Category: High Chaparral
Word Count: 13,600
John Cannon could not contain his sigh of contentment at the sight of his home, just visible in the distance. As the owner of the largest ranch in the Arizona territory, he had been riding his own property for two days now. Even with all the land around him that he could claim as his, he never failed to feel a special sense of pride at the sight of the High Chaparral ranch house. And after a two week absence, the place produced the thrill of an oasis to a waterless man.
He let his horse contain the easy pace, savoring thoughts of his wife running out to greet him, relief on her beautiful face at his safe return. No doubt Victoria would have worried about him the entire time. At least he didn’t have to be anxious about her. Her brother Manolito and his own brother Buck, not to mention his son, Blue, would sacrifice their lives in a second for the woman who made this desert haven a loving home for all of them. On the other hand, those three might mean well enough, but Blue was young, inexperienced, and both Buck and Mano would put a good day’s fun over a good day’s work at any opportunity. Even their good intentions usually produced a long trail of havoc. It was a good thing the High Chaparral had the finest foreman in the Arizona territory. Sam Butler could keep the ranch running smoothly and ride herd on the best crew a man could ask for, while letting Buck Cannon think that he was the one in charge. Mano, at least, wanted no part of any responsibility. Yes, even with Tucson’s two biggest scoundrels living under his roof, it was good to know that he could leave for so long a time and return home to find everything just as he had left it.
“Rider coming!” he heard the man on the roof yell from his watch post.
“Hey, Mr. Cannon, good to have you back,” called the guard at the front gate.
Under his boss’s inquisitive gaze, the compact but muscular cowboy ducked his head, but not before Big John had gotten at good look at the black and purple, swollen-shut eye. There was also a fresh cut over the brow, and an obviously man-mended shirt.
”Thanks, Ira. Looks like you had yourself a good time in Tucson. Hope you left some whiskey for the rest of us.”
“Oh, no, Boss,” Ira spoke directly to the dusty ground. “I didn’t go into Tucson. You told us it was off limits while you were gone.”
“Glad you remembered.”
“Didn’t need to go into town, anyway. Plenty going on right here. We all kept busy. You wouldn’t believe how busy.”
“That’s what I like to hear. No problems, I hope?”
“Problems?” Ira stood up a little straighter. “Well, Sir, I’m sure that Buck…” his voice trailed off, his gaze on something over Big John’s shoulder.
“Buck, huh?” John snorted. “I can’t wait to hear what my brother has to explain to me. Where he is?”
The ranch hand returned to addressing his boots. “I’m…not sure. I, um, haven’t seen him for a while. Maybe he’s… out…um, can I take your horse for you, Mr. Cannon?”
“You just keep that one good eye out there on the desert.”
He urged his horse forward, his vision glued to the front door of the house, hoping to see Victoria come through it. But the sound of hammering caught his attention. On his right, Reno and Pedro were putting the finishing touches on the lumber supports of the water tower – a water tower that had been perfectly sturdy before his departure. He was about to ask the pair what had happened when he heard a loud oath yelled from his left. He turned to see the youngest ranch hand, Wind, on the bunkhouse roof. He held a hammer in one hand. Several fingers of his other hand were in his mouth, obviously the recipient of a miscalculated hammer blow. But there was something odd about the half-Pawnee’s appearance. From this angle, it looked like the part of the long hair that fell into Wind’s pained face was – bright orange? John blinked rapidly a few times. His eyes were tired from the long journey, and it was probably just a trick of the bright afternoon sun. Sure enough, when Wind reached down from the roof to accept the planks that Joe Butler handed up to him, John could see the top of Wind’s black, thick hair.
Joe, the foreman’s dependable younger brother, was about to ascend a ladder leaning up against the bunkhouse, a bucket in his hand. Adobe mud dripped down the side. Why did the bunkhouse roof need repair, John wondered? It hadn’t been a full year since they had laid a completely new roof, after that very rare rain storm had convinced the old roof to give the bunkhouse boys an unwelcome nighttime shower.
“Joe, what happened to the roof?” he called.
Joe turned, but not before a distinct look passed between him and the Indian. Know that this Butler’s talent for stalling rivaled Buck’s, John was about to ask again, when he stared, and blinked hard. It certainly looked like half of Joe’s ever-present thick, black mustache was missing. John shut his eyes tightly. He had to be more tired than he realized.
“Mr. Cannon, look out!” Joe yelled.
Cannon pulled on the reins out of instinct even before he focused enough to realize that his horse was standing on the very edge of a very deep hole. Not just a hole, a crater. Deep enough to almost hold his six-foot, four-inch frame, wide enough for four men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Practically in the middle of his front yard.
“BUCK! GET OVER HERE!”
Wind looked up as he heard Big John yell for Buck. So did Joe. Joe winced at the level of John’s voice, while Wind just bit his lip to keep a straight face.
“How long do you reckon Mr. Cannon will let Buck try to answer his questions before he starts in on the rest of us?” Wind asked.
“All of about 30 seconds, before he starts in on Sam,” Joe replied with a heavy sigh. “He knows better than to expect a straight answer from Manolito, so my guess is we’ve got maybe a full minute before he looks to one of us. I reckon I should have stayed out hunting. That mountain lion suddenly looks a lot friendlier than Big John.”
Buck slowly walked over to where Big John had dismounted and stood before the deep hole. He wasn’t anxious to get there – he had expected his brother’s anger. And that meant yelling. And yelling meant his head would start to throb again. But Buck knew he had to face this at some point, so he pulled his hat as low as he could over the bandage wound around his head, put on his best smile and said, “Oh, hi there, Brother John. I’m surprised you came home so soon. So was your trip…..”
“Stop with the ‘Brother John’ and ‘nice trip’ stuff, and tell me what has been going on here!” John demanded.
“Here?” Buck replied timidly.
Buck looked down at the gaping crater in front of him, as if he had just noticed it. “Well, I’m not quite sure about this hole, you see. That happened while I was in jail.” Buck grimaced, putting his hand up to cover his face. He hadn’t wanted to mention that, not quite yet.
“Jail? Should have expected that. Okay, just what do you know about then? I presume you can at least tell me what happened to your head?”
Buck shifted uneasily. John’s voice seemed to reverberate in his head, creating a very unpleasant sensation. “Oh, my head. It ain’t so bad. And that sure is a funny story. I was wearing these here new boots, and then, after the wedding…”
“Boots? Wedding? This better be going somewhere fast,” John folded his arms and stared at his brother.
There was a long silence.
Buck sighed. “Maybe I should start at the beginning.”
“That would be good,” John said as he continued to glower at Buck.
Buck hesitated and then began, “Well, you see. Well. Remember them boots we saw in the general store window about a month ago? The ones that made a man taller than he actually was?”
With a noise of frustration that filled the yard, John roared, “Just stop. I want some real answers. “SAM! I want to talk to you!”
Sam Butler was glad, for the first time in two days, that he was on crutches. It meant he had an excuse to be slow reaching Big John’s side.
“Welcome back, Boss.”
“And what the hell happened to you?” John demanded, frowning at his foreman.
“Me? Ah, I went hunting for a couple of days,” Sam tried to make his face look blank.
Sam and Buck looked at each other as if daring the other to go first. As the seconds ticked by, John realized he was going to need to find a looser tongue. He noticed Pedro up on the water tower. Though Pedro was a hard-worker who had been with him since the beginning, the Mexican was not usually his choice for reliable information. The man could weave a story that had more loose endings than an old frayed rope. But he had a habit of incriminating his comrades as his tales spun out of control, which meant answers. There was something about that missing shirt sleeve and bandaged hand, not to mention the way he kept glancing over his shoulder, that made John think that Pedro had been right in the thick of things.
John glared at his foreman. John glared at his brother. When they continued to stand there like statues, he yelled. “Pedro, get down here. I need answers now!”
Sam and Buck instantly came to life. “No, Boss, Pedro doesn’t know anything,” Sam said, an obvious look of dread rising on his face.
“I can explain, John,” Buck said quickly.
