The Flywheel Ranch ownership meetings had been shifted to the bunkhouse, not to exclude our warrior women but to guard against little pitchers with big jug ears. Reggie Tamson, now five years old, had seemingly learned to keep his lips zipped around outsiders, but we weren’t taking any chances.
We would be pillow-talking our wives up to date before we got any sleep tonight, of course. We weren’t crazy.
“Daniel jist rode in,” I told the Tamsons, shutting the door behind me. It was still early in November, but the nights were getting chilly enough to make the fire more than welcome. “He’ll be here shortly.”
Tam looked up from the table where he and Cougar were studying one of the Garza Surprise hideout guns. “That’s good. I was starting to worry a mite. It ain’t like him to be late coming through the pass.”
“My apologies up front, gentlemen. First thing, though, I do thank y’all fer this chair. Ain’t many ever been made that didn’t creak under my weight. Splintered more’n a few of ’em jist sitting down.”
“Cougar crafted it for you, Daniel. The man’s a wizard with wood.”
“That’s me.” The half-Cheyenne shootist grinned, handing me the pepperbox so’s I could stick it back in my pants. “The wood wizard.”
It weren’t easy getting used to wearing the two hybrid revolvers aimed at my family jewels like that, so I’d decided to practice ahead of our departure for Denver in December. In the evenings, when my gunbelt was hung beside our bed outa the way, the Garzas now kept my cojones company. I was starting to get used to it, though, which was a scary thought in itself.
Thankfully, Laughing Brook had come up with a soft antelope skin belt-and-pouches rig that mostly kept ’em in place. The pistols, not my cojones. Iffen anyone bumped up against me on purpose, like the gunsmith had said they might in the crowded city, they wouldn’t be able to identify the soft hide as a gunbelt. Not unless they were flat-out groping me, which wouldn’t be a really healthy idea.
Daniel Morgan was our newest and least-invested partner, so he got stuck with giving his report first. He started by explaining why he was five hours tardy.
“Mountain lion started killing calves. We got lucky, more or less; he only got two before we got him.”
“How?” I wondered. “Catamounts ain’t easy to track without dogs. Unless you’re a Tamson. Which you ain’t.”
“Rode over to the Evans headquarters yesterday. Boss weren’t home, but I talked to his foreman. They got a whole kennel full of lion-hunting hounds. Loaned me a man plus three dogs. Went after the big cat at sunup, treed him around midmorning. Offered Hattie the hide. She weren’t interested, though.”
That got a laugh out of us. No, Daniel Morgan’s granddaughter was proving herself well enough suited to life in the West, but she’d still come from Philadelphia in the beginning. Tanning a cat hide with its own brains fer seasoning would not be her cup of tea at that.
The meeting was off to a great start.
One of the most curious things about our overall operation was that it seemed to be our youngest man, the two-gun shootist Cougar Tamson, who most often ended up working closest to headquarters. Of course, he was also the one with the biggest family, four kids already and another one on the way.
Maybe it was a generational thing. Tam and I had both ended up leaving home early, him running from the father he called The Banking Bastard and me orphaned by a homicidal river. Could be we still hadn’t quite settled down yet.
Anyway, the tale teller, Jim Bodeen, and all three Ute boys were headed fer the Reservation. It stung some, not being able to go with my partner on that run. Tam had summed it up well enough, though.
“Dawson, there ain’t another man in the world I’d rather have backing my play, not even my son–sorry, Coug–”
“Apology accepted,” the younger man cut in. “You two traveled together a long time before I come into the picture. Besides, I feel purty secure when Trask’s got my back covered, too. You ain’t the only one.”
“Huh. Well. Anyway, we should be able to make it in a month round trip like last year, ‘specially this early in the season. But you never know. We sure enough found out two weeks was an overly optimistic estimate. Iffen we git held up fer whatever reason, you could run late getting to the Constitutional Convention, and that jist wouldn’t be a good thing.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I git it.”
“Jim Bodeen ain’t you, but he is a hand. We’ll do all right.”
“Well, iffen I can’t go….”
There were changes everywhere, either in place or coming at us.
The biggest Ute youngster, Manny, had asked Tam to hire him on as a regular ranch hand. That would have to be discussed after they got him back to the tribe. He was a true warrior now, had been ever since leading the fight against the wolves when they come after the buffalo herd we had hidden in the box canyon.
Cougar, along with Penny and Marie, would be taking on the spot-checking of the bison till his father returned, but until we got a new batch of Box Boys in place there’d be many hours a day or night when bad things could possibly happen. Things seemed quiet at the moment, but you never knew.
We’d jist have to keep our fingers crossed on that one.
It being a Saturday morning, Scrap and I were headed fer Crack Cave. On our first trip, the hole-crazy Hannigan had decided the crack was worth blowing up some so’s we could git inside.
“It’s got some size to it,” he’d told me after eyeballing the thing. “More’n enough to make it worth investigating.”
He didn’t explain how he knew, but I took him at his word. Which explained the pair of pack horses we were taking along, one loaded with dynamite, caps, and a roll of fuse, the other carrying all sorts of miscellaneous tools and equipment. I understood the picks and shovels–those meant work–but some of the other stuff was beyond me.
I figured I’d learn, though, and it beat the idea of politicking up in Denver. That horror was coming up on us way too fast.
“We might as well have lunch while the smoke’s clearing,” Scrap said. “It’ll take a while.”
