My darling Sadie,
All that second day, the storm kept on us. We ate, slept as we could, swapped lies, pissed as we had to, farted a lot in that godawful tiny tent, anything to pass the time. Darkness came again. If anything, I believe both of us were feeling more busted up than we had when the day started.
While it was still light out, I’d dug around in the snow–which by now was loincloth deep on a tall Indian–and finally managed to come up with my rifle. Never did find Stanley’s long gun, though; that shooter was lost to us forever. Got a feeling it might be buried under that thousand pound, deep-frozen bear carcass.
If so, it’s gonna have to stay there.
The bunged-up ankle wasn’t too bad as long as I remembered to favor it and used the homemade crutch I’d fashioned out of a tree limb. Might be able to ride without too much misery.
If I had a horse.
Somewhere deep in the night, my eyes snapped open in the darkness. The sound–or rather the lack of sound–said it all.
The wind had quit blowing.
Stanley’s breathing said he was awake, too, but neither of us spoke. What was there to say?
I went back to sleep. Slept like a baby, right through to first light. The dream had been powerful…and this time, there was a noise outside the tent. A critter, sure as shooting.
My hand touched my partner’s shoulder briefly, and I slipped out of the tent, ghosting like some great snow snake–which, if memory served, was the way Grandpa Tam had done it against his renegade Blackfoot enemy, back in the day. Except that was in the deepest night.
Back to the tent briefly.
“Your plug-ugly mule and all three horses are right here, digging for grass like nothing ever happened.”
“Ungh.” Which meant, obviously, “What a f**king relief!”.
“Pass me that coil of rope, wouldja?”
Remarkably, the animals not only let me approach and secure them without playing avoid-the-cowboy, but Rowdy and the mule had apparently decided they were blood brothers (or something) after all. No more giving each other the evil eye or nothing. Buddies to the end.
Must have been the bear attack. Runaway bonding.
“I do believe it was your mule that led the horses back here, Stanley.” Crenshaw had made it out of the tent and onto his feet, though he was still obviously wobbly. “The thing is, I can’t fer the life of me remember what you call this blessed beast.”
The old man lifted his skunkskin cap to scratch his balding scalp. “Hunh. Know what? Neither can I.”
“Maybe. Well, he’s a dang mule. Guess I could call him Muley.”
“Oh, come on! You can do better’n that!”
“Speak fer yourself, kid, I ain’t none to sure my brain’s as sharp as it was before getting buried under half a ton of bear.”
“Speak fer myself? Yeah, okay…how ’bout…hmmm…how ’bout Sensible?”
“Sensible. He was sensible enough to run from a beast that could shred him into muleburger and sensible enough to come back home to us when the coast was clear. Sensible.”
“Sensible…why not. That’s your new name, Sensible. Whaddya think of that?”
Sensible the mule promptly shook his head and snorted green snot all over the new-fallen snow. His way of registering approval, obviously.
By the time I’d unsaddled the animals, rubbed them down, repacked three pack horses’ worth of gear onto two (since the third lay dead under the snow), resaddled our riding mounts, rigged a rope hackamore to replace Sensible’s missing bridle (Rowdy still had his), and helped Stanley misery his way into the saddle, it was maybe an hour short of high noon.
But the sun was shining, the snow was melting, and we’d only had to ride a matter of a few hundred yards to find the “missing” road through Tennessee Pass.
That’s right. To Hell with heading back to Leadville. Damn town was trying to keep us from leaving. At least, that’s the way it felt to us.
Couldn’t be we shared a deep stubborn streak and a hatred of backing water, or a refusal to let them Leadvillians know we’d been thumped by a lousy griz. Two Super Warriors like Skunk Man and the redoubtable Henry Julius Tamson, gunfighting bounty hunter of great renown? No way could any mere bruin be a problem for hee-roes like us.
Besides, once through the pass and dropping down the western slope, the going got easier with every mile. By midafternoon, we were outa the snow entirely. Even heavy-laden as they were, the two remaining pack horses–oh, and Sadie? Tell Susie that Bonnie is still with us, would you? The tail-end mare that got bear-killed was the extra I bought in Salida, not any animal she’d know.
Anyway, the horses could handle the loads okay as long as we didn’t push it too hard.
Which none of us felt like doing, I can tell you that much. Rowdy didn’t exactly limp, but the claw marks from the griz had left him a bit stiff both fore and aft on that right side, and my partner could barely sit his saddle at all.
Just at sunset, we came–stiff, sore, worn, and in Stanley’s case, ill–to the town of Red Cliff.
Which was a good thing. Crenshaw was in trouble, and Red Cliff not only boasted two drugstores but also a doctor.
A woman doctor.
Never heard of such a thing, but there it is. Her name is Sharon Pecunie–that last name is Indian of some sort, I think, and she’s got the cheekbones for it. Somewhere around forty or so, as tall as Mom but whipstock lean and smarter’n a whip, too.
Took one look at my partner and let us know in no uncertain terms: If we’d not stopped to see her, Stanley woulda been dead in a matter of a day or two at most. If we’d gone back to Leadville, where the doctors are in her opinion less skilled by far than they’d have the public believe, he also woulda died–maybe faster.
I get the impression she and the rest of the medical profession don’t like each other much.
