What a Tangled Web

by Penny McQueen

and Jan Lucas

 

 

A black-haired Irishman, starving when potatoes died in the field, brought his fiddle to America in 1846. He serenaded the hazy mountains of Appalachia and sent haunting melodies westward with his children. Miles and years twisted the heavy brogue from the notes, but an aching hint of yearning and loneliness remained. A cowboy, trampled by a rank bronc, remembered the Celtic tune as he argued with his doctor. Legs and arms broken, collar bone fractured, face criss-crossed with scars, he stayed behind when his pardners left town. To soothe his pain, he sang to his pretty nurse. Weep all you little rains, wail, winds, wail, all along, along along, the Colorado trail.

Reno didn’t know the romantic history of the song he sang. Work finished, heat easing, breeze kicking up across the valley, his hands picked familiar chords on the guitar. Watching Buck Cannon lean against a post at the ranch-house porch, Reno considered a bawdy number he’d learned in Tucson, but decided against it. Mrs. Cannon might hear through the open dining room door. Instead he fingered Dixie and nudged Joe Butler with his boot. “Buck’s got himself a hair-trigger temper these days. What’s got into him?”

Chair tilted against the adobe bunkhouse wall, the muscular wrangler’s eyes were closed, hat pulled low. Opening one eye, he muttered, “He ain’t been to town since Polly and Bess skinned off half his hide. I never knew a woman to fight fair.”

His tall frame slouched, elbows on the low divider, Sam Butler cleaned his fingernails with a Bowie knife and snorted. “That ain’t the first time Buck’s tangled with painted cats.” Sheathing the knife, he straightened and tapped his pocket. “He’s been losing poker money to me for the past month, ain’t even got drinking money.”

“Maybe.” The music stopped as Reno tuned his guitar. Satisfied, he picked out the melody to Little Brown Jug. “You and Joe been here five years, ever know Buck to go thirsty?” he said as the subject of their gossip stomped for the barn. “Unless Buck changed his habits while me and Ira was in Montana, he’s got a bottle stashed.”

Joe peered from underneath his hat brim toward open stalls at the corral edge where two shadowed figures were in cozy conversation. “Yeah, and I got five dollars says he’s headed straight for that bottle of redeye in the hayloft.”

“If you had five dollars, which you don’t, you’d lose it.” Sam kicked a loose corner brick away from the barbecue pit and groped inside the open cavity, then withdrew a dusty bottle. He uncorked it and shrugged. “You ain’t the only one who loses bets to me, Joe. You two want a drink?”

*****

A cow’s grand stupidity lets man eat beef without remorse. Adoring canine eyes fill hearts with guilt, cats make him believe in Egyptian gods, but cows are meat wrapped in thick-headed dullness, erasing regret and inviting appetite. Long-lashed eyes may remind a tired cowpuncher of a saloon dolly he proposed to six months ago, but from dainty hooves to swivel hips, cows are portable larder, shoe leather, and soup stock.

To John Cannon, cattle were rows of dollar signs and debits, marching through ledger books after dinner. Thanking Victoria for the coffee she sat beside him, he pushed papers across the dining table and plucked a delivery sheet from the pile. “Ah ha, there you are!”

Mas café, Buck?” Victoria held the silver urn toward her brother-in-law, who shoveled a third piece of pie into his mouth.

“Yes ma’am, thank you.” Victoria poured the coffee, left the urn, kissed her husband, and retreated to the living room. Crust and apple traces clinging to his mouth, Buck poured coffee into his saucer, blew on it, and slurped it down. Leaning back in his chair, he patted his stomach and offered, “Thought I’d head down to Tubac in the morning. Things been quiet around here.”

“Nope, I don’t think so. We’ve got that bunch of steers coming in from Stephenson tomorrow.”

Fork half-way to his lips, Buck stopped and stared at his brother’s bowed head. John’s pen continued to scratch at the ledgers when Buck clattered his fork against the plate. He said through tight lips, “Them’s from El Paso.”

“That’s right.” John Cannon’s rows of dollar signs, cheap cattle from Texas, were a gamble. Grizzled cowhands, swapping tales around the campfire, swore the Texas herds were plague cattle, breathing fever and death on Arizona beeves. Old-time ranchers re-lit cold pipes and speculated they bled infected fluid from cut hooves. John Cannon looked for answers.

When El Paso short-horns came on the market dirt cheap, frugal Big John paced the floor, long arms swinging in frustration. If a rancher found a way to safely mix Texas cattle with his own beef, he stood to make a small fortune, but the risks were high. Once a cow showed symptoms, it was time to rip up the tally sheet. Whole herds died in less than a month, leaving empty ranches and dreams behind with the carcasses.

Blue, the returned prodigal son, suggested hiring a veterinarian might pay off in cattle-profits. John was intrigued until Blue added he knew just the vet from back in St. Louis - Dr. Rebecca Coulter was top of her class. “She might do fine in a city, but ranch work’s too hard for a woman,” John declared.

Eyes flashing, Victoria huffed, “I believe I am a woman, is working on a ranch too hard for me also? Why could not any woman learn to take care of your importante cows?” She slipped her arms around Big John’s waist and sighed, “Oh John, why not try this for one month, only one?”

The idea of an outside animal expert disgusted Buck, and a female one was worse. “You’ve had some bad ideas, brother John, but this one’s a topper.” When John wrote to the vet, Buck sulked in Nogales for a week

A week into Dr. Coulter’s tenure, Texas cattle prices dropped again. Relying on advice from his saloon network in Tucson, Buck wagged home a crate marked ‘Dr. Culpepper’s Cow Drench’. “Guaranteed.” Arm stretched to its farthest limit, he squinted at the fuzzy print on the label and read, “Cures and prevents all diseases in cattle. Cattle, John! It say right here.” Undeterred when his brother refused the universal remedy, Buck returned with a plan. Treat half the new herd with the vet’s slippery mix of cottonseed oil and kerosene, applied with a mop by a grousing ranch-hand. Feed and water the other half, douse them with Culpepper’s Cow Drench and avoid crossroads. So far John refused, but Buck kept chewing on him.

“I still don’t like it one bit, John.” Buck grimaced as he slugged down the last dregs of coffee, thinking he was more likely to win an argument with a cactus. “Might as well baptize them beeves.” Stomping for the door, he snatched his hat from a side-table and grumbled, “Ticks. Little bitty ticks causing fever. You bought yourself a passel of trouble with that vet. You know how women is.

