The ownership meeting ended without a word being said about the cave. What Scrap and I’d found inside the hole Doug Franzen had opened up with an entire case of dynamite…would have to wait. There was simply no time.
With a black widow woman stalking the Morgan men and a decision needed on purchasing the Murphy herd, we had enough to keep us busy till midnight as it was.
“Let’s git back to Clarisse in a bit,” I suggested. “Patrick Murphy has offered to sell us the herd fer a suspiciously low price, two thousand head of Longhorn-Brahma cross cows mostly ready to drop calves at eleven bucks a head, total cost $22,000 trailed to Flywheel fer free. All we gotta do is fork over the cash–which we have on hand–and provide a handful of drovers to help bring ’em to us.”
“Them cows and the forty-nine head of Brahma bulls that come with ’em would jist about fill our range to capacity. We’d be running right at three thousand pairs, plus the two hundred at Flywheel/Morgan, fer a total of thirty-two hunnert.
“But…is the deal as good as it sounds? There’s gotta be a catch.”
“Right,” Tam nodded. “I promised Doug and I would have the papers Pat sent over fully analyzed so’s we could discuss the deal–or no deal–this evening. It’s interesting.” He paused to dig a batch of list copies from his briefcase and hand ’em around. It’s not a Tam Tamson business meeting without a list of some sort. “Take a quick look,” he advised, “while I make a fresh pot of coffee. Then we’ll go over everything.”
Sounded logical to me. I started reading.
Murphy Herd Summary
1. Animals seem OK; herd buildup and bloodlines well documented.
2. Not Pat’s only herd: 2,000 of an original 18,073.
3. Needs cash fast. (Discuss details in meeting.)
“Your lists are getting shorter, Tam,” Jack noted. “Writer’s cramp?”
“Would be, iffen I detailed that bit about needing cash. Guess why? Nobody? Two words, boils and germs: Justin Goss.”
Justin Goss. Robber cattle baron extraordinnaire, the man who’d had his hands shoot Ezekiel Jacobson in the back and who’d found hismelf stopped cold fer the first time when Sheriff Olsen led a posse out to haul his hired killers off to stand trial. Flywheel personnel had been well represented in that posse and in the testimony at the trial that hung one murderer and sent the lookout man to Territorial Prison fer life.
Made sense that Patrick Murphy would come to us fer help against Goss.
In more ways than one. There were several small ranches to the north of us that acted as buffers between our spread and the sprawling JG holdings, but we’d become known as the Goss-stoppers throughout Huerfano County.
“I didn’t realize Pat was that big.” I scratched my bald head thoughfully. “He comes across as a regular cowboy.”
“He was,” Tam explained. “I rode the Chisholm Trail with him one time, a couple a years before I met you. The way I heard it, he married some gal whose Daddy died and left her a chunk a change. Can’t recall her name at the moment, but she turned the purse strings right over to her man, and he started up the PMS–that’s it! Pat and Shirley Murphy.”
The tale teller had to stop fer a bit; we were laughing too hard fer his words to be heard. “So,” Cougar asked after we’d all purty much peed ourselves cracking up, “why didn’t he make it the PSM Ranch?”
“That one was already taken at the Brand Office.”
“Ah.” I seen it now, “Only an Irishman. So. What’s the deal with Goss?”
“Pat sent us the maps that made that clear. There’s a stretch of country where Goss and Murphy border each other. To say them two don’t git along would be putting it mildly. Nobody’s been killed yet, but there’s plenty of bad blood to go around.
“In between ’em, there’s a piece of land that come up fer sale. Except it ain’t jist any piece of land. There’s a springfed lake dead center on the property. Outflow from that lake is called Crybaby Creek–don’t know why–but it’s more of a river. Flows down off into Murphy land and waters a fair chunk of his range.”
We all nodded. If there’s one thing a rancher understands, it’s the importance of water.
“The old man that’s sellng out–his health is going–coulda sold to either party, but he don’t much care fer Goss. Some of the JG bully boys tried putting the arm on him a few years back. He got the point across to ’em they was wasting their time–”
“Thought you said nobody got killed yet.” No way one man dissuaded an outfit like Goss’s without somebody dying fer punctuation.
“Nothing that’s been reported. Shoot, shovel and shut up, maybe.”
“Sorry to interrupt.” I waved a hand. “Go on.”
