Tumbleweed Thompson and the Popping Pepper
by Glenn McCarty, illustrated by Joe Sutphin
The night was cold. So was his fear.
A shiver ran down Dead-Eye Dan Crowley’s spine. The only sounds were the thumping of his heart and the lonely howl of a wild coyote. He knew the one thing more terrifying than a night in Ezekiel’s Canyon with the Colorado lawmen hot on his trail was a pack of hungry coyotes. Dead-Eye Dan swallowed the lump in his throat and felt for his knife.
The coyote howled again. The sagebrush rustled behind him. This was it. He was sunk.
He whirled, ready to meet his doom.
“Eugene Cornelius Teitsworth, stop staring out the windows and pass me the Louisa May
Alcott! This library isn’t going to organize itself.”
She scowled. “It you spent a little less time on those dime novels of yours, you might see yourself make some advances in Mrs. Gilmore’s schoolroom.”
I nodded. How to explain it? Since the molasses mix-up a few weeks back, I had been
reading a lot of Dead-Eye Dan. I chalked it up to a condition I had begun to refer to as Soul
Itch – a restlessness which often found me at the edge of town, staring up, slack-jawed, at the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, heart pounding.
I blamed Tumbleweed. I began to see – or think I saw – his red hair and reedy figure everywhere around town, the promise of adventure blowing in his wake. But I had yet to actually lay eyes on him again.
On this particular Monday, the hot Colorado winds had brought a bank of thunderhead clouds which promised a whopper of a storm. I was knee-deep in another one of Ma’s social projects – providing quality reading material to the miners, stable hands, saloon girls, and other intellectuals populating our frontier town. So while Mom hung curtains and measured for shelves in the little corner of the Silver Dollar Hotel lobby which had been allotted to her for a library, I sneaked glimpses at my book, dressed to the nines in what I suppose qualified as librarian garb – black pants, white shirt, black vest – and tried to scratch my Soul Itch.
I sighed and located a copy of Little Women. “It’s here, Ma. Now d’ya think I could finish up?”
I held my breath. The remainder of the afternoon’s freedom dangled from her lips. One snip, and it would tumble to the ground.
“With all that mooning about, I don’t suppose you’ll be much more use to me,” Ma said, brushing a cobweb from her hair and straightening her shirtwaist. “Home for supper, Eugene, you hear?”
I thrust the book at Ma and dashed through the back door into the dusty alley which ran behind the hotel, parallel to Main Street. The sky had blackened considerably, but my mind still craved open spaces. I yanked out my shirttails and was passing behind a rooming house, the mountains nearly in view, when voice caught my ear, raised in full-throated song:
“Cape Cod girls ain’t got no combs, Heave away, haul away! They comb their hair with a codfish bone, And we’re bound for Australia!”
I halted and stared. The song continued, wildly off-key:
“So heave her up, me bully, bully boys, Heave away, haul away! Heave her up, why don’t you make some noise? And we’re bound for Australia!”
A figure bent over the garbage bin, pulling slices of bread and old fruits and vegetables from the pile and stuffing them into a burlap sack strung over his shoulder. He wore a rain slicker over his denim overalls, shaggy red hair skirting the rim of his collar. The figure straightened up and turned toward me.
“Sea shanty,” he said, grinning ear to ear. I noticed a small gap between his front teeth which I hadn’t seen the last time we met, and a handful of freckles sprinkled across his cheeks.
“Whaling song, to be exact,” he added. “Picked it up in Nantucket a year or so back. Makes the work go faster.”
“Why are you going through the hotel garbage?” I asked.
He inspected the contents of the sack and settled it on his shoulder. “Well, Bingo has to eat, doesn’t she, Gene?”
“Dad found her last week on the way back from the mines. Gentle as a kitten. And loyal, too.”
With the mention of the mines, that itchy feeling came barreling back, full force. Who would stay cooped up in a hotel library when a life of sea shanties and mysterious creatures named Bingo was out there, waiting to be lived?
Tumbleweed set his sack down and ducked under the back stairwell of the rooming house. Soon, a hand appeared and waved me closer. I tucked myself in next to him, the smell of garbage wafting upward from the burlap sack.
There was a rustling in the darkness. Tumbleweed reached into the sack, drew out the gnawed remains of a tomato, and extended it deeper into the void. A burst of fur flashed into view and attached itself to the tomato. Tumbleweed released his grip, and a small raccoon was now visible, paws wrapped around the fruit while its tiny teeth tore at the skin.
