By a happy chance of timing, Henry Tamson’s sixth birthday fell on a Saturday. Daniel Morgan and the Prossers would be pulling out shortly, driving the freight wagon filled with their earthly belongings, but first: Time to party.
Not that we’d ever heard of a youngster’s birthday party coming off as the sun come up, but you go with what you got.
Certainly the birthday boy wasn’t complaining about not having to wait for his presents till later in the day. In fact, he didn’t even have to wait fer breakfast. Presents first.
As I’d figured, he was thrilled with the Spanish Navaja knife I’d picked out fer him, but he was almost as excited about the case his grandma Laughing Book had crafted. I’d been thinking she’d probably use buckskin, but no; this sheath was much heavier duty than that. Buffalo bull hide, thick and strong enough that many Indians used the material for war shields, formed the core of the thing. Mindful that her grandson would be living in what was mostly a white man’s world, the Cheyenne woman had done no beading. Instead, a single silver concho had been added fer adornment, giving the finished product a distinct message fer anyone who saw it:
“Workmanlike, Spanish grande wealthy, and don’t mess with me. I mean business.”
At least, that’s the message I got.
“There’s more presents, Henry.” Tam was grinning like the cat that ate the canary. He’d not let a one of us know the nature of his present, but I suspected if he looked that tickled it had to be a good one.
Which it was. “Wow, Grampa! My own lariat? And it’s got colors! Can’t be rawhide–what is it? I love it!”
“Horsehair, Henry. Real horsehair. Lots of Indians make ’em that way. You like the colors?”
“Uh-huh! Red and black and white and–I guess jist those.”
“Braided it myself,” the tale teller said, and he was bragging fer real. Doing this simple little thing fer the lad and seeing his pleasure in it…you could tell it meant something to the man. A whole lot of something.
Later, after we’d had chocolate birthday cake instead of pancakes–which ain’t bad, chased with a rasher of bacon and a few hard-fried eggs–I realized I didn’t remember what Henry’d received from anybody else, not even his parents, though Cougar and Penny must’ve done well by him at that. Tam and Laughing Brook and I’d had the big hits; that’s what counted.
What? Oh, Marie. Yeah, I do know what she give the boy. A new axe, one of the best made, fer making his firewood-splitting chore a bit easier. He liked that, too. Had the wood boxes filled by noon, which weren’t always the case by a long shot.
No, on a ranch you don’t git outa your chores jist ’cause it’s your birthday.
Bodeen finished notching his end of the log, and the two of us lifted it into place on the south wall. Perfect fit; he had a good eye fer sizing things and a deft touch with an axe.
“Two more courses should do it, you think? Before we cut in the door and the windows, that is.”
“Looks right to me,” he nodded. “Should be able to git that done by sundown. You realize you and Marie are gonna end up with the finest house on the place, eh?”
I had to agree. “Didn’t really plan it that way, but yeah. Be the best place to fort up iffen we come under attack–thicker logs and all.”
“And a fair bit more room fer everbody. Don’t fergit that. You sure you three ain’t gonna rattle around inside the thing like marbles in a bucket?”
“Hey, it ain’t no looser a fit than you and one Ute Box Boy in the bunkhouse.”
“Good point. Anyway, Dawson, the main thing is, I do believe with a little help from the Tamsons fer the next few days, we should have this beast roofed in before we need to start bringing the herds down from the hills next week. Good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise.”
“Speaking of the crick rising,” I shaded my eyes, peering out at the road toward Walsenburg, “looks like we got company. Rather fancy company at that.”
Not one but three of the pillars of Walsenburg were riding into the Flywheel Ranch yard: Sheriff Robert Olsen, Doctor Georges Chouteau, and Mercantile owner Fred Walsen.
This should be interesting.
Marie poured coffee. Henry was outside somewhere, likely in the barn practicing the catching of hooks, posts, and pitchforks with his new rope. Reggie, too, begging fer a turn at the horsehair, knowing he had as much chance of touching his brother’s new knife as he did of roping the moon.
