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The Last Real Cowboy: Unbroken Circle Ranch

The Last Real Cowboy: Unbroken Circle Ranch

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The Last Real Cowboy: Unbroken Circle Ranch

Longueur:
574 pages
9 heures
Sortie:
Sep 8, 2015
ISBN:
9781386966104
Format:
Livre

Description

Stormy: I am here because there are cattle rustlers on the range and Aunt Quina and her foreman are in the hospital and, if they have good sense, are never coming home.

Someone had recognized several Unbroken Circle cows as they crossed the auction block and had anonymously tipped Aunt Quina to the presence of the rustlers. They might have been the last of the herd because I haven't seen one cow since I arrived.

I was here to round up and count the cows, get the housekeeping up to snuff, try to figure out if there was enough money in the bank for next month's grocery bill, and feed and house The Last Real Cowboy on Earth.

I might have been able to do everything without him except for the rain. It was raining when I arrived and it had rained frequently and persistently every day since in a part of the country famous for no rain. The Last Real Cowboy, that's who my cousin who should be here to save his inheritance for posterity, said he was sending. As soon as The Last Real Cowboy arrived roundup was no longer my problem it was his.

A flash of red slid between where the gates were hidden by the rain and slithered on the slick mud as it flew toward the house like a shot.

The Ferrari skidded into a right turn to park in the dooryard and slid three feet past the parking pad before it came to a halt. The driver reached for his hat, opened the door, stood, and pulled his hat on with both hands.

I blinked in disbelief. He was dressed like a television bull rider. Hat, neckerchief, vest, shirt, pants, chaps. Chaps! To drive a car. Furry chaps! Movie cowboy nonsense!

"Ma'am, I'm―"

I knew. The Last Real Cowboy.

Sortie:
Sep 8, 2015
ISBN:
9781386966104
Format:
Livre

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The Last Real Cowboy - Loretta Ellingsworth

fiction.

Chapter 1

I wish my Aunt Gina and my Aunt Quina actually talked to each other. Well, not maybe just talk but spoke face to face with each other. They’ve never had a time, since they swore to the feud at the wedding reception, when they haven’t made use of some intermediary, usually my mother, to transfer their messages like a telephone wire from one to the other.

It’s a long family story involving a practical joke between identical twin aunts and a gleam in a man’s eye which ended up in the wrong belly. The gleamer was still around, my uncle, and frankly, even with the photographs from long ago, I couldn’t see what all the hoorah was about. Why him, unless it was three feet long and as delicate as an elephant’s trunk. The money came later when Uncle found out how to navigate the intricacies of government contracts, so it wasn’t initially the money.

My mother had been the perfect age at the time—too young to meddle, old enough to carry complete messages and to love the intrigue and secrecy. She still carries their messages to this day. And, unfortunately, being the only other female in the feudal line, I am sharing her mantle.

Aunt Gina and Aunt Quina were two halves of the same egg which had split late in twindom so that they were perfect mirror images of each other. And they were named the same name, courtesy of my grandfather—Regina. Regina Coeli and Regina Maris, Queen of the Air, or sky, and Queen of the water, or sea. Geenie and Queenie worked for a while, but when they had their say it was Gina and Quina.

They were bright, quick, nosey tricksters. One of them would have given my grandmother gray hair. Unfortunately there were two of them. Yes, one was right handed and the other left, but as soon as they realized that they became ambidextrous when they wanted to be. They exchanged places to pull pranks, were quick change artists when it suited them if they started out wearing different outfits, merciless when they teased each other, and, as they sped into adolescence and developed a secret side, invented all sorts of secret challenges and tricks.

I don’t know if the thing with Uncle started out as a challenge or a trick, or whether Uncle was just as satisfied to have one or the other on his arm, as if they were interchangeable, or if the old letch thought he had fallen into clover and wanted to manage a ménage à trois.

