“And The Horse You Rode In On”
By Jan Lucas
and Penny McQueen
Six wilted passengers inside, mound of baggage perched on top and a bay saddlehorse tied behind, the stage groaned to a stop under the weathered Western Union sign. Cigar-stub clamped in his teeth, the driver set the brake, secured his lines and turned to the boy riding shotgun. “Well son, my offer still stands. San Francisco’s a long haul and the road from here to Yuma ain’t called the Devil’s Highway for being kind-hearted.”
A fresh team pulled the stage north to Flagstaff while the kid watched. Scarred repeating rifle over his shoulder, Colt on his hip, tired bay horse stalled at the livery, he took in the action. Among buildings of adobe and rough-cut lumber, cat-hipped, ewe-necked cowponies stood at hitching rails. Grizzled saddle-tramps and bowler-hatted dandies streamed toward Sabino Street bordellos, sauntered out smiling. Crashing through saloon doors into the street, a black-haired bear of a man traded punches with three cowpokes, their blood splattering in the dust. Well-dressed ladies stepped delicately over garbage on their way from the dressmakers, discussing lunch at the hotel. At a mercantile, the shopkeeper collared a pimply boy and yelled, “Give it back, you little chiseler or your scalp’ll hang beside the one I took off that horse-thieving Injun!” Strolling past, a lean vaquero wearing tight pants and a seductive smile pulled his busty señorita close, crushing her cheap satin skirt against his thigh. Distracted and gesturing broadly, he smacked an obese matron on the nose as she waddled by. Squalling, hands covering her nose and eyes, she careened into a street-vendor’s pyramid of fruit and sat down hard. Bouncing oranges spooked sorrel horses hitched to a buckboard. Bolting, they tossed a blond, baby-faced cowboy from the wagon, then galloped wildly down the street. Pedestrians leapt out of the way as the matron shrieked, the wailing vendor clutched his sombrero, the blond cowboy tossed his hat in disgust, and the vaquero shouted, “Calma, calma!” While he apologized, dodged blows from the fat woman’s parasol and shoved coins at the vendor, the hulking black-haired brawler slapped his shoulder and roared, “I can out fight and out drink any man in this whole territory!” then walked away with the handsome Mexican’s girl.
To a symphony of
gunfire, screams, and church-bell chimes, a ten-team freight-wagon negotiated
the turn at one end of the narrow roadway, while at the other drovers funneled
milling cattle toward the auction-yard.
As the kid opened the door to the Western Union office, he heard
breaking glass, a Rebel yell and joyful cry of, “Tucson is paradise!
Behind the Western Union counter, a stout, gray-haired woman grinned at the kid’s soulful, dark eyes and shock of curly black hair. “If you ain’t cute as a bug. New here, ain’t ya?” Nodding, he lay bills on the counter, said he needed safe storage for rifle and saddle-bags, and a telegram sent to New Orleans. “Sure, sonny. I got clean bunks upstairs, two bits a night,” she said, then scowled at bawling steers bolting past the glass door, grabbed a broom and bustled outside swinging and yelling, “Git! Go on, git!”
When she returned, he asked, “Is it usually like this?”
“Naw,” she said, resting the broom on the counter and wiping sweat from her face with a forearm. “We ain’t had a Saturday this dead in a month of Sundays.”
The kid’s telegram
read ‘Beloved Family. In
“Now don’t go and say that, you might like it here. You churchy? Catholic one’s around the corner and the Methodists got a fried chicken dinner tomorrow. If you ain’t churchy, there’s cat-houses on Sabino and saloons on Meyer.” She gave him a hearty pinch on the cheek. “If you need money, the boys from the High Chaparral’s in town. That spread’s always short on cowhands. You run into Buck Cannon, tell him Maudie sent you. Got that?”
“Con gusto, with pleasure. And my thanks,” he answered with a small bow. Dust from the street puffed in the door as he opened it, a wind-borne glob of tobacco spit landed on his boot as he stepped into a fresh heap of cow manure. Notions of the Romantic West bolted like a runaway mule-train, but he smiled brightly over his shoulder when Maudie called out.
“Hey! You see Buck, tell him to get over here pronto. He still owes me money from last month.”
The American West was a haven from inconvenient lives. Its open plains, ageless mesas and vast deserts swallowed the disinherited, disenfranchised, and disillusioned -- bankrupt royalty, black sheep sons of blue-bloods, industrious settlers, criminals, adventurers. Some died, some chased cows, singing to desert night and red mountains. To the shock of relatives back home, many became successful merchants, teachers or craftsmen. A few even tended bar.
In a saloon smaller than El Toro Loco, but cleaner than Pepé’s Cantina, Gladstone sloshed two foamy mugs and wiped the worn slick counter. With the Chaparral crew in for the night, he had the best show in town. At the bar, Blue Cannon fished out a pickled egg and sipped his beer while lanky Reno eased back on his elbows and surveyed the room.
Buck Cannon drained his shot glass, whirled Polly into his lap, waved gloved fingers and yelled, “Two more and keep them coming, Gladstone.” Buck kissed squealing Polly, then laughed at Joe Butler. “Come on, Joe. If you didn’t lose a few dollars, how’d you know it was Saturday night?”
Joe studied his cards and answered, “I don’t see what you’re so happy about.” Everyone at the table lost to Buck, including Clancy Ellis. Broad and florid, Ellis owned the Lazy E spread east of Tucson and supplied horses to sodbusters and greenhorns drifting through; most locals steered clear. The kind of horse-trader who gave thieves a bad name, Ellis tossed money into the pot, ordered beer and chuckled to himself. Joe re-arranged his cards and growled, “And that goes for you, too. You haven’t won a hand all night.” Ellis shot a poisonous look at the younger Butler, shrugged, and added more cash.
“Neither have you, Joe.” Behind fanned cards, Sam Butler’s deep voice carried through the saloon. His brother looked ready to bite off his own moustache, then his jaw twitched and he steadied. Polly giggled when Buck sneezed, his nose buried in her pink feather headdress.
Poker is a money loss for any saloon, and so is food. Cowboy’s won’t pay for beans and rice when their ranch feeds them for free. But sanctified snake-poison is nine-tenths pure profit. A lonesome saddle tramp’s happy to buy his pretty Saloon-Sally a house drink of colored water so she’ll bring him luck at poker and fetch him more drinks. The longer he plays, the more she’s like fairy-tale magic. Everything she touches turns to gold. Mostly for the house.
Manolito Montoya sat at a corner table with Angelina. She ran one hand through his hair while the other crept toward a bag of coins in his vest pocket. Trapping her hand, he kissed it and said, “A very pretty name, Angelina. But you are no angel, preciosa.” He whispered to her, then steered her upstairs. Observing from the bar, Gladstone counted money in the till and considered tossing Montoya out on his ear. He never paid, but the girls loved him and it paid to keep them happy. If the ladies wanted an oversized pet with the manners of a rooster, it was best not to argue.
Buck waved again so Gladstone uncorked whiskey, stopping when Buck shook his head. “Sarsaparilla.” Buck jerked a thumb toward a kid standing at his table. Scrawny, wearing a battered Stetson, threadbare britches, baggy calico shirt, greasy buckskin vest, he asked to join the game.
“Son, you ever play poker before?” asked Sam.
“A little, Señor.” He pulled a roll of dirty bills from a pocket and asked, “Is this enough to get in the game?”
Money buys anyone a seat. Buck sent Polly off with a smack on her backside as the kid settled in. He lost two rounds, then made out like a bandit with a straight flush and was tucking another pot in his pockets when Clancy Ellis took exception. He scowled at the boy’s innocent face. “I don’t take to being hoodwinked. You’re no greenhorn.”
The kid slumped in his chair looking scared. Face deadpan, Buck answered mildly, “Leave him be, Ellis. It’s just beginner’s luck.”
“You leave me be, you sheepherder. You ain’t smart enough to know a card-sharp when you see one.” Sorting out the next round of cards in his hand, Ellis inhaled. “I’ve heard sheep-dip makes a man stupid. I can smell it on you a mile away.”
A smile crawled across Buck’s face. When it didn’t reach his eyes, Gladstone cleared glasses from the countertop. Sam leaned across the table and advised, “You promised Big John. No fights.”
“I promised?” Buck casually sorted cards. “I did that?”
“Sure did, Bucko, and I’m not bailing you out of jail this time.” When Joe stood, Sam said, “That means you, too. Sit down.” Jaw twitching, Joe sat. At the bar, Blue settled his hat, tightened the strings, and tugged on his gloves. At the table, bets circled, and the Butlers folded.
Sneering, Ellis tossed money on the table. “Big John, now that’s a fine name for your brother. Big territory, big ranch, big man. I hear he fancies himself a horse breeder now.”
Stepping from the bar, Blue spoke through clenched teeth. “Yes he does, Mr. Ellis. You got something to say about it?”
“Easy Blue boy.” Buck looked at his cards, added money to the pot, and said, “Ellis, you ready to back up that big mouth with real money? I got two hundred dollars says a Chaparral horse comes in before a Lazy E horse in the 4th of July race.” When Blue whispered to him urgently, he shushed him.
“You’re a piker just like your brother. If I win this hand, the bet’s a thousand dollars. My new stallion’s a top, he could beat any of your nags running on three legs. Go look for yourself, he’s at the livery.”
“Clancy, I ain’t leaving the table to eyeball some jughead that old lady-broke Irene can outrun. Probably ain’t got but three good legs anyways, just like the rest of yours.”
“Says you. I say different.” Leaning on a massive forearm, he snarled, “Are you man enough to take my bet?”
Buck scratched his cheek, studying his cards again. “Uncle Buck are you crazy?” Blue hissed.
Buck upended a shot of whiskey, checked his cards, and ran a hand across his forehead, whistling. “I ain’t got that kind of…” He shot a look around the room, then squared his shoulders. “You wait right here while I consult with my business aye-sociates.” He gathered the Chaparral men in a corner and showed them his cards. “It’s a sucker bet, boys. I ain’t seen a hand this good in six months.”
Blue exploded in a strangled whisper, “You’re loco, you ain’t got a thousand dollars and he knows it!”
“Yeah, Buck,” Sam agreed, scratching his chin. “All of us put together don’t have that much cash.”
“Maybe that’s so,
but all of us put together got enough for this hand.” Joe nodded at Reno. “Do
that, he’ll think we got the race covered. You in?”
Buck counted, then turned to his fuming nephew. “Blue, I’m short. How much you got?”
“You ain’t getting my money, not this time. You always lose, and you never pay me back, and,” Blue’s voice rose to a shout, “YOU CAN’T HAVE MY BOOTS!”