Seated on the sofa, Victoria closed her book with a snap and glared at him. Perdoname?”

“Uh, excuse me, Victoria. I didn’t mean you, what I mean is a working-like woman.” When his sister-in-law marched past him, chin high, he clasped his hat to his chest, then pointed it at his brother. “You see what I mean? Nothing but trouble.”

Tossing his pen, John folded his arms and answered, “As long as Miss Coulter’s here, she’s going to work, whether you like it or not. Get used to it.”

“Maybe it ain’t good getting used to her, Big Brother. Last time I was in Tucson I got to talking with Jimmy John and he said the law’s looking for a St. Louie woman name of Brown-eyed Becky Calder.” He shifted his gun belt and cleared his throat. “Done passed herself off as a nurse, stayed with sick people, then stole them blind. A bad woman, John, real bad.”

“Uh huh. You heard this the last time you were in Tucson, did you?” John asked and Buck nodded. “Since you got tossed out on your ear after that fight with the two saloon girls, are you sure you heard right?”

“I’m telling you, John, that Becca gal ain’t what she says she is and she ain’t right for Chaparral.” Scowling, Buck jabbed a finger toward his brother. “What you want her for, anyways? I always been good enough for what we needed.”

“Well, you can stop worrying about some thieving nurse named Becky Calder. Miss Coulter’s no bushwhacker; I don’t care what your half-wit saloon hound friend had to say about it. Knowing Jimmy John, you probably paid him for the information to start with.” Triumphant, John watched Buck’s mouth open in protest then slam closed. “I may have paid low dollar for this herd, but I paid, and the vet's going to work like any other ranch hand. And you can keep your opinions to yourself. The hands complain enough without you getting them all stirred up.”

“Me? Stirring up hands?” Buck tried to look astonished and innocent at the same time. “Brother John, the boys don’t like it because more coal oil gets on them than the cow. Besides, my way works.”

“Buck, I’m warning you, I won’t have it.” Agitated, Big John built to a roar. “If I say we douse those cattle in butter, then you better start churning.”

“You do what you want, brother John,” Buck answered slowly and firmly. “But I ain’t your flunky. I is your blooded kin and I ain’t painting no cows.” Slapping his hat on his head, he jerked the string tight. “I might miss a spot, and one of them fire-breathing, death-dealing, cow-killing ticks might get away.” He stomped out the door, banging it shut behind him.

*****

Sometimes, everything on the ranch made my teeth itch. Between goodforsook country nobody but the devil could dream up, and livestock so rock-skull stupid they’d drown theirselves in a thimble of water, my head felt like a tea-kettle full of steam. Usually an hour or two days in Tucson, getting reacquainted with redeye, poker, and one or three gussied-up saloon ladies put me in a better temper.

Lately I didn’t feel like drinking. Tucson weren’t no more to me than a bucket of rocks, and my luck at cards run so bad a kid younger than Blue cleaned me out playing poker. I considered going hunting or mining, but them ideas set bad on my stomach, and I always followed my stomach. When me and John tussled over the last batch of Texas cattle, I tore out of the house already mad as a rooster before I seen Blue and that vet-gal talking at the corral

Blue Boy spent too much time with her to suit me. Nothing but talking, anything else and the bunkhouse boys would know; they gossip more than a church deacon’s wife. But she had Big John ready to treat cows, which meant I’d be slopping to her orders, while Blue grinned like a mule. She had a yard and a half too much book learning to set easy with me. What’d a female need with all that eddy-cation?

She laughed, my teeth itched, so I yelled, “Blue? Ain’t you coming in?”

It was dark by them horse pens, but I could see his smile from the porch. “In a minute Uncle Buck.”

“You sure, Blue Boy? Getting mighty late, sunup don’t wait for a working cowhand.”

“No, I’m fine, I’ll be along in a little bit.” More talking, sounded like water over rocks in a creek. Sounded like something not right for Chaparral and not right for Blue.

******

Only a man with vision would purchase a ranch sight unseen, travel over a thousand miles, and set up shop in the middle of hostile Indian territory. No one, not even his worst enemy, would accuse John Cannon of being a stupid man. Combine vision and intelligence, mix in bullheaded courage, a voice that stopped men in their tracks, Puritan work ethic and self-righteous indignation simmering close beneath the surface, bake in the Arizona sun. The end result might be a sprawling, successful ranch. Or a sprawling failure. The territory was littered with the failed dreams of other smart men with vision. That fact kept Big John awake nights.

Copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, climate. Some nights the five underpinnings of the Arizona economy played through his head like a song. Copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, climate. High Chaparral had plenty of climate and cattle. After five years, the ranch was on a paying basis, even comfortable. But for long-term success, they needed something more than cows. Like a storm cloud’s silver lining, Buck’s foul mood put that something more within reach.

Restless at one in the morning, John Cannon prowled to the silent kitchen and retrieved a piece of apple pie. At the kitchen work-table, he lifted a bite and chewed, grinning to himself when a stallion’s call to distant mares pierced the night. It was the sound of money, opportunity born of progress. Civilized people coming into the Territory, bankers and businessmen, their wives and daughters, had no use for cowponies. They wanted stylish saddle and carriage-horses to rival blue-grass blue-bloods in the East. John idly worked his fork in circles through the filling, envisioning pricey Chaparral bloodstock throughout the Territory. He only needed broodmares to match the stallion and he already had a start.

Dropping the fork, he crumbled the crisped edge of dough with his fingers, picturing his Morgan mare Encantadora. Sweet as buttermilk and normally expensive as rosewater in a drought, Frank Johnston put a bargain price on her after she bred accidentally with a plug-ugly, half-Belgian nag. “Don’t know what you want with her, Cannon, anything you get out of her from now on is ruined.” Retrieving his fork, John smiled as he mashed lines into the dessert. Dora was due any day, ready to drop a strong, strapping colt or filly. Then he’d breed her to the stallion and start a dynasty.

But he was a long way from making his mark with horses and the new short-horns cost him plenty. Dirt-cheap per head, it took a hefty bank-loan for the herd. Odds were they’d bring lethal Texas Fever to his Arizona beeves, but Doc Rebecca swore she could prevent the sickness.

