The Letters of Henry and Sadie, Chapter 12: Medicine Rifle



“Hello the cabin!”

“C’mon in!”

I finished punching the new hole in Rowdy’s breast collar as the latch lifted and Jefferson Cole Panghorn stepped through the doorway. My black gelding had been doing so much log skidding work this winter that his muscles kept getting bigger. He’d always been a stout bronc, but now….

“Figured you’d be writing your honey about this time, Henry. Don’t you always pen her a page or two after supper?” Cole’s blue eyes twinkled in his bearded face, the fireplace light more than enough to reveal the man’s eternal good humor. Wise Owl and Bluebird had already gone to bed in the back room, which we’d walled off with a sheet of canvas so’s them two could have some privacy.

“Getting short on writing paper,” I admitted. “Besides, there ain’t gonna be no mail moving in or outa here till spring thaw now. Kinda don’t make sense jist piling up unsent letters.”


Panghorn snagged a tin cup from the rack, poured himself a scalding cup of coffee, and settled in. We didn’t neither one of us say a word for the next several minutes. It was like that with us, had been from the moment the Shoshones and I’d stumbled into the little high-country Colorado town of Yampa. We’d barely made it through Rabbit Ears Pass before the blizzard hit…and here we were for a few months yet to come.

Finally, a question did occur to me. “Mr. William H. Tucker still figuring to turn this place into a real organized town before this new year of 1989 is out?”

“That he does. Says there’s a Reverend by the name of William Bayard Craig who’s got some serious money of his own. Tuck’s telling me he’s going to pitch him on the idea, promise to name the town Craig.”

“Ain’t them sky pilots supposed to be beyond Earthly temptations like that?”

My friend laughed, a deep, rich sound that come up from his belly. “You’re one helluva hand a-borning, Henry, but still a mite unschooled on the ways of the world. But that’s not why I stopped by. You remember Donny McDorgan, that we met at the store the other day?”

“The showman?”

“That’s him. He made the rounds today. Says with all of us two, three hundred miserable Souls all cooped up to the point we can’t move except on snowshoes or skis, cabin fever’s like to get somebody killed before the snow melts.”

“He’s got a point there.” Cabin fever didn’t really apply to me and the Shoshones. There was a bond between us, ever since Red Cliff, that kept things comfortable. Besides which, we all three stayed busy. Wise Owl, it turned out, was a master snowshoe maker, and as fast as he could turn out a spare pair, he had a ready buyer from town.

Bluebird, using elkskin, cranked out high-topped moccasins just about as regularly, with or without beading but always with fringes to wick water away from the wearer.

And me…I’d become a logger. Of sorts. The serious types out there generally used two-man saws to drop the timber–after axe-notching it, of course–but I’ve always worked best alone. Found a few needed tools for sale from needy residents (a bit of gold in a guy’s pocket is a helpful thing) and came up with my own specialty. Folks didn’t come to me for the big stuff, but for this winter at least, I’d become the post and pole guy. There wouldn’t be any fence building with the ground frozen, but a few buyers were willing to stockpile ahead.

It didn’t pay a lot, but it kept me busy and in shape…and well away from cabin fever.

“He does have a point. He’s also got a plan.” Cole tossed back the last of his coffee, then sat there grinning like a fool.

“Which you’re fixing to explain to me.”

“Uh-huh. Set that harness aside fer a bit, cowboy. We got a tale-telling to attend.”

I stared at him. “A what?”

“A tale telling. They’ve got the fires warming up that big barn of Yancey’s. The whole town is invited to a tall tale telling contest.”

“Well,” I confessed, “this I’ve got to see.”


Our place–where the Indians and I were squatting; it’s not like we held title to the land–was a half mile outside of Yampa proper. Far enough not to have to put up with town types, for which I’d realized I had a low tolerance, but close enough to reach in a ten minute hike.

Even on snowshoes.

The moon wasn’t up yet, but with all the snow, starlight was enough for a Tamson to navigate by. Enough for a Panghorn, too, apparently.

With me gone, the latch string was in, and my Shoshone friends were well armed. Any Indian haters who thought to tackle the cabin in my absence would be unlikely to survive the experience.

It wasn’t the whole town that had gathered in Yancey’s barn, but close enough. Besides the warming fires, there were plenty of kerosene lanterns on display. Each tale teller would spin his yarn while standing inside an old Democrat wagon parked crosswise at one end of the place, which would let him see and be seen by his audience.

Donny McDorgan himself went first, thanking us all fer attending what he grandly titled The First Weekly Tall Tale Telling Contest.

“Now folks, I cain’t hardly ask y’all to climb up here and spin your tales without walking the walk my ownself, can I?”

The crown agreed. Loudly. There was a good feel to this gathering. Weekly? Yeah, that could work.

