Yancey’s jam-packed barn waited for me to start telling my tale. I was standing spread-legged in the old Democrat wagon, looking out over the hundreds–more than two hundred, anyway–of expectant faces, including the few women and kids in the audience, washed in light from the kerosene lanterns and warming fires.
On impulse, I’d stolen third rate showman Donny McDorgan’s thunder before this majority of Yampa, Colorado’s winter residents could leave disappointed. Now I had to deliver. Trouble was, I had no idea what sort of yarn to spin. It wasn’t like I had a set showpiece for something like this. In fact, I’d never once in all my eighteen years of life set myself up as a storyteller.
Well…maybe once. The story of how that came about might work.
It had better work, I thought. Other than that, I got nothing.
“Trevor Tibbs,” I spoke, my stage voice carrying as if I’d been a theater actor from Day One, “you’ve turned nine years old now, have you not?”
Startled at being addressed by his elder at such a gathering, the boy replied clearly enough. He was in the front row, with his mother, father, and one of his uncles. “Yessir, Mr. Tamson! I became nine last Sunday!”
“Nine last Sunday!” I repeated his words for the benefit of those in the back who could not possibly have heard the youngster’s piping response. “Trevor, that’s a great thing. Nine is a great age. It’s a great age to learn things. The tale I’m about to tell involves me when I was nine and some of the lessons I learned, mostly the hard way ’cause I was stupid. I wasn’t as smart as you, Trevor, so I had to git whacked upside the head to git the point.
“it happened like this.”
As Saturdays in January go, this one couldn’t have gone better. Everyone was gathered in the main yard at Flywheel Ranch, gathering around the three great firepits as tables were lined up, then loaded with every kind of feast food imaginable.
Everyone? Well, Benjamin, maybe not the entire town of Walsenburg, but there must have been more than 400 folks assembled. They’d been there all day, watching the trick horse work and shooting exhibitions and listening to Tam’s tall tales. The year was 1879, and this was the Sixth Annual Flywheel Ranch Winter Festival. Some said it was the best Flywheel Festival ever, and that was saying something.
Winter in the Walsenburg country ain’t like it is up north in the high country, but it’s not exactly the tropics, either. Most of the area ranchers had come, even them that didn’t much care fer Trask or the Tamsons, and a fair chunk of the townspeople, too.
Yep, folks were having a fine old time indeed…until tall, redheaded Penny Tamson came on a dead run outa nowhere, leaped up on the speechifying hay wagon like she had springs in her butt, and bellowed in a Mama voice fit to wake the dead:
“Anybody seen Henry?!!”
At the time, I didn’t hear that. It was reported to me later. Now pay attention, folks; don’t be getting ahead of me. I’ll be getting to my part of this here dustup shortly.
Penny didn’t wait fer more’n a beat or two of dead silence before she laid it on the line. “Last I seen my son, he was carrying firewood over to supply the #3 firepit about an hour before sunset. I didn’t miss him right after that; he’s an active boy. He gits around.
“But what he don’t do is go missing on his own hook during festivities like this. Not fer longer’n it takes to hit the outhouse and pull his britches back up, he don’t. Which tells me one thing, people: If nobody here has seen him in the past hour, Henry’s been taken.”
She didn’t wait fer a response, jist climbed back down. Cougar Tamson, one of the most feared gunfighters from a few years back and still Hell on wheels as both a shootist and a tracker, had already made it through the crowd to his wife’s side. Their son would be sought by the best of the best, especially when Tam, the tall tale teller himself, was in the mix along with Coug and his brother, Wolf.
Even so, Flywheel was up against it fer sure. The kidnappers had to be crazy to tackle Trask and the Tamsons, but whoever said such aberrrant beasts were sane in the first place? Besides, they’d timed their boy-heist well. It was said that jist about any of the Tamsons could track wind over water, but not tonight. Tonight, not even they were likely to cut the right trail before sunup.
Not with hundreds of Festival folks muddying up the picture, they weren’t.
They’d be trying, of course. Within minutes, grim-faced, hard-bitten ranchers and not a few townsmen were lining up behind one or another of the Flywheel bunch. Personal likes or dislikes didn’t matter; one of the community’s kids had been nabbed, and nothing else counted.
