Tam and I were in a few minutes early, washing up fer supper, when redheaded Penny came out to talk to us. “Wanted you two to know, what you did fer Reggie was much appreciated.”
I was toweling my face dry, but I stopped long enough to cock an eyebrow at her. “You had reason to think we’d do any less?” She had to be talking about us–and Cougar, of course–going to the Rez in Oklahoma to snag her Heyókȟa brother in law. Seven year old Reggie Tamson hadn’t had a single nightmare about being chased by mean old Incas with tamil knives since Wolf had given him the silver amulet.
She shook her head. “No, I–of course not, Dawson. But…well, see, the latest news is all about Dull Knife’s band of Cheyenne. They’re still out there somewhere, still trying to fight their way back to Montana. People are dying on both sides. Wolf would have been with them if you hadn’t….”
“Ah.” Tam patted her shoulder. “We git it. I’m jist glad to see you two getting along a bit better’n Coug says you used to.”
She blushed at that. “I’ll never understand that Heyókȟa.”
Which was apparently the end of that conversation. She spun on her heel, zipped back inside, and I was left scratching my bald head. “We men are supposedly unable to understand women in general, but it’s a big deal when one of them can’t understand a man?”
The tale teller fired up one of his mischievous grins. “Apparently so. Seems to me, though, like maybe it’s a matter of fighting the chemistry.”
I stared at my partner. “Penny and Wolf? You’re thinking she’d like her husband’s contrary brother to jump her bones, only it ain’t right according to her Bible, so she’s flustered some?”
“Yep. Something like that.”
“Cowboy,” I marveled, “Git your mind outa the gutter.”
“Cowboy,” he shot back, “open your eyes.”
Which I did, and eventually decided he had the right of it. Not that it mattered a lot. It was time to start bringing the herds down outa the high summer range to the calving meadows. On a working ranch, most of the time, work requirements tend to trump family gossip.
We rode out of Dry Gulch Pass jist in time to see one of those natural displays that leaves a man marveling at the wonders the Creator hath wrought and pitying the worm-blind people of the cities. It had finally quit drizzling, and the sky was clearing–but in layers, not all at once. Up ahead, the dark underbelly of the morning’s rain messengers still glowered, while a fartther-back cloud bank caught golden sunlight and lit up the place.
“Believer had it right,” Tam murmered, almost under his breath.
“Had what right?”
“Land and cattle, though he said it the other way around. I told you the tale one time, how he recommended I make myself a career of cattle and land. Said purty soon the rancher would be the closest thing to a free man left, the only one able to step out his front door to take a leak without the world ogling his business.”
“Well,” I pointed out pragmatically, “we definitely got us some land, and right over there, the other side of Eyeball Lake, I do believe I perceive some funny face cattle.”
He jist looked at me like I was stupid.
We’d pick this bunch up on the way back. Fer now, the two of us were headed on past the lakes, over the Double Saddles, and down to Flywheel/Morgan. We’d join Jack Prosser and the Morgan men on their one-day drive, starting out before daylight tomorrow to bring down their 200 cow-calf pairs, plus bulls, from the hidden valley grazing grounds.
There were plenty of sights to see along this eleven mile route, though. Certainly enough to be going on with fer one day: Three different bears, doing their last bit of berry picking before holing up fer winter-long naps. Canada geese dropping in by the hundreds to rest on the lakes, then heading back out to move on a bit farther south before the heavy freezes come to call. Squirrels chittering in the timber, and camp robber jays talking right back at ’em.
Tam had something on his mind, though. I could tell.
“You been off your feed since we saddled up, tale teller,” I told him, “What put a burr under your blanket?”
“It’s that obvious?”
“You might say.”
“Huh. Well. I’m jist…curious. Ain’t neither one of us been over the Saddles to visit Jack and the Morgans since we all put the Indian sign on Clarisse about her murdering husbands left and right, and I’m curious to see how she’s working out fer Slim. Innocent, ignorant, big-man Slim.