Raising an eyebrow, Buck considered the faded, dirty shoe leather. “Nice boots, too. How much?” He held out a palm.
“I… you…” Sputtering, Blue jerked a few coins from a pocket and slapped them into his uncle’s hand. When Buck gestured for more, he sighed and emptied his pockets. “That’s it, and I ain’t never coming to town with you ever again.”
“That’s right, Blue boy, you ain’t never coming to town with me never again, and now if you’ll please excuse me, I got some important business to discuss with Mr. Ellis.”
Wide smile on his face, Buck slammed the fistful of cash on the table. “All right, Mr. Big Talker. I’m calling your bet, and what’s more me and the boys are taking your bet on the race.” He spread out his cards and reached for the piled money. “Two lovely ladies and three pretty little aces. How do you like them horse apples?”
Ellis’s sweaty hand clamped Buck’s wrist. “Not so fast, boyo. I’ve got four kings saying your full house ain’t but an out-house.” Pushing Buck away, he reached for the money, stopping when the kid coughed and lay down his hand. Ellis blinked at the ace, king, queen, jack and ten of spades. The saloon air tasted of metal, heavy as a gathering monsoon storm.
“Señors, our deck has too many kings,” the kid said. He didn’t move, but Buck pushed back from the table, eyes on Clancy.
Grabbing at the money, Ellis roared, “Why you little –!” He lunged at the kid. The kid sprang to his feet, sawed-off revolver in his hand. Buck upended the table, then sent Ellis halfway to the bar with a left hook.
Senseless as a stampede, the barfight exploded. The kid tucked the gun back inside his vest and scooped a handful of money off the floor. Stuffing it into his pocket, he hugged the wall and edged toward the bat-wing doors. The doors crashed open. Shadowed by his shorter brother Bub, mammoth Bart Kellogg stomped into the room and bellowed, “I’ll fight any three of you!” When Joe Butler barreled into him, the kid darted past them to the street.
Bart and Joe rolled across the floor, trading punches and splintering chairs, blind to Buck as he took a slug of beer and broke the mug on Clancy’s head. Staring at foamy shards, he complained, “Look what you made me waste,” then winced when a short cowhand whacked him from behind and pulled him into the fray.
Seizing a fistful of snarled black beard, Sam Butler tried pulling Bart off Joe. Joe held his own, pounding away and blocking wild punches. When Clancy whacked Sam with a chair-leg, Sam shook himself and slugged him in the mouth.
Manolito sauntered downstairs, disheveled Angelina behind him. Ducking when a full whiskey bottle shot past his ear, he shouted, “Hey Buck! You started the party without me!” Tugging Angelina’s hand, he wove through combatants, plucked a bottle of tequila off the bar and took a long pull. When Joe and Bartrolled near, kicking and gouging, he yelled “Arriba!” and smacked Bart’s head with the bottle. Bart crashed to the floor, out cold.Joe charged back into the fight, ramming Bub Kellogg before Bub slung a chair-leg at Buck.
The chair-leg thumped Clancy Ellis’ wide rear, missing Buck as he stood in the middle of the saloon, one eye swelled shut, grinning and swigging Gladstone’s best whiskey. But like poker, his luck ran out. Bub shoved Polly into his back and he swung a sloppy punch without looking. It knocked her for a loop.
Aiming for Bub, Reno smashed a bottle of redeye on Blue’s head and knocked him to the ground. Through streams of cut-rate whiskey, Blue saw saloon girls kicking the living daylights out of his uncle, then he saw stars.
Mouth dry as a Tucson street, Buck winced as Sam and Joe dunked their heads in the water trough. Morning sunlight stabbed bright daggers into his pounding head. “Can’t you do that more quiet-like?” he moaned, black-gloved hand over an ear.
“Do what more quiet, Buck?” Sam shook like a wet dog then fingered a purple bruise spreading over his cheek.
“Breathing.” He traced fingers down his cheekThe bay stallion he saw in the livery that morning made everything hurt double. Built to run, cow-ponies looked like crow-bait next to him. “I ain’t long for this world and ole Clancy’s going to own what’s left over.”
Blue snorted. “Serves you right, half of
Gingerly dabbing his bruised face with a dirty towel, Joe Butler said, “Yeah, Buck. Clancy sure played you for a sucker.”
“Thanks, Joe. I’d maybe forgot if you hadn’t reminded me.” He leaned his aching forehead into Rebel’s side and moaned. “Go on without me. Tell John I died with my boots on.”
Joe licked swollen lips and slowly placed his hat on his head. “You ever think maybe we drink too much?”
“No, because it don’t make sense.” Hammers pounded behind Buck’s eyes; he squeezed his temples to keep his eyes from falling out. “My head only hurts when I stop drinking.”
Long legs stretched loosely in front of him, Reno sat on the wooden porch, leaned against a support post, and peered from under his hat-brim. “Man’s got a point, boys.”
Solemn nods followed as Buck stumbled to the water trough and filled his hat, slopping warm water over tangled hair. His head pounded. He knelt and tossed water over his neck and shoulders, gulped air, and draped his soaked bandanna over his head. From underneath the dripping black cloth, he mumbled. “Good Lord, I promise to be a better man, but could you maybe see your way clear to shut up these ‘Pache war drums inside my skull?” When the almighty declined to answer, he sighed, “Maybe I don’t need to be a better man,” and pulled the drying bandanna off his head.
Curly hair drying in the morning heat, Sam rested an elbow on the trough edge and rubbed his forehead. “I know it’s Sunday, Buck, but were you just praying?”
“Well, Sam, ain’t nothing says a man’s got to be in church to pray, is there?” When the men began to droop around the trough, he squared his shoulders and tightened his hat strings. “Maudie’s got eggs and redeye gravy fixed, and it’s a long ride to the ranch. Let’s eat.”
Maude ain’t the best looker in Tucson, but her coffee was better than prayer for putting me back on the path of righteousness. Me and the boys drank a couple gallons, strong and black, then set out to find Mano. He was in front of El Toro Loco with his arm around a healthy señorita. Morning sun high, I swatted his hat. “Say ay-dee-os to your chiquita linda. We got a long, hot day ahead.”
Like a big hidalgo, he kissed her hand and said, “Your beauty will sustain this poor vaquero through many miles of desolate country. Every minute I am away from you will seem like hours.” He forgot her name soon as soon he crossed the street, but grumbled anyways. “Compadre, where is your sense of romance?”
I had one foot in the stirrup when all hell broke loose from across the street. A horse was trying to take apart the livery. When Clancy Ellis started yelling for help and cracking his bullwhip, I figured to let the horse have a piece of him.
Let me tell you about Clancy Ellis. July the year before, he left a little filly tied in front of Pepé’s Cantina most of a day. She got mighty thirsty, made it worse trying to break free for the trough. When my brother saw her, he unhitched her and let her drink. Ellis stumbled out of the cantina, called Big John a horse thief and shot the horse right between the eyes. Brother John faced him down with his pistol drawn, then decided to let the sheriff handle it. Turns out there’s no law against killing your own horse. I don’t much like Mister Clancy Ellis.
So when I heard the shot from the livery, I thought maybe I wouldn’t loose the bet. Clancy stumbled out, shirt torn and shoulder bloody. Behind him, the big bay stallion was all teeth and pinned ears with the rag-tag boy from the poker game astride, his .44 trained on Ellis.I poked Blue in the shoulder and hollered, “He ain’t Clancy’s horse! You know what that means?”
“Means you got lucky, Uncle Buck. Let’s ride before you mess it up.” Jaw set hard, Blue looked just like my big brother. Sounded like him, too. I’d have punched him if I’d felt better.
“Blue boy, you ought to be more respectful of your uncle. We ride when I say we do.” I patted Rebel’s neck and turned to Mano. “You ever see a horse like that?”
“Sure is. You think we got us a pint-sized horse-thief?”
“Hombre, unless he steals my horse, it is none of my business.” The boy watched Ellis until he stumbled into Doc Plant’s office, then slid his gun in the holster, turned and trotted past us, tipping his hat. He had a gash on one cheek, about what you’d expect from a bullwhip. I yelled, “Hey, you shoot Clancy?” He called back no, kicked into a canter and they was gone.
Sam nudged me and said, “Hey Buck, you promised Maude you’d give him a job and she’s the only woman in Tucson still speaking to you.”
“Sam, if Gladstone hands John a bill for damages, the women in Tucson won’t matter. My brother’ll nail me to the barn and I won’t never get to town again,” I said. Sam laughed, but Don Juanolito slung an arm around my neck.
“The solution to your troublesis leaving town, compadre.”
“You still drunk, Mano? That kid ain’t no banker.”
“Ave Maria, not him. The good-looking horse.”
He grinned while I eyed the bay’s disappearing hind-end. The minute John saw him, he’d start lining up mares, ours and every other rancher’s in the territory. If he was fast as he looked, come the Fourth of July race, Clancy Ellis could eat heifer-dust. Telling me I didn’t have to thank him, Mano galloped after them.
I found the stallion tied in front of the tannery. My new friend came out the door, packing a paste into the wound on his cheek. Good medicine, but it burns like fire. Pretty tough little muchacho, no flinching but his eyes watered. “Hola,” I said, smiling in a way I have been told is persuasive. “A bad man, Clancy Ellis.” I was rewarded with a quick nod, then he shoved the medicine jar into a saddle bag and mounted. “Momentito, por favor. We were not properly introduced last night. I am Manolo Montoya and on behalf of el rancho High Chaparral, I wish to offer you a job.”
“Yo soy Cesario Salazar. Señor Ellis also asked me to work for him. He changed his mind.” A smile tugged at his mouth. “He said I could go to the devil.”
“You and the horse you rode in on, sí?” I said and he chuckled, collecting the reins to leave. “You had a poor welcome to Tucson, did you not? Con permiso, I will buy you breakfast at the hotel. I promise only fine food, peaceful surroundings and stimulating conversation.”
“Gracias, but I have relatives waiting in San Francisco.”
“Hombre, ride out alone, you will not live to see them.” I pointed to Clancy’s vaqueros, watching from horseback. “They will come after you. Entiendes? Maybe better if they kill you instead of the Apaches, but either way will be most unpleasant.” He studied me, then glanced back toward town, considering. Just then, Bart Kellogg and one of Pete Kitchen’s men were released from jail. Bart punched the other hombre through the window at the apothecary’s and dove in after him. All at once, an explosion at the gunsmith’s blew out the wall shared with a house of ill repute. Andele! It took several people by surprise, including a señorita of my acquaintanceand the husband of the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, fortunately sober but unfortunately undressed. More persuasive than Manolito Montoya. High Chaparral had a new hand with a very fine horse.
