“Leopard’s Spots”

 

by Penny

(with friend & partner, Jan)

 

 

“BUCK! GET OVER HERE!”

I never could figure why when Brother John yells like a self-righteous maniac, my hat feels like it’s two sizes too small. I don’t like that yelling, but it don’t matter. Big John’ll raise the rafters anyways.

Mister High and Mighty got hisself a scientifical book-learned vet-tree-narian, and between John Boy and her, we are by Gawd gonna have the healthiest beeves in the entire Arizona Territory. We be iso-latin’ and congregatin’ and consecratin’ every new head sets foot on this here ranch.

Big John don’t like to admit it, but some things ain’t my fault. It weren’t my fault he hired a female vet what gets paid more than ranch-hands. It weren’t my fault he signed a blamed contract said he got to pay her out of his own pocket. And it sure as red roses weren’t my fault every saddle-tramp and cow-bum from Tucson to Tubac started vistin’ the Chaparral, eyeballinRee-becca while she looked at their horses.

My brother ain’t no fool about one thing, and that’s money. He figured it’d be easier on his pocket iffen he got them other ranchers to pay for the vet one way or other. Good idea, iffen he could make it work, which if you ask me was a long shot.

It weren’t my idea to ask them hidebound, mule-stubborn Aye-sociation big-bug ranchers for a come-to-glory meeting at Chaparral. No sir, that idea were all Victoria’s. Most times my sister-in-law is pretty wonderful, but they’s times when she looks at John with them big eyes wide as silver dollars, clapping her hands like a school-girl, when I’m real satisfied I ain’t the one married her. ‘Course, I knowed he’d melt like butter when she squealed, “Oh, John!  Bring them here, let them see for themselves. They will know you are right.  I’ll prepare a special supper and everything will be perfect, the very best the High Chaparral has to offer. It will be no problem at all, my husband.”

No problem my fat hind end.  No problem for Big John, he ain’t the one got to clean every blessed inch of every blessed corner and fix everything that don’t need fixing. If I’d ‘a left for Tucson like I planned, I wouldn’t ‘a heard John yelling his fool head off, and my hat wouldn’t ‘a felt like it was gonna bust my head clean open.

 

*****

 

In late summer, the sun’s first rays heated the bowl of the valley floor like an oven. Stray breezes around the ranch-house brought welcome relief from the heat while early morning shadows created a pattern of black lines across the sand.

Long legs slightly bowed from hours in the saddle, back military straight, and silver hair shining in the sun, John Cannon squinted at activity on his ranch. Nails clutched in his mouth, a man hammered at the wooden silo. Men crawled over the bunkhouse and storage sheds with buckets of adobe mud dredged from the pit where others shoveled sticky ooze. New mustangs milled in the corral, cowboys sorted them for breaking. A huge pile of tangled gear – bridles, halters, jumbled bits and leather -- grew outside the tack room; random pieces flying through the door for cleaning as bickering voices rumbled inside.  Metal clanged in the blacksmith’s forge while Blue and Sam wrestled with a wobbly corral gate.  John mentally ticked off assignments, spying a stocky figure carrying a saddle.  “BUCK!”  Big John boiled toward his brother, hands clenching and releasing at his sides, mouth set with determination.

Hunching his shoulders and pulling off his hat, the black-clad wrangler dropped the saddle and decided to face the inevitable.  There weren’t enough places to hide and John would notice if he rode Rebel out the gate. A starburst of dry lines crinkled around his eyes as he grinned and answered cheerfully, “Well hello, Brother John. Ain’t it a pretty day?  Mornings like this make a man glad to be alive.”   

Repairing a corner of the adobe bunkhouse, Ira Bean stopped his trowel in mid-swipe and whispered to Joe Butler, “Five minutes.  I figure he’ll chew on Buck, then we’re next.”

Butler straightened from a bucket of mud and watched the Cannon brothers.  “Make it ten, and I got five dollars to back it up.”

Nodding, Ira reached quietly to a low overhang of the bunkhouse porch, extracting a bottle. He tossed it to his friend, who lobbed the whiskey quickly to Pedro, standing in the doorway. The lanky Mexican disappeared inside and Joe raised the bet, “Another five says Buck never asks where the bottle went,” and hitched a shoulder toward the arguing Cannons.

Like a cat oozing around a corner, a young half-breed Indian stepped into the shade, regarding the pair with expressionless eyes. Loosely cradling a shovel, the boy continued to stare until Joe threw his trowel to the ground and barked, “You got some kinda problem, Wind?”

“My people say a warrior cannot forever hide inner truth wrapped around an outer lie.” Black eyes darted to the porch roof and back again.

“Joe, let me pound him one,” Ira snarled, dropping his trowel and clenching his fists.

“Keep your shirt on, Ira.” Holding up a gloved hand, Joe looked steadily into Wind’s flat eyes. Rubbing his mustache, he jerked his chin forward and spat, “Honesty is the best policy.”

“The true man knows when he is wrong and pays for that wrong.” The boy’s lips twitched as he answered.

“This ain’t going nowhere, let me at him,” Ira hissed around Butler’s shoulder, backing away when the muscular man punched his arm.

“There is honor among thieves?” Joe asked the boy.

“Honor is where you find it,” the part-Pawnee intoned, nodding his head gravely and shifting the shovel .

“Well, I’ll be. Wind, you’re all right.” Shaking off Ira, Joe whistled as the young Indian removed a bottle from underneath his tunic and tossed it to Pedro. As the Mexican hid the redeye, Butler picked up his trowel, warning, “Get busy, the Boss is on patrol.”

Scattering orders like seeds, Big John strode purposefully toward the bunkhouse and shouted, “Don’t you have anything better to do than stand around jawing?” He tugged at his vest and blew out a breath as the men returned to the adobe. “If the wall is fixed start on the roof.  And clean up this porch, it looks like a pigsty.” Nudging his hat with a thumb, he noticed his brother slinking toward the barn and stormed to him, demanding, “Where do you think you’re going?”

Hunching his shoulders and turning, Buck pointed at his chest and shrugged, eyes wide and clear, “Me, Brother John? Ain’t you through with me?”

“I’m not through with you by a long shot.  What in tarnation is wrong with my windmill?”

Scratching his head and squinting, Buck searched the compound. Tiny dust-devils puffed across the yard, on the porch Victoria shook out a throw rug.  “Yore windmill?  Yore windmill, Big John?  What windmill would that be?”

“That windmill, Buck!” the taller man thundered, face red and pointing to the structure. “The one I told you to fix three hours ago!”

Buck smiled and rubbed the side of this forehead. “Oh, yeah, that windmill.” Nibbling a gloved finger he continued, “Well, you see, John, that there windmill, I did go check it, and it’s just fine and all, ‘cept for this one little problem….”

A crash, Blue shouting, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” and John’s head whipped toward the corral.  The gate, in one piece earlier, lay broken in the dirt as his son struggled to keep milling horses inside. Surging animals bolted past him and raced through the Chaparral compound. Dust from pounding hooves fell in fine powder over every available surface and tools clattered to the ground as cowboys scrambled to herd wildly galloping mustangs back to the corral.  

“Blue! BLUE! I told you to fix the gate, not tear it down! Get it working and I mean now, not yesterday.” John stepped toward the pen, hands working in frustration, ordering loudly, “Sam, get these horses caught and the men back to work.” Waving his arm in disgust at the dust cloud left when the last horse tore out, he whirled to his brother, slowly edging toward the barn. “Don’t you move another step. What’s the problem with the windmill, Buck? Spit it out.”

Working his hat through twitching fingers, the shorter man coughed and waved away dust from the stampeding horses. “Well ain’t nothing wrong with it, John.  Cept it don’t turn,” he said, plunking his hat on his head.

Big John Cannon traveled over a thousand miles, wrestled the High Chaparral from the Apache and unforgiving elements with little more than guts and bare hands. A man of intelligence, determination, and stamina, his commanding voice stopped others in their tracks and sent brothers up windmills with spare parts, tools, and grease. As every man on the ranch sweated and swore, the long morning groaned into afternoon accompanied by the boss’s loud irritation.

 

*****

 

Funny how life hinges on the smallest things. Random chance put me in Arizona, cleaning gear in a warm barn while my employer yelled at his ranch-hands. Worried sick a bunch of ranchers might not hire me, life seemed too important to leave to chance.

Too many chances, too many risks brought me to High Chaparral. Untidy, messy, and how long could hit-or-miss hold out?

I never meant to come to Arizona. Never meant to fall in love with cactus, sand, and a blue-eyed cowboy either, but some things in life you can’t control. Like lightening, babies, and the way I couldn’t breathe when Blue Cannon tapped me on the shoulder and I looked into his summertime sky eyes.

Tucson and the Sonora desert are a world away from Virginia City, but people have to eat no matter where they live. The Comstock Lode country where I’m from is the richest place on earth. Pop says there are cleaner ways to make money besides digging silver out of dirt, so he sold beef to mining companies. Coulter beef fed half the miners on the Comstock Lode, and the Comstock Lode financed the Civil War.

Men in my family are cut from the same cloth – tall, broad shouldered, black wavy hair. They stand like trees around me. Sometimes I wonder why, when I look at Blue, he seems taller than any man in my family. My big brothers Beau and Judah are younger versions of Pop, clear brown eyes and warm tanned skin, but pale, hazel-eyed Levi favors Mamma’s side. Most days I’d just as soon send them all to the devil, but their smiles light up a room.

All the young bucks back home were ready to dance me around the fire, too big for their hides, and proud as roosters. They looked at girls the same way Brother Beauregard did. It’s a cross between a hungry dog and a weasel, and I didn’t like it. 

Mamma had a falling-down fit when I left all the weasel-dogs behind and went to school in St. Louis to become a veterinarian. Yes, there are a few of us, even female ones, and no, I’m not the first or the only one in the family. Brother Levi has a practice in San Francisco, and I was headed there. California, big city, ocean. No weasel-dogs.

Mamma says when we make plans God gets a good laugh, so He must’ve had a falling-down fit the day I met Blue.  Minding my own business, life arranged and wrapped with a ribbon, thank you very much. Until a soft voice asked if he was in the right place. And I couldn’t breathe because I was drowning in eyes the color of Lake Tahoe.

I didn’t know then what I know now. Blue Cannon’s got the hardest head and the softest heart of any man I’ve ever known. He’s honest, open, with a core of goodness the worst of life never touches. I’ve seen him get too mad to be scared but I’ve never once seen him quit.

One other thing. He owns my heart.

I stacked empty jars on a hay bale, counting the steps that got me to High Chaparral. Virginia City. St. Louis. Tucson. The last jar was a brilliant cobalt blue, so I left it on a windowsill instead of throwing it away. And asked God to please stop laughing, because I got the joke.

