By the time the four of us made it back to Yampa after a definitely subzero night of camping in the snow, the little community had transformed itself into an undersized yet highly politicized beast. I found this out the following morning. Bluebird was frying elk loin for breakfast. I’d barely started on my second cup of coffee.
“Company coming,” I said in that quiet tone that warned of something amiss. Wise Owl looked toward his weapons stacked in one corner of the cabin, then glanced back at me. I nodded almost imperceptibly, and he moved quietly to gird himself for combat just in case.
Three men, trudging this way, come from the town. At their head was Philip P. Pomeroy, a tiny, fussy little fellow not much bigger than Beverly Christiana Holdenred…and a whole lot less fun to be around. If he had something to say to us–or more likely just to me, since he wasn’t one of those who considered redskins real people–that was likely to be bad enough. With Jess and Barney backing him up….
I picked up my gunbelt and strapped it on. Tied the holster down to my thigh. Pulled the Remington .44, spun the cylinder, and plucked a cartridge from the belt to add to the Texas load.
Met ’em at the door.
In fact, stepped outside and closed the door behind me. No way my Shoshone friends were going to be asked to allow the little hater inside their home. Not that Philip P. would likely want to come in anyway, but no use taking chances.
Didn’t say anything. These yahoos were making the approach; let them do the talking fer now. I’d been taught at a young age that few white men handle silence well. Whatever this was about, I didn’t feel like giving up any bit of advantage whatsoever.
Pomeroy and his bully boys stopped maybe seven yards away. Close enough to talk easily enough, and jist coincidentally the range at which I usually practiced my draw. I leaned against the cabin’s doorframe, arms crossed.
Which of course jist happened to leave my right hand covering the pistol butt.
From this position, I was almost as quick outa the leather as Grandpa Tam, an extra smidgen slower than my renowned gunfighting father, Cougar–and pure molasses compared to the fanner, Marie Trask, my future mother in law.
Nobody beat Sadie’s Mom.
Pomeroy looked more’n a bit flustered at not being greeted. For a second or two, he even tried looking me in the eye stare-down style, trying to force me to say something. Which didn’t work so well fer a man more’n a foot shorter’n me despite the 21 feet of distance between us.
He finally give it up. “Henry,” he began. I still didn’t say anything. “I, uh, suppose you might wonder what brings us all the way out here from town this early in the morning.”
“Nope.” I turned my head, spat a brown stream of tobacco juice into the snow. Nasty habit, which I’d only started from sheer boredom this snowed-in winter. Handy at times like this, though. Nothing more expressive than a good spit at the right moment. “Ain’t wondering at all. Figure you’re busting to tell me what’s on your mind, and you’ll spit it out when you’re good and ready.”
“Uh. Well. Um, yes. I suppose that does make sense. Well, see, we, um, well–”
“Well. A well is a deep subject.”
He stared at me resentfully. I was betting he’d heard that from bullies since he was a first grader, if not before. Since the fellow looked to be about forty at the moment, that could have added up over the years.
I thought–briefly–about the lessons little Beverly had taught me in her misery. Especially the part about being considerate of other folks’ feelings. But Pomeroy was up to something. I didn’t figure to cut him any slack. After a bit, he finally got the gist of it out. It jist so happened that while the Shoshones, Cole Panghorn, and I were out playing Rescue the Runaway, tracking Donny McDorgan, the rest of the town had decided they needed a lawman.
No, not me. Near as I could figure, nobody in Yampa even realized I’d worn a badge a couple of times already. Didn’t seem to know about me being a bounty hunter, either. My friends knew, but they hadn’t talked.
The town–meaning, I suspected, Philip P. plus allies–had settled on Rusty Johnson, so named fer the sound of his voice rather than the color of his hair. They’d taken up a collection to pay the new Marshal of Yampa a bit of salary fer the next few months…and they wanted me to kick in.
“You think you’re gonna tax me fer a town clown?” I stared at Philip P., honestly startled. Jess and Barney shifted uneasily, but I didn’t pay them much mind. Wise Owl would drop at least one of ’em from inside the cabin if things went that far. Besides, while they were both packing hoglegs, the pistols were under their heavy winter coats.
Pomeroy got huffy right then. “It’s not a tax! It’s a collection!”
“Uh-huh. It’s a collection of taxes. If it looks like a tax, stinks like a tax–how many of your fellow townspeople went along with this ridiculosity, Philip?”
The conversation went right sharply downhill from there. In fact, it went downhill so fast, I never even got around to pointing out that I wasn’t living in his precious town, but well outside of the thing. Philip claimed “everyone” had contributed, which I seriously doubted. My friend Cole wasn’t quite as short with idiots as me on the average day, but he wouldn’t have have helped pay a guy to give him grief later on, either.
