Pride & Prejudice, Part II

 

By Penny and Jan

 

           

¡Ay, Chihuahua! These soldiers ride like turtles! Racing against time and the Apaches, Manolito Montoya galloped the little chestnut gelding forward, then backtracked to the platoon. He rolled his shoulders, feeling the muscles in his thighs quiver tensely as he waved them ahead. “¡Andele! Mas rapido!”  Frustrated, he rode on.

At the edge of the Sandy Creek arroyo the gelding stiffened.  He tossed his head, backing away from the edge of the bank, spinning toward the approaching cavalry. Mano fought the snorting horse as one of the soldiers shouted, “Ole Dutch don’t cotton to taking orders from civilians, Mister!”

Working the reins, he shot a glare at the blue uniforms, speaking soothingly to the horse, “Whoa, Dutchito, calma, amigo, calma. Mira, only a small slope.” Stamping fretfully, the horse neared the edge. When it finally picked its way into the wash, it skidded in the loose rock until it reached the bottom. Manolito twisted in the saddle, flashed a grin at the men peering down from the rim. “Señor Dutch was not always in the army, muchachos! This way! Vamanos!” He turned and rode fast through the deep sand for the draw a half-mile south, for the Chaparral.

The banks grew steeper, rising high on either side as he made for the draw.  He heard the echo of the soldier’s voices at the lip of the arroyo. Madre de Dios, they discuss everything. We would get there faster if I carried them.  The horse’s ears flicked nervously. Suddenly the animal whirled, bolting for the sheer wall of the nearest bank.  The little gelding drove for the side and lunged into the incline, scrambling to scale the impossible grade as Manolito slammed into the saddlehorn. 

Fighting for control, Mano leaned, grabbing one of the bit-shanks, pulling it hard to turn the horse sideward and down. Over his own shouts, he heard a low rumble, swiftly changing to thunder as roaring water rounded the upstream bend. “¡Andele!” he screamed, rasping his throat raw when he shouted again, “¡Vamanos!”  Jerking frantically at the bit, the reins, jabbing with his spurs, he tried to force the panicked horse downstream. The frightened animal leapt into the bank, frenzied hooves digging uselessly at the sliding dirt.

Over his shoulder Montoya felt the ground shake, saw the roiling mass of mud raging toward him. Tree trunks tossed in the blackness, slobbers of foam surrounded dead and dying animals.  Seized with unreasoning panic, he tried to kick free of the stirrups but one boot caught.  Terror choked him when the horse plunged upward again, front hooves scrabbling in loose sand and rock.  Balance gone, the lurching animal crashed backward into the raging water.  The horse rolled, pulling him under.

Manolito struck out wildly, clawing for a hand-hold, slamming into rocks and trees. Water closed over his head as he tumbled, unable to distinguish the surface from the bottom. Disjointed thoughts flew through his mind, suffocating muck filled his nose and mouth. Manito, estupido, should have stayed with the horse you rode in onPapá thought I would hang… Better to be a live lion than a dead dog…Should have let Pilar teach me to swim…Nuestro Padre en El Cielo, hallowed be Thy name… Not yet… Por favor, not yet…

He opened his eyes to the glaring sun, his body draped across a boulder.  The water retreated as quickly as it came, leaving deep mud, branches, dead animals. Wet and chilled, bleeding from cuts and abrasions, clothes covered in sludge, he summoned every ounce of strength and stood. No horse, boots, gloves, pistola. Ah-ha, a knife. I am a rich man.  Painfully, he crawled up the bank, bare hands and feet tearing on rocks, thorns, sharp wood.  Heaving himself to the top, he caught his breath, began walking.

Exhaustion, chills and fever struggled for dominance.  The desert sand called seductively to him, an inviting and deadly bed.  No, Manito. Walk, hombre!  Too undignified, dying without your boots.  Maybe what I deserve. Ay, Madre Mia!  That big bastard of Pilar’s would have run with two legs broken, would have gotten us out.  No fear of water, no fear of the devil.  Until the end, I am my father’s stupid son.

Turning his face to the sky, he laughed – hollow and harsh.  A disappointment to my dying breath, Papá! You were so certain I would be shot. Madre de Dios, the things I wish I could hear from you, before I am food for the animales of the desert.  What was it you said as I left the last time?  “Manolito, please visit again when the river freezes.”  

Feet cut, swollen and numb, Mano stumbled and fell to his knees, then staggered upright. In agony, he limped toward a distant rock outcropping. Reaching it, he grasped a stick in aching fingers, probed a cranny for rattlesnakes.  He squeezed inside, his body devouring lingering warmth from the stones.  A wolf howled in the hills, owls called.  Manolito gazed at the night sky. Mi Pilar, the many days and nights of being loved by you, the wonder of seeing my children born, of seeing them grow. How I love you for giving me my niños, querida. For giving me the sweet music of your violin, your songs, your love.  Oh, mi tesora, did you leave your little trip-wire in time or did the Apaches catch you outside the compound?  Wind is good with that rifle of his, but not good enough to save you.  What I did, I did for everyone, but especially for you. Always for you, amada mia.

Father in Heaven, I am not a very good man nor do I have time to make peace with You. Ay, Pilar would say I am forgiven the minute I repent. I wish I believed that.  I believe I will be judged harshly and probably soon.  But I am not without merit, Padre, even if I am without salvation.  If my wife and children and sister are alive, por favor, look after them.  My father also? If You do only that, I will have some comfort in hell. 

 

*****

 

Heart aching, Victoria Montoya Cannon held her niece, bent over the cradle of her sleeping nephew, and vowed to keep the memory of their father alive. Anyone can see they both favor Manolo. In them, he still lives. How sad they will know him only through stories and pictures.

Lina fussed in her arms, calling for her mamí and papí. Victoria recited the words to a favorite story as she paced from stairway to living room. Gunpowder and dust from galloping horses covered furniture, footprints and drag-marks scuffed the floor. One day I will tell you of your father.  He was un bellaco, a scoundrel certain to die by violence or drink. Because of John and the High Chaparral, he became the man of honor I always knew he could be. 

Ay, Madre mia! This rancho, this unforgiving land. They take as well as give. Each time the men leave, they might not return. Yet, I love the land, the dream John and I share. My love for him and the dream is bigger than worry, waiting or grief. The child was restless. Victoria settled her on the floor, smoothing shiny black curls. She watched from the edge of the couch as Lina played happily with picture blocks.  Closing her eyes, Victoria remembered Manolito carving them with painstaking care, etching tiny flowers and animals into the wood. 

Oh, little ones! I would keep you here, but Pilar will take you to her family, to a safer place without bad memories. My heart breaks for my brother, for her, for you and for me.  Again I will be the only woman in this world of men.  Your mother, like a sister to me, gone. And Rebecca, what an awful thing she did, leaving Blue.  I mourn for everyone’s losses.  Some are so much greater than mine, but how I grieve for mine.

The house flooded with a smoky odor as the front door opened. Victoria raced to greet her husband. Wrapping his big arms around her tenderly, he regarded her delicate, expectant face. “No, nothing yet.  I’m sorry,” he said.  His wife’s hopeful expression crumpled.  With a sob, she pressed her face to his broad chest. Stroking her hair, he tried to console her. “I know, Victoria.  I’d like nothing better than seeing Mano ride in.”

She drew back slightly, her eyes dark with anxiety. “And Blue.  Someone should look for him, John.  He has been gone too long.  What if he is in trouble?”

He placed his hands on her shoulders and sighed. “Victoria, Blue can take care of himself.  Rebecca meant a lot to him, but he’s a Cannon.  He’ll be all right.” Gently, he steered her to the couch and took her hand.

“Perhaps you are right, my darling.” She quietly lifted one of the blocks, turned it in her palm, studying the fanciful figures decorating the sides.  Abruptly addressing John again, she said, “Papá needs to know about Manolo, but I should be with him when he hears.  He says he is as robust as a young bull, but he is not and for him to hear his son is dead?  No parent should ever hear such a thing.”

“No, no parent should, but Don Sebastian’s tough, Victoria.” He gazed at Lina. She chirped to her toys, hoisted a block to him with a chubby hand. John took it, accepted a second when the little girl giggled and offered it.

“Oh, John! I have cried until I have no tears.  Why have they not returned with him?”

He continued to trade toys absently with the small child, reached quickly to steady her when she stood. “Victoria, if they don’t come back by tomorrow night, we’ll send more men to look for your brother.  And Blue.”

“Thank you, my husband.”

“Well, it’s a bad time for the boy to run off and sulk, short-handed like we are, but if it’ll put your mind at rest, I can spare a few men.” He stood and followed the toddler to the fireplace, snatching her into the air as she attempted to climb inside. He held her, his hands looking too large for such a small chore.

“John, I cannot believe that foolish girl left Blue, after all this time.”

“Nor can I, Victoria. I felt like Becca was already a Cannon.  And I was happy thinking about grandchildren.” He glanced at the child in his arms, swallowed hard, and handed her to his wife. “It’s too bad. Not just for Blue, for all of us.”

Victoria stood to accept Lina, balancing her on a hip. “My husband, I tried to reason with her. With Rebecca.”

“I thought you might.”

Setting the little girl down again, she paced. “I could not just let her walk away.  How could she leave a man who loves her so and a place that has been her home?  She whirled to face him, gesturing angrily. “She said Blue did not ask her to stay.”

He shook his head in irritation. “What’s wrong with that boy?”

Hands on hips, she said tartly, “Nothing that is not wrong with every other man, including you, Mr. Cannon. His pride silenced his tongue.  He let her go instead of admitting he said something stupid.” She tapped her palm against her temple. “Cabezas duras, hard heads, all of you.” Muttering rapidly in Spanish, she continued pacing. “I told her, she must be strong.”  These men believe they are stronger than a woman, but they are not.  For a woman to stand beside one of them, she must be many times stronger than her man. “A woman must have much steel to wait patiently when the man she loves rides away with her heart.”

Leaning against the fireplace mantle, he regarded her with soft eyes. “Sometimes I forget, Victoria.  Forget how hard it is for you.”

She walked to him, relaxed as his arm encircled her protectively. “But you are my life, John.  The difficulties are not important, not compared to the love.  I begged Rebecca to understand this, to be stronger than Blue.  To stay.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t.”

“She said Blue lied to her.  He did not lie!  When there is deep love, lesser loves seem not like love at all.”  Go ahead, she had told Becca Coulter.  Leave this rancho, break Blue’s heart, break yours.  It is a small matter, sí, a small matter compared to your foolish pride.

“Now, Victoria.  The girl was upset to start with.  Getting shot, being in the middle of an Apache raid, her family in an uproar and that brother of hers would drive a saint to drink.  Becca’s always had a good head on her shoulders.  Could be, she’ll cool down and come back.”

 “My husband, why should she?  If she has no trust, she does not have enough love for Blue. A woman’s love for her husband must be like iron or this life will break her.”  Victoria whirled for the kitchen, skirts rustling.

John Cannon sighed and stared at the kitchen door, wondering how many times he’d watched his wife march away in irritation. He felt a tug at his knee and looked into the clear brown eyes of the child of Manolito Montoya. Lina stood, balancing against his leg. Man and child scrutinized each other until the little girl raised her arms. Wordlessly, he bent, lifting her slowly. He cradled her in his arms until she fell asleep.

 

****

 

Becca pulled her coat close and shivered against the wind. The rocking train, cold night air, and rails clicking loudly in the darkness were a welcome relief from her mother’s hovering, her brother’s insufferable air of triumph.  The back of a rail car was a far cry from the clear air of Arizona; coal smoke streaked the air, cinders and sparks flew like fireflies against the black. But at least she could see stars and, rising in the east, a full moon. She rubbed her arms as she stared at the lunar surface, remembering.

The moon had been full the night Blue awakened her, tapping softly at her door before entering and saying, “Come on, I got a surprise.” She slid from bed and pulled a robe over her gown as he draped an urging arm over her shoulder. “Ain’t nobody on the roof this time of year, and Pedro won’t shoot us.”

She’d muffled a giggle at Blue carrying his boots, shushing her as they stole through the quiet ranch house to the deserted roof. He stood behind her and pointed upward. “Tell me you can’t see it? It’s right there.”

The night was a wash of stars, a harvest moon full in the sky lit the grounds as she leaned against him and laughed. “I think you’re crazy as a March hare. There’s a man in the moon, but I never heard of a rabbit in the moon.”

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, chuckling as he kissed the top of her head. “Man in the moon’s got to eat something. Maybe it’s that rabbit you can’t see.” He tightened his grip and swayed gently. “Look at them stars, Button, it’s enough to make you dizzy.” Inclining his head against hers, he swept a hand toward the front gate, made a circle of the land surrounding them. “Ain’t it beautiful? As far as you can see it’s High Chaparral.”

Snuggling against him, Rebecca answered, “Is that what you think when you’re on guard duty?”

“Yep, sometimes.  But most times, I think about you.” He turned her to face him and cupped her cheek with a hand. “Becca, I left here ‘cause I was real unhappy. You already know that, it’s how I met you. But since I came back, there ain’t been one day I thought about leaving.” He lowered his head and kissed her tenderly. “You said once, this ranch is home. You still feel that way?”

Looking deeply into his eyes and resting her hands on his chest, she answered, “As long as you’re here I do.”

Blue bit his lip and gazed up at the stars, took a full breath. “Someday this ranch’ll be mine, but right now all I got is my horse, my saddle, and what’s in my pocket.”  He smoothed her hair and shook his head. “You deserve a lot more, but it’s all I got. Everything I have, everything I am, it’s yours if you want it. Marry me, and let’s fill this ranch with Cannon children.”