“Would you please?”
“Well, now let me just think on it a minute. You was gone for two weeks, Brother John, that’s a mighty long time.”
“Apparently long enough to blow up my yard,” John growled.
“Oh, but that didn’t happen until the end. See, about two weeks ago, right after you left, I went into town to get some supplies. I was in the saloon and heard this ruckus outside. There was this family all shouting at one another in some language I didn’t understand. Someone said it was Indian. John, did you know that there were Indians that weren’t Indians? I mean they were Indians but from across the ocean in a place called India. I think I’d read about it but I never…”
“Buck, get on with the story!”
“Oh, yeah, the story. Well, me and a couple other fellows finally stepped in when the pa of the family acted like he was going to hit the girl. We finally got them all calmed down and Chiri — that’s the girl — said it was all her fault. Something about confusing names and such, not speaking English very well.
Buck paused, but one look at John’s face and he quickly resumed the story. “See, she said she was a mail order bride. She was supposed to marry a Buck Johansen on some ranch called the High C or something, but that wasn’t right. She found a Sven Johansen on the Double B, but she couldn’t find anyone named Buck Johansen. When the Sven fella heard that there was a mail order bride looking for him, he seemed kind of interested until he found out that she was an Indian. He thought it was the other kind of Indian, you know, like the Apache. And even though she wasn’t that kind of Indian, he definitely didn’t want her and wouldn’t even take a look at her. Then her family, who all came with her, said she had disgraced them. Don’t see how it could disgrace them if a fellow doesn’t want to marry their daughter. It sure is funny how different places have different ways of looking at things. I mean, we have our…
“The story,” John barked.
“Oh, right. Well, she was a pretty young thing, this mail-order bride, and all crying. I got talking to her pa and he said she either had to be married or she was going to be stoned back in their country, because of the disgrace, like I mentioned. Now, John, I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen,” Buck said with a note of pleading in his voice.
“But what does any of that have to do with all this?” John waved his hand at the hole in front of them.
Buck rubbed his forehead hard. “I’m getting to that. You just need to be patient for a bit. Where was I? Oh yeah, the only thing that was gonna save this girl was for her to get married like they all had planned. Her father said it only would be a formality for the groom and not really legal here ‘cause there wouldn’t be a license or proper vows like we know, but it would be back home where they come from. She needed to get hitched before they went back by the end of the week. Since it wasn’t going to really be a real marriage and I didn’t want her to get hurt, what with her being so delicate like, I said I’d help out. So they packed up all their wedding feast stuff – two wagon loads – and came out to the ranch.” Buck paused, and quietly added, “I take full responsibility for that, Brother John, honest I do. And it would have been alright, ‘cept some of Pedro’s cousins showed up. And then Inga arrived.”
“All this was Pedro’s cousins’ fault? And who’s Inga? I don’t understand a word of what you just said.” John glared at Buck in disbelief. He would have shouted for Pedro, but as he was now at the very top of the water tower, working like a man possessed and would at least pretend he was out of earshot, John turned to the next available person — his foreman.
“Sam,” barked John, “I used to be able to get some sense out of you,” he shot Buck a meaningful glance, “so how about explaining a few things.”
“Yes, Sam,” added Buck hastily, “you explain. I’ll just take your horse to the corral, John.”
John turned to call after his fast moving brother to stay put, when the outhouse, leaning precariously to one side, came into his line of vision “What the hell happened there?” he interrupted.
“Well, you see John, the explosion…” Buck stammered.
“Pa!” yelled Blue, racing up with a heavy limp, covered in mud from head to toe, his arm in a ragged sling, “am I ever glad to see you!”
But John’s glare had grown to menacing proportions and his son’s smile quickly faded.
“And what happened to you?” John demanded.
Blue looked down at his mud-caked clothes. “Well, me and Vaquero were making adobe…”
“I don’t mean the dirt. Why are you limping? What happened to your arm?”
Blue shifted uncomfortably. “It’s nothing, Pa. I just kind of…. See, when the fire started…”
Blue’s voice trailed off. His gaze was on something behind his father. When John turned, the other men seemed to be trying to send frantic signals to Blue. Now they quickly turned back to what they were doing with renewed effort.
“What fire?” asked John, summoning all his control. Silence followed and now, no one was moving. And then he saw the barn. “You burned down the barn.” he said slowly, unbelieving.
“Not the whole barn, Pa, just the one wall,” Blue corrected him eagerly. Then he saw his father’s face. “But it wasn’t me, Pa. See, when the fire started I had just come back from rounding up the horses, `cause they got out when the corral fence got busted, and then…”
“Blue Boy,” Buck placed a heavy arm around Blue’s shoulders. “Why don’t we let your Pa go inside and relax a bit after his long trip? He don’t need to be hearing about all this right now. Awful glad to have you home, Big Brother, did I mention that? Now, you go inside and see Victoria.”
John sighed heavily. It was obvious he wasn’t going to get any straight answers, until he could ask the right questions. He turned to go into the house, then stopped after a sudden, worried thought. “Is it safe to assume that my wife is still in one piece?” he asked.
“Of course Victoria is fine, just fine,” Buck said in his best soothing manner. He draped an arm over his brother’s shoulder, urging him toward the door.
All of a sudden, John stopped, turned and stared at Buck. Buck immediately removed his arm and backed up so fast he nearly lost his balance.
“Buck,” John said quietly. “Come back here. Come closer.”
“Uh, what do you want, Big Brother?” Buck asked suspiciously, stopping just out of reach. He pulled his hat from his bandaged head and began to twitch it slowly through his fingers.
“I want you over here, next to me.”
Buck looked around at the men for support, but they were shifting backward, taking teensy little steps. He had the distinct impression they were about to run. “I can see you just fine from here.” But he couldn’t seem to stop his feet from backing up.
“You stay where you are,” John instructed, stopping Buck in his tracks. John walked the ten paces to stand next to his brother. Ever so slowly, his eyes traveled from Buck’s boots up his body, past his chin and shifted upward to his eyes. “And when did you become taller than me?”
Wind, climbing down the ladder from the bunkhouse roof, watched the look on Buck’s face, and tried not to grin. He’d told Buck the boots with the built-in lifts were a dumb idea. Not that Wind wanted to draw Big John’s attention to himself. After all, there was an orange-ish streak covering half his black hair, he was wearing one of Ira’s shirts instead of his own, and there were several long scratches still visible on his face.
“Well, brother John,” Buck began as he shifted uneasily under John’s stare, “I kind of, well, got these here new boots, on account of Inga.”
“Inga? I thought her name was Chiri?”
“Well, it was. Chiri was the Indian Indian girl. Not one of our Indian Indians. You remember I told you that. But then there was Inga, too.”
Wind could no long contain himself, and a laugh burst out before he could stop it. Unfortunately for him, his amusement caught John’s attention. John was not amused, though, and was ready to demand to know what was so damned funny when he heard a very strange sound — a high pitched, wailing bird call. Then he heard his wife yelling. He turned to see Victoria chasing a strange blue bird out of the ranch house, swearing at it in Spanish. While the whole situation of his ranch being in apparent chaos angered him, seeing his wife chasing a peacock of all things was too much and even John smiled.
“Blue, I told you to get them all rounded up,” Buck said as he nudged the young Cannon.
“I tried, but they kept sneaking in and out the hole in the kitchen wall,” Blue answered in a whisper.
The mention of a hole in his house removed the smile from John’s face. “Buck. In the house, now!”
“Now, John, it’s not as bad as it seems.”
“IN THE HOUSE NOW!” John yelled, then added in a controlled voice, “Sam, you come, too. And bring Pedro.”
As John headed toward the house, a flock of birds came racing around the kitchen side, chased by Manolito. The peacocks took no particular notice of Blue as they hurried past, but they did stop at John and began to encircle him, cutting him off from the house. He raised his hands as they got closer, moving their sharp-looking beaks toward his fingers as if they were a delicious meal. He decided it might be best to stand perfectly still.