In a poker game, Buck drew to an inside straight without flinching, but John’s gamble made him snap, “It’s a donkey bet, Big Brother.” John couldn’t argue otherwise, but if the hand played out like he hoped, he’d prove Rebecca Coulter’s worth and add rows of profit to his ledgers.

Herding pie-crumbs with his fork, John shoved a dried peppercorn in the middle and muttered, “All right, pig-headed brother of mine. You get ten of my beeves with half the Texas cattle. Squirt them with perfume for all I care.” He shoved a batch of crumbs to the opposite side of the plate. “Ten more Chaparral stock get painted with Miss Coulter’s kerosene and cottonseed-oil. She can mollycoddle them any way she wants. If she’s talking hogwash, I can quit paying her and boot her back where she came from.” Picking up a stray bit of apple, he deliberated then set it beside the peppercorn. “Might as well send Blue with Buck, put all my brilliant kinfolk in one spot.”

The mantle clock struck two o’clock and he sighed, staring at the mess on the blue willow plate. Victoria’s perfect crimping lay in ruins, the pastry sodden with filling. Before climbing the stairs to bed, he tossed it beyond the back fence and rinsed the plate. No sense in worrying Victoria come morning.

*****

A good foreman knows what’s what on a ranch; there ain’t much gets past me, if you get my drift. When the boss gets up in the middle of the night to see to a foaling mare, he’s got big plans for the horse. When Buck threatened to bust Blue’s head because Encantadora was in trouble, pushing hard with no head, hooves, or hide to show for it, Blue got her on her feet, told Buck to keep her there, and ran for help.

Mr. Cannon showed up in long underwear shirt, carrying a bucket of hot water, Doc Rebecca running to keep up with his long legs. I knew a short-timer when I saw one, and she wasn’t long for the ranch. Nervous as a cat around the boss, an eighteen year old, brown-haired slip of a girl on a four-week run. I figured if Mr. Cannon wanted to waste his time and money, he had good reason. When she showed up, I told the men to ignore her and get back to work, never mind what she was doing.

I thought she might choke when she saw Buck pawing through her gear, looking for surgery wires, ready to cut up the foal. But she shot a look up at the boss, bit her lip, and kept quiet. She’s a little thing, even makes Joe look tall, but working for Mr. Cannon, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. He’s a big man, he wants ranch-hands who stand beside him.

That night, Bucko was dead set he was right. “We got a breech birth, can’t nothing be done. Have to cut up that foal, else we’ll lose Dora.”

“Well, let’s get on with it.” He raised an eyebrow at the vet, and I rolled up my sleeves. Personally, I wasn’t looking forward to it, not something I like to think about, watch or do.

Then Doc Rebecca piped up. “No.” Joe had nosed around by then, we looked at each other like a mouse just sat up and yodeled. She took a deep breath and went for her gear, saying, “I can deliver this.”

I’ve tried to pull out foals, so has Buck. Mr. Cannon’s done it, too. Hand up a big animal’s backside, arm crushed, pulling for all you’re worth. The last time I tried it, we lost the mare, and I couldn’t put on a shirt for two days. Buck laughed at her. “You gonna fix this? You?”

The boss can stop a man with two words, but he was nice enough to her. “Look, Rebecca, this is an important mare. I’m not going to take a chance on losing her.” His hand looked huge on her shoulder when he patted her and turned her for the door. “Why don’t you get on back to bed, let us handle this?”

Mr. Cannon’s back was toward Blue, so he couldn’t see his face when the Doc looked at him. Blue shook his head, winked, and mouthed, “Don’t listen to him,” then turned red and shuffled his boots. My brother bet me Blue was courting the veterinarian. I thought he’d read too many dime novels. Joe muttered in my ear, “Pay up, Sam. That ain’t a man who’s thinking about hoof-rot.”

 “The jury’s not in yet, so don’t be spending my pesos.” Darned if the mouse didn’t pull out calving ropes and iodine, soap up, and order the boss to hold the mare while Blue come around to her backside. When Buck tried to stick his nose in the middle, she swiped blood and muck off her forehead and barked, “One more word and I’ll stitch your mouth shut with a ten gauge needle.” The boss laughed so hard he dropped the lead rope, Blue nearly choked, and I thought Bucko might have a stroke, but he shut up. Before I knew what was what, a healthy filly tumbled into Blue’s lap.

When Doc Rebecca named the new filly Juliet, Joe tried to collect his five dollars but I wouldn’t budge. I’m foreman, and nothing gets by me on this ranch. If there was any courting going on, I’d know it. 

*****

Most mornings, I think the good Lord knowed what He was doing when he invented fried eggs, buckwheat pancakes, biscuits and gravy, ham steaks, and strong black coffee. But a night of wrestling horse doctors and mares put me short on sleep, so after breakfast I dozed on the side porch until Blue Boy made enough noise for three men, knocking over a stack of camp skillets. They’s all the same, so when he sorted like he was panning for gold, I give him one to get some peace and quiet. Didn’t help, he whistled through his teeth while packing up a saddle bag. All that energy makes me tired so early in the day. I asked him, “Blue Boy, you sparking that Becca gal?”

When he was little, Annalee had a whole cherry pie disappear. Never had to ask who done it, cause Blue can’t lie, his ears turned red as the pie filling. Ain’t no wonder he loses to the Butler brothers at poker regular, but he can’t figure why Joe and Sam always want him to ante into the game. So he didn’t fool me none when he pushed the skillet into his saddle bag and asked, “Uncle Buck, why you want to ask me something like that for?” His ears was pink as a schoolgirl’s hair ribbon.

Last thing my boy needed was a over-educated, uppity female maybe had a shady past. Just ain’t smart enough with women to see it his own self, so it was up to me to help him. “Because I’m your Uncle and I want to know, that’s why. If you’re sparking that gal, they’s some things you better be thinking on, and I’m just the one to tell you what to be thinking.” Blue slammed food into his bag and bit his lip. I pack a healthy lunch myself, but we was only out for the day.

Peppers, beans, canned pears. Blue don’t like pears, but he packed plenty to get us to the border. “How about you keep your big nose out of my business?” Looked like we was eating wire staples, too, because he added a handful. Early morning and cool enough, but sweat ran down his face and he jerked away when I tried to wipe it off. He slung the saddlebag over a shoulder and marched for the corral, tortillas falling out of the flap like cow chips.