“My Blue. Of course that’s what I want.” A shooting star blazed across the sky as he pulled her to him.

Hundreds of miles from Becca’s northbound train, Blue Cannon edged closer to the campfire, pulling his poncho tighter against the chill Arizona night. He turned the meat and stared at the full moon. Biting the inside of his cheek and drawing his hat low, he removed his dinner from the spit, then angrily tossed the cooked rabbit into the bushes and restlessly settled in for the night. Moonlight and hunger kept him awake. Hours later, his hat flew across the campsite, followed by his muttered, “Everybody knows there is so a rabbit in the moon.”

 

 

****

 

Hell was more pleasant than Mano imagined.  The fire felt cozy, the blankets covering him were warm.  Pilar’s arms around him and his body pressed to hers were paradise, not perdition. Unfortunately, I feel as if I have been drawn, quartered and flayed by people who dislike me.  Finding no reason yet to move, he lay quietly, listening to snatches of conversation.  Oh-ho, a little like being present at my own wake.

“Mr. Cannon, I’ll take guard duty.  I can smell the Apache.” Sí, Wind and so can any marginally proficient tracker, you arrogant burro.          

“Can you smell them A-patch like you smelled Blue sneakin’ up on you an hour ago?  If he hadn’t been so all-fired determined to leave, I’d a put him on guard duty.”  The sound of metal scraping against sand and wood was loud in the night air.  “Missy, you want some coffee?  I made it myself.”  No, Pilar!  Save yourself!  That is not coffee as you know it.  It is kerosene.

“Oh, Buck.  His poor feet.”  Oh, Pili.  My poor everything. If you truly love me, you brought whiskey and laudanum.

“I’ll ride over to the army camp and fetch that horse of yours, Mrs. Montoya.”  Leave him, Sam. That animal makes me stupid and nearly dead because of it.  Twice. He is mala suerte, bad luck for me, compadre.

“Wind, while you are up, could you get a few things from my packs?  The black salve, swabs, the brandy.  Oh, the laudanum, for when he wakes.  And I have all the ingredients for a cassolet except meat.  Could you perhaps get me a deer?  A young one, just in spike.  But in good flesh, not too small.”   Give him the exact poundage, querida, so he can select the right one from the meat tree.         

Mi amigo Manolito sure be mucho hombre, Missy.  Much man.” My good compadre Buck, I love you like a brother.  “Even if he do got frijoles between his ears.”  OH no! For that I love you like I love rattlesnakes. “How come he done a jackass thing like leavin’ yore horse? What in blue blazes were he thinkin’? I’ll tell you what he was thinkin’.”  All right, Buck.  Whuuut was I thinking? “He weren’t thinkin’ a-tall, that’s what.”

“No, not so.  Buck, he is so brave and unselfish.” Sí, Pilar. Defend me to this ungrateful snake.  “When others are in danger, he only thinks of them, never himself.”  Listen to her! Hombre, I am a prince among men.                 

“Thing is, Mano’s too old and fat for this kinda shenanigans.” Madre mia! Calling him an ungrateful snake is an insult to ungrateful snakes. “Coulda left you a widder ‘n’ two little babies without a daddy.”

“Three.”

“Three what?”

“Babies.”  Three? Either I have been gone longer than I think or she cannot count.

“Well that’s great news, jist great!  When?”  Sí, something I want to know also.

 “November, perhaps. Oh, Buck, I cannot wait to tell Manolo!  He will be so surprised and delighted.”  Surprised, no; this is becoming a regular occurrence. But delighted, sí, my beautiful Pili, my sun, my moon.   

Manolito stirred, groaning loudly. “Pilar? Is that you?” he croaked, gazing at her with unfocused, half-lidded eyes, felt her soft lips touch his forehead.

Stroking his hair, she answered, “, Manito.  Buck also.  What do you need?  Food?  Something for the pain?”

“Ohhhhh.  Something … something for the pain, querida,” he moaned. “I think I have cracked ribs.”  Grasping the brandy bottle with a shaky hand, he took a swig, followed it with a dose of laudanum. “Gracias, better already. Ah, what good company. My Pilar and my old friend Buck. My old, old… old compadre Buck.  You want some of this brandy, hombre?  Sitting on the ground like that must surely stiffen your ancient joints,” he said, extending the bottle. “So? Everyone at the ranch, they are well?”

“They’s fine, amigo.” Tipping the bottle, Buck knocked back a slug, swiped his mouth with his hand.  “Sis took a round in the shoulder, but she’ll mend. Blue was by here, said she went off with her family. I didn’t get the whole tale, he weren’t sayin’ much.  Couple of the boys got shot up but ain’t nobody died.” He passed the brandy back to Manolito and reached for a coffee cup.  “Sure thought we’d lost you.”

 “Ah, we Montoyas.  We are difficult to kill.” Smiling wanly, Mano tilted his head to gaze at his wife.  Querida, it is so good to see your beautiful face.” He dropped his chin, smiling across the campfire. “Your ugly one, also.”

The older man broke kindling to feed the fire, swirled the coffeepot and nestled it deeper into the coals. Sitting back against his saddle, he asked, “Hey, Mano?  What happened anyways? You forget to build an ark?”

“I do not know. I must have hit my head on the rocks.    I remember being caught in some branches.  Eh, I think I cut myself free with my knife, let the current take me to an eddy where I could climb out.  Hombre, then I just walked.”

Cannon laughed and shook his head. “You are a tough one, Snore Montoya.”

Sí, Buck.  But something like that, it ages a man.  I feel almost as old as you, compadre.  Incredible.  Ay, Chihuahua! I do not wish for your age, but with your fat?  I might have floated out.”  He wagged a finger for emphasis, adding in astonishment, “Mmph! Being young and lean is not always good.”

Buck’s eyes crinkled over the rim of his tin cup. He drank, then poured the remains of the coffee on the ground.  “I mighta knowed you was playin’ possum.”

Perdoname, compadre.  I do not understand your colorful colloquialism, but I understand what my stomach is saying.” Mano tightened his grip on his wife as she started to rise. “No, Pilar. I want to lie in your arms.  Instruct Buck on food preparation from here. Could you fix something, mi amigo?  Since I saved you from the Apaches?” Manolito chuckled, pulling the blanket to his chin.  “¡Chihuahua! I feel good.  Renewed, reborn, alive. A man is never so alive as when he cheats death.”

 

****

Dearest Rebecca,

I hope this letter finds you well & happy – gracious, so much news. To begin with the best -- the Blessed Virgin answered my prayers & returned my beloved Manolo safely – his injuries will heal, unlike my heart had he perished. I am not one who appreciates only what is lost or nearly lost – without him, my soul would have been joyless. With him it overflows with happiness – especially now, as before year’s end, we shall welcome another precious child to our family – a homecoming surprise for Mano, he is of course thrilled.

Buck & Manolo purchased the Patterson ranch - pond, timber & a little cabin – they are justly proud and have renamed it the C Bar M. Succinct if not terribly creative. The tedious comancheros are currently a problem – stealing stock & making a nuisance of themselves - once they are eliminated & repairs completed, it will be quite nice.  Although I am acquainted with the property, my Grand Tour awaits Manolo’s word.  Exciting nonetheless, but we keep it from Don Sebastian as he will be apoplectic.

How fortunate this new venture diverts Buck from Blue’s misery. Far be it from me to suggest that you have driven the poor thing to drink – he has simply not been wounded by love enough to realize he will survive.  Victoria worries that he is too like Buck for his health - the men are not particularly helpful, believing as they do that whiskey & loose women cure broken hearts.  Unfortunately, both Buck & Manolo set poor past examples – a tradition Buck continues. I hope to speak with Blue before he contracts something unpleasant or permanently damages his liver.

If only you could see the desert now – it is as pretty as it can be.  We miss you, but some women are not suited to marriage & children – like those called to the religious life, you have another purpose – perhaps difficult to articulate - hence that silly fight - but you should be commended for knowing your heart before entering an unhappy union.  Fondly wishing you all the joy & fulfillment that veterinary medicine will provide you throughout life,

With Deepest Affection,

Pilar Terésa Hidalgo y Salazar de Montoya

P.S. Clever me! As you can tell, I have mastered my new type-writer!    

 

Rebecca Coulter crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it across the bedroom, watched as it skidded underneath the dust ruffle of the poster bed. Scrambling on her hands and knees, she lay on the floor, stretching on one side to retrieve it. She straightened, smoothed the paper on a thigh and re-read it, dashing tears away angrily with one hand. Those mutton-punching Butler brothers know every sporting woman in Tucson.  Forget the Butlers, Buck and Manolito know every doxy between Tucson and Sonora. She leaned her head against the bed, chewing the inside of her cheek. It’s been a month and he hasn’t written, not one word. Think, Rebecca, you know Blue. He never gives up, won’t back down. If he’s this unhappy….

The girl stood abruptly, collected a few items and headed for the stable. She saddled her horse and was securing her bag when a voice drawled, “You need a suitcase for a ride, Bec?” Her brother leaned in the doorway, arms crossed.

Buckling the pack-straps, she answered stiffly, “You can go catch rats for all I care, Beau. I never should’ve left and I’m going back.”

Beauregard Coulter snorted and walked forward, running a hand lightly over the mare’s rump. “Going back to what? A back-woods no account mamma’s boy who couldn’t even ask you to stay? Is that what you want?”

Livid, she turned and stepped toward him. “Get out of my way or I’ll run you down, but either way I’m leaving.” He backed away slightly, hands spread in front of him.  Whirling for her horse, she mounted and urged it toward the open door. “Tell Mamma and Pop I’m catching the train at Virginia City. I’ll send a wire from Tucson.”

Riding through a stand of Ponderosa pine, Rebecca heard hoof beats behind her. She reined in her mare and waited. Shading her eyes and looking toward the rise, she easily recognized the rider. Judah Coulter claimed two years advantage over his brother Beauregard, and twenty times better judgment. He’d inherited their father’s long legs, dark hair, and finely-honed features. But where Bob Coulter exuberantly embraced the world around him, Judah contemplated it, serious and detached. Girls chased him, but none had treed him. His mother prayed for one with wits enough to let him chase her.

Judah coaxed his horse down the hill and stopped beside his sister. He studied her without speaking.

“You didn’t come this far for the scenery.” She leaned forward in the saddle and crossed her arms over the pommel. “But I’m bound for Tucson, so save your breath.”

He arched an eyebrow and dismounted, began tightening his cinch.

She blew an exasperated breath, wheeled her horse away and back. “I know everything you’re going to say. Why haven’t I heard from him? What will I do when I get there?” She chewed her lip and frowned. “I got a letter today.” Shaking her head, she continued, “No, not from Blue. But if I don't go back, I’ll never forgive myself.”

Judah remounted and swung forward along the trail. Narrowing her eyes, Becca followed him, catching his arm. “What are you doing?”

With an amused smile, he said, “If you’re determined to make a fool of yourself I’m going along to see the show.” He raised a hand as she started to protest. “I didn’t say not to go. But think for two seconds. He knows where you are. Give him some time.” Tilting his head, Judah pushed her hat off and ruffled her hair. “Sis, if he has any kind of brain, he’ll figure out what he lost and come around. If he doesn’t, then you didn’t lose much.”

Rebecca looked down the trail toward Virginia City and the railway to Tucson, seeing not the wooded Sierra foothills but the bleached sand of the Sonora desert, saguaro cactus silhouetted against the morning light. A cloud drifted across the sun and she thought with a pang of the first time she gazed into Blue’s eyes, the color of the morning sky. Swiping a forearm across her face she nodded slowly and turned her horse around.

 

*****

 

Buck spurred Rebel out the Chaparral gate, Victoria’s anguished words ringing in his ears. “Buck, por favor. He came home and left again. Now it has been two weeks. John says not to worry, but he does not even know where he is. Please, for me, will you find Blue and bring him home?”

Slowing the horse to a jog, he shifted in the saddle to check his back trail, musing, “Rebel, Blue Boy got ‘bout as much sense as a bowl ‘a beans, ain’t that right? Where you think he be?” He pulled up and rested his hands, considering. “I figgur he’s holed up somewhere ain’t too dis-comfortable or he’d be high tailing it home by now. Cain’t be a line camp, one of the boys’d found him. Cain’t be Tucson, he ain’t got the dinero.”  Deciding, he swung the animal’s head northeast. “Awright, little horse, ain’t but one place he kin be. Let’s go Blue huntin’.”

Buck passed through scrub and cactus, continuing to talk to himself and his horse. “Might be Victoria got a point, ‘ole Blue ain’t exactly in a watching frame of mind. Man’s gotta watch for everythin’ out here by our lonesome, right, Reb? A-pach, comancheros, rattlesnakes, camels. Cain’t tell when you might run smack into a big ‘ole ugly camel.”  He surveyed the land around him carefully. “No camels today. Mebbe we best look for hellephants.”

He rode quietly for a bit, then patted the gelding’s neck and pointed ahead. “Double saguaro beside the big rock marks the end of High Chaparral land.” Horse and rider crossed the boundary, and Buck reined to a stop, twisting in his saddle to look at the ground behind him. He turned forward and stared at the dirt. “Rocks and sand. Don’t look no different than two peas.” Nudging Rebel back across the property-line, he explained, “Here be a big difference, little horse. This side the line, Brother John kin tell you when to sleep, when to eat, what kinda work to do, when to take a drink, what you outta be thinkin’ and doin’ and sayin’ and breathin’ ever blessed minute of ever blessed day.” He walked the horse forward and crossed the divider again. “This side, you be on rocks and sand belongs to Buck Cannon, and cain’t nobody but ME tell us what we gonna do or say or think.” He looked back at Chaparral land, threw back his head and laughed. “Yessir, you be on the C-Bar-M ranch, and I’s a paid up fifty-cent partner. HAW!” He slapped the reins sharply and galloped toward the hills.

