Authors: William W. Johnstone
Gray old Uriah Tweedy came down from the Manzano Mountains astride a buckskin mustang leading a one-eyed Missouri pack mule. He turned in the saddle for a final look at the trail he'd taken.
“Sleep tight, ol' Ephraim,” he yelled. “I'll be back in the spring.”
Now that the bears were hibernating in their deep dens there would be no more hunting until they woke in spring sunshine and once again roamed the wild lands.
As the snow swirled around him and the wind sighed cold, Tweedy dreamed of a soft bed with sheets and blankets and a bright patchwork quilt to keep the winter gloom at bay. And eggs. Sunnyside up. Fried in butter with thick slices of sourdough bread on the side and more butter, sweet and yellow as corn silk.
But when he camped that night, Tweedy's supper was as it had been for the past six months, bear meat and bacon so old the fat was sloughing off the lean, and little enough of that.
After he ate, Tweedy crouched over a hatful of fire and contented himself with coffee, his pipe, and fond memories of the slender, graceful Hopi woman he'd lived with for nigh on five years. He'd named her Kajika, which in Hopi meant Walks Without Sound. She was half bobcat, half cougar, and all woman, and she'd made his days comfortable and his nights memorable. The Mescaleros had stolen her and though Tweedy searched high and low, he never found her again.
He sighed and stirred the fire with a stick, sending up a shower of sparks that glowed bright scarlet and then died. It was a hell of a thing to lose a woman like that, a woman who walked without sound.
He heard a sound. A twig cracked in the snow-flecked darkness and Tweedy stood, his .44-40 Henry in his hands. “Is that you, ol' Ephraim?” he called out. “You should be abed.”
Only the creak of the wind and the hush of the falling snow could be heard.
“Ephraim, have you come for me?” Tweedy said into the night. “Have you counted how many of your kin I've shot an' skun and come for a reckoning?
“Drop the rifle, old man, or I'll drill you square.”
“That ain't Ephraim,” Tweedy said. “It's a skunk.”
“Drop the rifle, I said.” The man's voice was harsh and commanding, in no mood for conversation. “There's two Winchesters on you and we don't miss much.”
The men came at Tweedy from his right and left, their rifles at the ready.
Tweedy let go of the Henry and it dropped at his feet. “Surprised you didn't gun me straight off. Ain't that the way of trash like you?”
The man to his right spoke first. “Thought about it, but we need your fire and grub and we don't much feel like dragging your carcass through the brush in the dark. That'll keep until mornin'.”
“Considerate feller,” Tweedy said under his breath.
Two men stepped into the firelight. They wore ragged mackinaws and jeans and looked as though they were missing their last six meals. Both had the wary, watchful eyes of predators and the Winchesters in their hands were oiled and well cared for.
“Sit, pops,” the older of the two said. He wore a moth-eaten fur cap, the earflaps tied under his chin, and his feet were bound with rags, as were his companion's.
Tweedy reckoned that a man who can't afford boots was poor indeed. “What do you want from me?”
“I ain't got much.”
“Hoss, mule, rifle, shoes on your feet, clothes on your back, we'll take it all,” the man said. “It's a sight more'n we got.”
“Coffee in the pot, boys,” Tweedy said, playing the kindly old-timer. But the man who hunted black bear and grizzly for a living had learned to pay close attention to everything around him, and his pale blue eyes searched for an opening. With riffraff like those two, just a second of time was all he'd need. When Uriah Tweedy put his mind to it, he was a sudden, dangerous man and he'd planted more than a few who'd figured otherwise. He was seventy years old, tough as a trail drive steak, and as enduring as an Apache.
And he was salty. Too salty to allow a couple of yellow-bellied curs rob him of what was his.
“What you got in your poke, pops?” The older man nodded to the burlap sack resting against Tweedy's saddle.
“Bear meat, sonny,” Tweedy said. “I had bacon, but that's all gone. Was half rotten anyway.”
“Then pour us coffee and burn us a couple bear steaks.”
The younger man was anxious to get on with it. “Joe, I say we gun the old coot. He's got eyes that have seen more'n their share o' killing.”
“Hey, pops, you're creeping the hell out of my cousin Link,” the man called Joe said. “Now what am I gonna do with you, huh?”
“No man wants to die,” Tweedy said.
