“Granddad, will you tell us a story tonight?” Henry asked the question innocently enough, but I had a hunch he had something up his sleeve. Like maybe he had a particular story in mind.
“Don’t see why not, sport,” Tam told him, “but I’m way too tired to think what tale might be a good one fer the occasion. My mind is jist a blank.” Which happened to be the God’s honest truth. Haying was wearing us all down some. We were done with the mowing fer the third and final cutting, though, with maybe two more days of dump raking to go. The end was in sight.
“Well-l-l…how about the one about Round Valley in California?”
“Huh.” Tam grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair. “That’s kind of a long one. You sure you ain’t jist working the angles to stay up later’n usual?”
“Why not? It ain’t a school night.”
We all laughed at that. Walsenburg had built its very first school building this year, but five year old Henry wouldn’t be attending until next fall when he was six. At this point, no night was a school night fer him.
“You talked me into it, Henry. The tale of Round Valley it is.”
The year was 1866, Winchester’s new Yellow Boy rifle had jist come out, and I had one of ’em. Life was good. What could go wrong?
Hiring on with George White in Round Valley seemed logical at the time. He had a lot of land, a lot of cattle, and he seemed to like the look of me. Looking back later, I think it mighta been the number of firearms I was showing more than anything else that give him the wrong impression. The fact I’d rigged two rifle scabbards, one atop the other. That in itself was unusual, and then there was the well worn Colt 1851 Navy hanging on my left hip.
George White had use fer men who’d run over the top of other men for him.
The little town of Covelo sat at the north end of Round Valley, but it was the ranchers who held the power in the area. Not jist White, but he turned out to be the meanest, nastiest, most lowdown of ’em all, at least in my book. I shoulda seen it from a mile off, but I didn’t. Not until he introduced me to his chief mankiller, Wylackie John Wather.
That fellow made my neck hairs stand up from the git-go. He wasn’t no shootist, not per se, but he’d smile to your face and slip poison in your drink like a woman or a knife in your back like a paid assassin–which he purty much was. Whatever it took. It’s amazing I made it through the first two and a half weeks with no trouble, jist moving cattle and fixing fence fer his holding pastures.
Then come the night of August thirteenth.
Wylackie John come to the bunkhouse right after chuck that evening, said he had a little job fer a few good buckaroos–that’s what he always called us, buckaroos–and he picked me plus six others. Not that I was anything close to being a boy by then, but that’s how he put it.
Turned out our task fer the evening was to burn out a sodbuster by the name of Hiram Cleaves. This gentleman had apparently made the fatal mistake of filing on a one-sixty that had a really nice spring in the middle of it. Worse, he’d dared refuse White’s gentlemanly offer to let him live another day iffen he’d jist pull up stakes and run like a rabbit. Even worse’n that, he’d brought in solid crops fer three years in a row, built himself a really decent house, acquired himself one a them mail order wives like our Hattie, and hired several of the local Yuki Indians from time to time.
Seemed like providing the Indians with gainful employment was the worst insult of all to George White.
What? No, Henry, I had no intention of helping to destroy anybody jist to collect a month’s pay. You know better’n that. Besides, you’ve heard this story before.
Now, where–oh, yeah. The first problem was, it didn’t make much sense to up and refuse on the spot. A lot of the buckaroos on White’s payroll didn’t strike me as the types to be overly burdened with scruples. If Wather said, Kill this rat bastard, I was purty sure they’d do it without hesitation. I knew I was good, but not that good. There was more’n twenty men in that bunkhouse.
It was a conundrum. Innocent people were gonna die if I didn’t take a hand in this business, but with the odds stacked the way they were stacked, my hand was looking like a pair of dueces at most.
Maybe worst of all, neither Cleaves nor his wife knew me from Adam’s off ox. They’d never heard of Crazy Rifle, the great White Blackfoot warrior from where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam. I was likely to git perforated by Hiram’s bullet while I was trying to save his sorry sodbusting butt.
“You take half the boys and go fire the barn,” Wylackie John told me, “then join us circling the house. Make with the warwhoops. Anything goes wrong, we blame it on the Indians.”
I didn’t see much use in pointing out that none of the Indians in Round Valley were likely to do much war whooping, it not being in their nature. But I was beginning to git the glimmer of a plan, such as it was.
White’s number one hatchet man handed me a bundle of torches, and I rode off toward the barn at a trot, followed by Sammy Wicks, Tom Deaver, and Boris Kurzky. Or it mighta been Kruzky; I never was too sure about that one way or the other. We got down near the barn, which was separated from the house by a good hunnert yards or more. I lit up three of them torches, passed ’em to the boys–and then suddenly said, “Jist a second.”
By the time Wicks spoke up, wondering what the heck i was doing, I’d rode around the corner of that big log structure, stepped down from Bonfire–that’s the horse I had jist prior to Smokey–
Bonfire? He was a big sorrel, all over the color of fire, so that’s what I called him. Anyway, I jist dropped Bonny’s reins, left him ground tied outa the way of stray bullets, and stepped back out where I could see the buckaroos all lit up with them torches they was holding about forty feet from where I was standing.
“Nobody’s firing this man’s place tonight, Sammy,” I told him, quiet-like but with enough carry to my voice to git the job done. “You three can leave here the easy way or the hard way. Turn your horses or fill your hands.”
