Reggie wasn’t much fer letting things go. I knew he’d be after Tam to let him pick tonight’s story since Henry’d gotten to choose yesterday. It was getting to where I could read the lad, though, at least a little bit. He’d work on finishing up his apple cobbler, wait till I’d had my say.
“Tale teller, something’s been puzzling me fer some time now.”
“Yeah. Once upon a time, you told a bunch of us–back on the Chisholm Trail–about the time you and the mountain man named Rabbit went running naked through the snow when you was thirteen. That supposedly happened in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and you claimed at the time you’d growed up on a dirt farm.”
“True. I like that tale. It’s a good one.”
“It was a true story or it’s true you told it?”
He jist smiled and poured himself a second cup of coffee.
“Well then, later on, you talked about spending that same winter–when you was thirteen–with Believer and Laughing Brook, and you said your Dad was a townsman you refer to as The Banking Bastard. Now, which was it?”
“Dawson,” he looked across the supper table at me serious-like, “Why does either one have to be true? They do call me the tall tale teller, you know.”
Lauging Brook, sitting next to her man, patted his knee. “The Believer version better be true, husband, or your Cheyenne wife and our sons are figments of somebody’s overheated imagination!”
I could see I wasn’t going to git anywhere with this bunch in the immediate future. Might as well let the kid have the floor.
“Reggie, you wanted to say something?”
“Uh-huh. Granddad, can I say the story? I want the Scrap.”
“The Scrap? Oh, you mean you want me to tell about Scrap Hannigan? Yeah, I can do that. Iffen the others ain’t too tired of it yet.”
“Go ahead, Dad.” Cougar grinned at him. “It’s gotta be hard work making up all that stuff. Go with what you know.”
I’ve never said much about the summer I was on the run, skinning out of the family home and heading fer the hills at the age of twelve. At the end of that time, having turned from twelve to thirteen and then finally falling in with the old mountain man known as Believer, I was purty much ready fer my course in life to be charted. Believer had much to do with that charting, and I thank him for it from the bottom of my heart.
But the previous June was a different matter altogether.
I was determined to stay out of my old man’s clutches but dumb as a box of rocks when it come to surviving in the big, bad world out there. How I’d managed to make it as far as I had without getting killed, seriously abused, or simply enslaved by one villain or another…it’s a mystery. Somebody, or something, was watching out fer me; there’s no other explanation.
By June third–that would have been in the year of 1846–I was busting my butt, working the first steady job I’d had since leaving home, loading and unloading freight down at the steamboat docks in Bellevue, Nebraska. The place was a busy hub fer commerce, had been ever since steamboats come to the Missouri River, so it was a good place fer work to be found.
Nasty in a lot of ways; ever kinda rounder you can imagine hung out there. Gamblers and fur traders, trappers and strumpets, everything from kings to clowns.
There were also several Omaha villages within walking distance of the white man’s town. The Omaha seemed a peaceful people, much put upon by the fiercer and more numerous Sioux, and eager to git along with the whites. Come to find out, they always had, even made a “treaty of peace and friendship” with the United States as early as 1815 or thereabouts.
The Omaha were the first Indians with whom I ever come in close contact. I found out I liked ’em. While not a fraction as warlike as the mighty Blackfeet with whom I was to become closely associated later on, they were good people with that particular sense of humor unique to the red man. We couldn’t communicate much, except fer the rare individual among ’em who spoke a bit of English, but the sense of comfort in their presence was there.
Except fer one man, Big Eye, who functioned mostly as a mean drunk whenever he could cadge a bottle of firewater. Big Eye didn’t count, though; he turned out to be actually five-eighths white.
Bad blood right there.
Down at the docks, my boss was a sight meaner than Big Eye ever thought of being, but he liked my work fer a couple of reasons. Despite my youth, I was tall fer my age and stronger’n I looked. I weren’t no slacker, believing even then in giving the best you got if you’re gonna do the job at all.
He was paying me jist half of what everbody else was getting.
I knew it, but didn’t see much to be done about it. The little copper and silver he did cross my palms with was enough to keep me fed–more or less–and under cover in one of the rough shelters set up along the riverbank. When I hit my blankets at night, I slept with knife in hand, but my spot did put a wall at my back, which was a good thing.
Didn’t have no gun in them days, nor anything close to enough money to buy one. Hadn’t even shot one except fer the Banking Bastard’s fancy fowling piece. Once. When he wasn’t looking.
There were plenty of other folks in the same boat, of course. No true drunk–and there were plenty of those in Bellevue in 1846–could hang on to a shooter fer long. Either he’d have it stolen from the holster when he was lying passed out in the street, or he’d swap it fer a jug of rotgut, or something.
Yes, Reggie, that’s true everywhere, anytime. Drinking to excess will do it to you ever time.