Enjoying his escape from the heat of the valley floor, Buck stopped his approach, appreciating the view of the C-Bar-M. As the afternoon sun sparkled on the lake, he stood in the stirrups and sat down again. “Yore a smart hay-burner, Rebel. That be Blue Boy’s horse in the corral.” Chuckling, he inventoried the changes. “Corral’s fixed, new hitchin’ rail at the house, no more busted porch pole. I oughta leave the lunkhead here, boy works like two mules when he’s mad.”

The deep, cool water of the lake closed over Blue’s head as his uncle pushed him underwater again. Buck had a death grip on his belt and shirt, energetically administering a vigorous dunking. As the older man lifted his head, he gasped and yelled, “Buck, turn loose of me,” then kicking and punching, he held his breath as he headed under, pinned tightly until his lungs began to burn. This time he’s gonna kill me. Shooting stars danced behind his eyelids as Buck hauled him out and tossed him on the bank.

Yanking on his nephew like a dog worrying a rat, Buck shouted. “You gonna listen to me now, or we gonna keep scaring the horses?”

Blue coughed violently, shaking water from his hair. When Buck released him, he dropped to his knees, then rolled to one side, panting. His uncle stood with hands on hips, glaring at him, hat pushed back on his head. The younger man ran a hand across his face and hair, angrily flicking water out of his eyes. Sucking in air, he yelled between breaths, “Someday you’re gonna pure out drown me!”

The black-clad wrangler swung an arm forward angrily. “If you weren’t so deep bone stubborn I wouldn’t hafta re-baptize you ever few months. You think I like it? Wears me out and I wind up mad as a badger.” He jerked his hat-brim lower and crossed his arms, frowning. “Blue boy, you cain’t keep this up. She’s gone. You done let her go of yore own free will. Runnin’ don’t change it.”

Blue sat with his arms wrapped around his legs, head hanging down, jaw working and face grim. “Sticking my head in the water don’t change it neither,” he snapped.

“Cain’t nobody change it but you,” his uncle answered, rubbing his forehead. He extended a hand and pulled the younger man to his feet. The two Cannon men faced each other, not moving. Neither knew how closely he mirrored the other in looks and attitude. Stocky build, broad shoulders, sturdy legs planted wide in determination, sun-bleached hair, large hands balled into fists resting on hips. Blue the immoveable object, Buck the irresistible force.  “What is it, Blue Boy? You want her back so bad, go git her. I ain’t ever knowed you to quit at nothin’ you wanted, not nothin’.”

Gritting his teeth, he answered, “I ain’t runnin’ after nobody who don’t love me and if she loved me, she wouldn’t have left.”

Buck sighed and rolled his eyes. “There is days I wonder if you got enough sense to feed yourself. First you told her to ride out the gate, then you got too much pride to tell her you’re sorry. Now you’re mad as a hornet.  Anybody including Big John coulda told you what was gonna happen, and Big John is as mule dumb about women as anybody I ever knowed.”

Blue walked toward the shack, then turned around in frustration, saying, “But I was right, Uncle Buck.  You know I was.”

Shaking his head, Buck slipped an arm across his nephew’s shoulders. “Mebbe you was. But the way I figgur it, that don’t matter so much.” He steered them uphill. “Men got things like pride, honor, strength.” He curled a hand into a fist and looked at it as they walked. “Women depend on us for them things, you knowed that. You go and tell her to ride on out, what’s she got to depend on?” He sighed loudly, rubbing his forehead. “The thing about being right with women? It usually don’t make you happy.”

“I guess I messed up real bad.”

They reached the corral and the older man tapped the saddle slung over the railing. "Saddle up and let’s go home, Blue. You ain’t the first Cannon ever acted like a donkey with a woman. They got a way of makin’ a man’s head turn to mush.” 

*****

The sun sets quickly in the Arizona desert.  One minute heat warms skin through the cloth of a shirt.  In the space of a breath, the mountains swallow the sun and coolness descends. At dusk, cattle bunch together, turning their rumps eastward to catch the last dregs of heat and men review the course of their lives.

Hands in his pockets, Blue Cannon idly kicked at rocks and walked aimlessly across the Chaparral compound. He crossed the gully and ambled up the bank toward the Montoya casa, dodging brush and cactus. Spotting Manolito leaning against the high paddock fence, he turned to join him. Mano’s chiseled features were silhouetted against the sky, and Blue noticed a tiny smile working across his face. There’s a happy man. I’d a bet cash money he’d never make a good husband, let alone a good Pa. Shows what I know

“Hey, Blue. Que pasa, compadre?”

Shrugging, the young wrangler propped his elbows on a middle rail.  “It’s a good night for thinking.”  Turning to his friend, he asked, “Mano, you got any advice about women?”

“ALWAYS!” the dark-haired vaquero crowed, threw back his head and laughed. “Hombre, the most important of which is this.  Enjoy them, but do not ever try to understand them.”

“That ain’t real helpful.”

“Sure it is.  Follow it and contentment is yours, muchacho,” he declared, clapping the other man on the shoulder, then pointing to the horses. “Mira, my wife keeps the corrals spotless; the tackroom is a monument to organization. But my house? Fit for pigs, amigo. Muy misterioso. Perhaps I will learn to neigh.”

Blue’s lips curled into a quick smile, then turned downward. “Yeah, you let me know if it works, ‘cause maybe I oughta learn, too.  Becca never turned tail on the meanest ole jughead, but she sure did on me.”

“Well, she is a horse-doctor, is she not?” he said, raising his eyebrows.  Manolito plucked a long grass-stem and chewed on it pensively, shifting it from one side of his mouth to the other before spitting it out.  “You know one of the best things about women?  The infinite variety, muchacho.  Any size or shape or personality imaginable, like lovely flowers in an enormous garden.”

Rolling his eyes and snorting, Blue reminded him, “You’ve sure changed your tune. What about all cats being black at night?”

Manolito turned from the corral, eased his bent elbows against the wooden rail and grinned. “Ay-yi-yi, words said a long time ago when I was trying to convince myself that Doña Pilar was too much trouble. But sí, hombre. Most are the same in the night. Warm and soft, but still black.” He leaned toward the young man and tapped him on the chest. “To love a woman enough to marry her?  If she understands your soul, loves you with all her heart?  She is the sun and the moon to you; you would know her in the darkest night. That is a different breed of cat, compadre.”

Blue ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “Mano, I ain’t stupid. I know the difference between a sporting woman and someone you want for real.” He bit his lip as a soft look stole across his face. With Becca, I figured I'd have the best of everything. “I was gonna marry Becca, you know that’s what I wanted.” He paced away, then pivoted, swinging his arms angrily. “But if she felt the same way about me, she wouldn’t have left like she did!”

Manolito crossed his arms and spoke gently. “Blue, you told her to go, did you not?”

“Yeah, but I was right.  She shoulda…”

Holding up a hand, he continued, “Muchacho, perhaps being right is the most important thing.  But being right can waste time, compadre.” He sighed and scratched his cheek. “When I was caught in the flood and afterward, in the desert?  I believed I might die   I thought of many things. Among them, an argument with my beautiful but imperfect wife.”

“What was it about?”

“The fight? Stupidity, they all are. But hombre, I was right. She failed to recognize how right I was, so I screamed at her, then rode to town.  In the desert, believing I might never see her or my children again? Compadre, I thought of that wasted night in Tucson. I would have given anything to have it back. Anything.”

Tapping his head against the corral rail, Blue mumbled, “Yeah, like I’d give anything to have Becca back, but she’s gone for good.”

“WRONG!” He smacked the younger man on the shoulder. “I, Manolito Montoya, can convince women of almost anything and you are fortunately my good friend,” he stated grandly, with a toothy smile. “Since you are mi amigo, you are about to learn how to entice your señorita back into your arms, hombre!” He held up a finger as Blue straightened. “Primero, tell her you are una idiota, sí? She will agree; do not argue.” He continued as the baby-faced cowboy nodded seriously, “Segundo, tell her you are sorry. More than that, you are sorrier than anyone in the history of time.” He began to laugh as he held up a third finger. “Tercero, she castrates bulls for a living, so talk fast, amigo.”  Dodging a swat from Blue, Mano snickered and made a little bow.  Perdoname, I would love to stay out here with you, but I have important business inside my house.  Hoo-hoowee!” With a wave, he dashed for the open door.

Blue shook his head, chuckling as Manolito ducked into the doorway.  Nothing worse than a reformed Romeo. Important business, my eye.  Heading home, he skidded down the incline, brush catching his shirt sleeves. The night air was cold and clear, the roof sentry clearly silhouetted against the sky. As he reached the porch, a slight figure appeared from the shadow of the lean-to, a rifle loosely cradled cross-wise. Blue nodded to the night guard.

“The Apache say a man brings his own pain with him into the dark,” Wind said tonelessly, staring at him with expressionless eyes.

“Uh huh.” What in blazes is that supposed to mean? “Things quiet tonight, Wind?”

The Pawnee boy turned slowly, peering out into the darkness, and intoned, “The desert hawk keeps its own counsel.”

Blue leaned against a support post and crossed his arms, a half-smile on his face. “The blowing wind wears even the hardest rocks away in its path.”

“But the sand is dry and deep.  It can stop a man in his tracks.”

Blue grinned. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

The ghost of a smile crossed Wind’s face. “The Pawnee say no man is poor who has friends.”

Blue laughed and turned for the door, waving, “Don’t sit on any scorpions. Good night.”

Wind shifted the rifle and stepped forward. “Blue?” His eyes were flat black stones, his voice even and calm. “Your pride runs a race with your pain, and your pain is winning. Maybe you should ask yourself, what is it you will win? Even the Apache believe a man is completed when he finds his woman. No man is diminished by retrieving something important to him.”

Chewing his lip and shoulders slumped, Blue stared at the young Indian, then out at the desert night. His face softened as he headed for the door, remarking sadly over his shoulder, “I hear all cats are black at night.”

A scuff of moccasin followed by a low, “Not to another cat,” made him turn.  One hand on the doorknob, Blue faced only the dark, empty yard.  Looks like he got the last word again. Probably a sacred Pawnee tradition.

 

****

Little Sister,

San Francisco is beautiful in the spring. I wish you’d reconsider and come. My practice keeps growing and it’s more than I can handle. If I must add an associate I’d be happier with someone I already trust. You’re a good veterinarian.  With me, you’ll add small animal and dray experience to the ranch work you’ve got under your belt.

The boys continue to grow like weeds. Thomas is Beau and Judah reborn.  When I look at him I see my own childhood staring back at me. Kate says Robert inherited my sandy hair and hazel eyes along with my bookworm habits.

Mom and Pop are worried about you, Rebecca. We all are. It’s time to put things behind you and get on with your life.

Yours,

Levi Coulter

 

Rebecca listened to wind whispering through the ponderosa pines and shivered in the chill of the early afternoon sun. Nestled among the fragrant needles, she sat with back pressed against a boulder.  Its retained heat warmed her as she gazed into the valley. Light sparkled on the river at its bend, dancing between the tree-trunks as she drew up her knees and hugged them tightly with one arm. She glanced at the letter again.  Brother Levi’s practice was her destination when she’d entered the Veterinary Science program. Before Blue Cannon. Before the High Chaparral.

The sound of rattling treetops in a stronger gust of wind drew her eyes to the high branches waving against the darkening sky. The smell of rich, damp earth surrounded her, along with a hint of rain on the air. What if I’d climbed back on that stage? Gone ahead to San Francisco?  She hitched her legs closer as small dust-devils sucked in pine needles and blew downhill. Squinting in the dust, she remembered her first day in Tucson.

Blue Cannon twirled her happily in the middle of the street, yipping, “I thought you’d never get here! Uncle Buck’s in the saloon, he won’t show up ‘til he thinks we’ve got the bags loaded.”  Stagecoach passengers milled around them, retrieving belongings from the driver.

When he set her down, Rebecca laughed and gave his arms an affectionate squeeze. “You look like a real cowboy, Blue.” He posed, hands on hips, as she looked him up and down. “Side-arm, Stetson and a mile of fringe on those chaps.  If you’d worn that outfit to class in St. Louis, all the girls would’ve swooned.”

As they carried her bags across the street he answered, “I’m a working ranch hand, Becca.” He looked sideways at her and grinned slyly. “You should talk, last time I seen you, you was wearing waist overalls and had cow muck on your ear.” Half-way across the street he swallowed and nodded toward a stocky figure barreling toward them. “Hold on to your hat, that’s my Uncle Buck.”

 Like a black-clad whirlwind, Buck Cannon stumped down the boardwalk, face flushed and a bottle of redeye whisky swinging from one hand. His momentum carried him past the couple, then he skidded to a halt, grabbing Blue’s shoulder and panting, “Blue! Blue Boy! What you doing, you forget we here to ree-treve that horse doctor? We ain’t got time to be carrying bags for no girls.” Drinking from the bottle and turning quickly to Rebecca he tipped his hat and said, “Excuse me, uh?...”

The girl answered politely, “Coulter. Miss Coulter.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Miss Crouper.” He spun back to his nephew. “Where is that fella, anyways? Yore Pa’s gonna have a self-righteous explosion if he weren’t on the stage and we done wasted a day’s work comin’ after him.” Drinking and noticing the heavy bags, he tucked the whiskey bottle under one arm, took the cases from Rebecca and spoke gently, “Pardon me, Miss Canter, but a bitty thing like you hadn’t oughta be carrying these.”