“Well, turns out the seller offered Murphy a chance to buy his place first. Pat asked fer a bit of time to raise the cash–he’s cow poor right now, ain’t got squat in his reserve kitty. The man…Jefferson Johnson, that’s the seller…Johnson give him thirty days to come up with the cash. But then iffen he don’t, he’ll turn around and sell to Goss after all, ’cause he needs the money to head south. Got a daughter and son in law down around Tucson somewhere.”
“Let me guess.” Cougar looked grim. Of all of us, Justin Goss still being in the cattle baron business seemed to gall him the most. I wouldn’t a been surprised to find out he laid awake nights trying to figure how to put the man six feet under and git away with it. “Iffen Goss gits the Johnson piece, he’ll divert the water from that lake and Crybaby Creek will suddenly become Drybaby Wash.”
“Exactly, son. Exactly.”
The vote was unanimous: We’d jist tripled our herd and then some. Our little toy cattle ranch had growed up in one swell foop, helping a somewhat distant but altogether congenial neighbor and spiking one of Goss’s guns in the process.
Win-win all around.
Ten p.m. But the meeting wasn’t over yet. We still had to deal with the Clarisse Moore issue.
I had one crucial question fer Jack Prosser. “How certain are you? Is there any chance she’s completely innocent and the circumstances jist look bad?”
The man didn’t take my query lightly. He held up a finger, give me a minute to think about that, and sipped his coffee before answering. “Tam,” he said finally, “she’s guilty as sin. I’d stake the life of my firstborn on it.”
“Speaking of which,” Dawson put in, “you finally put a bun in Hattie’s oven, or…?”
“Not yet,” he admitted. “Thought it mighta been me, because a the mumps. I had ’em in my twenties, right on active duty in the middle of the War. Figured that mighta sterilized me. Our doctor says otherwise. Thinks maybe we’re jist trying too hard.
“Which,” he grinned, “ain’t altogether a bad thing.”
“Back to the business at hand,” I reminded ’em. “Clarisse.”
“Tam, I brought over every report my Pinkerton buddy produced. Here.” He plonked a scary looking stack of paper on the table. “Read it and weep.”
“Later. From the looks a that pile, we’d be here till daylight.”
“You would. And then some.”
“All right, then. We got us a black widow to deal with, and we can’t jist stomp the bitch to death without consequences.”
Consequences indeed. Iffen we had a man among us who was as evil and potentially deadly as Clarisse Moore appeared to be, we’d jist kill the sumbitch and be done with it. Shoot, shovel, and shut up. But we weren’t up to outright killing no woman, poisoner bitch or no poisoner bitch, unless she somehow managed to back us in a corner with no way out.
Plus, she was Elly’s Mom. My sweet little concubine had no clue of her parent’s true nature. Finding out her precious mother had whacked dear old Dad in extremely cold blood …ick. Not a purty picture.
Then there were the Morgan men.
“Tell you what, gentlemen,” I yawned. It had been a long day. “Somebody’s gotta talk to Daniel about this, and I’m the one to do it. We go way back; he can take it from me. I say we table this discussion till Morgan’s brought up to speed. Fer now, let’s go git some sleep.”
“Kinda surprised to see you, Crazy Rifle.” my wide-load old shooting instructor grinned. “Be sure you double thank Laughing Brook fer the ointment when you git back.”
“It’s helping some?”
“Some. ‘Specially in my hands. The arthritis was getting to the point I couldn’t be sure of hanging onto a pistol butt if I drew with any kinda normal speed. Them herbs have backed that off maybe ten percent, enough that once again I feel capable of defending myself should the need arise.”
“I’ll tell her. Old friend, we need to talk.”
“Didn’t figure you rode clean over here with snow on the way and new calves on the ground fer the fun of it.”
“No,” I admitted, “I didn’t. ‘Fore I git to that, though, I gotta say I like your new digs.” Daniel’s cabin had been built with a boatload of common sense. Extra wide front door fer an extra wide man. Extra big logs–twenty inches in diameter–to provide strength, extra protection against attack (just in case). And two big rooms.
I wondered iffen he hoped to bed the widow Moore in that back bedroom.
“Works fer me. It’s basically the same floor plan as my old cabin up by Fort Benton, that winter when we first met. Jist a little fancier, took a bit more time to build it.”
“Yeah. I see that. Daniel, the reason fer my visit is Clarisse.” I jist plunged right in, told the whole story. How Jack had begun worrying about the widow, finally deciding to hire a Pinkerton man to check her out, and what he’d found. The old shootist didn’t interrupt, jist sat there sipping his coffee, looking thoughtful. Which didn’t surprise me none; Jack had been wise to be careful around the man, but Morgan and I had a trust between us no mere Philadelphia female could ever break. Or even dent.
