Paradise Twice Over

 

By Jan Lucas and Penny McQueen

 

They is days on the ranch I get outside early just so I can hear the sun come up. Be by my ownself with no one yelling, “Buck, get them beeves moved south,” or “Buck, we ain’t got no feed,” or “Hey Uncle Buck, look what I did.” Watching the sky between peaks burning fire-orange so bright I had to look away, I never could figure how any man thought he was the end-all of creation. Sometimes I wondered if it were that quiet back in what the Good Book called Eden. Quiet enough you can hear cactus think.

A cactus trying to concenstrait that morning woulda got a headache. Couldn’t nobody think with cathouse yells from the bunkhouse, where Sam and Joe was wrangling over last night’s poker game, and Victoria on the porch giving dirt what-for in Español. I give ten minutes for her to start in on John, five minutes for the Butler boys to start funning over the new girl at El Toro Loco.

Stock was running light after the drought and we had beef contracts with the blue-bellies to fill, so my big brother’s dander was up through the rooftop. John built Chaparral taking chances, but when Peter wants beeves and Paul needs money, a man gets edgy and mean. Them soldier-boys at Ft. Aye-patch needed remounts, but ole John didn’t give Two Ponies and his braves time to shoe ‘em. Now he was yelling about horse money getting back in time to pay for cattle or wouldn’t be no beef for Ft. Lowell. Good thing we got John around. Ain’t nobody else on the ranch understands complicated things like buying and selling.

Blue Boy got tired hearing about gambling horse-money on cattle, chancy delivery time-tables, and how there might not be no High Chaparral for him and all the Cannon children after him. He scooted out the front door like a bear found more hornets than honey. Mebbe so, his room weren’t set up for no new-wedded bridegroom. Iron bedsteads squawk about how good a marriage is working and I was downright proud for the boy, but them two younguns deserved better. Big John claimed he’d add rooms back of the house, but ranch business got in the way. He figured them Cannon children could get theirselves made and borned in one room, but the situation were hard on my nephew. I weren’t surprised when Blue slung hisself on the corral rail and said “How about you shut your big trap?” when I said the joys of married life kept a man up late at night.

Victoria swung her broom like she was a-killing snakes. My ears ached when she blocked the door and screamed, “I am not being unreasonable, you are being unreasonable!” My unreasonable brother come outta the doorway, hands in front like he was holding off a wildcat.

I keep thinking I best get me a new hat, since mine wouldn’t pull over my ears. I stuck my fingers in ‘em, but still heered the racket, with them babies squalling at Casita Montoya for good measure. I loved them little buttons, but ain’t another sound on earth makes a man wish more he was deef or dead.

Mano looked like forty miles of bad trail a-coming cross the yard. Mi amigo rubbed bloodshot eyes and said, “¡Ay, caramba! If we knew in advance how noisy are los niños pequeños, the human race would die out, compadres. Manuelito cries with teething pain, Lina cries to keep him company. Madre mia, I, too, may begin to cry.” He throwed an arm over my shoulder and shook his head.

I said, “Blue Boy, you paying attention? Could be you might learn something, ‘cause proud papa’s about ready to send ‘em back where they come from.”

Hombre, no. I only want a full night’s sleep and this second child is more noisy than the first. A disturbing trend.” He covered his mouth and yawned. “Time between arrivals, getting shorter, compadres. Also disturbing. Numero tercero will be here…” he yawned again “… Ay, Chihuahua. Too soon.”

“Yeah, when she said she wanted a big family, you didn’t figure on it being this year.” Blue Boy laughed. Mano’s lips knotted and Blue hooked a thumb toward hisself. “No kid of mine’s gonna cry like that, nossir. Me and Becca’ll see to it.” The boy sounded more like his pa every day, Had about as much sense with some things.

“What! You think your infant will say ‘Perdoname, dear father and mother, but something is causing me great unhappiness’? HAH!” Flapping his arms and sermonizing at my nephew, Mano put me in mind of Victoria.

John oughta know not to mess with my sister-in-law when she’s got a broom in her hands, but I always did have more brains when it come to women. She beat them flagstones like they was black hearted sinners, preaching, “Never have I known such a stubborn man. Never.” Brother John’s stubborn as they come, but ain’t nobody ever said Victoria’s exactly accommodating. “You come here to Arizona to build a great rancho for your son and his children, but how long are your son and his wife supposed to live in one room? Well? How long?”

“What do you want me to do, Victoria?” That be my brother, big ideas for everyone but hisself. “I can’t take remounts to Ft. Apache and build on to the house at the same time.” John’s fingers was working and his arms swinging. “Blue and Rebecca will just have to wait. Plenty of people live their lives in just one room and the boy’s got the whole ranch, so I don’t see…”

I nudged my boy with a shoulder. “Ain’t you lucky, Blue? He’s a lucky one, ain’t he, Mano? Him and Becca got a room all to theyselves and the entire ranch, too. Makes you feel bad about your little bitty place, don’t it, amigo? What you call that thing above the porch?”

“You mean the balcón on our new second story? Compadre, I call it heaven above the dust and flies.” Mi amigo’s missus whomped Miguel, the sheriff and that sheepherder Kansas in a poker game last time John and us was on the trail. Took her winnings outta Miguel’s warehouse, got free buildin’ labor from the jail and Kansas rode shank’s mare out of town ‘cause she got his horse. While Mano admired Casita Montoya like he hoped John-boy got gone again soon, I heard my nephew grumble.

“Uncle Buck, you know dang well what a balcony is.” Boy’s gonna break them teeth one a these days, grinding them together.

“A bay-coney? Blue, your room ain’t got no bay-coney, do it?” His face got the same shade of red as my brother’s. “Mebbe John’ll make one for you and Sis. Acourse, you’ll be a grandpa yore own self ‘for he gets them rooms done, unless somebody convinces him to spread some responsibility around.”

“Yeah, but different than it’s spread now. Lemme see. Pa’s driving remounts up to Gobe to meet with the army. He’ll be gone weeks while I’m running the ranch, but I can’t do no building while he’s gone ‘cause he ain’t got materials down half a penny. And you two’re going to the C-Bar-M to rest up. Don’t seem fair to me.”

Globe. Most rambunctious mining town in the Territory. Ain’t nothing worth doing you couldn’t do there and John wouldn’t appreciate it near as much as me. “Blue Boy, you is right. It ain’t fair and Uncle Buck’s gonna set things straight.”

Mano come alive about then, real serious-like. “Un momento. For myself, they are already straight.” It were sad to hear Mano talking like spending a couple days at the C-Bar-M playing his whiny guitar and sleeping was the most fun he knowed.

Whole dang business were sad. John Boy’d be in the land of milk and honey, what he wouldn’t appreciate. Blue and his missus wouldn’t get new rooms no time soon because my brother’d be off not having fun. Mano’d be at the C-Bar-M thinking he’s enjoying hisself while I’d have to hear him and la guitarra caterwaul half the night.

John was arguing about waiting for the best price on lumber. Victoria was tossing her hands and spittin’ Español. It looked like storm clouds on the porch. Blue let loose a long whistle when Victoria stuck her finger in Big John’s face.

I never heard what she was going to say because Joe busted Sam in the mouth and smashed him into the holding corral rail. It broke all to pieces and mustangs tore into the yard.

I took off my too-tight hat and rubbed my aching forehead. Asked Mano and Blue, “You figure we is too old to run off and join the circus?”

Ain’t nobody laughs like Mano, but it put me in mind of the first time I seed him. Funny but mebbe loco dangerous, too. “Run away and join the circus? Hombre, this is the circus.” He went stumbling toward the ranch-house, giggling and singing about los polluelos crying pio, pio, pio. Hollered “Arriba!” when a mustang near run him over. I knowed I had to save him from hisself. Looked to me, we all needed saving.

*****

Hands on the lines, Buck Cannon’s leathery face split into a broad grin as he pulled the buckboard to the edge of Tucson. “Paradise, yes sir.” He elbowed Manolito, slumped beside him, hat covering his face, muffled snores ending with a grunt.

Hombre, what?”

Tucson be paradise, but where John’s taking them remounts be paradise twice over. Globe be the wide-openest little mining town in the Territory. ”

Mano wiggled his shoulders against the back of the seat. “Bueno, the boys will enjoy it after the very long drive through Apacheria,” he muttered, lifting his hat and squinting at Buck. “Unless it is where a man can sleep, I do not care.”

“Sleep? Mano, if you was there, you wouldn’t want no sleep.”

“Wrong! I want to sleep any time or place my little son does not keep me from it. ¡Ay, Chihuahua! What good are teeth to him? He uses them only to bite his sister.”

“He gets older, he’ll need ‘em to smile at the señoritas like his daddy. Some real fine play-party gals up in Globe, amigo. Looky, Mano. Don’t you think they’s gonna like Uncle Buck’s pretty smile?” He grinned, pointing to his teeth.

Sitting up, Mano straightened his bandanna. “, the smile of a horse pales in comparison. Too bad for the señoritas of Globe you are not going on the drive, only provisioning those who are. Then, andele! To the C-Bar-M. No señoritas, señoras or fruits of their labor. Only rest and the relaxing musica of la guitarra. Entiendes?”

“Well, mebbe I understand different now I heered they ain’t taking them ponies all the way to Ft. Apache. Mebbe the C-Bar-M don’t sound good as Globe. Especially since you make la guitarra sounds like a sack of rabid cats.”

Compadre, it is not my playing. It is your tin ear,” he grumbled as Buck stopped at the mercantile. “Nothing is more romantic than the beautiful musica of México.”

“Mano, amigo. It ain’t the beautiful musica of Mexico, it’s you singing like the un-beautiful howling of a lovesick pig.”

Pig!” Hands resting on his knees, Manolito glared at his companion. “You have the soul of a pig and the ears of a pig., and the feet of a pig.” He pointed sharply at Buck. “Hombre, never does a señorita dance with you except from pity or because she is too drunk to care that you dance like a pig. Does that not bother you?”

“Drunk women bother me? You loco?” He snorted. “Snore Montoya, I ain’t never sat out no fandango ‘less I wanted to and you know good as me, drunk women is friendly. And you just have yoreself a fine time at the C-Bar-M, ‘cause while you do, I is gonna find me some real friendly women up in Globe.” Buck shoved a boot on the brake and tied the lines, then slapped his hat against his thigh and scrubbed a hand across his face. “No I ain’t. John-Boy ain’t taking me to no town like Globe, not after the last time we was on trail.”

“I told you, I am sorry you cannot return to Nogales. Such is life. Perhaps after a few years, ?” Clapping Buck on the back, he grinned and hopped to the ground, giving a merry wave. “Perdoname, but I must see a man about a horse. Hasta luego.”

Buck climbed from the wagon muttering, “See about a horse. Ain’t like ole Mac’s about to keel over dead. He got plenty go left in him.” He ran a hand across a broad bay rump. Checking the harness, he looked up sharply and yelled, “Hey, Mano! I’ll get the order in, but I ain’t loading by myself, amigo. I’ll be in the saloon. That’s S-A-L double-shot of redeye and I’m gettin’ N the first poker game I see!”

