Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 77: Windy Cave

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Dawson
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The mood around the breakfast table was…the only word for it is silly.

“Deputy Tamson,” I said, “please pass the bacon.”

“Most certainly, Deputy Trask. And Deputy Morgan, might I recommend the coffee this fine morning? ‘Tis fresh brewed it is, and hot off the stove.”

Marie shook her head, addressing the other women. “Give men a badge fer half a day, they think they’re God’s given answer to law enforcement west of the Mississippi.”

“Ah, but they are,” Tam’s Cheyenne wife dimpled. “It’s just that this is the first time they ever followed the rules!”

Hattie and Penny both jist smiled. We were all smiling more than not. Catching and convicting Zeke’s killers had given every one of us a considerable lift in spirits we hadn’t even realized we were lacking.

Still, we did need to git down to business sooner or later. Cougar started us off, looking at Jack Prosser and Daniel Morgan in turn as he did so. “You two are heading out?”

“Soon as we git saddled up and Hattie hands us our travel rations, we are.”

It hadn’t taken long to come up with a modified plan fer occupying the Jacobson place. First, Hattie would move in with Cougar and Penny and the kids while her men were gone. Then Jack and Daniel, after riding cross country via the Double Saddles route, would hook the team they were taking along to Zeke’s freight wagon–the dead man had kept it in good repair until he was dead–and start the long trek back around through Walsenburg and out to Flywheel.

Which meant 14 miles of travel with an empty wagon, pick up the new order of bobwire and staples at the Mercantile, plus 17 more miles out to the ranch. It was only 11 miles going straight through the Saddles, but there was no way to git a wagon through some of that country. Yet. We had in mind to change that, but not right now.

They likely wouldn’t make it to town before the Merc closed, in which case they’d take a room at the hotel fer the night. We wouldn’t look to see ’em back till maybe noon tomorrow.

Day after tomorrow–that would be Saturday–they’d reverse, hauling Hattie plus everything the three of ’em owned, moving in when they got there. Two or three more of us would ride over the Saddles a few days later, help ’em chouse the Jacobson herd out of the high meadows to winter graze around the lake. That’d leave the cattle close enough to the house so’s the two men could cover each other’s backs without leaving Hattie vulnerable, at least till spring when the calving was done.

Ephraim, we realized, had made the right decision. He’d never have made a cowhand even if he’d tried. .

“Well,” I shoved back from the table and got to my feet. “We’re burning daylight. Dunno about the rest of you, but I’ve got a house to build.”

“Sounds like my cue.” Bodeen was up next, actually beating me to the hat rack. “The sooner we git yer private castle finished, the sooner I can start sweet talking your wife into sweet talking you into helping me on mine.”

“Okay, I followed all that. I think. Oh, Tam, by the way. You and Coug should be back from scouting the herds by supper time. Jist remember, you ain’t finished telling us how it went fer you and Scrap Hannigan when you boys decided to invade Lakota country. Tonight?”

“Tonight,” the tale teller agreed, “if Deputy Tamson don’t have me arrested before then.”

“Not iffen you watch your P’s and Q’s, Deputy Tamson. After you?” Cougar bowed, waving his Dad toward the door.

It was gonna be one a those days.

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Tam
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Hero and Loup turned out to be one fine pair of ponies, though it turned out we shoulda named ’em something a bit more feminine. At first, thrilled to be mounted at all, we hadn’t even noticed they were both mares.

Southwestern Dakota Territory might be Lakota country, but we didn’t see any for quite some time. This go-round, however, we maintained our night-travel discipline, having learned our lesson with the Pawnee.

Once, traveling by moonlight, we spotted a war party of twenty or more warriors trekking across the plains. Not Lakota; these had to be from some other tribe, using the darkness to cloak their presence in enemy lands jist as we were doing. Blackfeet, maybe; those folks were known to travel far and wide in their search for plunder. Or maybe not; I still had a lot to learn about Indians.

At any rate, we were lucky, spotted them first and managed to hunker down in a small gully out of sight till they were gone.

We come up on the Black Hills from the south. Didn’t know it at first, but when the sun come up that morning, the island of ridges showed on the horizon. Not a big island, something like 25 miles east to west and a bit more’n twice that north to south. Or so we’d heard.

“I can see why they’re called the Black Hills,” Scrap observed. “They surely look it, at least from this distance.”

