“You sure you don’t want to come along, Tam? This is likely to be the last sunshiny day we git before the first calf drops.” We were enjoying the new dining addition we’d added on the north side of Cougar’s and Penny’s house, this predawn breakfast being the first meal we’d had in a coon’s age where we weren’t bumping elbows.
“Love to, Dawson, and you know it. But duty calls. Murphy sent us danged near an inch thick pile of papers on the herd he wants to sell. His price sounds too good to be true. I need to dig through everything and find out why.”
“I can understand that. Glad you turned out to be Flywheel’s resident expert analyzer, though. That much studying would turn my brain to mush.”
“Says the man who can quote chapter and verse on the entire Colorado State Constitution. Nah. Y’all go on. Doug and I’ll have a report ready fer the ownership meeting by the time you git back.”
Fair enough. There seemed some kinda poetic balance in it at that. Tam and Doug sharing Elly…and the gem cutter turning out to be one helluva clerical whiz who’d begun helping the tale teller with all the record keeping and analyzing that kept us in the black and outa trouble.
Only Tam Tamson coulda took another man’s wife to bed and then turned the man he’d cuckolded into the best danged paraplegic asset in the entire state of Colorado.
Our party consisted of me, Scrap Hannigan, my wife Marie, and Elly Franzen. Elly hadn’t been part of the original plan, but when she’d found we were headed over the Saddles to take a look at the cave opening where her husband had crippled himself, she decided she wanted to come along.
“You sure you’re up to going back there?” Marie had asked. “Gotta be traumatic.” Most likely, my sweetheart was thinking of the little boy death-bit by that rattlesnake as much as anything else, but Elly hardly ever spoke of that loss. We didn’t know why, and we didn’t pry.
“Yes, I’m sure.” The girl had nodded seriously, adding, “I keep hearing you all saying when you get bucked off a horse, you have to climb right back on. Which I suppose must be a bit frustrating for the animal who thought he’d won the war and not just a battle.
“Anyway, I need to see. There are still times when I relive the experience, see that boulder coming at Doug’s back, him getting blown face forward to the ground. Over and over and over I see it. Maybe this will help. At least, I don’t think it could get much worse.”
“I didn’t realize it was still that bad.” My wife looked concerned. Maybe even a bit guilty fer whatever reason. Hija de la Puesta del Sol tended to feel she should be able to fix the woes of the world sometimes. And blame herself when she couldn’t.
Elly shrugged her narrow shoulders–narrow, but adding muscle these days, working sunup to sunset and often beyond, as any ranch wife did. “I can live with it. I need to see Mom, too.”
“That I can understand.” Marie nodded. “I envy you, you know.”
“Yep. Honey, you’re the only one of us Flywheel women who has a mother she can visit. Of course, in my case, I wouldn’t want to; my Mom could be a real witch. But she’s dead. So are Laughing Brook’s and Penny’s. You’re the only one whose mother’s alive.”
“Marie,” the girl looked stricken, “I’m sorry. I never thought about that.”
“Didn’t mean to make you sorry, sweetie. Jist explaining.”
We were climbing the foothills by the time the sun come up and through Dry Gulch Pass by the time we quit being able to see our breath. The Hidden Lakes, all nine of ’em, were iced around the edges, but only fer a few yards out. Overall, it had been a mild winter so far.
“Did you see the cougar slipping into the trees?”
“Where, Elly?” I turned in the saddle to look where she was pointing. “What, the other side of the lake? You can spot a mountain lion in the shadows at that distance?”
“Yeah. The doctors say I’m farsighted.”
“You see okay up close?”
“Huh. Farsighted. That’s a purty handy trait to have out here.”
“I guess. Never did me much good in Philadelphia.”
“Anybody else see that cat?”
Nope. Not me, nor Scrap, nor Marie, all survival type westerners to the bone. But little Elly Franzen, city girl her whole life till seven months ago, had spotted a mountain lion that was invisible to the rest of us.
Kind of looked like she was meant to come west from the git-go.
Despite seeing her husband blow himself nearly to bits, the life at Flywheel did seem to agree with her. She had some pregnant tummy going, right along with a radiance I suspected had more to do with getting it regular from Tam than it did with the baby in her belly. The crisp winter morning had what poets like to call roses in her cheeks. Her brown eyes sparkled, and she was developing a fine seat on the little mustang she favored.
