“HYAH! HYAH!” My whip cracked, snapping in the air over the backs of the team. The four matched bays thundered down the road fer all they were worth, jouncing the bodies in the freight wagon something fierce. I couldn’t stop fer that, didn’t dare care about the bumps and bruises.
Five lives were on the line.
“HYAH!” I urged the animals on, forcing them to fly toward Walsenburg. When the fourteen miles were covered, these incredible animals might never again be good fer anything but dog meat and glue makings, windbroke, abused to the point of their own deaths.
I couldn’t care about that, either.
“HYAH! HYAH!” My voice was already growing hoarse, and we still had six miles to go.
The black widow had her revenge.
We shoulda known, all of us Flywheel men, shoulda known better’n to try playing God with a vessel of evil like Clarisse Moore, back before she was Mrs. Slim Morgan. We’d put on a show, terrorized the woman, scared her plumb into submission.
Oh, we’d been so full of ourselves. So sure we’d done it right, that we had the serpent under control.
Never trust a rattlesnake.
Except the witch weren’t no rattlesnake. More of a death adder, some silent-striking banded krait from India or something.
“HYAH!” My voice had mostly held out…but the team barely made it to the hospital room door before Buck, the right side wheel horse, collapsed in the traces. He was dragging the others down so’s they had trouble staying on their feet, but I didn’t have time to cut him loose.
“Five adults in the wagon out front!” I bellowed at the nurse behind the desk. “Unconscious! Poison!”
“Here now!” a male voice intervened, one a them self-important jerks found in so-called professional establishments everywhere. “You can’t be barging in here like that!”
I turned to face the man, a doctor whose visage I vaguely remembered from when Doug Franzen was getting operated on. Fleshy, big dark moustache, disapproving eyes. He shouldn’t a tried that attitude right then, specially not with me wearing Tam’s lefthand gunbelt crossed over my righthand rig as I was.
My voice went low and dangerous. “Asshole,” I informed him quietly, “you got about a twentieth of a second to decide whether your right eye would look better with a .45 Colt makeover, or your left would prefer a breezeway in .44 Russian.”
It weren’t the big bores that convinced him. It was my eyes. He gulped, swallowed hard, and I could hear his piss hitting the stone floor.
“Now, mister doctor,” I went on, not bothering to lower the muzzles or take the hammers off full cock, “here’s the deal. This hospital has jist been officially hijacked. There’s a wagon right outside your front door with four good men and one good woman inside, banged around some from my run into town from Flywheel/Morgan. Two of the men run close to 400 pounds each; you’d best put plenty of orderlies on the job to git ’em in here. The woman ain’t a helluva lot lighter.
“As to what’s got ’em in this condition, there’s a flour sack full of dried plants in there. I know one a the plants is purple foxglove, so put that in your poison ID pipe and smoke it. Before they lost consciousness, ever one a them people vomited their guts out and reported severe gut pain. They also crapped their pants.
“Now git moving!”
He got moving.
Johnny Spence vaulted to his saddle and was gone, jist like that; Flywheel would be up to date in short order.
I turned to face Sheriff Robert Olsen, who was patiently waiting fer me to finish my report. My wife, who’d happened to be on duty at the rental house in town, had left the boys alone long enough to come pick up baby Levi Prosser from my highly relieved arms.
“Okay, Robert,” I told the lawdog, “I’m all yours.”
“Dawson, you ain’t even all fer this world jist yet. You eaten anything?”
“Not–no, I got no appetite.”
“Well, I can understand that. But I do. My day ain’t been nothing like yours, but it has had its own challenges. Let’s adjourn down to Ethel’s. You can at least order up a pot of coffee while I’m inhaling a steak. Unless you’d prefer a stiff drink or two.”
“No…Ethel’s will be fine. And it ain’t like I can do no more here, at least not fer a while. Let’s go.’
Not until I’d stretched out my long legs under the table did I realize how much unwinding I still had to do. Hiring the livery to take care of the team–which mostly meant getting the one dead and three ruined horses outa harness and down to the slaughterhouse–had taken some of the load off…but not much.
“Sure you can’t eat?”
“Maybe. Ethel, you got a fresh cherry pie back there?”
“Not as fresh as me, cowboy,” she grinned, “but then nothing is.”
That brought a tired smile, about all I could muster. “Carve me out a quarter, if you would. Thanks. Now, Robert, where’d we leave off? I mean, after you asked me how the Hell I loaded all them oversized folks into that high-sided wagon single handed, and I answered, adrenalin.”
The Sheriff rubbed his jawline, thinking. “You were saying, Flywheel suspected a long time back that Clarisse Moore–now Clarisse Morgan–had been poisoning one husband after another. But you didn’t have no proof, so you settled for scaring her in the hopes she’d be too spooked to do a number on Slim after she married him.”
“Yeah, that about tells the backstory. Talk about stupid on our part. Well, Tam and I got over the Saddles to Flywheel/Morgan jist before lunchtime today. We’d figured to help Jack and Daniel and Slim round up the Morgan herd tomorrow, but we had plenty of time to kill today–or so we thought. We were jist sitting around after dinner, sipping coffee and shooting the breeze, when Clarisse brought us in a nice fresh pot of tea.
“Yeah. Ain’t none of us big tea drinkers, but what the Hell; we’d take a cup jist to be sociable, as long as we could throw in plenty of honey and she didn’t expect us to raise our pinky fingers like them high society ladies back East.”
“A suspected black widow and the tea didn’t raise any warning bells?”