“John!” Victoria cried, spying her husband. “I am so happy to see you!” She hurried forward to embrace him. As Blue valiantly tried to round up the running birds, chasing one dangerously close to the open front door, she raced madly back to slam it shut before the bird got inside again. Satisfied, she smiled sweetly at her astonished husband, pushed back a wisp of stray hair, and sat gracefully in the chair on the front porch.
“Welcome home, John,” said Mano, sidling up slightly out of breath. Of everyone in the yard, he was the only one clean and neat. He gestured toward the house. “I would not go in there, if I were you.”
“Oh, and why is that?” John gruffly asked of his brother-in-law.
“Well, you see…” Mano hesitated, not knowing exactly how to explain to the man about the damage to the interior of his home, and wondering whether he feared his sister or her husband the most.
“What Mano is trying to say,” Victoria interjected with a forced smile, “is that today is a beautiful day for a nice, peaceful rest on the porch.” Just as she completed her thought, one peacock, the ring-leader of the flock, bolted for John and made contact.
“OOOOW. What the….” John looked down at his leg and the bird preparing for another strike.
“Get these stupid birds away from me! Victoria, what are they doing here?” His wife seemed more interested in watching the men herd the flock to the back of the house. Surely it was not possible that she was trying to hide the truth from him as well?
“You look so tired, my husband. Please sit down,” she finally answered, with another beautiful smile he did not believe.
“Never mind about that. Once and for all, I want some answers from one of you.”
Pedro, who had been following behind Sam as they moved as slowly as possible toward the house, took advantage of the peacock distraction to turn the other way with some speed.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Sam hissed. “We’re all in this together, you know.”
“Eh, Sam, my English is not so good. I don’t think I can explain so he’ll understand…”
“How come your English is just fine when you ask for a day off or you want to borrow some money?”
Pedro grinned. “Some words are easier than others…”
“Well, you can just muddle through like the rest of us. Big John doesn’t need to hear any fancy stories. You just gotta tell him the truth.”
“The truth? Sam, that has always been a very difficult word for me to understand. My truth could be different from your truth.”
Juggling his crutches the best he could, Sam gave Pedro a not very gentle shove back toward the house.
“Come on, Compadre. I’m not going to be responsible for telling Big John how most of his furniture has disappeared.”
Pedro planted his feet firmly and crossed his arms for good measure. “Are you going to tell him the truth about how Joe caused the giant sword to be sticking out of his ceiling?”
“Now, hold it right there,” Joe stomped over to them. “You know that’s more Reno’s fault than mine.”
“Maybe you should come in, too,” Sam said.
“Oh, no. `Cause as soon as Big John finds out about the brand on Blue’s arm, I don’t have a prayer.”
But it was too late. Surveying the gathered men and his wife, John Cannon was trying to find the likeliest person to give him answers. Perhaps because he had heard the voice, or perhaps because the man was trying so hard not to be seen, John’s shout stopped everyone in their tracks. “Joe! What happened here?”
Joe put his hand to his face to cover the missing half of his mustache. Then he seemed to realize that this must look strange and tried to make it look like he was merely rubbing his nose. He cursed inwardly, angry at the way the right half had so painfully disappeared, angry at the thought of having to shave the remaining side in order to grow it out again properly. He had worn a mustache since he was a young man and felt almost naked without it. The bunkhouse boys would kid him, and…
“WELL?” John Cannon barked.
Afraid of no man except the one glaring in front of him, Joe jumped.
“Uh, yes, Sir. Well, what happened was…” He looked around the ranch. There didn’t seem to be one square foot that didn’t need some sort of explanation. The other ranch hands were watching him closely, some daring him to reveal the role they themselves had played in the destruction, some eager that Joe tell the story and get it over with, sparing them the spot that Joe was standing in.
“I don’t know where to start, Boss,” Joe muttered.
John threw up his hands. “Pick a spot. Any spot. The hole, for instance. Tell me how a six-foot hole came to be in the middle of my yard.”
Joe looked over his shoulder, as if unaware that such a thing existed. “The hole,” he said slowly.
John crossed his arms rigidly in front of his chest – never a good sign.
“Joe doesn’t know anything about that,” Sam was saying suddenly.
“I don’t? I mean, that’s right I don’t,” Joe looked gratefully at his brother.
“And where was he when the hole suddenly appeared?” asked John. He was amazed to see the rapid changes in Sam’s face, sure his usually honest foreman was about to create a whopper of a tall-tale. “Don’t tell me – let me guess. Joe was too busy rounding up peacocks to notice this great, gaping eye-sore of a hole that is IN THE MIDDLE OF MY YARD!”
Everyone standing in front of John took several large steps backwards. Only Sam and Joe stayed frozen in place.
“Joe was with me,” Sam muttered to the ground. Big John’s eyes could have burned a hole into anyone.
“You said you were hunting. I thought Joe was in charge when you weren’t around.”
The brothers looked at each other, each hoping the other would continue.
“Yessss,” stammered Sam, looking around for any way to get out from under the thumbscrews of John’s stare. “Joe is in usually in charge then, but Sir…” Sam took a deep breath. “You see, me and Wind…actually it was Wind…”
“I don’t care who it was, get to the point.”
Sam spoke quickly and seemed to be determined to finish before his breath ran out. “Yes, Sir. Wind had found some mountain lion tracks up Adobe Wash and we’ve been running the herd through there, and you know how dry the grazing is on this side of the Wash and with the cat on the other side and knowing how Wind is a good tracker and seeing how Joe really isn’t, and knowing that when you came home you’d be wanting to move the herd back to the lower pasture and seeing how we might lose some cows when we do that because of the cat, and since Joe’s been having trouble tracking lately…” Sam looked desperately around for help.
“You’re making about as much sense as Buck,” John glared at his foreman. “But it sounds like you’re telling me you BOTH left the ranch and went hunting? Together. With Wind.” He stopped suddenly and peered around Sam. “Where is Wind?” Spying a bit of dark hair at the back of the group, he hollered, “Step out here!”
Reluctantly, Wind advanced. He tried to keep his head turned to one side to keep the orange streak from standing out. He stopped just short of Sam and tried to hide behind him.
John walked a few paces around Sam and stared at the young man’s hair. “What in tarnation is that?”
Wind’s eyes did not falter under his boss’s intense gaze. As far as Big John knew, it was against a Pawnee’s nature to tell a lie. But John did not put it past the half-white part of Wind that was more easily influenced by the bunkhouse boys to say the first thing that popped into his head.
“Paint. We were painting…the places that need paint,” responded Wind without blinking.
“Painting,” John repeated. “Which part of my house did you decide needed to be bright orange?”
A silence followed. No one continued, no one contradicted him, no seemed to be breathing. John turned around on his heel, studied the house, and then fixed his eyes on his brother.
“Okay, Buck. I’ve listened to all the fairy tales I can take. You had better start talking or, so help me, I will stake you out for the Apaches myself!”
Buck gulped. “Now, Brother John…” Buck paused as he saw the look of something like rage in his brother’s eyes. “Well, you see, like I was telling you, about Chiri…she needed to get married or else her family would stone her. So I said, ‘Sure, come out to the ranch and we can have the wedding and that feast you’ve got all them wagons for.’ This was ’cause the pa said it didn’t really count here especially being that there would be no real vows like from a priest. I mean, it was real vows to them. They had brought their own kind of pastor to do the officiating. But they didn’t put any stock in our marriage license. I figured we have been all working plum hard lately and a nice fiesta would be a good way to relax for a few days, so why not?”
“Why not?” John boomed. “I’ll tell you why not. Look at my ranch!”
Buck held his bandaged head. “Don’t shout — my head is ringing.”
“I’m going to do a lot more shouting if you don’t get on with your story!”
“Okay, okay.” Buck looked around, but when no one else seemed eager to chime in, he continued. “So, they loaded up all their belongings in the two wagons and followed me out to the ranch. When we got here, I told Victoria what was happening and well, she didn’t take it all too well. Kept carrying on about ‘what will the bishop say.’ I’m not sure why…..”