It was forever after known as the Route 66 toast. Aunt Quina, as the Maid of Honor raised her wineglass praised Route 66 as the Heart of America and promised to shake the eastern dust from her sandals and pulse with its beat west until she put her foot in the Pacific Ocean like the two guys had done on the old black and white TV show, after which she might consider forgiving her sister for stealing her fiancé. She’d made it through the woods, over the mountains, over the river, and way, way out into the open country beyond, but not over the second set of mountains. She’d never put her foot in the Pacific ocean and so the feud festered and matured.

I thought they should both grow up and get over the spite feud. I’d even tried, a couple times, to arrange a meeting, but they were bonded by the psychic twin cord and they always guessed, although that didn’t stop them from tricking me into thinking it might work.

Aunt Quina and her ranch foreman, Rick, survived the wreck of the truck. The foreman broke his leg, my aunt broke her hip, neither of them were in any shape to cope with ranch work for a while so Aunt Quina called my mom, my mom called Aunt Gina, then the reverse, until it was decided that since I was only a laggard graduate student at a no reputation college (their words, not mine, it was a great school) and it was summer, I should clean up the college campus funky style I’d adopted, dress like an executive assistant, and go out and take charge of the Unbroken Circle of Love Ranch.

I refused. I liked my apartment in the tower of an old Victorian mansion. I liked my job as admin assistant to the Chairman of the English department who was spending a long vacation in Europe, and I’d planned to spend the summer writing—writing something verboten in our household but it was fun, secret flashlight in the bed at night fun, reading was fun and writing was even better, and I was on deadline.

Instead, here I was, duster in hand, two step stool in hand, ready to dust the antler chandelier that threw weak gleams of light in the front hall of Aunt Quina’s ranch house. Dust it because the only dusty things were inside the house—outside the rain had changed all the dust to mud, soft sucking mud. I wouldn’t need the gift case of moisturizer from my mother that I’d found sitting waiting for me on the front porch when I arrived.

Jorge, did you dust the chandelier in the living room?

Yes, ma’am.

I looked at the end of his duster.

With that duster?

Yes, ma’am.

Then dust it again, you must have missed something.

I had the two step and the short handled duster, he had the long handled duster because he had tried dusting with the short handle duster jumping up and down to reach the chandelier. I suggested the two step but from the askance look he gave it stepping up and down from the two step stool wasn’t macho enough for manly work if dusting at all was manly. I probably only had his help with the chandeliers because no female in her right mind would hang antlers as chandeliers. I guess the rumor that Uncle Quina had lived alone all those years had to be true.

I wished my cousin, who like his uncle had found the key to government contract success, had never heard my name, yes, I was the stand in for the heir apparent, and never sent me out to this senior citizen asylum to keep the damn ranch running while he cowboyed through Iraq and Afghanistan proving that either he was God’s chosen or a whelp of the Devil, whichever shone on you good health and pots of government gold. Cuz was a government contract security advisor. He got to cowboy over the damn deserts, wear camouflage, jump in and out of helicopters, or his favorite thing, shoot big guns, mostly just carry them around—‘Hello, sir, nice to meet you, just let me change this big gun from my right hand to my left hand, then I’ll shake your hand, sir, and make you welcome.’

If it didn’t stop raining there was no way I was going to get a herd head count ready for Cuz in the two weeks of my forced vacation. I called my mother to say I wasn’t staying. She could come and take over. I wanted to be relieved of this nonsense before they sublet my apartment, before HR sent some other secretary to staff my office, before the insanity of rain that didn’t stop saturated my brain. She called Aunt Gina, then she called Aunt Quina, somehow Cuz got into it with an overseas phone call and settled on the compromise and a secret.

A compromise that benefited everyone but moi. I gave up my good job for a big fat check promised by Cuz. I gave up my sweet little tower apartment for the promise of free room and board a the last working ranch duh dah duh dah duh dah. I gave up—well I didn’t give up my secret, secret hobby because that I could do anywhere, but I think I may have given up my sanity before the rain washed it away to promise to stay here and ride herd on a bunch of septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian—just call them X-genarian and be done with it—ranch hands (not cowboys! And I wasn’t going to think of them as such!), plus a few relicts from Cuz’s cowboy desert security campaigns cowboys. A place where, unlike a working ranch, the income seemed to be mostly from Social Security and Government disability checks.