Add to the drinkers all the drifters and runaways (like me), plus folks whose money burned holes in their pockets, and you had a town where a man’s wealth could be marked by counting how many firearms he carried around. I wanted to be wealthy like that, but it wasn’t happening; I was barely getting by.
Bottom line, I was a green kid in a world of human wolves. Maybe there was something about me even then–more’n once, I noticed rough looking individuals kinda give me the once over and then move on. Could be they seen something that said, Best to leave this one alone. But truth be told, anybody at all coulda took me out; I was the next thing to defenseless.
“You need a friend, kid?”
I risked a glance, taking my attention off the four toughs who had me backed up against a freight wagon. The man who’d spoken looked like a stiff breeze would blow him clean across either the river or the prairie, depending on which way it took a mind to go. Five-five, maybe, if that. One-thirty, tops. His clothes were both worn and dirty. I remembered him from the docks, a fellow maybe eighteen, nineteen years of age with a crooked smile and a way of cocking his left eyebrow at odd moments.
That eyebrow was cocked now.
“Maybe a casual acquaintance might be nice,” I replied. “All things considered.”
That response made him laugh and confused my oppressors. Their type didn’t much like being confused when they were having fun with a boy they intended to beat senseless, maybe rape–there were some men known to mount anything they could whip. Man, woman, child, horse, or dog. Usually, when subhumans like that were done with you, they jist killed you iffen you weren’t dead already and then tossed your carcass in the river.
The one thing you needed to survive around Bellevue was fear. Not your own, the other guy’s. Iffen they feared you, they’d walk wide around you, leave you entirely alone. Iffen they didn’t fear you, you weren’t always long fer this world.
Life was cheap in Bellevue that year.
“None of your business, Scrap,” the biggest of the four men snarled. “Butt the Hell out.” This one had to be at least thirty, a good half a head taller and eighty pounds heavier than the man he’d addressed as Scrap. He coulda used a shave, and there was some likelihood his foul breath might knock me unconscious before he could even raise a fist. Rotten teeth.
He scared me spitless.
Even at that tender age, though, I knew better than to show my fear. Where I come up with my smart mouth at that precise moment, Lord only knows. “Yeah, Scrap,” I said, “This idjit and his hyenas want me to teach ’em where the bruin defecates in the forest. You wouldn’t wanna interfere with his higher education, wouldja?” I even grinned as I said it, both to mock Rotten Teeth and to let my new friend know I surely wasn’t serious.
Scrap Hannigan got it, he understood where I was coming from well enough, but it went right over Rotty’s greasy-haired head. I think it was the word defecates. He’d likely never encountered a word of that size as a synonym for scat. He started to say something else to me–
–but then, behind them little pig eyes of his, I seen that marble rolling around inside his skull come to a stop. I was jist a scrawny kid, still under five feet tall. He could take care of me later.
“Lanny, you watch this brat, make sure he don’t go nowhwere,” he growled to one of his lackeys. “Garrett, Josh, let’s teach this Scrap some manners fer once and all.”
Suddenly, I was left facing one man where four had been. Not good odds, a boy–even one tall fer his age–up against a grown man. Lanny weren’t big fer an adult, but big enough compared to me. Fer half a second, I kind of worried about the more-or-less stranger who’d drawn off so many of my enemies, but when my “guard” reached down to pull out his boot knife (the better to guard me with, no doubt), it seemed kind of obvious I’d best focus on the threat right in front of me.
Men with knives in their hands have been known to cut people.
My hand flashed to the hilt of my own belt knife. I felt my fingers curl around the cool wood of the handle…and I blacked out.
When I come to, I was in a kind of strange coiled crouch that felt somehow correct, the fingers of my right hand splayed against the earth fer extra balance, my left holding a dripping blade. Lanny was standing there a good eight feet away, jist standing, gripping his right wrist with his left hand, staring at the blood spurting from two severed fingers on his right. It seemed like a long time before he wrenched his gaze away from the damage and looked at me.
Whatever he seen in my eyes seemed to bother him more’n the lost fingers. He turned and ran, clumsy-like. The man weren’t no gazelle.
The noise of combat drew my attention around to the right. For Scrap Hannigan, things looked to be getting interesting. Garrett and Josh were both down, Josh seemingly busy tearing his own shirt into strips to bind a spurting thigh. Garrett wasn’t moving at all.
However, the big guy–whatever his name was–seemed to be very much still in the game, stalking the smaller, leaner man who’d saved me from death or worse. Big’s weapon was one a them oversized Bowies, looking deadly wicked as it flashed in the setting sun.
Scrap was hurt. Not down, but there was blood all over him, one arm was kinda jist hanging there, and he favored his left leg. His own blade I liked better’n a Bowie. Hadn’t seen one before, though I’d later learn it was what they call an Arkansas toothpick, long and slender and double-edged. He must be good with it, but maybe not quite good enough.
Iffen I didn’t do something, the man who’d come to my rescue was gonna die in front of my eyes.