When I was done, he got up, dumped my cold coffee in the slop bucket, poured me a hot cup, and sat back down. And brought me up to date.
“I ain’t surprised, Tam. Let me tell you how it’s been going from my perspective. It weren’t forty-eight hours after we got back from the hospital–after Doug’s surgery–when Clarisse made her first move. I’d jist moved in here, and Hattie’d offered her my old room in the main house so’s she didnt have to be living alone with Slim in the Army tent without the benefit of wedlock and all that. Which I thought was ridiculous in a sense. Them two are grown human beings; iffen they wanted to git it on, it was no skin off my nose. I liked her looks, all right, still do, but you know I been around the Horn. One splittail more or less weren’t going to break my heart iffen she opted fer my offspring instead a me.”
I could see that. Daniel Morgan had loved his first woman something fierce, but Hattie’s great grandparents had mightily disapproved of their daughter hooking up with a young boy–albeit a mighty large young boy–who had no breeding and no prospects. They’d put the kibosh on the relationship in no uncertain terms by hiring a group of toughs to pound the upstart into the cobblestones.
Which naturally hadn’t worked so well fer the toughs. Three of ’em had ended up in the hospital, one had died, and the eighteen year old Daniel Morgan had decided the lands west of the Mississippi suddenly sounded highly attractive. He hadn’t known the girl he’d left behind was expecting until Slim was eight years old.
“However,” he continued, “the widow Moore made her first move on me the day after she moved in with the Prossers. Brought over an entire pot roast and all the fixings. Stayed to share the meal with me, too, batting her lashes and giving me them bedroom eyes. The woman was obvious and then some, but if she was offering, I wasn’t turning her down.”
“What about Slim?” I asked. “During that time, I mean.”
“Crazy Rifle, my son is thicker’n a corner post when it comes to women. Clarisse set herself up a rhythm. From that time forward, she’s been alternating between us. She’s spreading her legs fer Slim one day, taking a day off, then doing the same fer me. Back and forth, back and forth.”
He laughed. “At least she’s got the decency to clean herself up between bouts with her Morgans. Hattie mentioned the other day she’s never seen a cleaner woman. Heats water on the stove ever night, hauls the steaming kettle back to her room, and goes at it. One could only wish the whores in all them mining boomtowns would do the same!”
“Huh.” There didn’t seem much to add to that. “You got her game figured?”
“I reckon, especially when this detective’s reports are added to the picture. Sounds like she’s always looked to cut herself the best deal she possibly can, look out fer number one and full speed ahead. I’d say she’d prefer me because I’m part owner of this place and also the older man, making me a prime candidate fer dying quicker and leaving her the goods. Especially if she were to hurry the undertaker a mite.
“But this is a female that hedges her bets at every turn. If she can’t have me, she’ll take Slim, at least fer the time being. He’s starting to make a decent living with his lathe work, and she could always jump to another fellow later on if the opportunity arose.”
Interesting. “She don’t have a clue you’re onto her game?”
“Not likely,” Morgan shook his massive head. “I can act dumb when I want to, and she’s too much into herself.”
I stayed overnight in the cabin with Daniel. Felt like old times, back when I was a thirteen year old full-of-myself white Blackfoot warrior from up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam. We’d spent a full deep-winter month together that year, him training me to handle my brand new Colt Paterson five-shooter the right way and then watching the thing git put to good use.
Come daylight, we joined the Prossers and Slim plus the black widow Moore fer breakfast. It was interesting to watch, seeing how Clarisse was with the Morgan men when both Slim and his Dad were in the room. Gracious, proper, polished.
Unfortunately fer the widow’s plans, we had a plan of our own.
“Slim,” I said with a forkful of heavily syruped pancake bites halfway to my mouth, “your Dad says you’re busier’n a one armed paper hanger with that new consignment order?”
“Yes indeed.” The furniture maker beamed, delighted to be singled out fer attention. “Justin Goss himself has commissioned me to supply the furniture for the entire ground floor of his new mansion. It’s going to be nose to the grindstone–well, the lathe, technically–fer quite some time.”
“Good and bad.”
“Oh, it’s good you’re getting recognition and business from the big buyers,” I explained, “but bad because it means you won’t be able to git away fer the little tour we’ve set up at Flywheel headquarters. You know, fer you and Clarisse, since you two have never seen the place.”
