Billy “Scar” Blakely made it back from town jist as we were all sitting down to dinner. He handed me the newspaper, most likely since I was the one sitting closest to the door. “Lookit this,” he advised.
I looked. The headline was definitely an attention-getter.
PROMINENT WALSENBURG RANCHER JUSTIN GOSS STRICKEN WITH CANCER
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” Cougar opined.
Tam shook his head. “True enough, but I wouldn’t wish that on any man. Not even Goss.”
Having read the headline aloud to the assemblage, I was naturally stuck with reading the rest of it while everbody else fell to eating. Marie helped me out, piling my plate with plenty of vittles as they passed down the table, or I’d have starved to death on the spot.
Justin Goss is known to every man, woman, and child of Huerfano County as one of the great pioneers in cattle ranching. His herds as of this date number in excess of 73,000 animals, his land holdings more than a thousand square miles of prime rangeland and rich water sources. He is master of all he surveys.
Except, it seems, his own body.
Today, the man known to his friends as the Baron of Beef is fighting for his life in a Denver hospital. He is also, according to our sources, losing that fight. He struggles to draw breath, and his deep levels of pain both physical and emotional seem eased only when he experiences the exquisite pleasure of lighting up one of his favorite cigars….
Wolf interrupted. “This man has friends?”
“On paper, anyway. Let me see…I’ll jist summarize this….”
Bottom line, our greatest adversary had been given six months to live…six months ago. He was wasting away and was expected to pass from this mortal coil any second now.
“Wait a minute.” Scrap wondered, “That would mean he was bedridden up in Denver even when them claim jumpers showed up. Does that mean we were wrong about figuring he was behind the Trickle Creek invasion?”
“Nope.” Tam didn’t hesitate. “Sumbitch is plenty mean enough to try spoking our wheels with his last breath. If anything, I’d say him knowing he’s about to meet his maker might have inspired the Trickle Creek fiasco. The spectre of Death is the mother of last ditch dastardly deeds. Something like that.”
One thing was clear: The hands would have to handle the afternoon’s hay delivery to the herds without us. An emergency ownership meeting was in order.
Billy was on his way, headed fer Dry Gulch Pass and the Saddles. He’d reach Flywheel/Prosser a bit after dark, let Jack and Hattie know their presence was needed ASAP and why. Then he’d stay on fer a while, help his brother with calving the Prosser herd till Jack could git back.
Which could take a while.
What? Oh…yeah, I did forget to say…a few weeks back, Solomon Pritchard and his son, Quentin, had moved over to help on that side of the mountains full time. Slim Morgan had to watch that heart murmer, and besides, he was not and never would be no cattleman. Furniture making, that was definitely his thing.
The Pritchards were living in Daniel’s old cabin. Plenty of room fer the two of ’em, and besides, Quentin was gone to school all week anyway, jist home on the weekends.
“What I want to know,” Cougar mused, stirring a spoonful of sugar into his coffee, “is how Goss run his numbers up that high so fast. It weren’t that long ago he was figured for maybe 18,000 head of cattle, not 73,000. And his landholdings sure weren’t no thousand square miles.”
When did Coug start taking sugar in his coffee?
I shrugged. “First thing to remember is, the paper says that’s what he owns. Don’t mean it’s true.”
“What? Say it ain’t so, Dawson! You know the printed word don’t lie!”
“Hunh. Well, anyway. I figure–Tam, you already got a list going?!”
“Gotta start sometime. Here’s how I see it, by the list:”
When the Baron of Beef Shuffles off this Mortal Coil: Considerations
1. Find out what he really owns.
2. Find out who’s handling the estate.
3. Find out how they’re planning on administering: Who are the heir(s)? Will the next owner be likely to keep the thing going as is, or sell it off? If selling off, is likely to go at auction? Private sale(s)? All as one or piece by piece? Cattle, land separate?
4. Our cash on hand: $81,036.95.
Cougar cocked an eyebrow. “Dad, you calling him the Baron of Beef now?”
“That there’s humor, Coug.”
“Ah. So you say…wait a minute. We left the dinner table maybe twenty minutes ago, come straight here, and you know how much cash we got…off the top of your head…down to the freaking penny?”
“I could be off by a nickel,” the tale teller admitted, “but I doubt it.”
“Man. I don’t even know how much Penny’s got stashed where the rest of us can’t find it.”
“That’s another topic entirely, son. That $81,036.95 in no way includes whatever the women been hiding on us.”
“Gentlemen,” I reminded them, “we’re burning daylight. You mind if we actually talk a bit of business here? Would that be all right?”
“Yes, Mother.” Tam held out his hand, palm down. “You can rap my knuckles now.”
“Tempting as that sounds, cowboy, I’d rather figure out how we’re going to be sure we’ve got the right of it when we start digging into the man’s holdings. Some of the land–a lot of it–will be on record under the Goss name in the county courthouse. But there’s ways he coulda hidden some of his holdings, or sold some to Joe Blow under contract fer deed, which would still show on the rolls as his, or–”
“Sergeant,” Coug chuckled, likely ’cause that sugar was getting to him, “you worry too much. Let’s jist start by digging through the county records and go from there.”
It sounded like as good an idea as any, so that’s what we did.
I met Dawson at the train depot with Joker, so’s he had a ride to our always-ready hotel room long enough to change outa his city duds and pepperbox groin rig. Then we headed fer Flywheel, filling each other in as we rode.
“Three hundred and eleven calves on the ground and only lost three. Helluva calving season first week.”
