One thing any western man learns if he’s to survive past the age of twenty-one is this: There is no such thing as being home free until you’re actually home…and not even then. Ask any sodbuster, sheep farmer, or–if you really want to rack up the horror stories–Indian. Still, we managed to travel another full day through the Texas panhandle, following the Canadian River trails, before we had to kill anybody. Fer a trouble magnet bunch like a Trask plus three Tamsons, that was actually dang near a record.
Not really, but sometimes it felt like it.
Everbody’s head swiveled constantly as we rode…except fer Laughing Wolf’s–or, if you wanted to git persnkickety about it, Cecil Jerome Tamson’s. The Heyókȟa appeared oblivious to possible danger, all duded up in his blackrobe Jesuit outfit and bowlcut hair, jist staring straight ahead…and yes, whistling.
Drove me absolutely nuts. Thought I’d git used to it. Never did.
Not that I said anything. When you work the Chisholm Trail as long as Tam and I did, you learn to live with things a bit more irritating than a whistling priest who was actually a Heyókȟa Cheyenne warrior.
Some call the Heyókȟa “contraries”. I’d say they got that right.
Still, his reputed beyond-human hearing really did exist. We were cutting across a patch of red-earth country, open patches of dirt alternating with dense brush and occasional stands of bunchgrass, when he tied the coyote in the awareness-of-enemy contest. That is, C.J. (easier to say than Cecil Jerome) suddenly let go with a sharp uptick in his tune that made me stop and look back. I was a good quarter mile ahead, out on point, and I’d plumb missed the danger. But the phony blackrobe hadn’t; his right arm was extended in a clear signal: There!
Considering I’d jist now noticed the coyote standing up ahead, ignoring me while looking the same way our whistler was pointing, I got the message. Tam’s Medicine Coyote was on the job, and so was his Laughing Wolf son.
Company coming, and not necessarily the welcome sort.
Well, it was getting dusk anyway; that patch right there with the thick brush covering our backs on three sides…yeah, that’d do fer the night. No water, but we were carrying some. By the time the rabble rode up on our campsite, we had the horses picketed and every rifle in our possession stacked within easy reach. Laughing Brook had twinkled at us the morning we’d pulled outa Flywheel to go git her son from the Rez, said it looked like the three of us were packing enough ordnance fer an entire military battalion.
From the looks of what was coming, we might be going to need ever one a them shooters.
“Hello the camp!” The leader said the right words, but they didn’t much match his demeanor. Hulking, ugly as sin, beetle browed, mean as an old grizzly with a sore tooth, and the I.Q. of maybe a retarded carrot. In other words, a former Army top sergeant or I’d eat my ex-cavalry boots with bull manure sauce.
Seven more men with him, all ex-military from the way they sat their saddles…but the kind of ex-military that had left the service under less than honorable conditions, if you know what I mean. We didn’t say nothing. Pretending to be civil with this bunch would jist git us run over. But there was something familiar about this brute….
“Cat got yer tongues?”
And then it hit me, jist like that. Not jist one “it”, neither, but a whole bunch of “its”. Sergeant Canopis, during the War…Summer Wind raped… The Hell with it; I jist spit toward the fellow’s horse like I’d once spit at Yellow Hair Custer–except I was standing on the ground this time, Tam to my left, Coug and Wolf to my right, the girl and her papoose hiding out back in the brush.
“Rape any more babies lately, Canopis?” My voice come out flat and hard; I could even hear it myself.
Now, you’d think a man assaulted with a question like that might consider attending to the rape part of it first. But not this guy. Fer one thing, he didn’t have the brain power to attend to two things at once, and I’d sort of snagged his attention elsewhere. He hunched over his McClellan saddle even further, squinted his eyes at me.
“Do I know you?”
“Prob’ly not,” I shrugged. “Never knew you to know much but the inside of a bottle, pounding your own men into mush, and raping anything you could catch.”
There. I’d said it again. That ought to get him thinking. As much as he was capable of engaging in such an activity, anyway.
Now, don’t be getting ahead of me. Nobody drew iron, not right then. See, Sergeant Jacob Canopis had always been a bully. I was willing to bet he’d finally been drummed outa the service, and his followers mostly likely came from other dishonorably discharged soldiers.
Oh, we had a few words. But we didn’t reach fer our guns, quite simply ’cause we knew we didn’t have to. Yeah, they was eight to our four–if they counted the blackrobe with his hands hidden inside his dress, playing with himself or whatever. But there weren’t a man facing us who could clear leather before we were filling ’em full a holes, and they knew it.
Even I, the slowest of our group by a couple a light years, could smoke this bunch.
“They’ll be back,” C.J. opined, his voice soft and his look eager.
We all knew that. Preaching to the choir.
“How’s Lark holding up?”
“Surprisingly well. She’s right here, Dawson. She ain’t deaf.”
“Sorry. Lark, how you holding up?”
I didn’t expect an answer, but I got one. “That’s him.” She spoke in sign, which I knew. Cheyenne, not so much–though all three Tamsons were fluent.
Startled, I asked, “The sergeant? Or, ex-sergeant. Whatever.”