Riding south to the ranch, Manolito described the civilized wonders of Tucson. Dances, even balls. Opera-house, library, school, two bookstores and -- no doubt outnumbered by saloons and bordellos -- many churches. “You spend a lot of time in church, do you?”
“Well, I admit Padre Ignacio does not see me as often as he would like.” He shrugged, then swept an arm across the horizon. “Beautiful country, is it not? Mira, all of this, open and free. Harsh, sí. Also enchanting. No place on earth like it.”
Blazing sun made
the cut on my cheek throb. I sweated
like a pig, surrounded by miles of sand and prickly things. Ahead of us, hung-over cowboys sang “Buffalo
Gals” off-key as buzzards circled something which smelled very large. Behind
“Absolutely! Out here, muchacho! You can truly live and breathe.” The odor of the buzzard’s meal grew stronger in the brutal heat. I was nauseous. He looked at me with sympathetic eyes. “You are suddenly very sad. Homesick perhaps?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” I swallowed hard, counting buzzards. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for letter, four for…
“The day is too lovely for sadness,” he said gently, then flashed a dimpled grin. His hand beat a happy tattoo on his thigh, then he pointed to me. “I know what will put the roses back in your cheeks. Your horse, how fast is he?”
“Bueno! Prove it!” His horse leapt into a gallop, Mano yelling “¡Vamanos, Macadoo!” I bet he also cheated at cards.
Wind in my hair, laughter in my throat, we flew by Buck and the boys. The little muchacho and his fine stallion far on our back-trail, I would be eating supper before they got to Chaparral. ¡Arriba! Feed Cesario and his slow horse for a few days, then send them on their way. Having saved Chaparral great embarrassment, I was congratulating myself when the bay thundered past. While I choked on his dust, he streaked around a bend and vanished.
In the shade of rocky outcrops and mesquite, beside a little spring, Cesario sat cross-legged sharing an apple with the stallion. “Care for a piece? Honorado will not mind.”
“No, gracias.” Maybe he did not mind, but I did. I dismounted and stretched my arms. “Honorado, eh? A quality of great merit, honor,” I said, walking to a boulder and leaning against it. The stallion was a creature of beauty and speed from his powerful shoulders to long, sturdy legs. Papá would have sacrificed part of my anatomy for so splendid an animal. “What about a little revenge?” I asked the boy. He shrugged. “There is a race in Tucson on the Fourth. Clancy Ellis will enter. Any horse of his will be a burro next to yours. Grant me the honor of riding him, Ellis will learn his place and we split the purse.”
“By then Honorado and I will be in California.” He took a bite of apple, chewing slowly.
“Ay, muchacho. Do not be so sure. Once you see the Chaparral, you will want to stay. Absolutely!” I vowed. “It is not as grand as the rancho of my father in Sonora. But it is a happy place. Honest work, good people. You are not afraid of hard work, eh?”
“No… I was a sailor, for a time. Merchant ships,” Cesario said, trailing fingertips in the clear water of the spring. “Señor, I know the sea… and horses. I know nothing of cattle-ranching except it involves cows.”
“I will teach you all you need to know. Primero, I am not ‘señor’. I am your friend Manolito, sí?” Madre de Dios, the horse was spectacular. To get a better look at him, I pushed away from the boulder. And saw the rattlesnake.
On the opposite side of the stallion, it slithered toward the spring. I told Cesario not to move and fired between Honorado’s legs. Both horses bolted, sand sprayed, my companion jumped up and drew. Black-powder smoke heavy in the air, he glanced at the snake’s mortal remains, holstered the Colt and burst into tears.
A strange boy, loco or too fond of snakes, but I could not stand idle while he sobbed. I gave him a handkerchief. Then I put my arm around his shoulders. His shoulders did not feel right. Too narrow. He flung an arm around my middle and the hand attached to it was slim. “Calma, calma. There, there,” I said, touching a waist too small for a boy. It matched the slender neck and other things I noticed when my companion pressed more firmly against me. Hombre, under the baggy clothes was a woman. Having held many girls, I was something of an authority. She was not as shapely as I liked, but not thin. Lean and solid, she looked up at me with eyes full of promises and possibilities. Having before held a lit stick of dynamite, I was something of an authority on them also.
I touched her face, she pushed away from me. The woman became the boy again. “The journey has been hard. Pardon me, I forgot myself.”
“No, muchacha. You remembered. That you are a girl – so lovely and not made for such rigorous travel.” I smelled dust, then heard the pounding of hooves. My friends, brought by my gunshot. “Why are you dressed like the son of a rag-picker?”
“It keeps the wolves away,” she said, arms crossed. “Not a word or I say adios. And you will never know if you could have gotten what you want.”
“Neither will you.” I was perhaps a little too cocky, but some wolves are more persistent than others. “At least tell me your name.”
“I think not. But know this. It is not Legion.” Apparently pleased with her knowledge of Scripture, she winked, then whirled to greet Buck and the boys.
We rode through grasslands, then a wasteland of saguaro, scrub and rock. Only two possible reasons for living there, madness or escaping the hangman. In Manolito’s case, probably both.
A scoundrel from his glossy hair to the toes of his low-cut boots, he sat the sorrel gelding as if he owned the world. Girls surely swam to him like fish heading upriver to spawn. He glanced at me with curiosity and amusement, possibly wondering why I had not yet swooned. “The road from here to Yuma is worse,” he said, then pointed. “But look! The rancho. Is it not everything I said it was?”
In the distance, the Chaparral looked like a forgotten corner of hell. Looming mountains poised to crush the ranch-house, sun-weathered buildings and fences pocked by bullets, yard bare of worthwhile vegetation. Up close, Big John Cannon loomed over me. “Boy, I hear you’re good with horses, but you work here, you work cattle.”
Cows. Like rocks that moo. I passed on the bunkhouse, spread my bedroll in the barn and turned in early. Dallying steers, branding grangers or whatever one did surely required a good night’s rest. Wishing I had booked ocean-passage to San Francisco, I yearned for the sea, salty breezes and the smell of kelp. No dice, only cow manure and wind like a blast-furnace, sucking dry everything it passed. I fell asleep listening to the rattle of parched ocotillo.
A week of dust and dung proved me the worst cowboy in all history, but like any other able sailor, my knots will hold in a typhoon. Joe cursed while cutting rope from yet another cow as Sam handed me a branding iron. “Try this, son.”
I neatly placed the iron on a bawling, white-faced calf. Standing back to admire the angle of evenly singed hair, I felt Reno’s large hand on my shoulder. “That’s awful nice, but we do more than one a day,” he said as the men laughed.
Joe made roping look easy and Manolo threw like he was born to it. Standing so close I smelled warm skin and leather, his breath tickled my ear. “Relax. First I move your arm, then you try, sí?” His thigh pressed against me and impure thoughts spoiled my aim. I roped the ground, Buck’s horse, several fence-posts and finally Ira.
“You got him, now brand him!” Buck slapped his hat on a knee. Blue and Joe held their sides and collapsed against the fence.
Sun drawing down, Mano rubbed his temple and snickered. “Never have I seen a more terrible vaquero. Mira, the cows are ashamed.” They were bunched, heads down, wearing the usual vacant expression. Unlike Mano, smug as he propped a foot on the bottom corral rail. “¡Ay-yi-yi! You throw like a girl.”
“Too bad. Mr. Cannon will give me the boot.”
“Wrong!” Eyebrows raised in amusement, he squeezed my shoulder. “You are the owner of the horse which will win a very important race in a few months.” He squinted and scratched his chin in a display of profound thought. “Still, it would please Big John if you were not a disaster with the vacas. You know how to mop?”
Well, I had seen it done. “Of course,” I said.
Manolito had me on the next shift to Chaparral Flats for the worst job on the ranch. Days I slopped wretched Texas Fever treatment on cows, nights I slept among smelly men and scorpions. Nobody could say I was short on try, but the third time I jabbed Sam in the belly with the mop-handle, he said, “Son, we need meat for supper and snipe’ll do fine. See that gunny sack? Take it over by that double saguaro, make sure you’re facing due south, hold it open and hum ‘Soldier’s Joy’. Snipe like the sound, they’ll run right in.”
Glass in hand, violin serenade wafting from the barn, Manolito paced the ranch-house porch, watching a willowy figure guiding the bow across violin strings. “Ay-yi-yi, Manito. Music to stir the soul and capture the heart.” Skirts rustled behind him, and then a hand touched his arm. Smiling, he turned to Victoria. “Our little friend plays well.”
“¡Que apasionado!” Palm to her heart, she sighed. “Unusual for a boy his age to put such deep feeling into music, no?”
“Well, Cesario is an unusual boy,” he deadpanned. “Mature for his years.”
“Yes, also young and romantic,” she noted, then squinted at her brother. “I hope he is not in love with some low woman you introduced to him in town.”
“I do not believe low women interest him,” Mano answered as the violin went silent. “But for you, hermanita, I will make sure.” He kissed her cheek, bade her buenos noches and strolled to the barn, singing, “La gallina, la gallina con el cara-cara -- li-de-di-di.”
“My mother sang that one to me.” Half in shadow, the violinist sat on a hay-bale, back resting against the barn’s weathered wood. “Yours also?” Leaning against a post, Mano nodded as his companion rolled a piece of straw between slender fingers. “Perhaps like Canto de Cuna, it is required of all mothers,” she mused, flicking the straw aside and singing softly, “There is an open window, high up in God’s Heaven-”
“Where St. Anne the Blessed watches little children,” he finished, looking upward. “She sometimes does a poor job, eh?”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Even saints need help.”
“Perhaps.” Swirling the brandy, Mano cleared his throat. “I am more an authority on sinners, but a night this lovely washes the soul clean, does it not?” He swept an arm across the sky, exclaiming, “Mira, those stars, like a thousand bright candles.”
“You love this land very much.” She cocked her head, a suddenly endearing gesture.
“With all my heart, as you love the ocean. Salúd!” He flourished the snifter, then took a sip. “I would offer you some, but I believe your taste runs to sarsaparilla.”
“That depends upon the quality of the brandy,” she replied as Mano eased beside her.
“Here, test it yourself, my father’s best vintage.” His fingers brushed hers when she grasped the stem. She sipped and the cool night breeze turned warm. “Samuel Johnson wrote that he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. We will be heroes, eh?”
Eyes luminous, she returned the glass. “Is that what you want, Mano? To be a hero?”
“Ay-yi-yi. What some call heroism is often man’s effort to stay alive. This I want, absolutely!” He drank, rolling the brandy in his mouth and swallowing. “To live, to laugh and be free.” Pensive, he ran a hand through his hair. “Such minimal ambitions are a great disappointment to my father. Unseemly for a grown man.” Even Mercedes expected more from a Montoya. “What do you think?”