Sheriff Robert Olsen stuck with Tam and Dawson, the history between the three men cementing their faith in each other when it come time to fish or cut bait.
Of them all, none carried Death in his eyes more clearly than did Dawson Trask. The bond between Dawson and Henry had been there from the beginning, a bond even stronger–some suspected–than that between the boy and his own father. Had the kidnappers been able to get a look at the eyes of the former Civil War sergeant right then, the man who’d once slept among the dead at Gettysburg, the man who’d stood between a charging bear and the boy when Henry was three years old–and nearly died for it–they might well have regretted their actions.
But it was far too late fer that. One and all, the members of the torch-bearing scouting parties and the women staying behind to anchor the ranch, they only hoped it wasn’t too late fer Henry.
Me? Nine year old me?
I was busy cussing silently and trying to breathe.
Couldn’t see anything. Near as I could tell from the smell, I was stuffed inside an old potato sack. Being carried off to God knows where like an old sack of potatoes, too.
Things I was pretty sure about: I was tied hand and foot, gagged with some icky piece of rag or something, and in mortal danger. My captors, a couple of nasty pieces of work indeed, were the same guys who’d abducted eight year old Sally Cordoba from over in San Luis last January and never been caught.
Had to be.
Things I was absolutely sure about: Sally’s wealthy family had paid her ransom, and they did get Sally back.
I had seen the faces of these cabrones. I could identify them. Unless I could get my head out of my ass–pretty much literally, the way things were going–I was a dead kid.
Flywheel would find them. They would die in the end, and die hard. If my friend Dawson Trask got to them first, they would die extra hard, maybe even harder than if my half-Cheyenne gunfighter father and his crazy Heyókȟa brother did the honors. There was absolutely zero doubt about that. None. Nada. But if this body of mine were already separated from its head at the time so that I had to watch the proceedings in disembodied form, nothing but a damn ghost…screw that. That would really suck.
It would suck even more than the fact I’d let them rope me in like the greenest city slicker on the planet.
The warmth indicating I’d pissed my pants became majorly unimportant. Breathing stale potato-dirt air through the burlap bag, trying not to vomit as the horse under me did its best to induce motion sickness in the human cargo strapped belly down across the saddle like a sack of, well, potatoes, I fought past the panic. Every man and woman in our Medicine Bull clan stressed that key lesson: Panic could kill you faster than anything else could.
I fought past the panic, got hold of my stupid greenhorn sucker self, and set to thinking.
They’d made snatching me look easy, mostly because of my stupid pride. The one called Buck, whose mashed-over nose, walleye, and snaggle teeth made it clear he’d come in last in a beauty contest iffen he was the only entry, had eased up beside me at the firepit jist as I was dropping my last armload of wood.
“Henry,” he’d asked all innocent-like, “Howcome we ain’t seen you show off that pinto filly you been training? I hear she does tricks good as any of them others.”
Thinking back, I should have wondered. Been suspicious. Why would this man know about my irritation with my Dad and Granddad both when they’d told me to wait another year to git in the lineup? I’d never even seen this guy before the Festival. Clearly, he’d been asking around about me, figuring out my angles.
Oh, it was real clear now. You betcha. Suck sack, sucker! I thought fiercely, then had to fight my way back out of all that self-recrimination, find something more constructive to ponder.
The other yahoo was older, shorter, and from the look in his eyes, meaner. But I’d ignored all that, gone happily trooping off to the barn with my new “friends”, brought Trixie–the long two year old pinto–out of her stall. Started showing what she could do. Trix already knew how to lie down on command, and also to limp like she was hurt on one leg. Basic tricks Tam had showed me how to teach her.
I never really paid much attention to the mean old guy. What was his name? Bub. That was it. Buck and Bub, the kid-grabbing bandits. Their names would have been funny if I’d been in the mood for laughing.
Which I most definitely wasn’t.
Chloroform. That must have been what Bub used to knock me out. We’d studied that in school a while back, during a class session when the teacher felt impelled to bring us all up to speed on the marvelous medical advances of the last century. I’d smelled ether once, at the hospital, and it wasn’t ether. Bitch of a headache; I could say that much about it.
