For the first and hopefully the last time, Flywheel Ranch had seriously overextended itself. I did not want to see us ever have to go through this again. Especially right now, when we could see the problem but not the solution.
The problem: Too much of a good thing. Jumping from a herd of jist under 1,000 cows (plus younger stock) to nearly 3,000 in one shot. We’d made it through calving season without anybody having an aneurysm–barely–but branding came next, and we didn’t have enough hands.
Flywheel/Morgan had its hands full on the old Jacobson place, which left us with jist six men to brand the 2,000 Murphy cows (and bulls) plus 2,902 calves before kicking the three herds back up to summer range in the mountains. And we had to do that in jist over two weeks.
Haying season started in seventeen days.
I stared once more at the manpower list Tam had scribbled down at last night’s meeting.
Hands Available for Branding
1. Dawson Trask
2. Tam Tamson
3. Cougar Tamson
4. Jim Bodeen
5. Wolf Eyes
6. Chet Barnes
Nope. No matter how hard I glared at the paper, the number still came out to six. Six men to manhandle 4,902 separate critters in 14 days, allowing fer three days of hard riding to shift ’em all outa the low meadows. An average of jist over 350 hot-iron hits per day fer 14 days straight.
Oh sure, theoretically it could be done. Theoretically. “Only” 35 Flywheel brands applied to smoking cowhide every hour of a ten hour day, day after day after day. Doable and then some. Been there, done that.
Except our outfit didn’t do things the way anybody else did.
We branded every critter twice. First the Flywheel on the left ribs, piece a cake. But then the identifying number on the left hip, now four digits, 1, 2, 3, 4. Plus, we had to record that digit along with the other data which give us a wealth of information on each and every animal. We were practicing selective breeding at a level known mostly to purepred breeders.
Succinctly summarized, we were acting like perfectionists and we were screwed.
We couldn’t even draft one of the women, not with meals needing to be on the table to keep up our strength and one of the females–my wife, Marie–being due to calve out herself in a couple more months.
Henry. He could help keep the branding fires stoked. But we needed at least a couple more men to make it…and we couldn’t jist put the word out we were hiring. Not with the pure dee bucket of secrets that was Flywheel we couldn’t. But we needed, desperately needed, at least two more men yesterday.
“Miss Hathor will see you now.”
The words jerked me back to awareness of my surroundings. Cougar and Penny detached themselves from the hallway wall they’d been leaning against. So did the man I presumed to be Solomon Pritchard, young Quentin’s father.
Once the schoolroom door closed behind them, the hallway was down to two men and one boy. I’d jist happened to decide to ride into town today along with Cougar, who was on escort duty this time around. Which turned out to be a good thing. Henry Tamson stuck close to me; we didn’t know the stranger with the scarred face.
Quentin Pritchard, Henry’s erstwhile nemesis, was–as they say–conspicuous by his absence.
What? No, the two boys hadn’t fought since that first time. Not till today, when the bully apparently decided school getting out fer the summer meant he couldn’t get suspended fer fighting. He’d called Henry out, and this time Cougar’s number one son had been ready. The older boy come at him, and Henry kicked him in the nuts.
That is, he meant to kick him in the nuts. But Quentin was into the bully thing big time. He had no intention of letting the little runt from the hoity toity rich Flywheel Ranch clan get away from him after jist one punch this time. He would rush the brat. Wrap his arms around the smaller boy, crash him back to the ground, land on top of him, and then pound his rich little face to freaking mush.
So he charged, bull-like, head lowered to–yep, you guessed it–right about the level of his own crotch…and instead of having his nuts crushed by six year old Henry Tamson’s endlessly practiced and perfectly delivered kick, got his nose broke instead.
Miss Lucinda Hathor had been incensed. She’d even gone to the Sheriff about it, but Robert Olsen was having none of it.
“I ain’t making a federal case outa no schoolyard scuffle between two boys their ages,” he’d told the teacher firmly. “Deal with it.”
I figured Coug and Penny were going to be in there a while. Lucy Hathor didn’t have a chance against them two and likely knew it, but you had to give her A fer effort.
Apparently the scarfaced man had that figured out. At any rate, he moseyed over to where me and Henry were standing and stuck out his hand. “Reckon we got time to git acquainted. They call me Scar.”
“Hard to understand why,” I deadpanned. We shook hands. “I’m Dawson. I reckon you know–”
I’d been going to say, I reckon you know this is Henry, but I never got the chance to finish. The man’s eyes widened as he cut me off. “Dawson? As in Dawson Trask? Sergeant Dawson Trask?”
What the–? “Do we know each other?”
“Sarge…my name when they ain’t calling me Scar is Blakely.”
It couldn’t be. “Blakely? As in Corporal Blakely?”
“The one and the same.”
“Damn. Thought you was dead.”
“So did I, Sergeant. So did I. Woulda been a thing of mercy at that.”
He weren’t exaggerating. The last time I’d seen Billy Blakely, he’d been lying unconscious on his back on the field of battle, his face shredded by shrapnel and burned to a crisp to boot. He’d lived through that?
His voice was raspy these days, compliments of the heat that had seared his lungs when the cannon exploded. Which explained why his voice hadn’t sounded familiar.
He claimed I was also unrecognizable due to the shine coming off my bald pate.
