All right, all right. You folks have been poking at me, reminding me how remiss I been in failing to tell what we found in the cave where Doug Franzen blew himself to paraplegic status. That, plus what Scrap Hannigan come across in Sapphire Cave that he wanted me to see. Even Becky put in her two cents worth.
Which does make a difference. Becky’s got a way about her.
Let’s git the Franzen situation outa the way first. When Scrap and I checked out that one, the one over the other side a the mountains where Doug ignorantly touched off an entire case a dynamite while standing jist twenty yards away from the blast site, we took a full day off to do it.
Most a that, though, was riding over and riding back. The cave itself weren’t nothing to brag about.
That is, once you bent over and eased on in through the five-foot hole the dynamite had made, you could see all there was to see with our two miner’s lamps. I’m not saying the thing don’t go nowhere, but we found ourselves in a relatively small room of dull, gray granite. It was tall enough to stand straight in…and that was about it. Roughly eight feet wide at the start, maybe seven high, but tapering down rapidly to an eighteen-inch back wall some twenty feet in.
A good hole to know about, jist in case you ever needed to find shelter from a blizzard some day, but no more’n that.
Doug Franzen had dynamited himself fer nothing.
Naturally, never willing to let a man forget his foolishness regardless of how bad he was already suffering for it, we started calling the place Dynamite Cave. There really jist weren’t nothing else to remember it by.
The new find in Sapphire Cave was another matter.
Scrap showed me that find on the day Tam, Bodeen, and the boys were busy slaughtering the four buffalo to take to the Reservation. “Go on,” the tale teller had said. “Iffen two mostly white men and four Utes ain’t enough to process a few buffs, we’d best be turning in our skinning knives. Go see what this one-eyed, hole-crawling bandit’s got up his sleeve this time.”
Which was his way of showing affection fer our mine manager. They went way back, Scrap and Tam did, dozens of years ago to the rough and tumble docks of Bellevue, Nebraska.
“I found this passage about a month back.” Hannigan slithered through the tiny opening like a snake going down a burrow after a prairie dog. My shoulders were some wider, which made the fit new-boot tight, but I finally managed to scrape on through after him.
Thankfully, the thing opened up considerably after a few feet. Not enough to stand straight, but duck-walking was way better’n being rock-squeezed on your belly. It woulda been nice to know how much farther we had to go, but I didn’t ask. Wouldn’t be the manly thing to do. Fellow’s gotta protect his image.
Turned out it was nearly half a mile, winding around and up and down. But no more tight squeezes, so I weren’t complaining.
Finally, after a sorta corkscrew twist up and over a rock fault, we come to a huge room, near forty by sixty feet, with a ceiling three times the height of a tall man. Down the center of the thing–and only the center, which made no sense, but there it was– a dozen or more stalactites and stalagmites grew toward each other. But that weren’t what Scrap wanted me to see.
Somebody’s breathing had gone crazy. Took a minute or more to realize it was me.
The room was full of gold.
Okay, not quite…but that’s the way it hit me. There must be–“Scrap, how many…how much…”
“Yeah, Dawson, it hit me that way the first time I seen it, too. Nobody but me here talking to myself, and I still couldn’t form a coherent sentence.” He stepped over to what looked like a golden curtain, or maybe a drapery. Whichever, it was a piece of “cloth” made outa the yellow metal, thin as spider silk, maybe ten feet by fourteen. There were several of those hung around the room, more than enough excuse fer me thinking the walls were made of the stuff.
Beyond that, there were artifacts–I guess you’d call ’em artifacts. Nothing like ’em being made today, anyway. There were artifacts of every imaginable sort. Gold cups. Crazy looking gold masks, some with a downright evil mien and some seeming highly amused. One of the amused pieces, a foot-high bust of a man with some kinda tight headwrap and huge ears….
“Looks a little like Tam, don’t he?”
Hannigan laughed. “Hadn’t picked up on that, but I see what you mean.”
I needed a place to sit down. Looked around. There weren’t any, so I jist plunked my butt down on the cool rock floor. Put together, standing up and taking all this in was too much to handle. “I know you ain’t been sitting on your hands about this, jist waiting on me to come take a gander. Do you have any idea how–where–why–.”
“Try breathing deep and thinking about women,” Scrap grinned.
“Does that work?”
“…’Cause when I try that, all I can see on my inner vision is gold-wrapped women.”
“Dawson, what do you think we should do about this?”
“What do you mean?”
“…Uh…let me back up a sec. You don’t know, do you?”
“This is the lost gold of the Incas. Some of it.”
Hm. That did make sense. I vaguely remembered hearing about that in school, which was remarkable, considering how much I’d hated studying history back then. Never read about it; hadn’t learned to read yet. Drove the teacher nuts.
