Leaving Hortense Hooper in the lurch was not the difficult part. What really made me uncomfortable was Marshal Kendrick Soames laughing his butt off at me fer getting myself tangled up with the wild widow in the first place.
“I ain’t laughing at you, Henry,” he explained between guffaws. “I’m laughing with you.”
My plan had been to work out the month, but the clingy cook and cafe owner had suddenly started talking about things like wedding rings and settlng down and, God forbid, babies.
Oh, good Lord. She couldn’t actually be pregnant, could she?
Rumor had it horny Hortense was barren, unable to get knocked up–but rumors were jist that, rumors. What if it weren’t party hearty Horty who was lacking in the fertility department? What if the now-dead husband had been the one firing blanks?
All my eighteen years of life, people had been telling me a man gits himself in trouble every time he lets his little head do his thinking instead of using his big head.
No s**t, Sherlock. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or free rent, fer that matter.
By the time I’d cleared my gear out of the addition–jist the other side of the kitchen wall where Hortense was cooking fer her customers–my armpits were fear-sweated up something fierce. Jist one more matter to tend to, stopping by the jail to hand in my badge, and I’d be a gone gosling.
The Marshal was a good man at heart. He offered to make sure they forwarded my mail on to General Delivery in Leadville. More importantly, he promised not to tell widow Hooper which way I’d gone.
I almost thought he meant it.
It took a bit to dig a proper sleeping trench the first night out, mostly ’cause the ground was rocky. Even after I was done digging, my bed had granite lumps in it. ‘Twas the dark of the moon, not a pinch of light other than a few wayward stars to go by when watching fer enemies who might sneak up on me in the dark. The wind had come up, blowing dust through the area, and it was a dry camp; we’d not seen a water source the last few miles.
All in all, one of the best nights of my life.
Freedom. The widow Hooper had caught me in her honey trap sure enough, or maybe in my own no-money trap, but I’d wriggled free and run like a rabbit fer the high country. Freedom!
Talk about your close calls. Try explaining that one to your back-home fiancee, Henry Tamson.
Good lord willing and the crick don’t rise, the salacious siren of Salida weren’t knocked up. Or if she were, please, please don’t let the baby come busting outa the womb sporting them trademark Tamson jug ears.
It weren’t till the third night on the trail that I finally made camp early enough and felt squared away enough to write my beloved.
I’m on my way to Leadville. Could have been there already, this being my third day out of Salida, but I’ve been poking along due to the incredible scenery. I’m camped within eyeshot of Buena Vista–my eyeshot, not theirs; we’re tucked in and virtually invisible.
This area is truly beautiful. Wouldn’t mind bringing you here to see this on our honeymoon. There are super-tall mountains all around, at least five of ’em over 14,000 feet at the summits. Just today, I’ve seen sizeable herds of elk, deer, and antelope, plus smaller numbers of mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Hold on; somebody’s coming.
Okay, I’m back. Finishing this the next morning at a little cafe where they serve flapjacks with a side of mountain goat meat for breakfast. I can afford to eat out for a while now.
Here’s how it went down, starting when I left off on this letter last evening.
The sun was down–thanks to the high peaks–but there was still plenty of light to see by. I’d druther been writing my honey than watching these three find the game trail leading to my campsite, for sure…but you don’t always git your druthers.
“Hello the camp!” Their leader called out, polite as anything, so there weren’t but one thing to do.
“Howdy!” I didn’t git up, just stayed setting on the log, reaching for the coffee pot to refill my cup as if I was at home and friends had come to call. “Coffee’s hot!”
Like I said, there was three of ’em, and it was obvious who they were. Kind of hard to miss; the outlaw Sanders McPherson aka Sandy Mac plus a host of other names was kind of unforgettable. Three dwarf feet tall of unforgettable. I wouldn’t have recognized him a few days back, but the Wanted poster in Salida had described him down to a T.
Including the droopy right eyelid, a scar on the right side of his face that ran from hairline to jawline, and a heap of bad attitude. I could tell he was jist itching for me to say something about his size.
So I didn’t, deciding to come at it from a different angle.
The two men with McPherson were more normal size, one a slim five-eight and the other close to six feet and two hunnert pounds if he weighed an ounce. Some fat on him, but you never knew what might be lurking under that in the way of muscle, bone, and sinew.
Not brains. I didn’t see him being overloaded with smarts.
Watching the short stack dismount was an education in horsemanship. The sturdy dapple gray gelding knelt, which allowed his rider to step down just like any normal human being. Ain’t never seen another horse that tricky except for the cayuses Grandpa Tam trains.
“Nice,” I acknowledged in between sips of coffee. I was finally getting used to the stuff.
