Deputy Marshall Tom Underwood looked plumb amused as he crossed over to my table. “Telegram for you, Henry. The Marshal said you’d likely be having breakfast about now.”
Was that a dig at my late rising these days? It was nearly 8:00 a.m….no. Must be something in the telegram.
To: Bounty Hunter Henry Tamson, Kendicott Sleepin’ Spot, Buena Vista. STOP.
From: Flywheel HQ, Walsenburg. STOP.
Oh. “I’m an official bounty hunter now?”
“Looks like,” the deputy grinned, “at least according to this Flywheel, whatever that is.”
He didn’t know. “It’s a good-sized ranch down in Huerfano County. But why would they be sending me a telegram?”
“Guess if you read it….”
Keep eyes peeled for one Chauncey Devers. STOP. Many aka’s. STOP. Seen at Mercantile in Walsenburg. STOP. Possible destination Leadville. STOP.
Okay. I got it. My clan had figured out this Chauncy Devers was the droopy eye guy who’d been eyeballing my fiancee. With me moving around, they’d decided to try sending me a telegram so’s I’d have some idea who to look out for–and they were smart enough to know I was smart enough to see the “Bounty Hunter” title as a clue others wouldn’t recognize.
He was an outlaw sure enough, with at least a little money on his head.
Either that or my Dad was jist bragging on me. Not that I’d known him to favor bounty hunters…at least until his son turned out to be one, even if more or less by accident.
Well, I’d best write Sadie this evening, let the bunch know I’m up to date.
Got the gram. I’ll be watching for Chauncey. I’ve gotten to know a few people here. Asked them if they’d seen a fellow matching his description passing through lately.
Turns out nobody has. The only droopy eye scarface they’ve seen was the dwarf I turned in. And even he isn’t here any more; they shipped him off to stand trial in Wyoming. Turns out he’s got some serious charges against him up there, and Colorado decided to pass him on up the line for now.
Which I thought was pretty smart. Saves the state of Colorado the expense of a trial, and if he gits enough time, our people probably won’t even bother with him for years.
It is kind of funny, Flywheel flagging me as “Bounty Hunter” Henry Tamson, though. The local paper made the mistake of writing a piece up about me capturing Sandy Mac. I say “mistake” because they claimed what I did weren’t much at all, since Mac is such a wee felon…and half the town nearly lynched the editor.
Turned out a lot of people knew McPherson was a bad actor, three feet tall or not, and they didn’t appreciate the newsrag snickering at me like it done.
Now everybody and their dog wants to be my friend all of a sudden. People look at a bounty hunter different. The men are walking wide around me, the women are giving me googly-eyes almost as bad as they give Grandpa Tam in Walsenburg, and–
Wait a sec. I just reread what I wrote. Don’t get the idea I’m jumping all these girls’ bones, okay?
Anyway, I’ll be pulling out in the morning, finally heading on up to Leadville. The reward money came in finally, and there’s a party of six or eight miners going that way looking for work; they asked if I’d care to ride along with ’em, and I reckon I’ll do it. They seem like nice enough fellows, a couple with families back home they need to feed, but there’s been stories of bandits hitting travelers between here and there.
I think they figure having the company of the awesome Kid Tamson, gunfighting fool and bounty hunter extraordinaire, might improve their chances of arriving unscathed. Though who’d rob a group of folks heading toward Leadville…that makes no sense at all.
Rained here most of the afernoon. I couldn’t help thinking, if it did that at home, Flywheel would have to shut down haying entirely till the stuff on the ground was dried back out again.
Can’t say I’m all that sorry to be out of it for a while. Didn’t really realize ranching was such hard work till I was away from it. Missing you, of course (I’d better say!), but it’s quite interesting, the different folks you can meet “on the road”.
For example, just last evening….
The door to Cindy’s Cafe slammed open, admitting a bear of a man sporting a powerful stench and a skunkskin cap on his head.
That’s right. Not a coonskin cap. Skunk skin. Buckskins below that, like one of the old timey mountain men, who pretty much don’t exist any more…but I was none too sure he might not be a throwback. Five-eight, maybe. Sixty years old at least. But I wouldn’t have wanted to wrestle the fellow or camp downwind.
“Lord deliver us,” Samuel muttered, abandoning the last few bites of steak on his plate in favor of making a beeline to the cash register to pay his bill. The miner couldn’t stomach Crazy Crenshaw. Crazy Crosseyed Crenshaw, if you used his full title.
Stinky Stanley, if you were looking for a fight.
