As usual these days, one of the main topics of conversation after supper revolved around the late banker Jerome T. Newsome having uncovered Marie’s previous identity as the lady outlaw, Trisha Cobb. Every hand was present; until we got this thing figured out to our own satisfaction, the Prossers and Daniel Morgan would be taking their evening meals with the rest of us.
Which made fer a mighty crowded table, but with two kitchens going before the food was served up at Coug and Penny’s place, we made do well enough. Someone suggested settting up a table in the back room fer the kids, but Tam immediately pointed out the one big flaw in that idea.
“Little pitchers got big jug ears in this family,” he said, “and we’re asking the younguns to keep their traps shut about some mighty dangerous secrets. They need to be right out here with the rest of us, taking part in the proceedings where they can ask questions and understand the why of things. Ain’t nothing more dangerous than a child with an inadquate understanding and a big mouth.”
He was thinking of four year old Reggie, of course. The kid was anything but dumb, but he was also as stubborn as all git-out and did in fact have a tendency to tell tales outa school. Henry was never a problem that way; he seemed to grasp the need fer silence on certain topics without needing a whole lot of explanation.
Cougar got the ball rolling by saying, “More’n anything, we need to learn how banker Newsome figured it out. How he come to realize who Marie was. We can’t exactly go ask him, though.”
“True enough,” I agreed. “One good thing. I don’t believe we need to worry about them two paid assassins. They were told, but by now they’ve gotta be doubting Newsome’s story was true. Plus, they had to’ve found something worth taking fer their trouble before they left his place. They should be satisfied enough, ‘specially seeing as how they didn’t have to do anything but show up to collect. But I would like your opinion, Daniel. You’re the one who got to observe ’em on the train.”
“Midlevel pros,” the old gunfighter replied without hesitation. “Not smart enough to realize I was listening in. Not even smart enough to check out the con job you two laid on ’em through that hotel wall before they acted, either. Most likely, they’ll be careful to stay outa Colorado Territory fer at least the next ten years or so.”
Marie wasn’t so sure. “They could come hunting me fer the reward money.”
“They could. But to collect, they’d have to prove your identity. They are smart enough to ask if that reward’s still good before making a try fer you. And iffen they do, you can bet they’ll be told, Hey, she’s been reported as most likely dead two years ago. You try bringing some woman’s fresh-killed body in here, you’d best be able to prove you got the right female, or we’ll be hanging you! Something like that. Assassins as I’ve known ’em ain’t gamblers; they like a sure thing.”
The kids had been purty quiet through all this. The off-duty Ute boy–tonight that was Manny–had cleaned his plate and headed fer the bunkhouse, but every other Flywheel Ranch resident was present. Neither Henry nor Reggie had said a word. The girls didn’t quite count yet; all three of ’em were too young to be either assets or problems.
Reggie, however, was about to demonstrate he was plenty old enough to cause trouble. Like Henry, he’d been sitting quietly in the special chair that placed him high enough to eat at the table, jist listening to the big folks talk. I hadn’t noticed him clouding up, nor had any of the others as far as I could tell. When the storm broke, though, it was a doozy. He addressed every adult in the room and let us have it.
“Why you happy Mr. Noosum got dead? I like him! He gave me a toffee!” Jist like that, he twisted around and climbed down off his chair, running fer the back room the instant his feet touched the floor.
It seemed like a long silence held the room in thrall before somebody–I never knew who, might even have been me–summed it up: “Oh, shi*t!”
Cougar got up from the table, saying only, “I believe I need to go have a lo-ong talk with my son.”
Nobody moved till the shootist came back out, toting the sullen four year old as he headed fer the door. Going to the barn, maybe, where they could talk in private.
This time it was Henry Tamson who broke the silence. “I’m his son, too. But I think I’m glad he doesn’t need to have a lo-ong talk with me right now.”
“What do you suppose Newsome actually got Reggie to tell him?” I asked the room in general but Penny in particular. “The boy was only two when that all went down, and it’s not like we been throwing the TC name around here willy-nilly.”
Daniel and the Prossers had headed on down to their tipi, which was some crowded at the moment. The women would have a second one put together in another day or two, though, good enough fer Daniel to shelter in till we could put haying season behind us.
The rest of us men met in the bunkhouse.