Aunt Quina gave up her secret. Someone, surely a neighbor, had recognized several Unbroken Circle cows as they crossed the auction block and had anonymously tipped Aunt Quina to the presence of rustlers.

I was here because there were cattle rustlers on the range.

I was here to watch the geriatric set, get the housekeeping up to snuff, try to figure out if there was enough money in the bank for next month’s grocery bill, and feed and house the Last Real Cowboy on Earth. Cuz said that was who he was sending since he wasn’t coming to aid me in saving the homestead and herds for his posterity if he ever stopped jumping in and out of helicopters in places where shooting guns was right up there with watching C-span and Al Jazeera for the news long enough to beget a posterity or two.

I also needed to ride herd on the carpenters whom I’d hired to put in ramps and other accessibility renovations that Aunt Quina might need to get around her house, old bones mending less easily than young bones, if it ever stopped raining before Noah returned and waved as he floated by the ranch house porch.

Jorge turned up again and waved the duster under my nose. It was suitably dirty so I sent him back to dust the antler chairs and end tables. When he finished that I’d tell him to change the cloth duster, throw the old one away (that would take some doing), put a new one on and dust the twig furniture. The Unbroken Circle Ranch was decorated with antler furniture, twig furniture, and peeled pole furniture, all of it handmade, now considered folk art, and probably worth a small fortune on the folk art/junk art sales circuit.

The floors in the original section of the house were beautiful hand sawn planks, the walls, squared off logs, the roof, a leaking sieve—which didn’t used to matter because it was in a section of the country with no rain.

Austin, the best cowhand made it his week’s duty to ride out on Monday with enough food to camp for four days on a horse as old as he was, to make sure that all the water troughs were full so the cattle and wild animals, birds, turtles, rabbits—who knew could drink. The troughs were filled by a combination of windmill power and good old manual pumping. At the same time he looked over the fences to make sure they were still standing—more or less in the manner they’d stood for a long time. If the cattle were getting out to the rustlers, I was beginning to question just how good was Austin’s eyesight.

If the cattle rustlers had not gotten greedy and had only culled the feral bi-color animals that hadn’t been branded no one would probably have noticed that the shaggy things belonged to the Unbroken Circle. I’d seen several of the big shaggy things in the brush and they still hardly looked like any western cows I’d seen in Cowboy movies. First of all, they were shaggy as dogs. Second they were black as midnight.

I, as soon as The Last Real Cowboy appeared, was going to order that something be done to get the monsters closer in to the ranch house. As far as I could tell, no weed killer, fertilizer except the obvious, and no hormones had ever been included in the ranch regimen which meant, if we could prove it, we had organic beef on the hoof, or at least the next best thing, free roaming range raised beef on the hoof. That kind of beef was worth a premium price. I was going to send the cowboys out to do the roundup when I arrived, but when I looked over the collection of said cowboys my eyes glazed in defeat.

It started to rain. My defeat was complete. It had started to rain the first day I had arrived and had been frequent and persistent every day since. We’d broken weather records that had been in place since the wagon trains had headed west and paused here.

I looked out toward the road, a mile away. The rain obscured the gates. The insistent plink plink of drips from the sieve of a roof into every available extra pot, pan, bowl, and empty bean can had melded into a kind of elevator music. Just as soon as it had been dry long enough to dry out the roof I was having roofers rush over here hot foot to put the new roof on. I suggested plastic in the meantime. They gave me a quote. I got out all the extra bowls, pans, and buckets.

I’d gotten an email head’s up from Cuz this morning that the Last Real Cowboy was due to arrive today. He had had to stop at his sister’s and pick up his vehicle was the excuse that had been made for the delay. (Hah! He’d heard about the conditions and was laggard in everything but trying to think of a way to get out of a fool’s commitment.) Then of course he had to drive here. I wondered if he was going to make it before dark.