Not that it mattered. What mattered was figuring out how to beat these bastards. Yeah, so they added up to nearly 400 pounds of ugly and I weighed maybe sixty pounds, if that. And I was tied up and stuffed in a sack. So?
The old mountain man, Believer, had once been surrounded by 30 or more Blackfoot warriors seriously interested in taking his scalp. He’d gotten out of that pickle using nothing more than quick thinking and a bit of luck at the bones game. I was a lot littler than Believer had been then, but these two idjits were a lot littler than a whole war band of Blackfeet, too. And I couldn’t possibly be as unlucky as these two, who thought they could go up against my people and live to tell about it.
I’d find a way.
It was hard to believe we’d been holed up in this old cabin for, what, three days now?
I had a small degree of freedom. Sort of. Shortly after we’d arrived at their hideout, situated in a narrow, thick-timbered draw, my captors had argued over who was going to cut the firewood…and I’d seen an opportunity.
“At least you’re not making me do it.” I muttered, but loud enough so’s they’d catch the words. After threatening to bash me good if I yelled or put up a fuss, they’d removed the gag. These were the first words I’d spoken since being grabbed. The two men–rather smelly men, I might add, much worse at close range than any ordinary old potato sack–looked at me, startled.
I hastened on before they could stop me. “At Flywheel, I ain’t nuthin’ but a dang wood-choppin’ slave.”
Then I shut up. Let the wheels start turning, which in them two took a while.
Buck finally grinned kind of evil-like, said, “Bub, you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“The #1 heir at the high and mighty Flywheel Ranch. Be kind of enjoyable to watch him slave fer us fer a bit, doncha think?”
I did my best to look stricken. Woulda clapped my hands over my mouth, had they not still been tied behind me.
Since then, I’d regularly had my hands untied, though they rigged rope hobbles on my ankles so’s I couldn’t make a run for it. It gave them bums great pleasure to watch me sweat and strain to split enough blocks to keep the cabin warm. I was careful to make it look hard, too, and to cultivate a hangdog expression ever time they commanded me to take up the axe. No way could they be allowed to comprehend just how much a wood axe was an extension of my own body even at that age.
Not that they were in much danger of me attacking them with the axe. I kept looking at the angles, figured I might be able to whack one of ’em all right, but not both. Not quick enough.
Buck had left me alone with Bub twice, disappeared for three, four hours at a time. Mailing a ransom letter, maybe, or checking their backtrail. Couldn’t be sure. With nobody but the mean one around, I made sure to find things to do in slave mode. Not extra firewood; that bugger wouldn’t have let me near the axe without Buck there. But I’d let ’em know I could cook a little, and it seemed to give him a sort of vicious pleasure, watching me fry up a venison steak, then leaving me nothing but bones to chew on.
I chewed on ’em, too. Didn’t much care fer the idea of sharing the badman’s spit, but a captive without meat in his system soon loses the will to fight. That, I’d learned from Dawson, who’d seen the priniciple applied to prisoners during the War Between the States. He’d even told me about Andersonville.
I thought about Andersonville every moment. It had been a worse place than this, killer of many. I was a prisoner of war–but not a slave despite my acting the role. My job was to escape, or at least to survive when crunch time came.
The cabin was old, almost tumbledown, and there was a sizeable crack between the fireplace chimney and the wall on one side. At the moment, a stray post was just kind of leaning there, keeping the wind infiltration down some. Not that there was much wind in this tight little draw. I thought I could likely move that post and slip through the crack, little as I was, but then what? There was way too much snow back there; I’d git tracked down in a heartbeat.
The only beaten path, other than the trail we’d followed coming in here, was the path to the outhouse. They did let me use the outhouse, feet still hobbled, with them standing outside laughing about stuffing me down the hole when the time came.
No, it wasn’t a two-holer. Whoever’d built this place originally had lived alone.
Late evening, well after dark, Day Four. I was starting to weaken, and that scared me worse than anything else. If I weren’t strong enough to help myself a bit when the rescue came, it wouldn’t be but a moment’s work fer one of these men to cut my throat and be done with it. They wouldn’t be seeing any ransom money; I knew that much.
They might decide to do me in before the rescue came. Then it wouldn’t be a rescue. It would be a funeral detail. At best.