I pulled that boy out of more scrapes than I can count, one way or other. Watching him saddle old Soapy, I rubbed my aching forehead and thought real hard about knocking him sideways, but this weren’t a problem could be fixed the easy way. Tacking up Rebel, I thought how Blue looked stubborn as my own grandpa. His jaw twitched when I put my arm around his shoulder. “Blue Boy, I only asked ‘cause I see what I see, especially looking at you. What I see is you sparking that gal. We ain’t never kept nothing from each other in all these years, have we? You starting to do that now?

“Not exactly.” He mumbled and shrugged, but I heard enough to know he weren’t too far gone to be saved. “Maybe. Not yet”

Me and Mano met this lady preacher once, Captain Sister Ellie. When she talked, she could make a man believe anything, like we was all innocent lambs lead astray, waiting for the road of redemption to rise up and lead us home. She talked so good I give her three months pay and all my drinking money. I wished Sister Ellie was there to explain to my boy how evil women twist a man’s mind and take him away from righteousness. But last I knowed, Sister Ellie was in Tombstone, so I took off my hat, held it over my heart and looked heavenward. “Blue, you ain’t got experience with women like I got. How you know she’s the right kind of woman?”

He cackled like a laying hen. “You’re just mad because she shut you up.”

“Yeah, maybe next time it’ll be you.” I thought maybe he wasn’t too old to turn over my knee and spank, but he swung into the saddle before I could do it, so I put my hat on and grabbed the reins before he could leave. I remembered muggy Virginia revivals with creek side baptisms after hellfire and brimstone sermons. “For all you know she’ll give in to the first temptation that comes along.”

“When Babylon shows up on our front porch, I’ll worry about it.” Grinning like a baboon, he headed out, called over his shoulder. “Hey Uncle Buck! When’s the last time you passed up temptation? Yeehaw!” I waved away dust as he galloped out the gate.

Too big to spank, to stubborn to argue with, and too stupid with women to listen to common sense. But I had a winning card up my sleeve, and the boy never could win at poker. If you want to see what kind of woman you got, Manolito don’t never mind helping.

******

Buck crossed the yard to the bunkhouse, knowing the boys had finished their evening meal and would be settling in for some amusement. He opened the door and entered to a chorus of greetings. Mano snoozed, feet propped up and crossed, chair tilted on two legs, hat pulled low over his eyes. Directly across from him, Sam Butler braided a riata and at the table, Joe turned a page in his dime adventure novel, on its cover a stylized cowboy surrounded by marauding Indians. Other men scattered around the room, talking or resting on bunks.

Buck pulled out the chair opposite Joe, spun it around, and sat with his arms resting on the back. “Sam, Joe, I got me a worry about mi amigo Manolito here.”

Mano grinned, perfect teeth showing from underneath the brim of his hat, but didn’t answer, waiting to see which way the wind blew. Sam continued braiding his rope, working fibers until they softened, tightening the weave. Joe dog-eared a page, closed his book and eyed Mano. “Don’t see what’s got you worried, Buck. Looks pretty healthy to me.”

“Looks healthy.  But it’s like the A-patch, when you don’t see any, it’s time to start worrying. And I think Mano ain’t right, Joe. Probably needs doctoring real bad.”

Uncrossing his legs and lowering his chair to the floor, Manolito leaned across the table, amusement in his eyes. He touched a hand to his chest and bowed slightly. “Compadre, your concern deeply touches my heart. Sí, my hand is on my wallet, but my heart is touched. Why would you believe I am unwell?”

Buck leaned forward, deep concern on his face. “Why Mano, when you pass on a pretty gal, maybe you got Texas fever.”

Hombre, you try painting me with tick-dip and…” He drew a finger across his throat. “I have been occupied with matters of great importance, Bucko.”

“More important than women?”

“Than some women, absolutely!” Mano crossed his arms. “Why are you – como se dice – beating around the bush?”

“Yeah, Buck. I’m with him.” Sam finished braiding and coiled his rope. “If you’ve got something to say, spit it out. Seems to me you don’t commonly miss a chance to talk.” A round of chuckles came from listening ranch-hands.

“Mano, I’d rather nursemaid a wet bear than talk to you these days.” Buck counted on his fingers. “Don’t go to Tucson, won’t play poker, you ain’t had a drink in three weeks.”  

Madre mia, can I never rest? I go to Tucson, the women notice me and I am too polite to decline their generous attentions.” Manolito pushed his hat back on his head and sighed dramatically. “The fatal Montoya charm is – alas -- a heavy burden. Here, I can lift it from my shoulders and relax.”

Sam slapped his finished rope on the table, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and pushed himself up. “Oh my aching back. Fatal charm. Heavy burden. You two keep jawing on this topic and there won’t be any air left in the place. I’m going for a breather.” He settled his hat on his head and walked out the door.

Buck moved into Sam’s empty chair, placing himself closer to Manolito. He leaned over, tapping Montoya on the arm as he spoke. “So how long do it take that fatal charm to work? If you really work at it?”

“Hombre, I cannot answer that question. Never have I worked at it.”

“Okay, Don Juanolito. How about you work something besides your mouth?” Grinning, Buck took a wad of bills from his vest-pocket. “I got cash money here says you can’t win over our fancy-pants veterinarian in one week.” The boys howled approval, slapping the two men on the back.

“No, gracias.” Manolito ducked from the enthusiastic encouragement and pushed the greenbacks out of this face.

Buck surveyed the room. “What about you, Joe? You’re good with horses, ought to be good with women.” When Butler glared over the top of his book, Buck grumped, “Did every man on this ranch turn into a lacy-cuff Baptist?” He turned to Manolito.  “You could at least help me talk some sense into Blue.”

“I’ll take that job.” Joe fingered the bills.

Ay-yi-yi!” Mano rolled his eyes to Buck’s determined face. “I can think of many things requiring less effort than talking to Blue, but all right, compadre.  José will only add his bad advice to yours and never will I forgive myself for letting that happen. Vamanos!” Standing, Mano slung an arm around Buck's neck and ushered him to the door.