But she’s good. We been here three days now, honey, and I finally realized I hadn’t gotten this letter finished to go with the other. So here you go, the one wondering if we’d live, and the one telling you we definitely will, thanks to Doc Pecunie. Crenshaw is healing fast under her care. She ain’t letting him outa her place, and I get the impression he’s already got the hots for the lady sawbones something fierce.
Must have. He’s up and around some, and not once has he bothered to freshen up his signature stink oil on his buckskins.
Whether or not she’s got a thing fer crosseyed old imitation mountain men, it’s too soon to tell.
That said, baby, we’ll not be heading up to Wyoming this winter after all. Red Cliff has a Post Office, and you can send my mail here to the Southern Hotel, where I’m staying at least fer now. The locals argue some over the population, what with this still being mining boom country (though at just under 8,300 feet elevation instead of over 10,000). Best estimate seems to be around 300 Souls, and I can live with that.
Which is why I accepted the Marshal’s job: This place ain’t near as crowded as monster Leadville. Besides, when I was thinking it over yesterday, I saddled Rowdy up and rode out of town just for an hour or so, to clear my head.
Asked for a sign…and a huge hawk suddenly appeared out of nowhere, hovered right over my head.
Didn’t crap on me or anything, so I figured it was saying, “Go for it!”
I ain’t sure what the town fathers done with the old Marshal; it’s kinda hard to git a straight answer out of ’em at times. Either they canned his ass fer cowardice (rumors abound) or he quit on his own or he’s–well, there are plenty of tales out there, no two of ’em quite alike, and most of ’em growing some every time they’re retold.
I may have a few Saturday Night Whoppers to tell when next I write. My first weekend on the job is coming right up, and they say it gets a little western around here on Saturday night. Plus, they were all-fired happy to be able to hire a renowned young gunfighter and snake-eyed bounty hunter such as myself fer a mere $60 a month plus meals at the Mountain Munch (yeah, that’s what the owner calls it) plus half my room rent.
Gotta get this in the mail, honey.
From the county seat of Eagle County (and the oldest town in Eagle County to boot),
My darling Henry,
Thank goodness, your letters arrived today. And you know what? Red Cliff sounds like a cool place for you to spend the winter.
Cool place. Winter. Get it?
You didn’t say anything more after you got to Red Cliff about your own injuries, so I’m guessing your ankle’s healing on its own. Glad to hear it’s Stanley Crenshaw, not you, who’s dinged up enough to need constant care from Sawbones Sharon. For any number of reasons!
But if I know my Henry, there’ll be an eager female in that little town, sniffing around, before spring snow melt. They’re drawn to you like moths to the flame, you know.
Seriously, baby, I’m awfully relieved to know for sure you’re okay.
Because your brother Reggie…is not.
It’s a shaggy dog story, but not one that takes long to tell. You know the Hopstead brothers, in their early twenties, dropped out of school way back. Shiftless, etc. etc. Well, it happened last Wednesday. School had just let out, and Reggie was walking with the rest of us back to the rental house, when we saw those two lowlifes kicking a dog out in the middle of the street. It was their dog, but that didn’t make any difference.
He called those guys out. One thing led to another–mostly them telling Reggie what they did with their own dog was no rich bleeping Tamson’s business, and Reggie getting all deathly quiet and losing color like he does when he goes into kill mode.
Deputy Markus happened to come around the corner just in time to see Reg kick Janus Hopstead between the legs so hard, it lifted him in the air a good two feet. Dennis Hopstead was already down for the count. Those two had swung first, but Markus said he could only go by what he saw–guess the rest of us Flywheel kids backing up your brother didn’t count for much at that point.
So Reggie went to jail. Not for long; Mom was our chaperone that week, and she bailed him right back out in thirty minutes flat. But the Hopstead boys were some messed up, and Reggie’s got to go to court tomorrow.
See, I don’t think I’ve mentioned this till now, but Reggie put on an unbelievable slab of muscle this summer. Right now, I do believe he could Indian wrestle a buffalo and win. All that raw power crushed the nuts of Janus so the word is, he won’t be siring the next generation of hapless Hopsteads. Plus, Dennis has a busted jaw they had to wire shut and a cracked kneecap, and they’ve got a bunch of lesser dings.
Nobody’s too worried about the court thing–the consensus is, probably a fine for trying to tell other folks what they can or can’t do with their own property, pay for the medical costs on those two rounders, and that’ll be that.
But the whole Flywheel bunch kind of agrees that after the court date, Reggie needs to get out of town for a while. So he’s going to skip out on school for a whole month and go on the Box Boy exchange run to the Reservation. It’ll do him good to travel with both Cougar and Tam for all that time–they’re both going–and to see how the Utes live on their home turf. All that.
Plus, it’ll keep him out of reach of the Hopsteads for a few weeks. I haven’t been told or anything, but I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut hole, Reg is going to learn a whole lot about strategy and tactics from his Dad and Granddad on this journey.
Which he’ll need, ’cause as you know, that whole Hopstead clan is nothing but a bunch of mean, low-minded, worthless weasels. They couldn’t possibly take on Flywheel straight up and come out of the confrontation in one piece, but they’ll try something.
Love and lust,