“Thanks, Chet.” I handed Marie up into the buggy, then fished out a dollar fer the hostler.
“You’re more than welcome, Dawson,” the grizzled man replied, stuffing the silver in his pocket. “especially since you and Marie are the first people I’ve met on the job in a month of Sundays who act halfway human.”
Surprised, I stopped in the act of picking up the reins. “You’re getting no respect from the other hotel guests?”
He barked a laugh. “You could say that. Around here, slavery still holds and I’m the plantation help. Iffen I had a nickel fer every–ah, let’s jist say you two are appreciated.”
“Huh. Well, we appreciate you, too. Especially fer rounding up this Corning buggy. That danged Goddard left a man feeling like a plow horse wearing blinders. Can’t wait fer this Constitutional Convention to git over. Miss the hills like crazy.”
“Me, too. Found out I couldn’t eat them trees and hold my weight, though. Maybe if I’d been born a beaver.”
My wife and I both chuckled at that.
We were a dozen blocks away, out on our Sunday drive despite the gray, lowering sky, when Marie spoke up. “Flywheel should hire him, you know. Chet Barnes.”
“Yeah. He’s a good man. Dunno what they’re paying him, but it can’t be much. Thing is, I’m not sure we got enough in the kitty to be taking on any more hands jist yet.”
“You could ask Tam in your next letter. Find out.”
“I could, couldn’t I?” Barnes had to be somewhere in his late forties, maybe early fifties. A bit grizzled and showing the miles, but he likely had some working years left in him. I’d ask Tam to think about it.
Every Sunday since we’d hit Denver in December, we’d taken a buggy ride. Convention business was shut down fer the Sabbath. Early on, somebody had gotten the idea we went to church. We jist let the idea take hold.
In a way they were right, of course. Getting away from them four walls was going to worship, at least relatively speaking.
Nobody else out on the streets today. The temperature was dropping, snow was on the way, and these Denverites were wimps.
“I miss our daughter.” It took me a moment to realize Marie and I’d come outa nowhere with that one at exactly the same time. It worked like that with us sometimes. A lot of times.
Heaving a deep sigh, I said, “We’re getting close. Another week might do it. Hopefully.”
“Husband.” She laid one hand on my forearm, but I’d already heard the ruckus and was pulling to a halt. Down the alley to our right, a bunch of kids were beating the living tar out of another kid. Five, six on one.
Her hand left my forearm, but I caught her by the wrist before she could escape the buggy. “Hold on, baby.” Hija de la Puesta del Sol, the Daughter of the Sunset, was more than primed to go charging down there to the victim’s rescue. I understood that.
What I didn’t understand was why my sixth sense was suddenly screaming bloody murder. It couldn’t be the little mob down there, or at least not them alone. None of the bullies looked to be more’n nine or ten years old.
Wait a second. At least not them alone!
My head whipped back around to the left. “Cover the kids!” I snapped, knowing she had my back. Both Garza Surprises jumped out from under my shirt and into my hands of their own accord.
Well, that’s what it seemed like. Amazing what a serious bit of practice can do fer a fellow.
There were eight of ’em, and these weren’t little kids. City toughs, or at least made to look that way, carrying clubs and knives and axes. And rope. Of all the evil here presented to the eye, the rope seemed most sinister.
City style cowboying? Roping and raping?
“Look out, Sam!” One of ’em yelled, having suddenly realized they were staring into the merciless muzzles of a full dozen pepperbox bores.
Sam, I gathered, was the fearless leader. He was already out in the street when he dropped the big stick he’d been carrying and fished out his own hideout popper. An anemic looking thing, .22 caliber, hide in your hand. “Freeze!” He yelled. “Drop your weapons!”
I didn’t drop my weapons, but I did drop the hammer on my lefthand Surprise. Shot him between the eyes.
You could sorta tell they hadn’t been expecting that. Denver prides itself on acting like any other big city, preferring only the criminals and the lawdogs–who are often enough jist criminals with badges–to go around armed. Concealed or otherwise. It weren’t polite fer upstanding citizens like ourselves to ignore a law simply ’cause it was stupid.
It took Sam’s buddies two or three seconds to survey his rapidly cooling corpse before they took off running. We let ’em.
The mini-mob down the alley had gathered to watch the fun, but now they all looked a fair bit whiter’n the snowflakes that had started drifting down outa the sky. My Blue Eyed Angel of Death had the drop on ’em. They looked a mite smarter than the grownups had been; they weren’t about to test her resolve.
I noticed the kid who’d supposedly been beaten within an inch of his life, standing right there with the rest of ’em.
We hung a left at the next street, then another at the street after that, before my sweetheart decided to ease the hammer down and tuck her pistol back into her purse. Neither one of us said a word. Didn’t have to.