Unfortunately, McDorgan’s offering was…pallid. Insipid. Uninspired. Poorly delivered. And, as I figured out about halfway through his oration, entirely lifted from one of Shakespeare’s plays, though I couldn’t remember which one exactly.

The audience seemed to like it well enough, but what did they know?

I had a powerful hunch this was all about Donny McDorgan and his ego, especially after the other tale tellers took their turns. It was clear Donny had not only set this up but had set himself up to be the Master Showman of Yampa.

Most likely because every other place west of the Mississippi had run him out of town after watching him perform one time.

There were seven other tale tellers. I counted them, mostly for something to do. McDorgan himself had been sort of acceptable despite the plagiarism and generally wimpy delivery, but the rest were not easy to enjoy. At least sober they weren’t, and I didn’t drink after that one time.

Finally, an hour and a half into the thing, it was over, or nearly so. The audience that had begun so well–I could read them, and they wouldn’t likely be coming back next week.

I should have been able to leave it there. It’s none of your business, I told myself. But I’d grown up around Tam the tall tale teller himself, and I couldn’t take it. Seeing the art of the spun yarn so mislabeled and abused was simply too much. My sensibilities were purely insulted. Plus, this was my community for the moment. Somehow that mattered.

I lost it.

McDorgan’s eyes widened in surprise when I launched myself from a rear wheel up, over, and into the Democrat wagon. “Henry?” He didn’t seem to understand. “We’re done for tonight. What–”

“Done!?!” I thundered at him. My blood was up.

He scrambled out and down from the wagon in rather unseemly haste, and I turned to the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” I began, “The hour is late, yet I have a tale to tell, a tale the worthiness of which only you can judge!’

For one long beat, I paused. You don’t grow up around Tam Tamson without learning timing.

Nobody turned to leave the barn; they were transfixed.

Lowering my volume a bit, so that it merely bounced off the barn’s walls instead of shivering its timbers, I went on. Enunciation. Pacing. Power.

“My name is Henry Tamson. My grandfather is Tam the tall tale teller himself. The blood of both Cheyenne and Comanche warriors runs in my veins. My fiancee’s father is none other than Dawson Trask, a soldier who once slept among the dead at Gettysburg yet lived to help frame the Colorado State Constitution under whose laws we all abide.

“My people have fought Indians who hated whites and whites who hated Indians. We have rassled more than one bear, and the bears are dead. One of us–not saying who, mind you–actually spit on Custer, and Custer’s dead, too.

“I have a tale to tell. Does anyone need a potty break first?”

No one did.


My darling Henry,

(*Sigh*) It’s hard, writing these letters but not knowing where to mail them. According to the news, you’re most likely snowed in somewhere for the winter. They say the drifts are deep in NW Colorado this year, and I know you’d have made contact if you could.

But I know you’re alive, too, so hey. You get to read these next summer, and hopefully you’ll have a pile of your adventures written down for me to read about.

Guess I can tell you about the wolf hunt. I finally got permission to go on one.


“Ready, kid?” Dad was already mounted up.

I finished snugging the cinch, tied off the latigo, and swung aboard. “As I’ll ever be!”

“Hngh,” was all he said, but I could tell he was proud of me. Hey, I’m his firstborn, his Daddy’s girl, and I was packing his old .44-40 Winchester. Can’t beat that.

Besides, at age fourteen I was the only girl in a collection of eight deadly men. My mother’s daughter, eh? The wolf hunters included, besides us, a whole flock of Tamsons: Tam, Cougar (yeah, your Dad, I know), your uncle Wolf, and believe it or not, your brother Reggie. Plus Jack Prosser, whose range we’d be combing today. And the Ute hand, Wolf Eyes.

It might have looked to an outsider like overkill, but I knew better. For the past two months, we’ve had a rule here at Flywheel Ranch: Nobody travels alone, not even to check the herds. Calving season is just around the corner, but until we wipe out these wolves, nobody’s taking chances.

Wolf and Wolf Eyes, working together, figured out the wolf pack. Go figure. Set a wolf to catch a wolf. They believed they could predict where the wolves would be at a certain time of day. Secretly, I wasn’t too sure your crazy Heyókȟa uncle knew what he was talking about, but they don’t come any solider than Wolf Eyes the Ute. So.

Turned out Wolf knows his wolves. Doesn’t particularly care for this pack, but he knows them, all right. He led us over a ridge under the cover of timber, way back on the far side of the Hidden Lakes country, and had us find shooting spots. In the meantime, he warned us:

“Do not think about wolves, and do not think about the broad valley you see spread out below you!”

I’m pretty sure all of that was aimed directly at me. It isn’t like the regular hunters among us don’t know better than to let your prey read your mind. Sheesh.

