Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 92: The Explosion

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Dawson
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“The back forty is done?” I asked, passing Cougar the towel to dry off his face and hands. The women would be telling us to come and git it any minute now.

“Yep. Done by noon and none too soon. I’ll start on the second cutting tomorrow. Need to take the afternoon off, though. Every sickle bar we own needs a few blades replaced, and I’m a mite overdue pulling maintenance on the Buckeye itself.”

“Rider coming,” Tam called out as he strode across the yard from the barn. “Looks like Johnny Spence.”

Uh-oh. Johnny’s courier service had brought us more’n one crucial message, but him showing up usually meant trouble on the wind.

My turn again. “Yo, Johnny! Got time to set and eat?!”

“Don’t mind if I do!” he yelled back. Which was a startlement in and of itself. The man was a freaking animal fer hard work, always on the go. Maybe it was our women’s cooking; Flywheel Ranch had a well deserved reputation fer good eats.

Turned out he’d come fer the express purpose of delivering the morning paper–not our local rag but the New York Times, which a number of the folks in Walsenburg took on subscription. The young owner of SCS–Spence Courier Service–had made the run on his own dime at that; nobody’d paid him to ride the seventeen miles out from town to do this.

When we seen the headline, we understood why he’d felt it was important.

New York Times
The Little Big Horn Massacre
July 6, 1876
LATEST ACCOUNTS OF THE CHARGE. FORCE OF FOUR THOUSAND INDIANS IN POSITION ATTACKED BY LESS THAN FOUR HUNDRED TROOPS – OPINIONS OF LEADING ARMY OFFICERS OF THE DEED AND ITS CONSEQUENCES – FEELING IN THE COMMUNITY OVER THE DISASTER.

“Well, Sergeant,” Jim Bodeen noted drily, “looks like you won’t be spitting at your favorite war hero no more. Unless you’d care to spit on his grave, anyway.”

“Sounds about right.” None of us–especially us former military men–had the slightest doubt. Only one cavalry officer in the entire U.S. Army coulda been arrogant enough to tackle thousands of Sioux, plus no doubt a heap of their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies, with nothing but a handful of cavalry companies: Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

A Democrat looking to replace the Republican Ulysses S. Grant currently occupying the White House.

Not until much later would we find out old Yellow Hair had even had his men box up their sabers when he went out to find the Sioux. Opting fer speed over common sense–and don’t even git me started on the man’s I.Q. or lack thereof–Custer had stunningly refused the offer of a Gatling gun. It’d slow him down, he said, and he couldn’t have that.

Looked like he was slowed down some now. Permanently.

“Read the rest of it already, Dawson. Or pass the paper.”

“I’m reading. I’m reading.”

The dispatches giving an account of the slaughter of Gen. Custer’s command, published in THE TIMES of yesterday, are confirmed and supplemented by official reports from Gen. A. H. Terry, commanding the expedition. On June 25 Gen. Custer’s command came upon the main camp of Sitting Bull, and at once attacked it, charging the thickest part of it with five companies, Major Reno, with seven companies attacking on the other side. the soldiers were repulsed and a wholesale slaughter ensued.

“Wholesale slaughter.”

This time it was the Cheyenne woman, Laughing Brook, who had to comment. “Ain’t that the way of it. If the white man wipes out a band of our people consisting mostly of women, old men, children–and of course a few dozen dogs and maybe 800 ponies–then it’s a great military victory. If we defend ourselves sucessfully against an attack by hundreds of heavily armed professional soldiers, it’s a wholesale slaughter.

“Husband, if we ever get truly rich, we need to buy up a few newspapers. Get the word out a little more accurately. Just saying.”

“That’s an idea, sweetheart,” the tale teller nodded, and I seen him rubbing his chin in thought. He was giving it serious consideration. Nobody seemed to want to add anything to that, though, so….

Gen. Custer, his brother, his nephew, and his brother-in-law were killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them in the hills during a whole day, but Gibbon’s command came up and the Indians left. The number of killed is stated at 300 and the wounded at 31. Two hundred and seven men are said to have been buried in one place. The list of killed includes seventeen commissioned officers.

“What do you think, Bodeen? Reno gonna get pilloried fer this?”