Regarding his somber face, she quoted, “ ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’”
“Shakespeare never met Don Sebastian Montoya,” he said, crossing his arms. “Or his favorite son. If I am true to myself, what kind of man am I?”
“One who wants to laugh and be free, Manolo.”
“You say that as if it is acceptable.”
“It is. For the man who wants it, for the woman who loves that man,” she answered.
Studying the tenderness in her eyes, he saw a flicker of something wild, like a puma’s track in soft earth. He imagined her beside a gypsy campfire, black hair to her waist, silver jewelry glistening and wind blowing sparks into the night. “Only in dreams have I known such a woman. Where do you think I can find her?”
“Almost anywhere.” She gathered violin and bow, standing quickly. “You beckon, women follow?” A pleased smirk deepened his dimples. Her hand covered a yawn. “Bully, sleep beckons and I follow. I hear you asked Angelina to marry you. Mañana, Manolo.”
“Wait.” He reached out, grasping empty air as his companion side-stepped. “Muchacha, I always propose before making love. It is the polite thing to do.”
“Polite? Oh, Mano. Polite is not the word.” Incredulous, she shook her head, then flounced toward the barn-door, an extra swivel in her step.
“Andelé, the chase is on.” Grinning, he tossed down the last of his brandy.
Never had I seen such a moon, full and golden. Legend says it is like a woman, with two sides, creator and destroyer. In moonlight so bright I saw the color of scrub and grass, I headed for the cow-camp at Chaparral Flats to rescue Cesario from mopping the vacas. At Big Pond, a coyote howled and another answered, on the wind came the sound of hoofbeats. I pulled Macadoo into a thicket of mesquite. The reflection of the moon on water shimmered in the wind as I waited, hand on my pistola. Hooves on hard earth coming closer, only one rider, moving fast but why? He was not pursued, but perhaps fleeing. Maybe one of our muchachos, maybe not. Hombre, I lay low.
The great, red stallion crested the rise like a creature with wings. Cesario seemed part of him, no saddle, bare feet. An image of power and beauty, but Madre de Dios, what idiota rides the desert without boots? This fool had them in hand.
At a hard gallop toward the water, the reins fell to the horse’s neck, my little friend lifted the shirt overhead and released it to the wind. I blinked at naked breasts as the gunbelt hit the dirt and Honorado crashed into the water.
Gunbelt abandoned, in the water without clothes except pants, in the desert alone for all she knew, the list of stupid things was long. But who cared? As she swam the horse across the pond, I was not thinking of Apaches, bandidos or anything but the girl. Arms to heaven, head thrown back, laughing, her skin gleaming in the moonlight.
The horse lunged to the bank, she slid from his back and took off his bridle. He wandered off to graze, she unbuttoned her pants. When they fell, she kicked them aside and very slowly, turned in a circle. Arms raised, she spun while distant coyotes howled at the enormous moon above. As she twirled faster, I wondered. What next, Manolito? Changing Woman calls the moon from the sky, Quetzalcoatl appears on the celestial wind? Since I was sober, there was only the girl. Her bare feet began quick staccato steps like those of flamenco. Never had I seen a dance more provocative. Then she sang a wordless tune. Resting my arm against a tree, I listened to passion that needed no words.
Wind whipped harder from mountain passes. She stepped to the water’s edge, balanced on the balls of her feet and dove in, swimming like one born of water. Once when I was a little boy, on a trip to the Sea of Cortez, I saw otters at play. She reminded me of them, sleek, supple. Totally free. I could not turn away if I wanted to. Which I did not. Past time for me to be at Chaparral Flats, but if I left, terrible things could happen to her, sí? Wolves, Apaches, bandidos.
On the bank, I stood. She came out of the water only to her shoulders and stared at me. I smiled, her gunbelt in hand. “Hola. I believe you dropped this?” I swung the belt from my fingers. “Not very smart. In this country, all alone, much can happen.”
“I am not as alone as I thought.” She squeezed water from her hair, glistening rivulets ran like silver across olive skin. “How long have you been here, Mano?”
“Long enough and I asked first. Digame, chiquita. Your name.”
“Pilar Teresa Amparo Hidalgo Salazar Vargas de Navarra.”
“A very pretty name.” A pretty girl, too. “What is your plan now, Pilar?”
“To get out of the pond. So please turn around.”
“Under other circumstances, I would. But I have questions. And you, little one, are more likely to answer from where you are.” I grinned, congratulating myself on cornering her when she rolled her eyes, rose up from the water and waded to the bank.
“Ask away, but I will not shiver for your amusement.” Seldom do women surprise me, but this one did. Absolutely! I considered averting my gaze, but it would have been like turning my back on Botticelli’s painting of Venus rising from sea. What lover of great artwork could look away? She moved with the unselfconscious grace of a healthy young animal. “My papí is right. He says men in the hinterlands are nincompoops.”
“Perdoname, mi reina, Señorita
“Unless you know for sure I would, better keep it – and anything else – to yourself,” she said, slipping the shirt over her head. “One telegram to Papí and you are a dead man. Think it over, guapo.”
“What? You are trying to frighten me? You?” I laughed. “Not only am I holding your gun, you are for the most part, undressed.”
“Wire anyone in New Orleans.” Tone matter-of-fact, there was a challenge in her eyes. “Ask if they know of Fernando Hidalgo.”
“If they do, what proof do I have that he is your father?” Her gunbelt around my neck, I trailed her as she sashayed off to retrieve her pants. I only knew she had lovely legs, other enchanting assets and managed to look like a queen, dripping wet and wearing only a shirt. “Besides, chiquita. If you do have such a father, he is far away.” I squeezed her arm. “By the time he arrives here, you might like me better. Then what?”
“I shall mourn your passing.” She arched a brow, twisted away. For a small woman with no boots, she stepped fast. Who did she think she was? ¡Se acaból!
I whirled her to face me. “Do not walk away from me like that!”
“Or what?” A cool customer. Ice replaced the heat under my collar.
“Or…” Think quickly, muchacho. “You will not hear what I have to say.” I grinned in a way I hoped was boyishly disarming and turned her loose. Eyes narrowed at me, she began pulling on her pants. Madre mia, I was afraid I would stick my hands in my pockets, stare at the toes of my boots and yell for Uncle Buck. Contrition is good for the soul, but its words do not come immediately to the tongue. “Pilar. I am sorry. I intruded. You were only doing…” lost, I stopped to scratch my chin “…whatever it was you were doing. Can you forgive me?”
“I suppose.” She drew the words out while buttoning. “It does not really matter, I shall be gone by morning.” I thought I saw a very small smile. “In some perverse way, I will miss this little piece of Purgatory.” Her eyes, like the deepest, starry night sky.
“Muchacha, stay. Get to know me better.”
“I know you well enough, guapo.”
“No, you do not,” I whispered. Her lips were very inviting, moist and full. “You do not know my heart or you would not speak of leaving.”
“Mano, you have the sexual appetite of a bull, the fidelity of a jackrabbit and you are hoping to seduce me.” She made a little shrug. “I am saving myself for marriage and would rather pump bilges than spend another second at a cow-camp. Why on earth would I stay here?”
“Because I am asking you to,” I said. Taking her hand in mine, I kissed her. When my lips left hers, she slapped me. What else could I do? I kissed her again.
As I caressed her face, she sighed. “Oh, Manolo! Listen. Fireworks!” All I heard was my heart and hers. And gunshots from Chaparral Flats.
“Not fireworks. Trouble.” I scrambled to my feet, pulled her up, shoved her gunbelt into her arms and told her to stay put. Wrong! She was mounted before I reached Macadoo. I spurred Mac for Chaparral Flats, Pilar held Honorado in check and brought up the rear. Bueno, unable to see her, I could worry more. Closer to the Flats, the rumble of many hooves mixed with gunshots. Straight toward us, the herd stampeded, riders behind shooting to scatter them. Bad hombres. In the bright moonlight, I recognized Ellis’ men and shouted at Pilar to turn back. It did not work.
Firing to turn the herd, hustling Mac to cut them off, I waved at her to flank me. Ay-yi-yi. That bay horse did not understand the herding of cattle any better than she did. He jumped several, clearing the way for them to run even farther. Rather than fire to turn the herd, she put a round between the eyes of one vaquero. Impressive, except he was shooting over, not at, her.
Joe got a gelding from the remuda to carry the man’s body back to the rancho Lazy E.
“Guess they got more than they bargained for, Mano. Ellis just figured to cause mischief, none of them fired on us,” Sam said as he and Reno slung the carcass across the saddle. “Man like Ellis gets a grudge, it’s going to turn from bad to worse.”
Admiring the bullet hole, Reno whistled. “Nice shot. Who plugged him?” He looked at me. “You?”
“No, I did.” She spoke before I could. All eyes went to the person they thought was a little muchacho with no cow-sense.
“Well, you’re handier with side-arms than you are with steers.” Joe thumbed his hat, looking worried. “Better lay low for a while. When Ellis finds out, he’ll come looking.”
In Catechism at Ursuline Academy, Sister Ynez taught that willful indulgence in sexual passion outside marriage is a grave offense. It was enough to make a girl play according to Hoyle, but Mano tried forcing my hand. Admiring a bunch of fat steers in the corral, he caught my arm as I walked by. “Soon your turn to mop cows again, muchacha.”
“I would rather crawl to Tucson on my knees, guapo.”
“Es verdad?” Mischievous eyes signaled a stacked deck. “Then allow me to remove this burden from you.”
“Trust me, Pilar mia.” He trailed fingers from my elbow to wrist before he let go. Across the corral, Pedro scratched his head and ducked behind his horse. Pretending to tighten his cinch, he peered over the animal’s back, eyes bulging.
The next day, currying one of John’s newest Morgan mares, I breathed deep the barn-scents of leather, hay and horses while Mano slouched triumphantly against a wall. “As promised, no longer will you herd the vacas, rope the vacas or anoint the vacas with Señorita Veterinaria’s noxious treatment for Texas fever. I have convinced my sister that young Cesario deserves more refined dinner companions than the bunkhouse boys. She likes everyone dressed for supper. Bueno, Cesario will wear a dress and we kill several fowl with one rock, eh?”
“Everyone will be furious.”
“Wrong, muchacha. Never underestimate the power
of a beautiful woman.” From behind his back, he brought a package wrapped in
brown paper and tied with string. “A very lovely dress for the even more lovely
“Lucky me, last week you spoke of stealing Victoria’s clothes for the other girls.”
He pursed his lips. “Pili, if I said that, you were misinformed.”