 

*****

Pa lit in yellin’ right after breakfast. I ain’t dumb, I scooted for the barn. You’d think I’d ignore him, but when Big John hollers everybody gets a bellyache, including Billy Blue. It ain’t hard to figure if he can’t see me he can’t yell at me. Besides, I seen Becca go in there and being around her felt like nothing bad oughta happen.

I hung inside the door, watching her work. She ain’t big enough to fight a cat, but somewhere inside her there’s rock-solid iron.  She always made me want to do something crazy like read a poem or quote Shakespeare; it made me understand why Pa built High Chaparral.

I guess I ain’t the poem kind. I done what I always do, scuffed my old boots and coughed, teased her about having hay in her hair. Gossiped about the Butler brothers and griped about Pa

Bottles and tools, tack and blankets. It don’t matter what we’re doing, long as I’m with her. Once back in St. Louis she mucked out pig pens for two solid weeks, so I done it, too. I’d figured on no more of that when I left the ranch, but afternoons I got the notion I’d have more fun shoveling pig crap than whatever else I was doing. Funny, but I did. We laughed like two hyenas.

She weren’t laughing much that day, what with Pa hollering and them ranchers coming to decide if she was fit to touch their animals. Worse’n that, her and Pa’d had a talk. Her eyes was big as saucers when she said, “Blue, he’s paying me more than a ranch hand, and he says he can’t afford it. If the other ranchers won’t use me, he’ll have to send me home.”

I got real worried, but told her it’d be fine. Promised to help. “Becca, you ain’t got a thing to fret over. Me and you’ll show ‘em.”

When she smiles at me I ain’t got good sense. Walk to Tucson barefoot? No problem. Shoot the feathers off a cactus owl? Twice a day. Her face lit up like a lantern and I got big ideas – wanted to put my arms around her, see if them lips are as sweet to kiss as they are to watch, lasso the moon and hand it to her on a platter – when Pa stuck his head in the barn and yelled for me to fix the corral gate.

Some day I’m gonna ask him, since he built High Chaparral for me and my children, where the heck does he think all those kids are gonna come from if I never get five minutes alone to spark a girl?

 

*****

 

“Wagon coming!”

Blue Cannon saw heads turn toward the buckboard at the front gate. The broad-shouldered driver’s eyes missed nothing as he spoke to the golden-haired princess at his side. A white Stetson with glinting trim graced his head while a large silver belt-buckle glittered from the gap of his open vest. Snorting to himself, Blue hefted the corral gate. White and silver reflects sunlight. Apache can see you coming a mile away.  

Blue grinned at the ranch-hands staring open-mouthed at the girl.  Wearing layers of pink ribbon and white lace, she was no older than nineteen and exquisite.  Blonde ringlets fell softly around a heart-shaped face adorned with long-lashed periwinkle eyes and a Cupid’s bow mouth. Her skin was like rich cream. Without taking his eyes off the pair, he groped for Sam Butler’s shoulder, asking, “Hey Sam, who’s that?”

Sam straightened from the broken gate as the Boss and Mrs. Cannon greeted their guests. “Frank Johnston, president of the Cattlemen’s Association. It’s like him to show up a day early, expecting to be entertained when there’s work to be done.” He eyed the girl, shaking his head. “But the one that’s making these saddle-tramps drool is his daughter, Amy.” Wiping a hand across his sweaty forehead, he gestured to the twirling parasol. “She asks about you when I see her in town. I figured you knew her.”

Gaping at the taller man, Blue spluttered, “Asks about me? Why would she ask about me?”

Butler smiled to himself and continued working. You figure it out, Blue. Your Pa’s got the biggest ranch in the territory. You’re young, healthy, and your face wouldn’t curdle milk. He straightened and pointed to the house, where John Cannon waved for his son. “Go on. Get over there before the Boss has a fit.” He watched as the young man trotted away and chuckled. “You’re a pistol, kid. And I wouldn’t trade places with you for all the cattle in Kansas City.”

The shade on the veranda gave instant respite from the hot sun as Blue lifted himself onto the adobe divider. Black hair pulled from her face, flawless skin dewy fresh, Victoria carried lemonade to her guests, the faintly cloudy glasses sweating in the heat. After serving the others she handed a glass to Blue, smiling warmly before taking her seat. He held the cool glass against his cheek before drinking.

Amy Johnston sat daintily fanning herself with a lace hankie. Her father, arms crossed firmly over his chest, frowned. John Cannon’s face tightened as he leaned forward, saying, Frank, the meeting doesn’t start until tomorrow. I’m pretty busy today.”

“I’m well aware of the meeting date, Cannon,” Johnston blustered, tapping an impatient finger on the table, “but as Association President, it’s my job to make sure everything’s ready.”

“Somehow I don’t think you’re that concerned about preparations for the meeting.” The muscles in Big John’s jaw twitched. “Just why are you here a day early?”

“Because, you were supposed to get us a qualified vet and you show up with a useless woman.” Eyes narrowed, the dark-haired rancher rattled the table with his glass and shifted forward in his seat.  “Now you want us to pay for your mistake at the same time you tell us to trust your judgment.” Slamming his fist on the table, he barked, “I’m here a day early because I don’t trust your judgment, Cannon.  It’s as simple as that.”

Jumping from the porch divider as if bitten, Blue interrupted hotly, “Now wait a minute! There ain’t nothing wrong with Pa’s judgment and who said Becca’s useless? She’s a darned good vet…”

“That’s enough, boy,” John growled, stopping his son with an outstretched arm. He stood to his full height, placed his hands on the table, bent forward and spoke precisely, “Frank, I’ve never asked anybody to pay for anything on this ranch, mistake or not. It just so happens Rebecca Coulter is no mistake.” Pointing a gloved finger into the dark haired man’s face he spat, “Now you can go ahead being mule stubborn if you want. It’s no skin off my nose, the lot of you already refused to honor the original contract. But I can tell you this right now. If you want one minute’s worth of her time after tomorrow, you’re going to have to hire her.”

Firmly grasping her husband’s arm, Victoria suggested sweetly, “Mister Johnston, perhaps it would be preferable to continue this discussion tomorrow, when the other men are present?” As her grip tightened, John scowled but reluctantly sat. “For now, my husband has made his best judgment in this matter. May I offer you more coffee?”

“Certainly, Mrs. Cannon,” Johnston replied with a toothy grin. “But you must agree, in this case your husband shows poor judgment. A man would be entirely more suitable…”

“I am afraid I do not agree,” Victoria countered and Blue whistled softly at his step-mother’s serene face and genteel smile. I wouldn’t tangle with her for nothing, she looks like roses but she’s pickly as a cactus. “My husband did not build High Chaparral with poor judgment, Mr. Johnston, but with the calculated risks that make great men great.”

As talk continued at the table, Blue slouched atop the porch divider, barely listening. He scooted off when his father stood.

Settling his hat and adjusting his gunbelt, Cannon announced, “Frank, I’ve got work to do. Now you can come with me or not, your choice.” The two men started for the yard, then John turned back to his son. “Blue, you keep Miss Johnston company, show her around the ranch today and tomorrow.” He strode away on long legs, gesturing toward the water tower.

Turning toward his guest, Blue gazed into eyes as azure as his own. Adjusting a be-ribboned sleeve, she batted feathery lashes at him. She’s real pretty, but is there a girl inside all that fluff?

The girl giggled, smoothed her lace-covered skirt, opened her parasol and twirled it prettily. “How did you ever get a name like Blue?” she asked brightly.

Becca’s the only one in the world didn’t ask me that question. Sighing, he answered, “It’s a long story. You want to see the ranch?”

 

*****

 

Hissing through her teeth, Rebecca Coulter fought to hold the hoof steady as the yearling colt tossed his head and danced on three feet. Her jeans were torn and dirty with drying mud across the rump; luckily it matched the dirt on her hands and face.   Sweat dripped from her hair, washing salt and grit into her eyes. Glancing toward the edge of the corral, she looked in wonder at the hem of Amy Johnston’s skirt. Must be enough lace to make curtains. Swiping a dirty hand across her running nose and shifting position, she gritted her teeth as she caught a glimpse of Blue’s grinning face. So help me, if he says I’m a hard worker I’m going to geld him.

Foot propped against a lower rail, Blue watched her happily, narrating for his guest. “Becca’s a real hard worker. Carving open a drainage hole’s hard, but there ain’t a man on this ranch can do it better. Uncle Buck always says to use turpentine for an abscess but Becca uses iodine, don’t you?” The pretty blonde girl leaned against him, listening breathlessly.

Wiping her nose on an upper sleeve, Becca answered, “Yeah, iodine crystals disinfect it. Once you get it open and drained.” Nudging the horse with a shoulder, she resettled the hoof and began to pack it with crystals. You were supposed to help me today, Blue. Guess you got a better offer.

“She’s real tough,” Blue observed.

Blowing hair out of her eyes she began to pack the hoof, thinking it was a little like trying to stuff a live jackrabbit. As the colt shook off the padding again she listened to Blue’s happy chatter and fumed. Buck called me stout last week. Why don’t you tell her I’m strong as a bull, that’s what John said yesterday. If I’m real lucky this jughead will steal my hat or lay me flat on my back. At last she packed the sole and began wrapping it in place.

Amy waved a gloved hand in front of her face and batted long eyelashes at her escort. “It’s amazing what education does to a girl.  I couldn’t dream of getting so dirty, Mr. Cannon.” Laying a hand on his arm she continued in a syrupy voice, “I’m afraid all I know is how to care for a man.” She leaned against the rail prettily and called, “Do you find your veterinary knowledge aids in your mastery of the womanly arts, Miss Coulter?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.” Straightening, the little vet stretched stiff muscles in her back, dropped to one knee and replaced the jar of iodine crystals in her bag. “I can sew, whether it’s stitching up a man, horse, or shirt.”

Blonde curls bobbing, the girl shook her head and answered, “Gracious, I somehow manage to sew without getting quite so dirty.” Rising on tiptoe, she placed a hand on her escort’s shoulder and gushed, “Did you know I won two ribbons at the fair this year, for my apple pie and pound cake?”

“Becca ain’t got time to cook,” Blue interjected with a laugh, eying the flush creeping up Rebecca’s face. He tugged at Amy’s hand, saying, “You want to see the windmill now?”

Kicking the bottom corral rail in frustration, Rebecca watched the two cross the compound, the beribboned girl laughing up at the blonde young man. C’mon back here, Miss Fluffy Britches, and I’ll show you how good I can sew. I’ll stitch up that smart mouth of yours for starters. She kicked the corral rail, harder this time.

