Bringing the herds down outa the mountains in the fall was my favorite ranch job fer the entire year. With the limited number of hands we had available to do the job, it took a minimum of a week of hard riding–ten days now, with the Jacobson herd added to the process–and could run double that. It was the closest to Heaven a man could git on this Earth, up among the timbered slopes and high meadows where you could give your heart to the hawks.
A sight easier rousting Longhorns from the timber than it had been digging ’em outa south Texas chapparal thickets, too. Not even any rattlesnakes to contend with this late in the season.
The bears were another matter. They weren’t denned yet, and we had plenty of ’em, mostly blacks but also a few grizzlies. Most ranchers we knew shot ’em on sight, preferring not to lose a cash crop of spring calves to their depredations.
Then again, most ranchers didn’t have our precise brand of livestock. The original bunch of Longhorn brood cows had demonstrated from the beginning that no mere bruin was a match fer ’em. Tam and I seen ’em in action one time, happened to top a ridge as the very moment a big boar griz was charging a little bunch of cow-calf pairs with the aim of taking down a late calf the mother had jist dropped.
Every single cow in the park charged that hump-shouldered killer right back.
The bear seen ’em coming right enough, but he made the mistake of standing up on his hind feet and squalling at ’em. You ever seen what one a them long speartip horns can do when it hits you at 30 miles an hour with 900 pounds of pissed-off cow behind it? Plus, once all twenty-seven of ’em got done goring Mr. Bear, they went to stomping on the remains.
The ravens had their work cut out for ’em, finding pieces of meat big enough to be worth pecking at.
One of our funny-face Brahma crossbreed bulls had been with that batch of bovine mothers, but they hadn’t left much fer him to do except paw the ground and snort a bit. Tell you one thing, iffen any of our cattle ever started thundering at me like that, thinking I was a grizzly instead of a cowboy, I’d be putting the spurs to Joker and getting the Hell outa there.
Which fer whatever reason they never did, not even when their calves were getting branded or castrated and bawling like crazy.
Amazingly, they never paid much attention to the bears, either, unless the bruins were showing hunting behavior.
All of the women except Hattie joined in this year, rotating so they each got a fair amount of time in the saddle jist like we done during calving season. Marie was with me, pushing several dozen pairs, a handful of yearlings, and three bulls down off Prince Peak when we seen the crack in the rock.
“That what I think it is?” I hollered over at her. She and her gray mare were jist passing by an outcropping that seemed–at least from my position–to have an interesting opening in the granite.
My sweetie turned her head to look where I was pointing. “Whoa, Dolly!” She said, then sat there and stared fer a few seconds.
“I believe so, honey! Looks like a cave!”
“Keep on ’em, wouldja?”
“Sure, what–oh!” She’d seen me turn Joker, pull my BlackSteel fighting knife from its belt sheath, and start blazing trees as I rode past ’em. “C’mon, Dolly, let’s go convince them cattle there’s two of us. Our man’s got some marking to do.”
Martin Cross was still the daytime bartender at the Singlejack, which meant stopping in fer a shot before heading back out to the ranch was obligatory.
“Got ’em all down for the winter, do you?” he asked. I’d be pumping him fer local gossip in a minute or two, but first he had to ask the small-talk questions. It was kind of a ritual with us.
“Close as we can figure. 793 mama cows with calves at their side, 38 funny face bulls, 383 long yearling heifers that’ll be ready fer their first breeding in the spring, plus 11 young boy-cows we’re keeping as bulls. We come up one short on them older bulls and one short on the heifers.”
“Not pie in the sky ideal, losing a prime herd bull,” he observed, “but better percentages than most I hear about. Of course, that’s partly because most of the bigger operations don’t really have the slightest clue how many animals they do or don’t have on hand. Flywheel runs the tightest ship on head count I’ve run across to date, except for the little Mom and Pop operations of a hunnert head or less.”
“Got to. Tam does the books, keeps us expanding and improving as fast as the dollars will allow, but to do it he’s got us squeezing every nickel so hard it farts pennies. Without knowing the exact head count every spring and fall, we’d have no idea where the Hell we were. By the way, who’s the gent down at the end of the bar?”
Without turning his head to look, Cross asked, “The little fellow with the eyepatch?”
“Martin, there’s only one other man in this place besides you and me. Yes, the little fellow with the eyepatch. Fer Pete’s sake.”
“Truth be told, Dawson, all I know–all he’s told me–is that he’s an outa work miner. Said he’d be wishing for a bottle but could only pay for a couple of shots. I haven’t made my mind up about him yet, whether he’s the sort of sorrowful drunk I care to put on my charity list or not.”
“Huh. Well, he looks human, and I’m craving all the real-person company I can git fer the nonce. The city fathers done drafted me as a delegate fer the Constitutional Convention in Denver, and I’m dreading the experience more’n a little.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Don’t envy you.”
