“Southern Cross”

by Penny

(with help from friend & partner, Jan)

 

 

Winter in the Arizona desert is cold and rainy. After summer’s blistering heat and killing water-shortages, Apaches return to their mountain stronghold and ranchers sigh with relief. Winter feed cut, routines change; time to deepen drainage ditches, repair corrals, search out remaining forage. Spring-blooming plants sleep, the ocotillo’s dead sticks rattle in cold morning wind.

Even in the cool of winter, Blue sweltered in the barn-loft. Stripped to the waist, he tossed bales to the floor below, enjoying the rustling thuds and swirling dust. Clearing a corner, he scuffed loose hay until the sole of his boot caught on a thick board hidden beneath stacked, musty bales.

Pulling a muslin bandana from a back pocket and wiping his face, he bent to one knee and slowly worked the board until it slid it free. Loose hay fell from wood, revealing a charred edge, burned to blackened points. He leaned the board against the wall and touched a finger to the remaining letters: ‘H-I-G’. The rest was lost to fire.

As he traced letters, his glove caught on the ragged, incomplete leg of the ‘H’. Standing, pulling off a glove with his teeth, he dug in his pocket. He withdrew his hand and chewed his lip, rolling a chunk of wood in his fingers. Dropping to his knees, he fitted the missing piece seamlessly into place.

Blue sat on his heels, arms resting on his knees, hands hanging loosely, staring at the burned sign. Vision blurred as random scenes floated up from deep memory. Almost three years ago.

 

*****

 

“You best fish or cut bait, Steve Boy.”

Uncle Buck, chewing out a new ranch-hand. I heard that voice ‘bout a thousand times, ‘cept it’s usually me gettin’ the sharp edge. I dumped water in the fire barrel, acted deaf. You’d have to be deaf not to hear once he gets going. “What you think, I gotta wipe yore nose for you?”

Them sticks on the bunkhouse porch roof make funny shadows, and Uncle Buck’s face looked like he was wearing ‘Pache war paint. I felt sorry for the new fella, Buck can give Pa a run for his money sometimes. Pokes real good, too; I oughta have a hole in my shoulder same size as his finger. He was worked up good, bellowin’ like a bull, “Fish or cut bait.”

I got a crawly feeling, dead-dog sure I’d been there before. Buck hollering ree-sponsibility and duty, face beet red and arms thrashing. Common as dirt, cowboy gettin’ what-for, ain’t nobody else even looking, but I come near pitching face first into sand. Worse, I knowed what that guy was feeling. Arms knotted like old rope, choking, knowing you ain’t right but wanting to be.

Sweat ran down my face, the cold kind, and my gut twisted like a gunshot rattler. I ran away from the bunkhouse, away from Buck’s yammering. Somehow I made it behind the house before it hit me. In the dirt, shaking like a sick calf, puking my socks up. It like to never stopped. Finally stumbled to the wash tables and poured water on my head, weak as wet paper. Hot as blazes and I had big ‘ol goosebumps.

The face I shave every morning stared at me from the cracked mirror on the wall. Sam says I look like Pa, Buck says I favor Ma. More’n once folks ask if Buck’s my pa. I could see all of ‘em in that cloudy mirror. Just couldn’t see me. Maybe Pa was right, naming me after a mongrel dog.

Fish or cut bait. Responsibility. Duty. Them words was in my head like church bells on Sunday. Pa’d been disappointed in me my whole life, one way or other. I figured, either I’m fit to wear the name Cannon, or I ain’t.

Uncle Buck was still on the warpath, and I heard him stomping toward the house, griping, “Fish or cut bait, boy, that’s jist the way it is.” I bit my lip and tasted blood, stuck a finger on the mirror and traced the outline of my face. It didn’t want to be mine, but it wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to know whose it was. I spit blood and swore I’d be the son Pa wanted if it killed me.

Next thing I knew, that looking-glass was broke something fierce, and my hand was cut up where I’d smashed it.

 

*****

 

Alone in the silence of his room, Blue pulled open the center dresser-drawer. The odor of cedar mingled with clean cotton and faint traces of laundry soap as he removed stacked shirts. Old, serviceable, the worn fabric was soft on his fingers. As he tossed clothes on the bed, his hand lingered on striped cloth, bringing it to his cheek and rubbing it absently across his skin. The colors and patterns were similar; chosen by his mother, meant to last. He swallowed and bit his lip hard, fighting tears. Closing his eyes, words from an occasional visit to church tolled in his head. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Shoulders straight, he sniffed and squared his jaw, brushed the tattered clothing to the floor, removed new shirts from paper packaging, and dropped them in the drawer. Quickly stripping his clothes, he pulled on a solid blue shirt, tucked the tails into his pants. The new vest was tighter, darker. Wiley at the mercantile said it made him look older.

Blue adjusted the new Stetson in the mirror. Expensive, but worth it. Tugging his vest, he glanced at his reflection one last time. Determination twisted the coiled spring in his belly a notch tighter. He started out the door, then turned back. A wave of softness crept over his features as he retrieved the cast-off striped shirts from the floor, folded them neatly and wrapped them in the paper packaging. Tying off heavy string, he hid the bundle under his bed, and left to join his family for dinner.

 

*****

 

A shrill whistle pierced the air. A good whistle, carrying over lowing cows, hoofbeats, shouts of men, leather against horsehide. Perfected by years of practice, it was the whistle of a man determined to be heard.

Slapping rope against his thigh, Blue whistled through his teeth again, pushing cows up the draw. Frowning, he swiveled in the saddle, checking his back trail, then urged his horse forward. Cattle trotting ahead, he looked behind again, his back rigid, lips pressed tight, elbows tucked into his side. Wheeling and nudging the palomino forward, he rode briskly, pulling up as he joined the laggers. “What’s the hold-up, Joe?”

“Keep your shirt on, Blue Boy. Them beeves ain’t going nowhere.” Butler leaned forward in the saddle, resting on an elbow. “What’s your hurry? Big John ain’t expecting us until tomorrow.”

“That’s right, Joe.” Wiping his face with an overlarge red bandanna, Pedro opened his canteen and drank deeply, stretching muscles in his back. “Jou gonna ride the hooves off my horse, jou keep this up.”

“Yeah, well, Big John ain’t here, I am,” he spat. “And I say we get there tonight.” Working the reins through his fingers with one hand, Blue shouted over the trail noise, “Get these cows moving!” Swinging an arm in a wide arc, he galloped away in a cloud of dust.

Joe nudged his hat with a gloved thumb, muscles in his jaw twitching. “I liked him better when he didn’t know nothing.”

Si. He sounds more like Big John every day. And Big John makes my head hurt.”

 

*****

 

Blue’s year of self-imposed perfection marched on.. Within the monotony of ranch life, events stood out like campfires on moonless nights. Learning he could never bend to the will of another, even if it meant dying. Nearly dying to prove the Apache had strength enough to kill a friend. The re-discovery of an old friend from Missouri, an army Lieutenant who could neither cut bait or honorably fish.

His hips grew leaner, face gaunt and unsmiling as he shouldered every responsibility his father proudly heaped on him. Big John beamed, seeing himself at last in his son.

Satisfied again at day’s end, John eased into a chair, shucked his tobacco-brown boots and stretched. Two large cattle deals put the ranch on solid financial ground, and Blue displayed more maturity by the day. Even Buck showed signs of growing some sense; pity the Converse woman hadn’t stayed and made an honest man out of him.

John watched his wife at her dressing-table, his face softening. Every day he thanked the good Lord for Victoria and the ruined surgeon who saved her life.

“Darling, I am so worried about Blue.” Ebony hair swishing with the brush, Victoria watched her husband through the looking-glass. “Are you not?”

“Why would I be worried about Blue?” Resting his head against the chair-back, long legs extended, he flexed his ankles, continuing, “The boy’s finally hit his stride, grown up and taking life seriously, that’s all.”

“He does not eat, does not sleep. He is thinner by the day and he never laughs.” Arm resting on the back of her chair, she turned to face him. “How can you not see? Annie and Bet were lovely girls and not very much younger than Blue. He is a young man and he hardly noticed. That is not like him, John. Not like him at all. Something is very wrong.”