“In vino veritas, Manolo.”
“Seguro, in wine there is truth. But I was drinking tequila, muchacha. In tequila, there are many lies.” Catching my incredulity, he sighed. “All right, I borrowed from Victoria without permission, but only under duress.” He wagged the bundle. “Por favor, my arm is weary.”
“Thank you. I do not take presents from men.”
“Mitigating circumstances, Mano.” I squinted at his lupine grin. “You move too fast.”
“A man in love does not move slowly, preciosa.” The grin dissolved to a gentle smile. “You know my mind, my dreams. When I saw you dancing in the moonlight, you became my dream.” So near I felt his heat, he began toying with a strand of my hair. “What do you want, Pilar? Tell me, you shall have it.”
“What do I want? Oh, Manolo! To sail the world with the wind in my face, ride swift horses through green valleys, make love under the stars and run again with the bulls in Pamplona.” His eyes seductive as his voice, more than anything, I wanted him. But clearly as if she stood in the Chaparral’s barn, Sr. Ynez shook a chastising finger at me. I shrugged. “Other than those things and a few others, my desires are those of every good Catholic girl.”
“My word, no! With the help of a very passionate husband! A passionate, devoted husband. Perhaps someday I will meet such a man, with him make a home filled with children.”
“Before or after you run with the bulls?”
“I think during.”
“Of course you
do.” He caressed my cheek with a practiced hand. “You know, when I was a little
boy, like many little boys, I aspired to be a great matador, performing feats
of spectacular bravery in the Plaza de
Toros,” he whispered, brushing my forehead with skillful lips. “Sí, I would run with you through the
streets of Pamplona to the Plaza de Toros.” Cupping my face, he lightly
kissed the tip of my nose. “I will make love to you under the stars,
Pilar.” His lips touched mine. “In all of
When John assigned work each morning he didn’t include gossip, but it was first on every ranch-hand’s daily list. Weeks away from July 4th, the upcoming race and money on the table made Manolito’s activities especially ripe for conjecture.
Sauntering across the yard, he waved at Joe, Reno and Pedro at the corral, pretending to work. “Hey, compadres! Buenos dias!” They are everywhere, like Maximillian’s spies.
Joe Butler nudged Reno and nodded toward the barn. “I'm gonna set my watch by him starting tomorrow," he said, as Mano disappeared through the wide double-door. "Maybe Pedro will imagine he’s romancing one of the cows today."
The lanky Mexican looked up, frowning. "Joe, I seen what I seen."
"You were asleep if you saw Mano making cow eyes at anything but a señorita." Joe leaned against a post, twirling a rope. He nodded toward the barn. "He’ll be riding that big horse in the 4th of July race, you wait and see." He continued swinging the rope.
Reno hiked himself to the top rail and sat, rubbing his chin. "You got cash to back that up?"
“It just so happens I do. Five dollars says Mano rides.” Joe nudged Pedro with a toe. "Five more says he wins. You in?"
Pedro shrugged. "My money’s on Mano. But I still say, I seen something funny.” The three hands continued to watch the barn with interest.
Foreman Sam Butler crossed from the bunkhouse, a stern set to his mouth. "You boys think the barn’s going to catch fire if you don’t watch it?"
"Nope, but Mano's in there again.” Joe smirked, coiling the rope.
"He’s always in there. Looking ain't gonna get him out. How about you boys
get back to work?" He waited until they picked up hammers and
shovels, then walked away as
"Blue's headed for the other corral, vet's working there." Reno dropped his spade and hoisted himself to his catbird seat on the top rail while the others scrambled for position.
My reflection in the hall mirror, perfecto. Fresh shave, hair oiled and combed into place, best white shirt, dark gray suit, red cummerbund. If I were a woman, I would have desired me.
As the final touch, the lion’s head ring which I appropriated from my father. Either the size or brightness of the diamond, I could not put a proper bow in my tie. On the third attempt, Victoria appeared in the hallway. I asked for her help, she accused me of behaving strangely. “Your imagination is playing tricks, my sister,” I said, placing my hat precisely on my head and adjusting the angle.
“It most certainly is not.” Making a nice bow, she frowned. “You look very handsome, but it is only a family dinner, with one little guest, no? Not an elegant party. You are up to something, Manolito.”
“Never! But you are hard to please, you know that? Dress for dinner, Mano. Do not dress so much for dinner, Mano. You are worse than Papá.” I tightened the strings of my hat, kissed her cheek and excused myself to collect the one little guest.
At the barn door, I straightened my jacket and knocked. When the door swung open, before me stood not a grubby little muchacho or feral girl twirling in the moonlight, but a fine lady of España. White lace mantilla held by a high peineta, ruffled pink taffeta dress, pearl necklace. Madre de Dios, who was she? Who cared? “You are a feast for the eyes and the heart, Pilar mia.” I kissed her hand, then offered my arm.
“Mmm, tan galan,” she said, taking my gallant arm. Her eyes sparkled. In the distant hills, a coyote howled what was surely a song of amor to his lady-love.
“Querida mia, you are so lovely, you make even his voice the music of love,” I whispered. “He calls to a pretty female coyote, making plans for the evening, eh?”
She cocked her head, listening, then said, “And do you have a plan, guapo?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Hombre, of course not! But as we started toward the house, I said, “Never again will you sleep in the barn. That is no place for you. Tonight, you will charm everyone and you shall sleep in the house in a proper bedroom.”
“You are giving me yours?”
“Mine? No, but Buck will give you his. He likes sleeping in the bunkhouse. I am too disturbed by the snoring and close quarters, querida mia,” I said. Muttering from the bunkhouse carried across the yard. Not everyone was snoring, but some were dreaming.
Lounging under the bunkhouse ramada, Sam squinted at the moonlit couple strolling across the yard. In his best brocade courting regalia, Manolito gestured grandly with his free arm. A silvery laugh came from the confection he escorted. Behind Sam, Pedro slouched, brow furrowed mournfully. “All I ever find in the barn is rats,” he whined.
“Yeah and there’s one now.” Joe snorted, crossed his arms and called out, “Hey, Mano! You been pulling a fast one on us?”
Manolito said to the girl in soft Spanish, “My good friends. Like the barking of stray dogs.” Then he turned toward the bunkhouse and grinned. “A long but amusing story for another time, muchachos!”
With a wave, he stepped onto the porch as Sam clapped a hand on Joe’s back and shook his head slowly. “Like I always said, boys. Throw him in a rock-pile, he’ll find a gold nugget.”
In the doorway, Reno strummed a chord of Colorado Trail and warbled, “Laura was pretty girl, right under your nose.”
“No kidding.” Joe thrust his palm at Pedro. “Told you I know Mano better than you. Pay up, pal.”
“I know him real good, Joe. It’s just my eyes was lying to me.” Pedro flopped his arms in a gesture of abject misery as Mano cracked open the door of the ranch-house.
Fixing his audience with a wide, dimpled smile, he announced, “I am afraid that young Cesario is no longer with us. However he left an emissary.” Swinging the door wide, he swept Pilar into the house. “I would like to introduce…” He paused for effect and beamed “…Señorita Pilar Teresa Amparo Hidalgo y Salazar Vargas de Navarra.”
Radiant, she curtsied. The silver tray of artfully arranged canapés slipped from Victoria’s fingers and thudded to the coffee-table.
After supper, Victoria brought out her music-box and we waltzed. Mano was as courtly and formal as that chivalrous dance, expression blissful when gliding me across the floor. Later we stood on the porch, my heart full of love. He smiled almost shyly, gently clasping my small hand in his large, strong one. A cool breeze blew clouds across a sliver of moon, but I was on fire from his touch. He said, “To dance with you is to dance with a beautiful dream, Pilar mia.”
“Only because dancing with you makes it so,” I said as we strolled into the yard. I wanted to dance with him again, not the waltz but a dance of passion I learned in Perú. “Of all nights, this night deserves La Marinara.” I gave his hand a little tug. “Come.”
“Here? With half the rancho watching?” he hissed. I nodded. “No gracias. I feel sufficient passion. And I do not know this dance.”
“Oh, but you do. It is the game of courtship. Desire, pursuit and capture.” I spun away from him and struck a pose, lace handkerchief held high. With rapid, delicate steps and swirling skirt I beckoned then turned him away. He followed with a hand on his hip, boot-heels beating a tattoo in the dirt. Mirroring my movements, arm around my waist, we twirled together.
He asked, “With no music, muchacha, how do we know when the dance is over?”
“When love has won the game,” I said as he spun me, his touch like butterfly wings.
Capturing me in his arms, he nuzzled my hair and whispered, “You are unlike any woman I have known.”
“Lucky me, I would dislike being only one more black cat in the night.”
“Never,” he said, bringing his lips to mine. The hunger in his kiss matched mine. “Pilar, is the dance finished?”
“I am not sure, Mano. Has love won?”
“My heart says it has.” His face and voice so reverent, I thought he would drop to bended knee and ask for my hand. Instead, he pulled me close and we kissed again. I wanted to never let him go. “Your heart tells you likewise, does it not?”
“It sings your beloved name, Manolo mio,” I said.
“Then write your relatives, tell them you are staying here, invite them to the wedding,” he answered, caressing my shoulders. “If you will have me.”
“Have you? Oh, Mano! I want to lie at your feet and die in your arms,” I blurted.
Tenderly, he touched my face. “I ask only that you brighten my days with your beauty and warm my nights with your love,” he cooed as behind us a hubbub of voices came from the house, accompanied by the clatter of boots across the floor.
When the door crashed open, Buck was silhouetted in the doorway. Blanket and bottle in hand, he called over a shoulder. “I’m ain’t that dumb, Blue Boy. I can keep my women straight and I got my ten dollars from Mano before Lola tells her brothers he stood her up again, since when they do, there won’t be enough of him left to shine your boots on.”
“It does not seem you need me to warm your nights.” She looked at me with wounded eyes. Determined to ruin my life, Buck continued yammering. She kept count. “Lola, Angelina, Rosa, Luisa. Such a long list, Manolo.” Hombre, I tried to explain, they meant nothing to me and if they mistook past friendship for lasting love, it was not my fault. “Yes it is. Because you are a hopeless womanizer.” Shaking her head, she muttered, “Fidelity is nothing to you. I must have taken leave of my senses.”
“Querida mia, what better proof of deep devotion could you ask? So great is my love for you that I forget all about Lola.” I smiled.
A tear spilled down her cheek. I glanced away. “Look at me, Manolo.” Ay-yi-yi, I did not want to. But I did. “If you give me your word--”
“Pilar, you have my heart and all my love,” I protested, reaching out to her.