Laughing, he left the team at the water-trough and stomped to the mercantile’s wooden porch. The scent of apples mixed with soda crackers drifted from the open door. His mouth watered, but a haystack of shiny new shovels caught his eye. Thinking it wouldn’t hurt his skinflint brother to buy a shovel, he snagged one. The stack crashed at his feet.

Like a jack-in-the-box, Wiley popped from inside, wiping his hands on his stained apron. He checked for stampeding cattle, then sighed, ran a hand across his balding head and said, “I’d sell you any you wanted, Buck. Did you have to try every last one?”

“You too cheap to get a watch-dog, Wiley?” Buck kicked at handles, clearing a path through the tangle, and dug a paper from his pocket. “If it ain’t too imposing, I got me a trip to outfit.” Tucking one shovel under his arm, he hefted two more over a shoulder and slid the rest away with the side of his boot. “Pay real particular attention, first on that there list it say, ‘two cases pears.’ You see that?”

The thin storekeeper peered at the grubby slip of paper and scratched his head. “It says two cases of peaches.”

Poking a dusty, gloved finger at the list, Buck drawled slower. “You ain’t paying attention. Problem is, Blue Boy wrote this up and he don’t like pears. I like pears.” He draped an arm across Wiley’s shoulder and steered toward the door. “Wiley, you is a smart man. Blue ain’t here and he ain’t the one gonna tell Big John to pay you for this order. So we getting peaches or pears on my wagon?”.

*****

Seems to me we all got a place in life. Only makes sense, if dumb jackasses and smart dogs got places, we’s got ‘em, too. Padres was born feeling comfortable-like whispering to the Almighty, bankers got a narrow kinda mind for trapping part of every dollar come their way. And I always knowed my place was in a saloon.

Don’t matter none what kind. High-toned gentlemen’s club or canvas tent with a board atop two barrels. Set up a bartender sellin’ drinks off the south end of a mule, I’d breathe deep and knowed I be home.

El Toro Loco weren’t no gentleman’s club, just my favorite watering hole. Redeye ain’t cut more’n half and the girls smiled real pretty for Uncle Buck. Heat outside might be fierce enough to bleach bones, but soon as I smelled sawdust on the floor and whiskey in the air, the heat eased up.

Mike snagged a towel over that roughed-up bar, set up a bottle when he saw me in the doorway. The tanglefoot looked good, but some things look even better to a man, so I stretched my arms wide, calling, “Mabel, you pretty thing, Uncle Buck’s in town.” Even sanctified angels oughta love spangled up women in green satin with straggly gold trim, big feather falling over one eye. They ain’t always young, and some of ‘em looks rode hard and put up wet, but they do make a armful, squealing and kissing. I give Mabel proper respect, then smacked her on the backside and steered for the bar.

I was happy as a pup in gravy, whiskey in one hand and sweet curves in the other. Only thing missing was poker. Ain’t never hard to find a game. I won two hundred dollars, lost or spent all but twenty, but we had three more bottles of Mike’s best benzine whiskey so weren’t nobody complaining. Me and Bart started on a hoo-doo of a fight, then forgot what it was for. Jimmy John rolled ‘ole Bart into the corner when he fell asleep at the table. Mike’s piano player got busted up good two weeks back, but one of the girls could play, so we danced the two step until I couldn’t count to two no more.

All I wanted was a little drink, a little poker, and a plan to get myself to a little town full of all the fun and trouble a man could want. By the time Mano strolled in with Miguel Redondo, I had me a good start on the first two. Before Mano took a sip of mescal, I had the last part figgured.

*****

Buck Cannon sat at the round poker table, back to the bar. One hand rested on the plump hostess’s hip, the other held his cards. Leaning forward, he grinned at the dealer, upended a bottle, slapped the lady’s thigh and sent her to the bar. “Mabel my love, I can play you or poker, and right now I is playing poker.” Wide fingers splayed cards then he nodded. “You been to church, Jimmy?”

“Church?” Watery, bloodshot eyes peered over cards held by liver-spotted hands. Jimmy John smiled, missing teeth black holes in his mouth, and cackled, his breath carrying across the table. Buck winced and turned his nose sideways as the old coot said, “What’d I want to go to church for?”

“’Cause you oughta pray for better hands.” He drained the bottle and shouted over his shoulder, “Mike! You is looking at the second-best poker player in the world, but if I had more whiskey I might be the first-best. Need me spending money when we get to Globe with them remounts. Yeeehaw!” He bought another round and knocked back two fingers of El Toro Loco’s worst before Manolito urged him out the door.

Strutting down the boardwalk, Buck squinted at the big sabino dun tied to the back of the wagon. Leaning against a porch rail, he crossed his arms and grinned. “Pretty piece of horse-flesh, but most mares is just like women. Cain’t mind their work.”

Hombre, what can I say? I have a weakness for a pretty face,” Mano answered, hand on the animal’s velvety muzzle. “Beautiful, is she not? Her name is Alba. Dawn.”

“If that’s one of O’Leary’s, I’ll eat my hat if you didn’t pay too much.”

Amigo mio, start chewing. Never does a Montoya pay too much.”

Buck circled the horse on his way to the mountain of supplies by the mercantile door, eyed the white splotch on the animal’s side. “Mebbe not, but I heered O’Leary were asking two hundred dollars for a green-broke filly, got a spot shaped like Missouri on her rump. Looks like Missouri to me. You give two hundred?”

“Are you joking? Not even if I had it.” Manolito laughed and heaved a flour sack into the bed. He leaned against a wheel, spinning a child’s top in his palm while Buck hefted crates into the wagon. Putting the top on the seat, Mano picked up a shovel and tucked it in, following with a fry-pan. Watching Buck shoulder fifty pounds of pinto beans, he swiped a sleeve across his brow. “Señor O’Leary has a weakness for Irish violin, compadre. Sixty dollars and free admission when Pili plays Garry Owen at the opera house.”

“When’s that?”

Hombre, how do I know?” Mano shrugged. “Maybe never, but if she does, O’Leary gets in free. Oh, YES!”

Shaking his head, Buck strapped down the tarp. One corner of canvas flapped free, exposing cans decorated with ripe Bartlett pears. With a snort, the dun jumped to the end of the rope, jerking the buckboard. Mano slid his hands toward her crooning, “Calma, muchacha, calma.” He grasped the halter and stroked the horse’s neck, glancing at Buck. “Hey, she reacts fast, eh? Good for working a herd.”

“Yeah, amigo, long as it ain’t a herd of pears.” Laughing, Buck climbed into the seat and shook the lines as Mano scrambled aboard.

*****

The blacksmith pounded another rod of white-hot iron into a shoe as Blue trimmed the rear hoof of an Appaloosa gelding. Knees bent and back hunched, he held the horse’s leg between his thighs, slicing off a broken chunk of toe with the knife’s curved blade. Sweat poured from him, making the knife slippery and drawing flies. On the other side of the horse, Manolito rested an elbow on the gelding’s rump. “El jefe for the drive. Big John has much confidence in you, amigo mio. You are pleased?”

“Yep, except for timing. Ain’t had my nice, soft girl in my nice, soft bed very long, Mano.” He paused, wiping sweat from his eyes. “Reckoned I’d get started on them rooms for us while Pa was gone, too. Thanks to Buck talking him into making me trail boss, that ain’t gonna happen.”

Hombre, John Cannon is a man of his word. He promised rooms, you shall have them.” He raised his eyebrows. “Hey, Blue. If I am here, I help him and help you, eh? Make a few deals, negotiate price. The very best price. For you, I do this, ?”

“For me you do this, no. You and Buck are up to something and you both got dust and saddle-sores ahead, ‘cause the only way I trust either of you is if I can see you.”

Hombre, what are you saying? You can trust us with your life.”

“My life, sure. Just not my money, my time or my boots, Bub. Anyways, half your so-called help’s gotten me punched or slapped.” He turned his head and squinted at Mano. “You’re both acting like you don’t wanna go. Buck’s lying, but you ain’t. You know something I don’t?”

Ay-yi-yi, you are a suspicious hombre.” Gazing toward his house, he began singing softly, “¿Cómo quieres que te quiera a ti solito-oooh? How can I give all my loving to you aloooone?”

“I dunno, but what about giving me the rasp?” Blue said, turning his head and eying the big farrier’s file Manolito held loosely at his side. “While you’re at it, you can say why you don’t wanna go to Globe. What’s Buck up to?”

“¿Quien sabe? And left to myself, andele, Manito! I would be on the trail until Manuel finishes teething.” Sighing, he scratched his cheek with the rasp, then rested his hand on his hip. “Hombre, Birdette helps with the niños, but Pilar’s responsibilities are great. Also, a woman tires more easily when she is expecting. Better for her if I am not away very long when she has a little one in the belly.”

“When you figure that’s gonna be?”

Que?”

Blue’s face puckered into a smile. “You heard me. I reckon Arizona’ll be a state before then, amigo.” He dropped the hoof-knife, let the horse’s leg go and stood. “Might be a state before we finish these horses. Gimme the rasp, Mano. I ain’t asking again.”

“This? Claro que sí. Of course. After all, you are my friend.” Mano shrugged, extending the tool. Blue snatched it and yanked the Appaloosa’s hoof into position. Smiling mildly, Manolito hummed, watching the file’s rapid strokes. “Blue, the duties of the father are small compared to those of the mother, but muy importante. One day, you will see. Maybe soon, eh?”

“Nope. Becca and me decided to wait awhile.” Blue slung the file on the ground and slipped the horse’s leg from his grip. Pulling himself upright, he waved away flies. “Leastways, ‘til our kids won’t grow up sleeping on the floor of our room.” He stepped behind the horse, pressing tools into Manolito’s hand. “Next one’s yours. You sweat, I’ll stand around and sing.”

“All right, andele!” Mano slapped the Appaloosa’s rump. The kick landed hard on Blue’s thigh, knocking him to the ground as John rounded the corner.

“Boy, you’re burning daylight. Mano can’t do all the work while you sit there and watch. First light tomorrow, son, or you won’t make it by deadline.”

Blue gulped, then coughed. “It’ll get done, Pa.

“Yep, long as you remember the man in charge can’t sit down on the job.” The edges of John’s eyes crinkled as he beamed at his son. “I’m counting on you, boy.”

Sitting in the dirt, staring at his father, Blue caught Mano’s smirk from the corner of his eye and gritted his teeth. Aiming a puny smile at Big John, he said, “Uh, thanks, Pa. I won’t let you down. Guess I’d better get the rest of these horses shoed.” When Big John strode away, he scrambled to his feet and jabbed a finger into Manolito’s shoulder. “Go ahead, laugh. You ain’t gonna laugh tomorrow. Pa put me in charge, and you two clowns are gonna wish you’d run off and joined the circus before this drive’s over!” Jaw clenched, he stomped to the house with Mano snickering at his back.

*****

On the bedside table, a solid imitation gold pocket watch ticked towards 5:00 a.m. Muffled by crumpled papers, bits of string, wadded bills, coins, a dried shaving brush, and faded handkerchiefs, the watch-hands advanced. Snores drowned quiet ticking until the minute hand clicked into place and the alarm chimed.