That left me, Harris, and Lem at the corner table, my favorite which put my back to the wall while leaving my right hand free to pull iron if need be. It didn’t normally get that rowdy in Buena Vista, but I come from a long line of folks who believe in keeping your guard up.
By the time Crenshaw had made it over to the counter to greet the cook and his elegant aroma had made its way over to our table to say howdy to us, it left only me. I’m from Flywheel Ranch; it takes more’n a man smellng like skunk piss dipped in catshit to throw me off my feed.
Which was a good thing, since Stanley Crenshaw had soon enough placed his order with Cindy and begun casting them crossed eyes over my way.
“Mind if I join you, son?” He asked polite enough, his speech considerably at variance with his olfactory impact.
I nodded. “Be my guest.”
“Right neighborly of you.” The old fellow settled in, just a-looking me over with them criss-crossy eyeballs. “Seems you got a stronger stomach than most.”
“Don’t see none of your friends still here, do you?”
“They got delicate constitutions,” I admitted, grinning. “Need their beauty rest.” A number of things struck me about this time. Stanley had a stink about him, all right, but his face and hands were suspiciously clean.
He also had a way of getting down to business without a whole lot of small talk. “Word around town is, you’re asking about a fella sporting a droopy right eyelid, a scar on the right cheek, sometimes calls himself Chauncey.”
“Word is right.”
“Well…what’re you paying for good information?”
That set me back a bit. Paying? I thought that over for a while before answering. “I might be willing to pick up the check for your T-bone here tonight…if you needed it. Which you don’t.”
He stared me right in the eye when I said that. Or at least I think that’s where he was looking. With Crenshaw, it mostly seemed he was peering at his own nose like there was a hornet sitting on the thing.
“Now, pup, you got me curious. Sorta derailed my line of inquiry. Not ’cause you’re tight with a dollar; that I can respect. But why are so all-fired certain sure I ain’t short of coin? Eh?”
“Fer one thing, oldtimer, Cindy jist now called you Dad when you placed your order. Her old man bought this place for her. You ain’t hurting; in fact, you’re likely the sixth or seventh richest man in these parts. Or so the word is around town.”
He busted out laughing, which added to my stock of information considerably. His breath, unlike the surfaces of his clothing, did not stink. He even had most of his teeth.
“You heard me from clear across the room? Kid, them jug ears of yours earn their keep, don’t they?”
“That they do,” I agreed. “As do the jug ears on my Dad and my Grandpa and even one crazy-assed Heyókȟa uncle.”
Which was when Stinking Stanley Crazy Crosseyed Crenshaw figured it out. He quit laughing right quick-like. Even with them eyes trying their best to throw me off, I could see the wheels a-turning.
“Who’s your Daddy, then?”
“They call him Cougar. Cougar Tamson.”
“Ah-h-h-h….” he let out a long breath. “And your grandpa?”
“Best known as Tam the tall tale teller.”
“Well, I’ll be. He was telling the truth.”
I waited him out. Not many could do that, I’m guessing. What with the crossed eyes and the unholy stench, most would cut and run–like my miner friends had all done–the moment this man came within spitting distance.
Me, I was intrigued. There was something about Crenshaw, and I don’t mean just that he was relatively rich and disguising his real clean-freak Republican nature under a skunkskin cap and some kind of stink oil he added to his buckskins just for shock effect.
He told me, finally–though his steak got cold in the doing of it.
Turns out he’s some older than Grandpa Tam…and he knew Believer, back in the day. I’ll try to tell his story in his own words, as nearly as I can remember them.
Henry, I’m a few years older than Tam, but your family line is responsible for me appearing as you see me today. When I was, think it was twenty-two, maybe twenty-three years of age, I fancied myself the toughest man west of the Mississippi, and I had the hand-to-hand battles to prove it.
Not a gunfighter, you understand. I could hit what I shot at if I had time to think about it, but I carried a sawed-off shotgun for close work. My theory being, the other guy might be faster and might even kill me, but I’d last long enough to ruin his day.
Strangely enough, gunfighters proper seemed to understand that and left me purty much alone.
It was before the War when I run into the old mountain man, Believer, for the first and only time. It weren’t by accident, neither. I’d ended up drifting around Montana Territory, taking on all comers as long as it was bare handed–jist fer the fun of it, you know, bragging rights and all that. Busted up a lot of strong men along the way, but I started hearing about a big ol’ boy by the name of Believer who could tie me in knots and use me fer a catch rope.
