Bass Reeves Versus the Dinosaur Bone!
No, don't start imagining the famous Indian Territories marshal roping a T-Rex (although that would be awesome!). I'm going to give you a peek at the upcoming Bass Reeves novella I wrote for Air Chief Ron Fortier of the Airship 27 new pulp publishing house. This is the fourth Bass Reeves collection I've been in, and I'm thrilled to be part of everything.
Okay, so you have to know my childhood consisted of many influences. This was one of them:
Cowboys versus dinosaurs in a land time forgot! With Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation!
Okay, that movie isn't really one of the best, but it was fun for a very young me. And no, there are no roped dinosaurs in the novella.
So here's the preview:
The fat carnival barker in the bright green suit mistook United States Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves’s interest in the colorful painting hanging on the side of the tent for real curiosity. It was, but not the way he thought.
The canvas image showed a young, slim woman with long red hair who wore an emerald dress tight enough to hint at feminine wiles. The woman’s clothing was scandalous by conventional standards.
The fan the woman in the painting held in one hand hid most of her bright red beard, but not all of it. The beard was enough to make anyone who saw it stop and gawk, and probably have a lot of questions. It was the perfect bait for a traveling circus that offered “death-defying feats” and “oddities” like a rubber man, giant rats, a strong man, a two-headed calf, and…a bearded lady.
Still, the barker held up a minute before he came over to Bass to unload his spiel.
Bass figured the man’s hesitation was on account of he’d been riding hard through wild country in Indian Territory the last few days and looked like a rough man not wanting to truck with any foolishness. He stuck out like a curly-haired wolf wearing his two Colt Model Porcerche Corporation .44 revolvers and most folks fought shy of him.
Behind him, his horse stamped her feet and blew an annoyed breath. She shook her head and her bridle rattled. He held the reins with his right hand to keep her in check and turned slightly to stroke her neck reassuringly.
“You just hang in there, girl,” Bass crooned. “You’ll be eating good tonight. Ain’t gonna be no prairie grass for you. Gonna be sweet feed soon’s we check into the hotel.”
He should have been at the hotel already, maybe tucked into a good steak and enjoying conversation with Alfred Tubby, his posseman. He’d been looking forward to sleeping in a bed instead of around a campfire as he’d been doing for the last week.
Instead, he stood there in the middle of the curious gawkers that had showed up to have a look at Bishop and O’Malley’s Traveling Circus of Amazing Enchantments.
Things would have been different if he’d seen the painting tomorrow morning when he was set to meet Miss Augustine O’Malley and talk about her dead father. That was the work he was sent here to do by Judge Isaac Parker.
But nope. Drawn like a kid by all the color and noise and tents, despite the fatigue from road travel that piled on him as surely as the trail dust, he’d had to come to the circus.
He sighed. He was afraid he was going to miss his supper because he had marshal work to do.
He never put that work off.
“Hello there, mister,” the barker said and stopped in front of Bass.
The man removed his derby, faded from being too long in the sun along the route the circus traveled when it was on tour, and probably from standing out in front of the tents in all manner of weather and trying to strike up a crowd. He stuck out a hand and smiled broadly.
Bass took the man’s soft, wet hand, squeezed it, and quickly released it. He knew he needed to chat up the barker to see what he knew, and he couldn’t be a marshal when he did that. Not yet. Circus folks didn’t like talking to the law unless they had troubles they couldn’t handle.
That was the kind of trouble Miss O’Malley had.
Right now Bass needed to be somebody who wasn’t threatening and was easy to talk to. Hiram Bell was just that kind of character, and the alter ego was a favorite of Bass’s. He slipped easily into the man’s ways, relaxed his features just a little, and spoke softly. “Hello.”
“I’m Oliver Worthy,” the barker said. “I’m a host here at the circus.”
Worthy glanced back at the painting. “I guess maybe you haven’t seen a bearded lady before.”
“Actually,” Bass replied, “I have.”
Worthy blinked in surprise. “You have?”
“My daddy’s momma,” Bass said, “bless her soul on account of you couldn’t have met a more lovin’ woman, had her some side whiskers that she was a mite embarrassed about. I’m talkin’ whiskers that would have made a billy goat envious of chin fringe.”
He held his big hand up an inch or so from his face to show how long they were.
“Wasn’t nothin’ she could do about it,” Bass went on, “on account of her bein’ old an’ all, and folks just naturally tend to fall apart in their final years. My daddy said she was a fine lookin’ woman in her day, though. Fine-boned and trim. Told me it was likely my granddaddy had him a private graveyard hid back somewhere in the swamps along Muddy Boggy Creek that was full of would-be courters from back when my daddy’s momma was young because Granddaddy was a jealous man and Granny liked men’s attention.”
The barker blinked again and looked a little confused. He hadn’t been able to immediately launch into his spiel because Bass had gotten there first with a story.
“Well, that’s interesting,” the barker said.
Bass was sure the man was lying because he’d just made up the whole story right there on the spot, but it had thrown the barker out of his rhythm, which was what he’d hoped it would do.
“What you see right there,” the barker turned to wave at the painting of the bearded lady and raised his voice to possibly draw in more of the passersby, “is a fine specimen of a woman. She’s lean and pretty and just about every man’s dream—if he could get around her having a healthier beard than himself.”