So it was mostly listening, looking at pictures in the books, and faking it the best I could. Which was something; I did soak up a bit here and there. Down Peru way, the Spaniards, Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, had murdered the Hell outa the Incas back in the 1500’s. Or was that de Soto?
Didn’t matter. I couldn’t tell one Spaniard from another, anyway. They all look alike.
But…”The Spaniards, when they stole the gold from the Incas, don’t the history books say they melted it all down into bars and/or coins?”
“Yep. So they say. ‘Course, we know how reliable the history books are.”
“But these things haven’t been melted down.”
“Figured that out fer yourself, did you?” The one-eyed man pulled out the makings, rolled a couple, scratched a match to life on the seat of his pants, and lit ’em up.
Passed one to me. Guess he figured rolling my own might be beyond me fer the moment.
He was right. I took a drag, blew some a the smoke back out through my nose, and finally got my question formed. “I git the Inca gold part. How do you suppose it got here?”
“I’m guessing by pack train. There’s more rooms beyond this one. Rooms galore, in fact. At this point, I’m thinking there’s another way in here, one that don’t require a man to do the snake crawl to make the journey. Ain’t found it yet, but I’ll keep working on it.
“In the next room beyond this one, there’s three skeletons. I’m guessing they were Incas, loyal subjects of their royal emperor, who maybe figured out jist how bad the Spaniards really were. Probably after that emperor got garroted by Pizarro’s bunch fer making the mistake a thinking gold was jist fer admiring and metalworking instead a greed.”
“Hm.” I thought about that, now that my mind had settled down enough I could think at all. “The Incas had never seen horses before the Spaniards come. How on God’s green Earth could they have cobbled up a pack train?”
“Hard saying,” my friend shrugged, “but necessity is the mother of invention. It’s known Pizarro taught a few Inca boys to talk Spanish so’s they could interpret for him–badly, no doubt, but he did it. Maybe they also learned how horses work.”
“Huh. You realize word a this can’t git out.”
The Spaniards had destroyed a mighty empire for this gold. People–white people, anyway–were absolutely, insanely gold crazy. I knew one man, a distant relative actually, who’d been murdered fer the gold in his teeth. Not the brightest criminal who’d done it, they hung him, but it makes the point.
If word did git out–ever–Flywheel Ranch would cease to exist.
“Know why I asked you specifically to come see this?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Tell me.”
“Because, Sergeant Dawson Trask, you got a feeling fer things, including the inner workings a Mother Earth. I do believe you’re nearly as much at home in here as I am. Now Tam, Lord knows I love him like a brother, but his fear of holes in the ground will never let him come see this, specially not the way you and I done it. Cougar ain’t much better–Tamson family trait, maybe. Daniel Morgan might have the sand fer it, but that triple wide body a his–”
He stopped. Had to, ’cause I was laughing too hard to listen, picturing 400 pounds of arthritic old shootist trying to squeeze through that little crack in the rock.
“Well,” I mused, “I reckon Tam and Coug gotta be told, them being my equal partners and all. But beyond that…we done damn well so far, keeping our many secrets secret, but this one…Hannigan, I don’t even know if the women should be told. One woman especially.”
“You’re thinking a Coug’s wife? Penny?”
“She might decide the only Christian thing to do was tell the world? Or something?”
“Well…I don’t believe our redhead would talk outa school. Bible thumper or no Bible thumper, she ain’t like that. It’s jist that she gits to worrying about things you’d never think would cross her mind to worry about.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll leave that up to you. By bringing you here, I figure I done my duty. Notified one a the owners and all. Jist let me know what you decide so’s I can keep my story straight.”
“I’ll do that. And Scrap?”
“If and when you do ever find the other end a this thing, the hidden entrance, you be sure and let me know.”
He nodded. “Dawson, iffen a mouse farts in this cave, I’ll let you know. On that you can rely.”
Thanks fer waiting fer the story. I was saying about Wolf Eyes, the thirteen year old Ute warrior and Flywheel Ranch hand we come to find out was actually fourteen and in lust with a lovely young lass from Squirrel Talker’s band on the Rez. Girl’s name is Summer Wind, which sounds good unless it meant she was full a hot air.
I didn’t ask.
Mostly, I figured if we were going to help Wolf get his girl, we needed to know what we were up against. Dawson, Bodeen, and I didn’t have all winter to play courtship games; we needed to pack up our new batch of Ute Box Boys and git fer home. So I hunted up our friend Loud in Battle, the mischievous bastard whose life we’d once saved and who’d later handed the killer bronc Malo over to Wolf with no warning but a twinkle in his eye.
Figured the man owed me one.