“Yeah, but I reckon you've already lived your three-score-and-ten, old-timer, so you're long overdue fer dying.” Joe looked at the younger man. “All right, Link, after he cooks for us, I'll gun him. I never was much of a trail cook myself.” Joe smiled. “That set all right with you, pops?”
“Do I have, like, any choice in the matter?” Tweedy asked.
“Sure you do, pops. You kin get shot in the head or the belly.” Joe grinned. “Life's just full of choices, ain't it?”
“Well, I'm not partial to getting gut shot,” Tweedy told him.
“Then I'll put a bullet in your head,” Joe said. “Unless you ruin them steaks, that is.”
“I've got salt in my possibles bag,” Tweedy offered. “You like salt?”
“Everybody likes salt, you crazy old bastard,” Link snarled. “Get it out and salt that bear meat.”
Tweedy knuckled his forehead. “Right away, sonny. Just don't start shootin' at ol' Uriah.”
“Old man's tetched,” Link said to Joe. “When you kill him, you'll be doing him a favor.”
“Ain't that the truth, cousin.”
Those were the last words he ever uttered.
Tweedy picked up the buckskin possibles bag and pretended to root around inside, continuing to play the part of a confused old-timer.
Then he moved. In one fluid, graceful motion he grabbed a Green River knife from the bottom of the bag and flung it at Joe. The five-inch blade slammed into the man's throat to the hilt and Joe's eyes popped wide; he knew he was a dead man.
Tweedy didn't hesitate for a second. He threw himself at the Henry rifle Joe had tossed aside and rolled on his back, the gun coming up fast. Link stood paralyzed for an instant, his eyes on his cousin down on hands and knees, gagging blood and phlegm.
Tweedy needed no more time than that. He fired, cranked the rifle, and fired again, both bullets crashing into the center of Link's chest. But the young man was game and managed to trigger a despairing shot at Tweedy. Hit high on his left shoulder, Tweedy rolled again and levered the Henry. But he had no need to shoot. Link was down and wasn't moving.
With a mortally wounded man's desperation, Joe tried to pull the knife from his throat, his bloody mouth wide in a silent scream.
Tweedy rose, stepped to the man's side, and booted him onto his back. Joe's unbelieving eyes stared at the older man. Joe was stunned by the manner and circumstance of his death.
“Mister,” Tweedy said, no sympathy in him, “I'm too old a cat to be played with by kittlins.”
Joe closed his terrified eyes and death took him.
His Henry up and ready, Tweedy stepped to Link. The boy, who looked to be no more than seventeen, was as dead as he was ever going to be.
Shaking his head, Tweedy surveyed the scene of carnage. It was a sorry thing to die for a mustang hoss and a one-eyed mule.
The pain from his bullet wound set in and he breathed through gritted teeth. The ball was deep, too deep to dig out by himself. He needed help badly.
He tilted back his head and yelled into the night, “Ephraim, you leave me alone now, you hear? Ol' Uriah is hurtin' and he don't need no wintertime bear adding to his misery.”
It was not in Tweedy's nature to ask the help of anyone, but getting shot changes a man's attitude fast. With fat flakes of snow feathering around him, Tweedy remembered there was a big ranch somewhere to the northeast. Dromore, that was it. Maybe they were caring folks who would tend a wounded man. Snow or no snow, he'd ride through darkness for Dromore.
Maybe they'd put him in a bed with a patchwork quilt.
The morning was dark and cold and the air smelled of raw steel. Snow flurried in the wind and the top of Glorieta Mesa was lost behind cloud. Shamus O'Brien sat in his wheelchair, looking out the window of the parlor. He turned and looked around the room. “I've thought it over and I've decided that Miss Julia Davenport can stay on at Dromore as our schoolteacher. Any objections?”
The brothers O'Brien were silent.
“Luther?” Shamus asked.
“It's fine by me, Colonel,” Ironside answered.
“Then it's settled,” Shamus hit his fist against the arm of his wheelchair. “Lorena, are you satisfied?”
She nodded. “You came to the right decision, Colonel.”
“Quite so. As you said, who are we to judge her?”
“Hear, hear,” Patrick said.
“Patrick, I do wish you'd stop saying that.” Shamus scowled. “Makes you sound like a damned Englishman.”
“Sorry, Pa,” Patrick mumbled.
“Hear, hear,” Shawn said, grinning.
Shamus ignored that and spoke directly to Samuel. “Have you heard from your brother?”