“Because you can’t marry someone outside of the Church,” Victoria interjected, exasperated by Buck’s inability to understand what seemed obvious to her.
“But it wasn’t like I was really marrying her. I mean, I would be, but I wouldn’t be,” Buck said defensively.
“You were still saying vows that were holy to those people, even if it was in another language. And if you wanted to carry through with it, then you would be excommunicated and we all would be disgraced. And I never could show my face in Papa’s home. Myhouse would not be ruined, no one would be hurt, peacocks would not be in my kitchen had you not been so… so…” She continued on in Spanish, only stopping when John put his arms around her.
“But, Victoria,” Buck said meekly, “You don’t need to be upset. I didn’t marry her. Reno did.”
While John was comforting his wife, Wind took the chance to step back. So far, so good. The boss had bought the orange streak being paint. Victoria told him the orange color would grow out soon enough. He had decided to turn down her offer to cut the affected area short as soon as they got the house back to some semblance of order. He didn’t relish the idea of being half-bald.
Unfortunately, John saw him move.
“I didn’t say you could go anywhere,” the big man barked.
“No sir. I just figured I could get some more work done,” Wind said.
“Not until I hear everything there is to be said about this Chiri.”
“Or, the former Mrs. Reno,” Pedro added with a laugh, and then immediately regretted it. “Sorry, Boss. Maybe I use the wrong words.”
“Someone had better start using the right words, NOW!” John looked at each man, freezing them in place. “And no one moves until I get to the bottom of all this! Understand? Good. So Buck, what’s this
about Reno getting married?”
Buck shifted uneasily under Big John’s stare.
“See, once I knew how upset Victoria was, I just couldn’t go through with the wedding, even if it wasn’t really a wedding But then I knew Chiri would be in trouble, so I got thinking. Since Reno is a single man and not particular about disgracing his family, I thought it would be nice if he was the groom. And I told Chiri’s pa this and he agreed, as long as the girl got married. Those Indian Indians have some strange customs if I do say so. Then again, our Indians have some strange customs too. But I’m losing my place here.” Buck pressed a hand against his pounding head. “So, he and his family — and there were a lot of them — got down to getting the feast ready. Now, Brother John, you’ve gotta believe me, I didn’t know they would paint the house and such.”
“And such what?”
Buck cringed. “Well, maybe Victoria would like to tell you?”
“No, I would not like to tell you!” Victoria exclaimed, leaping up. “John, they ruined our house. They painted the front room with all kinds of symbols. They took down all the paintings and hung ones with elephants. They even removed all the chairs with cowhide and destroyed them. There were so many of those people that I could only stop one at a time but then others would be doing something else.” Victoria sank into a nearby chair, nearly in tears. “And then there was that bull!”
With only a look from John, Buck knew he was in serious trouble. “Yeah, Ferdinand did cause a bit of trouble.”
“Trouble? Is that what you call it when a bull runs wild through my house? Destroys my bed?”
“But, Victoria, I never meant for any of that to happen.”
“Si, Victoria, the bull was not Buck’s fault,” Mano came to the rescue. “The bull was Blue’s responsibility.”
John looked at the youngest Cannon, “Well?”
“I didn’t ask to be responsible for the stupid bull,” Blue glared at Mano. “They made me take it.”
“Someone made you take a bull?” his father’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Just like that?”
Blue squirmed. “It wasn’t just any bull, it was a prize bull, and it was because Reno had to pretend to be my brother.”
There was a very long and heavy silence. John opened his mouth, seemed to think better of it, and shut it again.
“See, when Uncle Buck said he couldn’t marry Chiri on account of Victoria having a fit, and Reno said he would do it, the girl’s family wasn’t so happy. Not when they found out he was only a ranch hand. They thought Chiri was gonna be marrying a big ranch owner — that’s what they wanted to tell all their friends back home.”
“Why did they think Buck owned the ranch?” John asked, and was instantly sorry. There were more furtive looks amongst his family and crew.
“Well, Big John, I might of told `em somethin’ like that…” Buck spoke to his boots. “Even though they wanted the girl married, they weren’t gonna set her up with just anybody. Since the marriage wasn’t gonna last much past the ceremony, I didn’t think there’d be any harm with a little white lie…”
“Get to the part about Reno being a member of the family.”
“I’m afraid that was my doing,” Mano smiled, pleased with himself. “I informed them that Reno was a Cannon. Blue’s older brother, to be exact. Sure to inherit the largest portion of the High Chaparral
after your demise. Chiri’s family was quite content to let the wedding proceed after hearing that. And that’s why the bull was given to Blue.”
“Wait a minute! That doesn’t explain a thing.”
“It’s a custom, Pa. The bride’s family has to give a dowry to the groom. Usually it’s handed over to the groom’s father, and that would be you.”
John fixed his glare on the ranch hand that was suddenly his son. For the first time he noticed that Reno had a swollen, purple lip and a black and blue cheekbone.
“But you wasn’t here, Big John, so they handed it over to Blue, him being the next closest thing…”
John walked over to the corral to look at the animal. Buck followed closely behind, tripping in his too-tall boots. Blue and Mano kept a healthy distance behind.
“This is a fine animal,” John said, admiring the bull. “A prize-winner, I’d say. Worth a lot of money. They gave this to you? I would have thought that a pretend marriage would only warrant a pretend dowry. You shouldn’t have kept it. An Indian family, so far from home, could probably use the money a bull like this would fetch.”
He couldn’t figure out why every single person on the ranch was now staring at Pedro. He saw Sam poke Pedro with his crutch, urging him forward.
“I should have known you’d have more than a little bit of responsibility in all of this,” John sighed. “Have you got something to say to me?”
“Me? No, Sir, Boss.” But Sam whacked him hard in the shin with the crutch. Wincing, Pedro tried to smile at his employer.
“You see, Senor Cannon, the bull didn’t really belong to Chiri’s family. My cousins, they were on their way to Tucson, you see, and just happened to find the bull wandering alone in the desert.”
“Your cousins certainly have amazing luck.”
“Si, Senor. There it was. All alone.”
“No brand, I suppose. I’m sure your very honest cousins would have checked for a brand.”
“A brand, si.” Pedro wiped his sweaty brow, stalling for time. “They may have just forgotten to check…”
“And I bet your cousins were more than happy to sell the bull to Chiri’s family for a small fee.”
“Ah, well, everyone has to make a living somehow,” Pedro shrugged and tried to smile.
John closed his eyes. “I don’t suppose anyone here had the brains to check for a brand after Blue accepted what is probably stolen property?”
Pedro opened his mouth to protest but seemed to think better of it. Then Buck filled the heavy silence.
“We didn’t need to, Big Brother. Right about then was when the sheriff arrived.”
“The sheriff? And I suppose that’s when you got arrested? Well, out with it!”
The force of John’s voice startled Buck and caused him to take a large step backwards. Unfortunately, he stepped on a small rock and, due to his built-up boots, fell flat on his back. The ranch hands burst out laughing, despite John’s obvious lack of humor.
Buck looked up at his brother glaring down on him and grinned, “Yeah, but it wasn’t on account of the bull. Well, it was at first but I got that sorted out just fine. And you’ll never guess who the bull belonged to – old Fergus McLeish hisself.”
“McLeish? That ornery, stubborn, no-account –“
“John!” Victoria interrupted before her husband could make himself any madder. She slipped her arm through his. “It turned out all right in the end. Mr. McLeish was very pleasant when he rode in with the sheriff. Once he heard what had happened, he didn’t blame anyone. He even suggested to Buck that he might like to actually purchase the bull, to help the poor Indian family to save face. They never really did understand what was going on. The sheriff was willing to drop the charges as long as McLeish was happy.”
“McLeish was pleasant? He must have been drinking,” John growled.
The sound of muffled laughter came from the direction of the ranch hands. They turned their backs and dropped their heads under their boss’s inquisitive glare.
Buck continued to grin openly. “Well, you could say that he had a few. We treated him real fine.”