“That’s Miss Coulter, Mr. Cannon,” Becca corrected, suppressing a smile.

He tugged at his hat brim and answered, “Yes, Ma’am. Miss Canner.” Walking toward the sidewalk and sampling the redeye, he continued to Blue, “Set down them satchels, Blue Boy, and find that horse doctor.  If we go back to Chaparral with no vet, Big John is gonna boil over right on my head.”

When they reached the buckboard, Blue wordlessly loaded Rebecca’s gear. His uncle continued to chatter as they crossed the street for the last bag and deposited it with the rest.  With the last of Becca’s things hefted aboard and the bottle empty, he stood scratching his head in confusion.  Mumbling apologies to Miss Crawdad, Buck drew his nephew aside. “Blue, she’s real pretty, but we still ain’t got no horse doctor.”

Biting his lip, the young man answered with a sigh, “Uncle Buck, it’s like this…”

The woman interrupted. “Mr. Cannon, I’m Rebecca Coulter. Dr. Rebecca Coulter. Your new horse doctor.”

As he slumped against the back of the wagon, Buck ran a hand across his forehead.  He pointed at his nephew, then the woman.  “You…huh?” Shaking his head, he yanked a small trunk from the wagon and threw it into the street. “No. My big brother did not hire no female vet.”

“Now wait a minute, Uncle Buck! She’s got a contract with Pa. It ain’t your business,” the young man shouted, charging forward.

 “Ain’t my business? Mebbe not, Blue. But it be my business when Brother John yells his fool head off, pounds you and me into the ground like fence posts. Then it be my business,” he roared, pitching an armload of luggage into the street.  Dust puffed, covering the bags like flour as he snarled at the brown-haired girl, “I seed that contract, and it weren’t for no Ree-becca. It were R. And R spells man-juice.”

With reddening face and jutting chin, she stepped forward until she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “Just how do you spell Ree-becca, you whiskey-soaked saddle bum?”

Grabbing shoulders to separate them, Blue edged in and faced his uncle. “That’s enough from both of you.” He held up a hand and raised his voice. “Buck, you can like it or not, but she’s going to the High Chaparral.”

Wind rattled the pine trees and shook needles onto Rebecca’s hair. The scent of rain was stronger.  Through the tree tops, gathering clouds obscured the sun. Sighing, she folded and carefully pocketed the letter. Time to get on with my life. Maybe so, Levi. But what if my life is on a ranch outside Tucson?

 

****

 

From the original six to the latest recruit, hands at the High Chaparral heard the same welcome from John Cannon.  “Out here my word is law. Your pay is thirty a month and chuck. I’ll brook no gambling, no drinking, and no disorderly conduct.”  To a man, they listened solemnly and agreed to Cannon Law, kept bottles and bets under wraps when Big John prowled

“Mano, jue been in love a lot, amigo,” Pedro observed, shaking his long, limp hair out of his eyes.  “How many girls jue been in love with?”

Compadre, only three,” Manolito said solemnly from his place across from Pedro at the scarred bunkhouse table. He snapped the cards as he shuffled the deck, a wicked gleam in his eyes.  Claro que sí, the number of girls who have been in love with me is much larger, muchacho.  There are thousands of those.”

“Thousands?  Amigo mio, almost as many as I got,” said Pedro, cutting the deck.

From his perch atop a bunk, Blue snickered. “Hey, Mano? Becca said you couldn’t remember ‘em all.” His uncle passed him a bottle and he drank, grinning.

Es verdad. La Veterinaria is correct. I cannot remember them all.” Shrugging, he dealt to Pedro, Sam and hatchet-faced Rod, humming as they picked up each flicked card. “The important point is they remember me.”

Leaning against the bunk support, Joe Butler commented, “Guess Blue thinks that’s the only thing the vet’s been right about lately.” He folded his arms and continued, “Or was that someone else who shot himself in the foot?”

Pedro pointed quickly from the table, “No Joe, it was mi amigo Blue. I remember, he sounded just like Big John.” Waving an arm, he deepened his voice and intoned loudly, “If jue can’t trust me, jue can ride out the gate.” He shrugged and returned to his cards. “Jue got results like the boss, too.”

“Ha, ha. I guess you experts would ‘a done better,” Blue sneered.

Joe drank and pointed a finger. “Listen to me, Blue. The only way to handle a woman is just like you done. Don’t let her get the upper hand, keep her in her place.” He jerked a thumb at his chest. “That’s what I always do.”

Sam’s deep voice resonated from behind his fanned cards. “Joe, didn’t I see you at the church social last week? I’d swear you were carrying Tillie Robinson’s parasol and gloves.” He slapped cards down, muttering to the dealer, “I’ll take two.”

Buck deftly retrieved the bottle from the younger Butler, tilted it and guzzled. “Joe boy, what you want with a parasol? Sun too hot for yore head?”

Dismissing them with a wave, Joe pulled a dog-eared dime-novel from his back pocket and settled in a corner to read. The book was creased and tattered, the cover picturing a large hacienda surrounded by menacing figures, guns drawn. The title marched across the top in block letters: Only the Bad Come to Chihuahua.  Smaller type at the bottom proclaimed: Story by Hector M. Peters. Illustrations by William Cannon.

As he reclined in his chair, rolling his tongue in his cheek, Manolito considered his cards and the youngest Cannon. Que lastima, Blue.  How sad you know so little of women; they are not merely small, soft men. Raising an eyebrow, he grinned at his cards and inquired, “So, amigo, what have you decided about the lovely Rebecca?  To take the good advice of Manolo Montoya or the bad advice of Joe Butler?”

Random scuffling and murmurs stopped across the bunkhouse as all ears came to full attention. Blue slid from the top bunk, wearing a disgusted scowl. “Not that it’s your business, but I already wrote her a letter saying I was sorry.”

Clapping him on the shoulder, Buck shouted, “That’s good, Blue! That’s real good.” He pushed the bottle at him. “Have a drink. What’d you say? You didn’t say nothin’ stupid, did you?”

Sam tossed coins into the pot and commented, “Yeah, Blue. I’ve heard you apologize before, sometimes it don’t come out so good.” A snicker drifted from his brother in the corner.

“I didn’t say nothing stupid and I know how to say I’m sorry.” Blue glared at them, hands on hips.  When the younger Butler guffawed, Blue spun to face him. “What’re you hee-hawing at?”

Joe waved the dime novel and laughed again. “You ain’t gonna believe this. Listen. “Lorenzo cracked his bullwhip, driving back the lynch-mob with skill and fury. “Andele! Vamanos!” he shouted, white teeth flashing. Dashing into the hacienda, he gazed into the girl’s eyes and stroked her cheek. “Your hair makes the light from the door superfluous, querida.”

Buck rubbed his head in confusion then prodded Montoya’s shoulder. “Soup-furious? Mano, ain’t that what you said…”

“That ain’t all.” Joe flipped pages and continued. “The handsome Mexican shook his head as his friends shot stones tossed into the air. “I pass my turn”, he said dryly. “You two have used up all the good rocks.”

Stepping toward the poker game, Blue spoke excitedly, “Hey Mano, you said that when…”

 “Are we playing poker or not, hombres?” the handsome Mexican asked, shifting in his chair. He coughed, adjusted his bandanna then returned to studying his hand.  Ignoring the eyes on him and with lips drawn tightly, Manolito said, “Quien sabe? Who knows? Maybe mi amigo Blue is a writer as well as an artist, but if you are going to play cards, will you please play cards?”

As Buck began singing, “Buffalo Blue got some writing to do”, Sam pointed across the table, saying, “Hey wait a minute. Joe, let me see that book. Blue, your name’s right here on the cover.” 

“That’s right Sam,” Pedro eagerly agreed.

Throwing his arms in the air and rolling his eyes, the young man exclaimed, “Well of course it is. I do the drawings.”

Buck continued singing cheerily, “…writing to do. Writing by the light of the moon.” He upended the bottle, gave his nephew a hurt look. “Blue boy, I think you been spying on yore friends. I taught you better.”

Stammering in frustration, Blue answered, “I didn’t…you know…” He crossed his arms on the top bunk, dropped his head for a moment, then took a breath. Facing his uncle, he spoke through clenched teeth. “Uncle Buck, I did not write any stories about light from doors or shooting rocks.”

“I jist don't know, Blue. They pay good for them drawings, must pay good for stories, too. That’s real val-able. Man looking to get married thinks about them fine-ance-skilly things,” Buck declared, shaking his head soulfully.

Blue stepped forward, mouth open to answer, stopped when Rod, the fourth man at the table, rasped, “You gonna hog that bottle all night, Cannon? Or you figure since you’re the boss’s brother that means you don’t gotta share?”

Cuidado, muchacho. Careful,” hissed Mano as Blue whistled, slouching against the bunk with his arms crossed.

With another swig of whisky, Buck tilted his hat up.  Propping a foot on the edge of the man’s chair, he examined the new wrangler and drawled, “Well, Rod boy, I’ll tell you about this here bottle. I got myself up yesterday mornin’ and ate my breakfast. Then I hitched the buckboard my very ownself and went into Tucson where I loaded up supplies, includin’ the bacon and beans you put in yore belly for dinner.” He took a long pull from the bottle and continued, the words coming faster and louder. “After I got them Chaparral supplies, I paid Wiley for five bottles of good redeye whiskey with my very own money. On the way back I got chased by the A-pache, the wagon broke down, and one of the horses took lame, but I still got yore bacon delivered on the table.” He pushed off from the chair, turning away and back again, swinging the bottle. “Now you want a drink, you is welcome to it, but it seems to me yore Mamma taught you better manners.”

Sam Butler tossed down his cards, saying forcefully, “Rod, go saddle up and join the night crew at the Flats.” When the man protested, he cut him off. “No arguments.  You been brewing trouble ever since you got here. You can finish out the week then draw your pay.” Sam took up his cards as the cow-hand slammed out the door.

Buck took the empty seat, drank deeply, and rubbed his hands together. “Here’s the bottle, boys. Deal me in, let’s drink and play.  Mebbe we’ll make it into Blue boy’s next dime novel.” He laughed at his exasperated nephew. “You got five dollars you can loan yore uncle?”

“Not unless you take it back about me, ‘cause I didn’t write no book.” He paused, then his eyes opened wide. “Hey, wait a minute!  Maybe Mano…”

“OH no!” Manolito roared, shooting the blond cowboy a hot glare.  Amigo, you are without honor.  What have I ever done but love you like a brother, eh?”

“You got me beat up a lot before I learned Spanish,” Blue crowed. Triumphant, he stared at the handsome Mexican, who gritted his white teeth.

Joe tossed the book to the middle of the table and offered, “Seems to me the only one who’d know exactly what Mano’s been saying is him. Ain’t that right, Mano?”

Enunciating precisely, Montoya hissed, “Madre de Dios, why do you not want to play poker? It is a good game. Try it, compadre.” He carefully laid his cards face-down on the table, fixing Buck with hard eyes. “If I loan you five dollars, can we concentrate on the cards instead of Joe’s lack of literary taste?  Because,” he snapped, voice rising, “these yapping curs have all night, but I have important …”

“Yeah, we know, Snore Montoya. Business elsewhere.” Buck upended the bottle once more, then began to deal. “Gimme yore five dollars, Lor-en-zo, and git ready to loose the rest, ‘cause yore too lucky elsewhere to be lucky at cards.”

 

****

 

Sauntering through the market, past campesinos selling their wares, Manolito took a satisfied breath, laying a hand on the ivory butt of his new pistola. Catching his reflection in a window, he adjusted his new hat. A present from his wife, it resembled the one she shot to pieces, Spanish-style and black, but with more silver on the band.  Ay, Manito! You look GOOD, hombre! Your life is good, a beautiful woman at home, two beautiful babies, another one on the way, warm sunshine in the mercado. With a final adjustment to his collar, he strutted past tomatoes, calabasas and peppers, flirting with the wrinkled abuelas and the señoritas, calling to the pretty ones flouncing past.  Some looked, some didn’t.  Tipico.

A shapely girl glanced over her shoulder and smiled winningly before strolling onward.  He watched the swing of her meandering hips, calling, “Que bonita, chiquita!”         

Spotting his partner, Buck Cannon slapped him on the back and asked about the state of the produce this week.  The two men made small talk, Mano pointing out, “Hombre, you know what they say.  La mujer como el vidrio, siempre está en peligro.  A woman is like glass, always in danger.”

“They say that, do they?”

“Not in danger from me, of course.”

“Uh-huh.” Buck tossed a coin to a smiling vendor and selected an apple. “That’s good, no reason to be greedy and they always liked my looks better anyways.”

Hombre, no.  Your memory is failing.  I look even better next to you than by myself.  The comparison has served me well.” He bowed low and tipped his hat to a smiling young woman, who spun her parasol jauntily. “¡Ay, Chihuahua! Mira allí!”

Buck glanced up from polishing the fruit on his sleeve. “Yeah, she’s real nice.  What in Sam Hill you doing, Mano?”

“Only having a pleasant day in the mercado, if you have no objections mi patrón,” he replied, ducking his chin, then snapped to.  “Hey, some nice peaches over there.  Smooth-skinned and very sweet. Andele!”

“Peaches?” He spoke around a mouthful of apple. “Mano, amigo, you wearin’ that new some-burro on yore head to cover up that tamale you got instead of a brain…”

Calma, calma.  I speak of the fruitas. As for the other lovely items?  A man must keep his skills sharpened or they rust,” he declared, walking toward the vendors. He braked and turned to Buck, asking irritably, “What business is it of yours how I spend my time, Buck?  Eh? This reminds me of the day I was here enjoying myself and you showed me the black rock.  The next thing I know, we buy a rancho together and you are meddling in my life, telling me what to do.  Why IS that?”