Slim didn’t care; he was engrossed in his project. Clarisse, though, looked positively alarmed. “Will you still give me the tour? I mean, it’s too bad about Slim, but–”
“Yeah”, I thought, “and you jist exposed your lack of giving a damn about anybody else. It’s too bad about Slim, indeed.” Aloud, I said, “Surely we can do that. Besides, it’s only fair you git to go visit your daughter, seeing as how she made the trip to see you last time.”
Of course, it weren’t really a tour the black widow would be getting, but an education.
We had her terrified, or so she thought.
In truth, she hadn’t seen nothing yet.
“Clarisse,” I spoke softly, the better to threaten her with, “Don’t bother trying to lie your way out of it. Ever man here in this bunkhouse knows exactly what you are, what you done in Philly, and you got no way out.”
Literally. Triple-wide Daniel Morgan sat with his back blocking the only door, a look on his face that woulda been more’n enough by itself to set her knees to knocking. Big Daniel was a killer, had maybe planted even more men in his day than me or Cougar or Dawson. Fer the first time I’d seen, he looked the part.
The puny little poisoner was, in fact, a pissant wannabe girl coyote in a roomful of ravening alpha male wolves…and fer the first time in her life, she knew it.
Secretly, I loved the fact that it was me and Daniel who’d worked out the details of this Modify Clarisse Moore plan. Over the years, Dawson Trask had come up with more great strategical moves than you could shake a stick at. Dammit, it was my turn.
Anyway, yeah, she was terrified–but not terrified enough. Not yet. Threatening her like this was barely a start. She’d backslide if we left it there, sure as witches dance by the light a the moon.
“What…what are you going to do with me?” Her voice quavered. I could hear her unvoiced questions behind that. “Kill me? Turn me over to the Sheriff? Gang rape me?”
“Yeah,” I thought back at her. “You’d probably like that last one.”
If you’re thinking I’d lost respect fer the widow Moore, you’d be right. But we had an agenda; time to git on with it.
“Nope,” I explained. “We’re gonna consign you to a fate worse than death. You’re gonna accept Slim’s offer of marriage, and then you’re gonna be the best little wifey he could ever have dreamed of, all the rest a your born days.”
It took a moment fer that to penetrate, but before long I could see the wheels turning inside the woman’s evil little brain. She was already figuring angles. Slim was back on the other side a the mountains, crafting away on his furniture. Once away from our little gang, she could go to work on the man, bend him to her will. Maybe talk him into leaving Flywheel/Morgan, moving to town where she could find another sucker.
Well, we’d figured she’d figure that. Jack and Hattie should be clearing Dry Gulch Pass right about now with Slim Morgan in tow. Hattie had assured us she could convince her Dad to take the day off easily enough, being careful to time their arrival at Flywheel headquarters just so.
It was time to set the hook.
“Clarisse, there’s more.” Uncertain. Now she looked uncertain. From terrified to calculating to uncertain, all in the space of a few seconds. How did Slim manage to to miss the many communications this woman put out unconsciously?
‘Cause some people can read people and others can’t; that’s why.
“Remember this,” I said, and handed her one of my notorious lists.
Rules for Mrs. Clarisse Moore Morgan to Live By
1. Treat husband Slim like a king every second of the night and day.
2. Remember: If anyone at Flywheel and/or Flywheel/Morgan so much as catches a cold, you will be suspected. Hope sincerely for the continued health of all.
3. Never ever ever let Elly know one thing about this. If she is harmed in any way, physically or emotionally, you will be given to the Ute, Wolf Eyes.
She stared at the paper fer the longest time. Finally, I had to prod her out of it. “Clarisse?”
“This…you can’t just give me to somebody. Let alone an Indian.”
“You think not? Clarisse, look around the table. Slow-like. Look in each man’s eyes. Don’t miss a one. Then when you git done, tell me again we can’t do that.”
We all waited. She tried to stall, outwait us…which is kinda like a charmed bird trying to outwait the snake that’s about to swallow it fer breakfast. Sometimes the early worm gits the bird.
Finally, she did as she was told, locking eyes with Cougar first, then Dawson, Jack, Daniel, and finally me.
My voice was soft, gentle. “And?”
“You….” she gulped, swallowed. “You could do that.”
I nodded. She understood the course material. Now we jist had to drive the lesson home.