*****

In the beginning of time, Spider Woman wove strands of destiny, spinning Hopi, Pima, Apache. Through eons the tangled web of her creation birthed White Eyes and Pawnee, man and woman. When stars fell to the ground, hissing in water until every lake burned dry, the children of Spider Woman each followed a golden strand and spoke their own language.

Under a starry sky, two children of Spider Woman circled, wary as coyotes. Claiming ownership of the holding corral, Blue Cannon settled elbows on the top rail, ignoring laughter from the bunkhouse. The half-Pawnee ranch-hand padded to the end of the fence and stood, rifle cradled in his arms. He came to the ranch during Blue’s long absence and kept his distance, as did Blue. Blue nodded once and spoke. “Wind.”

Wind answered with a raised eyebrow, then knelt, looking intently between rails at a black spider in its web, silhouetted against lantern light from the bunkhouse porch. “My people believe spiders are creators.” Touching the tip of his big bowie knife to a strand of web, a smile tugged one corner of his mouth when the ebony spider skittered. “They weave destiny. The white man says they set traps, and their webs are lies.”

“Don’t care for them myself.” Ma hated them and so does Becca. “You got a point?”

“Yes I do.” Wind stood and crossed to Blue. “Your father said this ranch was my home as long as I wanted. Seems like you didn’t want it until lately, and I think your reasons are tangled as a spider’s web.”

Face hot, hands balled into fists, Blue answered through clenched teeth, “Maybe some things ain’t none of your business. Why I left and why I come back is between me and Pa.

Wind stared into Blue’s eyes like buried secrets were plain as tracks on a trail. Shifting the rifle, Wind bent to the spider again. “Maybe. As long as you’re honest with yourself.” A silver-winged moth collided with the sticky web, and the spider enfolded it in silk, stunning it with venom. “My people say a man traps his spirit when he lies to his heart.” Before Blue could answer, he melted silently into darkness.

*****

I never planned on leaving Chaparral. Afterwards, I drifted, ran out of road and eating money, got hungry enough to see if Mr. Carson would pay me for drawing pictures. He did, but only if I’d go to school. Seemed like a fair shake to me, especially since I met this funny daughter of a Nevada rancher who wanted to be a horse doctor. Her Pa had odd notions about raising girls, after five boys he’d kept right on with her just the same. Good thing her Ma was starched and ironed, otherwise Becca would’ve lived in waist overalls and cow pens. First month I knew her, I laughed my head off.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I was through with women. Moonfire was buried on a corner of the ranch and putting her in the ground locked off a piece of me I didn’t like to look at. Trece Burnett was a con artist, made me believe Uncle Buck when he said, “Blue Boy, all women is the same and most of them ain’t worth the powder in a copper jacket misfire.” The summer I left the ranch, I was running from the Widow Campbell as much as Pa, which is one other thing I should’ve listened to Buck about. “Ain’t but one way to comfort a widow, Blue.” I hate it when Buck’s right.

So, I was done with High Chaparral and women, but Becca was a friend to me, just a different kind than Sam or Joe. When she said, “Blue, if you’re going to mope about your father all day, then you might as well go home,” I went.

Buck picked me up and slung me around like a feed sack, Victoria had her fiesta, and Pa hugged me then checked the tack room so nobody would see him crying. Two days later in front of all the men he called me a thumb-fingered kid without enough sense to ride a donkey.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Becca Coulter. Couldn’t sleep or eat. When Pa started in about cheap cows and Texas fever, I saw how to make everybody happy. Pa’s hard headed as a dead mule, but thank the good Lord for Victoria, she could convince him to hang peacock feathers off his ears.

Becca’d been turned down for twelve different jobs, this one had to work or she was headed back home and her Ma would start arranging buggy rides with local ranchers’ sons. Pa judged every move and she knew it, Buck thought an educated female ought to be hung at sunrise, and the hands worried she might give them an order. She cleaned up the tack room and treated fly bites. Pa wasn’t impressed.

The way I saw it, I had two big problems. Pa had to decide Becca saved him more money than he paid her, or he’d toss her bags and bottles out the front gate and let the Apaches have her. And I’d forgotten how crowded thousands of acres could be; the ranch was chaperoned better than a Sunday church social. I couldn’t get five minutes alone to say her brown eyes held more light than stars, her head was just the right height to fit under my chin, and her waist looked like I could fit both hands around it.

Except I was done with women.

*****

Blue kicked the corral rail as Buck and Mano strolled from the bunkhouse and wandered his way. “Hey, Blue Boy. Mano and me, we’re just getting some night air.” Buck clapped Mano on the shoulder. “Amigo, Blue’s out here moping because he ain’t learned all women are basically the same. I figure since you is a common-soor of females, maybe you can explain to him before he gets it in the neck.”

Through a tight smile, Mano hissed, “Compadre, I have no dog in this fight, eh?” Then grinning, he slung an arm around Blue. “However, since you are my friend, I will say although I find women diverse as flowers of the field, wiser men have observed, at night, all cats are black.”

"Yeah, Blue?” Smiling broadly, Buck smacked his nephew‘s shoulder. “You been thinking one of them is special, but they's all just black cats!"

“So all women are the same, right?” Blue snorted and leaned one arm against a rail. “Like Polly at the saloon, she’s the same as Mabel?”

“That’s my boy. See, Mano? All cowboys ain’t dumb, some of them’s real smart like me.”

Blue chewed his lip, nodding his head slowly. “What about you, Mano? All them girls, they all the same? None of them’s different?”

Backing away slightly, Mano held up both hands. “Blue, compadre. Every woman, she is different. All women, they are the same.” He tapped the corral, face serious. “You know what it means to be a pantheist, amigo? It is one who worships many gods. Where women are concerned, I am a pantheist. I believe you are a monotheist, Blue. Made to pledge your devotion to only one.” He smiled and slapped Buck on the shoulder. “My friend Buck, he is an atheist. Or a devout hedonist.”

Buck laughed. “He-do what? If you mean I chase women but don’t always catch any, then you’re right. I caught enough I knowed they’s nice, but one’s about the same as the next.”

“So, if all women are the same, that means Polly at the saloon is the same as Ma and Victoria. Right?” Sly humor curling the edges of his mouth, Blue leaned against the corral. “What about Annie Simmons, Uncle Buck? Seems like you told me you thought about marrying her when you were my age.” He pointed at Manolito. “And you were set to marry Mercedes. I guess they were the same as all those saloon girls who ask me where the two of you been hiding out?”