Buck continued to gnaw on the red apple, his cheeks bulging like a well-fed squirrel. “Well, aye-meee-goh, today the reason for it is there’s a real pretty lady just went into Wiley’s mercantile…”

“Hey, Buck, que bueno, but why should I care about that one when there are so many? Just trying to aggravate me or something else?”

“Oughta let you hang, but I ain’t the type.” He swallowed and tossed the core over his shoulder, wiped a hand on his shoulder. “Mano, that real pretty lady be yore wedded wife.  Weren’t she s’posed to meet you here today since you coming in from working the North Range?  S’posed to be the big day? Gonna pack a little picnic, ride out so you could show her the ranch.”       

“The ranch.  Ohhh, you mean our rancho?  The C Bar M, that one? Hombre, of course I remember.  Why do you think I am shopping for produce?  La Madre de Dios, Buck!  You fall for any little chista, any joke.  It is so easy, it is almost no fun,” said Mano, planting his hands on his hips, then gesturing broadly toward the vendors.  Mira, my Pilar likes peaches.  Con permiso, I would like to buy some.”

           

****

 

Coming over the rise to the C Bar M, they rode side-by-side, holding hands.  The long-legged caballero on the sorrel gelding, pride in his dark eyes, dimples deepening with his increasing smile; his petite lady on her high-stepping mare, black hair blowing in the mountain breeze.  They brought the horses to a stop.

“Oh, Manito!  How beautiful it is!” she exclaimed.  “Our own pond.  It looks like an enormous sapphire.”

“If any woman deserves precious stones, it is you, Pili.  Only the grandest, the most perfect in cut and clarity, querida.  Happy?”

“Mmm, always, Mano.  Always.  What shall we do first?”

“Put the horses in the corral to start. ¡Vamanos!” he shouted, taking off at a gallop.

They watered the horses and untacked.  Resting his saddle on the rough rails of the small corral, Manolito dug in his saddlebags, releasing the aroma of fresh peaches. Inhaling deeply, Pilar peered around him. “Tortillas, cheese, dried beef, ripe peaches, wine.  And of course, thou,” he crooned.  Extracting one of the fruits, he rolled it lightly on the side of her face.  He smiled.  “The color of your cheeks after a ride, how close to the blush of duraznos frescos.  Care for one?”

“Why yes,” she said, placing her hand over his and turning her head.  She bit through the delicate fuzz and thin rind, the nectar dripping down her chin. 

He kissed the syrup from her lips and face and murmured, “Ah, just when I thought you could not taste any sweeter.”  Taking a bite of the fruit, he brought it to her mouth again, watched her nibble the soft flesh. He swallowed, then wiped his mouth with his cuff.  Touching his fingertips to her face, he slid his hands to her shoulders, saying, “Querida mia, the cabin is simple but very cozy.  Come see.”

Momentito, Manito,” she demurred, swiveling from his grasp and ducking to grab a wine-bottle.  Taking his hand, she gave a little tug. “Walk with me, my love. The wine can cool in the water.”  Suspicious, he walked to the bank, eyeing the one-room cabin behind them.  “How I wanted to swim here, when Patterson had it.  Of course, I could not,” she said in a dreamy voice. “Then…”

“Oh, no.  No, Pilar,” Manolito objected stridently.  “Let me put the cabernet wherever it is you want it, we can go inside.  You will like the little cabin sooo much.” He took the wine from her, stowed it in a rocky nook and put an insistent arm around her waist, trying vainly to move her toward the shack.  She has grown roots.  “Pili, it is probably very deep with sharp rocks.  There are terrible things in there, like big fish.”

“What kind?”

Quien sabe?  But big, vicious ones.  Like the vicious bandidos who come over that hill, but if it will please you, we can sit on the bank and fish.  The pole is inside.”  Not what she wants to do, I can tell.  “Ah, I know. After we go inside…” What is she doing? “we can make love, rest, eat. Then ride upland, look at the trees.  You like all those things.”

Unbuttoning her blouse, she said, “I have a better idea.”

“No, no you do not,” he answered, fastening what she unfastened until she clasped his hands in hers.

“Manolo, the ride was hot, the day is young, the water is inviting and I cannot imagine a better time to teach you to swim.”

Crossing his arms, he looked at her glumly.  His tongue probed his cheek while he thought.  Muscle jumping in his jaw, he said, “Pilar, por favor.  I do not need to learn to swim, because you will never get me into water deeper than a bathtub. Entiendes?”

“Care to make a small wager?”  She unbuckled the belt to her riding skirt, tried to unfasten the skirt while he wrapped the belt around her again.

“NO,” he declared, fumbling with the buckle as she pulled her blouse over her head and tossed it aside.  Mano sighed, reached for the blouse and let go the belt.  He grappled, attempting to put her arms through the sleeves as the belt and split skirt hit the dust.  The first time for me to try putting clothes on a woman and I have to pick this one.  Madre mia, she is quick. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Basta, Pilar. This is starting to annoy me.  I want you dressed.  Someone could be watching.”       

“Someone other than you?” Standing before him in a short, thin chemise and riding boots, head cocked to the side, she tapped a foot impatiently. 

Claro que sí, someone other than me, Pilar. Madre de Dios! This is not our bedroom.” 

The foot stopped tapping. With a shrug, she plucked the blouse from him, balled it up and threw it in the pond. Putting her hands gently against his face, she asked, “Do you trust me, Mano?”

“To take off your clothes and jump in the water?  , Pilar.  I trust you to do exactly that.”

She slowly shook her head.  “No, Manolo.  Do you trust me to always take care of you?” she purred, untying his bandanna, letting it drop, caressing his shoulders.  “Do you trust me in that way?” Gradually, she moved her fingers to the buttons of his shirt as she nuzzled him.

Relenting, he pressed her close, hands on her back, her smooth rump, face against her velvet hair.  , Pili.  I do,” he whispered, feeling the heat from her breath as her lips touched his chest.

“Then trust me now, Manolo.  Trust me here,” she murmured.

She removed her remaining clothes and walked into the pond, saying she would check the depth.  He sat, undressing, watching her dive and surface.  She called to him that it was perfect, only lacking a big tree with a large limb and a rope.

“The water is not bad enough, you want to stretch my neck?”  For swinging from, letting go over the water?  People do that?  Oh, no.  Querida, have you considered comancheros?  They might come back.  Or Apache? I should stand guard.”  She vigorously shook her head, hair and water droplets flying. “You enjoy yourself.  I am so happy watching.  I cannot think of any greater joy.”  Wrong.  She went under, braced into a handstand. Her legs rose from the water feet-first to the tops of her thighs.  Toes pointed, she gracefully bent one knee, slid again underwater.  When she surfaced before him, his breath caught; water cascaded across her shoulders and over her breasts.

Beginning at his long, slender feet, she walked her fingers up his leg.  Manolito touched his palms to her face, stroking her cheeks, bent toward her, running his lips across hers, kissing her gently.  “All right, what now?”

“Now,” she said softly, gently running her nails lightly across his elegant hands and lacing her fingers with his.  Venga aqui.  Come here. To me, my love.”  

Floating with eyes closed, he felt a hand under his back, another beneath his head.  Bathed in sunlight, nearly weightless, she guided him.  The comancheros could go to the devil. He drifted, opened his eyes when she kissed him.  The water lapped at her shoulders.  He stood.  Exploring her, he was unable to see, only to feel her and her touch on his skin.  Hands clasping her waist, he lifted her, murmuring, “Mi corazon, you brought me down to the water, let me take you up to the sky.”

 

****

 

Beauregard Toutant Coulter paraded his splashy red and white paint down the main street of Virginia City, the morning sun shining on his silver belt buckle and coal black hair. He tipped his hat to the girls on the boardwalk and called to his chums crossing the street. The horse pranced, jingling the saddle's silver overlay. Man and horse, kings of the local rodeo, stopped at the sight of a pink parasol twirling underneath a striped awning. “Good morning to you, Miss Jessie. You look delicious as peppermint candy.”

Bright blue eyes, blonde curls, and frothy ribbons smiled up at him. A molasses drawl from a Cupid's bow mouth replied, “Why Mister Coulter, how you do go on.”

Removing his hat and bowing low over the side of his saddle, he replied gallantly, “The sight of your beauty inspires me, ma’am.” He touched his heels to the paint’s sides and trotted down the street, knowing her eyes followed him. Beau dismounted and tied the horse at the post office, joked with the men at the liar’s bench, then ambled inside. He greeted the enormously fat matron at the counter seductively, “Jane, my angel, when will you give up this life of toil and let me make an honest woman of you?”

The postmistress smiled as she retrieved a bundle of mail and handed it to the dark-haired young man, leaning over the counter to answer, “Careful, Mister Beau. Some day a lady will believe your malarkey, and you’ll find yourself inside a very deep, dark well of trouble.”

Laughing, he kissed her loudly on a fleshy cheek as he accepted the letters and packages. “They all believe me, Janie. All except you, my own true love.  You keep breaking my heart.” Whistling, he sorted through the mail as he shouldered his way out the door.  Outside, one envelope caught his attention.  He stood, tapping it against the others. “Well, well, little dog, how about we let you lie?” He sat on a bench, opened the envelope, and began to read.

 

Dear Rebecca,

I’m sorry.

I shouldn’t never have said you should ride out the gate. I got mad and maybe someday I’ll figure out how to go soak my own head in the water trough but I was wrong plain enough and I want to tell you. From the first time I laid eyes on you I ain’t been able to look at anything else. I know it took me long enough to say so but after two years of loving you inside I can finally tell you outside I love you. Why else would I want you here at High Chaparral with me and why else would I be so proud inside I could bust when I see you working so hard and why else would I be happier than I ever been because I got you to stand beside me every day?

Becca, I ain’t no boy and maybe like others you forget that sometimes. I have met some women and passed by and some have passed me by. When I met you I stopped passing for good. Moonfire was a long time ago and if I ever think about her it is like a dream or the campfire smoke you can smell on your clothes the next day. I never thought to hide any of it from you, but you are real as the campfire, not the leftover smoke.

I remember every word said between us, Button. I remember telling you I wanted a wife strong enough to stand beside me when I’m right and tell me when I’m wrong. I remember you telling me I was stuck with you, just you. I seen Pa and Buck enough to know it is hard to live with a Cannon, but I figure you are the only one I want to live with this Cannon.

Please send word and I will come to you or send for you.

Yours forever,

Blue

 

Beau read the letter again before getting to his feet and pacing across the post office porch. Shoving his hat on his head, he stared into the street with eyes unfocused and drifting thoughts. He read the letter a third time and shook his head. “Sport, no matter how I count it up, you aren’t good enough for my baby sister.” Returning the letter to the envelope, he began to rip it in half, then stopped and placed it inside his vest pocket. He picked up the remaining mail and walked quickly across the street for another building.  Its neatly-lettered sign read “Western Union Telegraph.”

 

****

 

Blue Cannon ducked into the Tucson Wells Fargo office, his uncle close on his heels. The office was cool and dark after the bright heat outside and the two men paused in the doorway to let their eyes adjust. A heavy-set woman from behind the counter turned toward them, a broad smile lighting up her thick features. She pushed at stray locks of graying hair and cried happily, “Buck! Buck Cannon!”

“Maudie!” Buck strode into the rooms, arms open wide. “C’mere, let me see if you still got the sweetest lips in Tucson!” He grunted as he spun her, planting a kiss on her with a smack.

Blue watched the two with a grin, laughing when Maude addressed his uncle as ‘sweet lamb’. When they took no notice of him, he coughed, then said, “Uh, excuse me? If there ain’t no wire for me I’ll lock the door on my way out.”

The broad little proprietor untangled her arms from around the older man’s neck, gave his nose a peck and bustled behind the counter. “Hang on, hang on. I got something for you.” Blue felt his heart began to race as she shuffled papers and looked in cubbyholes. “Came a few days ago. It was right here.” She leaned against the wooden top, staring at the older Cannon dreamily. “Buck, you are a sight for sore eyes.  How long are you in town for?”

“A while and you know I ain’t forgot you.” Grinning widely, he chucked her double chin. “When you get off work?” He bent forward, whispering in her ear until she giggled.

Frustrated, Blue stretched over the counter and began pawing through piles of envelopes. He tossed papers aside rapidly, searching for his name, ignoring the voices beside him until a plump hand smacked his head soundly. “Get out of there! That ain’t your property and customers ain’t allowed behind the counter.” He ducked as she swung at him again.

“Just find my wire and I’ll go.” Crossing his arms protectively over his head, he peered over the wooden divider anxiously. “Where is it?”

Frowning fiercely, Maude dug under a massive pile of papers with both hands, retrieving a single envelope triumphantly. “Ah ha! I knew I had it somewhere.” She exited the half office and handed it to him, looking over his shoulder curiously. “Deke gets ‘em so I don’t see ‘em. Who’s it from?”

Shouldering next to him, Buck urged, “Open it, Blue Boy. Must be import-nate, being a wire and all.”

Blue stepped away from them, all his attention focused on the paper in his hands. Their chatter dropped from his hearing as he opened the envelope and caught his breath. The first line was visible through the open flap. Becca. It’s from Becca. He stared at the identifying line, then snatched the message out and read. Heart pounding in his ears, he crushed the paper into a ball and flung it blindly, striding stiff-armed out the door and into the street.