“As far as I know Jake's still riding shotgun for the Simmons and Smyth stage line up Denver way. I haven't gotten a letter since the last one.”
“But that was a month ago,” Shamus argued.
Samuel nodded. “Jake's not much of a hand at letter writing.”
“I worry about Jacob,” Shamus said. “I guess we all do.”
“Jake can take care of himself,” Ironside said. “I taught that boy all I know and like me he's hell on wheels with a scattergun. Damn right.”
Normally that would've given Shamus an opportunity to berate Ironside about his teaching methods, but Patrick saved the older man from yet another tongue-lashing when he said, “Rider coming.”
Shawn stepped to the window and looked out into the snowy, iron-gray morning. “Looks like he's riding hurt.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Shamus said, crossing himself. “It's not Jacob, is it?”
“No. Older man. He's wearing a bearskin coat and leading a pack mule.” After a few more moments of observation, Shawn said, “Damn, he looks all used up.”
“Shawn, you and Patrick help him inside,” Shamus instructed. “Maybe all that ails him is cold and hunger.”
“I done fer the two bushwhackers, but I took a bullet in the shoulder, so maybe they done fer me.” Uriah Tweedy sat in the kitchen of Dromore with the O'Briens and Ironside.
“Luther, what do you think?” Shamus asked.
“He's a scrawny old rooster, but he's got some meat on his shoulders, and the ball's still there, Colonel.”
“We can send to Santa Fe for a doctor,” Shamus suggested.
“We should do that, Colonel,” Ironside agreed. “This man will need attention after I cut the bullet out of him.”
“There's no other way?”
“No. If it stays inside him much longer it could poison his whole body.”
“It's a possibility, Colonel.”
Tweedy took a gulp of brandy then said to Ironside, “You done this afore, sonny?”
“Yeah, during the war a few times. Dug miniÃ© balls out of cavalrymen.”
“How many of your patients survived?”
“Oh, in round numbers, about half.”
Tweedy nodded. “All right, then cut away, sonny. I like them odds.”
“I'm about the same age as you, so don't call me sonny,” Ironside said irritably.
“Luther, is it?”
“Then cut away, sonny.”
“Pat, Shawn, help Luther get Mr. Tweedy onto the table,” Shamus ordered.
“Beggin' your pardon, Colonel, but I'm right comfy where I am.” Tweedy smiled, but beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead and his breathing was quick and shallow.
Shamus saw that Tweedy was hurting and asked, “Can you do it there, Luther?”
Ironside nodded, then said, “Cletus, get more brandy into him. A lot more.”
“Now you're talking my language . . . Luther,” Tweedy said.
“I'll be drinking right along with you,” Ironside said. “Damn right.”
Lorena helped Ironside remove Tweedy's buckskin shirt and under vest, revealing a muscular chest and wide shoulders.
“You look real good for an old-timer,” Ironside said, smiling under his mustache. “Not as scrawny as I thought.”
“Huntin' bear ain't for sissies, sonny.” Tweedy winced. “I can't move my shoulder. How's it look to you?”
“About what you'd expect,” Ironside said. “It don't look good, kinda like a big red mouth.”
“You'll be just fine, Uriah,” Lorena said, angling Ironside a killer look. “Now drink some more brandy and we'll soon get the bullet out.”
“Real nice to have you here, ma'am,” Tweedy said. He glared at Ironside. “Some folks just ain't sympathetic by nature, I reckon.”
Luther Ironside, slightly drunk, had an ordinary table knife in his hand. It was a time for digging, not cutting. Lorena held an oil lamp to give him more light.
Shamus and the O'Brien brothers were reduced to interested spectators, though Patrick held the brandy decanter, should Tweedy or Ironside's courage falter.
“You ready?” Ironside said to Tweedy, the knife poised over the ragged wound.
“Have at it, sonny.” The man held up his glass. “About now I'm feeling no pain.”
“Me neither,” Ironside pointed out, plunging the knife deep into the wound.
Tweedy's breath hissed through his clenched teeth.
“Damn, it's in there far.” Ironside probed with the tip of the knife and blood welled around the blade. “Hold on there, old-timer. This ain't going to be easy.”
“Easy fer you,” Tweedy said, openmouthed.
“Pa,” Patrick whispered, “are you sure Luther's done this before?”
“He's done it,” Shamus said. “How well he's done it, I don't know.”