“They do,” I agreed. We were camped fer the day in a cutbank wash, peering cautiously up over the side to study the terrain before we slept. The ponies didn’t have much to chew on; we’d have to let ’em graze on the way when we got going again after dark. But we weren’t in no rush. It was still somewhere in mid-June, plenty of summer ahead of us before we had to start worrying about where to winter.

Our thinking was definitely more grasshopper than ant at the moment.

“Bet there’s tons a caves in them hills.”

I stared at him. “So? What’s your point, Hannigan?” Caves or mines never done a thing fer me. Having a mountain live on top of me…no thanks.

“My point?” He thought about that fer a moment, but he never took his eyes off the distant hills. “My point…does there have to be a point, Tam? I jist like caves, that’s all. They had some back home, where I come from. Limestone, those were. I wonder what kinda rock these would be?”

“Got me.” It felt like a whole troop of desert ghost scorpions were running up and down my spine, jist thinking about caves–and I’d never even been to scorpion country. Didn’t know iffen there was such a thing as a desert ghost scorpion, neither, but that’s what it felt like. The idea of going underground, even to git buried after I was dead and gone, did not trip my trigger.

“Tam,” Scrap had finally turned to look at me. Maybe something in my voice. “You’re whiter’n a sheet. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of caves?”

“More like superstitious,” I lied. “Don’t like bats much, neither.”

My partner laughed, though softly. You never knew who might be in earshot whether the countryside looked empty or not. “Let’s git some shuteye, wild man. Jist remember, them caves don’t jump out and grab you. Mines, neither. I like them, too. Not quite as well as caves, but….”

Thankfully, he drifted off and settled down in his blankets before I had to tell him to shut up. I owed Scrap Hannigan my life, but he was crazy as they come.

Caves!

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Our luck ran out three days later.

“We shouldn’t have come this way!” I yelled at Scrap in order to be heard over the hooves and laboring breath of our lathered mounts, not to mention the war whoops of the Lakotas behind us. There were at least thirty of ’em, and they were gaining. Still a half mile back or so, but gradually closing the distance.

Neither Hero nor Loup had much left to give.

“Why not?!”

“We’re smack in the middle of their sacred damned Black Hills! If we’d stayed out, cut west, maybe–”

“Maybe nothing, Tam! They’d have kept after us no matter! We had to find cover! Still do fer that matter!”

“Yeah! I know!” I did know, and we weren’t talking a couple of boulders or a few pine trees, of which there were plenty covering the slopes. We needed serious cover.

Loup stumbled and nearly went down. She didn’t, but it wouldn’t be long now. Couldn’t be.

Scrap almost ran his horse into the hole in the ground. Would have, if the crazy thing hadn’t howled at him. The hole, not the horse. Hero spooked sideways from the sound, but she was so tired it didn’t amount to much.

“Pull up!”

I seen instantly what he had in mind. In any other circumstance, you couldn’t a got me to go along with such an insane idea fer any reason. The thing is, though, reason goes out the window when you’re twelve years old and being chased fer the first time in your life by a bunch of wild Indians focused on lifting your hair. Them folks had been known to lift a few other things while they was at it.

Squirming into a possibly snake-infested, bat-filled, who-knows-what hole in the ground suddenly looked like–well, not a fine idea, but I didn’t have a better one. My friend Scrap Hannigan had been fighting to stay alive from the second he was born; he had experience. This one time, I’d take his lead.

“Git the war bridle and slap Loup on the rump,” he commanded, talking quieter now that we were on the ground.

“Bye, baby,” I said to the black. She and Hero managed to trot off a little, I thought, but there was no time to watch. The Lakota were nearly on us.

That godawful hole–a cave entrance, obviously–was tiny, no more than maybe ten inches high by fourteen wide. Fortunately, Scrap was a small man. He poked his bow ahead of him–the better to piss off any denned rattlesnake, no doubt–scrunched his shoulders through the ragged opening in the rock, and squiggled right on in.

By the time I’d followed, certain sure in my fearful imagination that a couple of red men were going to git hold of my feet and drag me back back out so’s they could split me like a wishbone, there was a whole lot of noise assaulting my poor virgin ears. Now that I was turned around–inside the hole, it got bigger; there was plenty of room–it felt kind of secure in here.

Safe.