“Pilloried fer what?” Penny asked. The redhead was mostly recovered from her Caesarian surgery that had delivered little Felix, which was a good thing to see. “The article says he was surrounded. The Army gonna think he shoulda been able to fight his way outa that somehow?”

Bodeen speared a steak from the platter as it went by, explaining what was obvious to those of us who’d worn the uniform. “Pilloried fer staying alive when Custer didn’t, Pen. There’s a whole lotta civilians back east who think the world of their little Autie. Plus he’s long had the ear of Generals Sherman and Sheridan in particular. Yeah, Dawson, I think they’ll hang Reno out to dry fer sure. At the very least, drive him to drink.”

“Huh.” Penny shook her head. I kept on reading.

It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated. The wounded soldiers are being conveyed to Fort Lincoln. Additional details are anxiously awaited throughout the country.

New York Times

Once I’d finished the article, I passed the paper to my left, to Tam. It’d make its way around, but fer the moment, none of us much had a whole lot more to say about the news. Until the implications sank in, that is. “Oh my God!” Laughing Brook had turned white, or nearly so, no mean feat fer a fulblood Cheyenne. “Laughing Wolf!”

“I know, honey. I know.” Tam looked worried, and I understood why.

Their other son, Cougar Tamson’s Heyókȟa twin brother, was with the Cheyenne and had most likely been present in the great Indian encampment when Custer attacked. The battle had taken place exactly where we three men had gone to get Laughing Brook in ’73.

What the whites called the Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne called the Greasy Grass.

Cougar, however, did not seem the least concerned. “My brother’s alive, Mom. I’d know if he weren’t. And he knows how to find us if he needs to.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. It’s a twin thing, even if we ain’t identical. But I wouldn’t look fer him to show up any time soon. Our people will need the few among ’em who speak English, especially now.”

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Tam
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When it came time fer Henry to go to school in September, we had a problem. Seventeen miles from the ranch to Walsenburg and seventeen back–thirty-four miles round trip–was doable fer a once-monthly grocery run with the freight wagon, but as a daily commute it was outa the question. The only thing we could think to do was have one of the women rotate, stay in town during the week with the boy.

But…we still weren’t comfortable with the idea of leaving a Flywheel female alone like that without a man as escort. Every one of our warrior women could shoot, but that didn’t matter to a bunch of rowdy, drunken miners or a saddle tramp looking fer trouble after getting run off by an area rancher. And who among us could stand the idea of being stuck fer days on end in town with nothing to do but babysit a woman and a first grader?

Not me; that’s fer sure.

In the end, it was the Sheriff who solved our problem. “Shucks, Tam,” he chuckled when I told him about our conundrum over a couple of shots at the Singlejack, “you shoulda mentioned this sooner. When I bought my house, it come with a little place fer a mother in law out back. It ain’t much, but enough fer a woman plus Henry. I’d be happy to rent it to you cheap and throw in my protection to boot.”

It only took one quick look and I was sold. He was right; it wasn’t huge. Maybe 400 square feet, roughly 20 x 20. But the thing was solidly built with good glass in the two windows and a good lock on the door. Best of all, Robert had built himself an eight-foot board privacy fence around the yard, except along the front where it was lower so’s you could see the street.

“Works fer me,” I told the lawdog. We had a deal.

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The calendar said it was Sunday, October 15, 1876. Henry was home from school fer the weekend, the hay was put up, the cattle herds were down from the hills, and–what else? Oh, yeah. The new Gonellaz’s ditching machine was in at the Mercantile, waiting fer a special lowboy wagon to deliver it out to us, Doug Franzen was turning out to be a decent all-around hand despite his city background, and–

What was that? The sound coming in through the open window had me up from behind my desk and out the door in a flash.

“Hello the ranch! Hello the ranch!” Jack Prosser, coming across the flats on a big black at full gallop.

There was no time to go meet him; he was moving that fast. When he was still a quarter mile off, I could hear his mount laboring fer breath, struggling to keep going. This was serious.

Eighty yards out, his ride went down, knees and nose crashing to the sod. Jack flew forward from the nearly vertical saddle seat, tucked his shoulder, rolled head over heels, and came on ahead at a dead run.

I met him halfway.