“I’ll bring Penny up to date after we rack out tonight.,” Coug told us, “but here’s the gist of it. Newsome got to Reggie at Wharton’s the last time Penny took the wagon in fer groceries. About a month back, that was. I was riding escort that day. The girls stayed home with Marie and Laughing Brook, but the boys were with us. After we parked the wagon at Wharton’s, Reggie went in with his Mom to place the order. I put Henry up behind me on Charger and rode on down to the Mercantile to see if they’d gotten in a new batch of horseshoes. You remember, we was out of #2’s and running short on #5’s.”
We did remember. One of the smaller animals preferred by Laughing Brook had thrown a shoe right at that time. Which was a bit of a pain, ’cause you don’t go around running a horse on three shoes and one bare foot. We’d had to pull the other, perfectly good shoes and let the animal go all-around barefoot like an Indian pony fer several weeks, then start all over again when the new #2’s finally come in.
“Yeah,” I told him. “We remember.”
“Well, you know how Reggie is when it comes to being allowed to do anything his brother is allowed to do. He weren’t exactly a happy camper when he seen Henry riding off behind Dad; the rebel in him was fired up. His Mom was deep in discussion with Jed Wharton, Jed pulling goods off the shelves and stacking ’em on the counter, when the boy slipped back down one of the aisles.
“Where who should he run into but this nice man who introduced himself as Mister Noosum, give him a toffee and asked him questions while he sucked on the candy. Reggie was of a mind to keep the man talking, ’cause maybe he had another toffee in his pocket.”
“Hm.” Tam had a question of his own. “Does Reggie remember what sort of questions Newsome was asking?”
“Yes and no. Jim, that coffee hot yet? I could use a cup. Mostly, I think he was focused on that candy and how he could git more of it. But he does remember the man asking about Penny. Wanted to know iffen Reggie’s Mommy really knew how to shoot them two guns of hers.”
“That,” Tam observed, “Was surely none of his business.”
“No, it wasn’t. Arrogant fer sure. But I’m thinking maybe innocent, too, on the face of it. It’s how Reggie answered that put the fat in the fire, rang a bell in that weaselly little brain of Newsome’s. My son told him–he remembers this exactly, and I’d, heh, “bank” on it: Mom shoots good, but Marie is really really fast. She’s a fanner.”
“Oh, crap.” This time I knew it was me who’d spoken.
“Yeah. Oh, crap. One of the few things known about the Blue Eyed Angel of Death was that she fanned her pistol in any kind of hurry-up gunfight. That detail even made it into one of them dime novels, so it ain’t too unlikely Newsome would have heard of it. And there ain’t that many real fanners in the world, men or women. Fact is, she might be the only female. It’s a dead giveaway.”
Haying season was going well. We’d settled into a solid rhythm. Coug handled most of the mowing, swapping out with Jim Bodeen fer a day or two to rest the boils on his butt from riding around on that steel seat whenever he couldn’t take it no more. Penny had made him a cowhide-covered pillow fer the thing, stuffed with dry grass and laced in place with buckskin thongs. That did help a bit.
Jack, Dawson and I all rotated daily, two of us working pitchforks to collect hay from the windrows after they’d dried enough. The third man ran the dump rake. All in all, haying was turning out to be a sight more work than I’d realized, what with stray stickers and prickers finding their way down inside our shirts to mix with the dust and sweat, making a fair concoction of misery.
Thankfully, the reward was tangible. We had seventeen haystacks in place now, starting on number eighteen. Last winter had been mild, even fer this country, but you couldn’t count on that every year. This one, my gut told me, would be different.
I was on the dump rake today, the easiest, most pleasant job there was in the entire process. A man had time to think, what with the horse doing most of the work.
The Reggie incident was on my mind as it had been on my mind since we’d found out my four year old grandson was the key to an enemy finding out Marie Thorpe Trask had once been Trisha Cobb, the Blue Eyed Angel of Death. I didn’t envy Cougar or Penny even one little bit. They were fairly sure he now understood not to talk to strangers–especially strangers with candy and questions about his family–but there was still some testing to be done before the kid would be allowed out in public again.
It now seemed somehow odd that my life path had never cast me in the role of Dad. I’d knocked Laughing Brook up when I was thirteen, left her and Believer to bring up Coug and Laughing Wolf without even waiting around to see the babies born, then popped back into their lives twenty-one years later. Coug and I were more like brothers than father and son. At least his younguns definitely knew I was their grandfather, which was good.