I saw a flash of red slide between where the gates should have been and slither on the slick mud as it flew toward the house like a shot. It slithered behind some brush. I went to the porch to see which of my neighbors was visiting—I knew them all from when I was growing up when Cuz and his friends were a band of hooligans intent on ridding the state of imaginary monsters and invisible rustlers. I didn’t remember anyone with a partiality for red vehicles, but maybe they’d borrowed their wife’s car

The Ferrari skidded into a right turn to park in the dooryard and slid three feet past the parking pad before it came to a halt. The driver reached for his hat, opened the door, stood and put his hat on with both hands.

I blinked in unbelief. He was dressed like a television bull rider. Hat, neckerchief, vest, shirt, pants, chaps. Chaps! To drive a car. Furry chaps! Movie cowboy nonsense!

Ma’am, I’m—

I knew. The Last Real Cowboy. I closed my eyes again and prayed. Maybe, maybe I was wrong. I opened my eyes and looked at his feet. His boots. I closed them again. The Last Real Cowboy was wearing cityboy thin leather boots, not real boots. I was standing next to one of the round peeled pole columns that supported the porch roof, I banged my forehead against it in frustration.

Chapter 2

Ma’am, I don’t think you should be doing that.

His voice was soft, boardroom soft. I just banged my head again. One more, one more, I thought, then I’ll open my eyes and face life. My head banged against something soft, not the hard peeled timber pole. I opened my eyes. He’d slipped his hand between my forehead and the pole. Something caught the corner of my eye. A gold watch.

Shit! I hope I didn’t say it aloud. The Last Real Cowboy was wearing Italian leather boots and a Rolex watch. He had a damn manicure. I just pounded my forehead again like his hand wasn’t there. But it was. Only this time it didn’t seem quite so pillow soft. I think the pillow soft surprise was because I’d expected to feel the peeled pole. What was his name? I must have pounded it out of my head.

D.C. Ma’am. D.C. Washington.

It chose that moment to stop raining and the sun came out from between the clouds to cast a golden glow. The ranch hands had all gathered on the porch of the bunkhouse and were staring at us. I gestured in that direction. There’s all your hands, you’d better go introduce yourself to them. Jorge! I called like I was calling him from the back of the house, but I knew he was lurking just inside the door. Take Mr. Washington down to the bunkhouse and introduce him.

Just D.C., ma’am. Just call me D.C.

Jorge can introduce you, then come back and I’ll show you where you’re staying.

While he was gone I was going to email Cuz and ask him how this impostor had ever gotten directions to the Unbroken Circle ranch. I probably wasn’t going to get an answer. Connections to the areas of the world where my adrenalin junkie cousin chose to work were tenuous at best and non-existent whenever it suited him.

I sent the email to Cuz, and then I sent another email to Jack to tell him to tell Cuz if he didn’t answer me I was going to hunt him down like the polecat he was. Jack was Aunt Gina’s son, also my cousin, and the pattycake in the oven when Aunt Gina stole Uncle from Aunt Quina. He was the oldest of us cousins, and the exact opposite of Cuz. Now. When they were growing up they were both hellions bent on disaster, I know, because as soon as I could walk I tried to follow them in everything they did.

They were enough older than me that their bad influence was extinguished when they both went off to different colleges, Jack to business school and Cuz to the Academy where he got kicked out twice, but both times managed to smooth talk his way back in. If they had both still been running loose when I hit puberty I might have a much different story to tell, but they were gone, and adult before I saw them again, and in the meantime I had come under all the estrogen influence of three sisters bound tightly together by birth and the weird family arrangement they had of two of them passing messages through the third, and through me, as I got older.

Now I was saddled with the Xgenarian cowboys in the bunkhouse and The Last Real Cowboy who, if given a choice of tickets, would choose the ballet over the rodeo, rustlers on the range and fat grass fed steaks on the hoof that couldn’t be found.