“Tam and Cougar won’t be back till near dark,” I told our distinguished visitors.
They all jist nodded. Doc Chouteau, who seemed to have been elected spokesman fer the group, said, “We’d love to have them in on this discussion, Dawson, but it’s you we want.”
That may be the first time I ever lifted my left eyebrow at anybody. I really had been spending entirely too much time around the tale teller. What this bunch might want of me, I had no idea, except fer being ninety percent certain I wasn’t going to like it.
I was right, though it took ’em a minute or two to get to the point.
“You’ve heard, no doubt, that Colorado will likely become a state–finally!–by sometime next year?”
“Sure. We do read the papers.”
“Of course you do. Of course. Then you’ve also read about the upcoming Constitutional Convention to be convened in Denver on December twentieth?”
“Rhetorical question, Doc? Yes, we’re up on that.”
Sheriff Olsen cut in. “What the good doctor is leading up to, Dawson, we want you to be a Huerfano County delgate to that Convention.”
Marie had to walk around the table and wave her hand in front of my eyes before I come out of it. Seemed like I should say something, though I’d not have consciously chosen the first words outa my mouth.
Fred Walsen laughed. “Which is why we thought it best that the three of us come out together, cowboy. Figured you might take a bit of convincing.”
“Uh…okay, so convince me, Fred. Why on God’s green Earth would I want to go play at politics up in the big city? Back rooms full of smoke, nastiness to make Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan both look like really nice guys. No real air to breathe–”
Doc held up a small, neatly manicured hand. “Exactly.”
He leaned forward, speaking earnestly. “Everyone with a political axe to grind will be there or will have sent their pet lap dogs to represent them. As it happens, that includes our own greedy, murderous would-be cattle baron, Justin Goss. His JGC–”
“Goss wants in on this?” The cobwebs were gone, jist like that.
“He does. Of course he does. We have the power to stop his preferred appointee–one Warner Brookside–but only if we can present a better alternative to the people of the County. You are that alternative.”
It got quiet fer a spell then, the townsmen holding their breath, waiting to see if I got it or not. In the end, I did…sort of.
“Okay…I think I understand. Not that I know what sort of rules a State Constitution might come up with that would benefit Goss, but they should be obvious once brought up fer discussion at this Constitutional Convention, right?”
“One would think so.”
“Huh. So…why me? Why not Tam, fer instance? He’s as quick on the uptake as anybody alive, and–”
“Dawson,” Robert Olsen stopped my protest in midsentence, “everbody in Huerfano County knows Tam Tamson is one helluva hand from any angle. But you have a certain reputation and track record that tells us you’re the man fer the job.”
I must have looked as confused as I felt. At any rate, he explained. “It was you who kept Cougar alive on the street in Walsenburg when he was geysering blood. Kept him alive till Doc could git there. We managed to convince the public that was jist a show, but those of us in this room know better.”
“No buts. You see things, Trask. See the big picture. It was Tam himself who told me it’d been your analysis of the situation and your idea to bring what you men knew about Zeke Jacobson’s killing to me instead of handling it yourselves. Plus,” he grinned, suddenly looking a good ten years younger, “there’s a hardness in you that people can feel when push comes to shove. There’ll be a lot of pushing and shoving in Denver; you can bet your life on it. We need somebody who can push back harder and make people give way.”
“You’re saying Tam comes across as a nice person and I don’t, and me being a mean bastard when I’m crossed is in this case a good thing.” That deserved, and got, a sigh that come up from my toes. “All right, all right. I git it. Honey,” I turned to my wife, “I been drafted. Again. Looks like I’m going to a Constitutional Convention whether I like it or not. You up fer rubbing elbows with the unwashed, gossiping, backstabbing masses fer however long it takes?”
She patted my shoulder, her midnight blue eyes full of love. “Where you go, husband, there I go also.”
Dawson, you asked fer a story tonight that’d take your mind off getting drafted as a delegate to Colorado’s Constitutional Convention. As it happens, I been thinking of one tale, back in the “before Believer” days.