“I think she was the runt of the litter,” he said, rubbing a knuckle against her jaw.
I edged backward. “Aren’t they nocturnal?”
“Most of the time,” he said, still scratching. “Go on, she’s fine.”
“You want me to scratch her?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, moving aside.
I held my breath and reached out a hand. She raised her head and studied me with two round eyes, a blob of juice dribbling from her furry chin. I felt the scruff on the top of her head under my hand and exhaled slowly.
Suddenly, she raised a paw. Five claws appeared. Without warning, she wrapped her paws around my wrist and sank her needle-sharp teeth into the meat of my palm. I yelped and pulled my hand back, but Bingo hung on, letting out a long, slow yowl as she clung to me.
“She’s got you now,” Tumbleweed howled. “Love at first sight.”
“Get her off,” I cried. “I need this hand.”
“Don’t pull, whatever you do,” he said.
“Well then, what?” I asked. “What?”
Tumbleweed mused silently. My palm throbbed. Bingo appeared to be smiling, if that was even possible.
“Hurry!” I said. Finally, he reached into his garbage sack, pulled out a strip of uncooked bacon, and dangled it in front of Bingo’s tiny black nose. She raised her head to look at it, paws still wrapped around my wrist. Slowly, Tumbleweed lowered the bacon to the ground. Bingo’s eyes followed it, and finally, she retracted her claws and dropped to the ground beside the bacon.
“I told you she was loyal,” Tumbleweed said, snickering.
“Loyal?” I asked, nursing my wound. “She’s deadly.”
“Nothing of the sort,” he said. “Like I said, she likes ya.” He crouched next to his new pet, gave her one more head-rub and brushed his hands on his overalls. “It’s okay, girl,” he said. “I’ll be back for you around supper time, okay?” Bingo went back to her lunch, yowling suspiciously at me.
Tumbleweed stood and wrapped an arm around my shoulder with an air of brotherhood. We sauntered toward the town square, a hot breeze rustling my hair. “Nice getup, Eugene,” he said, pointing to my clothes.
My face flushed. “It’s… for the library,” I stammered out.
He smirked and shook his head. “Tell me a tale, Eugene,” he said. “What sort of mischief have you found to occupy yourself of late?”
I wracked my brain for something to impress him. “Well, my parents weren’t too happy about the whole molasses thing,” I said, but stopped. Something in my gut told me to even bring it up again might weaken whatever respect the whole incident had earned me. My voice trailed off. “I mean… not much.”
“Sounds to me like you’re ready for our next daring adventure,” he said, steering me onto the town square proper, past the front of the rooming house. “Fortunate indeed we crossed paths like we did. Because last night in Daisy’s, I took hold of a juicy nugget of information.” He gestured across the square toward Daisy’s saloon, mystery oozing from behind its green, swinging doors. I pictured Tumbleweed inside, surrounded by a clump of robbers with gold teeth, bandits with wooden legs, and other drifters, regaling them all with tales of his daring deeds. I shivered and leaned closer.
“Now I weren’t supposed to hear about this. But Dakota Jack is nearly kin– his Pa and my Pa are mining partners –so I knew it were honest.” He stopped and glanced around, as if on the brink of sharing some forbidden secret. “You know how gunpowder’s being rationed now, on account of the Indian wars been going on upstate a ways?”
I nodded authoritatively, having heard no such thing.
“Jack said he heard from a reliable source there’s a gang of smugglers going to be coming up the San Pedro River tonight with barrels full of popping pepper bound for someplace thataway.”
“Popping pepper?” I asked.
“That’s smuggler slang for gunpowder,” he said. “They stash the barrels in the river, sealed up tight of course, leave ‘em for the day, then come back at night to move ‘em upriver, where they can catch the Colorado and take ‘em out of state.”
“Go on!” I said. “You just happened to hear about all this from a buddy at the saloon?” “Hey,” he said, wagging a finger at me. “Tumbleweed Thompson has eyes and ears all over this town. I figure we can sneak down after dark, find the cave where they’ve stowed the loot, crack open a barrel and fill up a couple of gunny sacks.” His cadence had shifted gear, and his blue eyes shone with excitement. “Then, we can really have some fun.”