“I don’t envy me, neither.”
“Word of advice.”
“Go talk to Manuel Garza before you head north.”
“The gunsmith? Why?”
“They don’t like people wearing iron out in the open in the big city. Makes those city slickers and government crooks a mite nervous. I think they might even have an ordinance against it. But you and your beloved aren’t going to want to trust those bastards, either. So get with Garza. He knows more about hideout guns than anyone else I know or even heard about.”
“Hideout guns? You gotta be–
“I gotta be dead serious, cowboy. Talk to Garza.”
“Okay, okay. Fer now, though, pass me a bottle of whatever Patch down there is drinking, will you?”
“Can’t believe you talked me into eating. Gotta say, though, Miss Ethel does put out a fine pot roast.”
“I do believe you’re sincere about that,” I grinned at the miniature man, “considering that’s your fourth plate. Hadn’t chowed down in a coon’s age, I take it?”
He weren’t really that miniature, though Daniel would make five or six of him. Five-five if you were being charitable, likely no more’n 120 pounds. Of course, a fair bit of that could be due to starvation. A severe lack of vittles will slim a man down spectacular-like, given time.
“Three or four days, I think. Sort of lost track after the Blessing run me off.”
“The Blessing Mine? Why’d they do that?”
“Young punk lied on me. Set a rock plaster–you know anything about mining?”
“Not a thing,” I smiled, “but feel free to educate me. I ain’t as spooky about underground places as my partners are, but I ain’t had much occasion to dig any deeper’n a post hole, neither.”
“Hunh. Well, let me try to keep it simple. In the mines, when you’re blasting, sometimes you git a big chunk of rock loose that didn’t break up the way it was supposed to. So what you do is, you take a stick of dynamite–you understand dynamite?”
“Yeah. Use it to blast stumps out, sometimes.”
“Ah. Good. So, to plaster a rock, you take a stick of dynamite, break it open, plaster some of the paste down on top of the rock you want to bust up. Then put in a fuse with a blasting cap, light the fuse, and git outa the way.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“It is. Trouble was, this kid I was working with at the Blessing, he was the role model fer idjits everywhere. Didn’t like the fact I could and did outwork him. Made him look bad. So he decided to teach me a lesson–that’s how he put it later, anyway. Cut the fuse too short by half, figured to catch me close enough to the blast to ding me up a bit.”
“Huh. That’s how you lost the eye?”
“The eye? Oh, Hell no. That was a barfight a good eight, nine years back. I lucked out when the plaster went off. Happened to be hunkered down behind a pillar, setting out my tools fer the rest of the shift. Dumbass kid caught himself, though. Lost a hand, which meant he couldn’t be a miner no more. But he took it out on me. Told the foreman it was me who’d short-cut that fuse.
“Dumbass foreman believed him, too. Called me a sorry one-eyed sumbitch. When he got outa the hospital, he spread the word. Ain’t been hired since.”
“A bit narrow minded about such things, are they?” I asked drily.
“You might say.”
I had a decision to make. Patch looked to be around forty, give or take, though the hard underground life he’d led might put the lie to that. Skinny as he was at the moment, there was something about the fellow. Wiry, with a way of moving that told you he could take care of himself despite his size.
Ah, Hell, why not? “You interested in a change of career?”
“To what? Ranching? I ain’t never never done nothing to cows but eat ’em. Dawson, I take it you’re offering me a job, and I truly do appreciate it ever bit as much as I appreciate Miss Ethel’s pot roast, but I’d be a fish outa water.”
“Maybe not. There’s a lot of non-cow work on a working ranch. You already know how to handle dynamite–”
“–and timber and such. Plus there’s fencing. We’ll be needing line riders, fixing holes where cows pushed through or neighbors cut the wire. Plenty of pissed-off people out there who’re unhappy we’ve started stringing bobwire. Beef or no beef, we got enough work to make sure you earn your pay.”
The scrawny fellow actually smiled. “You should be a horse trader, or maybe a politician. When you git to selling, you’re good.”
“That’s a yes?”
“Tell you what, boss.” The smile widened to a grin. “Throw in a piece of Miss Ethel’s apple pie and it’s a deal.”
Patch didn’t own a horse–no big surprise there, what with him being as down and out as he was–so I reached down and give him a lift up behind me on Joker. The sun was down, but the full moon was up, and we knew every foot of the road out to Flywheel. The man knew how to double up, kept his heels away from my horse’s flanks and hung onto the saddle strings instead of hugging up on me like I was his favorite girl. A small thing, maybe, but I take my omens as I find ’em.
We were passing through Catamount Cut before it occurred to me to ask. “Reckon you had some kinda name before you acquired that patch?”
“Not at all,” he replied. “Back in the day, they called me Scrap. Scrap Hannigan.”