Quilts exploded from the bed in a tangle of grunts. Cussing, Buck kicked free of the covers and punched the watch-stem with his thumb. He squinted at the timepiece, yawned and scratched an arm-pit with the fob. Rocking to his feet, he growled and scratched his backside, then shuffled to a pile of black clothes. He sorted and sniffed, flinging the ripest over a shoulder.

Blue Cannon awoke wondering how many mornings he’d stared at the ceiling-beams in dawn’s grey light, listening to Buck. Figuring he had better things to do, he snaked an arm from under the blankets, shut off the alarm, rolled to his side and wrapped himself around his wife. Drowsy, she murmured and nestled closer. He stroked her hair, feeling her breath warm on his bare chest. She chuckled when an enormous sneeze blasted across the hallway. “Must be morning. Buck’s awake.”

“Uh-huh. Don’t know why I got an alarm-clock. He’s louder.” Snug under the covers, he held Rebecca tight. “I’d sure rather stay here instead of hitting the trail.”

“Suits me, it feels like you’ll be gone forever.” Her fingertips stroking his shoulder blades made him shiver. “But I guess you can’t disappoint your father after he’s made you trail boss.”

“Now there’s a tough one, disappoint Pa or leave my nice, warm wife.” He rolled his eyes. “Too bad I don’t have any particular reason to stay in bed.”

“Um hum.” She kissed him and nudged him with her hips. “You’ll be late for Victoria’s breakfast, too. Biscuits. Sausage. Gravy.” She sniffed the air and breathed deeply, breasts rising and falling. Her eyes sparkled. “Your coffee’ll get cold.”

“Yep, but these days, I’m learning I like it cold,” he answered, kissing her lips and eyelids, then nipping the end of her nose.

*****

¡Ay, Chihuahua! Morning came too early. Never would the day dawn that Manolito Montoya is eager to drive horses hundreds of miles when beside him is a very lovely woman.

If we got the women we deserved, mine would have been a drunken shrew instead of a nude goddess serving breakfast in bed. Women often change a man’s fate, sometimes for the good. The goddess sat cross-legged on the bed, gave me a cup of coffee that could have walked upstairs by itself. I put the tray aside. A naked woman in bed with me has always been distracting. “How beautiful you are, like the most exquisite blossom of spring,” I said, playing with a lock of her hair. “You make springtime in my heart, muchacha.”

Smiling, she murmured, “Perhaps my love, but you make heat in mine to rival summer’s sun,” and traced a fingernail down my chest. Better for waking up than coffee and I was leaving? Madre de Dios, like chasing a hungry man from a bountiful orchard before he tastes its fruit, very cruel punishment. Compared to the weeks of a drive, a few lost minutes were nothing and her touch promised everything.

I promised a few things myself. To Nuestra Señora, I promised if She kept the children quiet, I would attend Mass again – some day. To Pili, dancing and the best room at the Hodges afterward, then before other business made me forget, I told her I saw Alex Levin in town. “You know, your skin is almost as smooth as his fine beer, querida,” I observed, stroking her face. She stuck out her tongue. “A very pretty tongue. If I said Señor Levin wants you to play his opera house, would you do something other than make faces with it?” Her eyes lit up and she said for that, I rated a special farewell. I felt her hands then her lips, like music on my skin. I closed my eyes. Buck could praise Globe all he wanted; my paradise required no travel and never had the trail beckoned less.

Resting her head on my stomach, she sighed. “Poor me. Soon a grass widow. Only a cold, lonely bed and your laundry to remember you by.”

Ave Maria! Nothing but dirty clothes?”

“Mmm. Dirty dishes. And those attractive children resemble you.”

“Very funny, Doña Pilar. Very funny.” Raising my head and peering at her smug little smile, I caressed her cheek. “Querida mia, let me remind you why you wash my clothes and plates and bear my children. Come here.”

I guided her to me. She tasted of salted honey, smelled of lavender and sweet cream. Our niños pequeños never stirred while I was busy with their mother. Fortunate because I did not want to hear them. I wanted to hear her. A woman’s moans are more eloquent than the most beautiful poem of love.

Her fragrance clung to me like warm arms while I tacked my new horse. I had just tied on my bedroll when across the new bridge clattered Buck on Rebel. Yelling, “Mano! Hey Mano!” he dismounted in a cloud of dust and stomped toward me, removing his hat and scrubbing a hand over wild tufts of hair on his head. “Don’t say nothing about where we is going to Blue. He finds out I mean to get myself there and Uncle Buck’ll be left home planting flowers with Victoria.”

“A fate worse than death, compadre. Trust me, I say nada to Blue.” I put a hand on his back. He was almost dancing a jig.

“We gonna have the time of our lives once we deliver John boy’s ponies,” he crowed, hugging my shoulders with bone-crushing enthusiasm. “I owe you, amigo. Anything in the whole wide beautiful world, you name it.”

Bueno. Start by lowering your voice, por favor,” I hissed, untying the dun.

“How come?” he whispered. “You ain’t hung over and everybody’s awake, ain’t they?”

“Wrong. But keep yelling and they will be.” He followed me as I led the horse to the gate. “Buck, I prefer thinking of my dear children as the sleeping angels I kissed goodbye, not noisy little devils. Entiendes?”

“Sure, I savvy.” He grinned and pounded my back. “Daddy.” Cackling, he swung into the saddle and kicked Rebel into a lope. We met Blue at the big corral in Chaparral’s compound. Watching us ride up, Blue was poker-straight, frowning and chewing his lip. Buck said, “Looks like Mister Trail Boss set on a corn-cob, don’t it?”

*****

Ain’t never a drive any different from another. We pushed them ponies from desert to high country, through the mountain crossing and up the San Pedro river. I seen the backside of horses until I didn’t know what day it were, but Blue done a good job. He knowed how to blaze and follow track, belly stock up good with water and graze. I’d sit back leading the pack mule, thinking how he was a young pup tripped over his own feet when we come to Chaparral. He’d always be my little Blue Button, but I was plumb proud of the man my boy growed into.

That don’t mean he was real proud of me. Or Mano. Some days, ain’t no pleasing Blue. He had everything he wanted, but first thing at the corral, he looked like he wanted us both in a jail cell. Stood there, hands on his hips, and barked at Mano, “You ain’t taking that horse. She’s too green, gonna be more problem than good.”

He’s knowed Manolito Montoya long as I have, so why do he think it pays to give him orders? “Amigo, you do not tell me what horse I ride. Either this one and me or not her and not me.”

I wondered if Blue’d disremember Mano never wanted to come along in the first place, but he shrugged and said kinda quiet like, “Suit yourself, but she throws you, you can lie right there ‘til we get back.”

Hombre, never! I have a way with females, eh? Of every species,” he said while Blue mounted up and ordered the gate open.

Ole Mano’s ways didn’t mean nothing to that filly. Everything spooked her. She’d scramble fast enough to coddle his breakfast, couldn’t see nothing but elbows and backsides.

“Like a young girl, compadre. Emotional and inexperienced.” Mano scratched his nose real quick, keeping his hands close to them reins for when he had to grab ahold.

“Reminds me of gals who knowed your reputation. Nervous-like and fixing to bolt.” I wiped grit out of my eyes and he laughed.

Hombre, only before they met me. After? Like this horse, eating from the palm of my hand.” He put one of them palms over his heart and gave hisself a real congratulately nod.

I was ready to set him straight when boss-man Blue come galloping toward us hollering, “Uncle Buck!” Weren’t much time for talking with our trail boss pushing like we was the pony express. Never missed a time to give orders, which is another way he is like his daddy. Weren’t no nevermind to him it weren’t our first time driving a herd or to us if he was right. After a few days hearing “Buck, tighten up that drag line,” and “Mano, get them stragglers,” we was both fed up with El Jefe.

El Jefe reined Soapy into a sliding stop, kicking up little rocks on the dun’s backside. She spooked and a paint gelding in back of the herd took off like a scalded dog. Before you knowed it, horses was running like scared money in a crooked poker game. Got to say, that horse of Mano’s was a cutting fool, turned on a dime and give nine cents change, so we got the herd packaged quick.

Blue was busy being a self-righteous maniac, hollering at Mano about bringing a green horse on a important drive. Then he started on me about Joe Butler saying Globe weren’t no peaceable little town. One thing I learned back in the War, sometimes it’s easiest fighting battles sideways. “Blue, we’re missing that bay mare,” I said.

He squawked, “What?” and galloped off. Just like Big John, gotta do every thing hisself. Including finding horses what ain’t even lost.

*****

When Pa brought us to Arizona, I never figured on so much water, running between mountains into flat plains full of knee-deep grass. The seed-heads whispered like birds’ wings when we rode the meadows northeast of High Chaparral. Following the San Pedro river, I saw enough graze for a million cows. Farmers tried to settled it, but the doorstep to the Apache winter stronghold ain’t exactly homesteading country. Pushing mustangs through damp, cool air with good feed and water to hand, I wondered why Pa didn’t build further north .We fought Apaches in the sand, looks like they’d fight just the same in grass.

Pa and Buck always said High Chaparral was for me. Pa being Pa, he never asked if I wanted to chase cows through scrub, fight Apache, or risk losing it all every year if the price of beef wasn’t high enough. Dime novels like the ones I draw pictures for write a lot of nonsense about a cowboy’s life being poetic and adventurous, but I ain’t never had no fair damsel pop up from behind a saguaro saying I’m her knight on horseback. Ranching’s mostly hard, dirty work with a lot of ways to die if you sneeze wrong. Me being me, I stuck it out the best way I knew how.

Maybe I didn’t ask for it, but it’s in my blood. Stand on the ranch house roof, and as far as you can see, it’s High Chaparral. Men died to hold our land, for no better reason than a Cannon asked them to. My Ma’s buried there with an Apache arrow in her, and my wife said us Cannons built a home-place in the wilderness. These days, I understand what Pa meant about building something to last, for your children and their children. Cannon children.

I liked leading the herd and watching the trail while Buck babysat our pack mule and Mano rode drag, waving his lariat to get the herd up rocky passes. He kept up a sing-song patter until dust from a dry patch made him cough. Most drives, it was me eating trail dirt and I ain’t too proud to admit I enjoyed the change of scenery.

Close to noon, I picked out a small clump of cottonwood trees by the river, settled the herd. Buck was dusty as Rebel when he trotted into camp, rummaged through his beat-up saddle bags for dried beef, canned tomatoes and pears. I hate pears, they chew like they’ve been rolled in sand.

When Manolito come riding into camp, I had to laugh. His filly cut didoes, bounced him like a broke-down buggy. I whistled and called, “Hey, Mano, guess you didn’t run into no horse traders, you still got that green knothead.” The dun was tall and them pants of Mano’s hadn’t got no looser. Between tight britches and a sore saddle-sitter, he slithered off like hot pie from a fork. Being Mano, he acted like he always got off a horse that way.

What happened next, I should’ve known better. But I couldn’t stay awake all the way to Globe, could I?