“Bought him off a bearded lady,” he grinned, showing a ragged row of rotting teeth. “In the circus.” The dwarf had crazy eyes.
Well, Sadie, it went on kind of like that, me pretending I hadn’t noticed the man’s lack of height and him pretending he wasn’t interested in robbing me. There was no doubt they had that in mind. I must have looked like rich-kid easy pickings, that’s for sure.
Think about it. The Colt in my holster–with the hammer thong off–was a recent model and well cared for. The .44-40 Winchester, hey, you can’t never have too many of those. My horses are some of the best, and so’s my tack.
Hell, they’d have gladly killed me for the saddle alone.
So the four of us chit-chatted till the light was gone and the fire out for the night, at which point the Sandy Mac gang shook out their rolls and pretended to turn in.
Me? I headed on into my tent, just an innocent little baby-faced–okay, not so little, but we both know I look young for my age.
Anyway, I eased into the tent, closed the flap, and promptly slithered silently back out under the side where I’d planned an escape route just in case. I always do that, even when I don’t intend to really sleep there, but this was the first time I’d actually needed to scoot.
They gave me barely an hour to git off to dreamland. Then they attacked, one man ripping the tent flap open while the Midget Monster dashed through the opening, a big Bowie-style fighting knife in one hand and a billy club in the other.
Likely didn’t care to risk gunfire this close to Buena Vista.
“He ain’t here!” Sandy’s bellow was all baritone and entirely incredulous. “Where the f**k did he go?”
Seemed like a good time to give ’em an update on that.
See, my sleeping foxhole for this campsite had been dug on a low rise a few dozen yards to the east of where I’d pitched the tents. As luck would have it–and I never discount luck–Rowdy and the pack mare were picketed well out of any likely line of fire.
And the outlaws had waited for the moon to come up.
No doubt that was so they’d have light to stab, club, and rob me by, but that particular sword was definitely double edged. I could see to shoot now, too, especially with the combination of the big buckhorn sight on my Winchester and that way-better-than-most night vision for which the Tamson line is notable.
“Sandy Mac!” I bellowed, throwing my voice the way Grandpa Tam taught me so’s it seemed to come from over by the trees near the creek. “Put one little midget foot outside that tent and I’ll blow your toes off!”
Dumb words, I know. But these were dumb people I was dealing with. You go with what you got.
There was silence for a time then, broken only by the sounds of men spinning on their feet. And one horse who broke wind right at that moment. Slim and Fatty were dark silhouettes, nervous now with their backs to me and holding shooters in their hands.
“Jim and Dave!” If I was not mistaken, Sandy’s partners in crime were Jim Hoard and Dirty Dave Duggan (no relation to famed lawman/shootist Mart Duggan).
That was too much for the man sized owlhoots. I knew their names? I must die! Their shooters boomed, belching flame and smoke again and again. They didn’t quit till their smokepoles were empty. Good shooting, too; they must have ventilated several of the willows along the creek bank.
They were also stone night blind now. I was some better off, having thought to shade my eyes from the muzzle flashes mere seconds before they started popping off rounds.
Bet you’re getting ahead of me, honey, wondering how I was gonna deal with three dangerously stupid men through the rest of the night. I mean, I could shoot ’em, but there’d be awkward questions asked about that, either here or in the next life. From what I’ve heard, Judge Hankshaw ain’t nothing compared with some of them Judges of the Dead.
So, what to do?
Sure, I had an idea.
“You boys done yet?”
“What–what’re you gonna–who are you?”
That one was Dirty Dave, I was pretty sure. “Why, Mr. Duggan!” I exclaimed as if surprised, “Who I am is not important. What is important is the fact that there ain’t enough money on your worthless head to waste a bullet on.
“Not unless I have to.
” So iffen you and Jimmy Boy there would like to jist mosey on down the trail, I do believe I could see my way clear to let you go…and maybe even see my way clear to forget I seen you here tonight. Drinking my coffee. Warming your vittles over my fire. Trying to murder me in my sleep. Stuff like that.”
They mulled that over for a bit, seemingly not overly worried about their boss cussing ’em out for yellowbellied sapsucking cowards from inside the tent. The dwarf didn’t go to the extent of sticking even one foot outside the canvas to git his toes shot off, though, so he didn’t have much room to talk.
In the end, Jim and Dave abandoned their former leader without so much as a backward glance, even professing gratitude that I was letting ’em off scot free. Plus, I allowed ’em enough time to saddle their horses before they moved out.
They were jist about gone around the bend in the trail when one of ’em–couldn’t tell which–hollered back toward them innocent, shot-up willows one last time.
“You’re a bounty hunter, ain’t you?”
I didn’t answer. They were situated at a way diffferent angle now; it was all too likely my voice-throwing Tamson Trick wouldn’t work right at this range and they’d figure out where I was really hunkered down.
