Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 114: Counseling

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Dawson
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After many years of following strict security procedures on the trail, Bodeen and I decided to loosen up a bit. Jist a bit, mind you; we weren’t going all tenderfoot or anything. But where in the past we’d always had our campfires out by the time it got dark, we now allowed ourselves a couple of hours of warmth and light before turning in fer the night.

Relax, willya? This seemingly sloppy arrangement wasn’t as dumb as it looked. Let me explain, okay?

By the numbers, Tam-style:

1. Fer much of the journey between Walsenburg and the Ute Reservation, we could see a long way out there in every direction. It was winter–early winter, but winter–and few raiders enjoyed doing a whole lot of raiding in the cold. Bodeen and I both carried field glasses and scanned the dickens out of every place we went.

2. This time, we built not one but two fires every night. All five Utes shared one; Bodeen and I hogged the other. Anyone spotting the fires and deciding to target us would have to stop and think twice: We might be a whole big bunch of folks if we needed more’n one campfire. Hmm….

3. We still didn’t sleep next to even the cooling coals of a dying campfire.

Ah, I’m explaining too much. Forget what I jist said.

The thing is, it was jist me and Bodeen at our fire the third night out, when I found myself realizing, “Hey, I’m sleeping better!”

“Not been sleeping well?”

I looked at my travel partner, squatting Indian-style on his haunches, both hands cradling a steaming cup of coffee fresh from the pot. “Didn’t realize I said that aloud.”

The former cavalry noncom shrugged. “Most of us who’ve seen the wolf have trouble sleeping, at least at times. I know I do. Hard labor like we do on the ranch is helpful; most nights nowadays, I fall asleep tired enough to git through without remembering whatever horrors I may–or may not–have been dreaming. And then there’s the bleakness, comes on a man unawares, takes him from behind.”

“Hunh.” I pondered that a bit. “Jim, I’m shamed to say it, but I’d never even once thought about you having to carry the War around in your hip pocket like I do.”

“It might not be exactly like you do.” He added a stick to the fire, watching a small shower of sparks climb the sky as he spoke. “I’m thinking it’s unique to each of us. Then again, it ain’t only me, neither. Jack Prosser’s the same way.”

“You’ve talked?”

“We’ve talked. They almost amputated his leg…the left one, I think…at Manassas. If his Captain hadn’t thought a heap of him and jist happened to come by the surgery tent at jist the right moment, he’d be Hopalong Jack today. From what he told me, he has the same dream maybe three, four times a week. They’re holding him down on the table. It’s slick with the blood of them that have gone before, and he’s aware other men’s blood is now decorating his backside whether he likes it or not. Says that bothers him almost more’n the idea of getting cut. The sawbones picks up a wicked looking blade, and Jack craps himself.”

“He craps himself? In the dream? Every time?” I shuddered, thinking about that.

“That’s the way he tells it. Said he used to wake up screaming, but thankfully quit that before he married Hattie. Now he jist wakes up drenched in cold sweat.”

“I…you know, it…never seemed to bother me that much. I mean, I jist figured it was all part of the job of defending the Union. You know. Kill or be killed, and git on with it. I honestly thought I was fine.”

Bodeen shook his head in negation. “You weren’t fine. No man that goes through what we went through is fine. You jist managed to ignore it fer longer than most.”

“Huh. Well then, what about–oh, say, Yellow Hair Custer?”

That got a short, sharp, mirthless laugh from Bodeen. “Natural assholes do seem to be immune, sometimes.”

Oddly enough, it was that comment about assholes being immune that helped me the most. Guess you could chalk it up to the onery in me, but thinking ’bout the lowlifes of the world not suffering what Bodeen called the bleakness…well, it jist sorta pissed me off enough to git my head outa my derriere.

That’s my big new word fer the day. Derriere.

Sounds like it oughta mean the smell in a barn full of Holstein cows and buzzing flies, don’t it? Dairy-air?

Anyway, the business end of our annual pilgrimage turned out almost too easy fer words. When we got to Ute-land, Squirrel Talker and the others seemed so disappointed Crazy Rifle weren’t there to give ’em a hard time, they didn’t bother to argue or even try to skin us horse trading. None of that.

Bodeen thought they jist felt sorry fer us, having been nearly wiped out by a woman with a teapot.