*****

As their mounts grazed, the men ate and rested in afternoon shade. Responsibility is a heavy burden – Blue covered his face with his hat, crossed his hands on his chest and slept soundly. Chewing a long-stemmed weed, Manolito listened to soft snores leaking from underneath El Jefe’s hat. He watched the peaceful rhythm of Blue’s breaths in the rise and fall of his spotless shirt and vest.

Mano flicked a dirt-clod from his grimy jacket, then glanced at Buck. The older man dozed, head pillowed on one arm, a patina of dust streaking his sun-browned face.

Blue’s tan hat and boots seemed clean as Soapy. Watching the palomino crop grass just beyond the trees, Mano’s dimples deepened. He rose and kicked Buck’s boots, shushing him when he awoke with a snort. “Quiet., compadre. We have a mission.”

Sitting up and yawning, Buck stared at him. “What kinda...”

“Shhh. Trust me, hombre.” He gave Buck a hand up and pulled him toward the horses, snagging a handful of grass and gesturing at Soapy. “Behold, El Jefe’s caballo. Almost the color of cream, with a hint of yellow. Pretty, is he not?” Open-palmed, Mano showed Buck the grass, then crushed it in his hands. He smiled triumphantly. “Behold also this grass, tender as the kiss of a beautiful woman.”

Buck scratched his head, a puzzled look on his face. “Mano, you been in the sun too long.”

“Wrong. You have been in the desert too long. Have you forgotten what happens when a light-colored horse rolls in grass?”

“No I ain’t.” He paused, rubbed a hand over his face and grinned. “No I ain’t forgot, amigo. But Blue ain’t gonna sleep forever and that won’t do the job fast enough.” With a gloved hand, he plucked a fresh horse-apple off the ground and swiped it on Soapy’s rump. Admiring the emerald streak, he chuckled. “Looky there. Little pony’s gonna help us get it done pronto.”

Es verdad, however I prefer unprocessed pasture, gracias,” Mano answered with a curt nod. He hummed softly as he scrubbed grass on the gelding’s legs.

The sun moved an hour past zenith as Blue twitched awake. He sat bolt upright and rubbed his eyes. Identical smiles on their faces, his companions beamed down at him. Buck elbowed Mano in the ribs. “Hey, he’s awake. How you feeling, Blue? Get enough rest?”

Blue checked his pockets and gunbelt, glanced around, then pushed himself to his feet. “Yeah,” he answered. “What’re you two so happy about?”

Compadre, I cannot speak for my good amigo Buck, but I am simply at heart a happy man.”

“Uh huh.” Settling his hat firmly on his head, Blue turned toward their waiting mounts. He stopped abruptly, shook his head to clear it, but Soapy was still the color of spring grass. Pointing, Blue shouted, “What happened to my horse?”

“Your horse?” Buck scrambled to his feet and peered at the herd. “Something wrong with your horse?”

“You...he….” Face red, Blue tossed his hat to the ground and kicked it, shouting, “He’s green as a gourd.”

“Mebbe he rolled, Blue Boy.”

“Rolled? He didn’t roll that much.” Spinning, he pointed at Manolito. “What did you baboons do to him?”

“Do to him? Blue, you are merely seeing the difference between my horse and yours.” Smiling, Mano gestured toward the dun. “Mira, by the time we reach Globe, mine will no longer be green. But hombre, yours will be! Oh, yes!” Mano threw back his head and laughed loudly. Sauntering toward the horses, he called behind him, “Muchacho, if it does not rain, maybe someone in Globe has a really big wash-tub.”

*****

Blue started awake when Buck kicked his boots. “Your watch, Mister Trail Boss.” His uncle dropped heavily to his bedroll, covered himself with his blanket, shifted his black hat over his eyes, and snored.

Shivering, Blue stared at the night sky. Just past midnight by the stars, with a fierce east wind blowing. He sat and shook away the last shadows of sleep. In the dim moonlight and the dying fire, he glanced at the blanket-wrapped lump nestled between him and Buck. Manolito slept soundly, one hand curled around his pistola.

After downing lukewarm coffee, Blue slung his rifle over a shoulder and walked the perimeter, checking the herd. The horses bunched together, rumps against the wind. Settling on a large bolder, cold kept him awake. He thought about the night before he left home. It made the chill worse.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he’d smacked a fist into his palm. Becca knelt behind him, rubbing his bare shoulders. “I could knock his block off. Buck’s big ideas always get me in some kinda trouble.” As his muscles relaxed under her strong hands, he rolled his head and sighed. “Ain’t nothing on the trail gonna feel this good, that’s for sure.”

“Nope, so you’d better not waste tonight griping about Buck.” Her hair tickled his ear as she nibbled his neck and slid her hands to his chest.

Turning, he grasped her around the waist. They tumbled onto the pillows. Kissing her soft lips, he said, “Becca, I’d rather be with you than sell a thousand horses.”

“Oh, yeah? What about a thousand cows?”

Taking her face firmly between his hands, he gazed straight into her tender brown eyes and declared, “Not them neither. When it comes to heifers, there ain’t one or a thousand or a hundred thousand can hold a candle to you.”

His rocky perch hard underneath him in the frigid night, he muttered, “Never meant nothing more in my whole life.” Downy clouds drifted across stars, reminding him of Rebecca’s soft skin, and he heard his father’s voice. “Boy, taking a wife is a man's responsibility. For the rest of your life, it's your job to care for her. Make sure you do it right.” Guess that means being here, but that don’t make sense for beans, ‘cause I never been lonesome for anybody like I am for her.

Scuffling near the campsite made him spring to his feet. He shifted his rifle and padded toward the fire as he heard a muffled curse, then, “Mano! Wake up!”

Que pasa? Ouch! Stop poking me.”

Blue loitered in the shadows, watching Buck sit up and prod the bundle beside him. “Snore Montoya, you try to kiss me one more time I’m gonna do a lot more than that, you hear me?”

“Hear you what?” came the muffled answer. Wriggling in his cocoon, Mano snorted, then murmured, “Ayii, Pili, te amo.” When Buck clouted him on the head, he snapped, “Hombre, you are getting on my nerves.”

“Your nerves? You was calling me querida and trying to kiss me.”

Mano spat and wiped his mouth with a hand. “Madre mia.” Pulling the stopper from his canteen, he gargled and spat again, then rolled on his side. “I am surprised your smell alone did not wake me.”

“I been takin’ a bath just like you said. Once a month whether I need it or not.” He yanked the blanket to his chin and grinned. “Mebbe I oughta say gracias, ‘cause now I got a real good reason for bathin’ once a year like the good Lord intended.”

*****

When Pete Kitchen got a sick porker or prolapsed heifer, he’d send for Dr. Rebecca. He paid on time, raised the best hams in the territory, and his wife, Doña Rosa, thought feeding the lady vet was her Christian duty. I couldn’t be rude and say no, but like most folks in the Territory, they wouldn’t know Dr. Lister’s antiseptics if one walked up and said howdy, neighbor.

Wiley at the mercantile stocked iodine and chlorine just for Victoria, but I know he called her eccentric. I’d like to have toured him through her spotless kitchen, countertops scrubbed with hot water, pots and pans clean as a whistle. Like Buck said, could be he’d learned him something.

Last time I was at the Kitchen ranch, I’d learned either germs or menudo didn’t set well with me.

I’d been sick ever since Blue left. Bad enough on its own, but Victoria got big, happy tears in her eyes and decided I was carrying the next generation of Cannons. Nobody in the world is sweeter or more pigheaded than Victoria. She crossed herself, chattering thanks to St. Agatha, St. Anne, and Mother Mary Herself. I told her I wasn’t having a baby, but she laughed and said I was being ridiculous.

Explaining would get me a dose of Montoya hysterics and a lecture from Big John on the sanctity of the law. For my money, hang the Comstock Law, illegal and immoral aren’t the same thing. Me and Blue talked it over and we weren’t ready. Medical supply houses sell all kinds of things and we figured on keeping everybody’s nose out of our business until we were.

I turned green over Victoria’s breakfast again that morning, left John at the table wondering why I was in such a hurry to get outside. Pedro was cooking at the bunkhouse – eggs and dead jackass, maybe. I ran upstairs and poured water over my head. All of a sudden, I noticed our water smelled bad and my stomach somersaulted again. Crawling around the floor didn’t help, so after an hour of inspecting the planks I curled up in a corner and fell asleep.

When I woke up, sunlight slanted through the window and the room was hot. There’s no future in it, but I felt sorry for myself. Dragging around for weeks with Big John booming I was fine and Victoria acting like I might produce an heir to the throne any second, all I wanted was Blue riding through the gate, grinning and yelling ‘Yee-Haw!’ He’d ask sensible questions and bring me toast at midnight. He’d make me feel safe. When Blue Cannon held me, nothing in the world couldn’t be fixed. Right then, I’d have eaten a live frog if it would’ve got him home a day sooner.

No frogs, dead or alive, in our room. No Blue, either, so I lugged myself down the hallway. Flattened against the wall like an Apache when I heard clinking china and voices. Victoria and Pilar, rattling en Español. Half of me wanted to join the party, but the sensible half said lay low. I didn’t know much Spanish, but a donkey could tell explosion from celebration. I was pretty sure Victoria hadn’t told her amiga I had a special gift from Our Lady instead of dyspepsia, but Pilar was a wild card. She thought “be fruitful and multiply” was a personal directive from the Almighty, but she knew a French cap from a stove-pipe hat. All I needed was her telling Victoria what it meant when a modern Protestant and her husband meant to hold off on babies for awhile. I swallowed hard and thought about Mamma. She’d have God’s own fit, but in the poker-game of life, self-preservation beat a hand of manners every time. I edged to the divider, peeped around the corner. Eavesdropping may be a sin, but if it kept me from getting scotch-bonnet nailed, I’d take it.

*****

Victoria’s blue skirt swished as she set the tray on the coffee-table. She poured scalding coffee into delicate Havilland cups, rolled her eyes and answered, “Oh, he still calls it ‘Manolito’s squalid little ranch’ but he is no longer so angry.” She sat on the sofa opposite her sister-in-law, who idly rocked the baby-carriage with a foot. Victoria smiled at her sleeping nephew and glanced across Pilar to her niece standing on tip-toes, eying the crystal lamp on the end-table. “Resigned, perhaps, but happy because of you and the children. Especially the children and most especially Manuel. He said they bring him great joy.”

Pilar raised a skeptical eyebrow. “He did? In those words?”

“Not exactly, but that is what he meant.” Victoria, mi hija, I have a suitable heir to preserve the name of Montoya and he is but the first of many. Mano and his squalid ranchito can both go to the devil.

“Well, we harbingers of joy love him, too.” Foot moving the carriage in steady tempo, Pilar reached back and pulled her daughter away from the fragile lamp. Eyes wide, she said, “Lina, listen. Soon a visit from Abuelito Montoya. But first, guess what? Your papá comes home!” Squealing, the child clapped her hands and was swept into Victoria’s lap.