“I think you’re worried over nothing, but maybe he needs a change of scenery. We promised to help Ben Campbell’s widow keep things going at Red Rock until it’s ready to sell.” Staring at the carpet he continued thoughtfully, “Blue’s ready for a challenge, it’d be good training for him to keep that spread running.” He slapped his hands on his knees. “I’ve got to send somebody and it might as well be Blue. Does that make you happy?”

Curling a shiny lock of hair around her finger, Victoria thought more work was not the solution. She watched her husband’s exasperated face, knowing she couldn’t explain nameless fear, sighed and answered, “I suppose so.”

 

*****

 

My Blue Boy weren’t right that year. I knowed it.

Ain’t nobody but my big brother would figgur to cure somebody of overwork by givin’ ‘em more. You think if Blue was to drown, John’d bury him with a bucket of water?

That were a real bad year, don’t care what nobody says. Big John scared the life outa all ‘a us. Total ee-ex-austion, Doc Plant said. Plain as anything, almost three years worryin’ this ranch nearly worried him to death.

Mano was set to go live with his Daddy and marry that Mercedes girl, ‘cept comancheros done killed her. He didn’t laugh so much after that, seemed like.

Trece Burnette took a bite outa Blue, she’s one woulda been em-proved by the caboose of a train. Onliest thing she done was show Blue Boy they’s some women you best trust like a Chinese faro deck. She were her Daddy’s daughter, and the good Lord knows Gar Burnette was a low-down rattlesnake.

But Blue weren’t hisself even before her. When a boy don’t eat good food, sumpin’ ain’t right. I tole my brother, but did he listen?

“Brother John, you best ease up on that boy a mite.” It makes him mad as fire when I bother him in his office, but I don’t care worth owl spit.

“Buck, will you and Victoria stop worrying?” John Boy tossed his brand new Eagle pencil plumb off his desk. You’d think he’d learn one ‘a these days when he throws things, they don’t walk back to him, don’t matter how hard he gives ‘em the evil eye. We both stared at his pencil a-laying on the floor until he shoved back them ledger books and grumped, “Why is it when a boy grows up and shows some gumption, everyone on this ranch thinks he’s running a fever?”

“Fever?” Why I try with that hard-headed, mule-stubborn, bone-stupid brother of mine beats me. “He ain’t got no fever. What he got is a real bad case of Big John Cannon.” Like usual, I headed out the door and didn’t stop ‘til I hit the saloon in Tucson. Which jist goes to show you, my brother ain’t the only bone-stupid Cannon in the family.

 

*****

 

Dead meat turns rancid fast under a hot sun. The bloated bodies of three reddish Hereford-Angus heifers lay at the lip of an arroyo, blowflies swarming their coyote-torn flesh. Nose wrinkled against the stench, Blue knelt, examining a carcass. He nudged the head with a boot toe, stepped back as flies poured out. “Looks to me like they died of thirst.”

“Yep, makes six this month.” Reed Carey, hands on hips and banty legs planted firmly in the rocky sand, spit tobacco juice and cocked a head westward. “Sixteen all told. I told Missus Campbell we gotta buy more. You reckon your Pa’ll sell?” Wiping away brown from his mouth he continued, “South waterhole’s getting’ kinda greasy, but it oughta hold out until end of summer.”

Leaving the decaying cattle, Blue walked upwind and faced the stocky foreman. “Reed, this ranch’s always been short on water. You can’t keep this many head, you either gotta lease water or sell off stock in the summer.” If he’s foreman, no wonder the place is losing money. Pointing at the carcasses, he said firmly, “You bring in more, they’ll wind up coyote food.”

“Missus put me in charge, I kin buy all the beef I want.” Jaw thrust forward and hands on hips, Carey stepped close and snapped, “How you supposed to have a ranch with no cows?” He hitched his pants along his expansive waistline and spat a brown stream of juice.

“Be reasonable, dead beef don’t help nobody,” Blue spoke through clenched teeth. He sure ain’t too dumb to feed himself, but that’s all I can say for him. “You buy all you want, I’m going to Jeff Patterson, see if we can lease summer water.”

“That’s my job!” Stepping closer, he edged Blue with a meaty hand.

“Then why ain’t you doing it?” Blue shoved back quickly, held up a gloved palm in warning. Anger surged through him but he answered slowly and precisely, “You deal with them dead heifers. I’m going for water.” Back straight as a poker, he marched to his horse and galloped off.

 

*****

 

Victoria set an elegant table and served food a man would pay to eat. After a day overseeing his men pull heifers out of mud holes, chase cows through brush, fight barb-wire onto fence posts, dig ditches and muck stalls, sitting down to white linen, slim candles, polished silver and good china was a gift from heaven. John expected the entire family at the supper table, ready to appreciate the meal and discuss the day.

Blue split a biscuit in half, buttered it, and watched his father. Big John tackled food like he tackled life, determined to wrestle it to a draw. He sawed a thick slab of beef until the knife rasped against porcelain, then chewed rapidly, his teeth jarring with each bite. Nodding briskly, he smiled toward his wife and said, “Excellent dinner, Victoria.”

“Thank you, John.” Pleased, Victoria looked across the table, a small frown puckering her forehead. “Buck, would you prefer a clean napkin?”

“No ma’am.” Chewing noisily, he smiled around a mouthful of food and exclaimed, “Yore cooking gets better ‘n better, Victoria. Ever time I eat it I think it cain’t get no better, then it do.” His napkin, tucked in at the chin, was soaked with gravy; he swiped it across his face, leaving a trail of brown grease behind. Shaking his head, he upended a bowl of potatoes, added corn, and mixed them together with enthusiasm.

“I am glad you are enjoying the meal,” Victoria said weakly, returning to her food.

Grinning to himself, Blue nibbled the biscuit and pushed potatoes around on his plate. Coughing, he patted his mouth with a napkin and said, “Pa? Uh, I been thinking about Red Rock. Could be you oughta buy it.” Resting his forearms on the table and ducking his head, he peered across the table.

“Blue Boy, that ain’t a bad idea.” Pointing at his brother with a fork, Buck gestured wildly. Beef quivered on the end of the utensil, drippings scattering like rain. “Ain’t bad land, John. You could aye-void neighbors.”

“Yeah Uncle Buck. You worked it once, you know it, right?” Gesturing toward his father, he continued, “Then Collee..uh, Mrs. Campbell could go back east.”

“Buck, you know I don’t have cash for land deals right now.” John buttered a biscuit so hard it broke in two.

“Pa, you said yourself this’s the best year we ever had. Biggest round up ever, and you closed your best deal with the army, too.”

“That’s right, son, I did. And I turned right around and reinvested it in the best breeding stock I could get my hands on.” Sighing heavily, John frowned as he picked up his knife and fork. “Maybe two years from now I’ll be ready to think about more land. Not now.”

Blue toyed with the food on his plate, cast a sour glance at his uncle. Stuffing mashed potatoes and corn into his mouth, Buck grinned, cheeks puffed like a squirrel storing nuts. Random chunks of food fell off his plate; he scooped up leavings from the tablecloth with his fingers and pushed them in his mouth. Tossing down the fork, Blue argued, “Well, what if I went to the bank, got money on my own?”

“What?” Eyes popping, hands flat on the table, voice raising with every word, his father barked, “Absolutely not! What’s got into you, boy? You know better. It’s not how much a man owns, it’s how much he can control. We’ve got our hands full with Chaparral land.”

“Yessir.” Stiffly, Blue tossed his napkin, nodded to Victoria, “Excuse me,” grabbing his hat on the way outside.

Chewing thoughtfully, Buck watched his nephew leave, then turned to the table. “John, you cain’t tell me ain’t nothin’ wrong with that boy, not when he don’t eat.” He shrugged, reached for Blue’s plate and upended the contents on his own.

 

*****

 

Stretching underneath everything like oily sweat – Red Rock Ranch and Colleen Campbell. Colleen, tall, sturdy, strong limbed with wheaten hair and a ranch-wife’s hands meant to carve out and hold a home. The Campbells purchased Red Rock and wrestled a living from water-scarce land, earning John Cannon’s grudging respect. A well-matched, sensible couple, they built steadily, bought wisely, and learned fast. During the six months after Colleen was Apache-widowed, she mourned Ben and left running the ranch to her foreman. Thirty years old, her dreams splintered, Colleen Campbell gathered her children, looked east and put Red Rock up for sale.