She stepped back. “Your word, Manolo.”
“A man’s word…” Words, I searched for the right ones. I did not find them. “The word of a Montoya, Pilar… to promise you…” She sighed and trudged toward the barn, I stood watching like un idiota grande until someone slapped me on the back. Who but my good compadre Buck?
“Hey, where’s she going? Hope I ain’t interrupting nothing, I was just telling Blue, it’s a nice night for a walk. Ain’t it a nice night for a walk, Mano?” He drank from the bottle, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and gave me a puzzled look. “You look like a man who needs a drink.” Grinning, he bumped my shoulder with the bottle. I am a lover, not a fighter, but I caught him on the chin with a hard right. Like punching a rock, but it put him in the dirt and never has breaking a hand felt so good. He rubbed his face, scrambled to his feet and said, “All you had to do was say no.”
I never saw his fist.
Manolito knocked softly on the barn-door, cracked it open and called softy, “Pilar?” Bouquet in his hand, his grandmother’s ring in his pocket, bundle clasped under his arm and a fetching little hat from Victoria perched on his head, he stepped inside. “Pilar? It is I, Manolito. We need to talk, querida.”
Covers and clothing rustled. “Stop right there. About face, guapo.” She struck a match, lit the lantern and brushed sleep from her eyes. “Entrar,” she said, muffling a laugh when he stepped toward her wearing an embroidered suit and bonnet with red posies. “The hat certainly adds a jaunty note to your ensemble.”
“I ran out of hands.”
“That must be a first.”
“Ah-ha, very funny. These are for you from me.” Bowing, he handed her the bouquet. “The sombrero is from my sister. It compliments your outfit more than mine.” He placed it on her head and gave the top a pat. “The clothes, Victoria thought you might like for Tucson,” he added, setting the bundle on a trunk.
“How very kind of you both. Lovely flowers.” Peering over the blooms, she looked him over. “Oh, my. Bandaged hand and ugly shiner. Did Lola’s brothers find you?”
He grimaced. “No, but I prefer discussing the flowers, sí? Or the lovely señorita,” he cooed. “Unfortunately, a lovely señorita with no vase.”
“Not necessary. If you please hold this…” She put the bouquet in his hands, plucked out a daisy and tucked it behind her ear. “Now, like so…” she pulled several from the bunch, pinched off part of the stem, tied an open knot in the end and inserted another stem through the knot. “And another, please?”
Extracting a red rose, he presented it with a flourish. “Pilar? Walk with me outside, I will cover you in flowers,” he said, offering his arm. She took it, questioning eyebrows raised. Manolito glanced to the makeshift bed. “I have matters of great importance to discuss. But in here, depending upon your current feelings, I might forget what they are. So, andelé, vamanos.” As he swept her toward the door, she smiled to herself.
Sitting on the bench, he tied the last knot in the garland, settled it around her neck, adjusted it slightly. “Perfecto. Wear one of these always,” he urged, clearing his throat and taking her hand in his.
She took it back. “You have not earned the privilege of holding my hand and you did not wake me to talk of flowers.”
“Perdoname, and no, I am not here to speak of flowers, but of Manolito Montoya,” he said, ducking his chin and exhaling deeply before turning soulful eyes to her. “Pilar, I am an arrogant, vain man, although not without a certain charm. My sister often reminds me that I am also lazy. To my father, I am a wastrel, a womanizing drunkard, an embarrassment. And I have been all these things and worse.”
Toying with the garland, she glanced at him. “Mano? If you hope to convince me to marry you, try something else.”
“Give me time, muchacha. Give me time.” He loosened his collar. “I have been a rooster with the ladies, but if ever a woman can change that, it is you, Pilar mia.”
“Bully for me.” Covering a dainty yawn, she pulled a stopwatch from her pocket. “Two more minutes for empty compliments, guapo. And tempus is fugiting.” She waved the watch. Closing his fist on it, he snatched it away and threw it behind him.
“Listen to me,” he said, cupping her chin in his hands. “I could lie to you, but I will not. I cannot give my word there will be no other women, only my word that I will try. Because I do not want to hurt you and because with you, I feel free as never before. My spirit soars. And right now, I want nobody but you, querida mia. But what you ask is against tradition and my nature. I do not know if I can do it.” He blinked, then searched her face with hopeful eyes.
“Oh, Manolo, it is not so complicated. Either fold or ante.” She arched an eyebrow. “Ante up, play according to Hoyle, hit the jackpot.”
Leaning in close, a flicker of mischief in his eyes, he whispered, “What if I cheat, Pilar? A bullet through the heart?”
“Unless my tears spoil my aim.” She did not flinch. “No freerolls.”
“High stakes.” He eased his back against the barn, stretched his legs and crossed his arms. Rolling his tongue against the inside of his cheek, he glanced sideways at her expressionless face. “And your deal,” he muttered, languidly scratching his chin. “What is the limit?”
“No limit. But you must go all in.”
“To bet everything,” he stated. She nodded slowly. “Same for you, eh?” She nodded again. Drawing it out, he waited. A knowing gleam flashed in her eyes. “All right. Deal me in, but show me your hand, muchacha.” Capturing her left, he caressed palm and fingers. “Beautiful. I have something for it,” he murmured, lowering to one knee. Her smile was bright as the diamond and ruby cluster he slid on her ring-finger.
Her kiss was hot as noonday sun, his hungry and hard. Nibbling her neck and earlobes, he murmured, “Tell me you do not want a long engagement.”
“No, short,” she
gasped, eyes closed, running her finger through his hair. “Tomorrow in
“My Pilar, the Padre will not do it.” Manolito nuzzled her hair, inhaling her fragrance. “The Church will not agree, mi vida.”
“He will, they will,” she purred, unbuttoning his shirt. “Only a few lies, mi amante. For a noble purpose, forgiven if not exactly condoned.” She pressed her lips to his chest.
“Hombre, lie to a priest?” he mumbled, half-lidded eyes soft, his expert hand stroking her leg from calf to thigh as her fingernails grazed his back. “What purpose abrogates that?”
Murmuring, “Preserving my virtue”, she untangled herself and stood, straightening disheveled night-clothes as he eased to his feet.
“Absolutely. Most important.” Kissing her neck, Manolito slid her dressing-gown off a shoulder and caressed her. “In all the world, no flesh more warm, lovely or virtuous,” he cooed, reveling in her ever-tighter embrace until scuffling feet jolted him. “¡Madre de Dios! Who the devil is out there?” he hissed.
Retreating in the
direction of the bunkhouse, Joe Butler punched
Reno grinned, nudging Joe. “I don’t know about you, but old Reno’s doubling Buck’s bet.” They turned around when the barn-door creaked.
“Not me, pal,” Joe said, pointed. “Nothing over there but Mano and he ain’t sticking around to rodeo that pony again tonight.”
A scream from a third-floor suite at the Coronado Hotel scattered cats in the alley and woke a brindle cur curled at the hotel’s entrance. He barked energetically until the night-clerk hurled a spittoon at him. Yelping, he darted down a side-street as the bleary-eyed clerk drank a slug of Dr. Culpepper’s Elixir and rested his head in his hands, muttering, “Why me, Lord?”
In the darkened suite, flowers from a shattered vase were strewn from velvet settee to fireplace, water blotched cabbage-rose wallpaper and another man appealed to God. Past silk stockings tangled in the green tasseled divider, beyond the blue satin garter crushed under an upturned marble stand, through the bedroom door, he cried out to Nuestro Padre.
Dim light through the bedroom window shone on striped pants draped on a high armoire. It sparkled on fragments of a white china wash-bowl and pitcher, heaped on the floor with clothing, boots, torn lace curtains and spread from the carved sleigh-bed. The headboard shook and the painted orchids on it danced.
Back arched, Señora Montoya stared upside-down at the shimmering flowers, then folded as her husband collapsed to the mattress beside her. Nestled in his arms, she whispered, “To feel you, to taste you, to feel what you do to me. You are all I ever dreamed of and more, Manito mio. Passionate, tender, so much a man – how I love you!”
“As I love you.”
He stroked black curls, soft as kitten’s fur, and squinted at her. Never another lover, but if the girls on
“Ecstasy, Mano. You bring me ecstasy. Like nothing I have known.” She nuzzled his sweat-damp neck, trailing her fingers over tawny skin scarred by Apache whips and bullets. Hearing a snore, she frowned and considered how many other girls had caressed the same skin. He snored again. “Such a magnificent man and I only bore him.”
“What?” he mumbled, blinking.
“I am so boring in bed that you fall asleep,” she said and sniffled.
“I did not notice. I was delirious.” he said, limpid eyes at half-mast. “You are fantastico, Doña Pilar.” Kissing her, a hazy, crooked grin spread across his face. “You have a great gift, querida mia. A spectacular gift,” he whispered, increasingly awake. “You know how to do things which earn my deepest appreciation. But you did not learn them in parochial school. Where?”
“Here and there.” Propping herself on an elbow, she brightened and ran a hand through his hair. “Manito mio? I have a few more tricks up my sleeve.”
“You have no sleeves. You do need them.” His grin widened as cupped her face in his hands and brought her mouth back to his. “But you need more practice.”
Tucson’s streets teemed with swells, rough cowhands, grifters, ranchers, families, painted ladies, fancy men, politicians, preachers and every type calling the Arizona Territory home. Drawn by the fiesta, rodeo, boxing and horse-racing, they swarmed the town.
The race-course ran through Tucson, around the stockyard corral and back. Near a makeshift grandstand, a tangle of rowdies shouted and shoved. Drunken cowhands and hard vaqueros whooped, horses rearing and spinning. Gentleman backed their ponies away from the flashing spurs, waving hats, snapping whips, riders thudding to the dirt and fistfights.
Outside El Toro Loco, Buck Cannon slung one arm around his nephew’s shoulders while hoisting a bottle with the other. Taking a pull of red-eye whiskey, he enthusiastically pounded Blue’s back. “You done some real good bronc-riding, me and the boys is all proud for you. Too bad Mano missed it. Where you think he is, anyways?” Refusing the drink his uncle offered, Blue shrugged. “Doing better things than watching me on some old jughead.”
“Now, Blue. How about you quit missing that lady horse doctor long enough to have a little fun at this hoodoo?” Rubbing the young man’s hair, he hooted. “She’ll be back, Blue Boy. You got half my good looks and most of my charm.”
Blue kicked at the dirt. “Nobody said I miss her, and even if I did, how about you lay off me for a change?”
“Sure, Mr. Blue Boy Nephew Sir, whatever you say.” Buck saluted with the bottle, then had a swig. Whiskey dripped down his chin and splattered his shirt when he hollered at John and Victoria on their way to the grandstand. “At least you can take your mind off your troubles helping me count all the money I got coming.” He elbowed Blue’s ribs and pointed. “Here comes Manolito with my bank.”