“Doug Franzen,” he gasped, “He–he–”

“Git yer breath, man,” I told him, turning my head fer jist a second. The rest of the clan was pouring outa the buildings, hustling to see what kinda trouble had made Prosser kill a good horse getting to us.

Turned out he’d killed three horses. Rode ’em into the ground, one after the other. A new cross-country record fer the eleven miles between his place and ours.

“Doug,” he managed finally, still struggling to control his breathing.

“What about Doug, Jack. What’d he do this time?”

“Tam, he…he blew himself up.”

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We didn’t kill no more horses, but there weren’t no grass growing under our feet, neither. There weren’t no point in the whole crew rushing in, but there were four of us: Dawson and me, Laughing Brook and Marie. Jack had helped himself to a fresh horse–which he promised not to kill–and headed back over the Saddles.

“Everybody from Flywheel/Morgan went in with Doug,” he explained. “Daniel rode on ahead to tell Doc Chouteau to get set up at the hospital, ’cause this case is gonna take ever fancy piece of equipment and ever surgeon they can find to assist. Iffen the hospital tried giving ’em any guff about Chouteau not having hospital privileges, he–Morgan, that is–would jist shoot the ones that argued about it till they quit arguing.”

“That should do it,” I’d agreed.

“We loaded Doug himself on the buckboard, it being a smoother ride and a faster pull fer the horses. Tied him down to a couple of flat boards we cobbled together in a hurry. When he was awake he was screaming, but he weren’t awake much. Then Slim drove, and the women rode.”

Them three Philadelphia women all on horseback? This I had to see.

“You strapped him to the boards?” I asked. “Why?”

“Didn’t want any more damage to his spine. But it’s busted already, down jist above the tailbone. He may live, but it ain’t likely he’ll have the use of his legs if he does.”

“Paralyzed.”

“Paralyzed. Maybe deaf, too; he didn’t seem to be able to hear us after the blast.”

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Despite the makeshift ambulance having had only fourteen miles to go compared to our twenty-eight–Jack’s eleven plus the seventeen into town–the operating room door was jist closing behind the last of the surgical staff when we walked into the waiting room.

Daniel, his son Slim, and Slim’s daughter Hattie were all seated along one wall, occupying an average of two and a half chairs each. It was the first time I’d ever seen ’em all lined up side by side by side like that. Impressive.

Clarisse was seated across the room, but her daughter stood staring at the door through which her husband of four months had gone…perhaps the last time she would see him alive.

“Elly,” Laughing Brook spoke softly, and the girl turned. She didn’t look like she’d been crying, nor did she appear to be in shock. Good steel in there somewhere despite her city upbringing.

“I was there,” she said quietly, willing and needing to bring us up to date. “I saw it happen.”

“Fill us in, then. We got nothing but time.”

“Yeah. Okay. You knew Scrap Hannigan brought over that pack horse load of dynamite–and blasting caps and a roll of fuse–yesterday, right?”

We all nodded. Doug had been taking his time picking out an eighty to own. He’d purty much settled on a nice parcel jist upslope from the lake, but he’d wanted to roam around jist that extra bit to make sure. You know, didn’t want to find out later he’d missed a piece that woulda been even better. So he’d taken to hiking the hills on Sundays, and last week he’d found a cave we hadn’t known about. One that would need our mining manager’s blasting expertise to enter, since the hole into the thing was only fifteen inches across.

Scrap had packed the essentials over to Flywheel/Morgan but hadn’t had the time that day to do the blasting. Left the supplies under a tarp, far enough from the Army tents to keep things safe iffen the nitro should decide to get frisky, and rode on back home.

This morning, Elly’s husband had decided not to wait on the blasting expert any longer. It seemed a simple enough job; he’d do it himself.

You could hear the collective intake of breath around the room when she got to that part.

“I wanted to go with him, see how he did it. Honestly, didn’t know he had no idea what he was doing. I–”

“Easy, little one. Thre’s no way you coulda known.” The words came out soothing as they were meant to be…despite the fact it took me a while to realize I was the one who’d said ’em.

“Well, I…I thank you for that. Anyway, when he got everything ready, he made sure I was situated way away from the spot, then he lit the fuse and–”

“Cut the fuse too short?” Marie asked.

“No. No, he cut it long enough. Five feet I think it was, and Scrap had said it was foot-a-minute fuse. Seemed like five minutes or so before it went off.