It looked like whatever work I expected to be done on this ranch—my fingers scratched little marks in the air—was going to be done by me. At least I wouldn’t chip my nails, you can’t type a manuscript with fancy nails—mine were short, not manicured like some celluloid cowboy I could name, and ready for work. The mantle of ranch duties settled heavier around my shoulders. What mantle? Yoke! Yoke like oxen used to wear to be hitched to a cart.

Who did I know that had a lady’s saddle horse I could borrow. I had two kinds of horses on the ranch, swayback ancients belonging to the crew and some half broken half feral offspring of half a dozen saddle horses that hadn’t seen a saddle in so long they’d have forgotten where it was supposed to go and buck it off on general principles. It looked like I had long days of riding out and rounding up stock ahead of me. I hoped one of my old friends had a lady’s saddle horse to lend me because I didn’t relish an early morning tussle between me and the horse whenever I wanted to get to work.

Cuz did email me back, either he stayed up all night, or he was lurking around waiting for me to buzz him. D.C. did ride a horse—his last detail had been with the outriders who flanked the caisson for state funerals in Washington, D.C. Hunh? He did shoot a gun, he was an ex-cavalry man that’s what that word meant but I think Cuz italicized it on purpose just to rub it in. In 1860 in that division of that branch of the service cavalrymen actually did ride horses, no longer, of course, now that they rode mechanized horsepower. I was to be nice to him because he was a hero.

I didn’t need a hero. I needed a foreman. I needed a stockman. I needed a resident carpenter, plumber, fence rider, windmill mechanic, range detective, on site vet, agriculturalist, cowboy.

I replied to Cuz’s mail and immediately I got a not-deliverable reply.

Cuz had suggested that I put The Last Real Cowboy in the foreman’s room in the house. I wasn’t going to tell him that Rick didn’t seem to have a room unless the silver backed brushes and all the other men’s things in the master bedroom right next to the lady-auntie things were virtual and not real. I couldn’t put anyone in any of the second floor guest rooms because that part of the roof leaked worst of all and I’d had to break the beds down and put them and everything else under plastic drop cloths. There was quite a collection of pots, buckets, and big cans that used to hold vegetables and baked beans collecting the water that came through the sieve of a roof there.

The downstairs guest room had been turned into a den and I hadn’t had time to turn it back yet. I took a laundry hamper and emptied out two drawers in the chest of drawers and half the closet. From the look of the car he couldn’t be wrangling too many possessions.

The sun was still shining when a good, no nonsense, estate truck drove into the dooryard and pulled to a stop. I wanted one. I wanted one just like that. I’d even settle for the stupid looking truck cap on the back but I wouldn’t stick it all over with doggie paw prints. The driver stepped down. Why, why, why couldn’t this have been The Last Real Cowboy? Right away I looked at his boots. Yea! Real cowboy boots! Working boots. I wanted to throw my arms around his knees and hire him on the spot.

Joe around?

I frowned. Joe? There were Austin, Spook, Springer, Hudson, Montana, Arleigh, Clark, I snapped my fingers trying to recall the other three men’s names, some city or state, but I couldn’t remember anything as plain as Joe.

Sorry. D.C., D.C. Washington.

My hand swooped in a big half curving circle to the cluster of men on the bunkhouse porch, then I put my fingers to my lips and gave them a heads up whistle. The cluster opened up to a semicircle of men with The Last Real Cowboy standing smack in the middle.

That’s him, My visitor said and went around to the back of the truck and clanked the tailgate down.

I could hear him saying, Here you go Pal. That’s a good boy.

Then a furry hound from hell piled out of the back of the truck knocking him to the ground, gave a happy yip and broke all land speed records in the direction of D.C. ‘Joe’ Washington and jumped into his arms.

I hurried around the truck to help the visitor up from the ground.

Are you all right?

I didn’t know Pal had it in him. As long as he’s been with me he’s been the world’s worst couch potato.

