Daniel and I rode into Walsenburg from the east, the Jacobson Trail route. Tam would by this time be well on his way back to Flywheel cross country, over the Double Saddles, past the Hidden Lakes and through Dry Gulch Pass. We were taking the long way around, hoping to find some answers.
Besides, if young Ephraim Jacobson accepted our offer, he’d be living under the same roof with the old shootist; he deserved a chance to see what he was getting into.
Fred Walsen happened to be out front when we stepped down at the hitch rail. “Now, that’s one powerful looking stud, Mr. Morgan,” he said in obvious admiration. “Don’t believe you had him with you on the train when you first arrived. Where’d you find him?”
“Fred, you can call me Daniel. Mr. Morgan was my father.”
The merchant for whom Walsenburg was named nodded at that. “Daniel it is. I’m all in favor of first names but try not to be too presumptuous about it. About your stallion, though? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a burly fellow with such a fine head.”
“They’re called Morgans. One of the first breeds ever developed in America. And yes, I git the humor of a heavy-muscled Morgan riding a heavy-muscled Morgan. My head ain’t near as fine as Chesty’s, though.”
“Chesty? That’s his name?”
“Well, he is a chestnut. What else was I gonna call him?”
The thirty rolls of bobwire and a hundred pounds of staples we had on order had come in; Jack and Bodeen could bring one of the teams with the freight wagon to fetch it tomorrow.
While checking on the wire, I spotted a Spanish Navaja folding knife in a display case that had my name on it. Sort of. Upon inspection, it proved to have a five inch, razor sharp blade that locked in place when open. Excellent craftsmanship.
“I’ll take it,” I told the clerk. Henry’s sixth birthday was coming up. If Grandma Laughing Brook wouldn’t be more’n willing to craft a beaded buckskin case to carry the thing, I’d eat my hat.
That done, it was time to start playing detective. First, a look at a package of George Washington Cut Plug tobacco, which I also bought in order to avoid having the clerk wonder what I was doing when I pulled out the little scrap of black paper Tam had found.
Yep. Perfect match. Not that I’d doubted, not really. When the tale teller comes to a conclusion, he’s usually right. Okay, then. Time to git back to Fred Walsen himself. The proprietor was busy informing a couple of employees where the newest batch of dry goods needed to be shelved, but he broke off soon enough to attend to me. Flywheel was a solid customer.
“Fred,” I asked all innocent-like, “I bought me a pack of this Cut Plug to try, but I swear it’s not a brand I’ve seen before. How long you had it in stock?”
“Ah. Yes, that’s pretty new, all right. Received the first shipment on August tenth, as I recall. Not much; we had no idea if it’d sell or not, so we only ordered a dozen for starters.”
August tenth. Three days before Ezekiel’s body was found by his nephew. Damn!
I found myself really wishing it was Tam here now instead of me. He was so much better at hiding what he was up to. But it was me who’d been handling most of our major supply orders lately, so I’d been elected. It would look more natural fer me to drop in asking about the bobwire and go from there, he’d said, and he had a point.
“That little batch sold out right quick-like, I take it?” It was always safe to ask that kind of question around a merchant who lived fer the sale.
“It did. Ephraim could tell you the details if you’re interested. He was working the tobacco counter that week.”
Ephraim. “Ephraim Jacobson?”
“Only Ephraim we have working here. Excuse me, Dawson; Sheriff Olsen just walked in. He’s had a new shotgun on order for a while now. I have to give him the bad news that it’s still on back order.”
Well, that was convenient. Ephraim.
Zeke’s nephew was about the most ordinary-looking fellow I’d ever met, the sort you might think had been special ordered by the Fates to be a store clerk. Maybe five-nine, tall enough and then some fer this day and age, around one-fifty. Kind of a sallow complexion, likely from being stuck indoors most of the time. Sandy brown hair, eyes to match, jist…nothing exceptional from any angle.
Except he’d cared enough fer his late uncle to ride out Jacobson Trail to see Zeke on every day off he’d ever had, spend half a day, and then ride back. That had to mean something.
“Yeah, Dawson, I remember how the sales of that first George Washington batch went. Remember it well, ’cause we only sold one pack the first day it was on the shelf, then didn’t move another fer almost a week. But then the same customer came back in, bought two that time, and I guess he spread the word. We’ve had trouble keeping it in stock ever since. By the way, I been wanting to tell you, I’m glad if somebody had to git Uncle Zeke’s place, it was Flywheel.”
“Appreciate that, Ephraim. Matter of fact, Daniel Morgan–he’s that triple-wide fellow over there looking at hats–he’s got a bit of a proposition for you, iffen you could spare the time to join us fer a bite at Ethel’s after you git off work.”
“Oh?” He did look some curious at that. “Can’t say as I’ve ever had anybody make me any kind of proposition before. I’d like to hear what he’s got to say–if you’re buying, that is. I can’t really afford to eat at Ethel’s very often.”
“We’re buying. Two steaks and half a pie fer dessert if need be.”