 

****

 

Kicking corral rails doesn’t earn you much besides sore feet, so I washed my hands and tools and headed to the ranch house. If Blue wanted to waltz around the compound with an empty-headed china doll instead of helping me, he could do it all by himself.

Random chance stepped in again when I heard the violin. Music like I’ve heard in fine orchestras, floating across the dry air. Not what you expect to hear in the middle of a working ranch. Following it to the edge of the wash, I looked through the ocotillo and brush at Castle Montoya.

Mind you, I never paid much attention to Manolito Montoya or his wife, Pilar. Mister Romeo Manolito struck me as all horns and no cattle; I never could see why all the women in Tucson swooned over him like he invented diamonds. As far as his wife, Pop says never trust a card-sharp, they’re always hiding an ace even when they aren’t playing poker.  I figured the two of them deserve each other.

But watching Pilar on the porch, I felt different. I could almost see the music swirling, all that silver she wears flashing through her hair and at her waist. Behind her closed eyes, she was anywhere but Arizona, somewhere wet and green. Watching her made me homesick and happy all at once.

But the cards are never face up with Señora Montoya, and I shifted position when I heard rocks breaking. In the yard of Palace Montoya, Pedro bent double from the weight of an oversized stone. I stuffed a hand in my mouth to keep from laughing when he tripped and dumped it into place. Pilar told him to move it three inches without missing a note.

My back ached in sympathy for poor Pedro as I turned to the Chaparral ranch house. After a few steps, I ducked to one side, because I heard Buck. You can always hear Buck. It’s a shame he doesn’t like me. Some days he leaves responsibility in his bedroll and he makes me mad enough to spit nails, but I still like him. He’s solid, honest, and strong in all the ways that count. He’d die for Blue, but he’d die for whatever he believes is right.

I watched Victoria sail around the far corner of the house, as flustered as she ever gets, which isn’t much. That woman could dig a ditch with a thimble and walk out like a bandbox. She looks better in her working clothes than I do in my best dresses, and her red skirt and white blouse were spotless, the color setting off all that black hair hanging down her back like a curtain of silk. If she weren’t so good- natured she’d make me feel like a dolt most days, but she’s as sweet inside as she is out, with a ramrod core of iron and moods that change like lightening in a storm. I wonder sometimes how someone so beautiful can be so ferocious at the same time.

She chattered away, chopping the air with her hands as Buck trailed behind her, arms full of baskets, linens tossed over each shoulder. “Yes Victoria. Whatever you say, Victoria.” He was sweating like a pig but had a funny half-smile on his face as he followed her into the house. I could hear him talking as he edged baskets through the door, “Is there somethin’ else I kin do for you?”

Epiphany. I always liked that word. We studied it in some class or other. It means a sudden perception of reality or a flash of understanding.  From the middle of the yard I could just see Pilar, playing her fiddle while Pedro hauled rocks around her garden. Over the music I still heard Victoria ordering Buck, who seemed happy to obey. Grinding sand under my boots, I turned and looked to the far side of the water tower where Miss Fluffy Britches led Blue Cannon around like a trained monkey.

Epiphany. At that moment I heard my mother’s voice, as clear as if she’d been standing beside me. “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Miss Fluffy Britches’s squeal drowned out Mamma’s voice and I gritted my teeth. I’d figured Blue brought me to Chaparral for a reason, but since I arrived he acted like he forgot why. What I needed was honey and not the kind from bees.

 

*****

 

The bright red of Victoria’s gathered skirt flashed through scrub between the Cannon and Montoya houses. Dressed plainly, she carried herself with opera-house elegance, sleek ebony hair swinging freely past her shoulders, rich blue-black against her white cotton blouse.  Following briskly, Becca Coulter sported Levi’s and a broadcloth work-shirt, loose enough for comfort and fitted enough to reveal her hourglass figure.

Victoria pounced like a wildcat when the younger woman stammered she wanted more from Blue than long walks or discussions about livestock.  Head whirling with second thoughts, Becca tried recalling the first round of instructions.  Clothes, hair, customs of courtship, letter-writing, posture, the significance of various colors of roses all poured forth in a confusing torrent of words and gestures.  Shorter legs pumping, she pulled beside the older woman and touched her arm.  “Uh, what was it you said about holding a fan?”

Touching her hands to the little veterinarian’s face, Victoria sighed. “That is of no importance. Blue cares for you, but you have allowed him to forget you are a woman.”  Smiling warmly, she clasped the girl’s hands in hers.  “A woman must never let a man forget that, but if she does, good food will remind him. It is simple, ?” 

It is simple, no. “You remember I’m not much of a cook, right?” Becca replied, grimacing.

“Oh, Rebecca!  Of course, but that will change!” she exclaimed, tugging her companion toward Casa Montoya. “I am so happy you came to me.  Tomorrow you’ll make such a wonderful meal, Blue will talk about it for months and you’ll wear a beautiful dress – your lovely blue velvet, I have the perfect jewelry to go with it and I’ll fix your hair.  Oh, you will be so pretty!” Keeping a firm grip on Becca’s hand, Victoria marched across rose-colored tile toward the front door, nearly colliding with her brother as he bolted from inside, focused intently on buttoning his shirt.

Skidding to a stop, Manolito made a speedy recovery.  Greeting them with, “Hola. Welcome,” he kissed his sister’s cheek, bowed slightly to Rebecca and opened the door with a flourish.  Adalante, ladies.  Please. Enter.  Mi casa, su casa.”                 

Dropping Rebecca’s hand and frowning, Victoria planted fists on her hips and peered suspiciously at her brother as he shoved in his shirt-tail, smoothed his ruffled hair, adjusted his askew collar, and meekly cleared his throat. “Why are you not helping John, Manolo?  Why?  He needs everyone’s effort to show the Chaparral at its best.”

Calma, mi hermanita, calma,” he soothed, touching his fingers lightly to his chest.  “Helping John is exactly what I have been doing.”  When her eyebrows shot upward, he laughed and waved a dismissive hand.  Ahh! You thought I was doing something else?  Wrong!” Shaking his head, he pursed his lips in dismay. Victoria, jumping to such erroneous conclusions? I am so disappointed in you.”

Eyes narrowed, she pointed at him. “Manolito, you are impossible!  Impossible!”

“My dear sister, my shirt was disgracefully dirty. You would have been ashamed to call me your brother.” He smiled, oozing sincerity.  “So, I was home changing shirts. , this I did for John and for you, Victoria.”

“Changing shirts,” she repeated skeptically.

and you should be more grateful when I do you a favor,” he declared with a quick nod.  “Now, con permiso?  I have work to do for your husband. Pili is expecting you, but she is… ah, busy with the baby right now.  Por favor, make yourselves at home, I am sure she WILL BE OUT SHORTLY,” he yelled toward the closed bedroom door.  Quickly sidestepping his sister, Mano flashed a lupine grin and yipped a high-pitched “Hoowee! Hoowee!” before sauntering across the ravine.    

Blowing a piece of ebony hair from her forehead, Victoria turned to Rebecca. “¡Ay, Madre mia! He is sometimes still so irresponsible, that one,” she mused, ushering the younger woman inside the humble little adobe house.

As Victoria called, “Hola, Pili?” Becca tripped over a coil of ropes snaking into the doorway.  Steadying herself, she gaped at her surroundings. Carved Italian marble skirted a fireplace crowned by a massive mantle, velvety suede furniture sat atop a thick, intricately-patterned Persian rug. Purple watered-silk draperies caressed a hardwood floor polished mirror-bright.  Good thing the floor’s clean enough to eat from, because you sure couldn’t use the table.  Books, clothes, shoes and saddlery festooned the dining table and graceful sofa.  Pieces of harness, saddle-blankets and lingerie hung from chair-backs and spilled onto the carpet.  Vainly attempting to impose order, Victoria made tsking sounds as she scooped random objects from their path.  Arms full, she shrugged and deposited the load in a corner, continuing to the kitchen.

Open to the breeze, a bank of French doors welcomed dazzling light which illuminated a confusion of pots, pans, bowls, spices and canisters cluttering the counters. Becca recognized the latest model sausage-grinder, perched jauntily atop a pair of boots. Scattered throughout like straw were knives - cleavers, carvers, bread, table, paring. She’s probably got the scalpel I lost last month. Cooking implements mingled with reins, bits and latigo.  A partially-oiled saddle roosted on the small kitchen table; beside it, a tin of lard and a sodden cloth. Turning to Victoria, she fingered the greasy rag and asked, “If we’re serving roast saddle, should I baste it before it goes in the oven?”

Victoria laughed, clapping a hand over her mouth when she heard the tattoo of approaching bare feet.  Attired in a peach-colored, short-sleeved toga, Pilar Montoya rushed toward them, baby in one arm and riding-boot in the other.  She flung the boot into a pile of books on the counter; they tumbled to the floor as she threw an arm around Victoria, kissing her cheek.

Bienvenido, bienvenue, everything is ready,” she said breathlessly, depositing the baby with her sister-in-law.

Victoria cuddled the infant and touched her fingers to her sister-in-law’s outfit, exclaiming, “Oh, Pili! What a beautiful silk… silk…”

“Dress,” Pilar finished, pirouetting, “Gracias. My sister Ana.  Paris.  The new Aesthetic styles are so marvelously unconfining.”  Embracing Becca, she surveyed the kitchen.  “Just let me move a few items, yes?”

With what, a shovel? Rebecca watched nervously as her hostess hauled books off the counter and deposited them in the cradle.  Glancing inside, Becca saw a nest of papers, magazines, and books. “Doesn’t the baby go in there?”

“Well, yes. Maybe she will be an early reader.”  Shrugging, she took the child from Victoria and lay her down. “There, almost done!”  She grabbed a piece of rawhide off a chair and gave it to the infant. Victoria’s mouth dropped and her eyes flew wide as her tiny niece began gnawing contentedly.  “Wind says Pawnee women chew leather to soften it.  Perfect since Lina is cutting teeth.”

Victoria announced the menu as their hostess gathered saucepans and ingredients. A sprouted onion flew past Becca as Pilar assembled an impressive array of bottles on the sideboard with the speed of a flim-flam man mixing shells. Victoria spun Rebecca toward a thick cutting-board and a thicker slab of beef.  A heavy cleaver found her hand as the mistress of the Chaparral squeezed her arm affectionately, asking, “Do you have questions, dear?”

The little veterinarian peered from elegant Señora Cannon to the meat, the saddle, a confusing display of ingredients mingling on the counter. She glanced at Aphrodite mashing garlic with the mortar, her loosely-draped garment sliding off a shoulder and had one question less.  Pedro’s going to be moving rocks for a long, long time and John’s lucky to get any work from Manolito.  Maybe I should toss my shoes and underpinings, throw on a couple yards of silk, tie a sash under my bosom and see if Blue still wants to talk about bot-flies.  “I don’t think so, Victoria.  You’re going to show me how to fix a steak, biscuits and mashed potatoes. Is that right?”