“Blue? Blue!” Buck pushed the woman’s clinging hands away and followed his nephew.  Tucson streets held a Saturday crowd and the boy was nowhere to be seen. Hand on hip, he rubbed his forehead and turned back to the office, snatching the crumpled paper from Maude’s eager hands. “Sorry, Maudie, that ain’t yorn.” He ignored her palaver as he smoothed the page, walking outside again and reading:

Coulter. Circle C Ranch, Nevada

I am not yours. Do not write again. Rebecca.

Scornfully rolling his eyes, Buck scanned the street, threw his hat to the ground, picked it up and dusted it off. Spitting in the dirt, he snapped, “Women.”

An amused voice spoke from the bench behind him. “Hey compadre. Que es esto? Which of Tucson’s fair flowers has offended you on this fine morning?” One leg propped against a post and hat in hand, Manolito Montoya chuckled, cocking his head.

Sitting heavily next to him, Buck answered, “It ain’t no flower, Mano. It’s all of ‘em and one in particular.” He held out the telegram, running a hand over his face as the other read.

Hombre, this is wrong.”

Disgusted and slapping his knees, the stocky man answered hotly, “I know it be wrong, Mano. It don’t make no sense, neither. Nothing about women makes no sense and if I could get my hands on Sis I’d turn her over my knee and paddle her sweet appaloosa until she couldn’t sit.”

Manolito held the paper out and flicked it with a finger. “No, amigo. Eschuche. Listen to me.  I know a bright young man who is married to a very sneaky woman.  This sneaky woman wrote to La Veterinaria, eh?  The bright young man happened to see the reply.  It did not say these things."

Cannon gaped at him.  “Well I’ll be. Mano, you been spyin’!”

Shrugging, he replied, “Hombre, no.  Only clearing the debris so I could sit on my sofa.  Sometimes it is a little like prospecting, amigo.”  He placed a hand on his chest and bowed slightly.  “Occasionally I find gold.”

“Yeah, mebbe so.” Buck retrieved the telegram and studied it. “Huh. If two boots don’t match then mebbe one’s on the wrong foot.” He rose and began to pace. “I got me a feeling Sis didn’t send this.”

Sí, compadre, as do I.  Unfortunately, there are no tracks on a telegram.”

He stopped and considered his friend with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “That’s right, ay-meego.  But this one’s got rat-sign all over it. From a big ole King of the Rodeo-type rat.”

 

****

 

The back streets of Tucson are littered with third-string watering holes where a man looking for a drink and trouble could find both. The small cantina, substantial as dust, looked ready to blow away in a strong wind.  ‘Tequila’ was scrawled in faded red paint down either side of the entry, while a lone fly-specked window shut out the blazing Arizona sun with more success than the badly-hung door. A short-haired yellow dog sleeping just outside scratched the occasional flea and yawned.

The dog leapt into the air, yelping and running, as the door to the cantina burst open. A man flew out, stumbling backwards, arms windmilling as he tried to keep his balance. He fell, feet scrabbling uselessly, face bruised and bloody.  He wiped his mouth and propped himself on an elbow as a hat sailed out the door and smacked him in the face. Loud Spanish streamed from inside, followed by barely discernable English. “Loco gringo. Next time we kill you.”

Blue Cannon made another effort to regain his feet, gritting his teeth and pushing off the ground with his hands. His tequila-soaked brain was too fractured. Stupid legs don’t work for beans. Gotta get up, then I’ll show ‘em. Cannons don’t quit. Place’s too small to have three doors. Two doors. Three. Where’s my hat?  He made it to his knees, got one foot up, then toppled back to the ground, sprawled face down. The yellow cur approached cautiously, sniffing warily. Finding nothing alarming, it circled three times and groaned as it settled comfortably at his waist, eyeing the door to the cantina. When it remained closed, the dog drifted to sleep, scratching random fleas.

The sun was setting as Blue trudged down the Calle Real. One sleeve was torn and his lip was swollen and split; he fingered it gingerly as he walked, running his tongue across the inside. The soft tissue was shredded, dried patches of blood decorated his nose and both eyes sported impressive purple bruises shading into black. He shook his head, trying to lose the remnants of tequila. 

As he walked toward the livery stable, repetitious thoughts spiraled in his head. …Go get her…Can’t go get her, she’s the one who left…Should have stopped her…Can’t stop someone who wants to leave…She knows where I am…I was right…She was wrong…Go get her…Can’t go get her… He’d had the same inner conversation with minor variations for the past six weeks.

Blue reached the livery corral, kicked at the lower rail, slumped against the top and rested his head on his hands. Buck said we’d leave before noon. If him and the boys don't show soon, I’m heading back without them. He stared gloomily over the fence at a black mare, her ears pinned flat. Haltered and snubbed tightly to a stout post in a far corner, she fought the rope, slinging her head and pawing. “Yeah, I’ll make you a deal. You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.”

A massive man approached outside the fence and headed for the horse, snaking a whip, his face contorted with rage. Blue recognized him. Clancy Ellis had a reputation for brutality with women and horses. The mare snorted; her body quivered and sweat lathered her coat. Ellis sneered and spoke through a harsh brogue. “Shut yer trap, you miserable piece of crow bait. You stomped one good man to the brink of his grave today. I’ve a mind to send you to meet yer maker.” He flicked the whip lazily, circling the mare from just outside the corral. Then Ellis stepped quickly forward, reaching through the slats and boxing the horse in the nose with a massive fist, jumping back from her flashing teeth. “You best learn I'm master here.”

Straightening, the blonde cowboy watched as Ellis drew back his arm and lashed out with the whip, catching the mare across her back. She shivered and thrashed, desperate for freedom. Blue shouted without thinking, “Hey! Stop that!”

Clancy’s bullet-head swiveled and he stomped toward Blue, growling, “And what business is it of yours? This she-devil is mine, I’ll do what I please with her.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Horse’s no good if it ain’t afraid of you.”

Thumbs looped in his belt, Blue looked from the man to the mare. “I reckon that one’s real good then.”

Piggish eyes regarded the young man. “I reckon it’s no business of yours.” He turned his broad back, dropping the whip as he stooped to pick up a discarded plank, yelling as he approached the horse, “C’mon, you. If you think you’re gonna fight me go ahead and try it.” She gnashed her teeth again, and fury writhed on his face.  He drew back the plank and swung, hitting the animal’s jaw a hard whack.  The blow's force staggered her against the short rope.  Ellis laughed. “Go on, try me again.” He gripped the board with both hands, drawing back for another shot.

Boiling around the corral, feet pounding in the dirt, arms pumping, Blue grabbed a pitchfork as he rounded the corner, skidding to a stop between Clancy and the mare, brandishing the heavy tool. “That’s enough, Ellis. You ain’t touching her again.”

Ellis lowered the plank, barked a short, hard laugh. “And how would the likes of you be stopping me?”

Blue glared up at the larger man, glanced behind him at the mare. The horse was snorting and jerking against the rope. He rubbed his forehead and sighed as the last of the tequila evaporated, leaving only a massive headache. He turned toward Ellis, straightening to look him in the eye. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out, won’t I?”

 

*****

 

Shaking his head in irritation, Buck Cannon eyed the lead line to the wild eyed black mare, then followed the second line on to his nephew. “Blue, you wanna try explainin’ it one more time?” The mare pitched and plunged again and he kneed Rebel, tightening the line until she quieted.  They continued, lines tight around their saddlehorns.  “You tear up the worse cantina in Tucson. I still don’t know why. Then you buy the worse horse off the worse horse-trader in the territory.” He looked at his nephew grimly. “You got any reason, or you just wake up donkey-dumb this morning?”

Blue stared straight ahead, jaw clenched and lips pressed tight where they weren’t swollen. The bruises around his eyes were blackening and the dried blood was flaking off. “I told you, I ain’t gonna talk about it no more.”

“Ain’t gonna talk about it.” He snorted and shifted in his saddle irritably. “While you ain’t talking, I been fighting this she-devil all the way from Tucson.” Turning back toward the rest of the group, he yelled, “Joe! Hey Joe!”

Butler rode forward, eying the mare with trepidation. “Yeah?”

Unwinding the long lead rope attached to the horse, Buck said, “You help baby-sit this prize pony. Which, excuse me for saying, Mister Blue Boy, ain’t worth the powder in a copper jacket misfire.”

Joe shook his head. “Not me. I got better ways to earn a broken neck.”

Buck twisted in his seat, hollering, “Sam, Pedro! Get up here, you saddle tramps.” The sound of laughter floated toward them as the riders pulled forward. The mare exploded again as the two men fought to control her. “This ain't no horse, it's a wildcat wearing horsehide!”

Pointing, Pedro grinned. “Hey Blue, maybe jou can give her to the Apache. I won’t have no more guard-duty, because I think she will kill them all.”

Riding forward until he was even with Blue, Sam bent to see across him and commented, “Maybe he’s planning to start raising cougars. Horse like that could nurse a cougar, no problem.”

“Ha, ha, you’re all bunch of cards, ain’t you?” A sour expression on his face, Blue explained, “Ellis was gonna bash her brains out. What was I supposed to do, shoot him?”  He faced forward, muttering through gritted teeth. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

The men urged Blue to let the horse go, but he refused.  After they rode through the gate at the ranch compound, his uncle stomped into the house, leaving him to wrestle his new purchase into the holding corral by himself.  Blue folded his forearms on the top rail, wearily resting his chin on them as he stared at the horse. She flung herself to the far fence, dried blood caked on her back and jaw. Buck’s right, I must be donkey dumb. He headed for the ranch house and the dressing-down from his pa he knew was coming.

“What were you thinking, boy? Don’t answer, I can tell by looking you soaked your head in barrel of redeye.”

Seated on the divider between the door and stair, Buck corrected, “Tequila, Big John. It weren’t redeye.”

“Either way it pickled his brains.” John Cannon paced in front of the steps, glaring at his brother then stopping before his son. “You listen to me. I’m not keeping a man-killer on this ranch, do you understand me? You get yourself out there and take responsibility for your own bad judgment.”

Taking a step closer to his father, he shouted, “It ain’t your horse, it’s MINE, and nobody better touch her.” As he stormed to the front door, he shouldered his uncle. “And that includes you.” Windows rattled as he stormed out the front door, slamming it behind him.

 Before either man could speak, the door crashed open and the angry young man marched back in. Glowering, Blue strode to the dining room table, wordlessly stuffed his pockets full of sugar cubes. As Victoria came from the kitchen with a tray of vegetables, he took it from her. She thanked him and smiled, became dismayed when he grabbed the carrots, tucked them into his vest pocket, handed her the plate and left the house.

Puzzled, Victoria picked up the tray and asked, “John? Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know what in tarnation’s got into the boy, Victoria. He was fine this morning, now he’s madder than a wet hen,” the big man answered irritably.

Blue slapped his hat on his head, stomped across the yard, and shoved into the corral.  The mare lifted her head quickly from the hay, pinning her ears and switching her tail.  Blind to her annoyance, Blue marched toward her, arms stiff at his side, hands balled into fists.  Before he could react, she charged him and wheeled, landing a solid kick in the chest that knocked him to the ground.   He rolled under the fence, leaving a trail of carrots and sugar behind.

 

****

 

From the swing on her veranda, Pilar Montoya viewed the contest between horse and human.  Unable to resist any longer, she rested her violin against the adobe wall.  Positioning Lina on one hip and Manuel on the other, she declared, “Oh, what a mess.  Come, little ones.  Time for Mamí to pull the cards from her sleeve.”  She sailed for the corral, the young mastiff trotting behind.

Blue Cannon stood with his head disconsolately against the rail, arms crossed against his injured midsection.  He muttered “Hey, Pilar” as she slipped next to him, but didn’t look up.

“Are you all right?”

Gripping the fence with both hands, he leaned backwards, blowing out a breath before answering, “Yeah, just took the wind out of me, that’s all.”

“Here,” she said, nudging her daughter into his arms.  “Small children are good medicine for that.”  They love you even when you act like a hopeless ninny.  “My leaky son can stay with me.”  Shifting the baby to the front, she raised one eyebrow and looked pointedly at Blue.  “Unless you are feeling particularly gallant.”

The blond young man laughed.  “Nope.  Can’t say that I am.” He swung the little girl high in the air, chuckling as she squealed, then cuddled her in his arms.

Pilar quietly appraised the horse.  Good clean lines and flashy, too.  “A beautiful mare.  Lovely build.  The four stockings and that wide blaze?  Mmm, put your silver saddle on her and they will see you coming in Santa Fe.”

Lina pulled Blue’s hat strings into her mouth, he removed a glove with his teeth and gently plucked the dirty strings from the rosebud lips. “Yeah, if she wasn’t mean as a snake and mule-stubborn, she’d be about perfect.”

Pilar nibbled her lower lip for a long minute.  “Blue?”

“Yeah?” He mumbled around the child’s fingers as they explored his teeth.

“You have a nice way with horses, much like your father.”

“Thanks.” Grinning, he swung the black-haired toddler to his shoulders, laughing when she grasped his ears like handles. “Ow, not so tight!” Holding the chubby legs to steady her, he tilted his head as Lina tugged on his wheaten hair. “Always thought I had a way with horses, but I ain’t doing much good with that she-devil.”

“Of course! Geldings, even stallions, are cheap drunks. Given half a chance, most climb in your pocket.  Mares are different.  A true mare man is very rare,” she explained, rocking the sleeping infant in her arms.

“A what?  Look, I fool with mares all the time.  If it ain’t Irene, it’s the broodstock.  Ain’t never had a problem.” He jostled up and down, delighting the toddler.

“Irene is docile.  Well-trained and well-handled.  You do very little with the others and you have a gelding as a work animal.  Why?”

