Daniel, Tam, and I headed out right after breakfast, telling the rest of ’em not to expect us back fer a couple of days at best. By the time we made it through Dry Gulch Pass into the Hidden Lakes area, past the lakes, and over the Double Saddle to drop into what had formerly been Ezekiel Jacobson’s labor of love, it would be past noon.
We’d look around a bit, see if we could locate the Jacobson herd, which had been deeded to us along with the rest of the ranch. They might well have been rustled when Zeke was drygulched, of course. Neither Ephraim Jacobson nor Sheriff Olson had cared much about counting cows when the focus of interest had been the cold, dead body of Ephraim’s beloved uncle.
Then a night at Zeke’s cabin. Maybe head back tomorrow, maybe take another day–or two, or three–to learn the land and come up with a plan fer using Flywheel’s newest acquisition, which we’d gone to calling Flywheel / Morgan since the old shootist, Daniel Morgan, had a one third interest in this one
I’d gotten the glimmer of an idea in my noggin about that but would sit on it fer a bit yet.
“Well, Tam,” Daniel Morgan asked from his perch atop his–what else?–Morgan stallion, “You got a summary ready for us on this place?” He was of course referring to the entire two thousand acres of the former Jacobson ranch plus the tracking scan he’d taken to see if we might figure out something the Sheriff had missed.
It had been weeks since the killing, and we were lacking the one man (namely Cougar) who might even be a better tracker than his Dad, but you go with what you got.
“Yeah, I reckon I do.” The tale teller looked mighty thoughtful as we headed back from what we’d decided to call Jacobson Lake to the cabin–which had turned out to be as much house as Tam’s own. “Bottom line, we got us a lot more than we figured when we bought this place at auction. How much of what we jist seen today Goss knew before he had Zeke popped, there’s no telling. But this is some kind of asset fer Flywheel. And fer you, too, Daniel, since you own a third.
“With Zeke Creek–that’s a good name for it, Dawson; thank you–plus Triple Creek looking to run year ’round, there’s more’n enough water to supply as many cattle as the grass will feed. Who’d a thunk he had a late summer hidey-hole like them Middle Fork Meadows?”
The lake had shown on the map, but the meadows had kind of amazed ever one of us. Hemmed in by Triple Creek’s Middle Fork to the east and south, the West Fork on the west, and steep, forbidding mountain slopes to the north, the area provided a natural pasturage for close to two hundred cow-calf pairs and five strong bulls. All Longhorns, all looking good. Ezekiel Jacobson had known how to cull a herd.
There’d been no rustling going on. The place wouldn’t run many more’n that.
Except fer the horses, maybe. We hadn’t found hide nor hair of them. There were still plenty of possibilities, though, if the killer had opened the corral gate to let Zeke’s riding stock run free. We’d look some more tomorrow.
“You ain’t said a word about what you did or didn’t find at the murder site,” I reminded him.
“No, but I been thinking on it. And making notes, too. By the numbers, as usual. Let’s git these horses offsaddled and curried down. You and Daniel can read it while I’m tackling supper.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, and I meant it. It’d been a while since the two of us had been out on the trail together; he’d apparently forgotten it was my turn to cook.
Notes: Zeke J. Murder Site
1. Two killers: 1 shooter, 1 lookout. Tobacco marks on rocks where lookout stationed.
2. Shooter fired from tree. (Note: Check w/ Sheriff for bullet angle.) Bark rubbed raw where he climbed, clothing threads on limb.
3. Paper scrap: Suspect R.J. Reynolds (Geo. Washington Cut Plug). Check at Mercantile.
4. Killers left horses near Lake and hiked. (picket pegs).
5. Horse #1: Left front hoof turns in.
6. Horse #2: Corrective bar, right hind shoe. Black tail hair.
“Sorry to say, that’s about all I come up with, at least so far.” Tam shrugged, looking sheepish.
“Sorry to say?!” Daniel Morgan’s eyebrows were climbing his forehead. “I looked over the same ground you did, and the only thing I spotted was that one bullet we dug out, the pistol round.”
“I didn’t do much better,” I admitted drily. “You git used to this sorta thing around the Tamsons after a while.”
“Ill take the pats on the back, but it still don’t mark as clear a trail as I’d like. Everything I turned up is common as fleas leaving a dead rabbit. Except maybe that Cut Plug tobacco. Iffen that paper scrap does match up….”