“Hey, Blue? Never have I said that, hombre.” The lines in Manolito’s face were etched deep, his eyes serious. “If indeed all cats are black at night, every morning the sun rises. Entiendes?”

Buck opened his mouth, closed it, scrubbed a hand across his forehead. “Blue, Victoria, your ma and Annie, they’s different than them others.”

“Different. Right.” Blue nodded. Chewing his lip, he turned to the ranch house, then looked back. “So all women ain’t the same.” He stood for a moment, hands on hips. “I think both of you are mono-whatever, what Mano said. You’re just hedging your bets.” He spun on his heel and marched off to the house.

“Should have asked Joe to talk with him. You wasn’t no help.”

“Buck, compadre. I believe Blue has a fever. One for which there is no cure.”

Stubborn lines set around his mouth, Buck answered, “But Mano, I can’t let that happen.”

Hombre, you do not have a choice.”

“I got to do something.” Buck frowned. “See, last time I’s in Tucson, I got to talking to Jimmy John….” When they walked to the ranch house porch, he batted away spider webs clinging to his face.

******

Across the mountains, a dark-eyed girl yearned for me – all right, many more, but I thought of only one. Also I thought of cool cervezas and sweet music in the air. However, instead of savoring the pleasures of life, I, Manolito Montoya, connoisseur of women, a man of wit and charm, cranked on the slippery tail of an oily cow. Unable to blow my nose without losing my grip, fumes from the vilest mixture known to man burning my eyes, I hissed at Joe. Andele, andele.”

“Don’t you andele me.” When he turned, his mop flung sludge in a wide arc. “Ain’t like I’m enjoying this, Mano.”

Hombre, we discovered a torture unknown to the Apaches, one they would like. Snubbing the cow in our makeshift chute, face raw from sun and kerosene, Pedro sneezed. “Hey, José? Do that again, I leave you for the crows, amigo mio.” I could not open my mouth because a clot of muck oozed over my lips. I spat. It did not help.

“Oh, yeah? You and what army?” He jabbed the mop at my chest.

Madre mia, any of them, hombre!”

Pedro sneezed again. “Mano, amigo. I think Joe cannot mop and talk at the same time. Maybe if you don’t talk to him, he don’t talk to you and I can turn this cow loose before Thursday, sí?”

“I can mop and talk good as the next man, Pedro.” He wheeled, slinging filth in my face and upsetting the cow. A hind leg shot through the slats and smashed into my leg. To more easily fall down, I released the tail. Splintering boards, the cow backed from the chute with considerable speed. It stomped my legs, pulled Pedro into the muck and jammed the mop into Joe’s face, proving there is indeed a God.

As I lay on my back, looking at a beautiful blue sky, entertained by Joseph’s command of the English language, Pedro propped himself on his elbows. “Hey, Mano? I think we got to put that cow in the holding pen,” he said mournfully.

“What cow?”

“The cow that just run off.”

Hombre, what is the matter with you? A pretty day like this, you only think of cows? The birds are singing…”

“Those ain’t birds, they’re flies.” Joe’s approaching boots made a sucking sound. “And since we lost that miserable piece of crow bait because you let go, I figure you’re the one ought to fetch her.”

I plucked a drying chunk of dung from my cheek and flicked it at his chest. “Wrong, José. The vaca is on her own, I do not care.” Removing boots and socks, I heaved to my feet. Tubs of clean, soapy water beckoning, I shuffled toward them while unbuttoning my shirt. “Let the desert take her, not much of a cow anyway.” I dropped the shirt in a pile of wet manure.

“Joe is right, Mano. It ought to be you, amigo mio. Señorita Coulter says all the cows go in the holding pen.” Glancing over my shoulder at Pedro’s whining eyes, I unbuckled my belt.

“But it is such an ugly little cow, you know?” Belt off, I unbuttoned my pants and slid out of them. Next came underwear, gummy and sodden. “Señorita Coulter wants it in the pen, she can put it there or go to the devil. Entiendes?” Ay-yi-yi, never did a shallow tub of tepid water feel so good! Eyes closed, humming, I sat and soaped my matted hair, rubbed grease and snot from my face. Even though my legs hung over the side, very satisfying until Joe thumped my head. Hombre, what?”

“All them things you was saying about that lady vet, looks to me like you’re about to have the chance to tell her yourself.”

She and Big John, making rounds of the camps, riding in fast. Our turn, eh? While Joe crossed his arms and smirked, Pedro ducked behind his horse. I leaned over, snatched my hat from the ground and settled it where modesty dictated.

“What in Sam Hill is going on here?” John did not seem happy. “Is that a treated cow outside the holding pen?”

“Ah, Juano! Señorita Coulter. Hola.” Both hands holding my hat in my lap, I smiled. “Well, it is a long story and por favor, excuse my manners. Ordinarily I would not remain seated when greeting a lady, but as you can see, I am without my pants.”

“Your pants? I don’t give a hang about your pants!” he bellowed. “I’m going to loose my shirt if you clowns can’t follow simple instructions. Joe, you and Pedro, get that cow where it belongs.” He pointed at me. “As for you, pretend you’re running from an angry husband, that usually gets your pants on quick enough.”

******

Pa got forty dollars a head at Ft. Marcy for beef cattle. The El Paso herd wouldn’t get sick, but the twenty steers he put in with them might. That looked like an eight hundred dollar gamble, a lot of cash but not enough to break us. But if Becca was right, ticks caused fever, and the land where the untreated cows grazed would be thick with cattle ticks. To starve them out we’d have to leave the sweet water and prime summer grass at Black Boots empty for at least six months. It looked to be a long, dry summer until the monsoons came, so Pa was taking a big chance.

The cows Pa wanted treated went to Chaparral Flats with Mano, Joe and Pedro. Becca stayed at the Flats mostly, except when Pa fussed back and forth between camps. Riding night herd, I thought of a hundred reasons why Pa should’ve sent me with her. The ranch was going to be mine some day, I should supervise. Joe Butler and me tangled before, I could handle him. I mopped cows better than Mano. For two weeks, I picked fights with Uncle Buck and complained about his coffee, dreaming up ideas why I should check on Becca as healthy cattle blinked at me. 