“Yes, exactly!”  She smiled encouragingly, clapping her hands together.  “And my sister-in-law will teach you how to make chicken fricassee, creamed peas, bread pudding and drinks. Also a bourbon sauce for the meat, for guests who enjoy more imaginative steaks.”

“Pop says bourbon’s for drinking, and it’s a crime to hide a good piece of meat under a blanket of gravy,” the girl answered, kicking a limp sock under the table.

“Only because he never had mine,” Señora Montoya replied, arching an eyebrow.  She melted a pound of butter in the dutch oven as Victoria demonstrated trimming steaks, then continued, “First lesson. Use only the best and taste it before you fling it in the pot.” Motioning for the young vet to join her, she declared, “True for herbs, wine or future husbands.  Here, this should be minced,” she added, shoving an onion at Becca, then opening bottles.

“The men I know prefer plain meat and potatoes,” she insisted, taking a knife to the onion.

Swishing garlic into the sizzling butter, Pilar squinted at the girl and answered solemnly, “How odd.  The men I know prefer pert breasts and nicely rounded derrieres.”  Victoria’s laugh chimed as the color rose in Becca’s face; Pilar put a comforting hand on the girl’s back.  “Precious, I think I see why you have difficulty attracting Blue’s attention. You are using the wrong bait.”

“Pay her no mind whatsoever.  She is teasing you,” Victoria cautioned, catching the younger woman’s deepening blush and the glint in her sister-in-law’s eyes.

“Oh, you poor thing! John fell in love with you for your potatoes?” Pilar exclaimed in mock horror.

“No he most certainly did not,” she declared in a friendly tone, wagging a finger at her brother’s wife.  Cutting her eyes to the veterinarian, her voice grew wistful. “I knew when I met John Cannon, I wanted to spend my life with him, to help him build his dream. I loved him. And I knew someday he would love me.” Victoria pensively rolled the bread-dough, then glanced up, dark eyes twinkling mischievously. “But not for my excellent potatoes.  Or beef, beef, beef prepared a thousand ways.”

Smiling brightly, Pilar nudged Becca. “Guess who wants the subversive chicken.”

With a laugh, Victoria admitted, “Yes, but don’t tell my husband. Never tell a man anything.” Forming the biscuits, she grew serious and turned toward the vet, asking gently, “Rebecca, I know you care for Blue, but in what way?”

Stripping off the papery onion skin, a quiet smile on her face, the girl answered, “I tossed every plan I ever had out the window, shystered my way into a job offer, got on a train, and came halfway across the country to work in the middle of Apache territory. All because Blue asked me to. We’ve got something in common, Victoria. I’d have done it the first day I met him.” Grinning, she halved the onion. “ ‘Course I didn’t know he’d forget what to do with me once I got here”

Pobrecita! So like his father!” Victoria clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes.  “From miles around, they come to admire you, but he treats you like a ranch-hand. Shameful! And how well I remember the very same thing.  The very same!  Rebecca, these Cannon men are strong and good, but in romance they are children. We must take them by the hand, teach them to walk with us in the garden and speak of love.”

“We do plenty of walking.” Just not the kind you mean.

Mmm, Blue is such a sly boy.” Pilar glanced sideways at the Becca and fanned herself with a hand.  “Nothing makes a woman swoon like moonlight strolls through cow dung, discussing bog spavin,” she declared, pouring wine and handing goblets to her guests, then hoisting herself on the counter.  Scootching from the edge, she raised her glass and winked. “To childish men and plans changed by love. Salud!

Three hours later, Rebecca stared owlishly at her tutors and obediently repeated, “Sazerac cocktail. Bourbon, bitters, bitters, and abs-neeth. Absent. Absnithe.” She rolled her tongue inside her cheek. Can’t feel my teeth but it tastes better than redeye. Picking up a bottle, she asked, “Did this go in the marinade or the chicken?”

“Oh, Rebecca, no.  The rum is for the bread pudding,” Victoria corrected, patting her shoulder.  “A dry white for the chicken, a robust red with the beef and don’t worry, we’ll help you.  Everything will be very nice.  You will be so pretty and the meal will be wonderful, this is exactly what Blue needs to wake him up.”

Nodding yes but thinking she needed something to wake her up, Becca collected her hat, said her thank-you’s and headed for the door.  She tripped over the coiled ropes again on the way out.

 

*****

 

A dry wind crested the top of Chaparral Peak, swirling in the mid-day heat, picking up speed as it traveled the rock face through fragrant mesquite and creosote. Winding down the craggy height, spinning through scrub, prickly pear and cat’s claw, the breeze reached the valley floor, picking up bits of sand as it blew across the flat landscape.

Pulling her hat against the dancing wind, Rebecca Coulter crossed the ravine toward the ranch compound. Blinking owlishly against the dust, she ran a finger across her lips and repeated ingredients muzzily. “Bourbon, rum, burgundy, white wine, bitters. What the heck are bitters? If it’s bitter, why use it?” Scanning the yard, she wondered, “What was I supposed to do next? Ah ha! Horses. Horses in the corral.” Weaving slightly, she made for the small and obviously empty holding corral.

 

*****

 

Wise men say hard work is its own reward. Hard-working men think wise men are full of butter-beans.

As the hard-working men lugged feed-sacks into the storage shed, Manolito Montoya sprawled on the wagon seat, hat shading his eyes from the sun. The afternoon breeze spun through buckboard slats, ruffling his dark hair. The buzz of a horsefly interrupted his nap; he waved it away lazily, rolling his shoulders against the uncomfortable boards beneath him. When a quick rap across the soles of his boots brought him upright. to a sitting position, he groused, “Why is it a man cannot rest in this place?”

“Snore Montoya, you get more rest than ever body else on this rancho, how about you get some work done for a switch?” A hundred pounds of bagged oats slung across his shoulder, Buck Cannon stood sweating at the end of the buckboard seat.

Reclining again, Mano repositioned his hat and spoke through a dimpled smile, “Compadre, I have told you before, I was not born to work. It is not my fault, hombre. A leopard cannot change his spots.”

Dust swirled as the youngest Cannon pulled a bag from the wagon-bed, complaining, “Leopards? What’s a cat got to do with us sweating and you up there sleeping?”

“Nothing at all, Blue. Except as you can see, I am up here sleeping. And you are, as you say, down there sweating,” the handsome Mexican answered pleasantly, tilting the edge of his hat with a thumb and peering out with one eye,

Before the blond young man could answer, Joe Butler shouldered him aside and snatched a sack. “Ignore him. Even if he got down he wouldn’t carry enough to make a difference.” As he jostled the load into place, random bits of chaff erupted from the seams and blew up his nose. He sneezed loudly, dropping the heavy bag on his foot. After cursing and hopping on one leg, he glared at his laughing companions. “What’s so funny?”

Jou don’t dance that good at the socials,” Pedro’s long face split in a grin. “Jou should try that step at the next one, I think the ladies would like it.”

“Yeah, Joe. Tillie might tell you to step like that every Saturday night,” Blue snickered, swiveling to avoid Butler as he limped to the bench. 

Ain’t no woman telling me what to do no how,” Joe growled, jerking a thumb at his chest.

“Joe Boy, for once in yore life you be right. Ain’t no woman tellin’ you what to do, ‘cause ain’t no woman speaking to you.” Straightening from the mound of bags, Buck grunted as he kneed a heavy sack into place, swiped a hand across his forehead and continued, “Blue got at least two talking to him.”

“Hey, compadres, it is not the number but the quality.” The wagon seat grew more comfortable as Manolito shifted position “Besides, Joseph, it is not always unpleasant when a woman tells you to do something. On occasion they have very…interesting…ideas.  OH, yes!” 

Joe snorted. “Says you. I still say no woman’s got the right to tell a man what to do,” he maintained, pulling off a boot and wiggling his throbbing toes. “You take that little vet now….”

“Hey wait a minute! What about the vet?” Blue sputtered, scowling as he heaved a sack to the ground.

“Keep your shirt on, Blue Boy. All I’m saying is, you got a good comparison today.” Dropping a boot and removing his hat, Joe frowned and continued, “That Johnston girl’s easy on the eyes, knows how to act. Half the cowboys in the territory’d give a month’s pay to walk her around town.” He waved dismissively as Buck made shushing motions toward him. “Man wants a woman knows how to act like a woman, am I right, Mano?”

Lifting his hat, Montoya whistled softly and propped himself on his elbows, replying slowly, “Oh, .  Depending on what you mean.”  Smiling blandly, he waved an encouraging hand.  Por favor, José.  Enlighten us.”  

“What I mean’s the same as what any man means,” Joe declared, spurred by  Mano’s nodded assent and the rapt attention of the others.. “Now you take the vet. I ain’t saying she ain’t pretty, Blue. Smart as a tack and works like a dog. It’s just a shame she don’t know how to act like a real girl.”

Pleased with himself, Butler pulled on his boot, stomping as Buck tossed his arms in the air and turned away muttering. Blue stared at the ground, kicking at small rocks while Montoya threw back his head and hooted. Bending forward, Joe narrowed his eyes and asked suspiciously, “Well? Am I right? I’d tell her so myself, too.”  He stopped as a sharp finger tapped him on the shoulder.  Jerking his head around, he looked into Rebecca Coulter’s bright brown eyes.

Standing with hands on hips and swaying unevenly, the small girl regarded him fuzzily and prodded him again. “Did you say something to me?” She set her feet clumsily, hiccupped at Manolito’s soft “Ay-yi-yi!”

“Now’s your chance to tell her jourself, Joe,” Pedro crowed, slapping him on the back before quickly tiptoeing away. 

Wincing, Butler stood and removed his hat, stammered, “I uh. Ma’am…”

“A real girl. I heard you.” A beautiful smile lit her face as she steadied herself on his arm. “I’m not sure what you mean by a real girl, I always thought there were lots of different kinds.” Giggling, she placed her hat on his head and fluffed her hair. “But maybe I can figure it out.” Raising an imaginary parasol, she gushed, “Why Joe Butler, you mean thing, when are you coming to call on little ‘ole me?”

Butler took her hat from his head and returned it to hers.  Glancing nervously at a glowering Blue Cannon, he backed up and sat heavily on the bench.  He slid to the far end when the young woman insinuated herself beside him and nudged him with her hip. Pursuing him, she slipped her hand in the crook of his arm and crooned, “Such a big, strong man!”

“Blue Boy, look to me like Joe got him a new dance partner.”

“You hush up, Uncle Buck. That ain’t a bit funny,” he replied, gritting his teeth.