Not sure what the others thought about. Me, I thought about my Henry, about how if you’d stayed here at the ranch after graduation, I’d probably be knocked up by now. Very nice thought, actually, and I was a bit startled when Dad tapped me on the knee and pointed.

The pack was trotting along big as you please, picking its way through the shallower snow with unerring precision. They were clearly unaware of our presence.

To date, these sport killers had accounted for 93 calves, seven adult cows, and one young two-year-old funny-face bull. They shouldn’t have killed the bull.

We all take that downright personally.

Nobody was explaining anything to me, but I thought I understood the setup. At the moment, the wolves were a good half-mile off, but if they kept on as they were going, they’d pass within 100 yards or so of our station–which was downwind of them. Then, when the bullets started flying and the critters still on their feet started running for cover, the beasts would have nothing but ugly options.

The closest cover was where we were. Let ’em try.

If they reversed course and angled to our right, they still had a good quarter mile to reach the timber. A wolf can cover that much ground in a hurry, I’ve been told, but still.

Any other direction, they’d remain visible targets for a lo-ong time.

Everybody agreed Dawson would take the first shot. There’s nobody more accurate with a long gun, and he’s got that big .50 with the Creedmoor sight. Once he let fly, hopefully taking out the pack leader, it would be open season. I had 15 rounds in the .44-40. It would have probably been blasphemous to pray to hit one of God’s own creatures–if these beasts were indeed of God–so I didn’t do that.

But I did untuck my warm trigger hand from my left armpit and get ready to do my best.


They didn’t come in quite as close as we’d hoped. About two hundred yards out, the pack leader suddenly stopped cold and looked right at us. It’s doubtful he could actually spot us in the shadows, but every man jack of us (including this girl jack) knew he knew we were there.

Dad didn’t wait. His long rifle roared, and the big black–the leader was a black–flew back through the air and down onto the snow. That was important. Hell, that was crucial. But to me, the most important thing was that I could let ‘er rip.

It wasn’t that easy. Have you ever tried picking a target when eight ranch-hardened cowboys are doing exactly the same thing all around you? Every time I got my sights lined up and started to squeeze the trigger on a running wolf, it would go down before I could finish the pull.

Honey, that moment there on the hill, surrounded by all those men who loved me and would kill anything that tried to hurt me, that was the first time I really understood what you meant. You know, when you wrote about us having grown up so protected on Flywheel Ranch.

I finally got it, realized you were right; we were spoiled.

I don’t know if I actually hit any of the animals on the fly. It was just too chaotic to be sure. Tell you what, though; I do believe even the U.S. Army would have a time of it if for any reason they decided to come after Flywheel Ranch. You know how a lot of folks, especially from Texas, kind of can’t wait to tell you they’re from Texas? It’s ’cause that means something.

And being from Flywheel Ranch, that means something, too.

Anyway, long story short, there were nine in the pack–exactly the same number of wolves as hunters, how ’bout that–and all of ’em went down. But they weren’t all dead yet; some were wounded and lying or floundering in the snow. I stuck with Dad, figuring he’d get nervous if I didn’t, but I was on a mission: I couldn’t be sure I’d dropped anything, but I could be sure I’d finished one off. It was important to me.

We pulled up a few dozen yards from a medium sized gray female who watched us with knowing, pain-filled eyes. I blurted out,

“This one’s mine, Dad.”

He looked at me but didn’t say anything. I set my mare sideways, took aim, eared the hammer back, and spoke quietly but aloud.

“You’re a beautiful creature. I wish you well in your next incarnation. But you and your People came after our calves. You slaughtered seven cows, and you savaged a beautiful young bull for nothing but the sport of watching him die in pain and terror. Take your medicine.”

The hammer fell.

We moved on down the line, only to find the deed was done.

None of us felt much like skinning the critters or worrying about the bounty on their heads, so we just congregated back at our ambush site, broke the lunches out of our saddle bags, and chowed down. The valley was peaceful again, mostly because of the dark forms and blood spotting the snow. Crows, plus a couple of ravens, began to find the corpses.

That, I thought, was that.

But not quite. It turned out Dawson, my Dad, had not only heard what I’d said to the wolf before releasing her from this vale of tears, but he’d memorized it on the spot. Memorized it, and shared my little speech with the others, especially the Tamsons.

You know how among the Blackfeet, Tam is known as Crazy Rifle? It turns out I’ve now been tagged with a warrior’s name as well.

Your Cheyenne grandmother Brook informed me in a ranch ceremony the other day that, thanks to me having told the wolf to take her medicine, my Indian name is now Medicine Rifle.

I cried about that later, alone in bed where nobody could see. I cried for the pain of the wolf I’d shot, though of course I’ll do it again a thousand times over if it has to be done. I am a rancher’s daughter.

But most of all, I cried because my heart was full.

Love and lust,

Your warrior woman,

Medicine Rifle (Sadie)

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