“Yes. My memory opened when he spoke. He maybe fathered my son. And I am Summer Wind, not Lark.”
“And I would like to be the one to kill him. But you are all better at that. Do it for me.”
“Mrs. Tamson,” I doffed my cowboy hat and bowed, nearly blinding her from the setting sun bouncing off my bald skull, “on that you may rely.”
We had time fer a leisurely supper, and we took it.
“Could lose a horse or two,” Tam said thoughtfully over coffee. “if them ex-Army are as crooked a shots as most I seen.”
None of us much liked that idea, so we set to thinking how to avoid such a likelihood. Cougar come up with the right idea. “They’ll hit us after moonrise,” he pointed out, “which is about two hours after full dark tonight. Figuring we’ll be asleep in our blankets then and they’ll be able to see to shoot.”
Nothing much to say to that. Obvious is obvious.
“Likewise, they won’t want to git too close; they’ll stay outa range of our short guns jist in case. They were all packing repeating rifles, a mixed bag but all repeaters. They’ll lay off, likely right over there in them rocks,” he gestured, “and open up like it was Armageddon. Fill our rolls full of lead, then–as long as they count five rolls so they think they got all of us–come on in to help themselves to whatever’s left.”
The tale teller nodded. “That’s the way I’d do it,” he agreed, “iffen I were as evil as them and as stone blind stupid to boot.”
“So,” Coug made his point, “soon as it gits full dark, we move the mounts back around to that open spot. They may wonder where the horses went, but they’ll jist figure they’re–Hell, I dunno fer sure what they’ll figure, but–”
C.J. cut him off. “It’s a good plan, brother. Let’s not overthink it.”
“You figure to fight in that dress?” I asked, eyeing the black robe.
“Any reason why not?”
“Nah. I jist figured if you weren’t going to be using it, I might. That black should plumb disappear in the darkness.”
When it went down, it was like shooting fish in a barrel…and we weren’t the fish.
I heard the big boom of Coug’s .45-70 Government rifle go off first, but my Sharps followed a split second later and a heartbeat after that, C.J. let fly with the Remington #4 Rolling Block his Dad had scavenged from the dead drygulcher in Raton Pass last summer.
Oh, yeah, plus Tam and Summer both popping rounds outa two of our .44-40 Winchesters.
We didn’t expect the girl to hit anything, but more’n any of us, she deserved a chance to throw a little lead at these raping, thieving bastards.
Naturally, them idjits had muzzle-flashed themselves to absolute night-blindness blowing holes in our rolled-up blankets before we each opened one eye, popped a cap, then switched to the other eye and repeated the process. The three of us that had fired the big buffalo guns grabbed repeaters fer the second go-round, of course.
That ain’t an easy skill to acquire, shooting with either eye–unless you’re ambidextrous top to bottom like Cougar Two Gun Tamson–but with the exception of the girl, we’d all mastered it long since.
Two clear-sighted shots each times four riflemen equaled all eight of the enemy down.
Not quite all dead. It don’t happen that way, no matter what the dime novels try to tell you. As often as not, killing men is messy work, especially by moonlight.
What? No, we hadn’t come across any rattlesnakes while we were positioning ourselves in the brush after dark. Ever one of us is deadlier’n any pit viper, and the creepy crawlies all knew it. They got the Hell outa the way.
Where was I…Summer. As it turned out, we had to finish off five of the eight…and one who wasn’t yet dead when we got to him was Sergeant Jacob Canopis his own ugly self. I had the hammer back on my .44 Russian, ready to ease him on outa this mortal coil with a third eye, when the girl came flying by me, jist a flash of shadow, moonlight glinting off her skinning knife as she raised it up over her shoulder and drove it down–
Hold on, now. Of course I wouldn’t have recommended she do that. Ain’t nothing more dangerous than a mortally wounded man; she coulda been signing her own death warrant going in like that.
Didn’t work out that way, though. She drove that knife down…slicing right through the left wrist, pinning it to the ground. Which was good, ’cause the pistol in that hand got dropped in a hurry. It ain’t easy hanging onto a shooter with a knife blade plunged plumb through your wrist.
He’d been on his back, breath gurgling in a way that said he weren’t long fer this world no matter what, but still he woulda nailed her with the right hand, coming up and aiming fer the Cheyenne girl’s skull. Woulda, except Laughing Wolf got there about that time, kicked him in the armpit. Disabled that arm.
Then he stood on the man’s wrist.
You get the picture I’m painting here? The bugger wasn’t going nowhere at this point; that’s fer sure.
When she reached down and unbuckled his belt, he started screaming.
Did we move our campsite after the killing was done? What for?
Oh…I forget, y’all have…sensibilities. The thing is, none of us were much bothered by a few fresh corpses in the area, more or less. We did saddle a couple of horses long enough to drag the remains of the attackers a decent distance downwind from our bullet-holed blankets, but only so’s we didn’t have to smell ’em and the scavengers would know it was okay to come on in and start feeding.
Let’s not forget: I slept among the bodies at Gettysburg. Crazy Rifle, Cougar, Wolf–none of ’em did that, but they all seen death come to men in way uglier ways than this.