“‘Cause a gelding does what you tell him.”  Lina began to squirm and he swung her to the ground, squatting to watch her explore the edge of the corral.

“Blue, there is an old saying. Part of it goes ‘you tell a gelding, but you ask a mare’.  Training a mare can be like romancing a girl who wants absolutely nothing to do with you.  Much like making amends with one’s sweetheart after a terrible fight, yes?”

He looked up at her, a half smile on his face. “You, too, huh?”

“Me, too what?”

“About to give me advice on Becca.  I ain’t dumb, Pilar.  I can see where you’re heading.  Go on, no reason you shouldn’t.  Everybody else has.” Chattering gaily, Lina collected carrots and sugar cubes from the dust. He stopped her as she began to eat a handful.  “If Mano got mad and told you to hit the door, what would you do?”

She giggled, rolling her eyes. “Oh my, that would never happen!”

“Yeah?  How come?”

“Because Manolo knows women and he certainly knows me,” she answered, fondly stroking her son’s cheek.  Swaying pensively, she laid him against her shoulder. “Those words to Rebecca busted your flush.  You held the ace through jack of hearts, opened your mouth and drew the six of clubs.  Speak as you did to a woman with any pride at all, the next sound is the door slamming, because what you said showed how little she means to you.  Especially when said during a trivial spat.  And in the great scheme of things, most spats are trivial.”

He picked up the little girl, who snuggled into his shoulder. “Yeah. Pa and Victoria’s usually are, from what I can see.”

“Mmm-hum. As significant as tiny insects,” she mused, resting a small, booted foot on the lower rail.  “Contests best fought with a fly-swatter.  You used a sledgehammer.  The result? Rebecca is wary of you, not unlike your mare.  I believe to win the confidence of either lady, you must humble yourself.  Can you?”

With a hand on Lina’s small back, he stared at the horse, biting his lip, then answered, “I ain’t never quit at nothing. You tell me what to do, I’ll do it.”

Pilar stroked her tiny son’s curls. “Good.  Try an apology, Blue.  Fib if you must. Insincere contrition beats none at all.”

“You sound like Manolito. I already told Becca I was sorry when I wrote her and I meant it.”

She shrugged. “So? It appears once was insufficient.” Collecting her daughter, she added, “Blue, you have a nice way with children, but if you want some with Rebecca, apologize again.  Then again and again until she believes you.”

 

****

 

The polished cedar inside the Delta Saloon gleamed in the light from hanging gas chandeliers. Virginia City’s first and finest watering-hole sported twin bars and polished brass foot-rails shined to a turn.  Dignified barkeepers in starched white aprons and pinstriped shirts quietly took orders. Beauregard Coulter propped an arm on the padded edge and sipped from a cut-glass tumbler of aged bourbon, laughing with the knot of young men around him. “You should’ve seen the fur fly when I told him he had marks on his neck.” He tossed off the drink and motioned for another, continuing, “They ranch for a living, if you can call it that, but he’s too dumb to know a stallion from a gelding. I thought that horse’d rip his arm off before he got away.”

“Looked to me like ‘ol Sport did a number on your pretty face, Beau. You didn’t look so good when you come back,” joked a beer-drinking crony.

Coulter threw his head back and howled, white teeth flashing against his tanned skin.  “Len, you didn’t see him when I got finished. I busted him clear down the stairs and out on their front porch.  Last I saw of him, he looked like he’d been dragged face-down from New Orleans to ‘Frisco.”

“Good for you, but I sure wish Rebecca wasn’t keeping herself so scarce since she come back. I been out to see her and she run me off the place, said we’re all a bunch of owl hoots and she’s going back to Arizona,” Len reported, grinning.

“Gentlemen, I am here to tell you my little sister is staying put,” Beau announced to the others triumphantly.

A red-headed cowboy on his right side eyed him and asked, “How you figure that one?”

Turning to him, Beau answered with a grin, “Becca’s waiting for hound-dog Blue to write, but I took care of that.” He tapped his vest pocket. “I solid gold guarantee it.”

A black-gloved hand tapped the young man on the shoulder. When he turned, his smiling face registered shock in the second before it collided squarely with a massive fist. Beauregard Coulter crumpled to the ground, limp as oil-drenched latigo. The man attached to the fist stood over him, smiling and scratching his chin. He bent over, flipped open the boy’s vest, retrieved an envelope and read the address.

Buck Cannon shook his head sadly. “Beau-re-gard, thank you kindly for delivering this letter, but I believe I’ll take over now.” He plucked a mug of beer from an astonished onlooker and drank deeply. “Much obliged.” He drank again, then addressed the unconscious boy. “Mister Rodeo King, you mess with my Blue-boy or Sis again, you gonna wake up with a worse headache than you got now. I solid gold guarantee it.” He upended the beer on the unconscious form, tipped his hat, and stumped out the gilt-trimmed doorway.  

 

******

 

Rebecca attempted to file Dixie’s overgrown hoof without much success. Normally her favorite, today the little roan was in a mood evil enough to match her own. Dixie pawed, then finally bit hard enough to back Becca off.  Eying the mare, she threw the file against the stall rails and sagged against the gate. “There, satisfied?  I might as well quit, since you’re as fed up with me as I am.” Dixie lowered her head, ready to make peace as long as Rebecca had no tool in her hand. The young woman stroked the soft nose and strong neck. “Yeah, girl, I know. Life’s not fair, is it?” Three months. No word, no letter, nothing. Mamma says I should be over him, but saying don’t make it so. She scrubbed a hand across her face. Moping won’t get any work done, though.  Doggedly she bent to retrieve the file.

“Funny place to store tools, Sis.”  

She pivoted toward the open door where a man leaned against the frame, arms crossed, hat pulled low. Shadow hid his features, but she knew the voice. “Buck?” She moved toward him, smiling broadly. “Where’d you come from?”

Grinning, Buck Cannon hugged the girl and steered her out of the barn. “I heard tell there was a vet a-killin’ horses.  Figured I’d best git here while yore Pa still had at least one left to his name.” She laughed but in the sunshine Buck saw weariness in her eyes. Little Sis ain’t sleepin’ much. Off her feed, too. Ain’t nothing but bones under them overalls.  She quickly spotted his horse and scanned the ranch area. “You kin quit lookin’.  It’s jist me. I come to talk to yore Pa about new broodmares for the Chaparral.”

Rebecca knew she'd best feed and water the older man first, ask questions later. He talked as he ate. John had inquiries from other vets but wouldn’t consider any, thought they were all idiots. The Montoyas were expecting again, must not've figured out what caused that yet.  A group of Apaches left the reservation and returned to the Chiricahua Mountains.  Cattle went missing and 24-hour guards were again posted at the ranch. Sam broke Joe’s nose during a tussle over a saloon girl and the two didn’t speak for a week. When he began recounting the number of new calves and foals, she stopped him.  “What about Blue?”

Buck continued to eat his third piece of pie. “This’s good apple pie, Sis. You make it?” He smiled when she shook her head. “Didn’t think so, I’ve had yore camp cookin’. Must be yore Ma’s. You sure you don’t want some? Here, have a bite.” He offered her his spoon, innocent twinkle in his eye.

“I don’t want any, Buck. Tell me about Blue.”

“Yeah, Blue Boy, now, he’d like this pie, too. It’s good, real good. You ought to eat some, you’re looking too skinny.”

Rebecca sighed. “If I eat the pie will you answer me, Buck?”

He winked at her. “Mebbe. You won’t know ‘til you eat it, will you?” He grinned as she took the spoon and swallowed the bite. “That’s my girl.” Retrieving the spoon, he continued eating. “Blue Boy ain’t fit to be around, acts like he’s got a toothache. Picked a fight with one of the new hands.  Got hisself beat up real good.  Did the same thing two days later in Tucson.” He chewed, eyes narrowed, thinking. “Twice. On the same day.”

“He doesn’t usually lose,” she mused, rising and refilling his coffee cup.

 “He don’t usually pick fights, neither,” he said, slurping and watching her over the rim of the cup. “Once he do, well, you know him.  Knock him down ten times and he’ll get up eleven.” He swirled coffee in the cup. “He bought himself a cussed horse, cain’t nobody git near except Missy. She's got Blue Boy sittin' in that co-ral every blessed day trying to make friends with the danged thing.  Brother John said to get rid of it, but Blue won’t have it. He gets up every blessed morning to try that horse. Most times it bites him jist for practice. Nearly took his hand off once.  Boy wore a sling for a week.” He pointed at her with his cup. “Every morning I'm expecting to find my boy kilt dead in the co-ral. It wears on my nerves.”

Rebecca chewed her lip and looked out the kitchen window. “What’s the horse’s name?”

Buck slammed his cup on the table. “You beat everything, you know that? You got any idea how many women I’ve knowed in my long and misspent life, Becca?” She shook her head. “A lot, that’s how many. Ain’t a one of ‘em would ask me about some horse name.” He drained his cup, rubbed his head, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Lord, strike me down if I ever hint I understand females.  “Look, Sis, I got camp set up by the river, figured I’d check in here first. Let’s take a little ride and break camp. Mebbe you kin think up something else import-nate to ask me.”

Buck squinted at the sunlight winking through the blooming spring hawthorns and wild plums, their blossoms adding a sweet note to the scent of the pines. He chattered aimlessly as they as they rode away from the Circle C ranch, listening carefully to what the girl said and did not say. At the top of a rise he pulled softly on the reins and asked, “Sis, far’s I know you ain’t never lied to me. I gotta know something. You got anything you’d tell Blue Boy?”

“I’d tell him I shouldn’t have left High Chaparral. And I’d come back now if he asked,” she answered, gazing at the horizon. “But Buck, I haven’t heard from him.  Why hasn’t he at least written me?”

Scratching the grit and stubble on his chin, he stared down the hillside. “I seed Beau-re-gard and he give me something for you.” His inside vest pocket was small.  He struggled to fit his wide fingers inside, but finally removed a folded, dirty piece of paper. Handing it to her, he said, “Seems like yore brother aimed to throw heifer dust in yore chuck, Sis.”

Buck watched as she scanned the letter, teeth clenched against her lower lip, forehead wrinkled. You got one chance, Sis. Get it right or Beau-re-guard can have you. He grabbed her reins and stopped her as she wheeled, laughed when she hissed like a wet cat, “Let me go! If I get to Virginia City in time I’ll catch the last rail out today.”

The reins snagged against his glove as she kneed her horse.  Grinning, he drawled, “If yore huntin’ Blue, you best turn around.” He led her to the crest of the hill and pointed. “Down and around that bend, he’ll be about ready to climb a tree and hatch eggs by now.” Gently, he stretched a hand and closed her mouth, then patted her cheek. “Careful there, Sis, you’re catching flies. I got him here. I got you this far.  It’s up to you and him now.”

Buck playfully swatted at her mare as she trotted forward, calling out, "Hey, Sis! He named that horse Becca.” Rebecca’s face lit with a glowing smile, then she headed downhill in a flurry of pounding hooves as Buck collected his reins. “Well, little horse, Sis there is a firecracker, sure enough. Let's see if my boy’s got enough sense to grab ahold to her.” 

At the sound of hoof beats Blue tensed, chewing a corner of his lip.  Why’d I let Buck talk me in to staying here, anyways? If he’s so all-fired smart how come half the saloon girls in Tucson want to shoot him? A gust of wind coursed the riverbed, tossing the tree limbs.  Sweet-scented blossoms filled the sky and drifted over him, catching in his hair as Rebecca rounded the corner, her face beaming.  Jubilant and relieved, he let out a loud whoop, then galloped to meet her, pulling her from her horse and into his arms.

She gasped, “Blue! Oh, my Blue, I’m sorry, I was wrong. I never want to be apart another minute!”

“That’s two of us was wrong,” he admitted. “And two of us that don’t want to be apart no more.”  Holding her closely, he tenderly cradled her face in his hands and kissed her with all the longing he had in him.  When he paused, he said fiercely, “Becca, I ain’t leaving here without you.  You’re the other half of my life, the best half.” Her answer came as a smile so beautiful it put the flowering trees to shame.

On the hillside, Buck gave his livery mount a pat.  “What say you and me leave them young’uns alone, head to that high-falutin’ saloon back in town?  Mebbe I kin learn some of ole Beau-re-guard’s friends a thing or two.  Jist to make sure everybody behaves theirselfs at the weddin’.”

           

*****

 

Hands on hips, Sarah Coulter narrowed her eyes and insisted, “I can’t possibly put together a wedding in less than a month, Rebecca. It can’t be done, so there’s no use talking about it.” She crossed from the large fireplace to the imposing couch, whacking Beau’s feet off the shining mahogany table. “I told you to keep your boots off the furniture.” Judah Coulter, perched on the burnished banister, shot an amused glance at his younger brother.

Whirling back toward the massive fireplace, Sarah pointed at her daughter and future son-in-law. “Be sensible. You’ve got the rest of your life to be married. What’s a few days? I’ve got to arrange the church, Reverend Butler, invitations and clothes for Blue. What he has is completely unsuitable….”

Wearing his unsuitable clothes, Blue rested against the mantle and chewed his lip. I thought all we needed was a preacher. This is worse than a forty dollar funeral.  Mrs. Coulter ticked off endless items on her fingers as Rebecca’s jaw clenched tighter. Movement from the couch caught his eye. Beauregard placed his feet back on the table as he mimed aiming a gun at Blue. Squinting, he fired, blew away the smoke and returned the imaginary weapon to its holster.

“Of course Beauregard will stand for Blue, and Judah will be second groomsman. White tie and tails for all the men…” Both Coulter boys groaned at the mention of formal wear.