“Sorry, Tam,” a voice replied, but it was Deaver, not Wicks, “We ride fer the brand.” And they went fer their guns jist as Wather and his trio burst from the mush oak trees toward the house, whooping like wannabe Comanche, waving their torches and shooting their pistols all at the same time. I never did figure jist how they done that, but they done it.
My three never had a chance. I couldn’t afford to give ’em one. They had honor, and they died with honor, but the point was, they died.
That left Wylacki John’s bunch. Most folks, I suspect, would’ve preferred the Yellow Boy against multiple opponents like that, what with its repeating capacity and all. Not me. Their shenanigans had covered up my assassination of their friends nicely, but now….
The single shot Hall carbine came out of its scabbard. The old rifle had been with me a long time, long enough to wear out two barrels and at least one of most everything else over the years except fer the Creedmore sight. I’d always favored a knee crouch shooting position with long guns over any other, and the corner of the barn provided some serious cover.
The farmer was shooting at the raiders now. He’d rolled outa the rack fast fer a sodbuster. Except these days you never knew. With the War Between The States done and gone, the man you found behind a plow was often as not a veteran who knew one end of a shooter from the other and generally disrespected fake Indians trying to burn him out in the middle of the night.
The homeowner didn’t seem to be hitting anybody, but he had pistol fire coming at him constantly, and the circling horsemen–who certainly didn’t look a bit like Indians–were streaking past him lickety split at the same time. They hadn’t done that the first time around, but now they knew there was nothing in the way to trip a horse and break its leg, so they were having at it. It looked like at least two of the torches had made it onto the roof. The shakes were starting to catch.
I got lucky.
One man came galloping around the house, straight toward me. He’d be turning in another twenty yards, but time enough to squeeze off a round…and as the hammer on the Hall fell, a second man rounded the same corner, lining up perfectly. The big .50 caliber slug blew both of ’em clean back off their mounts.
You can’t do that with a Yellow Boy.
“They’ll be back soon enough, Hiram. We should git going.”
“I know,” the stocky man sighed. “I know. You ready, Molly?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, husband,” she replied, “though I’d surely like to see George White eat a bit of lead first.”
“You ain’t the only one, honey. But Tam’s right. If he went this far tonight, he’s not gonna quit till we’re gone one way or another. Were it not for this gentleman, we’d already be either dead or at least running fer our lives with nothing but the clothes on our backs, if that. ”
I led ’em out the back way, the one only I knew about, skirting the edge of Covelo before leaving Round Valley behind us forever and heading fer the canyon that would swallow us well before daylight. To our rear, the barn and house both burned merrily; Cleaves and I were very much on the same page about that. Leaving the abandoned buildings fer the rat bastard to use as his own would have been adding insult to injury.
Hiram and Molly were leaving a lot behind, no question about it, but they’d not lost everything. Far from it. All four of his work horses were carrying sizeable burdens–none too much fer horses as big as these, but sizeable nonetheless. Husband and wife rode double-up on one, with huge packs stacked atop the other three.
My new friends had been flat-out amazed at how little they’d had to leave behind. Even the new plow was coming along. When Believer taught a fellow to throw a diamond hitch, the fellow stayed taught.
“I’m impressed,” Molly smiled. She had a really nice smile. “He cooks, too.”
“Thank you, Molly. I try.”
We were camped in a small park high in the forest, but another two days would put us at Paskenta, where we’d part ways. I had a mind to try to try punching cows in Texas fer a while, never mind that the Indians down that way could be downright troublesome iffen they took a disliking to you. Hiram and his wife figured Oregon was sounding purty good about now, especially a particular valley east of the Blue Mountains.
“You’re sure they won’t be coming after us?”
“Can’t see how. Hiram, they come at you in the middle of the night, all violence and totally illegal. It’s not like they can call the law down on you. Beyond that, George White don’t care one whit fer them men I eliminated from his payroll. Far as he’s concerned, they’re entirely expendable, and they got him what he wanted anyway, which was your land. He’s a piece of work, but no, he ain’t gonna waste a dime chasing you. Or me, fer that matter.”
“Huh. Okay. I jist needed to hear that one more time, I guess. Got a question. Do you make a habit of this, Tam? Go around using your powers, defending people from the evildoers of the world?”
I laughed. “I surely don’t set out to make it happen, but I do have to admit, trouble does seem to figure out where to find me from time to time.”
Molly Cleaves was a woman in her late twenties–at a guess; a man didn’t inquire into such things–with a solid, no-nonsense way about her. Even that first night, she’d held it together, but now she’d gone far beyond that. “Well, Mr. Tam Tamson,” she said with a smile, “I think perhaps you’re simply a guardian angel. But I know Hiram and I were the two luckiest people on Earth that night.”
“No. The one man I wanted to take down was Wylacki John. He’s bad news. But he was one jump from coming around the corner of the house when them other two got blown to Hell. He come on around the corner, all right, but when he seen his men go down, he put the spurs to his nag and hit fer the timber with the final man following behind. Even with the Henry, I’d never have gotten in a clean shot.
“It was Wylacki John Wather and that final buckaroo who were the two luckiest people on Earth that night.”