Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 98: Cooties



Fer the first time since the founding of Flywheel Ranch in the autumn of 1873, we owners found ourselves able to git a bit away from the heavy work in haying season. That is, the hired hands wielded the pitchforks, loading and unloading the hay wagons, while the bosses rode the machinery.

The bosses plus Wolf Eyes. The thirteen year old Ute warrior rode one dump rake, I rode the other, and the Tamsons handled the mowers.

We figured to double our production this summer of 1877…but it still might not be enough. Twice as much hay, but more than three times as many cows. True, this was southern Colorado, not northern Montana. We still got some weather most years, though. Iffen a bad one hit before we could git the ditcher going and start flood irrigating, which wouldn’t happen till next year….

Best not to think about it too much.

“Boys gone inside?” I asked.

“Yep,” Cougar replied. “Washed behind their ears, even.”

“Good fer them. Solomon, been meaning to tell ya, I overheard your son talking to Henry a few days ago. Figured you might want to know about it.”

“Yeah?” Solomon Pritchard and his scar-faced half brother slung their team’s harness up on the hooks. Billy went to inspecting the leather, looking fer any cracks or loose rivets or stitching that might need fixing. The sun was touching the horizon; we could expect to hear the dinner bell any minute now.

“I know you said Quentin started having problems from the time his Mom died.” To put it mildly. The nine year old–about to turn ten, come to think of it–had turned into a bully. Until Henry, now seven, had kicked him in the face and broken his nose.

“True enough. He seems to be doing better since I hired on here, though.”

“Yes he does. What I needed to tell you, what I heard him say–Sol, I ain’t calling nobody a liar, okay? This is jist what he said. He said his Mom didn’t die, that she run away with some slick-talking snake oil salesman. Said the other kids back home started teasing him something fierce about it, saying his mother was a whore and stuff like that.”

The stocky man froze fer a second, then took a deep breath and let it go. “That’s right. It’s why we moved to Walsenburg. He started getting in fights, smacking any boy that talked bad about his Mom, and sometimes a girl, too.”

“He smacked girls?”

“Sometimes. There was three or four of ’em in his school that had real potty mouths. I finally got it through to him that he couldn’t be doing that. You know, that it weren’t right no matter what. But then I found out purty quick he’d figured out a new line of attack and jist started calling them whores. Which neither they nor their parents nor the school seemed to much appreciate.”

I whistled. “That couldn’t a been a real comfortable situation fer you or Quentin.”

“You got that right. So before they run us outa town on rails, we jist up and split. Billy and I’d heard there was plenty a work in the mines around Walsenburg, so we jist come on down. Cooked up the story of Melissa dying in a train wreck, which was close enough to what I wanted to do to her right about then. Not on my own account, but because a how it impacted our son. Hope that don’t leave you thinking I’m a liar ’bout most things.”

“Not hardly. A man that won’t lie to protect his family ain’t worth mentioning. We all got secrets.” If he only knew. Flywheel was practically built on secrets. The eighty head of buffalo permanently stashed in the box canyon. My wife’s previous identity as a Wanted Dead or Alive outlaw, the notorious Trisha Cobb. Sapphire Cave and Geode Cave. Paraplegic Doug Franzen’s wife being my partner Tam’s concubine.

A dead wife turning out to be a very much alive runaway slut? Small potatoes.

Solomon closed the barn door behind us as we headed fer the house. “Kinda surprised he’d share that with Henry. Far as I know, he’s kept his lip zipped about our cover story. Till now, anyway.”

Billy spoke up. “Could be a good sign if he’s coming to trust young Tamson with his most painful secret. My Mom hated me so much she run away with a loser. Not a thing he’d want advertised to the world at large.”

Time to stop talking ’bout it. We were halfway across the yard, heading fer the wash basin. Sound carries, especially to little pitchers with big jug ears and the house windows wide open to let out the heat from the cookstoves.

The aroma of Penny’s signature pot roast wafted past us, enough in itself to underscore our good fortune. Things really were going well. Not only the haying, but the deepening friendship between the onetime bully and Tam’s grandson–and by golly, the simple fact that we lived in the West where men were men and the sheep ran scared. Out here, a man could breathe; he didn’t have to worry about all the big city backstabbing and dirty fighting that went on back East.

Or so I thought. But I been wrong before.


Supper was excellent. The news was not. Laughing Brook gave us the bad word once we were all seated and filling our plates.

“The Mercantile still doesn’t have the new stock of rivets in. Fred sent Johnny Spence out with the word.”

“The railroad strike?” I asked, already grimly sure of the answer. People were calling it the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but those of us dependent on steel and iron from Pennsylvania called it something else entirely.

“Yes. Not only has it not been settled, but now the strikers have burned Union Depot in Pittsburgh. They also destroyed a bridge that was the Reading Railroad’s only way west.”

“Damn!” I swore, then–realizing there were numerous young children present, added, “Excuse my French.”

What? The ladies? You gotta be kidding. Our wives have seen the wolf, doncha know; they could outcuss a sailor should the need arise. Even Penny, despite her devotion to that King James Bible.