He smiled. A little. “I may look half starved, but it’s unlikely I could eat that much.”
“Jist letting you know you’re welcome to try. In the meantime, reckon I’d better step outside before I try the Cut Plug. Let you git back to your paying customers before Fred fires you. He likely wouldn’t appreciate me missing the spittoon, neither. You remember who your super-seller first customer was fer that first sale?”
I cursed myself fer ten kinds of clumsy. If that wouldn’t make him suspicious, the way I jist up and out with that question, nothing would.
Fortunately, it turned out nothing would.
“Yeah, sort of. He come in with another man. Both cowboys, work for Justin Goss out at the JGC.”
“Huh.” I breathed a sigh of relief; God really must look out fer fools, at least occasionally. “Remember his name? I know a few of them boys.” Which was a flat-out lie, but at least it come out smooth this time.
He furrowed his brow in concentration. “His partner called him Bucky a time or two. At least I think that was it. It’s been a while back now.”
“Hm. Nope, don’t know that one.” But we’re fixing to git acquainted some, I thought as I headed over to collect Daniel. The plot was thickening in a hurry. Tam’s gut instinct had been right. This Bucky worked fer Goss, he’d acted as lookout fer the shooter who’d drygulched Zeke Jacobson, and we knew this because Zeke’s own nephew had sold Bucky the only pack of Cut Plug the Mercantile had ever marketed prior to the killing.
Where we were going to end up with this it was hard to tell, but one thing rang true: Whether Ephraim Jacobson joined us or not, he’d have to be kept in the dark, at least fer now. The kid was no shootist, plus he was seriously outnumbered.
We couldn’t have him deciding to charge out after his uncle’s killer on his own.
Swift Talker turned out to be an excellent host and an even better interpreter. Scrap and I stayed with the Skidi Pawnee fer a week, or maybe a bit longer than that–time flies when you’re having fun, and we were having fun.
Fer one thing, we were heroes, a new experience fer both of us and one we found much to our liking. Old Pronghorn was indeed a revered elder in the village. He often held forth fer hours on end, dressed in breechclout and fine bucksins rather than the dirty white man’s underwear in which we’d found him, dispensing wisdom and humor in the form of stories that were both educational and entertaining at the same time. If my schoolteachers back East had taught the way he did, I’d still have been in school.
Nor had he been lying about being neither dumb nor crazy. His son often sat in the circle of Indians listening raptly to the elder’s tales, interpreting fer me and Hannigan.
Okay, fer me, anyway. Scrap tended to avoid these gatherings, finding horsemanship and archery practice more to his liking. Which made sense. Swift Talker had gifted him with a bow and a quiver full of arrows, since he lacked the Baker rifle I carried.
The Pawnee had come up with three dozen balls and a bunch of patches fer my shooter, which was a good thing. I never could hit the broad side of a barn with a bow.
Our English-speaking Indian friend could spit words out so fast, he was even able to keep me up to date on Pronghorn’s stories without missing a beat. I learned a lot. How the Pawnee believed the god Tirawa had created the world, fer example, sending the stars to support the sky. Or why the Pawnee had long held that a captured woman’s blood would make the Earth fertile when she was slowly shot to death with arrows, though they’d not followed the practice fer several years.
The old fellow sounded right sorry to see that fine ritual abandoned.
In his day, I learned, he’d been unstoppable in war, once dispatching three Sioux in a single engagement when the northern aggressors attacked his village. He spoke of seeing the white man’s smallpox disease decimate his band, all the while knowing their only hope of long term survival lay in remaining allied with these same invaders whose numbers were as the stars themselves.
All in all, it was a time of rest and relaxation, of feasting on antelope, mule deer, elk, buffalo, and a few meats into whose origin I chose not to inquire. Pawnee maidens stole shy peeks at Scrap and even, I was startled to note, at me. This was a new and most intriguing development. Back where I grew up, girls had always ignored Tam Tamson. But I hadn’t cut a man in mortal combat back then; maybe that made a difference somehow.
Most likely, I concluded, Indian girls and I were simply more suited to each other. It might have something to do with my secret one-eighth Comanche blood. I’d told no one about that, nor would I for some time to come, but maybe those girls could sense it.
Not until my itchy foot started driving me nuts and I let both Scrap Hannigan and Swift Talker know of my intention to head north did the objections begin.
“Tam, you’re out of your mind,” the Indian told me. “To the north are the Lakota. They are not good Indians like us Pawnee. They will eat your liver for breakfast.”
“Yeah,” Scrap echoed, “What he said.”
“Nonetheless,” I shrugged, “That is the way I will be going in the morning. I’ve heard a lot about the Black Hills; it’s time I took a look fer myself.”
Swift Talker shook his head. Vigorously. “Especially you do not want to go to the Black Hills. The Black Hills are sacred to both the Lakota and the Cheyenne. White men slip into those Hills all the time, searching for the yellow metal. Few come out alive. I have heard of one old mountain man called Rabbit who lives and traps there; for some reason the Lakota let him live, or else he somehow hides from them. But no one else. It is suicide.”