Big John considered practicalities when he promised aid – cattle, water, feed. Red Rock’s foreman, Reed Carey, worked hard but lacked smarts; without help the widow Campbell would have no stock left.

Buck could add tally sheets. He watched Blue’s schedule and mood, summed a likely total. When Blue snarled at his offered advice, for once in his life he kept his mouth shut.

In the bunkhouse over the rustle of a nighttime poker-game, Manolito Montoya slouched to one side in his chair and rolled his tongue along the inside of his cheek. Eyes slitted, he slowly examined his hand and hummed. Sliding the rejects toward the dealer, he said, “Four.”

“Four? You cain’t take four!” Buck reached for the discards, jerking his fingers away before Mano slapped them. Sitting on a top bunk, Blue smirked.

Hombre, who said you make the rules? Hmph? You cannot even make coffee.” The handsome Mexican twitched his shoulders and smiled at the dealer. “Pedro, amigo mio, quatro, por favor.”

Large eyes drooping, Pedro ducked his head and peered at the other players. When Buck pointed a black-gloved finger and mouthed ‘no’, he shifted the deck in his hands and asked mournfully, “What jou think, Sam?”

“I think we ain’t getting much poker played.” Butler’s deep voice echoed, his chair creaking as he shifted position. “Deal him four cards or I ain’t never gonna win back what I lost.”

Guitar chords filled the bunkhouse as Reno strummed and sang ‘Colorado Trail.’ Blue scooted off the bunk and sang harmony while Manolito hummed along, nudging his cards apart. Studying them one by one, he sighed contentedly and nestled further into the chair.

“Is you gonna play or is you not?” Upending a bottle of whiskey, Buck drank deeply then griped, “Cause if you ain’t, I got better things to do with my time than watch you draw four whole cards and rub the spots off ‘em.”

Calma, compadre, calma. Patience is a virtue. , one you should cultivate. Especially where my money is concerned.”

Sam took a quick sip from the whiskey and stared at his cards gloomily. “I’d have a lot more patience if I had a little more money, amigo.”

Hombre, if you had more patience, you would have more money. Also more women to help you spend it.”     

“Appears to me you was too patient with the widow Campbell, Mano.” From where he lounged on a lower bunk, Joe drawled, “Maybe Blue Boy got the jump on you.”

“Never, hombre. Merely being patient while Blue is extending his… hand to help a neighbor, but later?” He shrugged. Quien sabe?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Leaving Reno to his music, Blue stood with hands on hips.

Amigo, only that your dedication to duty is impressive,” Manolito offered, rolling his eyes.

“That’s right, Mano.” Brown eyes popping, Pedro pointed across the table. “Mi amigo Blue’s real dedicated. He rides there most nights. I been on guard duty so I seen him.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Blue watched the players, scowling when nobody answered.

Without a glance at Blue, the eldest Butler studied his cards and commented, “The widow Campbell’s a nice looking woman, ain’t she Buck?”

“Yeah, Sam, she be a nice lookin’ woman. And Blue be helpin’ her jist like Big John told him to.”

Es verdad? That John, a man full of surprises.” Mano tossed a coin into the pot, leaned back in his chair and continued, “You know, Red Rock produces an abundance of widows needing, eh, the help of Cannons. Muy mysterioso. Perhaps something in the water.”

“I…you…” Blood rising in his cheeks, Blue stormed for the door, slamming it shut behind him.

Mano shook his head. “¡Ay, Chihuahua! First the widow Cawthorne, now the widow Campbell. Women with troubles to complicate a man’s life.” He took a sip from the bottle, swirled it around in his mouth and swallowed. “Hey Buck, what is it about widows that makes both you and your nephew determined to comfort them?”

Seenyore Montoya, my nephew ain’t learned, there ain’t but one way to comfort a widow.” Black hat perched on the back of his head, Buck Cannon slapped down playing cards and grinned. “Read ‘em and weep, Mister gimme four cards. Two pair of jacks and that makes it Uncle Buck’s pot.”

“WRONG! About your hand, about Blue. Hombre, this is not your night.” Sam and Pedro tossed their cards in disgust as Mano fanned his across the scarred table. “I have also two pair. Of aces.”

 

*****

 

Outside in the cool night air Manolito leaned against a post, rolled a long-stemmed weed between his teeth and watched Blue saddle up. Tossing the stem aside, he called, “Amigo, why not come to Tucson with me? Drink a little beer, play some poker, visit the pretty girls or the not so pretty ones.”

Atop his horse, Blue paused, looked out the front gate, and back at his friend. “I can’t, Mano. I got work to do.”

“¡Ay, Chihuahua! Work? What work is more important than drinking, gambling and women, eh?”

“Mine, maybe.” Chewing his lip, Blue asked, “Mano? You ever worry about doing what’s right? I mean, trying to keep everybody happy at the same time?”

“Blue, sí, sometimes. But, hombre, it is imposible.” Raising a finger he continued, “Primero, people are happy or not, you cannot ensure it for them. You make love to a woman and she is happy. She falls and breaks her leg? Unhappy. Finds out a beloved relative has died and left her a fortune? Unhappy and happy. All but the first without you, unless you made her fall or killed her rich uncle. Entiendes?”

“I guess so.” His lips turning down then up in a crooked grin, Blue shrugged and said, “Sometimes you still gotta figure out what’s right.”

Nodding slowly, Manolito stroked the palomino’s neck. “Sí, compadre, but right for whom?” he asked softly.

“I dunno, Mano. I just don’t know.”

“There is no shame in not knowing,” he answered, laying a hand on the younger man’s arm. “but sometimes there is a restlessness, eh?”

“You can say that again,” Blue grumbled, slamming his heels into the horse.

Arms crossed, Manolito watched Soapy gallop under the overhanging sign and muttered, “Ayii, muchacho. Your work has bad complications. The kind you ride away from, not toward.”

 

*****

 

Blue closed the heavy wooden door, pulled his hat lower, and retrieved his gloves from a back pocket. Annoyed at himself for being there, unable to find an open road out of Red Rock’s thorny emotional canyon, he trudged toward the corral and tangible things he understood: a good horse, a good saddle. A horse didn’t lose sleep wondering if he did right, a saddle didn’t have feelings, and Blue figured they had a man beat all hollow. Cinching up, he jumped when a small, angry voice behind him asked, “You gonna marry my Ma?”

Blonde hair hung straight across the young boy’s forehead. Hands clenched into fists at each side, stubborn hazel eyes blinked away welling tears. Looking at the child, the same yawning desperation washed over him as when his Ma died. Dropping to one knee, he touched the small shoulder, removing his hand when the boy twitched. Sighing and pushing his hat back, he wondered how to answer and decided on the truth, saying quietly, “No. No, I ain’t gonna marry your Ma.”

“Then why’re you here all the time?” The child’s shirt hung crookedly misbuttoned. Blue reached to fix it, stopped when small hands batted him away.

“My Pa sends me here to help, since your Pa died.” Resting his arms on his knees, he peered into the young face. Skin white around tightly pressed lips, jaw muscles twitching, eyes like slits under knotted brows. I must’a looked like that to Victoria. Wonder if she felt sick as I do. “Someday your Ma’ll get married. Might not be bad, having somebody around.”

“Ain’t nobody never gonna be my Pa! Never!” Blue thought the boy might cry, hoped he wouldn’t.

“The Apache killed my Ma, too.” Saying it, the loss pierced his chest. Three years and I still miss her. “Nobody’ll ever take her place, but somebody smart told me, never is like always, there ain’t no such thing.”

Head high, the boy walked away, then turned and snapped, “I ain’t stupid. There ain’t no ranch work at night.” As Blue reached for him, the child ducked and ran for the front door. He heaved it open without a backward glance and slammed it behind him.

Blue rubbed his eyes and stood, staring at the house. Victoria had one advantage. She was right about being like a Ma. But all I am is a stupid cowboy in the wrong place at the wrong time. He kicked at dirt, then mounted his horse and rode for home.

 

*****

 

The morning Pa left for Yuma I thought he’d never get gone. Me and Victoria was standing at the hitching post while he kept thinkin’ up last-minute orders. “Don’t forget thirty head are due to Ed Henderson next Thursday. Pick up payroll at the bank on Monday.” Uncle Buck rolled his eyes when he mounted up. I knew Pa couldn’t let it alone, sure enough he said, “You’ll be fine, boy, just use what you’ve learned. You’ve come a long way since that Corazon mess. Man always learns something, first time he’s in charge. ”

“Yeah, Pa, I can handle it,” I agreed, thinking, yeah, Pa, I ain’t no ten-year-old.