I nodded, digging out the food box Marie had fixed for us. “Sounds good to me.” The blast had made much less noise than I’d expected. Hannigan clearly knew his stuff; if he said we needed to wait, we needed to wait. Besides, my wife had mastered the art of baking cinnamon rolls that had my mouth watering jist thinking about ’em.
By the time we were done filling our bellies, however, I was feeling almost as anxious to git going as Scrap looked. He’d filled out some from the time I’d first met him at the Singlejack Saloon, probably up to somewhere around 140 pounds of solid hardrock miner at the moment. Hardrock miner and spelunker.
He was teaching me things already. Like that word, spelunker. Means a guy who explores caves fer the fun of it. Weird word fer people with a weird idea of fun. Trouble was, I thought maybe it might be some kind of disease, this spelunking, and I’d caught it. I wanted to see inside that hole.
As long as Hannigan went first.
Which he did, of course, after lighting a pair of interesting lamps. “Never seen lamps that looked like that,” I told him.
“Miner’s lamps,” he explained. “A real advance in flame safety. Fellow named Teale been making ’em since seventy-one.”
“Uh-huh. Explosive gases in mines have killed a lotta men. This type is shielded, runs the air through them holes in the bonnet, then through an internal gauze before it gits to the flame. Then it goes back out again through the chimney. Rated safe in explosive currents up to fifteen feet per second.”
He’d lost me on the feet per second thing. I was beginning to realize this was an educated man–self educated, true enough, but with a heap of mining knowledge tucked in there somewhere between his ears.
“So…earlier lamps weren’t shielded? They’d blow up the place at the drop of a hat?”
“Didn’t even have to drop the hat. That’d blow up, too. Neither the Clanny nor the Davy lamps had any shielding whatsoever. I used ’em fer years. I was lucky, but Dawson, I’ve lost a total of forty-eight friends in mine explosions, men I worked with side by side at one time or another.”
“Huh. Scrap, I did wonder, when we picked up your belongings that day, how come you’d managed to hang on to these. You know, as broke and hungry as you were at the time. But I think I git it now.”
“Damn right, cowboy. I hang onto these lamps fer the same reason you hang on to your guns. They can mean the difference between life and death. Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” I said, and we went spelunking.
For all of about ten feet inside the rock, we did.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” I breathed. We stood in a vast chamber, more than forty feet from wall to wall and extending farther ahead of us than our lamps could illuminate. It looked like quite a drop down to the floor of the thing, and even farther to the celing.
“Don’t take another step, Dawson.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
Except fer those first ten feet from the entrance, the “shell rock” as I’d already begun thinking of it, the entire cavern sparkled with light bouncing back from our miner’s lamps. Little cubical formations of rock, or so they seemed, but nothing ordinary like granite. Pink quartz, maybe; I’d have to ask Hannigan. Later. Fer now, my stunned consciousness was having all it could do to focus on the different colored sparklers studding the surface at random intervals.
“You ever seen anything like it, cave man?”
“Never. Not even close. It’s like….it’s like we’re standing in the middle of the world’s biggest geode.”
“How’s it feel, Wolf Eyes, riding your own stallion?”
The Ute boy formerly known as Many Bulls–or Manny, in white man talk–grinned at me. “What do you think, Tam? I came to you last winter, horseless and still shamed from having foolishly killed Medicine Bull so that he had to become many bulls. Now I ride home on this fine–what do you call this color in English?”
“Palomino. Dawson had one, once. Every bit as flashy as yours, but only a gelding. Comanchero shot that horse out from under him.”
“And died for his sins, eh?”
“That he did, warrior. That he did.”
“I only hope you can convince Squirrel Talker to let me come back with you.”
“Why wouldn’t he go for it?”
“He would, I think. Except…the people will want my Sunny to get many foals on their mares. A stallion without mares to mount is a waste of a good horse, they will say.”
“Huh. Never thought of that. Well, we’ll see.”
My senses quested outward constantly, scanning in every direction for possible danger. The others did that too, of course. Jim Bodeen had been a cavalry soldier in the U.S. Army fer many years before joining us, and the three Indian boys were born wary. The five of us were, after all, western men.
Even without Dawson along fer the journey, it was good to be out and away from the ranch fer a while. I’d never admit it to my beautiful Cheyenne wife, but sometimes even my great love for her wasn’t quite enough to keep my itchy foot settled down completely.
Fortunately, she understood. We seldom talked about it, but she definitely understood. “My warrior,” she’d told me last night, “I will miss you and will leap to wrap my limbs about you when you return, but still it is good you have this month to travel. You are not a man who is meant to be tied down, even to this place. Besides, you will have more tales to tell when you get back.”
Did I ever mention how much I love that girl?
Bodeen chose that moment to interrupt my reverie. “Jist thought of something.”
“Iffen we run into any Army patrols on this run, you and me won’t have to say a word. Jist sic Wolf Eyes on ’em.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. The kid speaks better English than you or I do. There ain’t a cavalry officer in Colorado, commissioned or noncom, who could outtalk our lead Ute. By the time the bluecoats got over their shock, we’d be all the way to the Rez.”
“Huh. Whaddya think, Wolf Eyes? Would you like a chance to outtalk the Army?”
“I’d rather not have to,” he replied, “but if it must be done, I will do it.”
“Well spoken. Let’s pick up to a trot fer a while. There’s a fine spot to camp a few miles ahead, but we’ll need to kick it a little to git there before dark.”
It was a good day to be alive.