To say the trio left dissatisfied would be an understatement.
Not till midafternoon did I mention to the Shoshones, “Do believe I’ll wander into town fer a bit. You two need anything from the store?”
“Need you back alive, is all.” Bluebird raised her eyes from the moccasin she was lacing. “Watch your back.”
“Name of the game,” I agreed.
Rusty Johnson had a taste fer anything alcholic. Most days, he could be found bellied up to the plank bar in Wayne’s Place, the cheapest drinking establishment in town. Looked like it had once been a chicken coop. Smelled it, too.
“Henry,” he raised his rather smeared glass as I stepped inside. “buy you one?”
“Appreciate the offer, Rusty.” I returned his greeting amiably enough. “But I don’t drink. Not since that one time.”
“Which is why I offered,” he grinned, lighting up his entire homely face, “knowing it wouldn’t cost me a dime.”
I grinned back. See, the thing is, I genuinely like Johnson. He could take care of himself, might even be handy with the well worn Colt he carried on his right hip–not tied down–but there wasn’t a mean bone in his body.
Mostly, I had to ask, “How’d you manage to git mixed up with Peewee Philip and his boys?”
Rusty waited till Wayne had brought me a mug of coffee that looked a sight more hygienic than the rotgut he served his drinking customers. My friend was thinking, giving my question serious consideration.
He scratched his head, and I didn’t think it was lice. “I’m not rightly sure, cowboy. I was about half lit when him and the so called, newly formed, self appointed Town Council come to call. Said they were fixing to turn Yampa into a proper, civilized municipality—can you imagine–and they needed a Marshal.”
“Hm.” The wheels started turning. Finally. “Well. As my grandpa Tam so often says, let’s look at this thing by the numbers.” I fished out a few pieces of writing paper from under my coat. Wasn’t carrying a pen or a bottle of ink, but the soft lead nose of a .44-40 bullet worked as well for a pencil as it always had.
Rusty was curious, but he was also one of them few white men comfortable with silence. He waited till I was done scribbling and had shoved the paper over fer him to peruse.
1. Pom is a pissant, but an ambitious one.
2. There’s fixing to be a regular town established for real, right here, come summer.
3. But the organizers ain’t here at the moment.
4. If P. can take over, declare himself Pissant Emperor of Yampa–before the snow melts–he can maybe establish himself a little fiefdom here. Tell the Big Boys they’re late outa luck. But he’s gotta move fast. No telling when spring might hit.
“That ain’t a bad start, Henry.” The Marshal raised his eyes long enough to gaze longingly at what was left in the whiskey bottle behind the bar, then thought better of it. There was thinking to be done. “My thoughts were trailing pretty much that direction, too. But it would have to go a lot deeper than jist that little nugget of ambition to make anything stick.”
“I mean, Philip would have to do more than announce to the world that we’re a town now. He’d have to give folks a reason to back him pretty seriously.”
“Hm. And how–”
“Gimme a minute…oh sh*t!” He reached over, snagged the bullet pencil, and began adding entries to the list. It took a while fer him to come up fer air and pass the paper back to me, by which time I was two cups down into the coffee well and needing a trip to the outhouse.
But I tied a knot in it. Sat there. Read what he’d written…and felt my gut tightening up with every sentence.
By the time I got to the end, minor urges from Mother Nature were being summarily ignored.
5. Pomeroy would need to suddenly become the town’s hero. Don’t ask me why I know that; I just do. It’s a gift. Or a curse.
6. Question: How does a little midget tenderfoot form Spitwad, Ohio, become a giant pillar of the community out west?
7. Answer: By slaying the dragon that’s stalking the town.
8. Objection: But we don’t got no dragon!
9. Shrug: So he’ll invent one.
10. Question: How?
11. Theorem: Assume the town’s most popular character was viciously murdered from ambush by a dastardly, cowardly villain that’d make John Wilkes Booth look a right saint.
12. Further assume that he, the Great and Oh So Precious Philip Pomeroy, solved the case and brought the guilty party to justice, with plenty of witnesses to his supposed heroism.
13. Conclusion: Would that not cement his place in the hearts of his townsmen? Indeed it would, at least the idiots, and most of ’em are idiots.
14. Most Important Question: The target. Who, then, would be the person most likely selected for assassination?
15. Obvious answer: Henry Julius Tamson, newly recognized tale teller, tall, young, good looking and nobody’s fool, the prime entertainment fer the entire snowbound community.