He mudded himself off, same as he would have dusted himself off had there been dust, and moved around the truck far enough to see D.C. ‘Joe’, the Hound from Hell and my esteemed X-generian crew. The comedic perfection of it stuck him full force, he fell back on the tailgate, laughing so hard he couldn’t get enough energy to knock the dirt from his hat. He just laid the hat on the tailgate beside him and guffawed until he had to wrap his arms around his middle to keep from cracking his ribs from the inside.

By that time The Last Real Cowboy had stopped hugging and kissing the hound from hell and was walking toward us with the furball dancing at heel. I thought it couldn’t get any worse, until I saw what he had in his hand.

Oh, my god, he had the range gun. The varmint pistol. Those crazy old men had given him the varmint pistol. That pistol had been stored in the bunkhouse for years, ever since Cuz and Jack had used it for quick draw practice and Jack had put a bullet through the toe of his boot. Fortunately they were new boots, he was still a growing boy, and there was room in the toe for both the bullet and his foot.

Aunt Quina had ordained, then, that the varmint pistol was to be locked in the bunkhouse and only used by the range hands if they were riding fence line or stalking varmints. Now The Last Real Cowboy slung the gunbelt around his hips, buckled it slip slide fashion, one side low so that the gun was in a better position for his shooting hand, tested the position with a practice draw, paused, slipped the leather thongs around his leg and tied the holster down.

Ma’am, the visitor said overcome by the vision of The Last Real Cowboy, the gun, the chaps, and, I suppose, the thin leather Italian boots, Have you got ammo for that gun?

I hope not.

I waited until he was close enough to hear me, but far enough away that the bunkhouse gang wouldn’t overhear me.

D.C., I want your gun.

Ma’am, he said, stopping an arm’s length away. "A lady wouldn’t demand to handle a man’s gun, she should smile and see if he makes the offer." He hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt bad guy fashion, planted his fingers pointing to the other gun that wouldn’t be shooting bullets at you but could shoot you all the same, and smiled a smile that went all the way to his eyes and dared me to take the gun, either of them in my hands.

Joe, the visitor said.

D.C., he was corrected in a quick snap of a correction.

D.C., All the best. See you in town, you can stand me a beer.

"Naw, gave up drinkin’ when I got me a real job."

The visitor tipped his hat to me, climbed up in his truck and drove away.

What kind of dog is that?

All American.

He fiddled in one of his pants pockets, it wasn’t so easy to get to the pockets with the gunbelt and the chaps in place, pulled out his car keys and unlocked and popped the hatch of the Ferrari with the key fob. It was not a space designed to hold much. He lifted out a bag of dog food, threw it up over his left, not his gun hand, shoulder and strode to the porch, the chaps swinging, hand hovering over the gun.

I stared, stared into the hatch. Oh my God! I thought. Oh my God!

What? he said when he saw me staring in the hatch. He looked from the hatch to me and back. The dog stood up instead of sitting at heel, peered into the hatch, then sat back down. What?

I pointed.

Cuz said horses. I brought my tack.

Oh, my God!

What is it?

The Last Real Cowboy. The man with the chaps and the low slung gunfighter’s belt. The man with the varmint pistol, a museum quality relic that had been on the land as long as the ranch house. Oh, my God, it’s an English saddle. There is was. Little bitty English saddle, little flat thing with no saddle horn, no saddle pouches, no saddle skirt. Little itty bitty city English saddle.

It’s a good thing Cuz is in Iraq, Because if they weren’t shooting at him, I would be.

As if on cue, the sky darkened and it began to rain again.

Chapter 3

Jorge’s recipes ran mostly to beef stew, beef chili, roast beef, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, pounds of them, peas (big frozen bags of them), baked beans (big big cans), and biscuits. It was hot, it was filling, and it was good, but three meals a day? I’d had about as many variations on a theme as I could stand. I was dying for fried chicken. Hot fatty fast food fried chicken. I volunteered to do the grocery trip into town. Hot fatty fast food fried chicken. I could taste it better the closer I got to the franchise restaurant. And milk.

Whole milk was my downfall.