I was in Montana Territory, smack in the middle of Crow country. Let me tell you, them folks scared me worse than the Lakota. With the Sioux, be they Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Yankton, Brule–you name it–you purty much knew where you stood. They didn’t like you, they’d kill you if they caught you playing around in their sacred places, but they weren’t two-faced about it.
With the Crow, it was by guess and by gosh. Fer the most part, the Crow nation worked to git along with the powerful whites… but there were exceptions. With the Crow, there were always exceptions. A lone white man might wander through their lands with never a hand being raised against him…except sometimes. The concept that Indians are notional critters must have been inspired by Crow warriors.
My instinct said not to trust ’em, and I didn’t. After all, I wasn’t even jist a lone white man; I was a lone twelve year old white man. Coming up on my thirteenth birthday, sure enough…if I lived that long.
A small war party of five had picked up my trail. I could only hope I’d thrown ’em off a bit, wading upstream in the creek fer near a mile before taking cover under the cutbank.
Be my luck to have one of ’em stand out on the edge of the thing and bring it all down on top of my punkin head.
I’d been there long enough to git my breathing settled down and my heart to quit pounding quite so hard when I noticed the rock situated maybe ten feet farther along under the bank. A brown rock. Which turned out to be no rock at all but a small moccasin…attached to, as I could see once my eyes got adjusted to the dimness under there, a small leg.. Which terminated in some kind of weird six-eyed cluster.
Three Indian kids were huddled together like a little nest of baby bunnies, staring at me, wide-eyed and scared outa their wits.
I’d had to move almighty slow and careful so’s not to spook ’em any worse than they were already spooked, but by the time night fell and we dared move out by moonlight, we’d traded enough sign language–despite my limited knowledge of handtalk–that we had an understanding.
They were Piegan people, Blackfeet, from the Small Robes band. A bunch of Crow warriors following a Chief by the name of Rotten Belly had attacked and purty much wiped out their families. They’d seen their parents slaughtered in front of their eyes before they were themselves taken captive.
The oldest of the three was a girl by the name of Broken Grass. She seemed to be eleven years of age or thereabouts and had been used as a slave fer horny warriors by the Crow. She was not the leader of the little group; that distinction fell on the only boy, who looked to be no more than six or so.
He’d been considered young enough fer the Crow to raise as their own, which explained his survival and the flint skinning knife at his waist. He was known as Goose Feather, and he was the one who’d led the daring escape from their captors.
The third member of their party, a girl about Goose Feather’s own age, was simply called Girl.
They’d been on the run fer–if I got that part right–nearly a week. The little war party chasing me was, the kids were quite certain, not after me at all. They were after the escaped captives.
My first thought when I come to understand what they were telling me was, “No man would appreciate losing such a convenient slave as this older girl,” but likely that was a mite mistaken. Indians on the whole tend to rate their male children more highly; like as not, Goose Feather was really the biggest loss in the eyes of the Crow.
Fer the rest of that long summer, the four of us traveled together. The hardest thing was Broken Grass making it clear I was welcome to use her; she was used to being nailed, and we actually liked each other to boot. I was some tempted, likely would have had her under my blankets except fer the short list of reasons that kept me from consummating the deal. I think that short list might have been the very first time I ever made up any list as such, even though it was only in my head:
Reasons Not To Take Up Broken Grass On Her Offer To Join Me Under My Blankets
1. I ain’t got no blankets. It’s jist the four of us huddling up.
2. Don’t know what I’m doing and would likely make a fool of myself.
3. In front of the younger kids? See #1, no blankets.
4. She ain’t even got breasts yet.
By the time the grasshoppers were gone and the rattlesnakes heading fer their dens, though, it was getting to be a close call. The body warmth thing we were doing when we slept (Hah! Who slept?!) was getting hotter and hotter as the nights began to get colder and colder.