Where was I…rivets. See, I cussed because we were running low on them little short rivets we use to attach a new sickle blade to the bar any time one breaks. The blade, not the bar. You can bend one a them bars, but they ain’t gonna break.

Anyway, the problem was, the rivets come from a plant in Reading.

We couldn’t wait any longer. “Anybody got any ideas where we can git a few boxes of rivets at this late date?” I asked the room at large. A rivet sounds like a small thing, sorta like a horseshoe nail. It’s only an inch long, soft iron with a round head at one end. You round the other end off by whacking it with a ballpeen hammer. Two of ’em per blade, and they’ll hold blade and bar together till you hit a rock with the moving blade.

“Willow Springs,” Cougar announced. “The other side a Raton Pass. On the Santa Fe Trail.”

“Willow Springs?” I raised an eyebrow. “Why there?”

“Met a fellow from there. He was bragging about the store they got. Don’t sound like a patch on the Merc, but he did say they stocked Buckeye mowers. Or could order ’em. If they deal with Buckeye, they gotta have rivets. Whether or not they got any left with the strike going on, who knows.”

“Huh.” It was chance, which was more’n we had at the moment. “Who feels like taking the day off tomorrow to go send this store in Willow Springs a telegram? If they got a telegraph office, that is.”


Turned out Willow Springs did have a telegraph. It also turned out to be me who took the day off, only it was gonna end up being more like four days. The store had five boxes of rivets on the shelf–well, not now they didn’t, not after promising to hold ’em fer me. They hadn’t sold the mower they had on display, so no Willow Springs rancher was going to be needing the rivets, either.

I might even see if I could steal the mower fer half price while I was at it, have it shipped back up to Walsenburg once the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was over.

“See?” My son had pointed out the obvious. “You’re the one’s gotta go. Ain’t a one of us can hold a candle to you when it comes to horse trading. Time you git done, you’ll prob’ly git the mower free and a third good-looking wife to boot.”

“I ain’t really got two wives, son. At least not on paper.”

“Noticed you didn’t say you couldn’t skin the storekeeper. Scrap says he can keep your mower going in your absence. Them mine inspectors went away plumb convinced Trickle Creek is our real source of the sapphires, so he’s got the time. Jist hang on to your hair. We’ve all gotten way too used to having a partner cover our backs when we’re away from the ranch. Git back in your Crazy Rifle warrior mode, go git us some dang rivets, and git back here.”

“Yes, Mom.”

What? Oh, no, we weren’t still at the dining room table when this conversation took place. That wouldn’t be the place to be discussing my women, not with both of ’em present and not everybody being in on our secret. No, it was jist Coug and me, shooting the breeze while I was saddling up Smokey.

I’d thought about taking a pack horse along but rejected the idea. Five boxes of rivets would fit in a saddle bag, and Smokey could flat cover ground if he weren’t encumbered with a slower nag tagging along behind. He and I could make it one way in a day iffen it was life or death. Being a little more reasonable about it, figure three days round trip, allow a fourth jist fer a margin of error, five at the outside.

Frankly, it felt damn good to be on the trail again, though–if I’d admit it to myself–it woulda been even more enjoyable having Dawson along fer the ride.

Crazy Rifle mode, my son had said. Hard to understand sometimes, how the thirteen year old white Blackfoot warrior from up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam coulda become the co-owner of the massive operation known as Flywheel Ranch of Huerfano County, Colorado.

“Whaddya think, Smokey?” I asked the horse, “Have we come a long way or what?”

“Stay sharp, boss,” I heard him answer back in my head, the first time in a long time, “I don’t like New Mexico.”

That’ll slap a man upside the head and stop his woolgathering, tell ya what! It’d been a long spell since the grulla–who’d once been the great Appaloosa stallion, Wolf–had talked to me, at least that I’d picked up…and he’d never given me a specific advance warning before. Raton Pass and Willow Springs were in New Mexico all right, but what the–?

This horse had never even been in New Mexico that I knew of. How could he not like it?


The run south was a piece a cake. Uncle Dick Wootton took his 25-cent toll to use his 27 miles of improved road, which he’d earned and then some. I camped in a patch of willows–what else–jist outside a town, if you could call Willow Springs a town. Folks in the area still had to git their mail at the Clifton House, though there was talk of a proper Post Office being authorized soon, maybe next year.

Me and Smokey finished our business at the Mercantile and were headed back toward the pass by midmorning. The rivets were safely tucked in the saddle bags, but I hadn’t got the Buckeye mower fer free. It ended up costing us thirty-four percent of retail, and there weren’t no good-looking woman involved in the transaction.

I was slipping.

This time, when I stopped to give Uncle Dick his two bits, he give me back a word to the wise.

“Two rounders passed through about an hour ahead of you, cowboy. Bad hombres.”

“Bad how?” I asked, shoving my hat back on my head to free my brain fer thinking. There’s bad, and then there’s bad.

“Every direction. Bad eyes, the kind that speak of fellows happiest when they’re raping men and killing women. Even the flies wouldn’t settle on ’em.”

“Smell bad?”

“That too.”

“Easy to recognize at a distance?”

“I should think. Both wearing greasy shirts under wornout bib overalls over logger’s boots, fer starters.”