“The ones we lost?”
“One stillborn, one got dropped right outa mama into the stock pond–we’re definitely culling that cow first chance–and one come down with the scours. Did the best we could to git it stopped, but not in time.”
“I hate seeing ’em go down with the scours worse’n anything.”
“Preaching to the choir, cowboy. Tell me about Denver.”
Justin Goss was dead and the wolves were already gathering. We’d been staying in close touch with ever contact we had out there, and it was looking like everbody and his dog wanted a piece of the little empire the Goss-Monster had built up during his relatively short but highly nefarious lifetime.
Of course, some of ’em were jist watching the action fer the fun of it, especially after it became public knowledge that the law firm handling Goss’s post mortem affairs was a Denver firm by the name of Woods, Woods, & Beavers.
“It ain’t really all that funny,” Dawson had insisted. “Jerry Beavers is one helluva sharp lawyer. He and I worked together on a couple of issues at the Constitutional Convention, and I can tell you–”
“You know the man?” I’d jumped right on that like a duck on a junebug. “Lawyer Beavers?”
“Kinda sorta. Enough to say he earned my respect fer being good at what he does, anyway.”
So naturally we sent the great friend of Beavers, Dawson Trask, to meet with the man. See if he could git him to share a little inside information. Which is totally against ever bit of the lawyer code, yes.
What’s your point?
Yes, he did insist I was a greater friend of beavers than he’d ever been, what with my maintaining cordial relationships with both Brook and Elly under the same roof. Coug even sided with Dawson on that one.
Trask was still the one we sent to Denver.
“Well…I did git Beavers to open up to me a bit–”
“See now? Only a great friend of Beavers could do that!”
“Ah, s**t, set myself up or what. Anyway, after he got done pontificating about the lawyer-client relationship, I plied him with liquor fer a while–”
“I knew it! Awesome friend of Beavers!”
“Damn you, tale teller, I’m jist gonna plow ahead here–”
I jist about fell off the top of old Smokey at that one, I was laughing so hard.
Bottom line, Goss had left neither wife nor child behind him, having been entirely consumed with empire building from, apparently, the day he was hatched. However, he did have a passel of nieces and nephews back in Massachusetts. None of that batch–and there were more’n twenty of ’em–wanted a single solitary thing to do with the wild, wild West.
So yes, Lawyer J. Beavers had been instructed to sell the ranch fer as much as possible (naturally) and to mail ’em the proceeds.
“All in one chunk or broken up?” I asked. If it were to be all in one, few indeed could even consider trying fer a piece of the action. Certainly Flywheel couldn’t.
“Broken up. I asked Jerry about the big money boys–the cattle barons, railroads, etc. He told me there wasn’t the chance of a snowball in Hell any of those outfits were interested. The railroads already got more land than they know what to do with, and they got it fer free from the U.S. Government on the taxpayer’s dime. Spending real money to add to their dirtpile don’t make no sense, so they’re not playing.”
“And the cattle barons?”
“Same deal, kinda sorta. Most of ’em are like Goss, stealing what they can, running roughshod over little guys till they up and bail, that sorta thing. Paying a fair price would hurt their self images.”
“Ah. So that leaves….”
“Us. And every other small-to-midsize rancher in the county. And Tam, I got us a deal. If you and Coug and Jack like it, that is. Which I think you will.”
“Tell me,” I urged. “I’m all ears.”
“The jug-eared tall tale teller telling ear jokes? I ain’t gonna touch that one. Here’s the deal. By the time we got done talking, Beavers changed his way of thinking about how to sell off the property. The cattle–the paper was in fact seriously wrong about the head count. Goss never had no 73,000 head of beeves. More like 23,000…and that was counting ever calf and ever bull in the tally.”
“So…something like 11,000 cow-calf pairs?”
“More or less. Beavers is getting ’em sold off as we speak. I’d guess the range will be stripped of beeves by June at latest. But here’s the part you’ll want to hear. We can have the Talmanes place, all of it, at a price we can afford.”
I stared at my friend in amazement. Jason Talmanes had lost his place to Goss in ’74. Took the price he was offered and skedaddled back to…wherever he come from. But we’d gotten to know the man a bit, jist a few months before he sold out, and once took advantage of his offer to ride his range with him, see what he owned at the time.
“Never mind the water, the timber, the mineral rights and all–that’s close to 15,000 acres! What’d you git it for, five bucks a freaking acre?”
“Exactly,” he grinned, ear to ear and deserving every bit of it.
“Cowboy,” I marveled, “you truly are a great friend to Beavers. Either that, or–how the Hell…? The Talmanes place,” I couldn’t believe it. “Straight north of us, the best situated ground we could have asked for out of everthing Goss owned. Better’n twenty-three square miles, and good water on it, too. We’ll need to contract fer an easement with one of the small ranchers between our two places, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Don’t reckon. Ain’t none of ’em got reason to hate us. At least not that I know of. But you’re missing a key point, Tam.”
“I am? What?”
“Of course, you could be forgiven, I s’pose. The Talmanes place has been called by any number of names over the years. Your ignorance is–”
“All right, you cocky, bald-headed–jist spill it, wouldja?”
“If you insist. Remember that Sapphire Cave room full of Inca gold? The one with the back entrance Scrap and I blew shut?”
“You’re not saying…”
“Yep. That far entrance is on Talmanes land. We blew up what’s now going to be our own easy way into the Gold Room. Scrap Hannigan’s got a hundred yards worth of rock to move.”