It was almost like old times.
It wasn’t like we were made of money these days, but I flipped Chet a double eagle anyway before we headed fer the hotel room. “We were never out today,” I said.
He never changed expression, jist nodded once. Another man I’d be wise to avoid playing high stakes poker with.
The instant I had the key turned in the lock, I told my girl, “We need to git your dress changed. Let’s go with the cream color.”
Not until we’d strolled down to the dining room and enjoyed a leisurely lunch did I put it all together.
“That was a setup all the way, honey.”
“Okay, okay. What I’m getting at is, somebody wanted us outa the way.”
“Wanted you outa the way, Dawson. Nobody here even notices me. Well…them kids did, once you dropped Sammy boy and they realized my six-barrel was not shaking in my hand. But other than that.”
“You weren’t being ignored, Marie. They had a coil of rope with ’em. I don’t figure they were gonna take the time to string me up. More likely the better to hogtie you with, fer fun and games.”
“Hey, cowboy, I’m jist a little splittail. You’re the big bad dude who’s got half a dozen key votes coming up. Question. Do you think we can figure it out? Or do we even need to?”
“That’s two questions. Can we? Probably not. It could be over the self defense provision. A couple of them squirrels still seem to think they can write a bit of gun control right into the Colorado Constitution. But it wouldn’t have to be that; there’s several items that’re still being closely contested.
“The good thing? No, we don’t need to know. Not really. I may help mess up somebody’s best laid plans without even knowing what they were, but so what? We’ll stick to the hotel now till this thing is done, then watch our backsides all the way to the train, and we’re outa here. We did do one thing wrong, though. We set up a routine. Whoever was behind it, they knew we drove that route every Sunday.
“Tell you one thing, though. We owe Chet Barnes big time, and not jist ’cause he’ll lie for us if anybody does come sniffing around trying to prove it was you and me out there on the street today. We also owe him fer finding that Corning buggy. If we’d still been driving the Goddard, them sidewalls woulda hidden Sam’s bunch from us till it was too late. They were catfooting it purty good; I seen ’em coming, but I sure as Hell didn’t hear ’em.”
“So, husband,” she twinkled at me, clearly pleased, “you think maybe you don’t need to write Tam after all?”
“Exactly. Before we leave here, I’ll talk to Chet. Iffen he’s up for it, knowing the wages might be short fer a while, I got enough to buy him a ticket south.”
“Perfect,” she nodded, reaching up to trace my stubbled jawline with her fingertips. “Now, let’s go to bed. Whenever my man shoots a bad man and hires a good one on the same day, it always makes me horny.”
“Hello the ranch! Coming in!”
My eyes popped open in the darkness. Had to be around midnight, colder outside than a witch’s tit in Alaska and none too toasty in here, either.
“Hello the ranch! Coming in!”
Seemed like we’d been doing this sorta thing all our lives, which was very nearly true. By the time I had on enough clothes to unbar the door and throw it open, Laughing Brook had stoked the fire back to life. Hannigan’s lathered horse come to a stop right in front, standing spraddle legged and steaming in the subzero air.
Owl Eyes came running from the bunkhouse, fully dressed fer the cold. The young Ute was a one man fast response team; I had to give him that. He took the reins from our Mine Manager and headed fer the barn without a word.
“Git in here before you freeze to death. Honey, the whiskey. Double shot.”
“Thanks. Mind if I hunker down in front of the fire? I don’t think I’m frostbit. Nose woulda been, if not fer the scarf.” He threw down the whiskey, then stood in front of the stove, rubbing his hands together to git the circulation back while he explained.
Let me back up a bit. Slim Morgan and the Franzen brothers had been living over with Daniel and the Prossers since late January. Not in the house. That bunch would git a cabin and a workshop built come late spring, between calving season and haying season, but fer now the frozen ground made waiting absolutely necessary. Fer now, they were living and working in a couple of big Army tents.
Three weeks back, Scrap had taken his first load of raw sapphires over to ’em. Not a whole pack string as I’d guessed might be needed, jist one pony with 110 pounds of rocks on his back.
I hadn’t stopped to think how many little gemstones it would take to add up to 110 pounds.
Hannigan had reported the excitement them two had when they seen the size of the load and also when they’d looked over some of the individual stones. “These are very high quality sapphires on average,” they’d enthused. “When we’re done processing them, you’ll be amazed.”
He’d left ’em happy, promising to check back later.
This was later.
“Sorry I had to wake you, but–guess I better tell this chronologically. I didn’t git outa the cave till somewhere around ten a.m., which put me over the Saddles and down to Morgan’s place around five. Jist fixing to git dark. When I rode in, Jack was saddling up. Turned out he was heading over to tell you.