“Then it will be a good day to die,” I replied. Fer some reason, they considered my position a sign of be being mule stubborn and thick as a brick.
No idea why.
“You coulda stayed with the Pawnee, you know.”
“Nah,” Scrap replied. “I was getting bored back there. Besides, some of the older warriors were starting to look at me like maybe they should start up again with that human sacrifice stuff. Even if I don’t look much like a captured woman.”
I had to laugh at that. “No, you surely don’t. But according to them, heading straight into Lakota country is asking for it.”
“So was asking you if you needed a friend, back in Bellevue.”
“Good point. How do you like your pony?”
“Now that,” he grinned, “is a happy topic. Why do you think they didn’t tell us they figured on giving us these valiant steeds all along?”
“Not sure. Seems like maybe they had to decide on which critters to gift us, wanted to be sure they were fitting mounts fer the heroes what fed old Pronghorn when he was lost.”
“Could be. I’m calling mine Hero.” He patted the little roan mustang’s neck.
“Hero? Well, why not. Beats the heck outa Shank’s Mare.”
“Whatcha calling yours?”
“Hadn’t thought about it. How ’bout Horse?”
That elicited a roll of the eyes and nothing else.
“Well then…hm…I reckon I’ll call him Loup.”
Scrap had to scratch his head that one. “You’re calling a black Indian pony a white man’s name like Lou?”
“No, dumbass. Loup. L-o-u-p. Remember? The river? Means Wolf, like the Wolf Pawnee.”
“Huh. Dunno why you don’t jist call him Wolf.”
“Nope. Not the right critter fer that. Might call a horse Wolf someday, but not this one. Got a question, though, since riding instead of walking seems to’ve gotten your Swift Talker button working. Where’d you come up with the name of Scrap, anyway? ‘Cause you like to scrap, or…?”
That turned my friend serious all of a sudden. “You’d think so, Tam. Most people assume that, and I let ’em think it. But nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, I don’t like to fight. Never have, prob’ly never will. I’ve had it to do, literally from the day I was born, and I’ve had to get good at it or be dead. But I don’t like it, not one bit.”
He had my attention. Some of it, anyway. We were pointed straight north, across rolling hills covered with green spring grass, and I did have to be scanning in all directions every second. Within a day or two at most, we’d git back to night traveling and day sleeping–and this time we’d keep it that way.
But what attention I could spare, Scrap had fer sure.
“I never knew my parents,” he said, “nor would I much want to iffen I had the chance, even now. When I was first born, still had the cord attached to the afterbirth, I turned up in an old washtub full of table scraps in a rooming house kitchen.”
“You what?!” I asked, startled.
“You heard me. During the day, everything from potato peelings to unused beef bones to half-eaten food from the tables, all that got dumped into the tub. The owner of the place had a bunch of kids, and every morning two of the older boys would pick up that loaded tub, lug it out to the pigpen, and slop the hogs.
“Then of course when the pigs got big enough and fat enough, they’d git slaughtered to make more food fer the kitchen. So in a real sense, them pigs was eating themselves, sometimes literally.”
I stared at my friend in horror, forgetting all about possible enemies hiding out there in the grass. “You didn’t git throwed to the hogs!”
“From what they told me, yes I did. Apparently, I was at least somewhat buried in that scrap pile, and the boys on hog-slop duty that morning weren’t real interested in staring at what they were carrying. Which I can truly understand.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “They seen me when I hit the hog trough, sure enough. Plus, I apparently didn’t appreciate the situation and started squalling. It’s some kinda miracle any baby would have enough life left in him to speak up, but that’s what they told me once I was old enough to understand. Anyway, them boys were kind enough to snag me back outa there before the pigs made piggy chow of me, despite not much liking having to handle what they were handling.
“Their parents thought about handing me off to some nuns or whatever, but they liked kids, had thirteen of their own, and in the end they jist kept me.”
“And they named you Scrap? That don’t sound overly kindly.”
“Nah. Not them. They always called me Jeremy. Jeremy Hannigan, Hannigan being their family name. But the younguns, that was another matter. They called me Scrap. Jist couldn’t help themselves, and I can’t hardly blame ’em.”
“Huh. You coulda changed it later, though. Lotta men out West go by different names than they was called back East.”
“You know it.” He grinned, once again the lighthearted fellow I’d known all along. “But I discovered being called Scrap has its advantages. Especially with a surname like Hannigan. Makes me sound like some sorta tough Irishman. Gives me an edge every now and then, and I figure I can use every edge I can git.”
“Can’t we all,” I mused. “Can’t we all. Tell you what, though. I ain’t gonna be near as unhappy as I was about my family situation after hearing your story.”
He laughed aloud. “Why not, Tam? I’d be bitching, too, if I’d had to deal with the man you call The Banking Bastard. I’d rather sprout up from a tub of hog slops any old time!”