The blizzard brought a lot of changes as well as a lot of snow to Flywheel Ranch. Becky Bobcat, the sharp-clawed little furball who’d tumbled in Tam’s front door in the middle of it, fer example.
Paraplegic gem cutter Doug Franzen, living with his wife in the addition accessed via the kitchen, now had to keep the door to their quarters closed iffen he didn’t want his sapphires randomly scattered and hidden all over the place. Laughing Brook was crazy about that cat, though, and Tam seemed comfortable having a curious kitten plus cat hair all over the place.
Me? I jist hoped that crazy critter didn’t start giving my Marie and the kids no ideas about importing a pet of their own.
Beyond the bobkitten move-in, the most dramatic result of the storm was the roof shakes getting torn off both the bunkhouse and the little addition we’d tacked on the east side to provide private living space fer Wolf Eyes and his bride, Summer Wind. Cougar had split them shakes personally, and he took their loss personally as well.
Weirdly enough, none of the other buildings had lost a single shingle despite the fact we’d applied them suckers in exactly the same way on ever roof in the yard. It was a puzzlement till we finally figured out the shingle nails we’d used on the bunkhouse (and addition) were an off brand, cut a quarter inch shorter than those we’d applied elsewhere. Apparently, that little bit of difference had been enough fer the wind to rip a shingle loose. After which, it (the wind) had a toehold and started prying ’em up, up and away by the hundreds.
Sixteen degrees above at high noon, and here we were trying to round up enough shakes to redo the roofing job.
Which didn’t work, so the bunch of us finally give up and jist tarped both roofs. The tarps would hold at least some of the warm air from the woodstoves inside, thawing out a batch a shivering cowboys and one grateful young bride.
What? Oh…yeah, that did come out wrong didn’t it? Summer Wind wasn’t a grateful young bride to all them cowboys, jist one of ’em.
Then there was the problem Ute Box Boy. This year, the third annual group of three kids from the Reservation were Green Hopper, Little Bird, and Thumper. Two of the three were working out just fine, making daily–and in good weather twice daily–circuits of the rim overlooking the seed buffalo we were hiding from an America determined to exterminate ’em.
One of the boys was not working out. Little Bird wanted to go home, and it was affecting his work. The others could not trust him to have their backs.
“He’s a Mama’s boy,” Wolf Eyes explained. “Always has been. Lance Point and I have known him from birth. We suspected it was a setup when Squirrel Talker selected him to join us this year.”
“A setup?” Tam asked. I could see the irritation starting to build in the tale teller. He’s about the most even tempered man I know, our Crazy Rifle is, until it’s time fer him to be otherwise, but he don’t take kindly to being played fer a fool.
“Yeah. Most of the members of our band thought it was great when you conquered Malo for me, but some of the leaders–Squirrel Talker especially–were angry that a white rancher had turned the tables on them. That is, you know, Malo was supposed to either buck me off or make me turn tail, which would have been a great joke at our expense.”
I found this interesting. “You mean–you’re saying Little Bird was picked because Squirrel Talker figured he’d wimp out–”
“Like he’s always done his whole life.”
“–like he’s always done his whole life. And now, with the first really big blizzard putting three foot a snow on the ground, he’s doing jist that?”
“To what point?”
“Fer one thing, Ute humor. You having to take a month off in midwinter to escort him back to his people in disgrace? To the Chief, that would be a great thing to see. In the eyes of our people, Flywheel would never be able to live it down.
“Plus, Little Bird’s family would never be able to live it down, either. Elk Stalker would be a good Chief, I think, maybe better than Squirrel Talker–why do you laugh?”
“Nothing, Wolf. It’s jist…it doesn’t rhyme in Ute. Go on.”
Tam decided he’d heard enough. “We’re not about to let that canny old bugger win a round. Coug, would you mind riding into town tomorrow? I would, but–”
“Sure, I can do that. To what purpose?”
“I’d like you to place an ad in the paper. We’re about to host the First Annual Flywheel Tale Telling Competition and Free Buffalo Feed, the one and only day of the year the ranch is open to the public. Come one, come all.”
Later, when it was jist the two of us fer a few seconds and could be discussed without being overheard, I asked, “You ain’t worried somebody’ll ask about where that buff meat come from?”
“Nope,” he grinned. “I’ll have a tale ready fer that if it comes up. Besides, ain’t you ever heard about hiding in plain sight?”
Which is how we come to start the tradition.
All three fire pits were blazing merrily. Yesterday, we’d hooked a team to the Brazel snowplow and cleared a big space, more’n half the ranch yard, and the place was packed. People had come from Walsenburg itself, but also from a goodly number of the area ranches.