John pulled him roughly to his feet. “You invited him into my house and gave him my good…”
“No, Brother John, he never set foot in the house. I knew you wouldn’t like that. Don’t I always do like you tell me? No, we gave him something special that Chiri’s family brewed up. Old McLeish took to it right off. Took the skin clean off the back of your throat but McLeish, he said it was mother’s milk to him. ‘Just another wee drop’ he kept saying, didn’t he, boys?”
“Brewed? What do you mean ‘brewed’? You better not mean what I think you mean.”
Buck took several steps backwards as his brother moved menacing closer.
”I couldn’t believe it either, John, but Chiri’s family, as soon as they got here, they started unloading all these strange looking pieces of metal and such. You recollect how Victoria said there was too many of them to stop? Well, before you could blink an eye, they had fastened all them things together, lit a fire under it, and mixed up something in a big old pot over the fire. They already had some in a jug. Passed it around to everybody. Said it was an important part of the wedding fiesta.”
“A STILL! YOU LET THEM SET UP A STILL ON MY RANCH!” John’s roar seemed to echo off the distant mountains. “No wonder you got thrown in jail. You don’t have the sense God gave you. I bet the first thing you did when the sheriff rode in was take him right over to it and pour him a drink.”
“Now, John, that hurts my head something powerful,” Buck winced. “Give me a little credit, now. I did offer him a drink – from the jug. And while we was busy talking about the bull, the boys hustled the still into the bunkhouse. They seemed pretty happy to have it in there.”
“I bet they did.”
“So you see, John, I was thinking it all through. Everything would have been fine then, except…” He ran his hand over his head, a sure sign that he had something difficult to say. “I don’t rightly know what happened because no one was in the bunkhouse at the time, but Ira, he knows a thing or two about stills and he said it was most likely that the fire got too hot under the pot, cause the next thing we knew, there was a loud bang and the still came flying out through the bunkhouse roof.”
John closed his eyes. Buck took several more steps backwards. “And that’s when the sheriff saw it and I got arrested. But all I had to do was go into Tucson with him and pay a fine. We took one of the jugs with us on the ride out so it wasn’t so bad. I would have been home right away except for the sheriff passed out while he was looking for the paperwork.”
“I go away for a couple of weeks and this is what you think up!” John was almost beyond words. “And the bull?”
“I got him for a good price,” Blue spoke up.
“Si,” Mano said, laughing openly. “A VERY good price.”
John glared at his brother-in-law. “Care to explain that?”
“Si, si. Ferdinand – how do you say it politely? – he does not like cows.” The moment he said that, all the hands burst out laughing. “Si, it is true. Ferdinand prefers to watch the clouds than the cows.”
“You mean to tell me, we paid good money for a bull that won’t breed?”
Mano could only nod ‘yes’ because he was laughing too hard.
John was not amused. One severe look at his brother and the other men and the laughter subsided. A desire for a stiff drink was overwhelming but the sight of his yard urged him on. “Okay, enough about the bull. What happened to Chiri and who’s Inga? Reno? Buck? And, Sam, where were you when all this was going on?” Getting no immediate answer to his questions, John added in a very loud voice, “And why is there a hole in my yard?”
John was surprised to hear every formerly hesitant tongue on the ranch come alive with insistent explanations. Every one of his questions was being answered at the same time. The rush of words kept
him from hearing any one person clearly, and all he could catch were fragments of confessions.
“….and then the peacocks…”
“…didn’t know the whole fence was gonna….”
“…just as he was about to brand the bull…”
“…next thing I knew I was laying…”
“….fire as big as a mountain…”
“….hit my head against the …”
“…thought that he was gonna run him right through the way he was swinging it…”
Now THAT voice came through. Though his head was reeling from all the noise, John wheeled around and stared at Sam.
“Shut up!” he yelled to everyone else. “Sam, did I hear you say something about a sword?”
“Yes, Sir. Reno was swinging it over his head when I came riding up and I…”
“Wait a minute. Start at the beginning. What was Reno doing with a sword?”
Reno seemed to be very interested in the circles his booted toe made in the dust while he mumbled to the ground, “Didn’t ask to ride with the stupid sword.”
“Well, I didn’t know why he had the sword, Boss; not when I saw him charging at Joe,” said Sam.
“It was one of them…what’s that word you used, Mano?” asked Buck.
“Ritual. One of the many rituals the Indian family had to complete this wedding,” Mano offered. “Such a very complex people. I was particularly fascinated by all the paintings they were doing in the house. The big red circle…”
“Stop!” Big John roared. “I want to know why Reno was threatening Joe with a sword.”
“No, Boss, I wasn’t doing that,” Reno had the courage to speak up. “It was Soapy’s fault.”
“Don’t you go blamin’ my horse!” Blue was full of sudden fire. “Just takes a decent rider to handle him.”
Reno took a step toward him, forgetting that he was the boss’s son. “Are you calling me a bad rider?”
Pedro jumped between them. “You are forgetting. It was the peacocks. They spooked the horse.”
“Oh, yeah.” Blue and Reno grinned sheepishly at each other.
John’s head was spinning. He couldn’t imagine that Buck’s hangover hurt any worse than his head. For a moment, he though of asking for a tall glass of whatever they had concocted in the still. But he sighed
heavily, counted to five and tried again.
“Sam…” he said wearily.
“Well. I didn’t know about the, um, ritual, and when I…”
“Brother John, the Indian Indians have this, um, ritual where the bridegroom – that’d be Reno – rides up to the doorway on the house and hits the doorframe with this big old sword. You should have seen it, John, it was about this wide –” Buck held his hands apart the width of his body, “And abut as tall as Blue Boy. And curved. Never seen anything like it.”
“Heavy, too,” said Reno. “Just about broke my arm, trying to lift it over my head.”
“And the groom had to be on a white horse. Soapy was the closest thing we had. Don’t that beat all? I mean, hitting the top of a doorway with the big old sword to show that the two families are now joined. Course, the horse was actually supposed to go all the way into the house, but Victoria, she put up a right fuss…”
“A horse in my house!” Victoria had her hands on her hips. “Wasn’t it bad enough with my beautiful home practically destroyed?”
“Well, Victoria, by that time, one little horse on your carpet would not have made any difference, would it?” Manolito grinned, which her fierce glare quickly erased.
“Sam…” John tried again.
“Oh, right. Well, we had been out hunting, like I said. Joe came back ahead of me – I didn’t like the place going without one of us here. When I could see all the smoke ahead, I had this bad feeling, so I was goin’ as fast as I could. Just as I got inside the gate, I see Reno, on Soapy, ridin’ as fast as all get out, toward the door of the house, and he’s swingin’ this huge sword over his head and yelling some, and everyone else is yelling, too, and then I see my brother is standing in the doorway, looking like he’s trying to get Mrs. Cannon out of the way, and Reno’s arm is about to come down, and I think that Reno’s gone plumb crazy somehow, and I’m just picturing that Joe’s head is about to be rolling right off his shoulders, Joe, my only brother in the world. So I ride right up to Reno and…punched him. Twice.”
Reno gingerly touched his swollen lip and bruised cheekbone. “You sure did. So you can’t blame me for Joe’s mustache.”
“No, I guess not.”
“Well, I sure do,” Joe was glaring at Reno, until he saw Big John’s eyes fixed on him.
“You only have half your mustache,” John immediately felt silly uttering the words. Joe rubbed the newly naked half under his nose.
“Damn sword. When Sam hit Reno, it went flying, and I didn’t even have time to duck. Couldn’t believe it just grazed me when it went flying past. I felt it, of course. Like the sharpest razor you’ve ever shaved with. The next thing I know, it’s gone. My mustache, I mean. But no blood or nothing.”
“Thank God for that,” said John. “You’re lucky you didn’t lose your head. I assume these people took the sword back with them? It doesn’t sound like something I want lying around the ranch. Not on the same
ranch with a still and this bunch, anyway…” he glared at his brother.
“No, Boss, it’s kind of – stuck in your ceiling.”