Never been afraid of Death. But letting Death win this little contest? That idea offended me no end. Besides–
–Outside in the darkness, the local coyote pack sent up their nightly hunting howl. Buck and Bub didn’t like them coyotes much. Having known Medicine Coyote and his family fer most of my life, I naturally had a different opinion. They were a comfort to me, assurance that despite the appearance of things, I was not alone.
Jist at that moment, I heard a quiet voice inside my head. “I will help you.”
What the–? Reminded me of Grandpa Tam, him hearing a horse talk to him every now and then. But this weren’t no horse. This, I knew sure as I knew my name was Henry Julius Tamson, was Sally Cordoba. Apparently, she weren’t finished with the men who’d taken her life. Well….
“Thank you,” I thought back at her. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”
“Axe,” she replied…and we lost the connection. The coyotes howled again.
Wait a minute. That wasn’t the local pack. That was my home pack. Not Medicine Coyote’s family, but a pack of killers far more deadly than even the fiercest timber wolves.
Flywheel was here.
“”Now!” I heard Sally’s voice one last time and knew it was time to go. I was still hobbled, but my hands were free, since I’d been washing dishes for my putative lords and masters. Moving easy, keeping my eyes averted–I couldn’t trust what they might see in there–I crossed the little cabin, added another quarter log to the fire.
And lunged for the axe leaning against the wall.
“Hey!” Mean man Bub yelled, being the closest, and made a grab for me. I ducked low, swung the double bit with all the speed and pent-up power possible in a nine year old boy who’s been cutting firewood since he was four and has (as they say) an axe to grind. The blade came in from the side, the same two-handed lateral swing I’d teach Sadie some years later.
It didn’t cut his leg plumb off at the knee, but close enough. While he was busy screaming and falling, and Buck was busy fumbling fer the old .38 he kept tucked behind his belt, I dropped the axe, flung the leaning post in their general direction, and was gone through the crack in the wall.
The .38 round came close. Dusted a few rock chips that caught me in the back of the head, but I was outa there.
Time to hide.
There was some cussing and shooting and gnashing of teeth after that, at least from what I could hear. Not that I could see one bit more’n I had when riding inside the potato sack, but hearing proved to be enough.
I wasn’t moving till I was sure, though, despite my cramped muscles starting to burn like crazy.
“I’m telling you, the kid got away on his own hook! We don’t got a clue where he might be now! He’s–”
“He’s right here!” I hollered then, though I had to wait another minute or so to git all triumphant. It took Dad’s strong arm to lift me back up outa that outhouse hole. I’d managed to find enough framing and such to avoid splashing all the way down into the muck, but I still got some on me.
Buck did not survive the Flywheel men’s attentions. I never asked fer details.
Bub, they let live, short one leg. Figured he’d spread the word in prison: Don’t even mess with a little kid at Flywheel. It’s hazardous to your health.
Later, I sent a letter to Sally Cordoba’s parents, telling about hearing her voice saying she’d help me. Never got a letter back, but word came down the line: Mrs. Cordoba believed what I said was of the Devil and was spending even more time at church these days than had been her previous wont. I never should have written.
Mrs. Newby, our third grade teacher, didn’t seem to mind it when I admitted in class that I’d learned pride really does go before a fall. But when I used “ain’t” in a sentence–twice–she gave me a “D” fer the day. And when I laughed aloud about that, seeing as how a paper grade at the Walsenburg school didn’t hardly compare to being kidnapped by Buck and Bub, she made me go stand in the broom closet fer ten minutes or so.
Which I appreciated. It gave me bragging rights fer the rest of the winter.
My darling Henry,
Last night, I dreamed about Sally Cordoba. She looked older than eight, like maybe she’d been able to grow up some on the other side of the veil these past ten years since her death. In fact, she looked stunning. I’ve seldom seen a more beautiful girl at any age, anywhere.
She came up to me and said, “I will be your firstborn if you’ll have me.”
I responded, “It would be an honor.”
That was all. I mean, there might have been more, but that’s all I remember. She looked happy, and I felt happy, even though our wedding is still nearly 3 1/2 years away.
Not much else to say at the moment. It does get challenging, making myself write regularly when it’ll likely still be another two to three months before I hear from you.
Love and lust
Your MRS (Medicine Rifle Sadie–what did you think I meant?)