Of course, she already had a fine seat in and of itself. Tam was right; Doug Franzen did have good taste in women. Not that looking at her got me all aroused or anything; my Marie sorta had a bit of a monopoly on that particular circus.
“Enjoying the view?” A soft voice asked, and I looked back around the other way to find my Blue Eyed Angel of Death grinning up at me. Her gray mare, Dolly, was only half a hand shorter than Joker, so she didn’t have to look way up, but…damn, I love that woman!
“Obviously,” I grinned back. “Even moreso now. Your belly’s bigger.”
“Now see,” she retorted, midnight blue eyes sparkling with humor, “there’s the difference between you and your tale telling partner. He mounts ’em, but you have to escort ’em and their big bellies on these Sunday rides.”
I chuckled. “Wouldn’t say have to. It’s a pleasure, beloved.”
“Fer me too, honey. Fer me too. Heck, it’s a pleasure jist realizing we’ve all made it alive into 1877.”
“Babe, iffen Penny ever figured out Tam is humping Elly and Brook, and that Brook come up with the idea in the first place, and that ever adult on the place knew about it from the git-go and conspires to keep it from her…well, I reckon we might not make it alive to the first New Year’s following discovery. Did you hear that preaching she done to them visiting church ladies last Sunday?”
“The Penny Tamson Sermon on Sinful Lust as it Pertains to Coupling fer Reasons Other Than Procreation fer the Glory of the Lord? Husband, you only caught a tiny bit of that through the window while you men were washing up fer dinner. Me and Brook and Elly all had our ears battered fer a solid hour while we were cooking the meal and setting the table!”
“Gotta love a true believer,” I intoned, straightfaced.
“She’s ever bit a that,” Marie laughed, “and we surely do love her. Though little does she know a good fifty percent of our reason fer wanting to go on this ride was to git away from that redhead’s religiosity fer a full day. Free-ee-dom!!”
Elly had been in deep conversation with Scrap, but when my sweetheart let out with that yell, Mrs. Pregnant Franzen jumped right on it. “You got that right, Warrior Woman. Free-ee-dom!!”
Scrap Hannigan caught my eye, shook his head, and made the sign for “Crazier’n two loons.”
It didn’t git any better’n this.
“Right there,” Elly said. “That’s the deadfall where Doug positioned himself.”
Scrap and I didn’t say anything, jist nodded and headed on over to the blast site. This time Hannigan did make an observation.
“Holy sh*t! Elly, you said you felt like he’d used way too much dynamite, right?”
“Yeah. That’s what it seemed like to me. Not that I would know, but–”
“No, no, I’m agreeing with you. Looks like he packed the whole damn case of the stuff in there. I’m not jist saying that from the size of the hole; see that wooden box? Over there, to the right of that boulder–yeah, that’s it. Take a good look. Do you see even one stick of TNT left in there? No?
“Well, guy and gals, when I packed that case over the Saddles, it hadn’t even been opened since it come from the factory. I jist turned it once a month like always to keep the nitro from settling out too much, and that was that.” The one-eyed man shook his head, marveling. “Mrs. Franzen, the wonder of the thing ain’t that your man got himself busted in the back with a big hunk a rock. The wonder of the thing is that he weren’t blown into a million pieces!”
She thought about that long and hard. After a bit, she had a question. “So you’re saying…Doug still being alive, even without the use of his legs, is a…miracle?’
“Honey, to put it in words that would make Penny cry blasphemy, it’s a miracle right up there with Jesus being born to the Virgin Mary. I been blasting rock fer more’n twenty years, and I’m telling ya, he shouldn’t a lived through that. Take a look at all the pieces lying around on the ground past where he was standing. There’s even three different chunks still embedded in the trunk a that pine he was standing next to, fer Pete’s sake!”
“Well…I don’t know if my husband is quite ready to consider himself a lucky man just yet…but I see what you’re saying. Maybe it’ll help me let go of it some.”
“Let’s hope,” I agreed. “Now, what say we have a look at what’s inside that hole.”
“You bet.” Scrap stepped down and began fishing out the miner’s lamps.