Ignoring Blue’s menacing steps forward, the girl gushed, “Joe Butler, I purely get the vapors just thinking of your big, strong manly self.” Her fingers stirred his hair as he sank lower on the bench. “Doesn’t he have the most beautiful blue eyes? I could just die when I look at those eyes.”

“Yes ma’am, I reckon he could make you die, all right.” Laughing, Cannon leaned across the wagon and slapped his nephew’s back as the young man flushed with anger. “Blue Boy, how you reckon Joe Boy got them beautiful eyes?”

Blue’s answer was lost in the round of guffaws when Butler slid off the edge of the bench. Slumped on the ground, he crossed his arms and glared at the laughing men.

Giggling, the petite girl bent down and exclaimed, “Oopsie! Maybe you don’t like that kind of girl.” Jumping up and pulling him to his feet, she continued brightly, “How about this kind?” Propping a foot on the bench, she spread her arms wide and spoke in a low tone, “Welcome to the Chaparral Saloon, boys.  What’ll it be, whiskey, poker, dancing?  The drinks are wet and the girls are pretty.” 

Butler replied hotly, “Well at least saloon girls wear a dress to work.”

“That’s enough, Joe,” Blue shouted, charging forward and spinning the stocky cowboy. Draping an arm around Becca’s shoulders, he steered the girl toward the ranch house. She felt small and right under his hands as they walked away, but the men whistled and whooped, joining Buck singing ‘Buffalo Gals’. He snaked his arm off her shoulder, yelled back at the smirking bunch, “Why don’t you all go take a walk?”

As they crossed the yard a dust devil swirled and dissipated, tossing sand against their legs. Blue chewed his lip and eyed the girl beside him. Jerking a thumb over his shoulder, he asked, “What was that all about? Since when d’you pay attention to anything those baboons say?”

“Hardly ever,” she answered, then stopped and turned to face him, her eyes large, “Blue? Just me is the best I can do. I can’t be anyone besides me.”

Gazing into her warm brown eyes, Blue felt she was the most comforting thing he’d ever seen. He longed to fold her in his arms, rest his head against her glossy hair and breathe her clean scent. He reached for her, stopping as he remembered their audience. Hooking one hand on his belt and placing the other on her shoulder, he answered gently, “Becca, just you suits me just fine.”

 

*****

 

Buck Cannon rested his arms on the buckboard, watching his nephew stroll the girl to the ranch house porch. Rubbing a gloved hand across his forehead, Buck considered Manolito’s grin and grumbled, “Blue sets a yard and a half too much store by her. What you think she wants from him, anyways?”

Ai yi yi!  Hombre, what any girl wants from a man.” Rolling his eyes, Mano hoisted himself to the wagon bed and stretched out. “I am not having this conversation with you. Again.”

“Why not? Mano, what if she ain’t what she say she is? Jimmy John…”

Basta! Enough!” His thumb tilted the black hat upwards as he squinted at the older man and snapped, “You really are not right in your head some days, you know? Por favor, leave me in peace.” Arms crossed, he pulled the hat over his face.

Spitting in the dust, Cannon glared at the young couple. He tapped his friend’s thigh, dismissing his groans. “Mano.”

“Go away.”

Harder taps were ignored. Massive gloved fingers poked insistently. “Mano. Hey Mano. What if there’s something bad wrong with her? Did’ja ever ast Miguel about that Brown-eyed Becky Caulder gal…”

“There is nothing wrong with the girl.” Tossing the hat aside, Montoya abandoned all hope of sleep, sat up, and glared. “There is something wrong with you.” Tilting his head, he said rapidly, “Blue is happy, John is happy, Victoria is happy, I would be happy if you were not annoying me. Hombre, why are you not happy?”

Face stubborn, arms folded, Buck glanced sideways at the younger man and muttered, “Blue Boy ain’t gonna be so blamed happy when she leaves.”

Madre mia.” Manolito’s feet hit the ground and Español peppered the air as he flung his arms in the air and paced. Turning, he jerked a finger at Buck. “You fret like a nattering old woman, you know that?”

“Who you calling a old woman…”

“You. And with good cause.” Sighing, he looked at his friend’s grim face and stepped closer, placed a hand on his shoulder.  Montoya’s own expression softened, his voice gentle. “Compadre, the girl reminds you of someone you would rather forget, that is all.”

Lips spreading into a slow grin, Buck answered, chuckling, “Mano, you got it the wrong way round. They’s lots of women’d like to forget me. Some I’d like to remember, too.”

Hombre, es verdad.  But I speak of Charly Converse,” he answered, squeezing Buck’s shoulder.  “Hard to lose one you love.  I know.”  Pausing, he considered the black-clad cowboy.  “But Buck, this one is Blue’s to lose. Or not.  Entiendes?  Not yours, compadre.  No matter how much she reminds you of Charly, she will stay or go because of who she is, because of who Blue is.  It is not your deal, eh?”

Ain’t my deal. Mebbe it ain’t my deal, but let me tell you something, Snore Montoya. Charly weren’t my deal neither.” Sniffing and folding his arms, he barked a single laugh. “You is talking pretty loud for someone never did win no bets aye-bout that little vet, ain’t you?” Grinning widely, he slapped the back of a hand against his friend’s chest. “I still say mebbe Jimmy John knowed something.”

“WRONG! But I do. OH, yes!” Mano crowed, reclining into the wagon-bed.  Covering his face with his hat, he muttered, “I know you have una cabeza de burro, the head of a burro.”

Slapping the vaquero’s leg before taking his leave, Buck retorted, “At least I don’t resemble the hind-end, ay-mee-go.”

 

*****

 

Cool evening breezes blew across the valley floor, tousling Blue’s hair as he left the ranch house. Exhaling and rolling his shoulders he stepped off the porch, wincing at the tense voices escaping through the open double doors. Gonna be a long night with that bunch. Eager to leave the house behind, the youngest Cannon strolled toward the front gate. The sound of low humming from a small figure brought him to a halt.  He crossed his arms and quietly regarded Becca Coulter gazing into the desert night, her face gently illuminated by early moonlight.

Hands crossed behind her, one foot propped against the beam for balance, she sang quietly, swaying to the music. He enjoyed the play of light on her shining brown hair. Clinging softly to her hips and shoulders, the soft navy fabric of her dress spilled around her ankles and was lost in the darkness. Bet my hands would fit around her waist. Flustered by the tender feeling growing in his chest, Blue hooked his hands in his pockets and scuffled to her, asking, “That’s a church song, ain’t it?”

“Yes.” The moon reflected in her eyes as she turned to him, smile glowing like an Arizona sunset. It was like a candle snuffing as she ducked her head and mumbled, “Didn’t think anyone could hear me.”

“I heard. Sounded nice.” Leaning an elbow against the pole he smiled and scuffed his boots. Her smile sparkled in his eyes; he coughed and offered, “Uh, you did a good job with Pa’s horse.” Perfect. Moonlight, finally got her alone, and you talk about horses. Ten kinds of idiot. Biting his lip and staring at his boot toes, he tried again. “You, uh, I heard you’re fixing supper tomorrow?”

“No smart comments. Victoria’s getting Pilar to help me.” He relaxed when she tapped him on the chest, chuckling, “Fifteen different sauces, wine, she puts liquor in everything she cooks.”

“Maybe that’s why Buck likes her cooking.” Feeling warm where she’d touched him, he asked, “What was that song?”

Rebecca looked across the desert again, suddenly pensive. “It’s a church song, but the words remind me of here.  How hard we work, how quick we fail.” Gesturing into the darkness beyond the fence, she continued, “I was just thinking, this land will kill you if you let it. But for the ones who know how to match the land, this ranch is home.”  Passing a hand across her forehead, she laughed, “Probably sounds a little crazy.”

“Not to me. Pa said once he built High Chaparral for him. For me. For my children. For all the Cannon children to come.” Blue moved closer, caressing her shoulder.  “Tell me the words to that song?”

Continuing to stare across the desert, she sang softly, her voice clear and sweet, “The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land, a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat and the burden of the day.”  Wiping a hand across her face again, she bit her lip and turned away. “That’s the High Chaparral.”

“I told you before, my Ma was killed here.” Turning her around, he stepped close, pointed across her shoulder to a shallow ravine and spoke quietly into her ear.. “She’s buried over there.  Pa and Buck will be too, someday.  So will I.  So will my children.  ‘A home within the wilderness’.  You’re right, that’s what we built.”  Gently, he turned her to face him. “Ma named this place. The High Chaparral, the greatest ranch in the whole world. As long as this place lasts, there’s a part of her still alive.” He looked back at the house. “There’s Cannon blood in this land. Montoya, too. As long as this ranch stands, Cannons and Montoyas will never die. No, you don’t sound crazy. Not to me.”            

Standing so close, her warmth made him dizzy.  His arm tingled when she placed her hand on his and asked, “What do you want, Blue Cannon?”

“I want a wife who’s strong enough to stand beside me when I’m right and tell me when I’m wrong.  I want my son to grow up here with me and Uncle Buck teaching him to ride and shoot.” Cupping her cheek, he noticed how soft her skin felt against the roughness of his fingers. With a small laugh, he continued, “I want to see Pa’s face when he sees his first grandson and knows I done something right.” He moved both hands to her face, lowering his head as his lips drew near hers. “That’s what I want.”

“But what if it’s a girl?”

Grinning, Blue rubbed her cheek with his thumb. “Girls are nice.  Me and Buck can teach a girl to ride and shoot.” He lowered his mouth to hers again as she wrapped her arms softly around his shoulders.

“BLUE!” John Cannon’s voice roared across the compound. “BLUE!”

Head jerking automatically toward the sound of his father’s voice, the blonde cowboy shouted, “Over here, Pa.

Tall frame silhouetted against light from the house, the elder Cannon growled loudly, “Hurry up, Boy. Amy Johnston’s asking for you. Get on over here.”

A sinking feeling clutched the young man’s stomach as Rebecca escaped from his arms. Reaching for her, he stammered, “Uh, Becca, I’m sorry. Pa asked me to show her around the ranch, and…” Stuffing his hands in his pockets awkwardly and shuffling his boots, he gazed at her tense jaw line and flat eyes. “Aw, Becca, I said I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Brushing past him with a tight smile, she hurried toward the ranch house. “You’d better get inside.”

Blue watched her skirts swirl as she marched off, head up and arms swinging, then tapped his head against the support post, muttering, “Great. Ten kinds of idiot.” When his father’s voice filled the compound again, he sighed deeply, called, “Yeah, Pa, I’m coming,” and trudged to the house.