Which didn’t settle well with my young and lusty ego, Henry; I can promise you that. You now, you’ve the look of a young man who’s escaped that curse, and good fer you.
Anyway, I eventually got to thinking my reputation jist weren’t gonna be complete until I’d thumped ol’ Believer’s noggin and made him cry Uncle. Which was crazy thinking, but I also heard the old bugger had himself a child Cheyenne slave bride that men would kill for, and I reckon sight-unseen lust had a stake in that game as well. It weren’t entirely my big head doing all the thinking, I can tell you that.
What? No, Henry, I don’t blame you fer being in disbelief. Looking back, I can’t hardly believe it myself.
Anyway, along about midsummer one year, I made it up there to Piegan country where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam. Traveling alone, cocky-locky, found myself surrounded by a bunch of warriors. The warchief’s name was Bear Breath, if memory serves.
You could tell he and his braves had a mind to pickle me fer breakfast, but when they found out I was only in their territory because I figured to whomp on old Believer, they like to fell off their ponies laughing at me. They seemed to think this was a fine joke, or going to be. He talked it over with his bunch, and half a dozen of ’em–led by a fellow called Tall Pine–escorted me the remaining miles to Believer’s cabin.
If I understood their sign-talk correctly, they simply couldn’t wait to see how this was gonna turn out.
When we got to the cabin in the aspen grove, Believer was there, all right. Looked eighty if he was a minute, and I figured sure I could take him no matter how tough he mighta been back in the day. He was a big sumbitch–likely somewhere around six-six–but the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Besides, once I got a look at your grandma, I was a goner. Myrtle–that’s what he called her, though somebody told me she had an Indian name, Laughing Brook Over Stones–Myrtle was in full flower of her womanhood. The girl was maybe eighteen and the most stunning creature I’d ever even dreamed could exist.
Your Dad and your uncle, Cougar and Laughing Wolf, were little tykes running around, couldn’t have been more’n three years old or so, and yep, they had them Tamson jug ears, no doubt about it.
Tall Pine spoke to Believer first, explained my mission as it were. The Blackfoot was obviously highly amused, but I figured to make him eat Crow. So to speak.
The old mountain man didn’t think it was funny, though. Jist looked at me serious-like and asked, “Mr. Crenshaw, are you absolutely certain you want to do this?”
Yep. That’s what he called me, Mr. Crenshaw. I was so stunned over Myrtle–your grandma–that it took me a moment to remember what I was there for.
“I do,” I told him, and then added the deliberately insulting words that would inspire Believer to really teach me a lesson and thus change my life forever. “Them two catch colts need a proper Daddy. Reckon I’ll jist take that there Myrtle away from you and be done with it.”
What? Well, no, obviously he didn’t jist kill me on the spot. I wouldn’t be here now, would I?
Where was I…ah. I remember Believer jist shaking his head, heaving a big old sigh, and saying, “Let’s be done with it.”
There was no reason fer him to agree to fight me bare handed, you know. None at all. To this day, I ain’t sure why he agreed. Maybe because not accepting a man-to-man challenge in front of his Piegan friends would have looked bad. Maybe something else. I jist don’t know.
Anyway, the Blackfeet stood around in a circle. There weren’t no rules, except we stepped into that circle with no weapons but our fists and our feet and our wits, and that was it.
I’d fought really big men before, so I figured I knew how to git it done. Rushed him, but not bull-blind like so many brawlers do. At the last second, I threw a running kick straight at his crotch. There ain’t a Missouri mule alive can kick any harder’n I can; one shot down the middle and he’d be down.
Except of course it didn’t work like that. That big sumbitch–to this day I can’t tell you how he done it–somehow he swiveled to his left, and my foot grazed his leg but my momentum carried me on past him.
Thing was, he got squatted down so low–how the Hell he done it, I don’t know–slammed his right hand up under my ass as I was going by…and got a grip on my balls.
Quit yer damn laughing, Henry Tamson. The Blackfeet were doing enough a that, I can tell ya. You ever had your testicles tethered and then run out to the end of your chain as hard as you can go? No? Thought not. Tell you what, do it once and you won’t try it again.
He didn’t hang onto ’em after yanking and crushing ’em, but the damage was done. Fer a few mintues, I didn’t even know where I was, jist curled up on the ground screaming like a dying rabbit.
What killed me the worst was Myrtle. First thing I seen when I could sorta begin to focus my crossed eyeballs was her face–and it was full of sympathy.
Ain’t no man wants to see the woman of his dreams feeling sympathy fer him being manhandled like he was nothing.