I did ask Tam what Summer said when she was cutting on the not-quite-dead Canopis. His grin flashed in the moonlight when he answered.
“It don’t translate directly to English, but roughly speaking, she was telling the fellow, Got you by the huevos now, you sumbitch.”
I had to laugh at that.
After the shootout on the Canadian, we didn’t have no more trouble the rest of the way home. When we come through Raton Pass, not only did Uncle Dick Wootten let Wolf, Summer, and the papoose use his toll road fer free like he always done fer Indians, but he took one look at the Cheyenne in the Jesuit blackrobe and busted out laughing so hard I thought he was gonna pee his pants.
“I seen some sights come through here,” he gasped when he could sorta git his breath, “but I do believe that beats all!”
The Heyókȟa jist grinned at him. “You dare to laugh at a true servant of the Lord, blasphemer?”
Which set Wootten off all over again.
“Right there,” Tam pointed, “was where the fellow took his shot at me.”
We all kinda squinted. Cougar said it fer the bunch of us. “Too damn far by half. Gave you enough time to mostly duck the bullet.”
“Yeah, I got that. I was there.”
Down off the pass plus a few miles, we made our final camp. “Should hit Flywheel by sunset tomorrow,” I observed to no one in particular except maybe Wolf and his woman. The rest of us knew the way well enough.
The Heyókȟa surprised us all then–except maybe Cougar, who knew his brother inside out. “Ah,” Wolf noted, “then it is time for me to pretend to be at least semi-normal.” He shucked his black robe and silly black hat, then began rummaging in his pack.
“If you ain’t got any white man clothes, brother, I brought a set for you. Jist in case.”
“Appreciate it, Coug. Now, the question is, what sort of nom de plume do I adopt for my tenure at Flywheel?”
I scratched my head at that. “What sorta what fer your what?”
“Fake name for my stay.”
“Oh. Sure. I knew that. Were I you, I’d stick with Wolf. Not Laughing Wolf, jist Wolf.”
“Simple. Cougar Tamson, Wolf Tamson, Cougar and Wolf. Jist sounds like a family you don’t want to mess with.”
“Hm. Why not. Crazy Rifle and Laughing Brook get it on, spawn a Cougar and a Wolf. Works for me. Coug, is Penny still as religious-minded as ever?”
“Times ten, brother. Prob’ly a good thing she don’t git to see you impersonating a Jesuit. She ain’t Catholic–thankfully–but she’d most likely figure you were insulting God anyway.”
Laughing Wolf simply nodded. “Which brings up a point. Wherever you management types decide Summer and I ought to live, please do make sure it’s as far from your house as possible. I don’t reckon your redhead’s going to cotton to me any more now than she did before.”
“Maybe not,” Cougar looked thoughtful, “or maybe so. You rescuing Summer and the baby will count for something with her. And there ain’t an infant in the world who couldn’t melt that woman’s heart.”
Our homecoming shoulda been a thing of unalloyed joy.
As it turned out, there was joy, all right–Laughing Brook come a-running when she seen us riding into the ranch yard. I barely had time to step down off Smokey and brace myself before she launched herself at me, limbs wrapped around my body in her signature move, murmering in my ear,
“My warrior! My warrior!”
She even got around to welcoming her son and his family soon enough.
Penny and the kids were there for Coug, and of course Marie done a few cartwheels on her way to hug up Dawson.
But still, something was off. Once all the hugging and hooting and hollering was done, I held my beautiful Cheyenne bride at arm’s length and asked, “Okay, baby. What is it?”
Everybody present sobered instantly. Brook couldn’t spit it out; it fell to Bodeen to give us the bad news.
“Chet Barnes. He’s dead.”
It hit Dawson hardest. Marie, too, maybe, but she’d had nigh on two weeks to make the adjustment. It was Chet who’d give them two cover in Denver during the Constitutional Convention after Trask had necessarily shot down a man charging him at the head of a paid mob. Plus, Chet had known the law, had been instructing Dawson in some of the finer points, things we might need to know down the road. The two men had been close.
“How?” he asked.
“Bronc went over backwards on him. Crushed his chest.”
“Damn.” Barnes had been a good hand with a horse–had in fact been working as a hostler when the Trasks met him–but he was no Tam Tamson, able to skin outa the saddle when a horse pulled that stunt. Few men could, and quite a few cowboys died that way.
My turn. “Dirty Dan?”
“Nope.” Chet had often ridden the muddy gray gelding we called Dirty Dan, and we never had been able to break the bugger of rearing up. “That black colt with the star on his forehead. Don’t know what caused the horse to do that; it weren’t his habit. But he sure enough done it. Star come in riderless, trailing his reins. When we found Chet, it was clear it was the saddle horn that done him in.”
It had happened the first day we were gone. With the warm spring weather, they couldn’t wait fer us to git back; he was already buried in the cemetery at Walsenburg.
“We held off deciding on a headstone,” Marie explained to her husband. “I told everbody you should be the one to pick it out and decide the wording.”
“Thanks,” Dawson nodded. He couldn’t git out any more’n that.