“Brother John, we gonna stay here all day jawin’?” Good thing Buck lit a fire under him or we’d still be in the yard. “What’d you git us up early for if we ain’t gonna leave?” He winked at me and I grinned back; better if Pa don’t catch everything goes on.

“All right, Buck, keep your shirt on.” I listened to Pa tell Victoria how to keep house, then he waved and dust kicked up behind all of ‘em going out the gate.

Standard guard for winter is two men on the compound, no roof watch since Apache’s in cold-weather camp, ain’t likely to fuss. Most nights there was three, since I couldn’t sleep with my insides tight as a drum-head and my brain marching double-time. Joe’s new batch of mustangs. Pedro’s herd tally. Balanced ledgers, the new well, Red Rock Ranch. Dog-tired didn’t matter, I’d be up walking the yard.

Didn’t help none when Reed Carey’d ride in from Red Rock, spit on my boots and snarl Colleen wanted me for round up or branding. I’d send him back, assign two hands in the morning. Told myself I was busy with Chaparral work. Half believed it, but come midnight I’d be up, trying to figure the right trail in my head.

Three weeks after Pa went to Yuma, I checked the sentries and fell asleep on the couch. Felt like I’d just closed my eyes when I heard the rifle shot and “Fire! Fire!” In dry country, ain’t no worse word. I’ve filled them fire barrels hundreds of times, never figured to need ‘em in the dark, but I did and I run for the gate. The posts’d caught good at the base, like big torches. The boys poured out of the bunkhouse, but tossing water was like trying to turn a stampede with a pea-shooter.

I threw water, grabbed Sam by the shirt, hollering, “We ain’t gonna save it!” Heat wouldn’t let us close and the smoke had a kerosene smell. I knew somebody’d set that fire. Flames ate their way up posts, went licking at the sign. “Soak the fence!” I ran for the tool shed, grabbed everything I could hold and shoved an axe at Sam.

“Blue, we can’t get near, we’d burn alive.” The sign gave way, hit the ground with a crack.

“We gotta do something.” My chest hurt, all I could think of was the house going up. “Tear out the fence, make a firebreak.” Sam hefted his axe, nodded, and we both ran for the fire.

 

*****

 

With no breath of wind, the smoke hung in greasy clouds, heavy with kerosene, smudging the house and barn with soot. Angry puffs rose from the stubs of the gatepost. At the entrance, Blue poured a final bucket on the remnants of his Ma and Pa’s sign, hot wood hissing steam.

“We saved the fence anyway.” Sam Butler ran an arm across a face blackened with smoke and sweat. Shoulders sagging, he pointed to the missing overhang. “What do you want to do about it, Blue?”

Standing at the front gate, looking at the night sky, Blue felt strangely unprotected, as if the wood in naming the ranch guarded the buildings and people.

Pedro sighted Reed Carey lighting the fire. Too late to stop the Red Rock foreman, he acted quick enough to capture him. Blue wondered if his father or uncle would’ve seen the growing hatred in the man, headed off disaster. “You got him tied up?” When the foreman nodded, he continued firmly, “Put a man on him tonight, we’ll take him into Tucson tomorrow, let the law deal with him.” As the older man turned away, Blue touched his arm, “Sam, no trouble from the boys, you understand?”

“Sure. No trouble.” Butler stepped toward the bunkhouse.

“Sam?” Wide shoulders swung back and Blue said, “Get a couple of men, start replacing the posts. I want a new entry up before Pa and Buck get back.” The yawning emptiness between fence pieces gnawed at him.

“All right.” Sam ran strong fingers through his hair before asking, “What about the sign?.” Shoulders shifting uneasily, he scratched his nose before questioning, “You want to do this one, or you want me to have the boys do it?”

Blue nudged the burned wood at his feet, smoke still rising from the charred end. Blackened hunks chunked off, falling to the ground, breaking into rounded bits of charcoal. Licking his lips, he tasted fire, coal oil, wood smoke, destruction. Swallowing, he gazed at the slender figure on the porch, outlined by light from the lanterns. “Get the wood. Me and Victoria’ll make the letters.”

 

*****

 

At the main corral, ranch hands untacked and pretended to ignore the family scene at the house. Heads downcast, cowboys peered slyly toward the hitching post from underneath their hats. John Cannon stalked, arms swinging in wide arcs. Blue Cannon’s lips pressed tighter by the minute as his father fired salvos. Hand on his nephew’s back, hovering behind him, Buck’s eyes darted from father to son.

In retreat on the porch, Victoria watched, a knot of hurt and worry deepening on her forehead. Loudly rebuffed when she tried to intervene, she begged her brother, “Manolo, for me, is there not something you can do?”

Arm around her shoulders, he shook his head, “Calma, muchacha. We Montoyas have our own foolish wars, this one is for Cannons.”

Nudging his hat with a thumb, John blew out a breath and squinted as he snapped, “How could you let this happen, Blue?” Arms swinging, fingers working, he paced. “Did you even post a guard?”

“Sure I posted a guard, you think I’m stupid?” he shot back. Around the bristling Cannons, men looked at dirt, found things to keep busy. Shouting at his father’s back, Blue added, “Most nights I walked the yard myself.”

Head swinging like an angry bear, the older man sneered, “You walked the yard yourself, did you? Checked on the guards, kept them on their toes.” Stomping toward his son and shaking a finger in his face, John thundered, “Did you walk the yard the night the whole place nearly burned down?”

No Pa, not that night.” Arms crossed, Blue tucked his chin and glared at the ground.

“I didn’t think so.” Big John paced to the side porch where the remains of the burned sign leaned. Hands balled into fists he bellowed over his shoulder, “Sam! Clear this out and finish the job.”

“What d’you mean, finish the job?” Elbowing between his father and the ruined wood, Blue planted his feet wide.

“I mean burn up this trash.”

“Over my dead body,” Blue muttered, his jaw clenched .

“Oh for…it’s just a piece of wood, boy.”

Struggling to control himself, Blue inhaled deeply and blew a long breath from tightly-drawn lips. “No it ain’t, and I ain’t a boy.”

Nose wrinkled from the lingering smoky odor, Big John looked over his shoulder at the new gate. Rough hewn poles replaced milled lumber, a new sign hung suspended from shiny chains. He glared at his son and growled, “You’re wrong on both counts,” spun on a boot heel, and stalked away.

 

 *****

 

Standing at the fireplace in Blue’s bedroom, Buck put a comforting arm around the younger man’s shoulder and urged, “Nephew, you been hearing yore Pa long enough, you knowed he don’t mean half what he says.”

“I shoulda left three months ago, Buck.” Smacking the mantelpiece, Blue twisted away and paced angrily. “I let him talk me into staying and why? Nothing’s changed. Nothing ain’t ever gonna change. No matter what I do I ain’t good enough. I ain’t never gonna be good enough.”

“Blue, you ain’t a quitter. You jist ain’t. That’s why you is still here.”

“It ain’t about quittin’, Uncle Buck.” The younger man gestured, hand shaking with tension. “It’s about facing what’s real. What’s here for me? Trying to make myself into him?”

Buck placed one hand on his nephew’s shoulder, rubbed his own cheek with the other. “Blue, everything we done, we done for you. High Chaparral, we built it for you.”

“I know you did. But nobody ever asked me if I wanted it.”

 

*****

 

In the dead of night the Chaparral compound is never empty. The breeze carries desert sounds of coyote and owl. Night guards murmur and joke, the click of a rifle echoes. The scent of horses and cows, dust, hay and leather cling to the buildings like paint.

Blue eased the front door shut, carrying cloth bags and a small case. Walking rapidly to the main corral and leading his palomino to the rail, he lifted a blanket, smoothing it over Soapy’s creamy back, and added the familiar saddle. Reaching underneath for the cinch he saw caballero’s boots. Straightening, he looped the strap through the ring and snugged it down, then buckled the back-girth, nodding when Mano hung a full canteen on the horn.

