Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 83: The Key



Whenever Wolf Eyes rode to town with us, he went by the name of Manny. “I understand what you’re telling me about it being better for the white man–most white men–not to know my Indian name. Names have power. Why give my power to those who still believe the only good Indian is a dead Indian?”

On Flywheel Ranch premises, however, he answered to either name. He also answered to Jim Bodeen, who now carried the grand title of ranch foreman despite having jist one twelve year old hand (Manny) and three new Ute Box Boys to supervise, plus Scrap Hannigan on the weekdays. So far; there would be more. Probably.

After today, Manny would handle the job Cougar had done last year, escorting one Box Boy over the ridge to the cabin and bringing the off-duty boy back to the ranch yard every morning. First, though, he and I would give the new kids the grand tour together.

It had been a bit of a surprise, seeing him ride in on the sorrel stag after leaving on a palomino stud…but not that much of a surprise.

He’d offered to let me ride Malo jist to try him out, but my Mama didn’t raise no fool. That bronc had come terms with them two–the Indian boy and the tale teller–but I had absolutely zero doubt he’d suddenly remember how to buck iffen I set so much as one foot in a stirrup. I can straddle a bronc, don’t git me wrong, but I don’t go looking fer trouble jist fer the fun of it.

Besides, the young warrior turned cowboy had acted way too innocent when he made the offer.


Manny took the lead, as well he should. Having made two circuits of the box canyon rim two days out of three fer eleven straight months, he knew every inch of the terrain. “There,” he pointed to a particular deadfall, “is where Dawson set up with his Sharps rifle when we hunted the wolves who had come to hunt the buffalo.”

He was right; that’s exactly where I’d been.

By the time we got back around and down to the cabin, it was lunch time. We didn’t go through the big gate in the ten foot high, super stout, buffalo proof fence; there was no need to journey in among the buffs as such after seeing the layout from the rim.

“I’ll show Rabbit Ears and Lance Point how to handle the rest of the duties,” he told me. “If you hustle a little, you and Crawler might git back to the house before Penny’s cherry pie is all gone.”

“Good enough,” I replied. The littlest of this year’s Ute crop scrambled aboard the mustang we’d picked out fer his use, and I pointed Joker back toward the ridge. I am in fact a sucker for cherry pie.

All three of these new boys, Tam had pointed out, were the absolute cream of the crop. When Wolf Eyes had showed back up on the Rez a month early, riding a great palomino stallion who shone like the sun, with Leaf and Rock both riding lesser but still impressive steeds, the die had been cast. No longer would my partner need to blackmail the Utes to provide guardians fer the hidden seed herd of 32 buffalo cows, three adult bulls, and various younger animals.

Now they knew we were bribing them. No more stick, jist all carrot. The elders of the band were highly motivated to keep Flywheel happy. They’d sent us their best–their very best–eleven year old boys.

That they idolized Wolf Eyes was obvious.


“You see that?” I signed to Crawler. The boy edged his pony closer to my tall geldiing and peered in the direction I was pointing, downslope and a bit to the right.

“Bear den,” he signed back.

Maybe. Maybe not. “We look”.

Taking our weapons but leaving the horses tied to trees beside the trail, we slipped on down–and I do mean slipped. If it hadn’t been fer handy pines to grab at need, my butt woulda been snowpacked half a dozen times. That grade is steep.

You might think it ridiculous that none of us had spotted this cave before. Most likely it had to do with the exact light at this particular time of day. Every time before, we’d come across the ridge either early in the morning or right at sunset.

Well, there was the one mad dash in the middle of the night when the wolves showed up, but the point is, we’d never made the trip in early afternoon. Even at that, I’d almost missed it.

“Cave”, I informed the young Ute. “No bear.”

“How you know?”

Truth be told, I didn’t know how I knew. The overhang jutted out a couple of feet above an opening big enough fer at least a small bear to ease on in, no doubt about it. Maybe it was ’cause I couldn’t smell any bruin, or maybe I was jist a crazy white man who’d caught the spelunking fever from our resident hole-lover, Scrap Hannigan.

‘Cause I knew I was going in there.

The torch took a while to construct and light, but I thought it would keep going fer at least fifteen minutes or so. “You wait,” I told Crawler, and I started crawling.

Probably should mention that we’d found at least a dozen caves in these hills. Geode Cave weren’t the first by a long shot–jist the most interesting and also by far the largest. Most of ’em only went a few feet or at most a few yards back into the rock.

This one did more than that. I had to crawl through a twisty sort of tunnel fer something like eighty feet–far enough I was about ready to give up and turn back–when the thing opened up. No drop to the floor this time but a little climb up into what Scrap tells me they call a room.

“I’ll be danged.”

I was standing on the gravel-filled banks of an underground river. Well…maybe not a river, quite, but at least a strong stream. Seen from my position, the water flowed from right to left…but I’d best not take too much longer. The torch was starting to flicker.

My kingdom fer a Teale miner’s lamp.

Before heading back out, I reached down to scoop up a fistful of the gravel, which was mostly composed of relatively small pebbles, and stuffed them into my lefthand jeans pocket. Maybe it would mean something to Hannigan.


The one-eyed man shook his head in wonder. “Feast or famine. This is worth having checked out, Dawson. By the way, how come it’s always you that notices these caves nobody ever give a thought to from time immemorial?”