Hand on his pistola, Mano rode tall on Macadoo. Beside him, the bay stallion’s muscles rippled, coat shining like a polished ruby. The stallion and worn cavalry saddle were the sole remnants of a boy named Cesario. Under a bonnet festooned with red posies, Pilar’s silver earrings glinted and a discrete dab of lip-rouge set off her smile. Men’s breeches covered her legs and one hand held a stout quirt, but her blouse was white lace with violet ribbons. Hearing a sharp two-note whistle, she stopped admiring Manolito to blow kisses to the two Cannon men. Mano touched her thigh. “You are sure you want this?” She nodded. “Muchacha, why? Ellis finds out you shot his man, he will want revenge.”
“So? I shot nobody. Cesario did it, and he has left for parts unknown.” She shrugged, gripping the quirt tightly under her arm. “And at my father’s knee, I learned things.”
“Like the whip? You never ride him with one, why do you need it now?”
“It is bad men, not my good horse,” she said with a wink, stroking Honorado’s neck.
“Ay-yi-yi, you better have more than that, my little fox.” He pursed his lips. “Also at your father’s knee, you read Machiavelli, Pilar mia. The fox cannot defend against wolves. Like that one over there.” He jerked his chin at Clancy Ellis astride a lathered dun.
“But a lion frightens wolves away.” Beaming, she took Mano’s hand. “Lucky me. I married a young lion,” she said, dropping his hand when Ellis galloped the dun straight toward them.
Cutting Macadoo sharp, Manolito blocked Ellis and the dun slid to a stop. “Hey, Señor Ellis! Que pasa?” he called casually, his smile tight.
“You can’t do that, Montoya!” he snapped, red-faced.
“Cannot do what, amigo mio?”
“A girl riding, it’s against the rules. Where’s the lad?”
“The little muchacho? Long gone, but to our good fortune, he left his horse for my wife to ride.” Smile cold and wide, he leaned closer to Ellis and hissed, “Hombre, rules? None ban the wife of a Montoya. They do not even specify riding a horse. Even a jackass like you could win, eh?”
“You’ll live to regret that, boyo,” Ellis snarled. Spurring the dun, he left Manolito coughing in swirling dust.
“Que guapa!” Raising his glass to a doe-eyed señorita, Manolito slouched against the grandstand and nudged Buck. “Good of Joseph to guard my bride while I relax, eh?”
“Yeah, Joe’s all heart.” Foot propped on a riser, he took a slug of whiskey, surveying the crowd as Mano sipped his beer. Clapping Manolito’s back, he pointed. “Hey, don’t that look like Perlita?”
Montoya spilled a dollop of beer. “Perlita Flores?” Hand shading his eyes, he squinted at the buxom, tightly corseted matron strutting toward them. Tight sausage-curls cascaded from under a hat festooned with orange and green satin lilies. The hat matched her lace-trimmed, high-necked orange and kelly-green day-dress. Eyes hidden under a green veil, she held a matching parasol – and her chin – high, nearly sailing past before Mano called out. “Oye, Perlit-o! Do you not know your old friends anymore?”
She stopped, lifted her veil and narrowed her eyes at him. “That is Señora Patrick Flanagan to you,” she declared, holding her left hand so sunlight flashed on a gold band.
“What?” He snickered. “You? Married?” She nodded, wiggling her ring-finger.
“You heard her, Mano. She up and married ole Stinky!” Buck slapped Mano’s shoulder. “Ain’t that something? How’s Tillie? That’s a real good camel, best I ever knowed. You and her get along good?”
“Sí, Señor Buck. Over there, look.” Turning, the men saw a slight redhead in Army blue perched on a shambling dromedary. Hand over heart, Perlita sighed. “My Patrick, Private of the First Class, like a grand sheik of the Ornament, no?”
“Oh, sí. Bedouin tribesman would mistake him for one of their own,” he said as Tillie curled her lips and let go with a belch that carried over the crowd. “Congratulations, Señora Flanagan. Without doubt, you are made for each other.” Bowing, he kissed her hand.
Perlita snatched her hand away, jabbing a finger into his chest. “My hand is for only the kisses of Patrick Flanagan! He gives to me very nice presents, a beautiful new dress when he wins this race! He is a real man, not a drunken saddle-tramp who steals from his sister’s wardrobes!” She stormed away, hips swinging like two wildcats in a sack.
Manolito smacked a palm to his forehead. “Ave Maria.”
“Amigo, did she say race?” Buck grimaced as Tillie hulked toward the starting-line while horses snorted, spun and fled.
“Sí. Private Flanagan may win because he is the only one left.” He drained his mug. “Except I see Honorado is still there, compadre. Aware of his responsibility for our financial well-being, eh?”
“Or the next to bolt.” Buck clutched at his sleeve. “Mano, we got to do something, elseways I won’t have a plug nickel.”
“Then why are we not doing it? Andele!” Grabbing Buck’s arm, he plowed into a snarl of unhorsed riders, crying children and fistfights.
Bucking horses plunged into the crowd. One slammed support posts for the mercantile’s awning, another smacked into Bart Kellogg, almost knocking him off his feet. Temperance ladies herded their children to the safety of El Toro Loco as brawling cowpokes crashed through the Western Union doors. A gust of wind swept Victoria Cannon’s frilly new hat beneath the frantic hooves of a wild-eyed roan. She jumped to her feet, lip quivering. The horse pitched his rider at the feet of portly newspaperman Ebenezer Binns.
Binns dusted off the hat, returning it as the roan’s rider shook himself and lurched toward Pepé’s Cantina “One less rowdy to menace the gentle elements of our fair town. A pity he did not become thirsty earlier. I daresay your bonnet would have benefited.”
“Sí, instead it is ruined. Ruined! By a drunken, dirty saddle-tramp who is not even my brother.” Sinking to her seat, she plucked at the smashed flowers as John lay an affectionate hand on her shoulder.
“Victoria, if they’ll start the consarned race so I can win a little money, I’ll buy you another one,” he offered and turned to Binns, gesturing to the starting line. “Can’t somebody in charge haul off that camel? What in blue blazes is going on, Eben?”
“News, John. And as editor of the Tucson Citizen, it behooves me to cover it.” Tablet in hand, he strode through careening horses, scribbling, “…Bedlam of the highest order, imperiling fine millinery on the heads of our most gracious ladies … surprising entry of a camel, delaying the start of the race and confounding all who espied the shambling Ship of the Desert… Doña Pilar Montoya, a winsome jockey and beacon of serene gentility amidst chaos…”
“What a mass of human flotsam,” Pilar muttered to her horse as a broad-beamed miner swung at Joe Butler. Joe laid one on the miner’s nose and they continued trading punches while a deputy marched them to la calabosa. Teeth clenched, Pilar smiled at the nitwit on the camel and crooked a beckoning finger. Dismounting, he doffed his hat and bounded over.
“Ah, ‘tis a vision of rare beauty you are, milady. Private Patrick Flanagan, your wish is my command.”
“Bravo!” She batted feathery eyelashes. “I wish for a horse-race. With horses.”
“But for me darlin’ wife, I would grant it this very instant.” He leaned near, tone confidential. “I promised her I would race and race I will. A Flanagan keeps his word.”
“How unfortunate.” Pilar shook her head and sighed, stroking the bay’s glossy hide. “My horse runs eight furlongs in well under two minutes. So keeping your word will get you only dust and a lovely view of his rear-end.”
“Then ‘tis doomed I am,” he moaned. “Me wife’s good humor requires a stylish wardrobe and Army pay’s a pittance.” Pointing, toward the grandstand, he added with an amorous gleam in his eyes, “Look, there’s my Perlita. Quite a temper, but a fine figure of a woman she is.”
Perlita? That name, where have I heard it? She peered over the crowd at a gaudy, big-busted… whore if I ever saw one. “I bet she turns heads wherever she goes.”
“Aye, that she does, but I’d sooner face a firing squad than her wrath.”
“You poor man, If only I could help,” she purred, smiling sweetly, brow furrowed in concentration. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers. “What if you take your one-humped friend away in exchange for part of my purse? Your beloved gets another festive outfit, you get her undying affection and I get my horse-race.”
Kissing her hand, he said, “The people of this territory will build monuments to your everlasting wisdom. You have yourself a deal.”
The gringo riding the Appaloosa sported a silver belt buckle big as a dinner-plate. “You best move that pretty horse over there, little lady,” he boomed. “Got a race about to start.” Hand resting on my knee, Mano rolled his eyes
“Mi amante, who is that ninny?” I asked.
“Frank Johnston, Presidente of the Cattleman’s Association, a danger only to his own humility. Unlike Clancy Ellis, who is a danger to you.” He stroked my leg, stirring flames from my belt to my boots. “You heard Señorita Maude. Ellis has shills in the race and intends to win at any cost, Pilar mia,” he said. “You could be hurt.”
“In a pig’s eye,” I said, nodding toward the starting line while the horse beneath me pranced. “Look at my competition. They’ll have to catch me first.”
Mano squinted at the starting line. Local cow-hands and ranchers mixed with unwashed, unshaven unknowns. An ill-kept gent pointed at me, the equally slovenly hombre next to him laughed and Clancy Ellis galloped his dun to the line. Fixed on Ellis, Mano’s fine face was granite. “You are sure you want to do this?”
I had to split the purse with a cheap tart, Ellis was gunning for me and every man at the Chaparral had money riding on Honorado. “My love, never have I been more certain in my life,” I answered, turning Honorado for the starting line when Mano called out.
“Oye, momentito. What did you just say about splitting the purse?”
Hauling Tillie to the livery, Blue could hear Manolito’s rapid-fire Español behind him. “You promised to buy Perlita a dress? Are you crazy?” Blue heard Pilar’s silvery voice, but not her words, then Manolito again. “Calma, calma, mi paloma. We can borrow a dress from Victoria. Who will know?”
“It don’t matter what year or what girl, he’s singing the same song and so’s Uncle Buck.” Tugging at the camel, he mimicked his uncle’s drawl. “Blue Boy, guard the fireplace. Blue, unload the buckboard. Hey Blue, you ain’t doing nothing but drawing pictures, how about taking take care of this-here camel while I find me some medicinal whiskey? My leg’s aching bad.” When his charge balked, Blue faced her with hands on hips, yelling, “What are you complaining about? Nobody asked you to lead a stupid camel through Tucson.”