Then a calf stopped blinking, and I quit daydreaming. I passed him once, turned in the saddle because something wasn’t right. Head down, front legs pushed forward, he stared with yellow-rimmed eyes and coughed. “Hey Uncle Buck!” I waved my hat, whistled and he galloped to me. “This one looks bad.” Before he could argue, one of the steers passed bloody water.

Buck treated the cows like his own children. We used three crates of Professor Culpepper’s Cow Drench, wrapped tails in mentholated lard-soaked burlap, daubed salve on sores, and walked them while they coughed their life away. After four days we’d lost five of the ten. The boys watched the herd while me and Buck knelt over the sixth one, nothing but hide, hair, and bones. Stretched on its side, swollen tongue pushing through teeth and covered with sand, its eyes stared without blinking, yellow as the underside of a rattler. Buck’s eyes were red and he puffed as he pushed on the cow’s side, forcing it to breathe. “Old man Snyder always said they get screw worms, only way to save them is cut off the tail.” Sweat made tracks through the dirt on his face. “I don’t know what else to try for her.” The heifer’s ribs sticking through her skin creaked as he rocked forward on his hands, dampness under his eyes.

Between Uncle Buck’s begging and the cow’s pained breathing, I knifed off her tail. Hollow as a reed, not a drop of blood. She groaned once and stopped breathing, eyes still bugged. I threw the tail as far as I could and yelled, “They’re all dying, Buck. Every one of them, and you can’t stop it. The rest of this herd has to be treated.” When I rode for Chaparral Flats, he poured Cow Drench down another cow’s throat.

******

Mamma had a fit when I bought a Butterfield-Overland stage ticket for Tucson. Threatened to hire a Pinkerton agent, but Pop just laughed. “Did you think she’d come home to knit with the local gentry?” Mamma said Arizona was full of the devil’s spawn, so Pop said I could shoot better than two of my brothers and he felt sorry for the devil.

John Cannon’s offer was no sure bet, but Blue’s letter set my heart leading my head. Come try it, you might like Arizona. Who knew what that meant, but I had to find out. Still, a girl needed to keep her heart in hand, running halfway across the country after a blue-eyed cowboy who’d never done more than laugh and tell stories was foolish. Mamma hated foolish. Pop said to win big you had to take chances, but he didn’t have a job on a ranch where nobody thought he was worth a Confederate dollar.

Sitting in the high desert, darkness falling like a knife blade, I wished for Pop’s fearless heart. Holding my breath while orange yellow cliffs shifted into black shadow, I counted saguaro instead of ponderosa pines, and missed Mamma.

*****

Having my brother for a foreman means I get to be the most responsible hand on the ranch. Not that I’d have it any other way. Just can’t say I enjoyed tip-toeing around Mr. Cannon’s pet project, or trying to clean up with a female in camp. After three weeks, we all smelled like the hind end of a jackass. When buzzards think you’re ugly, it’s time to head for home.

The Boss checked on us twice a day. I’m responsible, so I kept my trap shut, but if you ask me, it goes against nature for a man to take orders from a woman. You don’t believe me, look it up in the good book. Genesis. God whipped up Adam first, but He sure gave Eve a big mouth.

Mano talked until our ears bled. No wonder he’s always got a woman on each arm, once he gets to philosophizing, he jabbers more than any female I’ve seen, and that includes the old biddies at church socials. Far as I was concerned, he could go arriba his own entiendes.

I was ready for the shift to end, but when two men quit and another took it in the neck from comancheros, the ranch was short-handed. Instead of a full crew, only Reno rode in and said, “You got one replacement. Which one’s going home?” I was on my horse, smelling steak and buttermilk biscuits, but I knew Sam would ask why I didn’t stay and set a good example. I cussed responsibility and told Pedro to pack up his gear.

The boss left Her Highness behind, so we had plenty of supervision. Just what we needed, a girl with a tally sheet to tell us we’d missed a spot behind the ear. At least Reno knows how to pack a saddle bag. He pulled out two bottles of prime redeye before grabbing a plate and piling it with beans. When he spit out the first forkful I said, “Show a little respect. It takes real talent to make beans taste like castor oil.”  

Between bad food and worse company, I got to thinking. Vets take care of animals, and we’ve got all kinds in Arizona. The thing is, nobody told me Her Highness wasn’t from Arizona.  

*****

Reno circled closer to camp, singing to comfort the dark lumps of cattle. Weep all you falling rain, wail, winds, wail, All along, along, along the Colorado trail. When he passed jumbled boulders, a deep voice barked, “Boo!”

“Joe, damn your worthless hide, I could’ve shot you.”

“Worthless hide’s all you’d get, slinging heifer juice has my skin raw as beefsteak.” Joe scratched a shoulder and grumbled, “The boss expects us to jump like frogs for her, too.”

“Sure has changed things around here.” Dismounting, Reno rubbed bloodshot eyes and kicked at a pile of rocks. “I’m tired of trying to scrub off with my clothes on. Cow camp’s no place for a woman.”

“You can say that again. I’m about sick-up and fed.”  Scooping a hand underneath a clump of prickly pear, Joe stood, looking at the large tarantula covering his palm. “Always did like these things, ever since me and Sam put one inside the preacher’s top hat.” When he offered it to his friend, Reno backed away and Joe snorted. “It won’t hurt you. See?”

“I can see from here just fine.”

Furry legs waved delicately in the air as Joe considered. “Vets like all kinds of animals, right? I’m taking ours a present.”

As quiet settled over the campsite, Rebecca Coulter put down her pencil and wondered how much longer she’d be in Arizona.  Mr. Cannon hadn’t renewed her contract, and she was on her last week.  Sniffing, she heard her mother’s voice say, “The only one who feels sorry for you is your dog, and she can’t do anything but bark.”  Angry when a tear escaped, she dashed it away, snatched up the pencil and wrote on her tally-sheet with heavy, furious strokes. If Blue didn’t care whether she stayed or went, why should she?  

*****

I seen Captain Sister Ellie once, after me and Mano left her in Tombstone. I asked her, did she think a man like me could untangle himself from his past? I drink too much, fight, do other things she didn’t need to hear about, and I’m kinda sneaky. She said, the good Lord don’t care about what’s past, we can all be new like children if we want. Maybe so. But I think Sister Ellie ain’t seen all the things I seen in my life, so maybe her and the Almighty ain’t got the same opinion on the subject.