I looked down at my overfilled tray. None of it was going to waste. And neither were the three containers of whole milk.

I should say that my mother has always been able to be the Aunts’ phone line because she has a career that allows her to work wherever she is and, in fact, it encourages her to move around and visit all over the country. She is a food writer whose specialty is converting good wonderful dishes in to horrible tasting no fat, no sugar, no carbs, no anything good to the taste recipes and publishing them in cookbooks eagerly snapped up by people who think food should taste like punishment.

When my other friends were trying to make fake ID’s and sneak out to the liquor store for wine and beer, I was trying to sneak into the dairy section of the grocery store to study how I could fake the skim milk packaging and labeling to whole, and never have to drink that thin stuff again. I never figured it out, at least not before I got away from my mama’s cooking and was able to shop my own grocery list. I almost went to cooking school, but then I discovered my secret secret career. Which I hadn’t had time for lately because I had to ride herd on Jorge every day.

At the next table to mine were two little hellions, they reminded me of Cuz and Jack, running rampant through the restaurant, making pretend shooting sounds and Indian yells. An older woman grabbed the closest one by the back of his shirt and slapped his skinny little butt in a chair, held him there, and caught the other one with her free hand and slammed him into the seat on her other side. Sit! she barked like a drill sergeant.

Both little hellions dissolved in tears, wah-wahhing loud enough for their mother who was standing in line at the counter to hear them, and rubbing their grubby little fists in their eyes.

Mother, what have you done now? The mama bear slammed the full tray on the table and knelt next to the smallest hellion, drawing his fists away from his face and crooning, What has Granny done now, Baby? Let’s go wash those nasty tears away. She took both the screaming little hellions with her in search of the restrooms.

God, I hate Katrina! The older woman said as she caught me watching her table.

For a second I thought she meant the Mama Bear, then she poked her finger at her fast food dinner as if she were trying to determine if it were edible.

Do you mean the hurricane?

Took my restaurant. The bank took what I had left to satisfy the loan. At least I came out even, most people didn’t, but I’ll never be able to rebuild there, I’m not young enough.

I sighed the word, Butter?

Yes. Cream. Roux.

Whole milk, sugar?

It’s not real food without them.

Sauce?

Always.

Dinner rolls? Not Biscuits?

Beignets.

I sighed in appreciation.

Honey, my restaurant cooked traditional N’Orleans dishes.

Be still my heart!

She thought I was crazy. I shouldn’t have said be still my heart out loud. I had to break a rule I’d promised myself—not to mention my mother’s name unless she was with me. I mentioned her name.

You poor child! How did you ever live through puberty?

A very select circle of friends whose mothers knew how to cook and had respect for the food.

The little hellions were screaming and running toward the table.

I’m at the Unbroken Circle ranch. My aunt broke her hip. I need a cook-housekeeper.

She shrugged as the little hellions jumped into their seats and attacked the tray of food fighting over who could grab the most. I opened my mail then. I could have opened it at the ranch but I couldn’t wait. It was good news and bad news, I got the extension, but only two weeks. Well, I’d just have to stop sleeping, cooking, or eating. I didn’t think I could stop any of them especially when I had to go out and round up furball feral stock. I’d already done the poll among my neighbors. Unlike my ranch, they’d all done the their branding and tagging so any wild dogies out there were probably mine.

I didn’t look forward to it. Catching stupid calves was bad enough, I had to catch half grown cows, not including a few bulls who’d never been neutered and were probably so stringy and gamey that no one would eat them.

I enjoyed every bite of the fast food chicken I had on my tray and went back for a fast food ice cream sundae before I declared my lunch fully purchased.

Storm! the guy behind the counter yelled, Gale Storm?

I waved and walked back toward him spooning my dessert.

Phone.

Moi? I gestured to myself, he shook the stupid phone receiver at me. Gale Storm, moi. I am never, never, ever, ever going to give my un-named and so far unclaimed children family names. When I sit down with a list I’m going to read fashion magazines and movie magazines, and maybe I’ll just toss hand fulls of Scrabble cubes like dice until something namelike appears on the board.