Resting his elbow on the pommel, Manolito cocked his head. Shadows darkened the ridges around his mouth and his skin was the color of café con leche in the moonlight. He waited silently as Blue crooned to the horse and stroked the gelding’s thick neck. Soapy nibbled his master’s fingers, looking for a treat until Blue slipped the bit in his mouth.

Manolito blinked hard once and asked, “Hey, Blue. Where will you go?”

“I don’t know.”

“A familiar feeling, compadre.” The older man looked toward the Tucson road, his profile reminding Blue of serrated desert peaks. “So you ride and ride until you are somewhere, then ride some more?”

“Yep.” He glanced toward the ranch-house, and said softly, “Mano, you asked me once what I wanted. I said I didn’t know, maybe the ranch, but not if I had to be like your pa or mine. I didn’t know if I could be like them.”

Si, I remember, and I remember saying you would have to learn if this ranch was what you wanted.” A dazzling smile showed in the moonlight as he urged, “Hombre, you have learned.”

Blue fastened the small case to the saddle and looked at his dark-haired friend. “Yeah? Ask me again what I want, I got the same answer. I just don’t know. All I know is, I need three days head start ‘fore they figure I ain’t out sulking.”

“All right,” he agreed, pressing his lips tight and nodding once. “But they will worry. People are worried about you now, muchacho. Buck, my sister, the boys. Big John, even if he does not say it, I see it in his eyes.”

Don’t do me no good. Ain’t nobody got answers.” Hanging the muslin bags on the saddle, Blue chewed his lip. “Not gonna, neither, ‘cause I don’t know the questions.” He looked up at a bright full moon big as the sun.

Mano followed his gaze and sighed. “Beautiful, is it not? I see that moon and I think, somewhere there must be answers. At least questions or such a moon could not exist. Claro que sí, perhaps this is only my romantic soul wanting this to be true.”

“Maybe,” Blue muttered, swinging into the saddle and gathering the reins. “Three days, Mano.”

Sí, compadre. Three days. Vaya con Dios.” He patted Soapy’s rump and walked to the center of the compound. Turning, he tapped his fist to his chest and extended his hand forward, palm down. Apache sign language for The Great One sees you. A priest would recognized the intent if not the gesture. He watched the young man ride out the new gate and into the night.

 

.*****

 

The Chaparral ranch house was unnaturally quiet, the ticking of a table clock sounding through the living room. Evening darkness pooled in corners and spilled over furniture, held at bay only by flickering light from the massive fireplace. Stooped at the hearth, deep lines creasing his face, John Cannon ignored Victoria’s soft steps.

“John, it is very late. You must sleep.” Lips pressed tightly together, he refused to answer as she drew closer and gently touched his shoulder.

Absently, he patted her hand. “You go on, I’ll come to bed later.” His eyes never left the fire.

Sighing, she shook him gently. “No, you will not.” A golden cross on a delicate chain shimmered around her neck.

He nodded slightly. “No, I will not. You go anyway.”

“John, you have not slept well for weeks.” She slipped her arms around him and rested her head on his broad chest. “I am so worried about you, my darling.”

He wrapped his arms around her and slowly looked into her upturned face. “Victoria, what did I do wrong? All I ever wanted was for the boy to be the kind of man who’d do well in the world. All my hopes and dreams for this ranch, for his future. Gone.” Face like carved stone, he stared into the firelight.

“Your dreams, our dreams, are not gone, my husband.” Placing her delicate hands on his face, she answered earnestly, tears shining in her dark eyes, “And you did nothing wrong. Perhaps he tried to be what you wanted him to be and for Blue, that was wrong.”

“I never wanted him to be anything but himself.”

“Yes, I know and you want him to know what that is or help him find out, but he does not know and he must find his own way, John. He must.” A tear slid down her cheek as she urged him again, “Darling, please come to bed. Remember what Dr. Plant said, this is not good for you, to go each day with no rest.”

He turned back to the fire, jaw clenched, and answered through tight lips. “No, you go ahead.”

The bright of early morning found Big John slumped in the high-backed chair, staring at dead coals. Stirring at the sound of hoof beats, he rose stiffly as the front door banged open. Buck swarmed into the room, yelling, “John, he ain’t dead! I found his horse in Tubac.” Waving a crumpled paper, he continued loudly, “He left Soapy, said I’d best take care of him good. I talked to that stage feller, he said Blue caught the rail head. I figgur California. Me and Mano kin head out tomorrow….” His voice trailed off as the bigger man walked silently past, through the open door onto the porch. “John, you hear me?”

“He heard you, Buck.” Eyes brimming with tears, Victoria took his upraised arm, removed the paper from his hand and read. Wiping tears from her cheeks, she embraced him and choked out, “Gracias al Dios, he is not dead.”

“Ain’t dead, least not yet, but he ain’t here…” Pushing her away, Buck lunged for the door, shouting at his brother. “John! I’m going for my boy, you hear me?”

Ponderously, the older man stared at the face under the dusty black hat, saw eyes like mine-shafts, bones sharp as knife-blades. “No.”

“No? What you mean, no? I’m going after him, and I’m bringing him right back here, and you cain’t stop me.” Dust puffed from his boots as he stomped off the porch toward his horse. “C’mon, Rebel, you got more sense ‘n some people I knowed.”

“Buck, you can’t.” Blood seemed to flow into John’s face, bringing life into him. “He doesn’t want to be here. What’re you going to do, keep him tied up like an animal?”

Slapping his hat angrily, voice breaking, shouting as tears leaked from his eyes, Buck stuttered, “I cain’t…he’s my boy…” He covered his face with black gloved hands, and muttered, “What we gonna do, John?”

Staring at the front gate, Cannon stepped forward and placed a hand on his brother. He drew himself up, squared his shoulders, bit his fingers deeply into the leather clad shoulder and answered firmly. “We’ll do what we always do. We’ll go on.”

 

*****

 

Wandering wide city streets, a stranger in a strange land, Blue Cannon saw farmers, miners, laborers of every sort. Gangs of Chinese immigrants, cheap labor for Nob Hill rich, pushed past him, their guttural speech exotic to his ear. At a corner a knot of railroad men smoked cigars and argued. “Kearney’ll show them boyos” and “Damned Chinee” drifted from the group. A stocky redhead in an engineers cap jerked his arm, asking, “Where do you stand on Burlingame?”

“Uh, Bur…huh?” Bewildered, Blue stumbled on when the railroader waved him away. Continuing west for the docks, he passed street vendors, old women selling flowers, newsboys in knickers and fresh fish wrapped in yesterday’s headlines.

A woman lounging outside a small tent gestured to him. Dark hair falling in tendrils escaped from a colorful scarf trailing down her shoulder; silver bangles circled ears and wrists. As he passed, she placed a ring-laden hand on his chest and spoke in a heavily accented alto. “Beautiful boy, you come, Vadoma tell your future.” Her jewelry snagged his shirt as her hand slid across his chest and pulled his arm. “Devlesa avilan, it is God who brought you here.”

“I ain’t got any money, ma’am.” Face growing hot, he pulled away, looking at flawless skin the color of rich cocoa surrounding smoky eyes.

“I see your eyes from far away, they tell me it is for baxt. For luck.” She turned toward a small tent, pulled him insistently, urged him with a heavy lidded glance, “No money. You come, Vadoma reads for you.”

A sweet odor hung in the air as Blue sat on the small chair and leaned across the scarred table. I gotta be a half-brained donkey, sitting in the dark listening to ghost stories. Her fingernails scratched the palm of his hand, tracing patterns in the dim light. She bent his little finger, squinted at the creases. “Three lines. Two small. These women not so good for you.” Tapping the top crease and frowning, she said, “This one is no more. This one is no good.” She ran a sharp nail through the deepest line and laughed. “This one you never meet, but look? She stays, like rust on iron.”

Blue shivered as she traced the lines of his palm. “You see here, the Crux? Paths break and cross. You break your life into pieces.” Rubbing his hand absently, she stared into his eyes and asked abruptly, “Where is your Nano?”

“My what?” It was warm in the darkness, her low voice lulled him into a half sleep. Startled at the sharp question he jerked his hand, twitching when she clutched it.

Nano, beautiful one. Uncle.” Clicking her tongue, she pushed his hand away and withdrew oversized cards from a pocket. “Tarot will tell us.”