When Blue stormed out of camp, hot as summer lightning, I remembered too many past things. I’d never been away from Virginia before, was still a kid when the Army of the 5th Virginia marched me through a farmer’s field one spring morning. Staring at John’s dead cow in the sand, I remembered waking up to a field full of dead cows, lying side by side with men in blue and gray, green grass slick with blood.

I wiped my eyes, told the boys to watch the herd, and followed Blue. Caught up with him outside the camp at Chaparral Flats. He chewed me out for not listening to the horse doctor, said, “Buck, we could lose every head we own because you’re too pig-headed to listen to anybody but yourself.”

He looks just like Big John when he’s mad. Worse, when I know I’m wrong, he makes me feel like Ma did, like if I talk long and fast enough, it’ll go away. I chattered like a magpie, saying, “I know them ten cows is done for, but it ain’t the whole herd. Wait’ll I get my hands on Jimmy John, I’ll feed him every last bottle of Culpeppers he sold me.”

“Uncle Buck, that’s not all. You need to listen to me.”  My boy wiped a hand across his face, and started to talk about eddy-cated gals and what he’d want with one.  The A-pach have a song that says, “When truth is too large, man can’t endure it.” I was always partial to enduring, so I didn’t want to hear it.  Sister Ellie said drinking and gambling gives a man powerful debts to pay. But maybe the Almighty changed his opinion about me that night, because before Blue said too much, a scream echoed around the rocks.

*****

Even Sam says I’m the best roper on the ranch, so when I throw something, I hit the mark. Tricky throw, too. Mano waved his arms, talking about desert sky being black as a woman’s hair. I balanced the tarantula on my hand, waiting for the perfect time. When Mano said the desert was holy ground, I tossed my hairy little pet right at Her Highness.

 I forgot women scream so loud. “Get it off, get it off,” loud enough to open caskets in Tubac. Lucky for us the numb-skull cows stampeded away from camp, not so lucky when the horses chased after them. How Reno thought he’d catch them on foot I still don’t know, but he ran like the boss was right behind him. Her Highness yowled, Mano hollering back, “Calma, calma! I thought it was the cavalry when Blue pounded past me and leaped through the air at Manolito, rolling him into the screaming girl. All I saw was arms and legs, all three tangled in a ball, Blue punching, Mano fighting, girl screaming.

Like I told Sam, how was I supposed to know she hated spiders? 

*****

Uncle Buck says God created women to make men crazy. Maybe he’s right, since meeting Becca I’d yet to put together two sensible actions in a row. Working the docks in San Francisco, a cool head kept me alive, but when Joe Butler said, “Hey Blue, you sure got funny courting manners,” something snapped. 

I grabbed his shirt and yelled, “I ain’t courting anyone so shut your big yap, Bub.”  Uncle Buck let us tear up the campsite before he pulled us apart. Joe’s got a jaw harder than granite, I couldn’t put on a glove for a week. My first punch landed square on his chin and busted two of my knuckles, but he looked worse than I did so I guess it evened out. 

I was mad at myself, not Joe. Pa taught me to pick my ground and stand or fall on it, but I’d stood by and let Pa and Buck wrangle over who treated what cow. While we treated the herd at Black Boots and burned dead heifers, I made up my mind to make things up to Becca. When we trailed back in to the ranch, I planned to ask her to be my girl.

Since the treatment worked, Pa could buy all the low price Texas beef the ranch could hold. I tossed my hat in the air when he offered Becca a six month contract, but before I could yell, ‘Yeehaw,” Becca thanked him and said she’d better talk it over with her folks.

Buck was so happy I wanted to punch him. While Becca loaded her bags for Nevada, I sulked and decided I was right in the first place. I was done with women.

*****

Hefting a burlap sack of oats across his shoulder, Joe Butler grunted and dropped it onto a pile. Chaff swirled and stuck to his split lip and blackened eye. Elbowing sweat off his forehead, he grumbled to Reno, “We should be in town after working like dogs.” He jerked a thumb at his chest. “I don’t care what Sam says, I ain’t staying here tonight.”

Pulling a heavy bag from the wagon bed, Reno sniffed. “Sure Joe, whatever you say.” A half smile on his face, he asked, “How’s the eye?”

“Better if Blue hadn’t sucker-punched me.” Pulling a glove off with his teeth, he fingered his swollen lip gently and pointed to the porch. Buckboard and horses were loaded with bags. “Her Highness didn’t take kindly to us breaking up the camp.”

Reno nodded toward the ranch house. “Looks like you can tell Sam yourself about going to town.”

Long legs covering ground quickly, Sam left the boss and crossed toward them. “Joe, you’re taking Doc Rebecca to catch the stage. Do me a favor and see if you can stay out of trouble for five minutes.”

Joe pointed to the corral, where Blue moped on the top rail, looking like someone shot his best dog and fed it to the Apache. “Pay up on that bet, Sam. She’s leaving and Blue Boy’s dying of a broken heart.”

“No way Joe. You owe me ten dollars from last month, and even if you didn’t, I ain’t paying you a dime.” Seeing men loafing at the barn, he hustled toward them, shouting they could move their tails or he’d drag them across a mile of cactus.

Seams burst open and grain poured on sand when Joe dropped the bag. Reno, kneeling to gather the broken burlap, shook his head. “I told you it was a dumb idea.”

“Says you.” Joe wiped his face with a bandanna and watched the Cannons say goodbye to Rebecca Coulter. “I got her off the ranch, didn’t I? That means good old Uncle Buck owes me ten dollars.”

A spider crawled across the sand and Reno crushed it under his boot. Standing lookout on the roof, he’d heard Mr. Cannon make arrangements with the Doc. He thought Buck would be disappointed when the vet came back in a month, but it looked like Blue might feel like dancing. “I got twenty dollars says she’s back before September. You in?”

“Easiest money I ever made.” When the boss called for him, he dumped a heavy sack into Reno’s arms. “How about we double it?”

Struggling with the bag, Reno smiled. “Sure Joe. Anything for a friend.”

 

**The End**

 

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Penny McQueen, Jan Lucas

 

Sincere appreciation to Ginny Shook and Tanja Sinnege

for invaluable contributions as beta readers.