I felt the blood drain from my face, and not just from realizing Rusty was a highly educated man. There are more of those out West than most folks realize. “You figure I’m it, Rusty? There ain’t nobody better liked in town?”
“Not even close, cowboy,” he assured me. “And think about it. If you went down some dark and moonless night to a backshooting Weasel Attack, there’d also be Hell to pay–literally–once your people learned of your death. Unless Mr. Pissant had already found and executed the murderer, or had him executed. In which case, he’d figure he could count on the eternal gratitude of the great Flywheel Ranch and all its people. Wins all around, Pomeroy does, if he can pull that off.”
“I can’t see a one of the Flywheel bunch falling fer his line,” I mused, rubbing my jaw thoughtfully. “But on the other hand, if all the right witnesses were already in pine boxes…yeah. I see what you mean.”
Another thought hit me. “Who do you suppose he’d figure to frame fer the killing?”
Johnson shook his head. “Let’s not go there, Henry. If it gits to that point, it means you’re already wrestling with the angels.”
He sighed. “You are a hard headed one. Well. Could be me–but since he’s the one appointed me Marshal, that don’t seem too likely. Might make some question his omniscient judgment. I’m more useful as a live stooge. He hates Indians, so he might try taking out Wise Owl, claim you were boinking Bluebird and the Shoshone warrior didn’t appreciate it.”
“Or,” I added, my mental juices back in the flow, “he might want to set my best friend, Jefferson Cole Panghorn, up fer the fall.”
Without warning, Wayne the bar owner put in his two cents worth. “Could be me, too. I weren’t exactly kind with my wording when he and Jess and Barney stopped by to try to shake me down fer Marshal money. In fact, I was about one hair trigger second away from introducing the bunch of ’em to Mr. Greener.”
He’d been listening in, obviously. Since neither Rusty nor I figured the saloon proprietor to be part of Pomeroy’s little pack of weasels, we’d seen no reason to lower our voices.
“Huh.” I stared, first at one man, then at the other, back and forth, fer a full two minutes. Finally got my thoughts in order. “Well, let’s say we’ve got it figured right. Maybe we don’t, but better safe than sorry–especially fer me. I gotta tell you guys, I’ve been in a few dustups, and I’ve had an outlaw or two try to sneak up and shoot me. One guy even jumped out of a dark alley and stuck a knife in me one dark and nasty night. But I ain’t never been hunted by a pack of weasels before.”
“I have,” the barkeep admitted, waving a hand to indicate this wasn’t the time fer him to tell us about it, “and here’s what I recommend”.
My darling Henry,
Beloved, you and your adventures are plumb playing Hob with my dreams of late. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. This time, last night, the first part I remember, you were being hunted by weasels. Lots of them. Some were in their winter ermine white, some in summer brown, and one, believe it or not, in a fur coat of deepest jet black.
The black one seemed to be the leader, or at least the wannabe leader. He was having some problems getting all the little critters to sneak after you jist the way he wanted, kind of like herding cats, but mostly he was just batsh*t crazy. Kept stopping, jumping up on a deadfall tree or a stump or a boulder, standing on his hind legs and screeching,
“I am not a weasel! I am a royal ermine!”
But he never did that fer long. He’d jump back down on all fours right quick-like, get back to herding his Weasel Warriors onto the Tamson Trail.
Then the scene shifted. I saw you and some other men–and come to think of it, a couple of women–getting ready to go weasel hunting. You all had different tools of the trade on and about you to get the job done. Fine mesh nets made out of wire or something, metal anyway, that you figured weasels wouldn’t be able to chew though. Snares strung from the ends of long poles–good luck catching a quick little weasel with one of those! And clubs, I guess. Long, stout sticks anyway.
Don’t remember much about guns or knives, except I had this feeling you were wearing Dad’s groin rig, packing both Garza Surprise hideout guns.
Remember Mr. Eastbank, our old science teacher? He made us read up on that one study about weasels–or maybe…no, that was just me. Eastbank didn’t come to Walsenburg soon enough for you to be in his science class.
Okay, so he made me and the rest of our class read up on this one scientist’s theory. I don’t remember the details, but the gist of it had to do with weasels being such mean, nasty little fighters. This guy believed their sinus cavities were genetically way too open to the winter air, that they had constant sinus headaches, and the pain from that explained why they were frequently so irritable.
They’re saying the weather may break soon. Which will be good if it does; you’ll finally be able to get a letter to me. In the meantime, we’re just gearing up here at Flywheel, getting ready for the first calves of the year to drop any time now. I’m ready for it. School’s okay, sort of, but this past couple of months has been bo-o-o-ring with no word from my intended.
Wish I was there. You could give me a stick. I could whack weasels.
Love and lust,