I thought it was more than that.

In fact, I had a hunch them Indians were plumb appreciative of the job we’d done with Little Bird, turning him from a whiny-pants Mama’s boy into the makings of a man. Plus, it likely made ’em feel some better that none of the three returned Box Boys wanted to desert the tribe in favor of joining up with us fer the long haul.

Fer the first time since we’d initiated this ritual in the winter of ’74-75, we left the Rez before the last of the buffalo meat was eaten. Jist two nights with the Utes and…outa there.

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We had a mob headed east this time. Horse-wise, anyway. Besides the usual batch of saddle horses and the team pulling the freight wagon, there were twenty-one spring foals in the mix. Wolf Eyes, well on his way to becoming one rich Ute, had collected his share of the baby horses sired by the flashy palomino stud he farmed out to the tribe on a year-to-year basis. Not that we could have herded the bunch away from their mothers if Squirrel Talker’s people hadn’t been thinking ahead and willing to take up at least a few of the white man’s ways. These frisky critters had been weaned and halter broke some weeks prior to our arrival, which meant we were able to herd ’em by day and picket ’em at night.

From the first, I’d taken note of one particular animal. Jist as important, he seemed to be taking note of me as well.

“What do you figure to do with your herd?” I asked Wolf Eyes one evening as we were setting up camp.

“Let it grow,” the young warrior replied, “although I may need to come up with reasons for Flywheel ownership to allow me grazing rights for a higher head count as time goes on.”

“Ah.” He was speaking to Flywheel ownership, of course. One third of it, if you didn’t count Flywheel/Morgan.

Excuse me. Flywheel/Prosser. Daniel Morgan had left a will, jumping past his furniture making son to pass the Morgan third of Ezekiel Jacobson’s place to his granddaughter. Jack and Hattie now being co-owners of the small ranch over the Double Saddles seemed right.

But I was curious about the Ute cowboy’s statement. “How you figure to do that, Wolf?” It was tricky sometimes, him and Cougar’s brother both being called Wolf, but hey. “Bribe us?”

Far from being insulted, he laughed at that. “I should bribe you who own not only the ranch but the riches of Sapphire Cave? You who helped craft the laws of Colorado by which we all must live? I should be so rich as to be able to do that! Unless…” Comprehension dawned. He got it. I could see he got it.

“Unless what?” I asked, full of innocence.

“You want the colt that’s been following you around since we left the Rez, don’t you?”

I turned my head as if noticing the critter’s presence fer the first time. “You mean this colt? The one with his nose up my butt like I was carrying apples? This overly yellow fellow with the snow white mane and tail? What ever would make you think such a thing?”

“Tell you what, Dawson Trask. You tell me what it is about this little guy–besides his obvious bad taste in men–and I’ll give him to you. But you got to be honest, now. No B.S. Deal?”

My heart was pounding in my throat. “Deal,” I replied, and I told him about Sunny, the flashy palomino a Comanchero-turned-bandit had shot out from under me a few years back.

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“You think he’s Sunny reincarnated, don’t you?” Bodeen asked, watching the golden colt fold his legs to lie down beside me like some kind of oversized pet dog.

“Nope.”

“Nope?”

“Nope. Don’t think it. Know it.”

“Ah.”

“Jim, I’m feeling like the slowest student ever to graduate from cosmic kindergarten.”

“Oh?”

“Tam’s been talking reincarnation at me fer as long as I’ve known him. Now, I’ve never doubted the man, mind you, but I never fully come around to his way of thinking, neither. After all, I ain’t never run into nobody I figured might by one of my drowned parents come back to life, or one the friends I lost in the War, nothing. So the great white Blackfoot warrior from up where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam had his say, and that was fine, but fer me–well, I was listening, but I wasn’t hearing.”

“Until now?” Bodeen forked a big elk steak from the frypan onto a plate and handed it over before helping himself. It was his turn to cook. “Until this colt?”

“Until this colt,” I agreed. “This one and I, we’ve known each other fer a long time. There ain’t no doubt in my mind about it, and Hell, he ain’t even mad at me fer letting him get shot through the brain pan back when!”

“Makes sense. So…what’re you gonna call him? Sunny Two?”