But loud. The cave was howling, blowing its cold wind-breath right out past us. It had been so strong coming in that I’d felt my hair blow back, and my eyes teared up something pitiful. Outside, them Lakota were some kinda upset. We could see ’em milling around, yelling at each other other, waving their arms.

“Why do you s’pose none of ’em took a shot at us while we were scrambling in here?” I asked, though I had to put my mouth next to Scrap’s ear to be heard over the noise.

“It’s only a guess,” he replied, “but I think maybe this is Tokahe’s hole.”

“Huh?”

“Tokahe’s hole. While you were soaking up ancient wisdom from old Pronghorn, I was out farting around, trying to learn to shoot a straight arrow and such.”

“Yeah. So?”

“I’m trying to tell you. One of the young warriors who helped me the most–taught me how to hold the bowstring and the arrow right, fer starters–was captured by the Lakota in a raid on the Pawnee when he was jist a little shaver. He was small enough they figured to raise him as one a their own.

“His Pawnee father was a great warrior, though, and didn’t take the loss of his son lying down. Led a war party north, maybe one like we saw the other night. Found the kid and got him back. He was fatally wounded in the fight and died a few days later, but he got him back to the band first. Gave his life to save his son.”

“Awesome.” I leaned over a bit to peer outa the cave entrance from a different angle. The Indians were still looking mighty upset, which could explain why Hero and Loup were nowhere to be seen. At least our ponies had gotten away. Maybe. “But what does that have to do with this Toka-whatever?”

“I’m getting to it. My Pawnee friend’s name is Night Wing, by the way, as near as I could understand it. He speaks a fair English, but not like Swift Talker. Anyway, while he was with the Lakota, he heard about their creation story. Every tribe’s got one, but the point is, the Lakota believe they started underground, right here in the Black Hills.”

“Huh.” I could see how a belief like that could make a place sacred, all right. “Underground, you say?”

“Yep. Supposedly the first man–Tokahe in Lakota–come popping right up out of a windy hole in the ground, way back when.”

“You mean–” I stared at Hannigan in shock.

“Yep. It ain’t no wonder at all why they won’t shoot at us while we’re here, and they won’t try to come in, neither. We’re perched jist inside the lips of their God-mother’s vagina.”

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“You’re sure?”

“You bet I’m sure, Tam. That windy cave is something else. I’m gonna hang around here fer a while, hunt up some game so’s I don’t starve to death, but most of all I’m gonna put together some torches and explore that place a little. Iffen I can figure a way to keep the blamed things lit without the wind blowing ’em out, that is.”

“Well, good luck to you then, Scrap Hannigan. It’s been an honor. Reckon the next time I hear of you, it’ll be some big writeup in the newspapers back East, talking about the man who discovered Windy Cave. The white man, that is; them Easterners don’t much count the Indians.”

“No, they don’t. But you won’t be reading about that. I got no intentions of ever telling another Soul about this place.”

“You don’t? Why not?”

He shrugged. “Maybe I suspect this is sacred ground, jist like the Lakota say.”

I nodded. “Makes sense. Sort of. Well then.” I picked up the Baker rifle, gave the man who’d saved my life on the docks in Bellevue a kind of two-finger salute, and went on my way.

It’d still take days of travel, alone and on foot, to reach the northwestern limits of these Black Hills, but at least there were plenty of trees and rocks to hide behind. No wandering bunch of hostiles would be likely to accidentally stumble on my day-sleeping camp again. Not till the open country leading toward Wyoming and Montana, anyway.

As it turned out, Scrap and I would meet up in Fort Belknap, not quite a year later. He’d tell me about a wild winter of adventure with an old mountain man named Rabbit, near as wild as my own with Believer.

See, the story about running butt-naked through the snow and spending the night in a cave with Rabbit, a cougar, and a rockchuck was always pure truth from the git-go. It jist weren’t my truth. When Hannigan told me the tale, up there in Benton, I never thought to ask his permission to go around telling on him. You know, that he’d been caught by them bandits with his pants down, so to speak.

So fer twenty years, I always told it as if it was me who’d been on the short end of that stick, not him. Not until I was starting to see my way clear to maybe partnering in a ranching venture with an ex-Union sergeant by the name of Dawson Trask did I start telling my own real story.

I may be Tam the tall tale teller, but I don’t talk outa school.

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