It was maybe twenty degrees out, snow falling, when we put the show on. Great weather fer what we had in mind, that being a display that would chill the evil in our black widow woman to its very core.
We started with the same shooting exhibition our warrior women put on every year fer each new batch of Ute Box Boys. Due to her bulging belly, Marie got vetoed from making her usual acrobatic entrance, but Penny had soothed her on that point. “Honey,” she said, “you’re gonna look ten times as deadly shooting around that tummy than you would doing cartwheels out the door, anyway.”
A couple of the women’s first bullets had missed their targets this time, but they were so fast putting out followup rounds that a city woman like our guest of dishonor never knew the difference.
Watching Clarisse closely, I was pleased no end to see her turn white and start shaking, horrified to witness the thunder and lightning unleashed by the women who knew her dirty secret. Any one a these deadly females could end up being her executioner…and she’d never been able to manipulate other women.
But we weren’t done yet. Not by half.
We men came next, Two Gun Cougar Tamson positioned with Dawson and me to his left plus old Daniel to his right. Despite Daniel’s arthritis and the temperature–which felt like it was dropping–we macho gunslinger dudes didn’t miss once.
I’m purty sure our target audience hadn’t known my old mentor’s pistol was fer more than show. She couldn’t git any whiter, but she was definitely shaking harder now.
Still not done. Enter the piece de resistance: Twelve year old Ute warrior Wolf Eyes and his tribe of wild younglings.
“I definitely want in on this,” the boy had insisted. “Freezing out or not, we can do our thing in nothing but breechclout and moccasins. Goose bumps maybe, but we are Ute and we can shoot.”
Damn kid was learning to rhyme. Dunno who the idjit was who taught him that.
But he’d also taught himself to throw knives with speed and accuracy. Alone among all of us; nobody else–red or white–had that particular talent. The younger boys whooped and danced a circle around him, holding pine board targets up until he pinned the painted circles with flying blades jist that quick, one-two-three.
Then came the steer, a two year old we’d decided we could slaughter fer the show. We’d tan the hide and eat the meat, of course, but first and foremost, the kill.
Not a funnyface; no Ute would touch one a them after the snow job Tam laid on ’em in ’74.
The animal came running outa nowhere, the young Utes–who’d disappeared from the yard mere moments before–racing after the poor thing in hot pursuit. They rode their mustang ponies bareback, Indian style, nothing but war bridles and war paint.
The steer hit the ground with an arrow from the warrior’s bow through its lungs. Wolf Eyes was off his pony in a flash, bare legs pumping as he dashed to the downed critter, pulled its head back by one horn, and slit its throat.
I kept watching Clarisse. Clearly, the city woman had never beofre seen meat in the process of becoming meat. No longer white, she was turning green now. “Good work, warrior, I thought, “we’re finally getting her to about where she needs to be.”About.
When the gutting was done and the innards piled steaming on the snow, Wolf Eyes quickly whacked off a two-foot section of gut, handed one end of the chyme-filled tube to Lance Point…and the two boys began chowing down, chewing their way toward each other’s faces as fast as they could go.
Some Indians do that in the spring, a ritual for the first kill after a hard winter, filling their own innards with digestive enzymes and chlorophyll galore.
Clarisse was bent over now, emptying her gut on the snow, splashing her fashionable little city boots in the process.
Slim had seen her distress and was heading her way. I’d have to hurry. Leaning down, I murmered into her purty little ear. “Live by the List, or that’s the Ute we’ll give you to.”
Elly had watched the whole show with much better composure.
Jist then, Jim Bodeen come riding in from cow check. “Can one of you come give me a hand?” he asked. “702’s dropped a calf all right, but it’s on the small side and there’s another behind it. She’s purty worn out. I believe we’d better pull the twin and maybe bring all three of ’em into the barn fer a while.”
I glanced over at the soon-to-be happy couple. Slim was holding and comforting a trembling Clarisse–while glaring around at the lot of us who’d put on such a gross demonstration unsuitable fer a refined lady’s sensibilities. The woman was hanging onto him fer dear life, and she weren’t faking it. The one man on the premises who had not joined in terrifying the living daylights outa her had jist become her one real safe haven in a world of monsters.
“Slim Morgan,” I heard her say, “I accept your offer of marriage. If you’ll still have me.”
It wasn’t necessary to listen to the wide man’s joyful reply. I turned back to Bodeen. “Give me a minute to saddle up, Jim. Our work here is done.”