“But he made, I guess, two mistakes now that I’ve had a chance to think about it. One was, he didn’t have any idea the blast would –he needed to be a lot farther away than he was. Me, I was safe, though barely. There were rocks rained down right in front of me. But he was closer, maybe only…about a quarter as far from the hole as I was.

“I remember him yelling out, ‘Fire in the hole!’ when he lit the fuse, but then he went to his spot–what he thought would be his safe spot. But he was so excited, like a little kid, he kept jumping up from where he was crouched behind a deadfall tree. Jumping up, peering at the hole where the fuse was burning, then turning to look toward me, giving me a thumbs up.

“He wanted–he wanted to surprise you all, show you how much good he could do…and then the dynamite went off. He had his back to the hole, looking at me, when the rocks got him. It was so loud! I don’t know anything about mining, but it seemed like he’d used way too much dynamite. Maybe he’d placed it wrong, too; don’t know about that.

“I saw…” she choked, her voice cracking, “I saw the rock that hit his back. It was big, like the size of my head maybe, came at him like a…a bullet, I guess, only a really big bullet. He went down hard, and he didn’t get up.”

We were mesmerized, both fascinated and horrified at the scene she painted. Whether or not she’d truly loved Douglas Franzen the day they were married, it was clear she loved him now. She herself seemed frozen by the memory; Laughing Brook nudged her gently to finish the story. “What did you do after the rocks stopped falling, Elly?”

“Do? Uh..I..first I ran to Doug–but then, jist fer a moment, it seemed somehow important to know how he’d done blasting the hole. So I ran over there and took a quick look. He made the hole bigger, all right; it’s probably as big across as I am tall now.”

Dawson and I looked at each other, pursing our lips as if to whistle. From fifteen inches to five feet or more in diameter? How much powder had the man used?

“By the time I turned and got back to my husband,” she finished, “he was conscious and screaming from the pain. I tried to talk to him, tell him I was going for help, but he didn’t seem to be able to hear me. It was obvious he could see me, but I think the blast blew out his eardrums or something. Finally I tried your Indian sign language, but of course I don’t really know any.

“So I simply pointed at myself, and then back toward Daniel Morgan’s new house, and then at Doug. I don’t know if he understood. I think the pain was too great. And he couldn’t get up; his hands were grabbing at the Earth, and he’d push his shoulders up, but his legs just…laid there.

Finally, at this point, the young wife and mother–who’d jist turned sixteen a couple of weeks back, come to think of it–broke down. She buried her head in the nearest bosom to do it, which seemed natural enough…even though that bosom belonged to Laughing Brook, not Clarisse.

Once again, we settled in to wait, unable to do a single solitary thing to help one of our own.

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We’d quit looking at the clock. It took about a hunnert years to move a minute anyway; what was the point?

My wife squeezed my knee and gestured toward the door. I nodded, and we both rose from our chairs. “Tam and I are going to ride down to Ethel’s Eats and get something in our bellies,” she told the others.

The Philadelphia bunch, including Slim Morgan, shook their heads. Daniel, Marie, and Dawson all put in orders. When you’ve lived as we’ve lived over the years, you eat when you git the chance.

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“Okay, honey,” I told her, “spill it.” We were seated at our regular corner table with walls at our backs.

“In a sec,” she murmured. “Ethel, the ribeyes will be fine. By the way, have you convinced that elusive Mercantile clerk it’s marrying time yet?”

“Hunh!” Our hostess grinned. “Why tie yourself down with a ring when you already got one in the bull’s nose?” With that, she flounced off, clearly satisfied with herself.

We hadn’t told her about Doug’s little problem.

I cocked an eyebrow at my wife. “Now?”

“Now. Did you notice her little boy wasn’t with them in the waiting room?”

Huh. “Can’t believe I missed that.”

“Well…I didn’t miss it. I slipped over for a second, whispered in Daniel’s ear about it. He told me Elly’s son wasn’t there because he was already dead. Jack didn’t mention it when he rode over, ’cause he left before anybody realized the little one wasn’t where he should have been. He’s at the undertaker’s, getting fitted for a little coffin as we speak. Right at the same time Doug was blowing himself up, his stepson was busy getting bit by a rattler. Grandma Clarisse was s’posed to be watching him, but he’d slipped out and come across a monster diamondback. Daniel said the snake hit him in the upper left thigh, maybe hit a vein running straight to his heart. At any rate, he was done breathing by the time they found him. Found the snake, too, but it was too late. Elly’s not mentioned it because–well, husband, I think because she knows she can only focus on the dead or the living, and she’s here for the one that ain’t crossed over yet.”