Alfred, Bass’s posseman, stepped over and joined the conversation. He held the reins to his own horse. Alfred was in his early seventies, twenty years older than Bass. He was lean where Bass was broad and muscular, but the old man still moved quick and fought like a wildcat.
Alfred was more tidy than Bass even though they’d been riding the same trails. Alfred was like that, always looking out after himself, making sure he was squared away. His suit appeared fairly well dusted and his long, salt and pepper hair was tied in braids that hung well past his shoulders. His copper-colored skin advertised his Cherokee ancestry just as surely as the paintings on the carnival tents advertised the presence of oddities.
“Now why would you be so interested in a bearded lady when we got supper to get to?” Alfred mused.
“Don’t she look familiar?” Bass asked.
Alfred squinted up at the painting wafting gently in the dry breeze that wound through the Woodward streets.
“Of course she looks familiar,” Worthy said in an attempt to take control of the conversation. “Mademoiselle Vivienne DuMont has trod stages in France and Spain before royal audiences in her time. Despite her unfortunate hirsute appearance, she has a beautiful singing voice. She’s been known to sing operas and bring kings and queens to tears even during times of joyous occasion. We here at Bishop and O’Malley’s Traveling Circus of Amazing Enchantments are fortunate to have her. Mr. Bishop and Mr. O’Malley both had to negotiate Mademoiselle Vivienne’s contract from a Parisian baron.”
“I thought Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Republic put an end to royal titles,” Alfred said. “They had a big war and everything over there to put a stop to them.”
Worthy’s face colored a little and he looked off-balance. “I’m sure not every baron was deposed.”
Bass smiled a little. “Probably not. I reckon it’s hard to get them all.”
“It is,” Worthy said.
“She sings?” Alfred asked.
“Indeed, she does,” the barker said.
“Well, isn’t that something?” the posseman asked. He sounded like he was in awe.
Bass kept a smile at bay with effort. Alfred was having fun at the barker’s expense. Worthy just didn’t know it. The true entertainment was that Alfred still hadn’t seen what Bass had seen. It wasn’t often he got ahead of his posseman because Alfred was almost as good with remembering faces as Bass was.
“Her performance is something,” Worthy said. “You should all come and hear Mademoiselle Vivienne sing tonight. She does a beautiful rendition of ‘Green Grow the Lilacs.’ I swear, that story about the American soldier’s love for pretty little Mexican senorita will bring anyone to tears.”
“When is Mademoiselle Vivienne gonna sing?” Bass asked.
Worthy straightened his jacket, took out his pocket watch, and checked the time. “In a little less than two hours, gentlemen.” He snapped the watch closed, looked around the crowd, smiled, and tipped his derby. “And ladies.”
“You reckon we might be able to meet her before the show?” Bass asked.
Suspicion tightened Worthy’s eyes and he studied Bass more closely. Some of his polish and wordplay drained away. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Because the man I work for,” Bass jerked a thumb over his shoulder in Alfred’s direction, “is Mr. Alfred Tannenbaum. He’s a circuit newspaper reporter. Writes stories on all manner of things for papers in Indian Territory, Texas, Kansas, and Colorado. Some of them stories get out as far as San Francisco and New York.”
Alfred stood a little straighter and added a subtle layer of dignity. He and Bass had worked together so long the posseman just naturally followed any tune the marshal called up.
Worthy studied the posseman more closely and Bass guessed the fib had a fifty-fifty chance of working because circus folk were suspicious by nature, but they were also more than a little nosy.
“I figure Mademoiselle Vivienne is likely someone Mr. Tannenbaum would write about,” Bass went on. “Might help you fill more seats as you wander through the Territories. Mr. Tannenbaum’s a good writer. And news stories travel along telegraph wires faster than you can go in your wagons.”
“Do you want to tell me what you’re doing?” Alfred asked in Cherokee.
“I’ll show you in a bit,” Bass replied in the same language.
Worthy frowned. “What did he just say? I know he speaks English. I heard him.”
“I was just chastising my lackey,” Alfred said in an even more cultured accent, though the change was subtle, “and I did not want to embarrass you with my agitation. I was prepared to put an end to my evening when he insisted we come look at the circus. It’s not seemly for him to press you for a story. You’ve probably already got someone doing a story on her.” He shot Bass an annoyed look. “Sometimes I swear he doesn’t have any more gumption than a child, and is about as attentive.”
Worthy blinked and looked like he was doing some fast reconsidering. “A reporter, you say.”
“Not a reporter,” Alfred said, “I am a wandering correspondent. I go see the world and bring it back to newspaper readers wherever they are.”
It was a good line and Bass appreciated it. He figured Alfred had picked it up from something he’d read in the papers. Alfred was always reading.
“I’d hate to bother Mademoiselle Vivienne,” Worth said.
“And I’d hate to miss my supper,” Alfred replied. He switched his attention to Bass. “Let’s go.”
Bass took a step toward Alfred, away from the circus paintings.
“Wait,” Worthy said. “Let me get someone to take my place and I’ll take you to see Mademoiselle Vivienne.”
Worthy darted away.
“What are you doing?” Alfred asked in Cherokee.
“You still don’t see it?” Bass jerked a thumb at the painting.
Alfred studied the painting again for a moment, then shook his head.
“You will,” Bass promised.