 

*****

 

Mornings began with the soft rustle of the brush in Victoria’s silken hair.  As he pulled on boots, John Cannon paused, admiring his wife at her dressing-table. Resting his elbows on his knees, he watched bristles slide through the thick ebony curtain.  Quickly and neatly, she gathered the heavy hair in her slim hands, secured it with a ribbon and pins, then separated a sizeable strand and began braiding. Her fingers working deftly, Victoria smiled at John’s reflection in the mirror and said sweetly, “Are you wearing only one boot today, my husband?” 

Smiling and stomping on the other, he answered, “No, I think I’ll wear two. Wouldn’t do to greet our guests in my sock feet.”

Swinging to face him, Victoria clasped her hands and gushed, “Oh John, I am so excited! Do you know, when I was a young girl we had many parties!  All the men dressed elegantly, and there would be dancing.” Standing, she spun to him. “Dancing, John!”

He got to his feet, laughing, and caught her by the shoulders, looking into her flushed and excited face. “Well, Victoria, you know the High Chaparral isn’t Hacienda Montoya.  You’ll be lucky if some of these ranchers use silverware.” Tucking his shirt tail, he continued, “But why on earth aren’t you cooking?”

Victoria rolled her eyes and began buttoning his shirt. “John, you wish to impress the ranchers, si?”

 “I wish to impress the ranchers, si. I just don’t see how…”

 “Has it not occurred to you, my husband, that there is someone on this rancho Rebecca wants to impress?” she interrupted, raising an eyebrow and fastening the last button.  She smoothed the material with her hands.  “Perhaps a fine young caballero who needs to pay more attention to her?”  Noting his blank expression, she exhaled loudly.  “John, I am speaking of your son.”

“Blue? I don’t see how Blue could pay more attention to her.  They see each other every day. Spend half their time talking to each other. I have to chase them back to work.” Wincing as Victoria smacked his arm he muttered, “Now what?”

“That is just the problem, John Cannon.” Shaking a finger in his face, color high in her cheeks, she huffed, “You are worse than Blue. Men! Because she works hard you forget she is a woman, and because you did not have to court me you forget Blue needs to court her.” Tossing her hands in the air, she stalked across the room, muttering in Español. 

Cannon flung both arms toward his wife and answered hotly, “Well Victoria, what am I supposed to do about it? It’s between the two of them, I can’t court the girl for him.” He turned for the closet, glanced over his shoulder at her crossed arms and upraised chin, shrugged on his vest and growled as he grabbed his hat, “You are the most aggravating woman I’ve ever known.”

 “And you are the most stubborn man I have ever known!” she countered, stamping her foot. “You know Blue adores her, but do you leave them in peace for even a moment? No you do not! Men from other ranchos come to see her, but do you worry that one of them will take her away from your own son? No, you only worry that the two of them must always work for you.” Gesturing wildly, tapping the palm of one hand with the other, she finished, “And you do not worry that Blue does not see this, either.” She pivoted from him, arms folded.

Victoria, you worry enough for both of us. Just what is it you want me to do?” he answered, crossing to her and resting his big hands on her delicate shoulders. 

 “Would you talk to Blue, John?” she asked softly.  Eyes pleading, she placed her hands on his chest. “And let them have time together? For me?  Please?”

 “If it makes you feel better, yes. But I still think they can talk and work at the same time,” he answered, lowering his head and kissing her before she could protest

 

*****

 

Have you ever tried to reason with a woman? Ay-yi-yi! Easier to teach poker to a horse.  I rested against the door-frame as my sister bustled through the ranch-house, moving rugs, straightening pictures.  She arranged the pleats in the curtains and placed flowers in critical spots. Things all ranchers appreciate.

Victoria loves entertaining. Why?  It is more work than a cattle drive and a recipe for disaster.  Has she never noticed this?  ¡Madre mia! Put more than immediate family at the table and we have everything from fist-fights to assassination attempts.  She should write it off to el mal ojo, the evil eye, only attend other people’s parties.  But Don Sebastian Montoya carved an empire from rock and sand and the old lion did not raise his daughter to relinquish the field of battle.

Sam, Pedro and Buck strained to remove the round dining room table from its usual place, making room for the evening’s replacement. Scratching my elbow, I looked at my sister, at mis amigos, at the table, and tried reason. “Hermana mia, if we eat outside there is only one table to move. Not two. Si?”  Buck rolled his eyes, nodded quickly to Sam, Sam nodded to Pedro. Quietly, they lowered their burden as I steered Victoria to a chair. I hoped sitting would distract her from thinking of things to do.

Instead, her feet stuck to the floor and she planted her fists on her hips.  “Manolito, no!  We cannot eat outside. This will be a very nice meal and it cannot be a very nice meal if there are flies everywhere and out there are flies!” Flinging an arm up, she pointed to the door.  “Flies, Manolo!  I will not have flies and you are being lazy while the rest of us work very hard to be ready for tonight.”

The High Chaparral, it is a cattle-ranch.  Cattle on the ranch, flies on the cattle.  But no flies at the dinner-table. “You are correct.  Perdoname while I tell the flies outside not to come inside.”  Insults to my character stung my ears as I left.  But hombre, I was gone and the others could carry Victoria’s table and listen to her natter.  Better a live dog than a dead lion.

Cleaned and polished, the live dog and his beautiful wife returned for cocktails before supper.  Appetizers artfully displayed and passed to the guests on silver trays.  Good linen table-cloth, even Papá would have approved.  Pleasantries exchanged, my dear sister beamed.

She was thrilled that Rebecca cooked.  Normally, hearing this news I would open a can of beans, but I am a bright young man who sometimes visits his wife in the afternoons and finds out things by accident. Victoria and Pili tutored her, so it was unlikely the food would taste like kerosene. John knew and Victoria gushed it to Blue.  That Blue!  He has gnawed on La Veterinaria’s camp cooking, but did he bolt?  Oh, no!  Un hombre of great courage.

As she nibbled a small, tasteless something from the silver tray, Pilar whispered Rebecca was “listing a little to starboard.”  Oh, .  Well on the road to drunk, La Veterinaria drained a Sazerac.  I think her prior experience with alcoholic beverages was limited to watered-down rot-gut whiskey, but Pilar’s recipes rely on the fruit of the grape, the fruit of the sour-mash and the fruit of the agave; unless I was mistaken, Señorita Rebecca sampled as she cooked.  Considering this, it was unwise to knock back Sazeracs like sarsparilla.  Absinthe is called “the green fairy” for good reason. Drink too much and green fairies dance on the ceiling as your head explodes. 

John’s veterinaria pequeña was sociable, sí.  But I saw murder in her eyes when she glanced toward Amy Johnston.  Ay-yi-yi!  Lovely Amy, if only she was a mute. The harder Blue tried to focus conversation on the virtues of veterinary science, the harder Señorita Johnston spoke to him about the many colors of yarn. Mi compadre Blue, a polite tongue but frustration in his eyes, perhaps about to suggest knitted pink hats to prevent hog cholera.

Conversation was lively as Dan Hawkins gave Rebecca an inventory of his assets, how his ranch needed a “woman’s touch” to be complete. Hey, a woman’s touch is an amazing thing; Victoria drew Frank Johnston’s fire from Big John while simultaneously speaking of yarn with Amy.

The talents of men lie elsewhere, drinking, lying, smoking, other things that women like better than the first three. Many Sazerac cocktails disappeared into Buck and Pete Kitchen, their tall tales growing taller by the glass. Will Todd is a fortunate man.  Hombre, he left so frequently to smoke his pipe, I considered cultivating the habit myself.

When John announced dinner, Pilar took my arm for the long walk to the table of doom. We lagged to watch the jostling for position. Buck and Pete charged the table and captured two chairs, ready to wolf down food and guzzle wine. Big John seated Victoria at one end, himself at the other, relaxed as a trail-boss during a stampede, especially when Johnston sat on his left.

Amy rustled Blue from Rebecca, whose seething was cut short when Hawkins offered his arm. The rancher made a tactical error when he seated La Veterinaria beside Blue. I grinned at Blue as I took my chair, a condemned man should see a friendly face before the firing squad receives the final order.

Some day I will find out what Birdette is doing for us and how much we pay her. She served the meal, but Pilar had to bribe her.  I thought she might turn Frank Johnston into tamales when he called her “Aunty”, but there was no blood spilled. Yet.

The food was edible, but the very good wine disappeared faster than the food. I sipped, having business later which required being conscious. Señorita Coulter enjoyed the vintage, becoming high-spirited as the evening wore on; that changed when time came for dessert and Señorita Amy declined.  “Heavens, no.  My waist is so tiny, Blue could span it with his hands and that’s not because I eat rich desserts.” She peered around Blue to La Veterinaria.  “If I was forced to work like a man, I could eat like you do, Becca.”  She tittered as our horse-doctor stabbed her fork into the bread pudding with violence seldom present at civilized meals.         

Admiration in his voice, mi amigo Blue, the peacemaker, somehow thought it was a good idea to say, “Yeah, if Becca don’t work it off, she sweats it off.” 

La Veterinaria did not fully appreciate this loveliest of compliments.  Looking across to Pete she asked, “Mr. Kitchen, have you tried the new elastator for castrating your boar hogs?”

Before he could answer, Victoria suggested we adjourn to the living room for coffee. If there was bloodshed, she wanted it away from her good linen table-cloth.  Unfortunately her concern did not extend to the floor or her brother.  Why is it my sister resents me for finding humor in things?  Madre de Dios, she kicks like a burro.  I stayed seated until she left since she slaps as well as kicks.  When he passed by, Buck clapped me on the back, chuckling, “My Blue Boy can sure pick ‘em, cain’t he, Mano?”

Oh, !  La Veterinaria and Señor Kitchen talked of hogs over coffee, the widower Hawkins chiming in with, “Miss Becca, I never had me no pigs, but I could get some.”

Seldom have I heard such fascinating conversation. Big John and Will Todd discussed screw-worms, Victoria told Amy of the yarn popular in Sonora. Frank Johnston turned to my wife, saying, “Well, poker’s not a ladies’ game, Missus Montoya, but if you don’t mind losing some money, I could teach you how to play.” Bueno, finally something of interest to me; I like a woman with money and Señor Johnston was volunteering to give all of his to my wife. ¡Olé!

I was counting my pollitos before they hatched when Birdette emerged from the kitchen with my little daughter, bid us adieu and started home.  It was then Señorita Johnston declared she changed her mind, wanted a “tee-nincy” bit of dessert.  Our accommodating maid-servant answered, “Good for you”, continuing to the door as Victoria’s jaw dropped.

I believe Blue has a future as a diplomat. Always anxious to maintain harmony, he asked Rebecca to bring dessert for Amy.  Señorita Coulter wove like a saddle-tramp on Saturday night when she crossed to Blue, leaned over, and asked, “Dessert for Amy? Did you ask me to bring dessert for Amy, Mr. Whiny-Ass, Jump When Daddy Calls, Baby Billy Blue Hound Dog?”   Blue gaped, Victoria’s mouth dropped again and never have I seen Big John’s eyes so wide.