Six year old Goose Feather turned out to be my first real survival teacher. At first, when we’d come to a patch of grass so thick you jist knew you were gonna step on a live rattler, he’d toss pebbles ahead of us into the vegetation. Then, late that first night, he spotted–in the moonlight, he did this–a stand of willows and got me to cut and trim a tall one to his specifications with my steel belt knife. When I was done, he had a whippy-stick three times his own height, but it was light enough he could handle it easy.
After that, he’d keep that stick poked out ahead of us, whippy-tapping the ground along the way as we went. Now I, too, was being led through the wilderness by a child.
Cocky little bastard.
The second night out, whippy-tapping along, the boy sure enough stirred up a diamondback. Big as one of them Anacondas down in the Amazon, or at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time–which happened to be the dark of the moon with nothing to see by but starlight. My night vision has always been better’n most, and I could make out the monster all coiled and buzzing…but only barely.
Right then and there, not hesitating fer even a moment, little Goose Feather swung that long willow stick back–then two-handed it forward. The thing whistled through the air. Took Jake the Snake’s head off slick as a whistle, too.
Didn’t stop the thing writhing and buzzing one little bit. Plus, now there was a head somewhere that could still bite you right through your moccasins…although, come to think of it, the head had likely flown somewhere off to the left.
That ornery little war leader made Broken Grass pack the squirmy body of that snake with us, all the way till we made camp at daylight. By which time it was finally well and truly dead and only five feet long instead of the thirty I’d first imagined.
Sunup, the ultimate monster shrinker.
We were all about half starved by that time. Ate the rattler raw, since we didn’t dare light a fire. Can’t say it was the best pit viper I ever ate, but it was definitely the first. By the time we come up on Dog Runner’s band of Piegan, which would end up being my last human contact prior to meeting Believer and Laughing Brook, I was a serious gourmet when it come to snake meat. Wouldn’t have ever tried a single bite, though, if refusing wouldn’t a shamed me in front of Goose Feather.
Losing face to a six year old was simply unthinkable.
Dog Runner wasn’t closely related to anybody in the Small Robes band, but he knew where they were camped and promised to git the kids to their people in short order. Which was a good thing. If I’d spent many more days and nights together with them kids, I’d have either yielded to temptation and mounted that girl or jist up and died of Feeling Stupid Disease.
I’d even learned to walk Indian-quiet by watching Goose Feather and copying his style, ball of the foot down first, knees always bent, one foot stepping directly in front of the other…and I couldn’t wait to git away from him.
Dog Runner managed to git across to me that he wished he could give me a horse–which I also wished, as you might imagine–but he was kind of short on ponies at the moment. Which I doubted, but the offer he did make wasn’t bad. Trade him my old flintlock Baker rifle, he said, and he’d give me a fine cartridge weapon that didn’t have to be muzzle loaded. Plus cartridges.
Well, I wasn’t all that clear on why he was acting like a white horse trader instead of a red blooded redskin, but we made the trade. Took my new rifle, headed on up to see where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam. Of course, the Blackfeet definitely included Dog Runner, and his camp wasn’t anywhere near the glaciers. It’s jist a saying.
It weren’t till after I was outa sight of their lodges that I counted the cartridges fer my newly acquired shooter and discovered there were only twenty-four of ’em in the parfleche with the rest being weighted down with pebbles to make it feel like a hunnert or more.
Only crooked Blackfoot trader I ever met. Guess there’s always one.
I’m none too sure the rest of the Piegan ever figured out it was the future Crazy Rifle, the great white Blackfoot warrior, who’d trailed them three Small Robes kids up from Crow country. Last I heard, there was only twelve lodges left of that band after the Crow got done with ’em; they were likely too busy trying to make a living to worry about the dumb white boy that had followed their heroic Goose Feather fer three solid months on his way home.
Iffen I ever git back up that way, though, Dog Runner owes me a rematch. I ain’t the green kid I was back then. In fact, you might say he’s the old son that inspired me to master the art of negotiation in the first place when he stung me on that rifle swap.
See, the thing is, I may forgive, but I don’t ever forget. Iffen I can’t git him on a horse trade, there’s always a game of bones.