Fatherhood itself, it was now obvious, could be a real bitch. Truthfully, though I’d never say so aloud, I was glad I’d missed it. Sort of.
A huge porcupine was crossing the field ahead of us. “Whoa, Buck,” I told the gelding towing the rake, “Let him on by. We ain’t in that much of a hurry.” The big black horse stopped obediently, ears pricked forward, curiously watching the tree pig amble on its way. Curious, but knowing not to git too close. Buck had sniffed a porky from close range one time and ended up with his soft nose plumb bristling with quills. It had taken me more’n an hour to git ’em all out. I didn’t get irritated about it, though, like Dawson did when Sunny done the same thing, back when.
Reggie hadn’t exactly been told his big mouth had more or less led to the toffee man getting himself killed fer his troubles. You don’t do that to a four year old, or at least you don’t if you got anything but sawdust between your ears. Exactly how Cougar had handled it…I wasn’t totally clear on that. But the boy did seem to finally understand it wasn’t a good idea to let outsiders know too much about ranch women who could shoot.
Glad it wasn’t my job.
I cupped my hands to holler back. “Be right over!”
Jack and Dawson had pulled the team to a halt so’s the hay wagon could provide a bit of shade fer our lunch break. We were working adjacent fields, which made nooning together a logical proposition. No sense heading all the way back to the house till the sun was close to down. Coug, on the other hand, was mowing the forty right behind the ranch yard today; he’d be tucking his knees under his wife’s table about now.
Young Henry Tamson had ridden out on the hay wagon as usual. Where Dawson went, there went Henry iffen he could make it happen.
Dawson was on the ground, throwing up the last dozen pitchfork loads of hay. The load was nearly topped out, a good eight feet above the wagon deck. Jack was snagging ’em as they come aboard near the middle of the load, Henry standing near the front edge, jist watching. A lot of them soft city folks, I’d heard, wouldn’t let a little boy roam around up high like that, but Henry had excellent balance and no fear of heights whatsoever, at least that he showed to the world.
I lifted the rake tines, depositing the last dump of the morning in the windrow where it belonged, and turned Buck toward the wagon. Which is exactly when I seen it happen.
My partner scooped up a load of hay, flinging it skyward toward Jack…and my jug ears heard the buzz even from where I was, a good eighty yards off. “Snake!” Jack yelled, backpedaling and swatting that airborne parcel with his pitchfork all in one motion. Fer one split second, I thought he’d missed, that the rattler had skinned by his fork and landed at or near his feet, hot as Hell and ready to rumble. Fortunately fer him, I turned out to be wrong about that.
But Henry had fallen backward off the front of the wagon, dropping out of sight from ten feet in the air. Never mind the hard ground; there was a solid steel frame down in front of that wagon deck. If he hit that, we could be looking at a broken back, a crushed skull–you name it.
“Hya!” I slapped Buck’s rump with the reins, but it was the ferocity in my voice that startled him into a jump-start followed immediately by a thundering, work-horse gallop. “Hya!”
Neither man even realized the boy was down. He’d not made a sound when he fell, which could be either good or bad. Dawson was still busy finishing off the diamondback. Not a big one, two feet or so. Maybe big enough to have killed my grandson, not by biting him but by scaring him off the top of a loaded hay wagon.
“Whoa!” Buck was still in motion when I hit the ground running, my boots churning clods as I dug in, sprinted around to the front of the hay rack–and came face to face with a surprised five year old boy. Henry was on his feet, brushing bits of hay and dirt from his clothing. I think maybe I scared him more’n the rattler had.
“I’m okay, Granddad,” he said, clearly seeking to reassure me.
“I can see that,” I told him, working to control my breathing. “You like to give me a heart attack.”
“That rattlesnake like to give me a heart attack!”
“I suppose he did, Henry. I suppose he did.” Judging from where the boy’s body ended up smacking the ground, he appeared to have missed impacting the steel wagon frame by maybe an inch, if that. I could feel myself shaking, trembling like an aspen leaf in a winter wind.
“Rattler’s taken care of,” Dawson said, coming around the other corner behind Henry. “You ready to eat?”
“As long as we ain’t having snake,” Henry told him.
I managed a grin, barely. “Nope. No snake today. We’ll let the ravens eat that one.”