Ayii, niña! With the fathers we love, we are all excited little girls just like you!” Victoria exclaimed, hugging the toddler. Then her smile faded and she pursed her lips. “No matter how happy I am, I will not have my father and my brother bellowing over the C-Bar-M like mad bulls.” She shook her head and sighed. “With all my heart, I want them to be at peace. Especially now, when I am so worried about Papá. He looks old, Pili. Tired and frail and so very old. When your father was last here and I saw them together, madre mia! Don Fernando has years on Papá but seems much younger.”

“Mmm-hmm. Manolo says it is because demons are immortal.” She lifted her cup in a toast. “Viva el León de Sonora, may he be immortal also.”

“He says through his grandchildren he will live forever,” Victoria whispered, brushing away a tear, then smiling. “Sí, long live my father and here is to the little ones who make him feel young.” The fine china cups made a dainty clink. Victoria sipped and replaced hers on the table, kissing Lina’s soft cheek. “Oh, mi preciosa! So nice having children on the ranch.” If I have a little niña this pretty, I promise to dress her in beautiful things. “Pili, Lina looks like she works in the mines. What is she wearing?”

“Overalls.”

“She is too pretty for them. Why not let her wear the dress I made?”

The dog ate the lace. “Oh, my! Victoria, it is too nice for everyday. She can use it for something special, yes?” Does she not remember the last time I put a dress on this child? Right after Mano told her the birthmark on her derriére was where the angels patted her. She hiked her skirt and ran all over the ranch to show everyone.

“Well, I suppose so. Something special then.” I knew it! That lovely dress, lost under a pile of dirty laundry. “Oh, I so want the ranch filled with children, Pili!”

“Only if some of them are yours,” she answered. Seeing the baby was restless, Pilar lifted him to her shoulder and patted his back. He burped loudly, then grinned, drooling on his mother. My son, so small and yet so ready to live in the bunkhouse. Grappling with Manuel as he tried to paddle off the sofa while wiggling out of his gown, she added sweetly, “Every day, I say a special prayer for you and John.”

Madre Maria, my children would keep their clothes on and I would feed them nourishing meals at regular times, too. Sighing, Victoria said, “How often I have said similar prayers.”

I doubt it, thought Pilar. Stripping off Manuel’s gown, she set him on the floor where he tried gnawing her toes until she yanked them out of reach. Holy Maria, Queen of Heaven, please bless my dear sister-in-law as you have me, a poor sinner and I shall do something or other in return. It seems Mano only looks at me and another baby is on the way. Meanwhile, they have none. Does this seem fair? I think not, so if John has an old war-wound he neglected to mention to her, please heal him…Sawing and hammering interrupted her petition and drew her back to Victoria’s voice.

“…then he said, ‘Now dear, I’m running a ranch, not starting a town.’ How is building a nice house for his son and family like starting a town? How is it? La cabeza dura más grande!” She slapped her temple with her palm, then pointed to the rear of the ranch-house. “I have bandaged hands and thumbs and fingers. John orders them to be carpenters when they are not carpenters. Oh, they can mend a fence, but to build rooms is different and how can they work the cattle with their hands wrapped in bandages?”

“Slowly and carefully,” Pilar guessed as Lina bounded from Victoria and snuggled under her arm.

, exactly.” Victoria rubbed her forehead, then laughed. “Have you seen what they are doing? Have you? It is rough, like a barn. It should be lovely and it is not.”

“What if I could get a finish carpenter for free? Buck has a friend who was a cabinet-maker.” Either that or he had a carbuncle. Poor Jimmy John, between bad teeth and bad whisky, hard to understand.

“Well, John cannot argue with the price and the man cannot possibly do worse woodwork than our vaqueros.” She clasped Pilar’s hands and leaned in close. “We must have the rooms very quickly. Especially a nursery. , Pili. A nursery! I believe our prayers found Rebecca instead of me, is that not wonderful news?”

“My word, yes.” Those silly children probably thought French caps were a sure bet. Our Heavenly Father surmounts all barriers. “Good news for you also, Victoria. My father says, mares or women, put a fertile one in the herd and abracadabra! Everyone expecting.”

Perhaps I should sit closer to you, sí? Victoria raised her eyebrows. “She does not believe me, but I have told John he must hurry with the construction.” Hearing footsteps on the stairs, she held a finger to her lips. Then squeezing her sister-in-law’s hand, she called in English for Rebecca to join them.

As Victoria bustled to the kitchen for another cup, Pilar pulled the baby from the carved leg of the coffee-table and into her lap. She swiveled to watch Becca ease herself into the cow-hide chair. Brave smile and clammy chartreuse skin, the dead walk among us. “Good morning, precious,” she chirped, shifting the children, filling her cup and offering it to Becca. “Coffee?”

“Great Scott no!” With one hand warding off the coffee, she slapped the other over her nose and mouth and peered at Pilar Montoya. Her shining black hair fell in loose curls framing sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, peaceful children nestled against her. Life isn’t fair, Mama. You always said so, and there’s solid gold proof. I feel like hell on horseback, and there she sits. Baby number three on the way, and healthy as a badger. When Victoria returned with another cup, Becca declined again, claiming “a touch of something.”

Pobrecita!” With a flourish, Victoria pressed a hand to Becca’s brow. “Perhaps it was a bad enchilada. , like the one Buck ate at the fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He looked so much like you the next day.”

“Just because Blue’s gone doesn’t mean I’m drinking the kind of enchiladas that make Buck sick. It’s just something I picked up at one ranch or another.”

“Oh, claptrap. For two weeks?” Pilar shook her head and leaned toward Becca. “Trust me, you have extra ballast in your cargo-hold. Your problem is a little one.” Smiling, she touched Lina’s head then Manuel’s while Victoria nodded.

Es verdad, Rebecca. How happy I am for you!” Victoria exclaimed, giving the girl’s shoulders an affectionate squeeze before swirling to the sofa. “We have much preparation, do we not? Darling little clothes and furniture, choosing a name and helping the men with your rooms. The nursery should be very pretty, no? Like a little fairyland. Oh, I have so many ideas! We can start today and what could be more fun?”

A punch in the nose. Rebecca Coulter Cannon groaned and said, “Look, you two. I’m not having a baby.”

Pilar shrugged. “So you say. I say you are. What about a small wager? You win, I watch your baby for two weeks. I win, you look after mine. Deal?”

Smirking through her nausea, she shook Pilar’s outstretched hand, “Deal. That’s one I can’t lose.”

“How true.” Pilar patted Becca’s hand, winked at Victoria, glanced at the clock and gasped. “Oh, my word! Look at the time. Tempus has fugited and so must I. Birdette will be over toute de suite with tea for that pesky morning-sickness.” In a flurry, she put Manuel in the carriage, fixed Lina on a hip, kissed the other women on both cheeks and sailed for the door.

Becca’s expression rapidly turned from confidence to concern. “Hey, wait a minute!” she called and got a festive wave in response. She glared at Victoria. “I do not have morning sickness. And somebody should tell her it’s rude to bamboozle me when I’m too sick to think straight.”

“Oh, Rebecca! She is only joking, I know she is.” Rising from the sofa, Victoria embraced her, adding softly, “But darling, even if she is not and even if you lose, your prize is the best any woman can have. The very best.”

*****

My Beloved Sister Athena,

This odyssey through Godforsaken, savage-infested country almost killed me yesterday. I was certain Baby Horace would be kidnapped, doomed to be raised by wild, heathen Apache, while I suffered a cruel fate best not named.

Why dear Horace was ordered ahead to Ft. Apache, I shall never truly fathom. His advice to me was, “Courage, dear Minerva,” but I find this increasingly impossible as I travel through wilderness in the company of strangers. These non-commissioned guards are dedicated, but they know little of the west and Trooper Dimattia’s command of English remains minimal. My resentment increases daily.

With every mile, our teamster’s manners grow worse. I scarcely know if this great shaggy creature is human or bear, but I must presume he is human. Certainly a forest creature would be cleaner, and based on my studies of Genesis, God did not create beasts with the ability to blaspheme at every breath. Even Miss Tatum is cleaner, although her perfume makes my head ache.

When we reached the Mescal River, two days from the Cobre valley and Globe, the teamster warned me the saloons outnumbered churches and side-arms were “common as broken teeth.” I’m certain Miss Betsy Tatum has no fear of Globe, doubtless miners and lumberjacks are in need of her talents. She is hired as an army laundress, but having watched her the entire trip, if she has any special ability for cleaning clothes it is not apparent. Nevertheless, I suspect she will not lack for income.

As we approached the river the men argued. The teamster said it was dangerous, and indeed water overflowed the banks. The soldiers paraded their horses at water’s edge, proclaiming it safe as houses. The teamster refused to send the mule-team forward, arguing vociferously until Sgt. Bosley picked his way across the swollen waters and back again. He gave orders to proceed. After shouting enough to wake Baby Horace and set him screaming in my ear, the teamster shook his massive, shaggy head and with a fierce crack of his whip, thrust the wagon into the untamed torrent. I tightened my grip on the side as we entered, but all seemed well until we were halfway. The lead mules stopped and sank away. The second team did likewise and upon my soul, I have never known such terror, sure as I was that we entered our watery grave.

My fright increased a hundred-fold when I heard shouts and pounding hooves. I glimpsed a huge herd of horses pouring from the mountains, and with them, wild figures astride other horses. Indians, ready to murder us or worse! Even Miss Tatum deserved a kinder fate. Clutching precious Baby Horace, I frantically rummaged through bags, withdrew my revolver and pushed Miss Tatum to the floor of the wagon, Capt. McDonald’s gallant words as clear as if he were present beside me. “In dire straights, my gentle wife, you know what you must do.”

As the savage, murderous yells and splashing neared us, all bravery and sensibility failed me. I screamed and screamed, gripping the pistol in both hands until, mad with fear, I heard the most heavenly, mellifluous voice saying, “Calma, muchacha, calma, calma. You are safe.” I peeked and my savior’s luminous, dark eyes were as divine as his voice. He plucked the gun from my trembling fingers, his smile that of a man with whom any woman is indeed safe. Warm, comforting darkness overcame me as I fainted from relief.

*****

Blue Cannon led the Chaparral herd around a blind corner of the Mescal River trail. Halfway across the water, mired past the wheels, a Schooner wagon sat in sandy mud. The four-mule team drooped noses to the waterline while the teamster and two soldiers argued. The soldiers wheeled their horses and gestured. Standing in the driver’s box, the bearish teamster bellowed back, jerking his head. Tangled black hair and unruly beard fought like a nest of weasels.

Behind Blue, the herd milled. Buck cut through them, reining in sharply beside his nephew. “United States military intelligence.” Lips pressed in a thin line, he continued, “Them soldier boy’s'll let them mules drown before they figure how to get that wagon out.”

Manolito sidled the dun close to Soapy as a dark-haired woman peeked from the back of the wagon bed and shrieked. He winced. “Ay, caramba. Lovely scenery, but the noise of a drunken cat.”

“You’d know about drunk cats.” Blue grinned, then frowned as a blonde scooted into view and shoved a screaming baby at the other woman. Snatching the infant, the dark-haired woman wailed when a bundle broke free from the wagon’s side and bobbed downstream. “What’re they doing, anyway?”