“So, Stanley,” I said, “from everything I’ve heard about Believer, your story rings true. But how did that end up influencing the way you are today?”
He chuckled, finally realizing his meal had gone cold. His daughter had kept his coffee cup topped off, though.
“Henry, I was so busted up from that single ball-crush, I couldn’t have traveled fer a while if my life depended on it. The Blackfeet went back home, but danged if your grandma’s lover didn’t take me into his own cabin, and the two of ’em healed me up. Myrtle knew some herbs she fixed up, made a sort of poultice for my ball sack.
“Made me place it myself, of course. Feeling me up after what I’d done wouldn’t a made a whole lotta sense. But I was confused as Hell, partly from finding out I wasn’t so tough after all and partly ’cause I didn’t know what to do next–and after a while, partly from the guilt over having been such a jerk in the first place.”
He paused long enough to grab a bite of steak. From the tender side of the bone, naturally. I wasn’t even noticing his deliberate stench any more…but I was more than curious about it.
Still, I waited him out. He seemed to appreciate that.
“In the end, Believer told me a bit of philosophy. Said life wasn’t only about the real you, what you were, but also about what people thought you were. And better, he believed, to have your enemies or even simply your competitors think you were either greater or lesser than your true measuring.”
“Huh?” I must have looked as confused as he felt back then.
“Well, he gave himself as an example. Said some enemies had underestimated him–not me; I didn’t even count fer enough to be considered an enemy–but those enemies he had overcome because they had no clue what he could do. Then again, some enemies overestimated him, and those types might have taken him out but stayed away because they considered him more dangerous than he was.”
“Oh. Okay, I get it. So you–”
“So I decided, while I was laying up on a pallet in Believer’s cabin with a ball sack swollen to thrice its normal size, I wasn’t ever going to get enough people to overestimate me…but I bet I could figure out how to make them underestimate me.”
I suddenly put it all together…and started laughing. Uncontrollably. Couldn’t stop. Pretty Cindy, over behind the counter, was grinning our way. Stanley fell to eating his cold steak with a will, had it stripped to the bare bone by the time I finally spluttered down far enough to wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and ask,
“So, your getup–?”
“Yep. Who’s going to take a crosseyed, stinky rounder with a skunkskin cap and greasy buckskins seriously?”
“Bet you’ve got clean underclothes beneath them skins, keeping the filth away from your own squeaky clean hide!”
“Daughter!” He called over to Cindy. “Did you say this bright young fellow was engaged?”
“I did, Daddy,” she admitted, shaking her head ruefully. “You know the good ones are always taken.”
Well, honey, it’s getting late according to the egg-shaped moon, and we’ve got a long day on the trail toward Leadville tomorrow. Just so you know, Stanley Crenshaw has decided to join up with me and the miners for the journey–though I’m willing to bet the others will shy away from Stinky Stanley and decide they didn’t need my company so badly after all.
The man in the skunksin cap has a mind to do some horse trading up Leadville way, where he’s sure he can skin ’em alive for a while. Tell Grandma Brook and the others, the man with the Believer-punctured ego and the swollen ball sack has popped back up.
So to speak.
My darling Henry,
Oh, you aren’t humping any girls out there on your own? Why ever not? Don’t you dare come back to me without having sown your wild oats–I don’t need you getting the Seven Year Itch later on!
Joking, honey. Joking. But I don’t expect you to be celibate all the four years you’re away. How ignorant would that be of me?
Smart of you not to brag about what you “may or may not” be doing, though.
Brook says she surely does remember Crosseyed Stanley Crenshaw of the Temporarily Titanic Testicles, all right! Said he wasn’t a bad guy once Believer brought him to reason, and she’s happy to hear he’ll be traveling with you for a while.
We’re also relieved to know you got the word on droopy-eyed Chauncey. There’s a lot of intuition in the members of the Flywheel clan, as you well know, and the consensus here is that you’re more likely to cross Dever’s trail in Leadville than not.
Yes, we got heavy rain that same day you did. Put a four-day glitch in haying, turning and returning the windrows in the several fields that were cut at the moment the sky busted open. But everything’s back on track now.
Guess what? I’ve got a new job!
I started working a couple of the green colts, and everybody liked the way they turned out. So now I’m a sort-of, semi-official, part-time Flywheel bronco buster! Mom’s still insisting I help in the kitchens for two meals out of three, but they’re cutting me loose for most of the afternoons so I can break and train the three year olds.
How cool is that?!
Love and lust,