I tried my darnedest to imagine the kind of fun one could have with two gunny sacks full of gunpowder, but sadly, even Dead-Eye Dan had left me short of comprehending such things.
“Prove it,” I said. “I’m not getting roped into this on your word alone, even if it’s backed up by Dakota Jack.” Truth is, I was just stalling. After the word “smuggler,” I was in whole-hog.
Tumbleweed waved me closer. I watched as he cupped his hand and dipped it into the front pocket of his vest. When his hand emerged, a fine, black powder lay in the hollow.
“Gunpowder?” I whispered, throat dry as cotton.
Tumbleweed nodded. He licked a finger and pressed it to the powder, then raised it to his tongue. “Can’t be nothing else,” he said.
I reached deep for words to suit the moment. “Wow,” I said. “Now you believe me?” Tumbleweed asked.
“Right,” Tumbleweed said, dumping the powder back into his pocket. “You know where the dock is, just down from Sczmanski’s place?” I knew the place. “Cave is just nearby. If we get there before the smugglers, we can dip in and have ourselves a real hootenanny.”
“Tonight?” I asked.
“Why, you have other plans?”
I glanced back at the square, avoiding his gaze. At midday, the town was at its peak. But the clatter of wagon wheels and clang from the blacksmith’s shop floated over me like a cloud. I felt as weightless as a balloon. “Nope,” I said.
“Splendid,” he said. “Half past nine, at the dock.”
As he walked away, I could hear him whistling that sea shanty. I had to admit, it was mighty catchy.
Among the skills belonging to most 12-year old boys which I had not had the chance to develop, sneaking out of the house was at the top of the list. It was, as it turns out, surprisingly easy. Ma and Pa extinguished the final lamp in their bedroom a few minutes past nine, and I leapt out of bed, fully dressed, and crept past their bedroom and down the stairs. One creaky stair tread later, I was out of the house and soon, standing in the moonlight on Sczmanski’s creaky dock on the bank of the San Pedro River. The afternoon storm had blown over and the sky was starless and full of wispy clouds.
“You’re still wearing that?” Tumbleweed asked, pointing to my librarian garb and doubling over with laughter.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know what was the appropriate attire for burgling.”
He had changed into a pair of dungaree pants and was still wearing that oversized, hooded slicker, despite the night’s general mugginess. “Come on,” he said pointing downriver. “I saw light over there. We should check it out.”
He ducked low, vanishing behind a swath of bulrushes. Only then did I realize we had no lantern. Relying only on my ears, and the dim patch of moonlight peeking from behind a bank of clouds, I followed him, my footsteps squishing in the mud as we neared the water. The wind whipped, and the dry reeds chattered in the darkness. I glanced up, starting to panic at Tumbleweed’s sudden disappearance. Suddenly, his head popped out of the brush in front of me. He raised an arm and pointed.
I stood and stopped cold.
We had rounded a bend in the river. Less than 50 feet away, a large, white paddlewheel steamboat, as big as a house, drifted lazily in the water. Lantern light blazed from inside, and the sound of men’s voices floated through the open windows on deck.
Tumbleweed turned toward me, his face backlit by the steamboat. “This certainly changes things,” he said.
“Changes things?” I asked. “I’d say so. Your plan didn’t involve getting past a riverboat.”
“We can work with this,” he said, a strange look passing over his face while he talked. It was a look I would come to know, and occasionally fear: the feverish hatching of a hare-brained plan. His lips moved slightly, his gaze fixed on the riverboat, for several long seconds. Finally, he glanced back at me and grinned. “No problem,” he said, pointing downriver. “The cave is that way. So while whoever is on that boat is enjoying themselves, we’ll duck around the back side of the boat, find the cave, and get what we came for. It’s the perfect distraction. Ready?”
Before I even opened my mouth to object, Tumbleweed was in the water and sloshing through the shallows toward the rear of the boat. I sighed and headed after him, the warm water soon reaching thigh-level.
Suddenly, a light flashed across us. Tumbleweed immediately ducked underwater. I froze. Shouts erupted from the deck of the boat, and a man appeared on deck.
“Hey!” a voice called. “Who’s there?” The lantern light swung around, catching me square in its beam.
That’s it. We were sunk. I whirled, ready to meet my doom. An outlaw. Caught in the act.
To Be Continued Next Week…
(If you enjoyed this, you might want to read Mr. McCarty’s previous tale, Tumbleweed Thompson’s Youth Tonic, here.)
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