“What they’re doing, Blue boy, is turning a little problem into a nine-line bind.” Buck curled a lip and snorted. “Something happens to a man when he puts on a blue uniform. Gets too thick-headed to know quicksand from solid ground. You take them little army horses, they’d walk across real fine, but a big wagon won’t make it.” He rubbed a hand on his forehead. “Woman keeps yelling about the Aye-patch she’s apt to bring ‘em down from the hills.”

Blue stood in the stirrups, squinted at the wagon and pointed. “Hey, Uncle Buck? Does that driver look ….” A shot rang from the Schooner and he ducked. The bullet clipped high overhead branches, showering the three men with leaves and sticks. Kicking out of their stirrups, they dove for cover as the herd whirled and galloped away. Wild splashing from the river signaled retreating soldiers with the driver close behind. The brunette clutched a revolver in shaking hands, yelped, and fired again, hitting the water. In a haze of black smoke, baby bawling like an abandoned calf, the blonde girl flung herself over the side.

Sunlight winked on the gun as it swept in frantic loops from the cringing girl in the water to the treeline. Manolito stood and adjusted his hat. Buck hissed at him, “Mano! What you doing? She’s loco, you wanna end up looking like a sieve?”

Finger to his lips, Manolito whispered, “Hombre, a crazy woman waving a pistola puts only joy in my heart. Always!” Smiling, he crept to his horse and vaulted into the saddle. Charging down the slope, he sang expansively, “Li-de-de-diiii, I shared the glory of the fight, sweet girl I left behind meeee.”

Buck shook his head, spat and clapped Blue on the shoulder. “Kinda makes sense, soldier-boys play that song at funerals,” he said as the big black-haired teamster ran toward them, arms covering his head.

Reaching the bank, the driver rolled, slamming Blue against the rocks. Meaty hands yanked Blue forward, whacking dust from his vest as the man boomed, “Apologies, friend! It’s my unfortunate position to be traveling with lunatics and women. I thought the women were better, but Miz Minerva’s lost the power of reason.” Blue’s futile attempts to deflect the friendly blows ended when the hulking man opened his arms wide, then crushed him in a bear hug. “Blue Cannon, you mangy dog!”

Peering through watering eyes around a massive shoulder at Buck, Blue coughed. He struggled for breath, squirming in the ferocious grip, and gasped, “Hello, Bart.”

Bullets whined in harmony with screeching from the wagon as Bart Kellogg pounded the wind out of Buck. Spitting in the sand, he called the two army escorts, “afraid of their own feet and stupid as snails.”

His tanned face streaked with dirt and sweat, Buck grinned. “What you be doing here anyways, Bart?”

“Army hires teamsters, you know any better mule-driver than Bart Kellogg?” Large teeth gleamed among black whiskers as he talked. “Besides, I couldn’t let two women and a baby hike across the roughest country in the territory with nothing besides the two Generals, could I?” He raised himself on one knee and peeped over rocks. “Miz Minerva’s got a husband at Ft. Apache. Boys, just between you and me, he’d do better to trade her and that milk-faced baby for Miz Betsy. That girl’s got some sand.”

*****

An empire is crafted of dreams, sweat, iron-willed determination and unwavering attention. Like stitching on a saddle, details hold a ranch together. And like cattle, details need rounding up and sorting.

John Cannon set up camp in the dining room, spreading paperwork across the linen tablecloth before pacing to and from the stairs, shaking his head. “Victoria, there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.”

Arms folded, Victoria stood beside a pile of papers at the table. She nodded once. “All right, my husband. There is nothing wrong with your eyes.” Plucking a sheet from the stack, she said, “This says the horses were due by the sixth. Perhaps someone else scheduled delivery of the horses for the sixteenth?”

“Nope, that was me,” John grumbled, fingers working at his side.

“Did Captain McDonald not expect them on the sixth?” Smiling sweetly, she picked up the telegram and waved it.

“Damnation, Victoria! He expected them on the sixth because they were due on the sixth. Somehow, I didn’t read it right, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see. It just means a lot of trouble for nothing and we’ll need to tighten our belts. My eyesight’s fine.”

“¡Cabeza dura!” Advancing, she shook a finger at him. “No it is not and neither is your hard head not doing what the doctor told you to do, John Cannon!”

“Hang the fool doctor. He was wrong, plain and simple.”

Ave Maria!” Skirts rustling, black hair billowing, Victoria sailed past him to the living room, snatched a book from the side table and rushed back. Unfurling the title page, she thrust it at him. “And what does this say? Tell me.”

John snatched it up and squinted. Muttering about fool women and doctors, he slowly straightened his long arm, further and further, finally crowing, “David Copperfield!”

“Yes John, that is the title. What about the rest?”

Twisting his mouth, he stretched his hand until the book slid free and thudded to the floor. He scooped it up, slapped it on the table and growled, “Now, Victoria, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m telling you, I don’t need glasses, but I’ve got work to do and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend my time reading some book about a copper mine.”

*****

Beloved Athena,

I do not exaggerate when I say my rescuer’s heroism harkened to days of yore when brave, courtly knights delivered tender maidens from death’s cold grasp. He swept me to his steed, but not for a moment did he forget little Horace or even Miss Tatum. Mr. Montoya carried all of us from the savage waters to safety.

Terror sapped my strength and I fretted for the baby. He wailed piteously while Mr. Montoya found dry blankets, but I was too weak to lift my arms and unable to do my motherly duties. Miss Tatum offered to fetch a fresh diaper and make Horace comfortable, however, knowing her employment, I declined. Horace’s mournful weeping elicited Mr. Montoya’s compassion, evident in the profound concern on his noble face. It was he who made my baby tidy and eventually staunched his agonized cries. I shall never forget the look of sympathetic pain in Mr. Montoya’s expressive eyes as he gazed at my child.

Our teamster, the dreadful Mr. Kellogg retrieved the mules from the river and was assisting Sgt. Bosley and Trooper Dimattia with the wagon. Instead of abandoning us to help, Mr. Montoya’s honorable nature bade him stay. After quieting Horace, my savior handily built a cozy fire, but Miss Tatum allowed she was still “pure-D froze half to death” and asked, “You got a knock of anything on ya?”

Although a gentleman of Mr. Montoya’s refined caliber has absolutely no interest in girls of Miss Tatum’s ilk, he was as gracious to her as to me and produced a medicinal elixir made from cactus-fruit. It is a popular tonic south of the border. I was a bit chilly, so I joined Miss Tatum in partaking and must say although the taste is harsh, it is quite soothing. Miss Tatum dropped into a deep sleep and I felt a warm peacefulness.

Mr. Montoya offered to fix us “frijoles”, an exotic dish of Old Mexico, his native country. As he commenced preparations, I could not help but enjoy his masculine physique and the silken way in which he moved. The flickering firelight danced in his dark eyes and I imagined the myriad broken hearts which surely occurred when he married. I observed that his wife was a very fortunate woman. He answered modestly, “At this particular moment, I am not certain she would agree, but sí, she could do worse.” He laughed softly, then gave me the most penetrating look. “Señora McDonald, you are so very lovely. Such beautiful eyes, soft grey like the wings of the dove. Skin like purest alabaster, your husband is also fortunate, seeing you must brighten his days. Why is he not with you, Señora?”

His kind words and caressing Spanish accent burst the dam of my self-pity and tears. “Oh, it is the horrid, stupid army! A Captain, mind you, handling requisitions and contracts.” I caught my breath as he gently dabbed my tears away. “One contract for horses was the main reason for it. An essential transaction with a rancher far to the south and of course, the stupid horses were due on the sixth, but they never came! My Horace wired me in God-forsaken Yuma and he was simply livid. I can’t say I think much of the ranchers here, Mr. Montoya. Their word certainly accounts for naught.”

Ay, caramba! A terrible shame and such difficulty for you, Señora,” he commiserated, lightly touching my shoulder with a strong, yet aristocratic hand. “Tell me, do you happen to remember the name of the rancho?”

“The name of the ranch? Mr. Montoya, I pay little mind to army matters and Horace seldom discusses them,” I said, then realized I was sharp. Unforgivable towards someone who had saved my life and that of my child. “My apologies, sir, I didn’t intend that as it sounded, but this situation is maddening. ‘High’ something, near Tuck-sun.”

By then, his associates returned to camp and he waved to them in a friendly fashion. He turned to me and whispered, “Por favor, Señora McDonald, say nothing of this to my friends. The young man is in charge of his first trail-drive. It is – como se dice – a rite of passage, muy importante. Very important and he is a sensitive hombre. He hears about someone defaulting on a contract to deliver a herd, it will upset him.”

I could not refuse, although both men seemed rough and rugged to me. Earnest young William Cannon did not appear faint of heart, but Mr. Montoya knew him and I did not. The older man, William’s uncle Buck, frightened me initially. I thought him hard, dirty and mean, a kindred soul to Mr. Kellogg. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although poorly educated, he is polite as all sons of the South and tender as anyone with a dear love for little children. William, a new bridegroom, also took great delight in Baby Horace and although not verbose, spoke of his bride with the affection of a young husband missing his young wife very much.

Throughout our meal, shared with foul Mr. Kellogg and the soldiers, Mr. Montoya was convivial but pensive. He chatted with everyone (in Italian with Mr. Dimattia!). He was as weary as I, and indeed, turned in early. Everyone else seemed exhausted, although Miss Tatum surprised me by awakening mid-supper and striking up a lively friendship with the older Mr. Cannon which continued even as I fell asleep.

Came morning, I was leadened by the prospect of continued travel until I went to the river to wash my face. Oh, what an appealing sight awaited! Mr. Montoya was shaving with a razor-sharp knife, his tawny torso fairly glowing in the light of dawn. There is something about seeing a man perform the elemental masculine task of shaving which caused my knees to go weak. As he tucked his shirt into trousers that hugged his slim form, I thought of dear Horace’s dragoon mustache and wished I could exchange Mr. Kellogg for an aesthetically pleasing companion.

“Ah, lovely Minerva. The rising sun pales in comparison. Buenos dias,” said this lean, bronze prince, favoring me with a dimpled smile below his luminous dark eyes. “I hope you do not mind, but I have changed places with Bart Kellogg.”

It was as if the heavens parted and golden light ended my dark misery! The last of our journey, although rugged, was delightful. I had no fear of Apaches, as Manolito knows their ways and speaks their language as if one of them. Mr. Dimattia became far more capable, as he had someone who could speak his language. Perhaps best of all, my last glimpse of Mr. Kellogg came sooner than I expected.

My only complaint was the speed at which our journey proceeded. Manolito felt haste was imperative and for that reason, we parted company with the Cannons, Mr. Kellogg and the horses. Manolito said they would slow us down, for without them, we could take short-cuts which he alone knew. Upon our arrival, exultant Horace observed we had made record time. He was grateful to Manolito for our safety and the two of them adjourned for manly discourse while I rested.