“The Franzen brothers are gone.”
Four of us headed out at 1:10 a.m. We’d dug out the buffalo robes; nothing beats ’em fer beating the cold. Scrap Hannigan, me, Cougar–and Owl Eyes. “Take me with you,” he’d said–demanded, really.
What the hey. Iffen a kid wants in on a run like this one in this kinda weather, who’s to say him nay? Not this old cowboy. Besides. the Ute boy could track as well as us Tamsons. Maybe better.
As our one eyed friend told it, Slim Morgan had worked with the Franzens during the morning. Then they’d all gone in fer dinner at noon. Hattie was doing the cooking fer the bunch of ’em, and all meals were being taken at the Prosser house.
After chowing down, Douglas and Charles headed back to the work tent, but Slim had gone out to split firewood. It took a lot to keep them two tents plus the main house going, and the temperature was dropping. By the time he’d split enough wood to last the next few days, it was getting late, somewhere around four o’clock. But he figured he’d go help the brothers fer that last hour of light.
Except they weren’t there…and neither were the sapphires.
Their reputation fer being mostly honest seemed a bit overblown.
Trouble was, they were not only thieves, they were also greenhorns…and they’d headed into the mountains jist as the temperature was promising to hit twenty below. Or worse.
“No, Hattie, we’ll be all right. The sun’s coming up. Besides, it ain’t like we never done this before. Sometime I’ll have to tell you ’bout my winter adventures up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam.”
“All right, Tam.” The wide woman gave up on trying to persuade us to warm up and have breakfast before we took up the trail. “I do understand time is of the essence. Especially since Jack didn’t come back last night.”
“He told you he wouldn’t, honey,” Daniel reminded her. “He only had an hour’s worth of light when he took up their trail.”
To us, he pointed out what we already knew. “He’ll be blazing trees as he goes, so you can move as fast as you like, short of frosting your horses’ lungs. Them two are likely both Franzen-sicles right now, frozen tight as a nun’s–uh,” he suddenly remembered there was a lady present, “…frozen dead. But if not, yeah, minutes could count.”
“We’re on our way,” I told him, and we got going.
If you’re wondering why them two light-fingered fellows hadn’t jist took to the road and booked on out through Walsenburg, the thought occurred to me, too. They must have figured they’d git caught if they stayed out in the open, so why not simply climb a ridge or two, do the cross country thing, nothing to it.
Two bad boys from Philly playing at being mountain men. Horse thieves, too, come to think of it, so if we did save ’em from the cold, we could turn ’em over to Sheriff Olsen fer hanging.
Lots of interesting possibilities.
It took us the better part of two more hours to catch up to Jack. We’d passed his campsite, where he’d thrown up a little leanto and built a fire in front of it. When we finally spotted the man himself, he was sitting quietly on top of his horse, waiting on us.
When we got close enough, he called out, “They’re running in circles!”
The tracks he was studying told a different story. “No,” I told him, “they were running in circles.”
I looked at both Cougar and Wolf Eyes. Both of ’em nodded in agreement. “They made at least three rounds, all right, but these tracks are old. Not much past dark last night, if that.”
“Split up?” Coug asked, and it was my turn to nod.
We sent Wolf Eyes on with Jack, following the original line of travel which led past a little patch of pine seedlings and over a drop-off toward thick timber. My son and I took the lefthand fork, going against the grain.
We had no way to know where on the loop we’d find ’em, but…
As it happened, we got there first by a matter of five minutes or so. The stolen horses were jist standing around, pawing through the snow, looking fer grass. Their reins weren’t even tied off, merely dragging loose so that ever so often a pony would step on a ribbon and mess with his own head fer a bit.
Douglas Franzen, the older brother by a year, was alive. Charles Franzen was not.
“I…I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Maybe we won’t, Doug.” I told him, nodding my thanks to Hattie as she refilled my coffee cup fer the third time. “But there’s no way to know that unless you tell us. All of it.”
The man heaved a sigh that sounded like it come up from his toes. We waited. The Charles Franzen corpsicle waited, too, wrapped in a blanket and hung in a tree outa the reach of predators. We hadn’t decided what to do with that yet, let alone….
“When we were kids growing up, Charlie was always getting into trouble and I…I was always covering for him. Making excuses. Lying. I’d even do his chores for him so he wouldn’t get punished for not having them done. See, I was–I guess you could say I was born responsible, wanted to do things right, but my brother….
“Was an asshole?” Slim Morgan queried. We couldn’t blame the man. He’d put himself on the line fer these two, and now this happened.
“Not fair?” This from Cougar, with the whisper of steel beneath the words.