Coulda asked the young warrior himself about Ute courtship and marriage practices, but you jist can’t trust a fellow who’s head over heels fer a particular splittail. He’s unrational, like me waiting fer Laughing Brook some twenty-one years while Believer was banging her and raising our sons. Never trust a young man in love.
Loud in Battle was happy to see me. “Come! Sit!” He enthused, “We will feast!” Which we did, served by a woman I didn’t bother to identify. I didn’t bother to point out his feast was mostly made up of buffalo meat we’d gifted to the band, either. We ate well…and I gathered the intelligence we needed.
“Marriage between close relatives is forbidden,” the warrior explained, “but only to the level of second cousins. Summer Wind and Wolf Eyes are…fourth cousins, I believe, so he’s okay there.”
“Yes…it is preferred that a wife is chosen from another band…but not required. No one will raise that as a serious issue.”
“That’s also good.”
“Yes, but there is one thing that is not good. Our men, when they marry, almost always go to the wife’s band to live. Which cannot be in the case of Wolf Eyes marrying Summer Wind, since he has chosen to live with no band at all but rather among the whites.”
There was a bitterness in his voice when he said this. Fer the first time, I realized Wolf’s choice to hire on permanently with Flywheel must be seen as a sort of betrayal by his people. He was, I suspected, resented for his success as much as anything else.
Well, I could use that, too.
“All right,” Dawson checked back over his shoulder, making extra sure we were far enough from the Ute camp to be safe talking, “out with it.”
“Out with what?” I asked a bit too innocently. Behind us, Lance Point worked the reins on the team pulling the freight wagon carrying our latest Box Boy contingent. Sure enough, Lance–like Wolf Eyes before him–was hiring on permanently. Bodeen flanked the wagon on the left, with Wolf on the right and his new bride riding her pony sedately behind him, following her man like a good woman should.
“Out with how you convinced the band to okay Summer Wind coming with us. And why Wolf still ain’t bringing back his palomino stud. All of it.”
“Oh, out with that. Let’s see…the stud part first. Fer that, I gotta give Wolf the credit; the whole plan was entirely his idea.”
“Except you executed it.”
“True. First, I had to go on and on about how mean, rotten, and nasty the band had been, palming off such a horrible horse–Malo–as a loaner while the palomino was humping mares all year. Purty much called ’em all lower’n snakes’ bellies without quite insulting ’em enough to force ’em to fight.”
“Yeah. But see, Wolf didn’t want the stud back. He’s got himself one helluva ride in Malo. So he authorized me to use my tale telling skills to turn that fact to advantage. Which I done.
“Loud in Battle was right; her family didn’t much like the idea of Summer Wind heading off to white man land, never mind that I’m an eighth Comanche, Brook’s a hunnert percent Cheyenne, and we got at the moment five young Utes on the property to boot. To them, it’s still white man land.
“But–and this is key–Summer’s mama ain’t got no man. Her husband divorced her years ago, after birthing her first and only daughter messed up her baby making machinery. Divorced her on the grounds of sterility, no less.”
“Huh.” Dawson rubbed his stubbled chin, thinking. “Can’t see me divorcing Marie fer something like that.”
“Cowboy, you wouldn’t divorce your Hija de la Puesta del Sol fer all the rice in China. But you ain’t Ute. They do things like that. Some of ’em do, anyway.
“So, I studied on it some, and it occurred to me, iffen the woman couldn’t git her a second husband on the basis of her looks–which ain’t that bad–because a not being able to have no more kids, I was betting there was one way she could have her pick of the young bucks.”
“Don’t tell me.” Dawson shaded his eyes. A moment later, so did I. We were headed straight into the rising sun. Iffen you ain’t ever done that with the sunshine bouncing off new fallen snow, you don’t know the meaning a glare.
“Don’t tell you what?”
“You got Wolf to offer her some a them colts that’ll be dropping here shortly–the palomino’s first crop on them Ute mares–in exhange fer family approval.”
“You’re almost right. He didn’t offer her some a them colts. He offered all of ’em.”
That got his attention. “All of ’em?”
“Why not? They ain’t been born yet, but when they are, she’ll be a rich woman in Ute terms. Certainly rich enough to attract her a man or two.”
“Huh. Let’s see if I got this straight. The palomino will be breeding the mares again, now that he’s staying another year. In the meantime, you got the Utes to permanently give Wolf the horse he secretly wanted…got ’em to agree to another batch of colts as another exorbitant set a stud fees…and got Summer’s mama to approve her leaving the nest in return fer horses that ain’t even been born yet?”
“Damn. Tall tale teller my bony rear end. Shoulda named you Slick Sale Seller.”
“It’s all in you you put it, Dawson” my partner pointed out. “It’s all in how you put it.”