“Not sure about that yet,” I admitted. “I got a bigger problem, though.”

“Yeah?” My friend mumbled that last one around a mouthful of steak.

“Yeah.” I glanced over at the other fire. “Wolf Eyes. Dang kid gifted me with something priceless–to me priceless–and now I gotta figure out how I’m gonna gift him back. Not jist by freeing up rights fer him to run a bit more stock; we’d have done that anyway. Something…special.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard, boss.” The ranch foreman looked thoughtful, serious. “Your daughter Sadie only has about ten years or so to go before she’s ready. Jist promise the Indian her hand in marriage.”

The look on my face like to killed James Q. Bodeen right on the spot. He started laughing so hard, he choked on his steak and damn near died before I was able to pound on his back hard enough to git him to hack the thing back out.

1879

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Tam
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New Year’s Day, 1879, and I was feeling fine. Doc Chouteau had released me back to full-out, balls-to-the-wall, go-kill-your-enemies duty, and that was a good thing. We’d all celebrated at home, letting the kids stay up to bring in the New Year with us.

Only eight year old Henry had managed to stay awake fer the big event, but he was one proud grandson fer having done so.

Of course, I’d had to go and slip up a little bit. When the clock hit midnight, I’d kissed the dickens out of both Brook and Elly Franzen, right in front of God and everbody. Which didn’t bother God none; He knew all about Elly and me, but Everbody–in the form of our resident redhead Bible thumper Penny Tamson–well, I’d seen her eyes go wide with shock, but by then it was too late.

Oops.

See, fer those of you who don’t recall, or who were never told, the rest of us had been keeping my true relationship with Doug Franzen’s wife a bit secret from Penny. You know, figuring she wouldn’t approve.

We figured right. I’d hoped she might sleep it off, but here it was noon, our second meal of the day, and her glacial attitude toward me showed no sign of thawing. She wouldn’t speak to me or look at me. This was a problem.

Doug Franzen, of all people, volunteered to try straightening her out. “Why don’t you have Brook ask her to come see me in my workshop?” That’s what he said, and that’s what we did.

I eavesdropped.

See, it’s not like Brook and I don’t respect other people’s privacy. We do, in spades. But Doug had once tried hanging himself in his own quarters, the selfsame workshop where Penny was now meeting with him. Guilt over having brought Elly’s people-poisoning mother to Flywheel was understandable, but hanging yourself over it?

Get a grip!

So we’d done some modification to his living arrangements. The paraplegic gem cutter didn’t know about ’em, of course. Elly did, but she’d actually helped Cougar git him out of the house on a rare trip to Walsenburg in the buckboard so’s the rest of us could do what we had to do. From either our bedroom or the kitchen, we could–if we chose–spy on the man visually. Of equal importance, we could hear people talking in his place (the southside addition to our own home) like they were sitting right there in the kitchen with us. Maybe listening in this time didn’t qualify as protecting the man from himself, but….

“Brook said you wanted to see me.” At least she was talking, though her tone was stiff, formal. Also verbal; over the years, Doug had regained just enough hearing in his left ear to be able to carry on a conversation, so our redhead’s inability to learn sign language didn’t matter much.

“I did. Penny, I need you to understand something. Several somethings. The first is, I’ve come to know and respect you more than maybe any other person on this entire ranch, and believe me, that is saying something. You’re the heart of this place in a very real way, Flywheel’s Earth Mother. Five of our children are yours, and I understand you’re expecting again, right?”

“Uh…” she sounded stunned. “…yeah. Five. Expecting.”

“That’s good. Better than good, Mrs. Tamson. You are awesome. But…” The pause stretched long enough I could feel the tension in the room. “…as a very wise man once told me, I’m here to tell you to git your head outa your ass.”

Guess I should mention, Cougar was sitting across the table from me. I thought he was gonna spray his coffee all over the new red-and-white checked oilcloth when he heard that said to his fiery-tempered wife by the gem cutting cripple.

I was having some trouble keeping from busting out laughing myself.

Her reply was frosty enough to’ve created a brand new glacier all by itself. “Are you quite finished, Mr. Franzen?”

“Nope. Ain’t even quite started yet. But I reckon we need to move this here conversation into your area of expertise, eh?”