Nobody’d ever thought to celebrate anything in the middle of January before, at least that we’d heard. The idea was jist crazy enough, and the idea of free all-you-could-eat meat jist irresistible enough, that the turnout had been spectacular.
“Close to three hunnert, I’d say,” Dawson said around a mouthful of buffalo backstrap.
“Close,” I agreed, and headed over to the stage to speak my piece. Folks had been eating and visiting and telling lies–both on the impromptu platform we’d rigged fer the official tale tellers and in little clumps–since around ten a.m. Some fine storytellers in the mix, too, though none who could shake a stick at the grandaddy of all liars. Without the fabled Jim Bridger around to give me a run fer my money, I was the big dog on this hunt.
‘Course, most a the audience didn’t know that yet, but they were about to. By design, I’d be the last speaker. Then the sun would set, and all these fine people would head fer home, freezing their butts to saddles or wrapped up like mummies in horse drawn sleighs and hay wagons, all under the light of a full moon.
That was the timing: We’d likely do this every year from now on, timed fer the January full moon.
When I walked up there, folks started noticing and begun to quiet down, waiting to see if my storytelling matched up to its reputation.
I told ’em the Tale of Two Birds, going full out with my gestures in plains sign language as well as projecting my voice the way former actor Martin Cross had taught me. Three hunnert Souls out there, but only one I was truly trying to reach, a homesick little Ute boy who meant more to us in any number of ways than he knew.
The Tale of Two Birds, as I told it to the crowd
“Once upon a time in a far-off land, there were two little birds who were the best of friends. Not brothers, fer they came from different nests, but close as brothers, yes they were. Liitle Finch and Little Sparrow spent their days flitting here and there, intermittently hopping along on the ground, hunting and pecking fer seeds.
“They hadn’t a care in the world, or so they thought. There were no foxes in that land, no coyotes or weasels or bobcats or rabid skunks. Life was good. They thought it would go on forever…till one day Boss Bird gave ’em the word. He was big and fat, with a chip outa his beak and a chip on his shoulder, but he did well fer the flocks. When BB spoke, young chicks listened
“Youngsters,” he told ’em, “it’s time fer you to go to work.”
“Sparrow and Finch were puzzled. What is this word, work? they thought.
“They were soon to find out.
“Our best birdbrains have foreseen that many Army Colonels will someday attack Indian camps,” they were told. “How two of those camps fare when the attacks come will depend on you who serve as sentinels.”
“Sentinels? the little birds wondered. What is this sentinels?
“Little Sparrow was sent to serve with the Oglala medicine man, Sitting Bull, while Little Finch was commissioned as lookout fer Heavy Runner, a Chief of the Piegan, up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam. Both were proud of their new status and chirped loudly about it, though of course nobody listened. Unless they really had something to say, no one really cared what two little birds were going on about.
“Until the attacks came, that is. Then they cared. Colonel Yellow Hair Custer is riding fast against you, Little Sparrow chirped in Sitting Bull’s ear. The great Oglala leader heard and prepared, Yellow Hair died, and the Sioux lived.
“To this day, among the Oglala and even the Lakota, you will find proud warriors named Little Sparrow. It is not the size of the bird in the fight, but the size of the fight in the bird.
“Not so with Little Finch. That little bird had become overwhelmingly homesick, wishing only for his mother’s nest, to shelter under his mother’s wings and take comfort from her warm, birdy breast. So homesick was he that when Colonel Baker came against Heavy Runner’s band of Piegan, he chirped not a cheep. He simply did not care, and ignored the slaughter that followed.
“Thus it was that Chief Heavy Runner could not say A little birdie told me. Thus he did not know that his paper of peace, given him by the whites, meant nothing to Colonel Baker. The Chief and most of his people died, unprepared, doomed by the failure of a little bird too cheap to chirp.
“As a survivor of the Baker massacre puts it, her people perished because the finch flinched.”
“The moral of the story, you ask? Well, I’ll jist tell you! The moral of the story is that there’s honor in a sparrow who walks the straight and narrow, but you jist can’t count on a homesick chick.”
What? Did the tale work to snap Little Bird the Ute outa his self-pity party?
Oh, Hell no. My story done no dang good whatsoever, not to mention doing a fair bit a harm to my sterling reputation as a tale teller.
No , what straightened the Ute kid out was Laughing Brook. She started paying serious attention to the boy, took him under her wing, and by the time the snow melted, he was a different young man entirely. Guess you could say he sheltered under my wife’s wing, took comfort from her warm breast.
Either that, or it was getting to play with furry little Becky Bobcat that done it. I never have been too sure which.