“Plus, the women made that pilgrimage to see Hattie’s new baby–a son, was it?”
“So they said.”
“A son. See? I didn’t even know that! Let alone whatever they named the kid.”
“Levi, I think it was.”
“Levi. Okay. Levi. Dang it, Dawson, I’m jist starting to worry some about this here business venture you and I–plus Coug, of course–started five years ago. It’s grown on us like a patch of weeds covered in bull manure. I’m jist not sure we got a handle on it any more.”
I laughed. “Shoot, Crazy Rifle, is that all?”
“Ain’t that enough? Seems like a fellow should be able to at least know who counts fer how much in his inner circle.”
“Should be, maybe. But Hell, man, we can only do what we can do. Try to do the right thing, then let it go and move on to the next big deal. And you been doing as close to the right thing as about any man could.”
“Sure, says me. Who better? Take Clarissa Moore Morgan, fer example.”
“Nuh-uh! You take that wicked black widow poisoner woman!”
I could see his mood lightening; that was a good thing. “You’re missing my point. Or maybe ducking it on purpose.”
“Yeah. Let’s jist take one example. As bad as we all terrorized Miz Clarisse when we put on our little show fer her benefit, you coulda done purty much whatever you wanted with that woman. Sent her to prison–maybe–or turn her into your slave, if you’d been of a mind to.”
“Be like taking a live rattler to bed, that one,” he muttered, but I could tell he was coming around.
“You know it’s true, though. And it wouldn’t have mattered that you were already bedding your wife plus Clarisse’s sweet daughter, neither. Our black widow had her fangs pulled; she was yours fer the taking if you’d wanted her.”
Smokey blew, like maybe he figured his rider was being deliberately dense. Which he likely was.
“But you didn’t take her fer your personal use, nor did any of the rest of us, nor did we jist gun her down like the mad dog she was. Instead, as we all agreed, the word–not the wood–was laid on her so’s she’d be a good little wifey to Slim Morgan. You, and the rest of us fer that matter, did what you thought was right. Maybe it worked out, maybe it didn’t, but you did your best and let the chips fall where they may.
“Partner, that’s all we can ever do, and the size of the ranching operation don’t make no nevermind.”
“You’re telling me what I been telling myself.” He sighed, then added, “At least we can have a looksee fer ourselves this trip, figure out if Slim seems to be benefitting or suffering from the arrangements.”
“There ya go,” I nodded. We rode on through the morning, moving parallel to the lakes, heading fer the Saddles. Life was good.
What? No, I said this tale would have to be short, not your brains looks to be down a quart.
Although if the boot fits….
No, no, I ain’t tired of tale telling. We jist got…obligations. That’s all. Obligations. I’ll explain it all later.
Elly Franzen’s Mom had become a different woman entirely.
No, I don’t mean Clarisse wasn’t recognizable. She still looked good–in fact, she looked better. A lot better. It was like a bunch of brittle plaster had broken away from the real Soul inside. She come across as warmer, more caring and real, than ever she’d done before.
I’d like to say it was being married to Slim that had worked the transformation, but watching her with Hattie Prosser and Hattie’s infant son…no, it was definitely the baby. Come to find out, it was Clarisse who’d suggested the Levi name, and it was obvious she’d gotten truly close to at least Hattie Prosser, baby Levi, and big Slim Morgan himself.
“Amazing what knowing the jig is up can do fer a female,” I told Tam when we got a chance to speak privately.
“Either that,” he agreed, “or Slim Morgan is jist as hefty in the loving department as he is physically. Could be he’s plumb squeezed the evil right outa that mankiller.”
I chuckled, little knowing the Fates were laughing outright. We were about to see Mrs. Clarisse Morgan’s true depths plumbed to the core.
What? No…no, I think we’d best save that story fer another day. Maybe tomorrow, if we can find the time. Fer now, we’d best wrap this up. There’s more’n one life on the line, and we ain’t got a second to spare.