
“I misjudged you. Or, rather…” She paused, searching for the right way to say what she needed to say. “..rather, I misjudged the world, at least somewhat.
“You’ve heard that Daniel Morgan is my grandfather, the same Daniel Morgan who taught Tam to shoot his first Colt Paterson. But I did not meet Grandpa Daniel until I was nearly seventeen, when he moved back to Pennsylvania to live with my parents. Daniel had soaked up enough lead over the years to sink a battleship, to the point that some parts of him wake up slower than others in the mornings.
“I guess you could say he’s retired now, even though he’s usually first up in the house and spends hours every day helping my father in his cabinetry business. But the point is this: Grandpa did his very best to prepare me for the world, but in truth I’d never been exposed to raw violence. Not once. Verbal taunting because of my size, yes. Heavy heavy Hattie, sitting in a tree, broke the poor thing and down come she! But even husky boys were afraid to take it beyond that. I’m just too…big. Hattie is a monster, Hattie’s so big, even when she was a baby, they thought she was a pig!”
“You don’t have to tell me all this,” I said quietly. She held up a hand jist the way Penny had–except that it was more’n twice the width of Penny’s–and I shut up.
“Actually, I do. I do have to tell you this. But perhaps I can cut to the chase. From the moment I stepped off the train in Walsenburg, I could see something in you that frightened me, a capacity for violence that was breathtaking. I suppose all strong men out here have it,” she shrugged, “including Jack. But in you, it’s…closer to the surface, I guess. In any event, I knew better up here,” she tapped her temple, “but not in my gut.
“Then Harvey Glassmeyer came.”
“Yes. The man who was on top of me when you arrived. He and his friends threatened me, told me if I wasn’t a good liitle girl that they’d lie in wait fer my Jack, gun him down, and then ride off, laughing. Those are his exact words: And then we’ll ride off, laughing!
“I’m sorry, Hattie,” I told her, “That you had to go through that.”
“Don’t be. Please, don’t be. Because I am not harmed, not now, not in any way. The reason I’ve told you all this is because…well, when you came through that tipi wall like Gabriel, Angel of Death over kings, for the first time I saw you for what you are. You moved with a speed I’d not have imagined a man could move, and just like that, one truly evil man was dead, another dying, and the third completely incapacitated.”
I still wasn’t quite sure what she meant, so I tried giving myself time to think by holding out my coffee cup fer a refill. She smiled, jist a litte, and I could understand a bit of what her husband seen in her from the git-go.
“Dawson Trask, Tam has told me the Cheyenne named you White Bear, but he did not tell me why.”
This was safe enough territory. “The Chief who laid it on me said, hey, you’re white, and you fight like a bear. Which in case you don’t know, bears ain’t much fer backing up once they git to it.”
She nodded as if that confirmed something. “And if I remember my study of bears correctly, they’re also known for speed and power and being rather hard to kill.”
“Well. You already have a fine name, so I don’t guess I can go around calling you Gabriel, but I will say this: I don’t fear you any more. I understand now that a born pacifist like me can only exist when protected by men willing to use deadly force in defense of innocence. I even understand at least a little of why my Jack loves you the way he does. And I’m from-the-heart grateful to have had my honor defended by the great and noble White Bear.”
She dimpled, we both got up from our chairs, and–speaking of bears–danged if she didn’t lay a bear hug on me before I made good my escape. It tested my ribs some.
Stepping up on Joker, I give Jack a wave to let him know the coast was clear so’s he could leave off with the woodpile and go git his supper. On the way back up to the house, I had to do some deep thinking. I was noble? There was a word I’d never have thought to apply to my own sorry carcass.
That was only a second-rate concern, though. Jack loved me?
“Joker,” I told the horse, “I surely do hope that was jist a back-East figure of speech.”