“Obviously not. Looking back, yeah, but at the moment, our inner warning systems were plumb asleep on the job. She’d laid low long enough, lulled us good, all sweetness and light. Anyway, she poured fer the bunch of us, sweetly told the new mother–Hattie–to stay setting, and she’d clear the table. Except by the time she’d finished doing that, every tea drinker at the table was showing symptoms.
“She got outa there then; I only seen her once after that, forking a bronc I didn’t even know she could ride, fogging it down the road. Woulda shot her off the damn horse, but it was already clear a few seconds lost might cost us a life or two.”
We stopped talking fer a few minutes at that point. His steak and my pie had arrived at the same time.
When we were done stuffing our faces, I had to admit I felt some better.
“How come you weren’t affected?”
“Had to go visit the outhouse. She’d jist poured my cup when Mama Nature called–the normal way, not the poison purple foxglove way. Must have shook her up some, seeing she’d missed one. If I’d have been out of commission like everbody else, she coulda took her time clearing out.”
When he’d asked ever question he could come up with, the Sheriff excused himself. “I’ll go git this information circulated. Telegraph every place I can think of within a hundred-mile radius of Walsenburg. WANTED: Clarisse Moore Morgan, for poisoning four men and one woman in Huerfano County, Colorado. Contact Sheriff Robert Olsen, Walsenburg, Colorado. You want to put out a reward?”
A reward. Hadn’t thought about that. With any kind of luck…. “I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, Robert–spending money without discussing it with the other owners–but yeah. Twenty-five thousand. We’ll start there.”
I wouldn’t have thought Olsen’s eyebrows could climb clean up under his hat. “Twenty-five thousand? Dollars? You got that much in cash?”
“We can get it,” I shrugged, “in a hurry if need be.”
When Tam finally come around, he had quite a gathering at his bedside: Doc Chouteau, me, Brook, Coug, and Marie.
“How long I been out?” His voice was a croak, as if he’d been the one flogging them horses all the way into town the previous day.
“Twenty-four hours,” I told him, “give or take.”
Doctor Georges Chouteau answered that one. “Everybody’s on the mend, Crazy Rifle…except….”
The two old friends locked eyes. Tam’s voice, this time, was near a whisper. “Daniel didn’t make it.”
“No, my warrior,” Brook laid a hand softly over her husband’s. “Daniel did not make it.”
There was a long silence in the room…which my partner finally broke by saying, “Doc, if you’d excuse us? Professionally speaking, you ain’t gonna want to hear this.”
“No,” the good doctor rose and moved to the door, “I don’t suppose I am.”
When he was gone, Tam looked at each of us in turn, me and his wife and his two-gun shootist son…but in the end, it was to me he gave his instructions.
“She’s out there somewhere, Sergeant. I seen her in my dreams when I was dancing at Death’s door. Take Cougar and go git her, wouldja?”
“Crazy Rifle,” I told him, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Dad asked me to do the telling of this one, and also however many more until Clarisse the Beast is caught and brought to justice. “I’m out of action fer this one, son,” he admitted. “Do me proud.”
Which was kind of a joke. Me matching up to the Tall Tale Teller? Not likely.
But he was right about being out of action. So here’s the first of my Tales on the Trail, such as they may be.
I guess the first thing I’d like y’all to grasp is about Dawson Trask. Yeah, I’d seen the man in action more’n once, starting the day he saved my life in Waco by taking out a drygulcher the sun glare had me too blinded to see, but we hadn’t worked side by side before without Tam being there, too.
It didn’t take us long, working together, to become an absolute team. I finally realized it must be this way between him and my old man, too. There’s something about the bald headed cowboy that–well, I ain’t saying I’d pick him over my Dad to cover my back…but I ain’t saying I wouldn’t, neither. It’d be a close call, either way.
Anyhow, as you might imagine, Clarisse left us a cold trail, having a full two days’ head start by the time we provisioned up and got going. There was the two of us on Joker and Charger, trailing two pack horses and loaded fer bear. We weren’t sure how long we’d be out, but we weren’t coming back without the witch’s scalp.
As Dawson himself puts it, nobody poisons Flywheel people and gits away with it. Nobody!
He’s got a thing about that word, “nobody”. When he starts repeating it like that, it’s time fer the meanest critters in the mountains to hunt their holes
The witch weren’t hard to track at first. The way the roads run, she’d had to come through Walsenburg to git clear of the area at all. We knew she wasn’t about to hit fer the wilderness; that weren’t the way she was bent. Plus, we talked to several witnesses that’d seen her head north, toward Pueblo and perhaps, eventually, Denver.
Which was surprising; we woulda thought she’d head back East, to where she come from. Nor could we be sure she still might not do jist that, simply figuring she’d throw us off by going in a different direction fer a little bit before….
Because of our caution, we lost something like two, three weeks, continually losing her trail and then picking it back up at a trading post or a train depot.
She seemed to like train depots.
But she never took a train, always kept forking that same steel gray bronc she’d stolen from the ranch. The woman had taught herself to ride and ride well; had to give her that.
It weren’t till we were well into Wyoming, preparing at Cheyenne to send a telegram back home to update Flywheel, that we figured out what she must have had in mind all along. Dawson got the telegram ready to go, then showed me the wording before handing it over to the clerk.
To: FLYWHEEL RANCH, WALSENBURG, COLORADO. STOP.
From: DAWSON AND COUGAR, CHEYENNE, WYOMING. STOP
Text: DESTINATION DETERMINED. STOP. DEADWOOD, SOUTH DAKOTA. STOP. ON OUR WAY. STOP. FORGET CALAMITY JANE WE HAVE CALAMITY CLARISSE. STOP
“Looks good to me,” I told my partner. “Let’s head fer the hills.
“The Black Hills, that is.”