“They said it was bad luck to remove it,” said Buck. “Has to fall out by itself, or the whole ranch’ll be cursed. Sure are funny people. Imagine thinkin’ anything could go wrong here…”
There was a short silence. Pedro, with a wide grin and a well-practiced innocent look, was the first to speak. “So, Boss, now that you know about Chiri and Inga and the bull, we can all get back to work, eh?
John whirled and stared at Pedro. “Inga? And just who is she?”
Pedro shifted nervously, the grin gone. “Well, Boss, my English…perhaps Sam or Blue would tell you better.”
“No, I think you will do just fine.” John shot the rest of the men a look that transfixed them in their spots.
“Well, my cousins, they came for a visit. When the sheriff came, they were scared so they hid, since they thought he came for them because of the bull. But they didn’t know about Blue buying the bull – we didn’t have time to tell them. My cousin Juan had brought some fireworks which…..”
“What does any of that have to do with Inga?”
Pedro looked at Mano then swallowed hard. “Inga, si. Mano had sent for her, you see. She came with the sheriff. He was bringing her to the High Chaparral when McLeish caught up with him.”
Mano smiled his remorsefull-less smile. “Inga was a late birthday present for Buck. I had seen her in a paper – a young, beautiful, single girl from Sweden. I wrote her the most beautiful of love letters, and from me, that is saying quite a lot. I only thought she would write to Buck and accept his proposal of marriage – just my little joke. I never knew she would show up here.” He laughed in delight at the trouble he had caused.
“So, she was a mail order bride too?” John turned back to his brother. “I don’t suppose you took the time to sort that out before you were carted off to jail?”
“Sort it out? I barely had time to notice how pretty she was.”
“Just that she is a lot taller than you, eh, Compadre? We noticed you did have the time to buy the boots that would make you more her equal,” Mano continued to grin.
“You know, it’s not too late for me to thank you for the part you played in all of this,” Buck moved toward him, fist raised. John stepped between them.
“I was as surprised as you about the mess the ranch was in when I got out of jail,” Buck glared. “I mean, I would have thought Mano or Sam could have run the ranch for a few days without me.” How did everything get to be his fault? How could he be held responsible for the hole or the burnt barn wall or any of the rest of the disasters if he wasn’t here?
Sam and Manolito didn’t appreciate having all the blame or Big John’s attention turned toward them. The two men looked at each other. When neither started, they both looked at Pedro and almost in unison said, “If it wasn’t for his cousins …”
Pedro sighed, knowing he couldn’t stall any longer. “Senor Cannon, I think you remember my cousins have a nice business selling fireworks. Besides the fireworks, my very hard-working and honest cousins also sell dynamite to the mining camps. At a very reasonable price, Senor. It is really a wonderful service they provide, they hardly make a profit at all…”
“Save it. I know all about your cousins’ business ventures. What does it have to do with Inga?”
Mano stood up and draped a casual arm over Pedro’s shoulder. “My friend here is hoping you will picture in your mind the very interesting wagon, full of both fireworks and dynamite. Imagine the possibilities.”
“I don’t need to imagine anything,” John growled. “I could never come up with anything stranger that what any of you have told me. But I’m guessing that the cousins just couldn’t resist coming to the High
Chaparral to see Pedro with this wagon full of explosives.”
Pedro smiled happily. “Si, Senor, I knew you would understand. Now, I will just get back to work…”
“I don’t understand anything! Mano – what does Inga have to do with Pedro’s cousins?”
“Well, John, it’s really just one particular cousin that had to do with Inga. Esteban is his name. The nicest hombre you could ever meet. He stands about this high – ” Mano held his hand between his chest and his waist ” – but for some reason, the ladies just love him. He doesn’t let his size stand in his way. He took one look at Inga – the very tall, very blonde Inga, and didn’t waste one moment going over to her.” Mano had a hard time continuing, he was laughing so hard. “You should have seen them together, John, both speaking different languages, Inga gazing down so fondly at Estaben, Estaben looking up admiringly at her extremely large…”
“Manolito Montoya!” cried Victoria. “She was a very nice girl, even if we couldn’t understand a word she said. Not one of the sort you regularly pick up in the cantinas. You must not speak of her disrespectfully.”
“I am sorry, my sister,” Mano grinned. “I was just trying to get John to picture how – healthy – she was.”
A lesser man would have cowered under John’s glare. But Mano continued merrily, “So, even though they couldn’t communicate, Esteban was very anxious to please his new friend. While the other cousins were busy stringing some of the fireworks around the yard to shoot off after Chiri and Reno’s wedding, Esteban started shooting off the prettiest single crackers he could find.”
“She really liked `em, Pa,” Blue added eagerly. “I don’t think she had ever seen anything like `em before. She was laughing and clapping her hands like a little girl. She sure was pretty.”
All the men who had been present at the time took a moment to sigh with pleasure.
“You’re not going to tell me that some firecracker blew that huge hole in my yard?” John continued to growl.
“Oh, no, Pa, that was from the dynamite.” Blue folded like a house of cards under his father’s penetrating stare.
“And you can’t blame my cousins for the hole. Not really,” Pedro put in.
“Why not? It was their idea to use dynamite for the cooking pit instead of digging it, like any normal man would have done,” said Ira.
Pedro shrugged. “They were just trying to be helpful. Anyway, it was Chiri’s family that insisted on the cooking pit. My family didn’t have anything to do with that. And nobody said shovels would be better.”
He looked around at his fellow ranch hands, daring one to disagree. They all suddenly became very busy looking at their boots.
“What cooking pit?” John turned to his son again.
“Chiri’s family had this special way of cooking, for the fiesta after the wedding. See, you dig this pit, and then you put in the meat and then you cover it with leaves and rocks and stuff and leave it for a
good long while to roast. That’s what they brought the peacocks for – it’s a special feast dish for a wedding.”
“It was just gonna be a little hole, John, I swear,” Buck found his voice again. “We was gonna fill it right back up after the fiesta and you would never have been bothered by it. Right over by the side of
the house, out of the way.”
“Just a little hole, huh?” John Cannon roared. “Then how did it come to be here, in the middle of the yard, and a huge, gaping hole?”
“Well, I wasn’t here for that part. I was in jail then.” Buck mumbled to the ground.
“Very convenient for you.”
“Don’t look at me, boss. I hadn’t come back from hunting yet,” Sam said quickly.
John fixed his eyes on Joe, who was trying very hard not to be noticed.
“Well, I…I’m not really sure how it happened. But what we were all guessing was, well, some of them firecrackers don’t look a whole lot different than the sticks of dynamite and…well, with all them cousins
reaching into the wagon for fireworks and some for dynamite for the cooking pit and all of them handing this and that to each other…”
“Esteban was suddenly lighting a stick of dynamite for the lovely Inga instead of the firecracker.” Mano was doubled over with laughter.
John walked over to the hole and gazed down into it.
“One stick of dynamite did not make this big a hole.”
The silence on the ranch was deafening.
“No,” said Pedro, anxious to clear the name of his cousin. “That stick of dynamite that Estaben lit accidentally, it never touched the ground. He is a very quick thinker. When he saw that he had lit the
fuse of a stick of dynamite instead of a firecracker, he threw it into the water tower. He thought that the water would put out the flame. That was quick thinking, eh, boss?”
John surveyed the obviously re-built water tower. He took a long, slow breath. “Obviously not quick enough. Then what happened?”
“Well, Esteban, he forgot that the dynamite, they have very short fuses. That is why my cousins don’t mind selling it at such a good price. And so – well, it exploded in the tower before it got to the water. So you see, boss, he wasn’t responsible for making the hole.”
“But it was the noise that scared the bull,” Blue spoke up, obviously unhappy at the memory. “And that’s what made Joe brand me.”
“WHAT?” John bellowed, wheeling around to face Joe.
Now Joe was glaring at Blue. “That wasn’t my fault and you know it. Why you picked that minute to brand the bull when there was so much else going on…”
“I thought it was best to cover up McLeish’s brand. We bought it fair and square. I didn’t want McLeish going back to the Sheriff after he sobered up and making up some cock and bull story…”
John was pushing back the bandage on his son’s arm, examining the burn that was clearly the brand that marked the High Chaparral livestock. The look on his face made Joe rush to explain.