“That’s some helluva getup fer horseback traveling.”

“Never said horseback. One’s on a mule meaner’n a pack a rabid wolves, and the other, the littler of the two, is riding a danged donkey. Of all things.”

“Huh. Well, I do appreciate the heads up, Dick. You take tips?”

“Does a soldier sleep when he gits the chance?”

I flipped him a double eagle and watched his eyes widen. Dawson got me started doing that, toss a man twenty dollars whenever you know he’s jist gone outa his way to pass you a piece of information that might actually keep you alive.

Smokey and I were almost outa earshot when he called out after us, “Buffalo gun!”

I waved back at him, signed my thanks, and moved on. Uncle Dick Wootton was a good man. Never charged the Indians to use his road.

Crazy Rifle mode. Alert, wary, wide awake and paranoid. I took the hammer thong off my .45 Colt and loosened the big revolver in its holster, but if them two had a buffalo gun, I’d not likely git a chance to use it. They’d work from a bit longer range, give themselves every edge.

The .44-40 Winchester came outa the scabbard, got a round levered into the chamber and an extra added to the tube. My senses extended themselves, seeking, covering the entire area as far as the horizon–which in this country weren’t always all that far.

Men like them two, if they could be called men, were well known in the West. Too dark and evil by half to be tolerated in any town big enough to have its own lawman, they roamed the fringes. Not so much the truly wild places, though they’d go there at need, but the edges, prowling like prairie wolves following a buffalo herd, endlessly analyzing, seeking the careless calf away from its mother or the sick or the wounded.

Or the alone.

They might not be watching their backtrail at all, I thought, followed by, Yeah, ri-ight.

Fer this type, watching yer backtrail was a way of life.

Coug had been right. We’d gotten spoiled, complacent, lazy. Yes, it was 1877. Yes, the Comanche Wars were done with and the Utes mostly corraled onto the Reservation. Yes, Walsenburg was growing into quite the civilized town.

But this still wasn’t a country where debutantes had cotillions and dirty deals were done behind gleaming smiles. The rough edges out here were still mighty close to the surface.

Sometimes right out in the open.

I never saw the shooter, jist the smoke. “Go!” I yelled, lying down over Smokey’s neck and digging in the spurs. He coulda done without the spurs, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The big slug tugged at my shirt. Took some skin and meat with it. Maybe even bone. I couldn’t tell fer sure, didn’t have time jist right this moment to do a full analysis.

“Doc is gonna be pissed,” I thought, “iffen those bastards messed up that shoulder.”

He would, too. Never mind the surgical repair had already lasted more’n 25 years; Doc Chouteau could be narrow minded about such things.

We tore straight ahead, the grulla going flat out. I’d never owned a faster horse; at full scat he had to be topping forty miles an hour. The drygulchers obviously weren’t the brightest stars in the galaxy; when we shot passed the bear shaped boulder I’d dubbed (duh) Bear Rock, I seen the smaller badman with his jaw hanging open, jist stashed behind the big chunka granite, holding his ass–his donkey I mean, and the bigger man’s mule.

Which somehow sounds kinda gay when I think about it, but that’s not–never mind.

We were around the next turn in the road and outa sight before the sniper could reload his big single shot. I straighened up in the saddle then, eased Smokey back to a lope, but didn’t pull up till we’d put another couple miles behind us.

The shoulder was bleeding, but not a fatal amount. Not quite. Finger-probing the wound come close to making me vomit from the pain, but it told me what I needed to know. Flesh wound mostly, very slight groove along the bone, but no obvious fracture. I could use the hand and forearm almost normally iffen I kept the elbow tucked in tight. Extending the arm to grip the forend on my rifle was outa the question, but that was no problem.

This was gonna be short gun work anyway.

Yeah, I know. I coulda jist bandaged the shoulder and headed on home. But them two-bit tinhorns were headed north, toward Walsenburg.

I didn’t intend for ’em to git there.


“We run outa rivets about midafternoon,” Dawson said, “but managed to git through the rest a the day on the spare bars. Barely.”

“So I got here in time. That’s good.”

“Honey,” my beloved Cheyenne wife chided gently, “it’s good you got here, period.”

“What’d you do with the bodies?” Coug wanted to know. “Shoot, shovel and shut up?”

“Not exactly. You know I was traveling light, didn’t have no shovel with me. So I jist laid a loop on ’em one at a time and drug ’em off a couple hunnert yards into the brush. The scavengers will clean ’em up right enough.”

“Sounds like you had fun, Dad,” Penny grinned at me. The big redhead married to my son might be a Bible thumper, but she was a woman warrior through and through.

“Kinda sorta,” I admitted, “although….”

“You coulda done without getting shot?”

“…no. It ain’t that. It’s not like I ain’t been shot before, and Doc says the shoulder will heal okay. Though we’re gonna have to leave Scrap on the mower fer a while. It’s jist that I had to leave my best rope behind. It was jist getting broke in right, too.

“But I weren’t about to hang that riata back on the saddle after it’d been contaminated by dragging them two stinking rounders. Mighta give me and Smokey the cooties.”

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