“What!” Blue straightened. “Uncle Buck is standing for me! If you think you can get him in some kind of fancy tails, good luck.”

Waving a dismissive hand, Sarah Coulter continued, “Your uncle is simply not appropriate for a wedding of this stature, Blue.”  She gathered a small pad of paper and began to write as she paced.

“Not appropriate? Buck’s not...Becca?” Sputtering, he returned to the mantle and tapped his head against it, muscles rigid and hands balled into fists. “If Uncle Buck ain’t good enough then I ain’t good enough.”

Gently removing the notepad from her mother’s hands Rebecca spoke firmly. “We’re getting married tomorrow. Send word to Reverend Butler today, otherwise we’ll use a Justice of the Peace.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, dear!” protested Mrs. Coulter.

“I’m not, Mamma. We either get married here tomorrow, or we leave for High Chaparral and get married there,” she warned. “You want the social event of the season you’d better find a wife for Judah or Beau.”

Sarah looked to her two sons for support. Beau rolled his eyes and shrugged, saying, “If it were up to me I’d seal her in a barrel and feed her through the bung hole.”

Judah cuffed his younger brother on the head and put an arm around his mother. “You’ve already lost this one, Mamma. Becca’s happy and that’s what matters.” He turned to Blue and extended a hand. “Let’s go find Pop and make a run to town. If you’re getting married tomorrow, you need a new shirt.”

As the two young men walked toward the door, Sarah called to them, “A suit, Judah. Tell your father, get him a suit delivered by tomorrow morning.” She rubbed her temples and glared at her daughter. “Will you at least wear the dress I’ve been saving? I put away my own wedding dress for you before you were born.”

“Mamma, nothing would make me prouder,” Becca replied, throwing her arms around her mother.

 

*****

“Whoa, horses!” Bob Coulter stopped the rig at the Delta Saloon. Four panels of doors with etched glass fronts stretched between two large plate glass windows. “C’mon, boys, let’s visit the club.”

 “Uh, Mr. Coulter, sir, aren’t we supposed to be…” Blue said helplessly to the retreating backs of both men as they disappeared into the darkness. Looks like a funny place to buy a suit. Scratching his head, he shrugged and followed, whistling at the impressive interior. A familiar voice caught his ear and he cried, “Hey Uncle Buck!”

As much at home as a well-heeled mine-owner, Buck Cannon tossed back fine Kentucky Bourbon and beamed at his nephew. “Blue Boy, about time you got here. Have a drink.” He laughed at the Coulters. “Have two.”

Hours later, the four men sat at an enormous wooden table, pouring bourbon into heavy crystal tumblers. His hat backwards, vest over one shoulder, Buck slurped whiskey and pointed at his nephew. “It’s my natural borned duty to learn you ‘bout being a hus-band. I done spent most of my life a learning you ‘bout ever thing else, now I gotta learn you this.” He blinked owlishly.

Struggling to keep his eyes open, he slurred, “But Uncle Buck, you ain’t never been married.”

 “Thas’ right, Blue.” Buck nodded vigorously, the rattlesnake tail on his hat jumping merrily. Thumping himself on the chest, he continued, “Thas’ why I’s the only expert at this here table.”

Laughing boisterously, Bob Coulter poured himself another bourbon and downed it. “Advice. Women.” Holding up a finger, he said solemnly, “Only the best for my little girl. I’ve booked the finest room in town for you two tomorrow. It’s yours for the next three days.” An exaggerated wink followed and Blue blushed. Coulter weaved slightly and threatened to tumble, caught himself, thumped the tabletop loudly and continued. “By Gawd, Son, but you’re getting a woman! That daughter of mine is more man than any woman I know!” He hiccupped softly and scratched his head, thinking ponderously. “Except my wife. Now there’s a woman with sand.” Smacking the table again, he hoisted a jubilant glass. “Let’s drink to women with sand!”

 “Blue, you be real careful tomorrow. Real careful. Don’t you say nothing stupid-like,” Buck cautioned, topping off the drinks.

Amused, Judah Coulter observed his companions, sipping from his glass.  When his future brother-in-law pitched face-first onto the table, Judah hauled him to the wagon, saying, “I hope you were taking notes, Blue. Expert advice is so hard to come by these days. I believe you need to find a sandy woman who thinks you aren’t stupid.” As he stuffed the limp body onto the wagon bed, the two older men wandered out of the saloon. Buck taught Bob the words to ‘Buffalo Gals’, the chorus ringing through the dark streets as Judah drove them toward the Circle C ranch.

 

*****

 

Buck checked the part in his hair for the twentieth time and adjusted his collar. Beauregard’s shirt was tight around the middle and the sleeves were too long, but it was white and looked better than his black work-shirt. He brushed a fleck of dirt off the front and adjusted his pants.  Fidgeting with his tie, he whispered to Blue. “Are you sure I don’t look like some kinda peacock rooster?”

Blue glared at him through bloodshot eyes and hissed, “Shut up.” The boy had less hangover experience and was suffering more. He was green around the gills and his borrowed shirt fit like a cassock everywhere except the neck. Blue ran a finger around the collar, futilely trying to expand it. “My head’s about to split open. I oughta shoot you.”

Buck looked over the church pews. That Coulter woman shoulda been a general, the way she musters the troops. The chapel was almost full and people were still arriving. A familiar hymn played softly from the piano and he nudged the boy again. “I knowed that one, Blue. ‘a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat and the burden of the day.’ I like it.”

“Yeah, Buck. Me too.” Blue straightened, grinning.

At the back of the church, Buck saw Rebecca on her father’s arm. Lace and a smile that would light up Tucson. Sis wouldn’t scare any cows today. “Blue Boy, you done good. Real good.”

His eyes on his beautiful bride, he answered softly, “Yeah Uncle Buck. I know.”

 

*****

Telegram to: John Cannon, High Chaparral, Arizona Territory

From: Buck Cannon, Virginia City, Nevada

Blue Boy and Sis wedded today

 

*****

 

“Would you look at this!” Awestruck, Blue stood in the doorway of the finest hotel room in Virginia City. The lush sitting area was as big as the living room at High Chaparral.  Ornate carpets graced polished wooden floors and tasseled draperies adorned the windows. Beyond overstuffed furniture stood a large canopied bed flanked by heavy night stands.  He stepped inside, stopping Rebecca with an outstretched hand. “Hang on a minute.” Carrying their bags, he entered, leaving his new wife standing in the hallway.

Hands on her hips, she asked, “Blue, how long do I stand here while you bark at a knot?  What are you doing, anyway?”

 “You’re finally a bride, ain’t you? Don’t you want carried over the threshold?” he replied, dropping the bags. 

 With a chuckle, she said, “They say it’s good luck, so maybe you’d better.” She held out her arms to him. “Come and get me, cowboy.”

Blue sailed his hat across the room, yipped, “YeeHaw!” and ran for Becca, hefting her over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. They both laughed as he carried her through the door and deposited her on the fancy, fringed bed-cover. He collapsed beside her. “Button, I’d rather fight Apache than go through a wedding.”

 “I’ll be sure to put that in my diary. You got anything else romantic to tell me on our wedding night?” she said with a giggle, slapping his shoulder.

Blue gently untangled the lace scarf from her hair and touched her cheek.  Kissing her tenderly, he answered, “You make a beautiful Mrs. Cannon, Becca. I promise, I'll be the best husband in the world for you.” He bit his lip and stood, scratched his head as he walked toward the oil lamp, Mano’s voice ringing in his ears. Compadre, girls can be shy, especially the first time. “Uh, I guess I’d better put out the light?”

What the heck had Pilar said?  Precious, do not modestly try your first time in the dark.  For him, it will be like playing billiards while wearing a blindfold.  "Blue? Turn it down but leave it on.”

Exhaling, Blue smiled to himself. Becca, you're full of surprises.  Adjusting the flame to a glow, he sat on the edge of the bed and shucked his boots and socks.  More than a little nervous, he untied his tie and freed his neck from the starched collar.  Mano said go slow “run through a garden, you crush the blossoms under your feet, amigo.”  Slow ain’t the problem, it's I don't want to hurt her.  She's so delicate, like a little doll.  “Compadre, be gentle, but they are made for this, eh? Besides, if you are como se dice? All thumbs? She will not know, since she has no means of comparison.”  Thanks, Mano, but I ain't no schoolboy.  I'm gonna make everything special for my wife, my best girl. 

Becca swung her back to him. “Hon?  Can you unbutton this? Mama's got me cinched so tight I can't breathe.” 

Whoa, I shoulda practiced for this. Might never get to the special part. Blue Cannon stared at the profusion of tiny pearls in tiny loops marching from her neck to below her waist.  His fingers worked clumsily. He paused to wipe his sweaty hands on his trousers, then bent forward and nuzzled her neck before returning to the dress.  Can't just give 'em a yank.  It's Mrs. Coulter's dress.  If I ruin it, she'll kill me.

Sarah Coulter told her daughter, “It's a not unpleasant chore and your duty to your husband, so you'll learn to bear it”, then bustled off to other tasks.  But how can that be, Mamma?  His touch is so tender, his kisses so warm and sweet.  Even when he fumbles with all those little fasteners, it feels nice.  Much as she hated to move away from him, she laid the dress neatly on the settee, saying apologetically, “Sorry, but if anything happens to this, Mamma'll kill me.”

Blue walked to her and took her in his arms.  “Let's forget about Mamma for awhile, Button.  She ain't here, it's just you and me.”  And Pa.  “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.”  He ain't here, but he's still here.  That's a big dang bed, but not for more than two.

“It is, isn't it?  Finally, just you and me,” she replied, touching his corn-silk hair.  “My Blue.”  I've seen animals mate, but this is me.  It's different.  Didn't get anything out of Mamma worth hearing. Victoria was at least more optimistic.  ‘Oh, Rebecca, there is no more beautiful expression of love between a man and a woman.’  No real information from her either.  Victoria Cannon had blushed, changed the subject to Ivanhoe.

“I gotta get out of this baboon suit,” he muttered and started to unbuckle his belt.  She turned around quickly.

“Undo this corset first, will you?”  She asked with haste, shutting her eyes. “I feel like a trussed chicken.”  Oh, good Lord! I've never seen a grown man naked.  I want to.  Maybe.  But not yet.  Birdette Breaux had laughed and slapped her thigh, “Child, it feel nice, but look foolish. Men's are mighty proud of theirselves and some womenfolks says it’s a frightening sight, but did you ever dress out a turkey? If you take the neck and lay it across a split gizzard…”  No, I can't think about that.  I'll laugh and he'll want to know what's funny.  Then there was Pilar, shooting a cautionary glare to Birdie, saying, “Birdie’s husbands were all old and ugly, Rebecca. You have seen amorous bulls.” Bulls?  Hell's bells, I'd still be wondering how the heck it could... well, I could... if she hadn't gone on.  Never thought I'd say it, but thank the good Lord for Pilar.  “Physical union? Oh, my! The most extraordinarily wonderful thing in the world, God’s very best gift to us all!” she had proclaimed breathlessly, touching Becca’s hand.  “However -- and of course I do not mean my husband -- most men are nincompoops.  They would never race a horse without a warm-up, but they fail to warm up a woman.  Because they simply unbutton their trousers and poof! Ready, yes?  Not so with us.  Your first race should not be disappointing, so pay attention

Blue swallowed hard as he loosened the stays, his hands more sure.  When she dropped the corset to the floor, he grasped her around the waist and turned her toward him.  It ain’t like I’m new at this, but I can't just grab her.  Manolito said, “The bad girls, they serve a man’s pleasure.  Ah, but the one a man loves?  Hombre, you want her to feel the heavens part.  Entiendes?  Listen closely, amigo …”

“Blue? Are you all right?”

Black cats, parting heavens.  Heck, I ain't no Romeo.  I’m just a cowboy.  “Yep.  It’s just you’re so pretty, I forget everything else.” Softly, she wrapped her arms around his neck, stepped in close, her body against his.  She began unbuttoning the stiff, white shirt, running a hand over his firm chest.

“My Blue, I love you so much and I’ve waited a long time to finally be yours.  I want to be truly your wife.”

He yanked his shirt-tail out, took off his shirt and said, “Becca, you are my wife.  My best girl and my best friend, too.  And the less I’ve got on, the better my memory gets.”  His fingers played on the fabric of her chemise before he lifted it off.  “That goes double for you,” he added, before meeting her lips with his as he caressed her smooth skin.  Like cream.

He’s so tender and so strong at the same time.

Her pa’s right, she’s a lot of woman.

My Blue, you’re the man for me.  I always knew it.

Yeehaw! She ain’t shy now!

Oh, Blue.  I love you.  I love you.

If that's the heaven's parting, it sure beats all.

Ooh, Mamma!  For once in your life, you’re wrong!

“Becca, we ain't in the middle of a gunfight and I promised I'd tell you sometime when we weren't.  I love you, Button.  I love you more than anything I've ever loved and I'll love you like that always.”

 

******

 

Extracting his arm from the tangled sheets, Blue propped himself on his elbow and touched his wife’s shining brown hair. “Becca? I know your Pa wants us to stay here. He’s got a point, it’s an easier life. Maybe you don’t want to leave your folks. Buck’ll take word back if that’s what you want.”

“But your Pa always said, High Chaparral belongs to Cannons. Us. Our children. All the Cannon children to come. How you figure that’s gonna happen if we aren’t there?” she asked.

Kissing her loudly on the lips, he flung the bedcovers aside and took her small hand in his. He grinned, gave her a gentle tug and shouted, “Suits me, Mrs. Cannon! Let’s go home!”

 

The End

 

2005 Penny McQueen and Jan Lucas

 

 

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