Scrap Hannigan was about as dirty a man as we’d ever seen.
No, no, not usually. Jist today. He’d come straight over the ridge and down to see us. It was that important.
Cougar, Tam, and I caught his look and excused ourselves from the table. Only the three of us–plus my wife, Marie–knew about the lost Inca gold our mine manager had discovered deep inside Sapphire Cave. Tam hadn’t even told Laughing Brook, and Coug had agreed with us that his redheaded, worry prone wife simply didn’t need to know.
But something was up. One-eyed, underground-loving Hannigan might be a tad crazy when it come to holes in the ground, but he didn’t usually show up fer supper looking like he’d been dipped in dirt.
We picked my house fer our conference.
“I found it,” he said, staring at his hands as if suddenly realizing he’d neglected to clean up before coming down to the main house.
“The entrance?” I asked, but he couldn’t mean anything else. We four had all agreed it didn’t make sense to try figuring out what to do about the gold till we figured out how the treasure had gotten so deep inside our mountain.
“The entrance. We knew there had to be a back way in, and sure enough, there is. The part of Sapphire Cave that ends up in the Gold Room is the terminus fer literally miles of passageways. As you all know, exploring those is my excuse fer not showing up fer days on end. I jist git lost in my work. So to speak. Fergit to notice the passage of time.”
We all nodded, more to be polite than anything else. Hannigan’s obsession with cave exploration was one of his primary personality traits.
“Well…time to quit stalling, I reckon. Here’s the thing: Like I said, I found the entrance, pops right up in the middle of a stand of scub juniper more’n three miles north of here.”
“That means….” Cougar’s look of dawning horror echoed the expression on his father’s face and the sudden sense of dread in my own heart.
“Yep.” Scrap nodded, solemn as a preacher at a funeral. “The main opening to the eighth wonder of the world, the arrow pointed straight at the heart of the treasure hiding under Flywheel Ranch…is smack dab in the middle of JG property.”
JG. Justin Goss. The cattle baron who had more reason to hate us than jist about anybody else on the planet. If his hands ever found that cave entrance–and sooner or later they were bound to–Goss would send men in to explore the thing.
If those men found the Inca gold, they’d steal ever last piece and conveniently forget to mention they’d cleaned out a treasure room rightfully belonging to either Flywheel or the government, depending on who you talked to.
“We have to block that passageway,” I blurted out.
Please understand, I don’t usually blurt. There was simply that much urgency attached to Scrap’s discovery.
There was no discussion. One thing about Flywheel management: Tamson, Trask, and Tamson don’t none of us generally require a lot of explanation when a crisis looms and it’s time fer action.
Naturally, it fell to me to help Hannigan do the dynamite thing.
The entire case of T.N.T. was strung out along a hunnert yards of tall, thin, breeze-filled passage. We hadn’t talked about the amount being exactly what Doug Franzen had used to blow himself to cripplehood. Doug hadn’t had a clue what he was doing; Scrap had been blowing rock fer close to twenty-five years.
Hannigan’s expertise was the good part. The bad part was that sure enough, word was a Goss hand had in fact found the cave opening in the juniper grove. How he’d done it hadn’t been mentioned. We had a sneaking hunch the cowboy had snuck into them junipers with the idea of tying off his nag and sneaking a nap on company time…only to come across the opening he’d never expected. At least, the cowboy had that sort of rep among his peers.
The how of it didn’t matter. Goss had delegated a crew of his less fearful employees to go spelunking, figure out what they’d found.
The good news: The cattle baron played true to type, sending in three of his existing hands instead of spending the money to hire miners who at least had some familiarity with rock formations and close underground spaces. The pissed-off cowboys, forced to abandon their horses and the wide open spaces, were taking their time.
The bad news: The narrow passageway Scrap had chosen as the best spot for blasting…wasn’t that far in from the Goss opening. We couldn’t see their lights yet, but we could hear ’em coming.
We were out of time.
Scrap lit the spitter cord and we backed off. Not twenty yards like Doug Franzen done. More like three hunnert and twenty yards, which included a dozen twists and turns.
The rolling boom, when it came, sounded both distant and somehow kinda…comforting.
I looked at my fearless underground leader. “Think we killed anybody?”
He shrugged. “No way to tell till we see what the word is in Walsenburg. They were getting close enough, we might have.”
“Be a bitch,” I mused, “if we ended up blasting an innocent man. Or men.”
“You think so? Way I hear it, them are two things that don’t go together.”
“The word innocent and a man working fer Goss. Them hands know damn well what their boss is, and they mostly ain’t one bit better. Wouldn’t bother me if we did git ever one of ’em.”
“There is that,” I agreed. “What say we trek back to Flywheel, give Tam and Coug the good news.”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
The newspaper article said it all.
Disappearance Cave Discovered On JG Ranch Property
Area rancher Justin Goss, owner of the JG, reported today that a previously unknown cave had been discovered on his southern range. The opening is large enough for a man to enter if he stoops a bit, and the underground cavern appears to extend for quite some distance in numerous directions.
Unfortunately, three men who were assigned yesterday to explore this natural marvel have not returned. They were expected to spend the morning charting what they could–if the cave extended far enough to require the entire morning–then report their findings to their boss in the early afternoon.
