What a Tangled Web
and Jan Lucas
A black-haired Irishman, starving when
potatoes died in the field, brought his fiddle to
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
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
“Yes ma’am, thank you.”
“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
“That’s right.” John Cannon’s rows of
dollar signs, cheap cattle from
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
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
A week into Dr. Coulter’s tenure,
“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,
“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
“Uh huh. You heard this the last time you were in
“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
Lately I didn’t feel like drinking.
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
Copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, climate. Some nights the five underpinnings of the
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
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
The mantle clock struck and he sighed, staring at the mess on the
blue willow plate.
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
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
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
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,
crossed his arms. “Why are you –
“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
mia, can I never rest? I go to
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
“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
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
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,
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
Between bad food and worse company, I got
to thinking. Vets take care of animals, and we’ve got all kinds in
“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,
“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,
“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
When Blue stormed out of camp, hot as
summer lightning, I remembered too many past things. I’d never been away from
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
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
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.
treatment worked, Pa could buy all the low price
Buck was so
happy I wanted to punch him. While Becca loaded her bags for
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
Pulling a heavy
bag from the wagon bed,
“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.”
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.
“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
“Easiest money I
ever made.” When the boss called for him, he dumped a heavy sack into
Sincere appreciation to Ginny Shook and Tanja Sinnege
for invaluable contributions as beta readers.