The discovery of Geode Cave (What else were we going to call it?) jumped right up to top priority at Flywheel. Not that we ignored the buffalo held in the box canyon or the cattle in their winter pastures on the flats, but an emergency ownership meeting was called fer Tuesday night, jist three days after Scrap and I’d first discovered the sparkling cavern.
An emergency ownership meeting without Tam.
But it had to be done. There’d be no way to contact the tale teller fer at least another month or close to it. We simply didn’t dare wait that long.
Sunday morning, I rode out to carry the news to Daniel Morgan, following his tracks through Dry Gulch Pass, past the Hidden Lakes, and over the Double Saddles jist twenty-four hours after he’d followed the same route. Simultaneously, Hannigan headed back up to the cave, leading a harnessed team. His mission: Drag a few deadfall trees over to the cave entrance and pile ’em up in such a way as to fool the casual eye into thinking the hole in the mountain did not exist.
No magical Seventh Wonder of the World to see here, folks! Move along, now!
It might seem silly to feel such a sense of urgency and haste, but as Laughing Brook had pointed out, “If the crack in the rock was all there was, we could take our time, even wait for Tam to get back. But anyone at all could walk in there now. You just never know. It’s our land, but trespassers don’t care about that.”
We all agreed she had a point. If a crazed former mine owner could show up on the ridge east of Eyeball Lake to take a shot at us from ambush, some unknown wanderer could stumble onto Geode Cave and blab the news to the world before we even knew it.
“The meeting is called to order,” I said, knocking my knuckles on the table as if my fist was a gavel.
“Yes, mother,” Cougar grinned, and we got to work. Penny had volunteered to babysit–a logical choice since four of the five Flywheel kids were hers, anyway–but except fer Tam, the rest of the gang was all here. Daniel, comfortably occupying the special chair we’d brought over to the new Trask home from the bunkhouse. Cougar and Laughing Brook representing the two Tamson families. Me and Marie.
Plus Scrap Hannigan. The one-eyed man had a presentation to make, and he made it well, speaking with both passion and conviction. He even used a list to keep track of his points, much like Tam did on occasion.
“All right, here ‘s how I see it. These are the options. Call it List #1.” He handed copies around–must have taken him a while to print those by hand, one, by one.
LIST #1: WHAT TO DO ABOUT DISCOVERY OF GEODE CAVE: OPTIONS
1. Develop cave as 7th Wonder of World. Invite newspapers, photographers. Sell tickets to tour.
2. Invite fed govt. to buy cave and access easement at right price with eye to seeing it declared a national park.
3. Invite State govt., same thing (state park).
4. Hide entrance and tell no one.
“Something tells me, Scrap,” Daniel observed, “you’ve got a distinct preference among these four options. And it ain’t the first three.”
“You callled it. People, so far as I know, there ain’t another another cave in the world like this. Not that’s been discoveed, anyway. If word gits out…tell you what, let’s cover the options one by one.
“Number one, we develop and hustle the thing. That we’d get national attention–Hell, worldwide attention–is a given. Thousands if not millions would come to see the place. And all sorts of troubles would begin. Tourists would try to sneak in their little rock hammers, chip off a pink quartz crystal or two fer a souvenir, start destroying the place bit by bit. Evil men would start scheming how to git it away from us. Worst of all, the government–the federal government–might jist come on in and take it. You know, like they took this whole damn country from the Indians.”
“Could they do that?” Marie asked. “Really?”
“They could and they quite possibly would. Wouldn’t even be that hard. Suddenly decide they needed a railroad run right through your summer range, jist as one way to do it, declare the whole area eminent domain, and suddenly the damn railroad would own it. Or they could declare it a national treasure and simply steal it outright. Iffen the great white farter in Washington wants your land, he takes it. Ask any tribe.
“Which is a point y’all ought to be able to understand, there being both Cheyenne and Comanche blood well represented right here in this room.”
“We git it, Scrap,” I flicked a hand at him. Move on. “Point number two is more of the same, I take it?”
“Purty much and kinda sorta. It’s even scarier in that we’re not even a state yet. We don’t know what sorta details are gonna end up in the State Constitution till Dawson does his thing up in Denver. Fer all we know, iffen the delegates found about about Geode Cave before the fact, they might ram a provision in there that says all caves with sparklers in ’em can be legally stolen from the owners. We jist don’t know, and that’s a scary thing.”
Cougar had been looking mighty thoughtful. Troubled, even. When he spoke, he voiced what we were all thinking. “You seem to be saying this thing of beauty could destroy us all.”
“As sure as I wear an eyepatch, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The white man wiped out the passenger pigeon. He’s in the process of doing the same fer the buffalo, the long grass prairie, the wolf, the bear, any bit of land anywhere that houses coal or gold or silver, the vast majority of red men, and anything else you can name. He’ll do the same to Geode Cave iffen he gits a chance.” He stopped, glaring at us through that one good blue eye.
The silence stretched on fer a while, till I decided it was time to end it. “Well, Scrap, iffen we’re gonna Option Four this thing, how do you suggest we go about it?”