“Got me. But how do you know nobody ever noticed before? I mean, sure, in the case of Geode Cave, it’s obvious nobody had been in till we blasted ourselves a doorway, but you might find ancient paintings all over inside this new one. You never know.”

“True enough.” he continued to sift through the gravel, peering at one little rock fer a bit, then setting it down to do the same with another. Some of of them had a bit of color. Kind of purty things in a mild sort of way. “Can you guess what I think these might be?”

“Purty little rocks?”

Scrap snorted in disgust. “Jist when I was beginning to have hope fer you. I think they might be sapphires.”

“You think? You don’t know? Hell, Hannigan, I thought you knew everything about everything that grows under the Earth.”

“Yeah, right. Nobody knows that much. Thing is, I ain’t never had a whole lot to do with gemstones before, so I can’t be sure. But I do know a man in Denver. If we ship a few of these up fer him to look over, he can tell us what we got. And he don’t talk outa school.”

“Sapphires. Are they valuable.?”

“Kinda. I think. From what little I do remember about ’em, they’re one of the four major gemstones and also about four times as rare as diamonds. They’ve been known a long time, but not in America. Australia, I think. Maybe some other places.”

“Huh. So…how come if they’re so valuable, they don’t look like much?”

“Gotta be processed. Heat treatment, then cutting…gonna have to do some research on it. If it turns out that’s what we got. Now, how on God’s green Earth am I gonna keep working in Geode Cave and still find the time on the weekends to check out–what should we call it? Can’t call it Sapphire Cave till we know if they’re sapphires or not.”

“Sure we can,” I got up from the table and headed fer the bunkhouse door. There were chores left to do. “You ain’t been wrong yet.”


My Cheyenne wife had chosen to wait till my return from the Rez to take a look at Geode Cave herself. I had to admit I appreciated that on a number of levels.

I also appreciated the beauty of what we were seeing. This hole in the ground didn’t scare me one bit. It did overawe me some, though. Cougar had shown us how to shift a section of the back wall to reveal the opening into the cave, but he’d left us to enter the thing by ourselves. Knowing we were on our own made it somehow…right, but mind-boggling at the same time.

What? No, I won’t explain how he set up that hidden door. I ain’t taking any chances on somebody finding the cave even today.

Hannigan had the railed boardwalk extended out a good twenty feet into the sparkling cavern now. The miner’s lamps showed no end to the place; it seemed like it went on forever.

“My warrior,” Laughing Brook said softly, “I believe this is why we were sent to this land.” Her eyes reflected the light from the lamps, forming pools I could fall into and never come up. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“Could you explain that a little, honey?”

“I’ve long believed our lives have meaning. I suppose…I suppose I picked that up from Believer. He always said there was no such thing as an accident, that we’re where we are at any given moment because that’s where we need to be.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I remember him saying that.”

“So…why, then, do we–all of us, from Wolf Eyes to the Prossers and Daniel Morgan and everybody in between–why do we need to be here at this time? No one else has ever seen Geode Cave. Why were we given such a gift?”

“You’re about to tell me?”

“You know in your heart.”

“Yeah,” I turned slowly to stare at the other wall of glittering pink quartz. There was a little patch of something green up high and to the left. “I guess I do. You’re saying the Creator sent us all here as guardians. Guardians of…all that’s good, or beautiful, all that needs to be…protected and preserved.

“Already, we’ve been doing that sorta work fer people in the area, but things keep getting added to that. The little buffalo herd we fought into the box canyon like Noah herding some of the feistier animals into the ark to save the species in spite of themselves. Now this Geode Cave. Even Dawson’s upcoming work on the State Constitution falls into the guardian category, doing what he can to keep destructive provisions out of what will become the law of the land.”

My lady tucked her arm through mine as we turned to go. “I knew you understood. There’s something else. I think Dawson is the key.”

“Trask?” She’d puzzled me again. “How so?”

“Think about it. From the time you and I were reunited at the Greasy Grass, who has been the finder of beautiful things that need protecting? It was Dawson who made the swift decision to succor Trisha Cobb as she rode toward our hiding place, a bullet hole through her arm, her family gunned down, and the Army hot on her heels.”

“Saving the buffalo,” I pointed out, “was a simultaneous thing between the two of us, him and me.” Or was it? Had we both gotten the idea at the same instant? Or not? In truth, my memory wasn’t clear on that.

“I would never say you cannot find things that need protection, Crazy Rifle. The two of you are much the same and unbelievably powerful guardians in combination. But here, on this place, it seems to me he’s more the magnet. So far, at least. He’s the one who spotted this cave, eh?”

“Eh. You may be right. Anyway, girl, let’s git to riding. We’ll barely git back in time fer supper. And of course, to see what the former Sergeant Trask may have found today to add to the protecton list.”

My sweetheart laughed, the tinkling music that had owned my heart from the beginning. “Name the Devil”, she said. “Bet you a dollar to a doughnut hole you just made him find something else. Race you to the ridge.”

I let her horse git a three jump lead before I give Smokey his head. No horse on the place could beat the grulla, and I wanted a few seconds to watch the joy in my woman as she flew down the grade with her hair streaming out behind.

“Relax, boss,” I heard inwardly. “I’ll take my time. That mare she’s on today is sweet.”

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