Eying him through long lashes, Tillie groaned and sank to the ground. Legs tucked comfortably under her, she chewed her cud while Blue yanked the lead rope, yelled, and waved his hat. Hearing a gunshot, fireworks, shouts and the clamor of hooves, he snapped, “I hope you’re happy, you sack of ugly bones. I’m missing the race because of you.”
No bugle sounded, but Tillie lumbered to her feet. Army from her knobby head to ropey tail, she could not nap with Flanagan surrounded whooping by heathen hoards. Bellowing a Cavalry camel’s charge, she bounded toward the commotion, red-faced Blue bringing up the rear.
Chomping the bit, Honorado slung froth across his wide chest. At the crack of the starting gun, he launched into a distance runner’s lanky gallop as fleet cowponies sprinted past. Frank Johnston’s Appaloosa and Ellis’ dun took the lead, neck and neck until Johnston’s horse pulled ahead. Stockyard corral ahead, Johnston spurred the App to the inside track. Ellis swung the dun wide, a move appearing foolish until Johnston cut sharp at the corral turn. His cinch broke, and silver saddle and rider crashed into the fence. Clear of the mishap, Ellis took the lead.
On the sidelines, disgusted cowboys smacked their hats on the ground or whooped, their hats flung high into the air. Nose and mouth full of dust, unused quirt in hand, Pilar felt the bay’s stride lengthen. Crouching low against the wind, she gave him his head. Charging past one horse, then three, a skinny rider brandishing a wicked-looking knife seized one of the reins. Pilar slashed the quirt across his wrist, then his cheek. In a spray of blood, he jerked away, dropping knife and rein. Pilar’s heels pressed into Honorado’s sides and the big bay exploded. Swallowing ground, he barreled into the stockyard turn, swerved around Ellis and pounded into the homestretch.
On the roof of the bank, a lone man trained his Winchester on the girl. The din of the crowd and galloping horses covered the shot. He watched her pitch sideways, clinging desperately to the horse. Without able hands on the reins, the stallion began to drift, losing speed. The gunman slung his rifle over his shoulder and slipped down a back staircase to see the finish.
On the hotel’s wide second-floor balcony, under draped bunting of red, white and blue stripes, Buck rested elbows on the rail, nursing a beer. “Patrick, I sure never knowed Tillie were a racing-type camel.”
“Of course she races.” Chair balanced on two legs, Patrick Flanagan peered drunkenly from under his lowered hat-brim. “The Bedouin sheiks of Mongolia breed camels for speed, Buck. It makes them better yak herders.”
“Magnolia bed-wines?” Buck scratched his head. “But Patrick, you said camels don’t drink. Leastways not wine.”
Flanagan tucked his thumbs behind his suspenders and belched. “Irish whiskey, Bucko. Camels could have no greater a taste for Irish whiskey if they hailed from County Clare.” He poured a shot, knocked it back and turned his head to the sound of Mano boot-heels. “ ‘Tis a sorry thing I did, Manolito, breaking a promise to me own wife to keep one to yours. I’ll suffer the tortures of the damned for it, too, I will.”
“Madre de Dios, if Pilar loses, I, Manolo Montoya, will buy a dress for Perlita,” he said, hand over his heart. “Sí, because you are my friend. Now be quiet.” Pivoting, he leaned on the railing and squinted at the raised dust of approaching horses. “I cannot tell who is leading.”
Buck slapped Mano’s back. “You’re going blind if you can’t see her in that red blouse.” Bouncing and slapping Manolito again as Honorado roared toward the finish, he hollered. “Look my horse run!”
Mano frowned. “Hombre, no. Her blouse was white.” He wheeled and bolted down the stairs.
The way my Pilar rode was wrong. Slumped over the stallion’s neck, she held on but not to the reins. They hung loose, flapping as with the speed of a thousand horses, Honorado thundered for the finish-line. There and beyond, because a finish-line is nothing to a horse. He saw daylight ahead, had not slowed and would not stop. I could not stop him. Nor could Buck and Flanagan behind me. Except for a miracle, if Pilar was not yet dead, she would die on a runaway horse.
Que milagro, the miracle came in the form of Tillie. She lurched from a side-street and headed toward Flanagan, blocking the path of onrushing horses. Honorado slowed to a trot, then stopped. Trailing him, Clancy’s horse spooked, dumped Clancy in the dirt and took off like a shot for the mountains. Hombre, that ugly animale of Flanagan’s was beautiful to me.
My knife was nearly as beautiful.
Still crumpled at the bay’s neck, Pilar was sliding to the side and with all haste, I hurried to keep her from falling. To stay astride, she had lashed herself to Honorado’s mane, winding it many times around her wrists. Her hands were blue when I cut her free.
She was limp and pale, crusted with dirt and blood, but breathing. When I took her in my arms, her eyes fluttered open. I told her she was safe, asked what happened. Touching my face, she smiled a frail imitation of a smile and whispered, “He could not outrun a bullet.” Then she closed her eyes.
I carried her to Dr. Plant, my face buried in her filthy hair, her blood sticky on my shirt, telling her of my love for her. The noise of the milling crowd around us was like stampeding cattle and her heart-beats those of a girl dying in my arms.
Under a merciless sun, across an arroyo from the High Chaparral ranch-house, the sound of metal striking sandy earth rang out. Blinking sweat from his eyes, chest heaving, Manolito drove his shovel into the ground and stood. Turning his face from the other men, his gaze drifted from the ranch-house to the bay stallion in the corral. “The horse she rode in on. She will not ride out on him, Buck.”
Hairy stomach hanging over his belt, Buck clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Long as you don’t mess up she won’t, but you keep making eyes at her, sooner or later, she’ll trot over here - again - to tell me how to mix adobe or the windows is off an inch and when she do, I’m throwing her in the mud-hole.”
“Hombre, I might help you.” Stripped to the waist, his lean torso glistened with a patina of sweat. “How can Pili know the exact way everything must be done when she is not doing it, eh?” He glanced from drying bricks to Blue churning mud, straw and manure. In the pit, weilding shovels or sawing crossbeams, the men yearned for open range. “And the bigger the house, the more bricks, compadre.”
“Uh-huh, and John said he was giving you and her a place to build a little house,” he grumped, wiping his face with a grimy bandanna. “‘Little’, Mano. Pequeño.”
“Well, to some, this will be a small house,” he answered, shrugging. “Only five rooms.”
“Only.” Blue laughed. “Pa and Victoria better have good time in Kansas City, ‘cause he ain’t ever leaving again when he sees Hacienda Montoya sitting here.”
“Your Pa never could hold his liquor like your uncle.” Buck squinted at the shady ranch-house porch as Pilar eased into the hammock, tall glass in hand. “If he hadn’t been celebrating, he’d knowed not to leave. Any a woman who tucks a piece of straight-razor in her quirt ain’t the kind to turn your back on.” He elbowed Manolito in the ribs. “How’s it feel, being married to Simon Legree?”
Regarding Pilar, Manolito grinned. Arm in a sling, she wore a simple white cotton blouse and skirt, her feet were bare and her hair was a deliciously unruly mass of curls. “Are you loco? It feels good, compadre,” he said, laughing. He eyed the new man in the mud-pit, Joe and the boys forming bricks. “Ay-yi-yi, she is so happy. Her happiness makes the work, makes all of it, worthwhile, does it not?”
Buck grunted. “Maybe for you. If you ain’t noticed, you’re getting more out of this deal than the rest of us.”
“I have noticed, amigo mio,” he said with a smirk, then slung an arm across Buck’s shoulders. “She only wants our home to be a thing of beauty.”
“Mano, ay-meego, these here is adobe bricks. It don’t matter how much straw you do or don’t mix with that mud, they ain’t going to be Eye-talian marble. Little Missy thinks different, she can kiss my bee-yoo-tiful, speckled Appaloosa.” He eyed the porch again. Victoria went inside the house, but Pilar rose and dusted off her skirt. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she studied the men. Buck slapped Blue with his hat. “I got a importnante job for you, Blue Boy. She’s fixing to hike this way, head ‘er off before I make Snore Montoya mad.”
I pushed the hammock with a foot while Blue Cannon chewed his pencil. Brow wrinkled with determination, earnest as a rosy-cheeked schoolboy, he studied me and sketched. Across the compound, Mano squatted beside the pit of warm mud. His sinewy back shone with sweat, his pants were like wet varnish. Blue followed my gaze and snorted. “He’s been working on the same brick for an hour.”
Rearranging my hair-combs as Mano smiled at me over his shoulder, I said, “Speed is sometimes over-rated.”
“Must be,” Blue mumbled to his sketch-pad. “He’s slow enough, that house won’t be done this time next year, but you ain’t steamed. You just look at him like… like I’ve never had no girl look at me, that’s all. Not even Becca.”
I wanted to scream it is passion, you ninny! Passion in a smile, a walk, raising a glass -- or forming a brick. Passion envelopes some men like skin, visible even in polite company. For others it is like undergarments – displayed in private if at all. I said, “You miss her.”
“Sure do.” Blushing, he dashed short lines on the paper, smudged them with his thumb, glanced up again. “Uncle Buck thinks it’s crazy, said I ought to just find me another girl. Bunch of nonsense, all cats are black at night. About what you’d expect from him.” He made a few more pencil-lines. “Becca makes me feel like I’m home, like I’ve been waiting my whole life for her, but maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s crazy.”
“But that is how it should be, yes? Quando amor no es locura, no es amor. When love is not insanity it is not love,” I answered, while at side-door by the summer kitchen, Victoria screamed, “Animales! Pigs and dogs, tracking mud on my clean floor!”. The whack of a broom and a yelp followed. Among the brick-masons, all was not beer and skittles either. The new man hit Joe Butler’s shin with a shovel. Joe snatched him by the belt, flung him in the pit and followed, punches flying. Shouting “Arriba, José!” Mano threw a trowel in the air and sauntered toward the porch. The bunkhouse boys wagered on how much he had changed and for how long, but he looked at me as if was I was the most exquisite women ever born.
He caressed the nape of my neck, then patted the hammock’s wooden slats. “Pili mia, if you move over, I will have a soft place for my weary head.”
“Only briefly, then we both flip knees over tea-kettle,” I warned.
“Wrong! And I have spent much more time here than you, querida,” he declared. I scooted, he carefully lay his head in my lap and the hammock flipped us knees over tea-kettle into the dirt. Arizona sun burning above, the bunkhouse boys pounding each other, my hair full of grit, Mano whispered, “There is something I like making more than bricks.”
Mischief in his eyes, he scrambled to his feet, swung me up into his mud-caked arms. He twirled with me across the porch, singing about chickens. Quando amor no es locura, no es amor.
- The End -
With appreciation to Tanja, our Beta-reader
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