Scrap showing up fer breakfast along with Bodeen and the Ute boy–Leaf, this morning–made me bust out laughing from the sheer surprise of it. Here I’d plotted, schemed, and planned fer twenty-one years to hook back up with my beloved Laughing Brook, but I’d not once entertained the notion Scrap Hannigan would pop back into my life after twenty-four years, give or take.
“You losing an eye along the way makes perfect sense, though,” I told him. “Anybody whose idea of fun is digging around with a mountain on top of him deserves to lose a body part ever now and then.”
“Love you too, Tam,” he grinned, forking a third short stack of flapjacks onto his plate. “You know, I honestly figured you’d ended up dead. The way I reckoned it, that itchy foot of yours was sooner or later gonna put you in the wrong company at the wrong time, and that’d be all she wrote. I never imagined you’d come up in the world the way you done. Starting with snagging the most beautiful Cheyenne lady ever granted breath by the Creator.”
Laughing Brook dimpled at him. “Why, Mister Hannigan, you may be adopted as you say, but I do believe you’re as Irish as your name. What an excellent bit of blarney!”
Our new employee’s one eye widened in surprise. “You know of the Blarney Stone, do you? And how is it that such a stunning Indian Princess knows an Irish detail like that?”
“Mom knows a lot of things,” Penny said, patting her mother-in-law’s shoulder as she rose to fetch the coffee.
The talk turned serious after that.
“Tam, I can’t say as I slept well, my first night here in your bunkhouse, what with Bodeen snoring like–”
“Well, you do. But my point is, Dawson tells me he and Marie found a cave on your Prince Peak range, up high in the back country.”
“Yeah.” I looked at him, suddenly suspicious. “You ain’t getting ideas of ignoring ranch work in favor of disappearing down another hole in the ground, are you?”
“Not right now. But someday…yes, boss, I would like to take a serious look inside.”
I was struggling to understand. “Tell me, Scrap, what good has a cave, or a mine fer that matter, ever done you? It’s a serious question, mind you. I really do want to know.”
“Figured you might ask that, ” he nodded, “so I made up this list. Had to light a candle and hope it wouldn’t wake up Bodeen or Leaf. Here, take a look.”
He handed over a rumpled piece of paper on which he’d scrawled his reasons fer wanting to “look inside” our mountain cave. I’d been making lists fer decades, but I’d never seen one quite like this.
Cave Advantages (Potential)
1. Hide from enemies
2. Live there if God burns the land
3. Natural beauty worth seeing; God’s hand at work
4. Tells much about the rest of the underground rock if you know what you’re looking at
“Hannigan,” I shook my head to clear it, “I didn’t know you were a religious man.”
“The references to God? Tam, you look around in some of the caves I’ve seen and you’ll find it impossible to deny His existence.”
“I’ll take your word for it. This number four…sounds like you’re implying the ability to explore a cave and decide whether it might be worth mining in the general area. Am I getting that right?”
“Never heard of such a thing.”
“You likely never will. I’m not sure how many men have ever figured it out. But I can do it.”
“Okay, Scrap. I know you’ll stick to your word, give us a day’s work fer a day’s pay. I git that, and I appreciate it. But I can also see you ain’t changed a lick from the day we parted ways at Tokahe’s hole. Them holes in the Earth own you, lock, stock, and barrel.”
“I’ve never denied that.”
“Nor should you. But do me one favor, old friend. Tell me what you really want to do here.”
That was the sentence that opened Pandora’s box, a real can of worms, and handed us the keys to the Universe at the same time. First of all, he wanted to be turned loose in them hills, free to scout around underground to his heart’s content. Then, when he found what he was looking for–which could even be jewels free fer the taking, he told us, having once seen a cave up Montana way where blue sapphires lay on the floor jist waiting to be picked up and sold.
I was none too sure he wasn’t having a flight of fancy on that one, but there was more.
Most likely, he claimed, he’d find a surefire mother lode of something–anything from coal to gold, but something–which could be developed to provide almost unlimited income fer Flywheel.
“You’re a true believer,” I admitted, “but I ain’t quite sold yet. Fer one thing. I’m doubtful any one of us with an ownership interest in this operation would even think of allowing a dirty, filthy damned coal mine to mess up our landscape.”
“Amen,” Cougar added, and I seen Dawson shaking his head outa the corner of my eye.
“But I do believe in knowing the terrain. Tell you what, Scrap, how’s this? You work fer us during the week, and the weekends are yours to snoop around underground. We got plenty of horseflesh you can use fer riding or packing either one, and you can reach the farthest corner of our range in something like a six hour ride if you push jist a bit. Then when you find something that trips your trigger–which I’ve no doubt you will, sooner or later–we can talk about it. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough,” the one-eyed man agreed, his head bobbing in excitement. “Put me to work.”