“Blue was holding the bull and I had the branding iron and when the dynamite went off the bull went crazy and Blue couldn’t keep a grip on him. And I – well, I was trying to help and the branding iron kind of…got knocked all cockeyed. I guess it kind of…made contact with his arm.”
“You guess?” Blue roared. “I was practically cooked alive!”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t the one who threw it into the wagon!” Joe yelled back.
It was Blue’s turn to glare. “I didn’t throw it! I was just trying to…I don’t know, get out of the way and my arm must of hit it pretty hard and I didn’t know that it went flying…I never…all I knew was that my arm was on fire. I guess I… but…somebody else could of tried to grab it.”
The other ranch hands suddenly came alive, and all excuses came at once.
“Well, I was helping you,” Joe said hotly.
“You try to calm a soaking wet Swedish woman and see what you have time to notice. I was trying to keep Inga from killing Esteban after all the water in tower hit her full-force,” said Pedro.
“Chiri’s family was putting me in that wedding getup. I was surrounded by `em,” said Reno.
“I was in jail,” said Buck.
“I don’t care what you were doing!” John yelled over all of them. When he had their attention he turned back to his son. “Are you telling me the branding iron – the hot branding iron – fell into the wagon filled with dynamite and fireworks?”
“Yes, Sir.” Blue hung his head.
Manolito’s laughter filled the silence. “Oh, John, you missed the explosion of a lifetime. The noise, the smoke, the fireworks…the wagon flying toward the sky, the ground rumbling, dirt in the air turning everything in front of your face black…the outhouse falling over, the horses stampeding through the corral fence…I will never forget the sight as long as I live. But the most delightful of all was the bull, with strings of bursting fireworks tangled all over him, charging right into the house. It was so unfortunate that he
caught the bed sheets on his horn when he trampled your bed. It only took one tiny spark from a firecracker to ignite it – did you know that linen burns just like paper? – and when we chased him into the
barn, well, you see we were successful in saving three of the walls.”
“How can you laugh! There was nothing comical about it!” Victoria stood toe to toe with her brother. “My house is destroyed!” She launched into a rapid string of Spanish, which John imagined was a recounting of what was damaged, with a few unladylike words thrown in for good measure.
“Nothing comical?” Manolito persisted. “Not even what happened to Wind’s hair?”
John was amazed to see the corners of Victoria’s mouth twitch slightly.
“No, that was…not funny,” Victoria insisted, though now she was turning her head to hide her smile.
“I thought he said that orange in his hair was paint,” John growled. He turned to face the young ranch hand.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Wind glared at Mano, wishing he dare swing at him. “It’s some sort of bleach. I was trying to get Reno free to help put out the fire in the barn. His new mother-in-law started jabbering at me, and chasing me with a paintbrush. I tripped over Blue, she tripped over me, and my hair got hit. Mano only thinks it was funny because he wasn’t the one trying to get that woman off me. Chiri is pretty. Her mother weighs as much as Sam, and is about six inches shorter than me.”
“Bleach? What was the woman doing running around with a paintbrush full of bleach?” Big John asked before he could stop himself. Considering the current condition of his ranch, what difference did it make? And he wasn’t sure he was up to hearing another unbelievable explanation. But then he noticed that Victoria seemed to be laughing to herself. He heard her say, “Poor Wind,” under her breath. His curiosity got the better of him.
“What’s so funny?” he asked her quietly, as she was definitely trying to keep her humor to herself. Victoria motioned for him to come closer and whispered in his ear.
“It wasn’t bleach. It was a strange concoction that Chiri’s mother made to baste the peacocks with. You know, the ones they were going to cook in the pit. Full of the strongest smelling herbs I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience, along with some fruits and vegetables I have never seen. Big red berries that also smelled when they were crushed. Something I think she called curry powder. And honey. She must have purchased all the honey that Arizona had to offer. This concoction turned into the brightest orange you could imagine. She had a large brush she was going to use to cover the peacocks with this terrible mixture. Then when the bull ran through the kitchen, the bowl got knocked to the floor and smashed. The poor woman tripped and fell on to Wind. While they struggled to get away from each other, the paintbrush with the basting sauce came in contact with Wind’s hair. And John, it doesn’t come out. We’ve been scrubbing the floor for hours and it’s still as bright orange and sticky as it was before. And it smells to high heaven. I imagine that Wind thinks that strong odor is bleach. Unless he cuts his hair, he is destined to have that orange streak for quite some time. I think it’s best we just keep this to ourselves, don’t you? The men would tease him so if they knew he had basting sauce in his hair.”
What with Buck’s lifts to make himself taller, Joe’s half of a mustache, Blue’s branded arm, Reno’s pretend marriage and Pedro’s cousins almost blowing them all to bits, Big John didn’t think basting sauce was much to tease about, but he nodded at his wife dumbly.
He turned to look at the disorder on his ranch, as well as his family and ranch hands, still frozen in front of him. Had everything finally been explained? The water tower, the outhouse, the bunkhouse roof, the bull, the burned wall of the barn, the corral fence, and even the giant hole – which he could barely look at without shaking in anger – there had been an extraordinary story for each of these. He knew that bull chasing, rounding up escaped horses and putting out roof fires caused the cuts and bruises on his workforce. All except for the two who had been absent – Sam and Buck.
“Sam,” he barked, making the foreman jump. “You never said how you hurt your leg.”
“Didn’t I? Oh, well, it’s not important, boss…”
“Tell me,” John’s volume increased, and everyone else jumped.
“Really, John, Sam ain’t hurt that bad, are you Sam? Hardly worth hearing about. Why don’t we go inside and…” Buck tried to corral John toward the door. John shrugged the persistent arm off his shoulder.
“You had something to do with it, didn’t you? I wasn’t even going to ask you about the bandage on your head. Because if I hear one more of your…” he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I need to sit
As his wife made room for him on the bench that had miraculously not been destroyed, he gave Sam a look that would have withered a lesser man.
“I – well…” He looked nervously at Buck.
“Aw, go ahead and tell it. Just keep to the facts, Mr. Butler.”
“Facts?” John snorted. “I didn’t think that word was in your vocabulary.”
“In my what?”
“Never mind. Let Sam talk.”
“But he don’t know about the first part,” Buck insisted. “See, I got home before he came back from hunting. I came through the gate just after the explosion. And there was Inga – “
“I had a feeling we weren’t done with her yet.”
“No. So Inga, she was standing there screaming like a banshee cause she was all wet from the water tower blowing, and then when the wagon exploded and the dirt fell every which way, well, you know, some of it – quite a lot of it, really – kind of fell all over her and she was madder than a wet hen. She was pounding on that little cousin of Pedro’s something fierce. And so I went over to her to see if I could
make her feel better.”
“And show her how tall you had become while you were in jail,” Manolito laughed. “We won’t talk about how many times she knocked you to the ground.”
“Well, that wouldn’t of happened if it hadn’t of been for the damn boots,” Buck hollered back. “Can’t hardly keep my balance in `em.” A quick glance at his brother reminded him to continue.
“So Inga, she was awful mad at me, `cause she thought I was the one who brought her here in the first place, even though it was Mano that did it, and then I got dragged off to jail and wasn’t around to help
her, and she just seemed to think everything that happened to her was my fault. But then that bull ran by and she practically jumped in my arms she was so afraid of it. And I thought that, you know, maybe if
I…” Buck scuffed the dirt with his boot, unable to look anyone in the eye.
Manolito clapped his arm around Buck’s shoulder. “He decided to single-handedly catch the bull, and impress the lovely Inga out of her rampage. I was not sure who was more frightening – the bull or
the girl.” He laughed merrily.
Buck pushed him away. “Well, no one else was doing anything to stop him. Just chasing after him, yelling like a bunch of fools.”
“Why is that so easy to picture?” John muttered. “Go on.”