I nodded slowly, thinking, but Laughing Brook wasn’t done yet.

“Crazy Rifle, if Doug makes it, he’s going to be paralyzed from the waist down. Are we agreed on that?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t seem much doubt.”

“Okay. Here’s what I think. I think if he lives or if he dies, you should move Elly in with us. Elly and what’s left of Doug if he lives, of course.”

My eybrows must have disappeared somewhere up under my hair. “Say what?”

“Move ’em in with us.”

“Honey…I hate to admit it, but I’m not all that sure I could keep my hands off the girl if she was right there under the same roof 24/7.”

“So? My warrior, have you forgotten my past? Do you think i’ve gone all white woman on you?”

“Uh….”

“No. I have not. Many warriors have multiple wives; you of all people should know that.”

“Yeah, but–”

“I have never been against the idea of having more than one woman in our home to share the work–and yes, to share your bed. I know I have a reputation for jealousy within the family, but that has been misunderstood. Even by you, beloved. What you’ve seen as my fury toward another woman who might claim your affections has only been…I’m selective, husband. If there is to be a junior wife, then she needs to be the right girl, one who will follow my lead and not make trouble for us.”

I stared, seeing the love of my life in an entirely new light. “Wouldn’t have thought you could surprise me like that, Brook.”

She laughed, the tinkling music that had earned her the Cheyenne name of Laughing Brook Over Stones. Or something like that; I couldn’t honestly remember the entire moniker at the moment.

Hell, I couldn’t remember my own name at the moment!

“Know what this reminds me of?” I asked, grinning jug ear to jug ear.

“What?”

“The first time we did it. After the mountan lion, when you talked me into humping and we made Cougar and Laughing Wolf. I surely wanted you, but you still had to talk me into it.”

“I can be persuasive when I’ve a mind to,” she twinkled.

We had to knock off that line of conversation fer a bit. Our steaks had arrived.

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“Okay,” I admitted. We were down to sipping coffee, mostly jist stalling. Doug wasn’t likely to be out of surgery fer some time yet. “I’m all for it.”

“Well, duh!” She grinned at me, cat that ate the canary.

“But we’ll need to knock out that sidewall. Cut a door hole in it, I mean. Add the addition we been talking about. Only we’ll turn that into quarters fer your new housekeeper and, good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise, our paraplegic gem cutter. Set up his equipment in there, too, ‘cept fer the heat treating stuff, so’s he can work or knock off as he’s a mind to.”

“That makes sense,” she said slowly, “and I really could use a housekeeper. After all, I’m kind of the matron of the entire Flywheel Empire. Any white woman in my lofty position would have a housekeeper to do the dirty work, would she not? A housekeeper the man of the house was most likely mounting behind her back?”

“She would indeed. Plus, you women could use another hand in the kitchen. We also need to cut a door in that far wall in Cougar’s house. You know, add a big addition over there to serve as a dining room. Give us all room to spread out finally, so’s we quit knocking elbows at mealtime. I’ll need to talk to Coug, git his ideas fer including major windows up under the eaves so’s we can let the hot air outa there during the summer.”

“Excellent. Tam, we should get back to the hospital. That stunning sunset out there is telling me we’ve been gone longer than I’d thought. The others are gonna think we run off and left ’em. But one last thing before I forget.”

“Yeah?”

“Elly is a lot tougher than she looks, but she’s crumbling inside. Her Dad dropped dead. Then the man who knocked her up split his head on a rock and died. Now her child is dead and her husband is paralyzed at the very best, both in the same hour on the same day. All that tragedy in a space of three years and a few months.

“You need to reassure her you’re not going anywhere. When you mount her, put some life into it.”

“Sweetheart!” I recoiled in mock horror. “Would I do it any other way?”

“Just saying, Crazy Rifle,” she grinned at me as we headed our horses back up the street. “Just saying.”

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