But…what? I’d apparently jist wounded one man while being unconscious of my actions, but I didn’t have no illusions about going up against this rat bastard.
He was closing in on Hannigan, circling and closing, that big Bowie flicking faster’n a snake’s tongue, when it come to me. I sucked a breath in down to my toes, reared back–
–and screamed like a girl.
Or maybe a catamount, or a banshee, or who knows. It didn’t matter. What did matter was, it distracted Scrap’s attacker jist long enough. The big man’s head jerked around to see what had made that ungodly sound.
By the time he’d realized his danger, it was too late; Scrap had closed the distance between ’em. He didn’t try go fer the kill but simply sliced that toothpick down across the inside of the wrist holding the Bowie.
In case you didn’t know it, it’s impossible to hang onto anything with them wrist tendons severed.
Next thing we knew, Mr. Big was thunder-thumping his way toward the heart of town, the same way my opponent had gone. Holding his right wrist with his left hand the same way, too.
There’s a symmetry in that fer them that can see it.
Scrap and I managed to patch up his wounds to some extent, most of ’em being surface slices except fer the gash in the left calf.
How’d he git a calf wound in a knife fight? He never said, and I didn’t ask. All that mattered was getting the both of us out of Bellevue.
“The big man goes by the name of Hasher Kreed,” he explained. “This was the third time we fought this week. The first time, it was jist him and me, fists and feet and teeth but no weapons. I knocked him out and left him laying on the docks. Then three days ago, we got into it again, only this time he brought along a friend, that Lanny fellow you finger-sliced. It was two on one, but only till I kicked him–Lanny, that is–in the family jewels. Then I knocked Kreed out again, which weren’t no big deal since he’s got a glass jaw and don’t tuck his chin.
“Tonight was the first time anybody pulled a blade, plus there was four of ’em, and now they put you in the mix with me. It’s only gonna git worse unless we move on outa their reach.”
“Well,” I told him, moving along slow toward the nearest Omaha village, his arm slung over my shoulders to give him support on that bad side, “I run from my old man fer trying to force me to be a banker. Guess I can run from idjits with homicidal tendencies jist as easy.”
When we reached the earth lodges deep in the night, our welcome was anything but hearty. It didn’t help that I’d only managed to learn a few words of their language. In the end, though, the village Chief, headman, whatever, managed to git across to me that his people wanted nothing to do with white man troubles.
Whereupon–it took a while–I got across a couple of key points of my own:
1. We weren’t going anywhere till my friend got some help from their medicine man or woman or whatever they used.
2. But after that, we’d immediately git outa their hair iffen they’d give us an escort west to the edge of Pawnee territory.
Of course, they ended up having to let Scrap ride one of their ponies, him being too cut up to hike all that way on shank’s mare. But I didn’t have to tell ’em that; they had eyes.
When they snagged their pony back from under my friend and made to race back east, I addressed the one man whose name I’d finally figured out. Fortunately, he did happen to be the obvious leader of this little group of six.
“Beaver Tooth,” I said, “For you.” Handed him that big, fearsome fighting blade Hash Kreed had dropped when his wrist tendons got cut. The knife had been cleaned up since the fight, naturally.
He looked startled, but he took it. There weren’t no sheath, that having left on Kreed’s hip when he took off running, but that hardly mattered. Beaver Tooth was married; his wife could craft him a fine case to carry the thing.
Then he did something I hadn’t expected. See, with most Indians, iffen you give ’em a gift, they don’t feel right about it unless they can gift you back. I hadn’t known that. Like I said, Indians were still kind of new critters in my experience.
Without a word, he handed me his rifle. It weren’t much as rifles went, maybe, but it had to be the most expensive thing he owned even at that.
I took it.
“Wow, Tam,” Scrap Hannigan said, “you can even cook!”
“I try. Mostly, I’m jist happy to find out this thing can shoot, now that you showed me how to operate the beast.” I patted the stock of the Baker rifle. My companion had recognized it fer what it was, a British muzzle loader made fer military use, one of the finest flintlocks ever made. Worn, somewhere between twenty-five and forty-five years old, but still in working order.
“I’ll say.” My partner flipped the leg bone out into the brush fer the scavengers to find and belched before adding, “Taking a rabbit with a head shot is downright amazing.”
I saw no reason to point out that I’d not been aiming fer the head. “Well, at least we’re fed in time to git this fire out and grab a little shuteye before dark. You think that leg is healed enough fer a moonlight hike tonight?”
He shrugged, smiling that crooked smile of his. “Reckon we’ll find out. Tell you one thing. You made one helluva horse trade, getting rid of a knife you didn’t even like in return fer a long range rifle. Even if it is an old Baker. I’m liking our chances a lot better than before.”
“Me too, Scrap,” I admitted, stroking the barrel of the first real weapon I’d ever owned. “Me too.”