“Yeah, what about that? R. J. Reynolds? Never heard of that brand.”
“It’s new, jist started up this year. Based in North Carolina, if memory serves.”
“And iffen that paper matches up, iffen it really is from their George Washington Cut Plug like I think, it could help a mite. The Merc ain’t had that stuff on the shelf fer very long; Fred Walsen might be able to give us some idea who’s been buying it.”
“Kind of a long shot,” Morgan mused, his double-wide body making the chair on which he was sitting creak in protest.
“It is. But it’s the best shot we’ve got at finding out who gunned down our good neighbor in cold blood.”
I nodded. “There is that. Change of topic, before them taters are done and we git to stuffing our faces. We’re all agreed this place has to be used and used well, both to honor Zeke’s memory and to keep greedy folks from trying to take it over on general principle, right?”
“Well, I got an idea. It ain’t full fledged yet, but….”
“Spit it out, cowboy,” Daniel grinned at me, “before you bust.”
“All right. What if you and Jack and Hattie all three was to move out here? This cabin ain’t no cabin; it’s a full sized house. Wouldn’t crowd the three of you none.”
“Hmmm,” Daniel thought about that, rubbing his chin to increase the brain action. Tam jist raised that one eyebrow.
“Now, the way I see it, we gotta figure Goss may try again. Hattie needs a man around at all times, specially since–you know. So either Jack or you would need to be working close to home on any given day. And one man alone is a trouble magnet fer them backshooters. So you’d need a third man. That way, one could always be in hollering distance fer Hattie, and two men could cover each other’s backs on the long rides.”
“Come and git it.” the tale teller announced. We grabbed our plates and started dishing up. Fer a bit, we concentrated on filling our bellies. Over coffee, though, Tam took up where we’d left off. “You got somebody in mind?”
“Possibly. What do you two think about recruiting Ephraim Jacobson away from the Mercantile? He ain’t no puncher, not yet, but maybe he could learn.”
“Zeke’s nephew?” Daniel laughed. “That would stick a right burr under Justin Goss’s saddle! Kill the uncle to git him outa the way, git slicked outa stealing the place at auction, and then all of a sudden come to find out the nephew plus a couple of hard men have took over? He might jist git apoplexy and fall over dead!”
We all laughed at that image.
“That takes care of today’s business. How about a story?” The wide man never missed a chance at one of those. It seemed to give him no end of pleasure, listening to a yarn spun by the storyteller who’d developed from the young white Blackfoot warrior he’d taught to handle a Colt Paterson. Parental pride, almost.
“Absolutely. We ain’t done with Scrap Hannigan.”
There were plenty of Pawnee living in western Nebraska in those days, even after the smallpox cut ’em down from what they’d once been, but we didn’t see hide nor hair of any man till we reached the Sand Hills. I’d lost track of the days, a phenomenon I’ve noticed whenever I’ve done most of my traveling at night, but it seemed we were overdue fer Indian contact.
When we did come across one–jist one–Pawnee, he weren’t what we expected. We’d started getting cocky, what with Scrap’s leg healing up as fast as it was and nobody showing up to give us a hard time. That led to gradually traveling more by daylight, which was a dumb thing to do. That night we’d only walked till maybe midnight and then made camp, figuring to start again when the sun come up.
At first light, the pronghorn antelope was right there in front of us, jist begging to be breakfast. Which we hadn’t had fer a day or two, so naturally I slipped the Baker rifle around to where I could line up on Mr. White Flanks, let fly with that .62 caliber round, and we had more meat than we could eat.
Our Indian contact showed up while we was grilling the liver.
“Holy–wouldja lookit that!” Scrap was pointing off to the right, into the rising sun, which didn’t make it easy to make the man out.
The fellow was worth the effort, though. He looked to be Pawnee, all right, with the sides of his scalp shaved and that porcupine-looking roach all flared up over the middle of his head. But he was seriously old, he didn’t show weapon one, and he was wearing white man clothes–sort of. No buckskins or even a trade blanket, jist a set of longhandled underwear so dirty it had turned plumb gray. On his feet, he had a mismatched pair of cotton socks.
That was it.
He didn’t seem hurt, nor did he seem afraid. Jist walked up to within easy hailing distance and stopped, looking at us like he was trying to figure out what sort of critters we might be. Or something.