Marie and I stood twenty feet inside the cave entrance. My wife leaned against me, the toes of our boots at the very edge of the boardwalk Hannigan had begun constructing. The floor of the cave wasn’t quite as solid-sparkler as the rest of it; our mining expert had managed to find spots here and there where he could plant posts on solid bedrock to support both the walk itself and the safety railings that graced either side.
“Too bad everyone can’t have this experience,” she spoke quietly. That was one thing about this place; you couldn’t have raised your voice if you tried.
“Yes and no, baby. Pearls before swine.”
“I suppose there is that.”
“See that little sorta purple patch over there?”
“Amethyst,” she nodded. “I think.”
Scrap and Cougar were working together on the cabin. We’d built it with the back end shoved right up against the rock face so that it looked like–well, a cabin shoved up against a rock outcropping, I guess. The point was, you couldn’t tell from the outside that inside there was a doorway straight into the mountain.
It was the shootist who’d volunteered to craft a tricky back wall. When he was done, it’d look completely solid. Even feel that way. But there’d be a secret door, a door you had to know how to access in order to open the thing. For myself, I had no idea how he intended to make that happen, but if Coug said he could do it, he could do it.
He was, after all, the wood wizard.
Now we jist had to figure out a good story fer why we’d gone to the trouble of building a cabin way the hellangone up here in the high country. Maybe Tam could come up with that one.
We’d set ourselves some Geode Cave By-Laws, I guess you might say. No child, not even precocious Henry, could be told about this place till he at least turned eighteen. Iffen he wasn’t showing sufficient maturity, he might not ever earn the right.
It was Daniel who’d proposed that stipulation. “With the best intentions in the world,” he’d pointed out, “any kid in the world is a security risk. If his school mates–jist fer example–start taunting him, putting him down or some such, he could crack under the pressure and tell about this place jist to brag a bit.”
I’d forgotten what it was like to be a kid till he said that. Remembering back, though, he was right.
Tam and Bodeen were due back in another week or two. I couldn’t wait to see the tale teller’s face once we finally talked him into stepping into this cave. It might not change his attitude toward going underground, but it would definitely be an experience he’d not forget.
The weather had held all the way west and so had our luck. Cool enough to keep the buffalo meat in the freight wagon from spoiling till we got to Squirrel Talker’s winter camp, warm enough to keep a man from freezing at least through the high-sun hours, and nary a bit of snow. Some on the ground, jist a little, but not enough to matter.
We’d made excellent time…and we needed it. Wolf Eyes hadn’t been kidding about the Utes wanting the palomino stallion to hang around to service their mares. Which meant they did not want to see the golden horse head back east. I had my work cut out for me, trying to figure out how to sell Squirrel Talker on letting the boy hire on full time at Flywheel.
Not until the fourth day of feasting and storytelling did I git my inspiration. Things were getting down to the short hairs by that time; we had plenty of tales to tell, but the buffalo meat had run out.
A band of hungry Utes can smoke right on through three full-sized buffalo carcasses in a hurry. Trust me on that.
“My friend,” I addressed the Chief, “Medicine Bull has told me how we may resolve this matter.”
“That would be a good thing, Tam.” He passed me the pipe, adding, “Speak.” The Ute version was thicker and had a shorter stem than the pipes used by other tribes, but the ritual was close enough to the same. Time to make my pitch
“Friend, both Wolf Eyes and I understand the need fer strong foals among the horse herds of the Utes. Your stallions are not many. As you have pointed out, it would be a great crime not to enrich the band by availing the mares of the strength and power in the palomino.
“The young warrior wishes to hire on with our people full time, yet if he rides his horse away, his people stand to lose much. He will not do this. He is of the Utes, and he must care for his relatives as he can. He knows this.
“Yet he knows also that he must go with us, to learn and to earn.
“Until this day, there seemed no answer to this problem. Now, Medicine Bull has told me to say this: The warrior Wolf Eyes will leave the great palomino with your people.”
Squirrel Talker gave himself away when I said that. To most white men, any Indian in horse trading mode is considered inscrutable, impossible to read. It’s not true. Those white men jist haven’t learned the body language of the red man.
I had learned that body language, long ago and thoroughly. The Chief believed he’d won; he was feeling both relieved and triumphant.
But I wasn’t done yet.
“Wolf Eyes will leave the stallion with your people fer one year. The warrior will go with me to Flywheel Ranch to learn and earn. When he returns, he will reclaim his horse. And when the foals are born, every third animal born strong and well will belong to Wolf Eyes.”
There was shock in the headman’s face now…but I still wasn’t quite done.
“Additionally, the band must provide Wolf Eyes with a horse to ride during the year he is gone. A strong horse, quick of mind and sound of limb, able to carry a warrior long distances without tiring. So says Medicine Bull.”
I’d slung some bull, all right. Now, to see how it was all going to shake out.
In the end, Squirrel Talker gave us everything we wanted. Every third foal would belong to our new employee, he’d git his palomino stud back next year, and he got another strong horse to ride fer the duration.
Trouble was, the Ute headman had give in way too easy. He wasn’t happy at what I’d done, making him negotiate like that. He’d try fer revenge–nothing dishonorable, nothing that would violate the terms of our agreement, but something that would save him some face.