So, how’d he come to be here standing in a school hallway with Quentin Pritchard’s father? Easy enough, once you got the picture. Solomon Pritchard was Billy Blakely’s younger half brother. They’d finished their morning shift at the mine, barely making it home when here come a crying young Quentin, holding both hands over his bleeding face and announcing,
“Heddy Tadson kicked dee idda doze!”
I got one a my bright ideas.
Don’t git ahead a me, okay? You know where I’m going with this, but one step at a time.
Step 1: “How are you and Solomon liking it out at the mine? Decent job?” Solomon, I thought. Mine. King Solomon’s mines. Had to tell myself to knock it off.
“It’s a living.”
“You don’t sound exactly enthused.”
“What can I say? The wages ain’t enough to git a man ahead, the shifters–the bosses–are mostly meaner’n stepped-on rattlesnakes, and the lung disease tends to kill off them the explosions don’t git.”
Explosions. This man had been blown up once already–not unlike Doug Franzen, except he’d not done it to himself and he could still walk. And he was going to work every day where another explosion was always possible? Tough man.
‘Course I knew that already. Corporal Blakely and I’d seen some hard times together.
“Huh. Wouldja like a way out?”
Billy looked at me closely. Which was going to take a bit of getting used to. “You offering?”
“Fer you, yeah.”
“Gotta bring Solomon with me. You got room fer two?”
Hadn’t thought about that. We had the room and then some, but Quentin Pritchard’s Dad?
Step 2: “Depends. Got room fer as many as three or four, actually, but they gotta be right. Would you pick your brother to cover your back in the same foxhole?”
Billy considered my question carefully. As I remembered it, that’d always been one of his best traits; he never went off half-cocked.
“I would,” he said finally, “after you but ahead of Prosser.”
Damn. That was a recommendation! I’d always kind of thought the Corporal had looked up to me during the War, but he and Jack Prosser had been about as close as two friends could git. It ought to be interesting when I told him his old comrade in arms was already working for us and had been fer some time.
“Then yes,” I nodded, “we got room fer him, too. That is, we do, depending on what Henry has to say about it.” I looked down at the boy standing quietly by my side, taking in every word.
“If we do this, Henry,” I said, “Quentin Pritchard’s gonna be living at Flywheel, too. Can you handle that?”
“I handled him purty good today,” he pointed out.
I don’t know if Dawson knew it, but I’d been sweating our manpower shortage prob’ly even harder’n he had. It was good to have Billy and Solomon–they called themselves “the B.S. brothers”–on the crew. Insanely hard workers, both of ’em. Didn’t know the first thing about cows, but they were learning fast.
“I said hold the calf’s top leg stretched back and use your boot to push against his bottom thigh,” I reminded Solomon, “not let him kick you upside the head.”
“Details, details!” the stocky man shot back, grinning while he shook his kicked head to clear it.
Learning real fast.
Of course, Dawson admitted he’d offered jobs to these two before stopping to think about the fact that Solomon Pritchard had been banging schoolteacher Lucinda Hathor every weekend fer months. Until now. Now he was working dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and it’d be this way till the end of haying season around the first of October.
Fer a single ranch hand at Flywheel, the fall hunting season had to be something close to Heaven. Best time of the year by far. Plenty of work to do–on a ranch there always is–but nothing you couldn’t put off or swap out with another hand fer a day or two. Time to ride into town on the weekends.
Lucy Hathor would have herself another man before the branding was done or I’d eat my hat.
Solomon claimed it didn’t matter. “She’s too bossy by half, anyway,” he told us, “even in the sack. Danged bedroom traffic cop, if you know what I mean. Besides, Quentin’s a whole lot more important to me than she ever could be. Ever since his Mom died, he’s had problems.”
Problems which appeared to be lessening. I heard Cougar tell the boy, “Git the loop off his neck, Quentin. Good.” My son was by far the fastest man with a lariat; the Pritchard boy was kept busy slipping the loops from the calves as they were drug to the fire.
That, plus helping Henry keep the coals hot. With three separate branding fires going, the six year old needed the help.
Dawson and Marie stopped by our place fer a nightcap before turning in. We were all dog tired and ready to rack out, but it was a good kind of tired.
“Do believe we’re gonna make it,” I remarked, pouring shots of blackberry brandy fer me and my partner. Brook and Marie stuck to a sun tea my Cheyenne wife brewed from raspberry leaves. Said it was good fer women, that tea. I’d take her word for it.
“Good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise.” Dawson put a hand over his mouth and yawned mightily.
Marie was more interested in the boys. “You do realize you men are crazy. All men, regardless of age. Did you notice how it is between Quentin and Henry now?”
“Couldn’t miss it.” He yawned again.
“The Pritchard boy is half again Henry’s age and at least half again his weight, yet it’s obvious Henry’s the leader between them two.”
“Well,” I observed with my usual wisdom, “Quentin is on Henry’s turf. Besides, it ain’t always the size a the boy in the fight, but the size a the fight in the boy.”
“That’s jist it. They ain’t fighting. Watching ’em now, it’s hard to picture a time when they were.”
“Henry jist established his dominance, honey. Like with a wolf pack, or the top mare in a horse herd. It’s the same with men.”
“Yeah, I guess. Except with you two and Coug. Ain’t no hierarchy between you three that I can see. How do you explain that?”
“Why explain it? If it works, don’t fix it. Besides, this is a discussion best postponed fer another time. I think your husband’s had enough fer one day.”
Sure enough, Dawson Trask was sound asleep in his chair, his chin on his chest and his bald head gleaming in the lamplight.