“Oh–okay, maybe it is fair. But what I started to say, what I’m trying to say is, Charlie…he always felt the world owed him a living. And I think maybe I was to blame for at least some of that. I always felt like I was supposed to protect him. You know, the big brother thing?
“But maybe–I started thinking this a couple of years ago–maybe I made it worse. Didn’t let him take the knocks he should have taken. I don’t really know.
“Anyway, when he saw the size of that load of sapphires, he finally lost it. Well…after we heat treated a few, he did. Saw they were as good as any in the world. And he decided to steal the lot.”
“Wait a minute.” It was my turn to ask a question. “You knew there’d be more. We told you there would be. If your brother simply had to become a sapphire robber baron, why wouldn’t he at least wait fer better weather? A bigger haul? Something!”
“You’d think so.” Another sigh. “But Charlie’s other…problem…was impatience. When he wanted something, he wanted it yesterday. Anyway, he knew better than to tell me what he was thinking. Knew I’d try to talk him out of it. So–he told me this–he was going to simply split with the goods, so to speak, and leave me with the bag.”
“Which,” I pointed out drily, “he kinda did.”
“Yeah. But I know him. Knew he was up to something. And when I called him on it, and couldn’t talk him out of it, there was nothing for it but go with him when he left. I’d been taking care of him all our lives; I couldn’t simply quit now, could I?”
We had no answer to that.
“Right at dusk, up there in those Godawful mountains, I knew we were going to die. And then Charlie panicked–I think he knew he was going to die, too, and he didn’t like it much–he made his horse run, and the horse slipped and fell.”
“We know that, Doug,” I told him, my voice unaccountably gentle. “We saw where his head hit the rock.” I didn’t mention that even Jack Prosser had been able to recognize a bloodstain of that size.
“What’re you gonna do with him?” Slim asked. Doug Franzen, virtually paralyzed with grief, was currently out in the Army tent they’d been using as a dwelling. Alone. “Have him hung as a horse thief?”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Furniture man, you been reading too many dime novels.”
“Wha–they do hang horse thieves in the West, don’t they?”
“Sure. Sometimes. And fer good reason.”
“So…if not that…what, then?”
It was Cougar who laid it out fer the man. “We’re gonna leave it up to you, Slim.”
“Me?” His eyes widened. “But why?”
“Lotsa reasons. Fer starters, you’re the one who vouched for him in the first place, so in a sense you stand surety. Makes it your responsibility to finish the job.”
“I see…I think.”
“Then again, and this relates to the hanging idea, that man’s punishing himself right now harder than any gallows could ever do. I got a younger brother of my own–thirty seven minutes younger, but still younger–and I know iffen I felt responsible fer his death….”
“That much, I get.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Do you Tamsons have any…preferences?”
My turn again. “Slim, if it were me in your place, and if I could convince Doug it was the right way to go, I’d think about making him keep on working fer Flywheel, doing what he and his brother were supposed to be doing in the first place. But before you can decide if that’s the way to go, you gotta know in your heart that you can work side by side with the man fer the duration. Plus, you gotta git your Dad, your daughter, and your son in law all on board with you. Under the circumstances, I’d say that could be a bit of a tall order.
“One thing. I didn’t much appreciate Scrap having to freeze his butt to the saddle clean through a twenty below night, nor did I appreciate getting rousted out in the middle of that night to join him fer this little joyride. So I’m gonna tell you one thing I want you to really, really remember.
“Don’t you ever come up with any more bright ideas that involve this ranch. One was enough.”
It would be full dark by the time we got back to headquarters. Still, fer the moment the sun had warmed the day enough to make it a pleasant ride. Cougar waited till he could see my mood had lightened, then–as we were passing Eyeball Lake–he asked, “Do you think you mighta been a mite hard on the man? Poor bugger was literally shaking in his boots.”
“I sounded more like Dawson?”
“Coug,” I mused, “I done the man a favor. Maybe even saved his life.”
“What do you mean? How so?”
I chuckled. Wolf Eyes was watching us with obvious amusement. “You git it, don’t you?”
“Well then…you tell him, Ute. Tell this halfbreed Cheyenne two gun shootist son of mine how it is.”
“I can do that,” he grinned. “Cougar, the man Slim will tell the others of his family, will he not? He’ll tell Jack and Hattie and Daniel how mean Tam was to him?”
“Yeah, I reckon he’ll do that. Why?”
“Because when he does that–okay, considering the time, he’s probably already done that–anyway, they will realize he has been punished for presuming too much, bringing people to work at Flywheel who were not what they claimed. Right?”
“That’s how Tam saved Slim’s life. By chewing him out good, so they don’t have to be quite as mad at him, because they know he got his. Tam had to do it that way. I saw the look in Daniel Morgan’s eyes.
“He come close to killing his son for this.”