His heart beat rapidly as she shuffled the large pasteboards, sweat beading his forehead. Buck. How’d she know about Buck? She turned three cards over and studied, eyebrows drawn tightly together. Like no deck he’d ever seen, garish colors and incredible drawings. Lightening blasted a tower as figures plummeted to their death. The names chilled him. The Tower. Death. The Hanged Man.

Coughing, Blue rubbed his mouth then touched the nearest card. A saint, lashed upside down to a crucifix. He chewed his lip, remembering how the Apache tortured Manolito. “Don’t look like good news for me.”

“This is why Vadoma reads and not you. This card is you, baxtalo boy. Not so happy maybe.” She chose the next; a black knight, tramping a field with his white horse. “This one, Death.” Twitching it between long fingers and rolling her eyes, she slapped his arm. “Always, you Gadjo think this card is bad. No! Your eyes, your hand say,” she shook the card, “and this say, you change. Your path change.” Laying down the card, she laughed and wiggled her little finger. “And love line say you have big surprise coming.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Ain’t too hard to look at me and figure I ain’t in high spirits. Sure glad I never paid for all this good news. Pointing with his chin he asked, “What about that other one?”

Isi ili daba. Here there are also smacks.” Fingering the blasted tower, she pointed to the doomed figures. “I think behind much misery when you leave.” Leaning toward him, she touched his chest. “Misery here. And at home.”

Ducking his head, Blue felt pain bite his gut and fought to push it away. Shoulders sagging, he ran a hand through his hair and looked into her dark eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”

She turned over a final card, crossed the ruined tower with it. A blond child gamboled on a white pony, brilliant rays of sunlight streaming over it’s outstretched arms. Smiling, she laid a hand on his arm. “You cannot walk straight when the road is bent. But walk your road anyway. When you find your crossroad, you will know which way to choose. Ashen Devlesa, Romale. May you remain with God.

 

*****

 

Every street ended at a wharf, sharp salt air carrying the raspy stench of fishing vessels, sweet spices from Chinese cafes, sweat, cheap perfume, fresh bread, engine oil, garlic and fish. Only the fragrance of animals was familiar to Blue and some days he wanted to rest his cheek on the neck of a dray horse and inhale.

A scruffy beard aged his young face and his boots were worn. Sitting with his back against a massive coil of sisal rope, he pushed his sleeves above his forearms, took a swig of beer and returned to the sketch-pad propped on his knees. Wide strokes became timber schooners and iron-hulled merchant ships groaning into port. He outlined warehouses, hard-muscled sailors, burly dockworkers manhandling cables big as tree-trunks, elegant first-class passengers, sleek yachts and rum-sopped drunks. As he drew, the music of shrieking gulls, deafening horns and the voices of a thousand other countries crashed into his ears. Almost lost beneath it, faint piano-keys mingled with laughter from bawdy-houses.

Focused on a docking freighter, he dropped his pencil when a finger tapped his shoulder. Tossing his pad to the ground, Blue scrambled to his feet ready to fight or run. Expecting a knot of roustabouts, instead he looked into the amused brown eyes of a sharp-featured, wiry sailor not much older than himself. The sailor’s dark hair was brushed back from an intelligent forehead and he stroked his dapper mustache as he studied Blue for moment, then quick as a crow scooped up the sketch pad. Blue reached for the papers, caught himself and gritted his teeth. Better to wait, read the lay of the land.

“Sorry, Señor Rembrandt, all wharfs in San Francisco are privately owned, including this one.”

“Yeah, I was run off the one at Pacific street.” He scanned the street quickly. “What’s it to you?”

“See that ship?” He waved a scarred, ropey hand at seven hundred feet of iron hull riding low in the water, steam belching from her stacks.

“Have to be blind not to, amigo.”

“Well, amigo, that is the S.S. Lunareja of Linea Cruz del Sur. Southern Cross Line to you gringos.”

“I can read Espanol. Speak it, too.” Hands on hips, Blue tilted his head and complained, “That still don’t tell me why you care where I sit.”

“Home port Lima, Perú, tonnage twenty thousand, her engines go to thirteen thousand horsepower and like this wharf, she’s mine.” When Blue laughed, his new friend flipped through the sketch-pad. Pointing to the drawing of a sharp-eyed, long-nosed rat sporting a neat moustache and dressed in sailor’s clothes, he commented, “This little rodent looks rather familiar.” Blue watched as the man studied the page, unsure of his next move until the sailor extended his hand. “I am Luchiano Salazar-Messina. Lucho to my friends. A man whose family believes in knowing our ships from keel to kingpost. Also in standing behind you long enough to hear your stomach growl.”

Automatically shaking the man’s hand, Blue squinted into the sun. “Bl.. William Blue. I uh, ain’t had time to eat.” Hard to eat when you get rolled coming out of a waterfront dive. Just got paid, too. Flat broke on a ‘Frisco wharf made for slim eating.

Nodding, Lucho shuffled pages in the tablet until he thumped a finger on the portrait of a stern, craggy-featured man with a determined mouth and white hair. “Who is this sundowner, Guillermo?”

“Somebody I used to know.”

“Give him black hair and spectacles, he resembles my father. We may be cousins, so I do you a favor instead of hauling you to the calaboso for trespassing.” Leaning close he spoke quietly, “Don’t try what you’re thinking. See those men over there? The way you stand says you can fight, but they’ll turn you into chum.” Stepping back he continued pleasantly, “Now, you stay on the docks, maybe you find a little work, but you aren’t mean enough to survive. Sooner or later somebody who is mean enough will dislike you, primo. He slits your throat and you are maggot-food. Or, sign on with La Lunareja. Capitan Jensen is a fair man.”

Blue bit his lip and shrugged. “I ain’t no sailor.” He thought Uncle Buck might get more hands if he tried this guy’s technique. No bribing them with redeye, just work for the Chaparral or get a knife in the neck

“No, you are not yet a sailor. But fortunately, one of the deckhands had his back broken by the anchor-cable, therefore we have an employment opportunity. Your choice, first jail then dead in the gutter or the glamour of the open seas.”

 

*****

 

Brother John said we’d go on. He was right, we did. What he didn’t say was, there wouldn’t be no laughin’ or no heart left in none of us.

We aye-complished things, that fourth year. Big John had more dinero and we didn’t fight them A-pache ever day. Got us a new barn and blacksmith shop. Bigger trough, new corral and horse shade. Sam and the boys rebuilt the old corral and filled in the well when a side crumbled; John promised Victoria he’d re-dig it with stronger bracing after round-up.

That year were a com-bye-nation of one bad thing after another. Spokes ain’t nothin’ but a mining town, but I could’a improved it considerable with some well placed dyno-mite. I should’a faced Tulsa Red square, but then I wouldn’t be alive to enjoy a good shot of whiskey. A man couldn’t go to a simple fiesta, and there be days I is still real heart-sorry I didn’t shoot that smart mouth Wind when I had the chance.

There was times, mebbe when I’d come in after a real long day, too wore out to spit, I’d forget Blue Boy was gone. Some pea-sized corner ‘a my brain’d be lookin’ for him, and then I’d see them posts and sign. Like gettin’ kicked by your own horse.

That year, I was a hard man to kill.

Victoria got a-holt of Brother John’s old trunk, found his marshal badge and old wanted poster. Some things her and Mano don’t need to know. I told ‘em enough, figured the rest is between John and me. That afternoon I’s drinkin’ coffee out front when Pedro whistled and yelled, “Uncle Buck!” I dumped my coffee and tossed the cup, thought about pullin’ him off the watchtower and poundin’ his head. I told him already, don’t call me that no more.

He pointed and I seed the rider so I decided to leave Pedro’s head on his shoulders. Headed for the gate and watched the horse get closer, then rubbed my eyes ‘cause I couldn’t believe what I was seein’. That rider looked like Christmas on Sunday and I whispered, “Blue Boy?” I felt like mebbe I could fly, like my face might fall off, I was grinnin’ so big.

Then the dust cleared, it weren’t my boy, and all the laughin’ and heart left, quick as summer rain in the desert.

 

*****

 

When the Lunareja steamed out of San Francisco for Lima, Blue asked Lucho, “How come it’s called Southern Cross Line?”