When Loud in Battle–the same warrior Dawson and I’d saved from freezing to death a year ago–led out the replacement mount fer Wolf Eyes, we found out what that something was. The boy turned white.
I didn’t even know a Ute could do that.
“You know this stag?” I asked. The stocky sorrel was gelded, but he’d been a full grown stud first. He did look good, but there was a light in his eye I knew all too well.
“I…I know him, Tam. Yes. He is muy malo.”
“Yeah, I see that–wait a minute. You speak Spanish, too?”
“Long story. For later.”
“Right. Tell me quick, before Loud in Battle gits Muy Malo over here. What’s his specialty?”
“What’s he like to do. Bite? Kick? Strike? Rear over backwards? Sunfish? Skydive? All of the above?”
“He–I don’t know all of those words. Mostly he waits till a rider is on him, takes a deep breath, and bucks the man off. Nobdody can ride him.”
“Teach me to horse trade with a damn Indian. Sure enough, the Devil is in the details. Trust me?”
“Follow my lead.”
When the sorrel was profferred to Wolf Eyes, he took the lead to Malo’s war bridle witout batting an eye. I knew he was scared spitless, but he never turned a hair. Be a good idea never to gamble with that kid.
The Utes who’d gathered to see us off–which was most of ’em–looked more’n a mite puzzled at that. Everyone in the band knew the young warrior recognized this badass red monster, knew he couldn’t ride one side of the critter, yet he remained utterly calm. How could this be?
I went into my act.
First, I made a great show of inspecting the animal. Admired his overall look. Ran my hands down his legs–didn’t try to pick up his feet; I wasn’t that crazy. Stroked his withers, ran my fingers through his mane hair.
Didn’t scratch his ears. Horses hate that. They ain’t dogs even if the Blackfeet do call horses elk dogs.
When I was done with all this, I told Wolf Eyes, “Warrior, this is one fine animal. Would you allow me to ride him first? You can step up on Smokey fer a bit.”
The kid was good. He’d caught on to my game jist like that. “Well…” he hesitated, making a great show of reluctance…”if you insist”.
“Good! Good!” I rubbed my hands gleefully, then turned to offsaddle the grulla.
“You sure about this, boss?” my horse spoke inside my head. “That Malo don’t like you much.”
“I don’t like him much, either, old friend,” I said aloud. “Jist take good care of Wolf Eyes.”
“Huh!” he replied, which was horse talk fer either okay or you’re an idiot. Take your pick.
As the boy had said he would, Malo let go with a deep sigh before he launched. His first jump took us high enough I could see over the tops of the tipis, and I was in Heaven. My spurs raked back to the cantle on the way up, then whipped forward over his shoulder points by the time he come back to Earth.
He was a thinker, was Malo, swapping ends to the left on the next leap. I could read him, though, knew what he was gonna do before he did it. This time, when my lefthand spur got back toward the cantle, I locked that leg in place with the right still extended out forward. Major leverage.
It went on like that. The critter did have some fine moves; I had to give him that. He come up over backward one time, crashing down on his back in an attempt to crush and kill. Only thing was, I’d pulled leather and kicked free of the right stirrup when he was still on the way up. When he landed, I was standing on the ground beside him.
As he scrambled back to his feet, I stepped back on over, found the stirrup, and away we went.
That took a lot out of him. He did flop one more time, sunfishing and slamming down on his right side, figuring to crush my leg–and getting highly disappointed to find my boot thrown up over his neck, jist for the second or two that move was needed. It’s kind of tricky, that one; iffen you ain’t careful, you’ll git your spur hung up in the mane, and then you’re in serious trouble.
After that second drop, he faded fast. When he got down to a noticeably feeble series of crowhops, I figured it was time, worked the reins and spurs a bit to aim him east toward Walsenburg.
“Thank you for swapping!” I told Wolf Eyes, loudly enough fer every Ute in a hunnert yard radius to hear. “This is one fine horse!”
Squirrel Talker’s band was dead silent, staring in shock–or maybe awe–as our little caravan put ’em behind us.
By the time we were far enough away to talk freely, Malo had settled down into a space-eating walk. He had a nice long stride and a suprisingly smooth gait doing it. When he wasn’t trying to off a fellow, that is.
“You know,” I told our group, “this Malo really does have potential. Turned out I wasn’t even lying back there. Much, anyway.”
Wolf Eyes jist grinned at that, but Jim Bodeen–who was driving the freight wagon loaded with a new batch of Ute Box Boys headed fer buffalo protective duty–busted out laughing, long and loud. “Tale teller,” he said when he was more or less done except fer wiping his eyes with his sleeve, “I knew you could ride, but not like that.”
“It’s a gift,” I admitted. “Dawson says he’s never seen a man look more comfortable on a bronc’s hurricane deck than I do.”
“I’d say he’s a good judge of twisters, then. Gotta tell you, I love it. You know them Indians all believed they were the finest horsemen on the plains until today.”
I had to chuckle at that myself. “You know what, Jim?”
“I’d say I was having a purty good day…except fer the life of me I can’t remember the name of a single one of them three boys you got riding in the freight box behind you.”