*****

¡Ay-yi-yi! Good to have appreciative friends and after completing important business for them and Chaparral, I had my own. The town overflowed with girls, gambling and liquor. Riding in on a borrowed horse, I passed the shanties of the women who catered to men of limited means and closer to town, a traveling hootchie-cootchie show. Outside the tent, a man wearing a bright red-checked jacket and smoking a big cigar, hawking performers to a long line of miners. The contortionist was pretty good, but after five shows she bored me.

In town, señoritas tried to give me tokens for free service at their establishments. ¡Madre de Dios! Not even for free. Hombre, if a girl chews tobacco, she should be careful where she spits. Adios, Manolito!

Méxicano miners invited me to bet on the wrong rooster at a cockfight. No, gracias, he was destined to fill tortillas. Also I passed viewing decadent stereoscope photographs. I had other business elsewhere.

Perhaps Globe really was paradise. Strolling the streets, I noticed the absence of something. Hombre, few families in a mining town and of the many sounds, not one was the cry of an infant. Oh, yes! My rendezvous with a soft bed had a good chance of succeeding. But primero, a bath so hot it would make the devil sweat; segundo, a barber; tercero, a brief interlude with the elixir of cactus.

I shouldered through the cantina, ordered mescal, scanned miners and vaqueros drinking. Next to the bar, a señorita wearing a green satin dress ran a faro game while a knot of gringos watched the cards, eager to lose their money. Sipping from my tumbler, I listened to the ringleader.

“Copper your bet, Sonny. You’ll always do better if you copper.” He ran a fingernail between front teeth and nudged a cowhand on his right. “Listen to me, I’ll set you straight,” he crowed, putting his money down. Red-haired, arrogant. I knew him from Chaparral.

Leaning forward, the dealer flaunted her considerable assets and turned a card. Gamblers cheered. Whether for her or the red-haired man, I do not know, but several pounded the red-head’s back, shouting, “Good going, Rod!” Snatching his winnings, Rod announced a free round for his admirers and adjourned to the bar. I pulled my hat-brim down and turned my head. Unnecessary as this Socrates did not recognize me. Enamored with the sound of his own voice, he put his back to me and knocked down a double-shot of whisky. Thus lubricated, he pontificated on cattle-prices (too low), cost of whisky (too high) and fair wages for a man of his caliber (twice the going rate).

After telling how he once saved the garrison at Yuma from destruction, he complained about ranchers. “Greedy devils, buying up all the good land. Honest working-man can’t get a stake, gotta work for them. That’s right, and every one treats hands like cur-dogs.” Another shot of finest turpentine, then he belched and topped his glass again. “Worst is the Cannon outfit, outside of Tucson. Can’t abide a Cannon.”

Too bad because the doors swung open and trail-weary Cannons stomped toward us. Blue rested his elbows on the bar while Buck flogged dust off himself with his hat, spreading a cloud everywhere. He leaned against the worn wooden rail and held up two fingers. “Beers and keep ‘em coming.” The bartender slid a mug to him. He gulped half and whacked me on the back. “Snore Montoya, next go-around, you and Blue gonna nurse-maid ponies while I hit town. What exactly you been doing, amigo?”

Compadre, I have been tending to matters of great importance” I said, offering the raffia-covered bottle.

I think Blue secretly prefers sarsaparilla. He waved the mescal away and said, “Look, both of you. We got ‘em here. Just stay out of trouble until we leave in the morning.”

“Trouble.” Buck slammed his mug on the bar top, slopping beer on his sleeve. “Blue, we done drived for three whole weeks, and if it don’t dis-considerate you too much, Mister Trail-Boss, I is gonna drink me a beer, have me a bath, drink some whiskey, play poker, dance with one or three pretty girls, and sleep under a roof on a bed tonight. In the morning I is gonna eat breakfast at the hotel, and I just might have me a beer for breakfast.” He poked his nephew’s shoulder. “You got anything to say about it?”

“Just what you always told me, Bub.” Blue sipped his beer. “Howl at the moon all night, but be ready to hit the trail at sunup.”

Buck rubbed his forehead and sputtered, “I always said...you wet eared young….” Not laughing was impossible. I covered my mouth, but he heard. “You find some big joke, Snore Montoya, mebbe you like to be telling it.” Glaring, he finished his beer and ordered whisky. ¡Ay, Chihuahua! He wanted a fight. It would not be with me.

Leaning over, I tapped Rod on the shoulder and announced in his ear, “Hey, hombre. Some old friends of yours behind you.”

*****

With a quick smirk, Manolito slipped to the side as Rod spun around, face puckered with annoyance. The red-haired wrangler blinked, then snarled, “If it ain’t Big John’s baby brother and the big man’s little son. Boys, here’s two of them Cannons I told you about. Nothing but a couple of sheep-herders, ain’t they?”

A mouthful of whiskey rolled in Buck’s cheeks. He swallowed, set the shot-glass down carefully, filled it with redeye and turned slowly to Rod. His eyes were flat and his lips tight. “Is that right? That your opinion, is it?”

“Uncle Buck, you promised,” Blue warned, tightening his hat-strings and grabbing the older man’s arm. “We ain’t got bail-money.”

A smile tugged at Buck Cannon’s face. He muttered, “Blue Boy, I promised you, but I didn’t promise this sidewinder nothing.” Still smiling, he shook off Blue and swung a full roundhouse punch into Rod’s jaw, sending him flying backwards into the pot-bellied stove, knocking the stovepipe loose. It hit his head, pouring soot. Roaring, eyes wild as a mossback bull, he charged Buck.

As the room erupted with fists and splintered chairs, Manolito ducked under the bar with the faro dealer and a bottle. Crouched with an arm around her, he uncorked the mescal with his teeth and hooted as Blue somersaulted backwards in front of them.

Legs planted wide, Buck slugged one young wrangler, then another. A third clung to his back. As he dodged a punch, he shouted, “Mano! Gimme some help!”

“Never would I interrupt your pleasure!” Manolito answered, taking a quick swig. “Besides, compadre, I promised to avoid trouble.” Passing the bottle to the girl, he said, “Hola. I am Manolo Montoya. As you can tell, a man of my word.” A right cross smashed into Buck’s chin and Mano winced.

“I like that in a feller,” she said, taking a pull of mescal and gazing at him with wide, soft eyes. “You’re a real gentleman, ain’t you? Sensitive. Not like them galoots a-whacking each other.” She wiggled closer and sighed. “I’m Daisy.”

“A very pretty name. This is a rough garden for such a fair flower, is it not?” Glancing at her cleavage, he graced her with a dimpled smile as Blue splintered a chair over one slugger’s head then dove into the melee surrounding his uncle.

“I’ve got a room down the street. It’s a lot more peaceable there, if you know what I mean.”

Ay, chiquita. Muchos gracias, a delightful invitation. Unfortunately, loyalty to my friends interferes. It is a heavy burden, but I should stay and help them.” He caressed Daisy’s bare shoulder while watching Rod’s sloppy left hook blind-side Blue. “Arriba Chaparral!” Mano swept his foot into the red-head’s ankle. Rod hit the floor face-first. Gushing blood from his nose, he rolled and smashed a chair into Blue’s shin.

Buck sideswiped a beefy cowboy who staggered, spun and grabbed a spittoon. His arms windmilled, spraying Manolito’s shirt with reeking froth. The big man collapsed against the bar as Mano hissed, “OH no!” Scrambling to his feet, he dodged a punch, grabbed his assailant’s shirt and skidded him head-first into the heart-pine bar. He slammed another in the stomach and jabbed a third. Back to back with Buck, he yelled, “Enjoying yourself?”

“For a sheep-herder!”

Pivoting, Mano saw a burly cowpuncher’s fist connect with Blue’s face. As the younger man spun, a whiskered old-timer smashed a full whiskey bottle over his head. Blue careened into a table, then crumpled to the floor and stayed down. Manolito shook his head, muttering “Out cold. Your head is too hard for this, hombre.” He slung Blue’s arm around his neck, half-dragging him toward the back door until Buck hoisted the limp young man over his shoulder.

“Safe keeping, amigo,” Buck said, snatching payment for the horses from under Blue’s vest. He just shoved the thick roll into a hip pocket when a rifle boomed.

Combat stopped. Amidst broken windows and furniture, men stared at a stocky figure sporting a badge and holding a Winchester. Eyes narrowed, he said, “I count three out of towners. Anybody see any more?”

*****

Calaboose, hoosegow, iron hotel, pokey. Put any name to it, Blue figured he was on the wrong side of the iron bars. While Manolito reclined on a cot, hat covering his face, Blue stared at his uncle’s boots. Scuffed, filthy, cracked across the instep. And outside the cell. Biting inside his cheek, Blue examined dusty black pants, worn-out holster, black shirt straining over middle-aged paunch and sorrowful eyes peering between prison bars. Buck sighed, rubbed his forehead and said again, “Blue Boy, I am real heart sorry, but we only got enough hard cash money to spring one of us.”

Towering behind Buck, Bart Kellogg laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Now Buck, that ain’t exactly true.”

“Bart, this is between me and him,” he hissed, fixing his nephew with a puppy’s sinless gaze. “Blue, I didn’t have no choice.”

“What did you do?” Blue’s lips barely moved as he grasped the cell bars and stood nose to nose with his uncle.

“I didn’t do nothing. Well, mostly nothing,” Buck said, stepping backward.

“Buck, what did you do?” Straining, Blue’s fists plunged through the bars, barely missing Buck’s chin. Manolito snickered under his hat.

Rubbing his jaw, Buck answered, “I used John’s money to bail me out.” Glancing at Bart, he continued, “’Cept there was some extra. Mighta been enough for one of you, but not both.” His backed into the wall. “There’s a faro game at the saloon, and since we need twice as much money as we got left, I figured…”

“You get me outta here right now!” Blue roared, rattling the cell door. “I was in charge of that money. Buck, you….” Face beet red, choking on the words, he spat, “Take one step for that gin-joint and I’ll..”

 “That’s what I figured, which is why you is inside and I is outside. C’mon Bart. Aye-dee-os, Little Blue Button.” He tipped his hat at the door, bolted into afternoon sunshine and down the muddy street. Bart hurried to keep up.

“Are you sure about leaving your own flesh and blood in the pokey?”

“Sure I’m sure. That’s the safest place in town for kinfolks.” Clapping Bart’s shoulder, Buck paused outside a weather-beaten building. Tinny piano music floated past bat-wing doors, harmonizing with the clink of glasses, slurred voices of men, and sharp laughter of women. “You smell that, Bart?”

Sniffing, he answered, “I cain’t help it, this shirt ain’t never been right since I packed that dead deer back to camp.”

“Don’t worry about your shirt, I is talking about whiskey, women, and Uncle Buck’s bank.” Wearing a sunny smile, he pushed back his hat and gestured toward the saloon. “After you, Bart Boy.”

*****

As night drew down, Blue kicked the bars, paced to the small window, then flopped on his cot. On the other bunk, Manolito groaned, “Compadre, I cannot sleep with you behaving like a restless coyote.”

“How can you sleep anyway? Don’t you want to do something?”