No, I didn’t sleep all night. After all, that little rat there in my tent was bound to try something before daylight. Which he did, maybe two, three hours before first light. He found that slip-through I’d used to exit the tent myself. Come sliding out slow-like, headfirst.
“I can shoot your nose off as quick as your toes, Mac!” I yelled at him, this time pitching to make it sound like I was holed up in the rocks to the north of his position.
He tucked himself back inside the canvas quick as any turtle pulling in his head, I can tell you that.
“It’ll take a few days to get the reward money here, Henry,” Buena Vista’s Marshal explained. “Wells Fargo’s been wanting this pint-sized pistolero downright sincerely of late, though. Jist upped the bounty on him yesterday.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How much?”
“It was twenty-five hundred. Jist went to five thousand.”
“Huh. I take it Sandy Mac has been a busy boy.”
“You could say that. How’d you git him to come meekly outa that tent to git hogtied, anyway? You know, when the sun come up.”
“Weren’t hard. I jist told him how it was gonna be, that I could fill that tent full of holes in a hurry if he didn’t comply.”
“That, plus one bullet through the middle of the thing, up near the ridgeline. Of course, that tent tops out about head height for the dwarf, so there was a chance he’d git ventilated in the process.”
Which explained the nick in Sanders McPherson’s right ear, but we didn’t go into all that.
Well, baby, I’m kind of rambling here. The cook is kind of giving me the eye, so I think it’s time to clear out, give her back this table for other customers. I’ll be staying at the Kendicott Sleepin’ Spot–that’s a hotel–for a few days. Catch up on my sleep, wait for the reward money to git here.
When it does, I’m thinking to keep maybe a thousand for pocket money, have the bank ship the rest down to you at Walsenburg. Think you could have your Mom or Dad help you open an account for the two of us? Give us a start at having our own money when we get married.
It’s funny, you know? Growing up, I come to believe Grandpa Tam and our Dads had done jist about everything worth doing. I mean, they had some wild-assed careers, them three men did, long before founding Flywheel Ranch.
But now here I am, gone from home for a mere three months now. In that piddly amount of time, just stumbling along from day to day, I’ve acquired an unwanted rep as a gunfighter (among those few who have a clue who I am), been a deputy sheriff, and now accidentally turned into a bounty hunter.
Of course, we did have Flywheel men wearing badges that one time, when they went out to the Goss place as part of a posse. So I guess they were deputies for a few hours, huh.
Ain’t none of ’em ever been a bounty hunter, though. So I reckon I’m sort of blazing my own trail at that.
My darling Henry,
It sounds like you probably did not get my letter about droopy-eye being identified as an ancient enemy of both my Mom and your Grandpa, so I’ll say it again here–watch your back. (You never know; you might get this letter before the other one. When it comes to the mail, stranger things have happened.)
Honey, you know your Mom worries about you. Mothers are mothers, even when they’re also two-gun shooters. But proud? Henry, the family keeps their bragging down around town. At least I think they do. But here at the ranch? Cougar struts around so big and bold it’s almost funny, saying things like, “That’s my boy!”
And Tam? He’s already spinning a whole series of brand new tall tales based on your exploits.
Which is hilarious, what he can do with that material when he’s got a gullible audience. Haying season is still in full swing, of course (this being August), but everybody makes way for story time in the evenings on Saturday nights especially. He’s got a couple of “Henry Tales” that put the dime novels to shame!
You’d be hard put to recognize yourself.
Phyllis is starting to show. The young Ute that knocked her up turned out to be Hopping Frog. You don’t think that makes fer a lot of jokes around here? As in, why did the Hopping Frog cross the road? To get to the Phyllie pad.
Or asking Phyllis if she’s feeling Froggy. Or a rhyme your nasty-assed brother Reggie came up with to tease your sister. Didn’t make her cry, though; she set his hair on fire instead. Here’s his dumb doggerel.
Hopping hopping never stopping
Now Phyllie’s got her belly popping
A girl should never kiss a frog
Or she’ll git called a girly dog
Reggie, in case you hadn’t noticed, is kind of a self-righteous twit!
By the way, you forgot my birthday, too. Makes us even, right? Although I surely didn’t have any $4,000 in cold, hard cash to send as your belated birthday present. Thank you for that, heart o’ my heart. Not the money so much, but for trusting me to be able to handle our bank account till you get home.
Man. Four years total you’ll be gone. But we’ve got a quarter of a year out of the way now. One sixteenth of the total.
See? Haven’t forgotten how to do fractions!
Oh, before I forget: Maybe it’s because I’m magically fourteen now, but I’m suddenly filling out, fulfilling my womanly promise as it were.
Just thought you’d like to know.
Love and lust,