“The bull ran right by us, and I didn’t have a rope or nothing to catch him, so I just did the first thing I thought of. I jumped on his back.”
“Oh, Buck,” John groaned.
“Now, John, it weren’t that bad. It was just like riding an unbroke horse. I figured I could stay on him long enough to tire him out and then one of the boys could lasso him into the corral. It was quite a ride, I tell you. I was almost enjoying myself until…”
“You fell on your head.”
“No, that came later,” Buck said earnestly.
“He really could of stayed on, Pa,” Blue offered. “If he hadn’t got distracted…”
“Blue Boy, don’t help me. See, John, after Inga saw me riding the bull, she stopped screaming and seemed to be taking more of an interest in me. And, well, I’m only human, and she was a beautiful
woman, and there she was, kind of beaming up at me and I couldn’t help noticing that even though she had some mud on her, it was the water that made her, well, her dress was really all wet and…”
“It didn’t leave much to the imagination,” Manolito interrupted with a grin.
“That’s for sure,” Blue added, and a collective sigh escaped from the men at the visual memory.
“So you see, Brother John, I couldn’t really help but be distracted.”
There was a general murmur of consent, which stopped when John crossed his arms and glared.
“I kind of lost my seat on the bull then,” Buck forged on bravely. “I was hanging on for dear life. If my friend Sam Butler hadn’t stepped in, I would’ve ended up much worse than I did.” He rubbed his head
Sam didn’t look particularly proud that he had come to the rescue. He wouldn’t meet his boss’s gaze and shifted as much as his crutch would allow.
“What happened?” John Cannon felt he had said this phrase a million times since returning home. “Sam?”
“Well, like I told you before, when I first came home from hunting, what I saw was Reno looking like he was about to slice off Joe’s head.”
“But I wasn’t,” Reno said quickly, in case his boss had forgotten.
“Right. Well, after that all got sorted out, I heard a lady scream. It was Inga. The bull, with Buck on his back, was headed right for her. Buck looked like he couldn’t hold on much longer and Inga was kind of frozen. Then Pedro’s little cousin jumped in front of her. He just happened to have a red shirt on. Did you know that bulls get real mad when they see red? Yeah, you probably knew that…” Sam’s voice trailed off.
“My cousin, he is a very brave man,” Pedro picked up the story. “He was willing to put his life on the line to save the beautiful senorita. Once he got the bull’s attention, he started to run, so the bull would chase him and the senorita could get away.”
“And then Sam jumped back on his horse and grabbed his rope and took off after them,” Joe added. “You know how good he is with a rope, Mr. Cannon. He got the rope around that old bull’s horns on the first
throw. Everything would have been all right then if…” Joe stole a look at Buck but did not continue.
“You try riding the back of an angry bull and see what you do,” Buck muttered. Then he sighed, and rubbed his head again. “The truth of the matter is, Big John, the bull was bucking something fierce after
Sam roped him. But I guess I shouldn’t of grabbed the rope to try to stay on. `Cause…”
“I hadn’t got it tied off yet and when Buck jerked it so hard, I went flying out of the saddle,” Sam said in a rush, like he was glad to get it over with.
“Pa, you should have seen it. The bull kept running, dragging Sam behind him. And then everyone was chasing the bull and trying to catch Sam, and watching Uncle Buck, who was kind of sitting on the
bull’s head at that point.”
“I don’t suppose it occurred to you to let go of the rope,” John looked at his usually smart foreman.
“Well, I…got kind of tangled in it. Buck was still hanging on to it with one hand, and the bull’s horns with the other, and all that jerking around just…kind of tied me up like a Christmas package. I think I hit every bit of debris from the blown up water tower and the exploded wagon before the bull hit the mud and went sliding. I don’t know what it was I smashed my knee on.”
“What mud?” John couldn’t keep himself from asking.
“All the water from the tower made quite a large mud puddle when it mixed with the dirt that had exploded,” said Ira.
“The bull went slipping and sliding through the mud but he managed to stop just before he fell into the giant hole. Buck, however, was not so lucky,” said Manolito.
“The bull threw you into the hole? You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”
“Well, it wasn’t that way exactly. I jumped off all right and got out of his way. But these blame boots – I lost my balance and sort a… fell in.” His look stopped any muffled guffaws. “That sure is some deep hole.” He rubbed his head again.
“It sure is,” Sam sighed. “Buck was still holding on to the rope. With the mud and all, I was sliding right in before he hit the bottom.”
“I said I was sorry. After I came to.”
A heavy silence filled the air. Everyone looked at John, waiting for the inevitable explosion, which would undoubtedly make the exploding dynamite pale in comparison.
“You might as well get it over with,” said Buck.
“Get what over with?”
“The yelling,” said Mano.
“The firing,” said Sam.
“The lecture,” said Blue.
“I’m too tired. Maybe I’ll get around to all that later. Maybe not. You’ll have to wait and see.” His tone was a mixture of amusement and menace. “In the meantime, there is an awful lot of cleaning up to do. I hope no one was thinking about going to be bed until this ranch is in the same shape it was when I left it. Just tell me that all of your guests are gone. I’m not going to be surprised by Inga, or Chiri and her family, or any of Pedro’s cousins. Am I?”
“No, John. Chiri and her family left right quick, once all the excitement had died down. They even forgot to take their birdies. Never did get around to roasting ‘em.”
Mano laughed. “They seemed to think that the High Chaparral was a dangerous place to be.”
“She and Esteban left together. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another wedding soon,” said Victoria.
John looked stricken. “You didn’t offer our home for their…”
“Oh, no, my husband. It will be months before my house is back in order. I have had quite enough of weddings. All of the men on the High Chaparral had just better plan on remaining single.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” was an immediate and heartfelt chorus from every single one of them.
“Pedro, your cousins went on their way?”
“Si, Boss. I don’t think they’ll be visiting me for a long time.”
“Make that “never” and I guess you can keep your job,” John growled. Then he turned to his brother.
“Well, Buck, I hope you learned your lesson.”
Buck looked at him thoughtfully. His forehead wrinkled in concentration for a moment, then he rubbed his aching head. “Uh, what lesson would that be, John?”
“Of all the slow-witted, thick-skulled, dumber-than-a-post-brothers in the world…”
Buck did not seem to mind the insults, but rather was interested in the gem of wisdom about to be past his way. “Go ahead, John. You tell me what I was supposed to have learned.”
“It’s perfectly obvious. You never…when you see a…don’t let some…” John Cannon’s voice trailed off. He was sure there was a lesson in all of this somewhere – there had to be. But he would be damned if he could think of what it was. With a final glare at all of those whose mouths were starting to turn up at the corners, he stomped toward the house.
“Perhaps there is no lesson, my husband,” Victoria said gently, hurrying to keep up with him. “Perhaps it was merely a comedy of errors.”
Buck laughed. “You’re surely right about that, Victoria. But if there was a lesson, I don’t think it was one for me. Maybe the lesson is that you shouldn’t go away for two weeks, gallivanting all over the desert, while there’s work at home to be done.”
“Hey, Buck, I know what the lesson is,” Ira called from his position at the gate. ‘’’don’t count your peacocks before they’re roasted.’”
“No, Compadre, it is ‘an unmarried girl in one’s hand is worth two in the bush,’” declared Manolito.
“How about ‘don’t put your bull before the cart, especially if there’s fireworks in it,’” Reno contributed.
“Or ‘never look a gift-bull in the mouth,’” said Mano.
“Reno, yours is ‘marry in haste, repent only if you never have to see her again.’” Joe grinned.
“Okay, Joe, then yours is ‘beauty is only half a mustache deep,’” Reno shot back.
“’Where there’s a still, there’s a hangover,’” said Sam.
“’People who live in ranch houses shouldn’t throw fireworks’,” offered Blue.
As their laughter reached epic proportions, and the cowboy-brand proverbs flew around the ranch, John Cannon slammed his front door behind him so hard that it shook the walls. Every so slowly, it fell off its hinges and crashed to the ground.