Rebecca straightened abruptly and pivoted, an unwise maneuver in her condition.   For a woman who is not very big, she made a very loud thump hitting the floor.  

¡Andele! Big John moves faster than you would imagine.  He was on his feet, looming over her as she scrambled to stand.  She turned a cockeyed grin at him and sang out, "Hiya, Johnny! You got a burr up your ass again?"

I have seen my brother-in-law catapult men into action using nothing but his voice.  Hombre, it is an amazing thing. When he bellowed, “Buck, get over here!” mi amigo shot from his chair, slung La Veterinaria over his shoulder like a sack of oats, and bolted for the door while she flailed at his back-side and questioned his parentage.  Widower Hawkins, Victoria and Pilar trotted after them.

Pounding the end-table, Pete Kitchen watched the recessional, and declared, “By God, that gal has spunk.”

Johnston grumbled, his daughter giggled, Todd packed tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, and Blue’s face turned the color of ripe habeñero peppers.  John gritted his teeth, fingers working against his palms, always a bad sign.  I put my hand on his arm, whispered, “Amigo, calma.  Leave this to me, all right?”

The evening breeze carried sound clearly.  A splash from the water-trough.  Rebecca’s enraged, “My dress! You half-witted mutton-puncher!” Buck’s shouts, more splashes, and my dear sister’s familiar shrieks.  Playing the fine caballero my father raised me to be, I complimented Señor Kitchen on his hogs, Señor Johnston on his importance, his daughter on her incredible loveliness and vast knowledge of textiles, restrained Blue from charging the front yard like an avenging angel. All was well until Buck roared, “Victoria, I’ll haul her carcass anywheres you want long as it ain’t in the house. I got me a belly full ‘o that sheepherder Johnston and his lint-brained daughter.”

 

*****

 

Water ran down Buck Cannon’s back, his pant-leg and into his boot as he carted the squirming, soggy girl through the door and dumped her on the Montoya’s sofa. Wiping his hands on his pants and glowering, he barked, “Ain’t nothin’ else gonna come up and make a mess, and if you don’t stay put I’ll paddle yore sweet appaloosa ‘til you cain’t sit down until next week.” Hands on wet hips, he turned to the other women and continued, “She’s all yourn. You want her somewhere else, you kin tote her yore own selves.”

Gripping the sofa in a useless effort to stop the spinning room, Becca watched as Buck split and doubled. One’s loud enough, where’d two come from? She closed an eye and the stocky Cannon twin disappeared as Victoria’s cool hand smoothed sodden hair from her forehead. “Gracias, Buck. She will rest quieter here.”

Lips pressed in a tight line, he nodded once sharply. “De nada, Victoria. You want me I’ll be in the bunkhouse, if I’m lucky I’ll get there afore I have to crawl.” He jabbed a finger at Pilar. “I told you, I do not want yore snake-oil hangover cure.  I been getting’ sick on my own my whole life, don’t intend to start lookin’ for help now.”  Tipping his hat and abandoning Rebecca to the women, he wove his way to the front door and disappeared into the night.

Dizzily, the girl opened her closed eye and watched double Pilars leave to collect bedding and nightclothes while mirror image Victorias loomed unhappily. Scowling, the black-haired woman huffed, “You should be ashamed of yourself, embarrassing everyone like that.  John took a very big risk keeping you here.  Madre mia! How could you do that to him?  And to call Blue names?  Que borracha! You shamed us all, acting like some… some…mujer del arroyo de calle, some woman from the gutter!”

The floor heaved and Becca slid a foot to the ground, digging her heel in firmly as she mumbled, “Sorry.”

When she was at last alone, Becca thought of dying there, books, clothes and saddle-blankets covering her like leaves over winter grass. It might be weeks before anyone found her.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, never facing the Cannons or anyone else again. Clasping the pillow over ears, only her pounding headache diminished the baby’s cries or Pilar’s singing.  If I hear “La Gallina” once more, I swear I’ll strangle myself.   When she fell asleep, it was with “Canta el gallo, con el kiri, kiri, kiri” echoing in her head.

Opening his front door and stepping inside, Mano muttered under his breath, “Andele, Manito.  At last where you have wanted for hours to be, muchacho.” In near darkness, he hung his hat on the rack, untied his bandanna and put it neatly on the next peg. He shucked his boots and slid them against the wall. Peering toward the bedroom, he saw the small form on the couch with her back to him and sighed. “Ah, Pilar.  Trying to wait up for me, it touches my romantic heart, querida.  One lovely leg in the moonlight, baby in the other room.  Olé!” Walking quietly toward the sleeping woman, he grinned and sang softly, Lagaaayeeena, li-de-di-di-di. Oh beautiful little hen, your rooster is home.” He put a hand on her foot, slid it up her calf, her thigh, slowly feeling a vague sensation that something was amiss until… ¡Ay, caramba! She has no mole there!

Jerking his hand away, he jumped backward with a yelp at the same time Becca Coulter sat bolt upright, yelling.  The girl scrambled to the top of the sofa; Manolito banged his shin on the coffee-table, tripped over a pile of books and thudded to the floor.  Wide-eyed, he looked at the girl, began somberly, “Señorita Coulter, I am sorry, I mistook you for…”  Madre de Dios, how could I have mistaken this creature for my wife?  She looks like a wet cat.  A horrified wet cat. He snickered, snickers growing to belly-laughs.  Wagging a finger at her, he choked out, “¡Ay-yi-yi! I see your feelings for me have changed, but to lie in wait, when my wife sleeps in the next room?  Oh, no! I may have considerable charm, but chiquita, you have no honor.”  

           

            *****

 

If it hadn’t been against my religion, I’d have gotten a gun and ended my misery, the same way I’d shoot a horse that snapped a leg in half. I knew how to brew liquor and how alcohol is a good disinfectant for surgical instruments and wounds. I knew about the chemistry of acute alcohol poisoning, what it does to your liver and brain.  What I didn’t know until the morning after Big John’s party was how skull popping and pitchfork blinding the morning after a bonafied tanglefoot tie-on felt.

Unfortunately, you don’t die from bad judgment and a big mouth. Standing on the Montoya’s porch I considered riding shank’s mare to Tucson. If I had one shred of luck the Apache would get me before I got home to Mamma.

The Cannon’s front door banged open and I saw Blue march out, headed for the corral. His hat hung down his back, and the sun on his hair turned it golden as spring daffodils back home. Dust kicked up around his boots as he jogged a few steps, like he always does in the morning, anxious to start work. He deserved someone who could win prizes for pound cake, devote her life to taking care of a man instead of cultivating a pea-brain and the devil’s own temper. Blue Cannon deserved the best woman in the world, which meant a whole lot better than me.

Wishing someone would pull the nails out of my head, I sank down on the step, turning as I heard, “Milton called it ‘the sweet poison of misused wine’. Sometimes, such poison is not sweet, but instead very bitter.” 

One thing I’ll say for Manolito, he’s got style. No one else looks bright as a dime at five o’clock in the morning. He held Lina, all those black curls of hers resting just under his chin, him looking across the scrub clear to Sonora. He turned to listen to doves calling, sunlight hitting the side of his face.  All angles, he looked like he grew from the desert, part of an ancient tribe with bones of sand and red rock.  

No matter what he is or where he came from, I remembered the night before and felt my face growing hot, figured to eat apology for breakfast. “You speak some Comanche, don’t you?”

His faces softened and the ancient look dropped away from him as he turned, buried his nose in Lina’s hair and answered, “Sí. Enough.”

I knew he did, but I was hoping for a miracle. Maybe he’d gone deaf, or was drunker than I was and wouldn’t remember. Someday, I promised myself, I would skin my brother Beau alive for teaching me how to swear in Comanche. “I was afraid of that. I’m sorry I called you a…well, what I said last night when…”

Sure he’d laugh at me again, I held my breath, determined to keep my mouth shut. You ever notice men who work in the sun have lines around their eyes from squinting? White lines where the sun doesn’t tan. You can tell when they’re laughing inside, the white lines disappear and Mano’s white lines had vanished. He’s got another tell, little pockets on either side of his mouth, deep dimples you could lay a finger into. They puckered, but his voice was serious when he said, “Last night, chiquita, there were, como se dice, extenuating circumstances due to a little mistake.  Sorry I frightened you.” He shifted his little girl and all at once I missed Pop. Like getting hit in the stomach, I wanted to see him so bad. I shifted my eyes away so Mano wouldn’t see tears in the back of my eyes and he said, “What are you going to do?”

I thought about Blue and what kind of life he’d earned for himself. About John and Victoria. High Chaparral. Cursed myself in Comanche and said, “Nothing to do but face the music, then pack my bags and leave.”

I started for the ranch-house, smelling sage and horses when I heard him mutter, “Ai yi yi. Manolito, you know better, hombre.” A breeze riffled around my legs as I turned.  Relaxed against a post, his eyes gentle, he said, “I am well acquainted with misused wine. And foolish actions, chiquita. More than once I almost cost my brother-in-law all of Chaparral. But I am still here.” Smiling, he cocked his head to the side and gestured toward John Cannon’s house. “Apologize, Rebecca. If you can apologize to me you can apologize to them.  They will forgive you, muchacha.  They have seen far worse performances than yours. ”

Laughter creased his fine-boned features when Pilar slipped under his arm, her gold kimono dragging the ground and sashed with a lead-rope.  Manolito shooed me to face the Cannons and it dawned on me I didn’t have to understand someone to respect them.  At my worst, those I’d held in the lowest regard took care of me.

Pop used to tell me stories about snapping turtles. Plug ugly monsters, once they clamp onto something they don’t let go until sundown. He told me about chopping their heads off while the jaws continue to lock tight, then prying the dead mouth open with a hammer and chisel. Pop says I’ve got the mind of a snapping turtle. I’m glad I changed my mind about the Montoyas before someone had to cut off my head.

Manolito was right. John looked like judgment day, said I didn’t have sense enough to put rocks on a wagon, but neither did half the hands on the ranch. Ordered me to pack up and saddle up since three ranchers were eager to get me treating their livestock.

Blue, who deserves the best woman in the world. Blue Cannon, who had every right to boot my backside all the way to Virginia City, laughed so hard he fell off the corral rail. Asked me if I’d been stealing Buck’s hidden stash of redeye. Apologized, sat down in the dirt and laughed again. Listened while I raved how worthless I am, put his arms around me, and said, “Becca, you’re here ‘cause I wanted you here. Nothing’s changed.” And hooted when Big John yelled for me to get in the consarned barn and get my useless tailfeathers ready to leave.