Sí, hombre! I want to sleep.” He sat up, wrapped his arms around a leg and continued. “Here, let me show you how. Primero, I lie down. Easy, uhn? Next, I close my eyes, also easy. Now you try.”

Blue propped his chin on his fists and glared at the floor. “Fine for you, you ain’t the one in charge. All I had to do was deliver a few stinking horses. Now look at us. No horses, no money, locked up and Buck’s probably lost his saddle.” He slapped the iron bedstead then drooped against the wall. “Pa was counting on me. I was counting on me.” He stood, crossed to the window and pressed his forehead against the sill. “If I can’t run a simple drive, how can I take care of my wife or the kids we’ll have someday?”

Madre de Dios. Trail-drives, families. Nothing in common. Do not brand your wife or children,” he muttered. “You know, often I have thought, Manolito, get arrested, hombre. La calabosa is so peaceful.” He pulled his hat over his face, crossed his arms on his chest and grumbled, “Amigo mio, jail is proving to be a vast disappointment.”

“They ain’t made for comfort. Mattress wouldn’t be an inch thick except for the bed-bugs. About the only thing keeping my mind off them little blood-suckers is other stuff, like thinking about Pa.” He stalked the short distance from wall to wall. “Or what kind of Pa I’ll be. You ever think about the kind of Pa you want to be?”

“Well-rested.”

Blue leaned against the rough log wall and grinned. “You know something, Manolito? Becca's a lot more fun than you are.”

“Perhaps she will visit you in a beautiful dream. Start now so you finish before morning.” Wiggling his shoulders against the straw mattress, he sighed. The sigh ended in a snore as the main door to the jailhouse creaked softly.

Both prisoners jumped to their feet and darted to the front of the cell. Heavy with the scent of liquor, a voice sang out, “Bluuuueee Boy?”

“Uncle Buck!” Iron pressed against Blue’s cheek as he strained against the bars. “It’s about time you got back here.”

“I told you I’d get you out, didn’t I?” Boots shuffling, he neared the cell. “Mano, tell Blue. I don’t never forget what I promise.”

Es verdad, but perhaps there is one thing you have forgotten?” He leaned, looking beyond the older man’s perplexed squint. “The sheriff, compadre!”

“Huh?”

Manolito spoke as if explaining to a small child. “You have the money for bail. You give it to the sheriff. He gets the key and unlocks the door. Blue and I once again walk the streets as free men, ?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Head nodding, gloved finger to his lips, Buck pondered, “Sheriff, key, door, yeah.” Slapping his head he said, “Except for one thing. One little thing. Blue, you got five dollars I can borrow?”

“What! Five dollars! Buck, you…”

“You watch your mouth, Blue Boy, I is still your blooded uncle and I deserve a little respect.”

Blue tapped his head against the bars and grumbled, “Maybe I could give you a little respect if I didn’t have to give you five dollars!”

Hombre, you have my respect if you gave Daisy my note,” Mano said, easing himself back onto his bunk.

“Remember to give Daisy your note.” Buck rubbed his forehead, frowning. “Acourse I remembered. You shore Daisy’s gonna do right by me? I been bucking that faro tiger all night, watching the case counter good, real good, and all I do is lose.”

“Patience, Buck. These things take time, compadre,” Manolito mumbled, crossing his feet at the ankles and folding his arms.

“Patience ain’t gonna do no good, certain people don’t give me five dollars.” He stuck his palm under Blue’s nose, wheedling, “Blue Boy, you don’t give me them five greenbacks, our plan don’t work and Manolito’ll be walking home.”

“What? Why would I walk? I have a horse.” Manolito sprang to his feet. Eyes like hot coals and smile frozen, he stalked toward Buck.

“Mano, I didn’t do nothing. Ole Bart had him the hottest poker streak I ever seed, with a ace-high flush.” Fanning imaginary cards, he gestured to his hand and crooned, “You shoulda seed it, amigo, all them pretty cards lined up and one of the other fellas raised real high…”

“You let him bet Mano’s horse.” Rusty springs whined when Blue fell to his bunk, hooting and holding his stomach.

“You let him steal my horse!” He whirled, took four steps and spun to Buck again, jabbing a finger at him. “The man in the saloon was right, you are a sheepherder.”

“No I ain’t!” Buck glared at his laughing nephew, then shrugged. “He got top dollar. We figgured you’d be proud of yore pony.”

Face deadly flat and lips drawn tight, Manolito hissed, “Her, . You, no. Get her back to me, hombre.”

Amigo, we cain’t. Man who won her done left town. We, uh, we’d thought mebbe we could pay you for her,” he stammered. “If we was to win, that is.”

Turning to Blue, Mano’s mouth barely moved. “Compadre, give Buck the money. Either out of compassion for me or yourself, because if you do not do it, I make this the longest and most unpleasant night of your life. Entiendes?”

*****

The descent from fertile mountains to desert happens inch by inch. Rough peaks drop behind, cactus and scrub replace lush pine forest. The sun grows hotter, water scarcer, mule-deer tracks become burro trails as saguaro cactus fill the landscape. Sentinel giants, their arms reach for the setting sun.

Headed south, three weary men on plodding mounts rode through sand and dust. One lagged behind leading a pack-mule. He reined in, swung a leg heavily over the saddle and dropped to the ground. His steed flattened long ears, twisted its head and brayed. Buck Cannon tightened the cinch, muttering, “All right, you miserable piece of crow-bait, I don’t like it any more’n you do.” Astride, he tugged at the lead-rope attached to the pack-mule. “C’mon, Dolly.”

Up ahead, Manolito and Blue waited. Mano patted Rebel’s neck and called over a shoulder, “Hombre, you should ride such an animal always. It suits you.”

“Yeah, Uncle Buck. Mano’d probably sell you that mule cheap.” Blue snickered, then nudged Manolito’s shoulder. “I got an idea. Maybe he can trade it for a camel.”

“You’re both real comical.” Hat-strings slapping his face, Buck slowed from a jarring trot and pulled alongside. “Still don’t know why you be so mad at Bart. This’s a good mule, ain’t like you ain’t got more horses.”

Tall and regal in the saddle, Manolito tipped his hat. “Bueno. Something to appreciate when I plow the back forty.” Dimples deepening, he shrugged. “Hey, my noble Macadoo will not have his anticipated life of leisure, but Bart will not die slowly by my hand, compadre. Alba was a fine horse, but only a horse. No importa.”

“Maybe it ain’t importa, but either of you quit yakking long enough to see what’s ahead?” Blue squinted into dancing sunlight reflecting off sand as buildings shimmered into view.

Madre de Dios, there is what is important. Always good to ride through the gate, to come home.” He looked sideways at Buck. “Regardless of your circumstances.”

Standing in the stirrups, Buck rubbed his behind and growled, “Don’t you be worried about my circumstanzas. Me and Mister Mule got our circumstanzas all arranged.”

“Good for you, Uncle Buck.” Grimy face split in a wide grin, Blue swept off his hat. “But the only circumstances I wanna see are straight ahead.” He slapped Soapy’s rump and charged forward, yelling, “YeeHaw!”

Andele! Vamanos!” Dust swirled and mules brayed in Manolito’s wake.

Sighing deeply, Buck scrubbed his face with a forearm, spit in the dirt and nudged the mules to a trot. “C’mon, you. At least that’s two jackasses I ain’t got to baby-sit.”

*****

Let ‘em ride in first, didn’t matter none to me. Neither did riding that cussed mule. If Jesus come to Jerusalem on a donkey, I could ride through the Chaparral gate on a jackass. Me and my jackass weren’t in no hurry. It give my backside a rest and I figgured on letting Blue Boy explain to Brother John about the money, since he were the man in charge.

The roof guard shot off a volley, got John outside with Victoria and Sis. Mano waved his hat and scooted for his house, little Missy meeting him half-way with the babies. Still strikes me funny, Mano matrimonially wedded, little Montoyas sprouting like chickweeds. But seeing him lit up like Fourth of July, Lina on his shoulders, holding his baby boy and wife close, I knowed mi amigo was one happy hombre.

Blue hollered like always, yelping when he grabbed Becca and twirled her around. “Button, you’re the best thing I’ve seen since I left!” Smart boy, but I laughed when I saw the dirt he left on her dress and face.

Bunkhouse boys laughed at my mule like African hyenas, so loud I nearly missed Big John saying he made a mistake. Good thing for Blue to hand his Pa a fat wallet of money anyways. I wouldn’t want to ramrod me and Mano, but Blue done it. If he hadn’t got us there early, we wouldn’t have helped Miz Captain MacDonald and she wouldn’t preached to Horace Dear about rewarding Good Samaritans for their earthly deeds. Good thing Captain McDonald’s a believing man, because he had the contract in one hand, and John’s wrong date in the other, fair and square. John had to deliver them horses, but Cap Mac didn’t have to take ‘em after we was late.

Of course, Mister Trail Boss had help from a run of cards and sweet-talking Don Juanolito. Mano be wedded, but he throws his riata over fence-posts to keep sharp, in case he’s got to rope a dogie someday. He roped in two fenceposts that trip, first one talked Cap Mac into honoring John’s wrong delivery date, second one learned me how a faro dealer works the tip so house odds ain’t for winning.

Mebbe Blue wouldn’t needed so much money if he hadn’t been in Globe’s iron hotel, but it weren’t my fault the local constable liked collecting rent from visitors. We still come back with the mother lode and Blue’s strike was real rich, what with John pounding him on the back and Becca under his arm. Victoria’s no poker-player, she were bouncing on her toes about to bust, waving her arms and shouting, “¡Madre mia! Will you stop talking about horses? There are more important things to a family than horses and money and cows and heifers.” She folded her arms. “I think perhaps Rebecca has something to say.”

They is times the ranch house looks small sitting between them mountains. Mebbe it’s thinking about what it takes to stay alive. Aye-patch, drought, dust storms, heat, cold, comancheros, and plain cussedness of every day life. But that day seemed like the house was big, big enough to hold ten more Cannon families. I’d slid off my mule when Blue hollered “YeeHaw!” so loud it scared his horse. My boy threw his hat clean to the roof, Victoria jumped like a grasshopper and John grinned wide as the San Pedro when it floods. “Hey Uncle Buck!” Blue about knocked me over. “I’m gonna be a PA!”

When Blue was borned, I was the second man to hold him, after John. I never seed eyes look like his before, same as the cornflowers in Annielee’s garden, and his hand weren’t big enough to close around my thumb. He’s my boy, same as if John weren’t his Pa. He’s a man growed, weighs nearly the same as me, but I hooked an arm under his leg and hauled him like a feed sack, yelled loud as him and hoped no one seed the tears running down my face. My boy, a Pa.

Cannons was gonna fill High Chaparral like a herd on a drive, one unbroke line across the range of years.

We’re good people, us Cannons. My rock-stubborn brother, Blue with a fuse like a firecracker, and me not being the smartest in the family. Took that day for me to see Globe weren’t no more paradise than any other town. Paradise were at the end of a trail, past a sign saying “High Chaparral.” Could be it were even paradise twice over.

The End

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Thanks to Dee B. for sharing historical research

2006 Penny McQueen and Jan Lucas

 

 

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