“Wha–”

“Holy Scripture. I can talk myself blue in the face, and it won’t dent your thinking one bit. Tell you what. How be you throw a scriptural quote at me, then let me answer it.”

“What do you know about–oh, very well. We are discussing my father-in-law’s evil usage of your wife, then?”

“Usage, yes. Evil…that’s what we’re arguing about. Hit me with your best shot.”

“Don’t tempt me,” she snapped, and I was suddenly glad Penny didn’t have the habit of wearing her matched .45 Colts around the house. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

“Tam don’t covet Elly,” he replied. “He comforts her. Next.”

You could almost hear the redhead having to think. She was a student of scripture, all right, but…”Lust is one of the great sins.”

“Charity is one of the great virtues.”

“Surely, Douglas Franzen, you are not saying Tam Tamson beds your wife as an act of charity!

“No? What else would you call it, Penny? From the time of my accident, I have been unable to perform my marital duties.” He lied–like a rug! “I do not pretend to believe your father in law does not enjoy my wife…but think about this. I mean, please, really think about it. How would you feel if Cougar were suddenly incapacitated? If he could no longer join with you?”

“That is none of your–”

“None of my business? No, it is not. But it is your business. Think it through, I beg you. Or if that won’t let you see clearly, try this: What if it were not Cougar but you who were incapacitated, you who could not give your husband the comfort and release a man of his virility so powerfully needs? Eh? Would you wish him to shrivel to become an old dry bachelor stick, or perhaps to be tempted by a stray harlot beyond his capacity to resist? Or would you, if the right woman appeared by the grace of God, wish for her to stand–well, I guess to lie in your place, to do for your man what you could not, to assuage your guilt, to keep your man whole and wholly in love with you through his affection for the so-called other woman?”

He stopped there…and waited.

We, on our side of the wall, waited as well. It seemed like a long time–surely more than a minute–before Penny replied in a small voice.

“I don’t know that I could do that.”

“Perhaps not.” Doug’s voice was gentle, understanding. “But neither can you afford to judge. Remember the injunction, judge not, lest ye be judged?”

The toughness in our redhead showed itself then. She replied with jist a touch of asperity, “Why not, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?!”

“Why not? Because I’m not sure I believe sin exists. Karma, yes, but maybe not sin.”

Another silence, but only a brief one this time. “You do not believe the Bible is the Word of God…yet you know Scripture. How so?”

Now it was Doug’s turn to hesitate. “Penny…if we’re to trust each other, talk to each other at need, like today…then I reckon you need to know. I’ve never been a true believer, but my old man was a Baptist preacher. A Baptist preacher with a penchant fer loud condemnation of sinners. He also drank like a fish, beat our mother and me and my brother ever day he could catch us.”

“So…he pounded Scripture into you?”

“Nope.”

“Huh?”

“I learned the Bible not because of him but to spite him. My brother and I finally ran away from home, back in Philadelphia, because he would’ve killed us otherwise. See, I’d educated myself to the point that any verse he could throw at me, I could counter. He hated that, couldn’t stand it, and Death was in the air.”

“Really?”

“Pen, I’m not telling you this in the hopes you’ll feel sorry fer me. I’m telling you in the hopes you’ll someday be able to see what I learned to see all them years ago. Whether the Bible is of man or God is–well, I ain’t gonna go there. But no matter what, all sorts of men use the Bible fer their own ends, and a lot of those men are preachers.

“Tam don’t do that. He sees to the heart. Without him, my Elly woulda been dead within weeks after her first child died and I blew myself up on the same day, and likely dead all over again when she found out her Mom was a mass murderer. Don’t judge him, Penny. Please. I’m telling you here and now, I love my Elly, and I love you, and I love Tam the tall tale teller. We can’t afford to have the Dark One sticking his nose in the middle of that.”

Penny didn’t answer, but we heard her chair scraping back as she stood to leave the room. Time fer me and Coug to get the hell outa the kitchen.

We scooted out the front door in time, heading fer the barn. Not until we reached the stalls holding the team needed to pull the hay wagon fer the afternooon’s cow feeding did we git around to looking at each other. I swiped a gloved hand across my own face to clear my vision. Yep. I’d seen it right; I wasn’t the only one. The tear streaks running down my son’s cheeks had frozen solid.

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