It took a while to realize he was simply confused. Not so much about us, but about where he’d left his lodge. Scrap watched the two of us, bemused, while we slung sign language at each other till we got some sort of understanding going on. Which weren’t easy, since I wasn’t even close to fluent.
Finally, I used up the few words of Pawnee I’d picked up, mixed in with made-up sign I merely hoped would make sense to our visitor. Or maybe we were his visitors; it was his territory after all.
“Tirawa”, I announced loudly, following that immediately by pointing the fingers of one hand at him and the other at myself, then bringing the two hands together in a quick, firm, clasping motion. That wasn’t quite all of it, though. “Wee tee ka us sta!” preceded a sweeping gesture toward the liver.
The old warrior got it, moving directly to the spit and tearing a huge chunk of the soft meat loose with his fingers. Fer a while after that, all you could hear was smacking.
He clearly didn’t have no teeth.
“What on God’s green Earth did you say to him, Tam?” My traveling partner was obviously impressed. “I didn’t know you knew Pawnee or sign, either one!”
“I don’t. Them were the only Pawnee words I know at all except fer Pawnee. As fer the sign, I was making that up as I went along.”
“If that don’t beat all. I’d swear you could talk to a horse and understand what the horse said back. But like I was saying–”
“Tirawa is their word fer God, or something like that. Wee tee ka us sta I’m less sure about, but I think it means Don’t hurt yourself. What I was trying to say was, “God put us together. Don’t hurt yourself. Eat!”
“Huh. If that don’t beat all.”
“You said that.”
“It bears repeating.”
“Yeah, I guess it does at that.” I sighed. “Now, if I only knew what we were going to do with this gentleman. He’s healthy enough, or looks it, but he can’t remember where his home is located. Plus, he’s wandering out here alone with no weapons, no pony, not even any moccasins.
“I think he’s senile.”
Neither Scrap nor I had any idea what to do with our new senile acquaintance, but he took the matter out of our hands by simply tagging along when we moved out, occasionally talking to me–he’d apparently decided I must either be the leader or the only one who had a chance of understanding him–while ignoring Scrap Hannigan entirely. Which was interesting, in part because my older partner had a good five or six inches in height on me and was clearly much older.
It was that morning what taught me it’s not always size that matters.
Scrap also seemed to think I should be able to figure out what the old man was saying. After one burst of chatter accompanied by wild hand waving, he asked, “What’d he say?”
I shrugged. “Not a clue.”
After another go-round, my response was, “I think he’s trying to tell us he ain’t dumb or crazy, jist can’t remember where his lodge went.”
Scrap jist shook his head.
Things come to a head about midafternoon.
We’d come to a river and were standing there, brain-dead as fence posts, trying to decide whether we needed to cross it or simply follow it upstream, when a whole bunch of Pawnee come out of a stand of cottonwoods. When they seen us, the leader gave a whoop–which I dearly hoped weren’t no war whoop–and charged us.
The old warrior jist stood there, ramrod erect, right by my side. One side; Scrap was on the other.
There was a lot of greeting-talk between the man on the pony–you betcha those Pawnee all had ponies–and our fellow in the dirty underwear. I didn’t understand a word of it till the horseman jumped down and addressed me in perfect, if slightly accented, English. “Thank you for feeding my father.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied, not coming up with anything better.
Turned out our slightly senile companion was one of the most revered elders among the Wolf Pawnee. Skidi, they call themselves. The river in front of us was the Loup, and we were on their reservation. That was years before they got pushed on down to Oklahoma..
“Two of my brothers and one uncle scout for the Army,” the younger man explained proudly. “I am Swift Talker, and my father is Pronghorn. Come with us, me and my forty warriors. We will feast and celebrate with games. We had feared my father lost.”
“He was lost, from what he said,” I began, but Swift Talker cut me off. Swift indeed.
“No, no, I mean, lost forever, as in departed, vamoosed, dead.”
Several of the others took off at a gallop. I didn’t know why at first, but it wasn’t long before they were back with ponies fer all of us. Not permanently; they weren’t gifts. But we rode into our first-ever Pawnee village in style instead of hiking in on shank’s mare. I appreciated Swift Talker fer that.
Even if it was the first pony I’d ever been on. I made a right hash of getting aboard. Rescuing the revered elder Pronghorn seemed to have its privileges, though; nobody laughed.
Not even once.