The mysterious disappearance of their three comrades has left the remaining JG employees noticeably unwilling to enter the hole in Mother Earth, even in an attempt to discover the fate of their fellows….
“Yep,” I passed the paper to Coug. “We blasted ’em, all right.”
Bad news: One a them fish-outa-water cave explorers mighta truly been an innocent.
Good news: The blast hadn’t been heard on the surface. All Goss and his goons knew was that three men had vanished without a trace, which led to the naming of Disappearance Cave.
“Law of unintended consquences,” Tam observed. “Looks like you two not only blocked the passageway like you intended, but you also spawned a legend. Wouldn’t surprise me if folks stayed too spooked to go in there fer a good long time.”
Trust Scrap Hanningan to go and spoil the party. “No celebrating yet.”
“Why not?” I asked. “It’s pretty clear we jist murdered three of ol’ Justin’s favorite pet murderers, and maybe we’ll have to answer to the Judge of the Dead fer that, come the day. But nobody’s coming through that way ever again.”
“That’s jist it,” the miner noted.
“Nobody’s coming through that way ever again. But who’s to say there ain’t another way in? Or a dozen of ’em?”
I stared at the one-eyed man. “Hannigan, you would have to come up with that.”
He shrugged. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. All I’m saying is, we ain’t outa the woods yet.”
The blizzard hit with a vengeance. Fortunately, at least as far as we knew, everybody was under cover or close to it when the wind picked up to a wild howl, driving the snow before it in an absolute whiteout. Scrap Hannigan was either in his cabin or deep inside Sapphire Cave–you never knew which.
Over the other side of the mountains, Flywheel/Morgan was on its own. With top hands like Daniel Morgan and Jack Prosser watching over the others, though, they should be all right. Hattie Morgan Prosser was expecting finally, this bitter cold January in the year 1878, and Slim Morgan no doubt found pleasure in the charms of his beloved wife, the forcibly reformed black widow poisoner, Clarisse.
The Ute Box Boys had plenty of firewood and buffalo meat to sustain them in their little cabin, and they knew not to make their usual rounds watching over the seed herd when the weather got like this. Four men and a boy in the bunkhouse, seven Souls in the Cougar and Penny Tamson household, four Souls in the Trask home, and seventeen necessary horses, both teams and saddle stock, in the barn.
Which left, in our house, Laughing Brook and me in the main part with Doug and Elly Franzen in the addition. I’d be be bringing Elly in fer a while, later in the night, after Doug had turned out his light. Young Mrs. Franzen had her own bedroom, and I coulda done her there, but there seemed no need to force the man to listen to me banging his woman even if he was totally deaf–which I sometimes doubted.
Fortunately, Brook didn’t mind me mounting the younger female in the office, what had once been the Trask bedroom. I’d long since installed a cot in there fer the purpose. My wife could hear us coupling, of course, but she was Cheyenne and had been slave to the Blackfeet. The sound was familiar to her and then some.
My beloved mate, fer whom I’d waited some twenty-one years, sat with me in the kitchen, munching cherry pie, sipping coffee, and watching the snowflakes swirl against the blackness of the window.
“How’d we come to this, honey?” I asked. I was truly bewildered.
“How’d we come to what, Crazy Rifle?”
“This…little empire of which I guess you could say we’re a ruling part. You know, I never saw it coming. Look at all these people we got depending on us–on the three main Flywheel owners and their wives. I guess what I’m saying is, how the Hell did that ever happen?”
“It bothers you?”
Just then, a flash of white came hurtling out of the blackness, smashing hard —whump!– against the window…and was gone.
“Snowy owl,” I breathed, suddenly reverent. “Way away from its usual stomping grounds.”
“Yes,” Laughing Brook agreed. “Get the message?”
“Never mind. I hear something besides the wind. What’s that sound?” She went to the door, opening it to let in a blast of frigid air and swirling snow…plus a small form in mottled fur that came tumbling in with the wind.
“Lynette!” My beloved exclaimed in delight, moving to scoop up the half-frozen little critter.
“That ain’t no lynx, so it can’t be Lynette Lynx,” I pointed out. “That’s a bobcat.”
“So? She is Lynette come back to us. Reincarnation. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
The bobkitten had already decided Brook was the cat’s meow. It–she? Okay, she was kneading her little claws (on those oversized bobkitten feet) against her rescuer’s left breast and purring fit to wake the dead.
“Honey, Lynette Bobcat jist don’t sound right. Becky Bobcat, maybe.”
“Okay. But she’s still Lynette, from up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam, come back to us in this new form. You know it’s true.”
The thing was, I did know it was true. The great Appaloosa stud had come back to me in the form of the scat-fast grulla gelding, Smokey. Medicine Coyote had made a similar jump. Why not Lynette Lynx?
That’s when it hit me.
If other animals did this all the time, then why wouldn’t human animals do the same? Especially those rare human animals who simply have too much to offer the world to be left outa the loop. Like, say, an old mountain man whose unique combination of luck, skill, and ferocity had allowed him to take on the U.S. Army–jist fer example–and win.
“Brook,” I said in a soft tone that instantly brought her gaze to meet mine, “It ain’t only Lynnette Lynx. Believer’s back.”
“Oh my God,” she breathed, her eyes going wide. “Felix!”