Smoking his pipe, the other man answered, “Because to a sailor the Southern Cross means he is going home, Guillermo. And because the first time you see it can be a time for visions, guidance perhaps from the Holy Mother herself. The most potent symbol for the most potent shipping-line.”

“You’re gonna show it to me, ain’t you?”

“No, a man must find it for himself. As with many things in life,” Lucho answered and Blue cussed him for being no more help than the gypsy.

After the ship crossed the equator, Blue searched, found false pointers, diamond crosses, sham constellations. Staring at sparkling stars until his eyes blurred, he wondered if the Cross existed. Forearms resting on the gunwale, he breathed salty night air and searched the overhead blackness again. Heart thudding in his chest, he found two bright pointers and traced them to a diamond cluster. Son of a gun, there it is. He scanned the empty deck, but seeing no one gripped the rail and leaned on his heels, drinking in the night sky.

Certain he’d found it, Blue recalled learning the constellations of home. His father, in a field in Virginia, tracing out the two dippers. Buck, joking they held Orion’s beer. Turning at the scent of pipe smoke and a soft footstep he saw the glow from a meerschaum pipe. Pointing at the stars, Blue said, “I found it.”

Gripping the pipe stem in his teeth, Lucho answered, “Si, you did. Congratulations. The Southern Cross. Unimportant in navigation, but important to the spirit.” He removed the pipe, holding it as his glance drifted down to the foamy bow-waves and back to the other man. “First sighting. It means you are headed home”

“I ain’t got a home.”

With a low chuckle, he said, “Amigo mio, you can always pretend.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He studied the dark-haired man as he puffed on the pipe. Big rough hands incongruous with his refined face, he hummed “Spanish Ladies” with a look of pure contentment. Blue realized he’d never seen Lucho look otherwise. Steady like Sam, just don’t cut loose like him. It made him seem older than twenty-four. “Hey, Lucho, what if you didn’t want to do this?”

He frowned and answered slowly, “It’s never come up.”

“You never thought of doing anything else? What if you and your Pa had a fight, or your brothers?”

“No.” Turning around, he leaned against the gunwale, looked from the Lunareja’s bow to her stern, then at Blue. “This is what we do, my friend, for a very long time. You’ve told me about Estancia Chaparral and your father, of your friend Montoya, who rejects his father’s wealth. But in my family, the sea is in our blood. I love this.” He shrugged.

“Yeah, but what if you didn’t love it?”

“My friend, I have no more answer than you if I asked what if you weren’t Norte Americano. You had to learn ranching and the desert. I know we are heading south by southwest at twelve knots without thinking. I know and cannot recall ever not knowing.”

Dropping his head, Blue looked to the waterline. Foam and spray rose and disappeared into the black sea. A chill grew as shadows reached across the deck like hungry fingers. “Kinda nice, being sure what your life’s supposed to be. But being happy ain’t just about luck, is it?”

Lucho stretched, clasped his hands behind him and walked aft several steps. “Not always, but lack of it plays a part in the stories of many unhappy men. I hear quite a few; the sea attracts them.” He drew on the pipe and exhaled a thin line of smoke. “Some say the ocean is salty because of the tears a man sheds before he falls in love with her. They also say, after a man falls in love with the sea, he has no more reason to weep.”

Blue grinned and asked, “You gonna turn me into a career seaman, Lucho?”

“Only if you turn me into an artist.”

“You’d starve,” he said with a quick laugh.

Pipe smoke and tobacco, wet wool and bay-rum mingled as the older man said, “True. A man either is something or not, although I’m tempted to persuade you otherwise. You could do worse and you do the work of two men.” Yawning, he patted Blue on the back. “Guillermo, do what you love, the rest will take care of itself. Since that is everything I know which doesn’t pertain to shipping, buenos noches.”

Turning back to the night sky, Blue squinted at the Southern Cross. Do what you love. What is it I love? An image of jagged peaks sheltering a ranch compound flitted through his head and he pushed it away angrily. Chewing on his lip, he thought about the only job he’d had besides ranch hand. I can chase cows and I can draw. Phosphorescence shimmered in the bow-waves. It’s time I quit drifting and I ain’t going back to chasing cows.

At a table in the galley, Blue ignored the dampness, weak light and deepening cold. He continued drawing as calm seas became chop and chop increased until heavy seas pitched the ship like a buckboard through never ending arroyos. He drew until time to put on his oilskin and go above decks for watch.

 

*****

 

Early lights flickered in random windows and laughter mixed with the night shouts of revelers, progressively drunker as they careened from one waterfront gin-mill to the next. Piano-music, fist-fights, gunshots and screams. The S.S. Lunareja groaned against her dock-lines. Blue figured she wanted to get away from New Orleans wharfs as bad as he did.

Waiting to disembark, he’d never been so hot in his life. Sweat plopped onto his sketch-pad and mixed with blood from fat, smashed mosquitoes. Big as crows, he wondered if they’d sucked him dry yet.

With a hand growing too slippery to hold the pencil, he drew dives and grizzled wharf-rats, serendipitous brawls, tarts, gypsies and a hodge-podge of cutthroats. They shared his sketch-pad with the Lunareja’s crew and her spit-and-polished Danish Capitan.

The longer Blue scanned the waterfront, the more he regretted shaving. Sailing up the Mississippi, the ship made a breeze that cooled him and pushed the mosquitoes away. He dressed in fresh clothes, shaved clean, and combed hair bleached almost white by salt and sun. The razor exposed new skin, light pink next to deep bronze, but losing the beard felt good. He figured he looked a mite different than when he left Arizona, lean and hard instead of thin and haggard, and he was ready to set foot ashore in Estados Unidos.

Not an hour after docking, he was a sodden, sweat-sour mess of insect bites with a clean face that marked him as a tenderfoot. The air was thick and poisonous; he clawed welts on his arm. A whistle sounded and the gang-plank hit the wharf. He watched his whooping ship-mates scurry ashore until he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he gaped at Lucho in a spotless white linen suit and bowler, not a drop of sweat or wrinkle. Son of a gun must be kin to Victoria.

Lucho glanced at the sketch-pad, filled the bowl of his pipe and lit it, commenting, “I see you shaved.”

“Yeah.” Running a hand across a smooth cheek he said, “Now I wish I hadn’t.”

“It’s okay. It saves me trouble.”

“How’s that?”

“I don’t have to pin a sign on you saying ‘I’m from out of town.’”

“Ha, ha.”

Guillermo, this is a rough waterfront in a very rough city. It is a rogues’ stew-pot, amigo mio. Every kind of depravity and debauchery imaginable.”

“How do you know what I imagine?”

He chuckled, twirling a silver-handled cane. “Easily. You are a country boy who hardly went ashore.”

“So what? I been along with Uncle Buck and Manolito and I been places on my own, too. I’ve seen a bunch and done a bunch,” he declared, poking Lucho in the shoulder. “What about you? You don’t go ashore neither. That mean you ain’t got much of an imagination?”

“Probably,” he agreed. “Tonight I am having a quiet supper with a special señorita and the family of my aunt. Her husband is not a man to trifle with, so I enjoy the safety of his reputation. You, on the other hand, should beware of cut-purses. The dock are lousy with them.”

Rubbing his nose and glancing from underneath long lashes, Blue grinned and said, “Lucho, they wouldn’t get much if they cut my whole pocket.” The older man pulled a fat envelope from his vest and pressed it into Blue’s hand. Glancing at the sheaf of bills, he protested. “That’s too much.”

“My friend, you work like two men, you get paid like two men.”

“Thanks, Lucho. I … uh…just thanks.”

De nada,” he answered and blew a circle of smoke. “From here you go north, not west?”

“That’s right. I gotta see a man about a job.”

“The telegram in Cartegena.” He nodded and continued, “And how will you get there?”

“I ain’t sure, just figured on going ashore and finding out.”

Guillermo, since you would now make the cutpurse rich, how does this sound?” He pointed upriver. “See the barge Fancy Molly T ? She sails in the morning for St. Louis. I can get you on as a deckhand if you wish to work your way upriver.”

Next to ships and the sea, Lucho loved beautiful women, fine food and excellent wine, all of which awaited him at Antoine’s Restaurant. At the Fancy Molly T, he clasped Blue’s hand, wished him luck, then caught a cab. Blue watched until it turned a corner, the hooves of the horses clacking on the brick street.