I turned to my wife. “This is where we part company fer an hour or two,” I told her. “You did say you’d escort Elly to go see her Mom.”
“Done and done. You boys have fun. Come on, Elly. The bigger the boys, the bigger their toys.”
“You’re gonna have to explain in detail exactly what you mean by toys, Mrs. Trask,” the younger girl said primly, and the pair rode off together, laughing.
“Those two,” I observed, “are some very dirty young women.”
“Which makes you and Tam even luckier men than Doug Franzen. Here’s your lamp. Let’s go spelunking.”
“This meeting is called to order,” I announced, “more or less. You need help dishing up that cherry pie, Jack?”
“Nah. Piece a cake. So to speak.”
“Speaking of pieces….”
“Ah.” He began distributing dessert plates topped with great slabs of pie while Cougar poured the coffee. “Thought you’d never ask, especially after Marie and Elly looked as confused as they did. You knew Daniel had his eye on her since Philly, right? I mean, you were there.”
“I was there. Thanks.” I stopped with my fork poised to whack off the tip of the pie wedge. “But the girls said it was impossible to tell which Morgan had her interest. If either of ’em did.”
“They got the right of it. That wicked woman is playing Daniel and Slim off against each other and enjoying the doing of it.”
“That don’t sound…good,” Dawson noted. The master of understatement.
“It ain’t. Let me back up a minute, though. Give you some background, what I’ve learned about Mrs. Clarisse Moore, widow extraordinnaire. I begun geting suspicious about her after Doug got hurt. Once he and her daughter were outa the way so’s she could operate with impunity, she started acting downright flirty with both Morgan men.
“Neither one of ’em could see it–figure they still don’t. I couldn’t say much, obviously. Daniel’s still more’n enough of a hand to slap me silly iffen I insulted his woman, and his son would likely jist break down crying. So…what could I do?
“I figured, maybe not much but–dang, Coug, you inhaled that pie.”
We all gave my son a round of applause. The young shootist had once eaten an entire cherry pie baked by his mother and then asked fer seconds. Of course, he’d been younger then.
One week younger.
“You were saying, Jack. About Clarisse.”
“Yeah. I decided we needed to know a little more–or a lot more if possible–about this woman. Got hold of an old Army buddy who went to work fer the Pinkerton Detective Agency after he retired from the Cavalry. He did a little digging. What he found was…”
“Disturbing?” I raised my eyebrow at him.
“Extremely. I’m glad you brought this up right off, ’cause I been busting to tell you.
“Turns out Clarisse Moore had quite the reputation in Philly, right up until her husband Timothy Moore died. She’d boink anybody and everbody…as long as anybody and everbody paid her well to do it.”
“She’s a whore?” I asked, surprised. And then again, maybe not so surprised, now that I thought about it.
“Not so’s you could pin it down. But she’d take a lover, and not long after, folks would notice Clarisse sporting a new piece of jewelry, or a fine fur coat, or sometimes even cash.”
“Sounds like a whore.”
“Or a wife, iffen she’d a stuck to one man. But no one ever proved a connection between the men she dated behind her husband’s back and the things she acquired. She was purty slick, it would seem. Almost as attractive to men as her daughter, willing to use it, and never once caught at it.”
“Jack,” my voice came out deadly quiet, “I do hope you ain’t implying Elly–”
Prosser held up both hands in appeasement. “No. I’m not. It come out wrong.
“You know me well enough to know I wouldn’t pull my punches if I had to give you that kinda bad news, but no. I didn’t go sneaking around having a detective check on your sweetheart, but if there’d a been something out there, it woulda turned up when we were investigating her mother, and it didn’t. My guess is, Elly may have inherited her Mom’s ablity to attract men, but no more’n that.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. But–oh, Hell, I’m beating around the bush; let me git to the point. My guy found out that about four years back, when Timothy Moore was still alive, rumor was Clarisse decided she’d hooked the big fish she’d been seeking fer a lo-ong time. Couldn’t pin down the man’s identity, but he was some kinda bigwig–mayor of the city or a steel baron, something like that. Only thing was, she figured she couldn’t git the man to marry her…unless she was a widow.
“People, we think she might be a black widow. Her old man’s heart stopped, all right. But maybe it had a little help from Elly’s Mom.”