 

*****

 

At the porch fire barrel, Buck groaned and sloshed warm water over his neck, felt the wetness drain into his hair. He’d lived through massive hangovers, so he wasn’t surprised his head felt like a smashed melon. The green spikes behind the eyes were a new touch, and he vowed to stick with redeye in the future. He rested his elbows against the barrel rim, filled his hat with water and placed it on his head, letting the water run down his shoulders.

“Nice morning to bring in the remounts from Horsehead Canyon.” John’s hearty voice cut through his head like a knife.

Shuddering, wiping water from his forehead, Buck mumbled, “Big John, I hear you real good. I hear you so good my teeth hurt. Mebbe you could talk a mite further away. Like Nogales.”

“Yep,” his brother drawled, arms crossed and face crinkled in amusement. “I could, but if you hadn’t tried to drink all the liquor on the ranch it wouldn’t matter how loud I talk.” Laughing as his younger brother groaned, John continued, “Get your gear together, you’re headed for Horsehead, and I don’t care about your teeth.”

Yes suh, brother John. I do appreciate yore consideration for these here needles sticking outta my eyeballs. Grimacing in the morning sun, Buck stalked toward the barn amid the shouts of ranch hands. Shore wish that mule inside my head’d quit kicking. Entering the dark interior, he paused to let his eyes adjust, and saw the vet loading supplies into saddlebags. Grabbing the top horse blanket off a stack he asked, “Where you headed?”

“Will Todd wants to start fever treatment, then the Hawkins ranch for a couple days. Pete Kitchen’s place last, you’ll be eating ham when I get back.” Biting her lip and rubbing bloodshot eyes, she sighed once.  “I’m sorry for how I acted last night.”

“Sound like John’s big plan worked. I ain’t barkin’. You git hired out, I don’t hafta see you and Blue don’t gotta listen to you yammer.”

In the eternal uniformity of ranch life, a small variation in routine is like rain on parched ground. An odd gait on a horse creates endless wise advice. New boots for a cowpoke crafts late night fun and games. Heaven help the hired hand who dared part his hair on the opposite side.

At the barn corral, wranglers caught horses and geared up for the day’s work. As muffled noises sounded from inside the building, Manolito raised an eyebrow and jerked a shoulder toward the door before pulling his hat low and sauntering closer.

Quietly, Joe Butler joined him, lowering to one knee.  Ear next to the weathered boards, he listened to the voices inside. …had it in for me since I got here…you come sneakin’ behind Big John’s back….what’d I ever do you to…my brother never hired no fee-male vet… Pedro and Reno became fascinated with the structure of barn siding, moved closer, and studied it intently as words rang clearer. …You set Mano after me… ain’t never gonna be right for my boy…dumber than a yellow-striped jackass…two donkey-stupid pups…

“Anybody wanna bet on who comes out first?” Butler glanced around the growing circle of men. “I got a dollar on the vet, Buck’s getting louder by the minute.”

Hombre, no.” Mano flicked his fingers and rolled his eyes, then patted his stomach. “I have a small reminder that says it will not be the girl.”

“That’s right, Joe.” His large eyes wide, Pedro gestured excitedly, then placed a long finger against his lips. “Shhh! Listen, I think maybe it’s over.”

Men crowded around the large sliding door, listening intently to the sudden quiet. Pedro removed his hat, held it against his chest, and pressed an ear to the door. Flapping an arm, he hissed again, “Shhh!” then shook his head. “How long are they gonna stay in there, do jou think?”

As the silence continued, Joe elbowed his way to the door, jerked off his hat, and forced his ear to the wood firmly. “Can’t hear…wait a minute. Buck’s saying something about apples. Or appaloosas.” Slapping his thigh in disgust, he urged, “Dammit, Mano, can you tell what’s going on in there?”

Calma, amigo, calma.”

“Don’t you calma me, I got money riding on this.” Butler shoved his head against the door again. “Yeah, they’re talking, so they’re still alive.” A look of determination came over his face and he continued firmly, “I been chewed out by Buck before. My bet’s five dollars, the vet comes out first. Any takers?” Arms rose around the group and the stocky cowboy noted wagers.

After the last bet was covered, minutes ticked by. Doves cooed in the brush while the silence from inside grew until it seemed the building would explode. Pacing, Joe threatened to break down the door.

Mano was planning to tie the overwrought wrangler to a fence post when the door opened. Men quickly scanned the sky for weather sign, examined the wall for splinters, moved saddles, coiled rope. All work on the ranch compound centered on the barn door as every eye watched.

“Sis, you beat Moses ‘round the bush. I still say we don’t need no vet-tree-narian horse-doctor, I’s good with animals, real good. You shore ‘bout eye-oh-dye for Rebel?” Buck steered the girl out the door, an arm around her shoulders, and continued to chatter. “You be careful like at that Kitchen ranch, them pigs is mean, but his hams is good, real good.” He tipped his hat to the surrounding group and chimed, “Morning boys, ain’t you got no work to do?”

As the two crossed the compound toward the ranch house, Joe tapped Manolito, an amazed expression on his face. “What did I just see?”

Grinning, Montoya replied, “Jose, mi amigo, what you saw was an old leopard with new spots.”

 

*****

 

The corral fence made a narrow perch so Blue shifted against a post and hooked his boot heels on the second rail. As a breeze flipped the fringe of his chaps he watched Rebecca and the visiting ranchers make final preparations.  At the hitching post in front of the house, the girl seemed lost amid the taller figures of the men. Dan Hawkins took her arm, and Blue snickered when she side-stepped his grasp, never changing her friendly expression.  She’s no bigger than a button, Mister Hawkins, but she ain’t your button, that’s for sure. Losing his balance when a firm hand slapped his thigh and shook him, he steadied himself on the railing as Buck continued to shake him, saying, “Blue Boy, you gonna lolly-gag on that perch all day, or you gonna help us?”

Shoving a boot into his uncle’s shoulder, he grinned and answered loudly, “All right, keep your shirt on. I don’t see any of you breaking a sweat.”  As Buck staggered, Blue pointed to the men at the railing. “Or maybe Joe and Mano need to hold up the corral?”

Sitting against a fence post, legs stretched in front of him, Manolito shifted to take advantage of more shade. Leather jacket hung neatly on the post and arms crossed, he answered peevishly, “Amigo, must you speak in that tone of voice? Always you Cannons are so loud, compadre, and always it is the same thing. Have I not told you before, I was not born to work?”

Tapping Mano’s black hat with a boot toe, the youngest Cannon griped, “Well, you wasn’t born to sleep, neither.”

Montoya tilted his head, gazed up at the sweating cowboy and answered pleasantly, “Claro que no, I was born for other….important business, far more rewarding than working, but nonetheless, tiring.  A difficult life, true, but I cannot be someone I am not.”

“You said it, Mano.” Snorting, Joe Butler jerked a thumb toward the ranchers and the vet. “You put a coat of paint on an old buckboard, but it ain’t a fancy carriage. That one ain’t never gonna act like a lady.”

“I’ve had enough of your smart mouth!” Blue snapped.  He swung a leg over the railing, vaulted to the ground and pushed Butler into the fence, shouting, “You can’t talk about my girl like that!”

“Hold up!” Buck hollered, grabbing his nephew and yanking him away from Butler. “All he said was…” Stopping, his jaw dropped in surprise.  He placed a gloved hand on the young man’s face and asked, “What did you say, Blue Boy?”

Wrestling free and speaking through clenched teeth, the young man spat, “I said he can’t talk that way about my girl.”

“Yore girl?” Buck rubbed his forehead and peered at Blue.

“That’s right, Uncle Buck. I said Becca’s my girl.” Charging forward, he jabbed his uncle with a finger and shouted, “You got a problem with that?” Glaring at the rest of the group he demanded, “Anybody else got anything to say?” When they didn’t, he straightened his vest and muttered, “C’mon, Pedro,” ducking into the corral. Leather and rope flew from the pile as he jerked at the tangled mess. Pedro shrugged and began helping.

With a sigh, Mano rose. He dusted his hands on his tight pants and propped an elbow on the fence. The morning sun hot on their backs, the three men studied Blue. Pushing his hat back with a thumb, Joe complained, “What in blazes got into him?”

Mebbe the sun done burned up yore ears and you cain’t hear so good, Joe. My boy’s got him a girl.” Slapping Manolito on the chest, Buck grinned widely and crowed, “That’s my boy, Mano! You heared him!”

Resting his head on folded arms, Montoya glanced from under the brim of his hat and answered slyly, “Si, compadre. I heard him, but talk is cheap.”

“That’s right Buck.” Chiming in, Joe punched the older man’s shoulder.  “This is Blue we’re talking about. Saying and doing are two different things.” Behind the black-clad shoulder, he winked broadly at the laughing Mexican.

“Listen here, you two cross-eyed saddle tramps,” Buck removed his hat and yelled, “That is my blooded nephew you are jawin’ about, my very own blood, and he can say and do just fine.” Slapping his hat back on his head he sputtered, “Blue’s got more man-juice than anybody I ever knowed, and neither of you never saw him quit not one time, not ever…” He trailed off, glaring at the two hooting cowboys. Drawing himself to his full height and running a gloved hand around his hat-brim, he declared, “You is both lower than two rattlesnakes. You ain’t got a belly to crawl between the two of you. If I had a copper jacket misfire I wouldn’t loan it to neither of you low-down, sidewinding’...” A smile tugged at his mouth and lines crinkled his eyes. Snorting laughter, shoulders shaking, he said, “You still ain’t worth the powder in a copper-jacket misfire.”

John’s deep voice sounded from behind him, “And I suppose you are?” Shoulders hunched, Buck spun to face his brother, who continued, Doesn’t anybody have any work to do?”

As they crossed into the corral, Buck tapped Manolito’s shoulder and nodded toward the stiff back of his retreating brother. “Hey Mano? Some leopards don’t change, especially when they’s old and mean.”

Big John spun on a boot heel and shouted, “And some leopards can hear just fine, no matter how old they are. Now get to work, all of you.” A smile creased John’s face as he walked to the ranch house, his back toward the scurrying men. Victoria stood in the doorway, her arms open as always to greet him whether he’d been gone ten days or ten minutes. Some leopards don’t have to change, Brother Buck. And some leopards do. If there’s a female leopard around.

 

 

 

2005 Penny McQueen

 

Feedback to the authors at:

 

Penny - pmcqueen7627@yahoo.com

 

Jan - jan_lcs@yahoo.com

Without the excellent contributions, editing, nit-picking, and encouragement of my writing friend and partner, Jan Lucas, this story would not exist in its present form.  And the Montoyas would all sound like Cannons.  

 

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”

~C.S. Lewis