Lying in his lumpy berth on Fancy Molly in the last light of dusk, Blue heard a minstrel’s mournful harmonica then his song. I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger traveling thru this world of woe; But there's no sickness, toil or danger; In that bright land to where I go.

Arms crossed behind his head, Blue stared at the ceiling and pictured his destination as the music continued. Man’s singing about crossing River Jordan, but I’m going up a different river to St. Louis. May be bright there, but I’m counting on toil or my belly’s going be empty as Buck’s pockets Sunday after payday. He put away his pen and ink, closed the sketch pad. Chewing one side of his lip, he ruffled pages absently, then removed a loose paper, covered in marks. In one corner, a man with a jaw like a spade, broad shoulders, face split in a smile that matched his eyes. Beads and decorations danced from his banded black hat.

Drawn together, a handsome man and woman with clear brown eyes and warm skin, heavy dark hair crowning aristocratic heads, leaned against one another.

At the far corner two hands, gripping the shaft of a tool. Blue looked at his own hand; but for the marks of age, the ones in the drawing might be his own. Large and broad, wide fingered, agile. Capable of keeping ledgers. Or building an empire.

At the center an elaborate landscape. A dusty roadway winding through chaparral and cactus, leading through finished gateposts of milled lumber, flat sign hanging from short chains. Beyond the front gate, a ranch house, wide porch, roof guard.

Blue rubbed his forehead, returned the drawing to the back of the pad, packed his supplies in his seabag and closed his eyes.

 

*****

 

Pulp paper has a distinctive smell. A mix of damp wood with a touch of vinegar, familiar to newspaper hounds and printers the world over. Blue Cannon breathed deeply as he stepped into the building from the busy downtown street. Beyond the counter was a warehouse, books stacked on wooden pallets. Through a door to the right, a rush of activity; young boys carrying trays with jumbled pieces of lead, clacking machines with operators punching keys, large boxes with wooden locked trays, burly men poised to pour ladles of molten lead over type.

“You’ve had a job waiting for you all along, William.” Benton Arthur Carson peered through pince nez spectacles. With hands as stick-like as his arms and legs, he smoothed his sparse hair and continued kindly, “Your illustrations have certainly made enough money for me. I’m pleased to have you here.” Placing the tips of long fingers together and peering over the tops, his sharp eyes reminded Blue of a grasshopper. “Where are you staying?”

“I, uh, I just got in town, sir. I don’t know...”

“I thought so. I’ve a room here at the plant you may use.” He held up a long finger. “On one condition. You must attend school. I shall arrange for classes at the college.” Standing and shaking the young man’s hand, he eyed the faded, tattered shirt and vest. “I think new clothes as well, William. St. Louis is a bit more civilized than your Arizona Territory.”

That night in the tiny upstairs room, Blue unwrapped civilized clothes. Stripping off the faded blue shirt and dark vest, he stuffed them into a trash bin already overflowing with torn paper and string. The starchy new material was stiff against his skin, buttons catching on the calluses of his fingers. Approving of his attire in the mirror, he opened the sole window and stood for an hour, enjoying the night sounds and gazing west.

 

*****

 

St. Louis’s got lotsa buildings, they block the sky and make me tired. Everybody figures Arizona’s godforsook, and I oughta be amazed at civilization. But buildings ain’t as big as the peak behind the ranch house. If I can track my way through Horsehead Canyon, I can track my way through city streets.

All my life I been the kid, so when Mr. Carson packed me off to college I never figured to feel old. I found the school, all these fellas in slicked up suits everywhere. Dudes, all of ‘em, couldn’t last ten minutes in Tucson, let alone the desert. I’d bet not a one of ‘em was old enough to shave. You think any of ‘em could brand or poll? Fight Apache? Probably pass out at a sidearm.

I ain’t never gonna be old enough for Pa, but at Fontbonne College, I was too old by a mile and a half

Couple ‘a girls in pinafores bounced ahead of me, chattering to some dandy in a bowler hat. Something about a badminton tournament, seemed real important. I tried to picture Mister Bowler Hat in Texas Lil’s back in Tucson, or dockside in San Francisco, but either place he wound up face down in the dirt.

Classroom was full of slickers and dudes, all yammering at once. The girls talked to the fellas bold as sportin’ gals. I’ve elbowed into saloons; I know how to cut through a crowd. I pushed into the door and stuck myself to the wall. Uncle Buck says when you’re in new territory it’s time to keep a sharp eye and listen. So I scouted, apologized when someone stepped on my new shoes.

It was noisier than a cattle drive, and I swear a round-up ain’t half as jumbled. Books flying, girls squealing. Pa would’ve had a fit. My head started pounding when clear across the room I seen this girl, brown hair shining like new Spanish boots, nose in a book. One of them dudes put his foot on her desk and said something. She looked up, laughed, and went right back to that book of hers.

There weren’t much to her, but what she missed in tall she made up for in curves. Señor Dude bent low and she poked him with her book, never looked up.

You know them big springs on a buckboard seat? Metal, kinked up tight as a corkscrew. The day I broke the mirror back home, it was like I’d swallowed one. Stayed with me that year at the ranch, bunched tight in my chest. All the way to California, sailing round South America, and up to Missouri.

I’d never seen that brown-haired girl before, but she looked like coming home. I chewed my lip, tried to figure some reason to walk across the room, and felt that piece of metal inside me twist a notch tighter.

 

*****

 

Winding around desks and people Blue crossed the room, stood beside her and coughed, then tapped her shoulder. She glanced up at him with soft, brown eyes. Comforting eyes, and he looked straight into them until she smiled. Shuffling his feet with a half smile on his face, he asked, “Uh, Ma’am? ‘Scuse me, but I wondered if you could tell me,” He held out a slip of paper with the class name on it and continued, “Am I in the right place?”

Her smile like spring sunshine, she answered, “Yes, I think you’re right where you should be.” As he sat at the desk beside her she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Blue Cannon.” He braced for the next question, wishing he’d said William. A new town, a new start, why not a new name?

“Blue? That’s a beautiful name.” She leaned forward and he caught a spicy scent as she chuckled, “My Pop had a horse named Blue. Stubborn as a mule-headed goat.”

The coiled spring clutching Blue’s gut vanished with the tension in his shoulders. Grinning, he talked with Rebecca Coulter until class began.

 

*****

 

Sunlight streamed into the barn loft, illuminating dust motes dancing in air. Swirling memories were blown away by the present. Blue sniffed, rubbed his nose and propped the board against stacked hay. He caught a faint scent of charcoal and touched the burned edge with a thumb, breaking off a sharp, blackened point. The ashy wood crumbled as he rolled it, black soot streaking his hand.

Settling himself comfortably with legs crossed he unsheathed his knife, pried loose the small piece of wood from the letter H. Using the knife as a prop he stood and pulled the blade from the floor, sliding it absently into its leather belt sheath. He tossed the chip of wood gently into the air, caught it, and stuffed it into a pocket before returning the burned sign to the corner.

He lay the board flat and covered it with loose hay and bales. Eyes narrowed, he chewed his lip then turned, climbing quickly down the ladder. He buttoned his shirt as he walked, leaving the tails untucked. Pausing in the barn doorway, he looked past silver puddles of morning rain. Arching over the ranch-house roof, a rainbow shimmered, each end anchored in solid mountains.

White teeth gleaming in a broad smile, Blue walked toward the well, murmuring, “Beautiful.”

The girl with shining brown hair lifted her face to the sky and answered, “It’s amazing. I was just coming to get you.”

Her hair was soft and sweet against his cheek as he stood behind her, arms sliding comfortably beneath her arms. Both hands rested gently on her belly, swollen and large. Her small hand pulled his lower, the skin stretched and tight through the fabric of her dress. Insistent kicking jarred his fingers. “Yep. Amazing.”

Rocking back and forth quietly, Blue looked into the sky. Colors still strong over the ranch house, the rainbow began to fade at each end. “Rainbow’s something to see, too.”

 

 

2005 Penny McQueen

 

In the 4th season of High Chaparral, Blue Cannon disappeared with no explanation and was never referred to again. For many fans, the lack of closure left a deep sense of loss and regret. This story attempts to reconcile that loss.

 

How did you feel when Blue vanished?

 

Feedback to the author at:

 

Penny - pmcqueen7627@yahoo.com

 

 

 

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