Lorena leaned over and wiped blood from the wound. Ironside dug around inside again. Lorena's face was pale, her eyes wide, understanding Tweedy's pain.
“I feel it,” Ironside said. “I feel the ball.”
There was a tap at the door.
Tweedy was tough and he had sand, but the man was in a lot of pain and it showed. “For God's sake, sonny. Dig the damned ball out of there.”
“It's stuck, damn it.” Sweat beaded Ironside's forehead and his right hand was covered in blood to the wrist. “It's stuck, stuck, stuck.”
sounded at the door.
Tweedy's tortured breath hissed in and out of him with a sound like a boiling steam kettle.
“Somebody answer the damned door,” Ironside yelled.
Samuel rose and quickly opened the door. “Oh, it's you, Julia. You've come at a bad time.”
“Samuel, who is it?” Shamus leaned to one side.
“Then let her in. I'm sure Lorena could use some help.”
Julia stepped into the room, her face puzzled.
“We have a wounded man here,” Shamus said. “Luther is trying to get the ball out.”
Julia could see only the back of Tweedy's head. She walked closer and Lorena gave her a grateful smile. “It's deep,” she said.
Recognition dawned on Julia's face. “Why that's Uriah Tweedy.”
“As ever was, Trixie,” Tweedy said, gasping. “It's right . . . nice . . . to see you again.” He scowled at Ironside. “You're a damned butcher, sonny.”
“Hell, man, I'm doing my best.” Ironside turned to Patrick, “Give me a swig of that brandy, Pat.”
“And me,” Tweedy rasped out.
“That's the last thing you need, both of you.” Julia pushed Ironside out of her way. “I'll do it. Lorena, wipe off the wound. And Patrick, pour the brandy over my fingers.”
The woman held out her hand and Patrick liberally doused it with the alcohol. To Tweedy she said, “Uriah, this will hurt, but only for a moment.”
“Do what you have to do, Trixie. I got a worse hurtin' put on me than ol' Ephraim ever done.”
“Brace yourself, Uriah,” Julia said softly, and plunged her long, slender finger into the wound.
Tweedy ground his teeth as sudden agony hacked at him. He didn't cry out, though his face was a twisted mask of torment.
“Got it!” Julia cried. Her finger came out of the wound, the rifle bullet caught in the crook of the top joint of her bloody index finger.
Tweedy looked close to fainting, but his ordeal was not yet over.
“Uriah, there's a piece of buckskin in there. I felt it,” Julia said. “It's got to come out, too.”
“Hell,” Ironside said, “bullets kill a man, not buckskin.”
“I must remove it,” Julia insisted. “It's dirty and could cause an infection.”
Ironside looked at the bear hunter. “Tweedy?”
“She's right. It's got to come out.”
“Stupid, if you ask me,” Ironside grumbled. “Digging buckskin out of a man.”
“No one is asking you, Luther,” Shamus said. “Miss Davenport, please proceed.”
The piece of buckskin was only the size of a dime and it took Julia several endless minutes to find and remove it. By then Tweedy had reached the limit of his endurance and was barely holding on to consciousness.
“You all right, Tweedy?” Ironside asked.
The man nodded.
“Good, because this is gonna hurt like hell, but it will clean the wound.”
Before Tweedy could utter the NO! that formed in his mouth, Ironside poured brandy over the raw, tattered wound.
The shock of pain was too much, and Tweedy could no longer hold on. He closed his eyes and plunged into darkness.
“Luther, was that necessary?” Lorena hissed, her eyes flashing anger.
Julia said, “Mr. Ironside is not much of a surgeon, I agree, but he's right. The alcohol will help fight infection.”
Ironside nodded. “Damn right.” He looked down at his unconscious patient. “Now what do we do with him?”
“You'll help the ladies get him into bed, Luther.” Shamus looked at Julia wiping blood off her hand. “I want you to stay on at Dromore as our teacher, Miss Davenport.”
The woman was surprised. “I came here to tender my resignation. I don't want to be a burden to you.”
“You are not a burden, dear lady, I assure you.”
“Did Shawn tellâ”
“Yes, he told us. As Lorena said, I hired a teacher, not a past. I hope you will reconsider and stay on at Dromore.”
Julia's face lit up. “Oh, I do. I can't wish for anything more in the world.”
“Then the matter is settled. Now get that poor man into bed.” Shamus glared at Ironside. “God knows, he's suffered enough.”