Yo.

Ma’am—

I tried to place the voice, no one I knew.

Call me Stormy, every one does.

Ma’am—

Shit. It was The Last Real Cowboy and he wanted me to add a hardware store stop to my grocery store stop and the feed store stop. We didn’t order enough from any of them to have them deliver. It was going to be full dark before I ever got out of town.

Now I had the scissors, rock, and paper decision to make. I had three stops to make, then I had to get everything home. Scissors, rock, paper. The groceries would melt, thaw, whatever. Last stop. Shingles—The Last Real Cowboy was going to do some chores on the roof. Feed, squishy stuff in bags. Hardware first, stow the flat, hard and pointies. Feed store next, try not to puncture anything. Grocery last, home before the cold stuff got too warm and the warm stuff got too cold.

WANTED, the poster next to the hardware store cashier blazed. I looked. I wished I hadn’t. The next line was The Last Real Cowboy. The picture was my good buddy D.C. Joe Washington, nameless on the poster, but dressed in all his cowboy glory, hat, shirt, string tie, vest, gun slinger’s belt, chaps, itty bitty little city boots, and, God help us all, hanging the little itty bitty English saddle off the hip that the gunslinger gun wasn’t hanging off.

At the feed store someone had drawn in a wide skinny handle bar moustache and a little pointy goatee.

I didn’t see it at the Grocery store when I went in, because it was hanging in the window, just beside the door where you went out. Next to that poster someone had doctored up a Marlboro ad with a WANTED banner. The contrast was pitiful. Someone had drawn in the Unbroken Circle brand on this one. I looked around, no one was watching—I took a felt tip pen from my purse and colored over the Unbroken Circle brand until it was just a black splotch.

I thought I had escaped. I’d put all the groceries in among the other stuff in the back of the truck, careful that it wouldn’t be crushed, and pulled the canvas cover over the back. I was hitching it down with the bungee cords when the store manager rushed out, Stormy, Stormy, honey, the Businessmen’s Club is holding an affair to support—

I’ll call my aunt about a donation.

Dunking booth.

Sure, but I’m not going to wear a bikini, just a one piece, with a skirt. I snapped the last bungee cord in place before I looked up. He had something else on his mind, he was kicking asphalt as he tried to decide how to tell me he didn’t want me. He waved a copy of the wanted poster at me. You want the new man? Bart, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. Call the ranch or stop by.

My dad says you’re looking to borrow a horse.

Lady’s cutting horse. I don’t want any critter attitude when I saddle up in the morning.

Stormy, you can ride the wind.

Given enough time. Right now I’ve got to get some kind of report together for Cuz. I don’t have time to train one of those wild, whatever you want to call them because they’re not real horses and I’d have to catch them first, horses we have on the ranch.

My wife’s pregnant. You can borrow her horses, both of them. Just keep The Last Real Cowboy away from them so he doesn’t mess them up.

He was trying to get the trail bike to run when I left.

He grinned. He was younger than Cuz but his brother was old enough to be in Cuz and Jack’s passel of hellions. I’ll bring those horses over and ask him then.

Thank God he didn’t follow me home.

I pulled up at the house to take out the groceries. No one heard me come up except the dog, who walked slowly over like it was a great favor and sniffed me all over then walked back and laid back down on the porch. I hoped he didn’t surf grocery bags, but then there wasn’t much in the bags that a dog could manage to eat. Mosty bags, cans, and frozen.

Everyone was in the kitchen singing. Someone was strumming a banjo and a couple more were strumming guitars, and singing. Off key cowboy singing. Singing so bad and so loud it should only be done under the stars with cows. None of them should even sing in the shower.

I pulled the truck under the shed next to the barn and left it. Let the men wrestle with the heavy feed bags and the shingles.

I walked into the kitchen with grocery bags hanging from each hand and stopped staring at the sight that met my eyes. If I’d been holding real grocery bags they would have fallen from my lifeless fingers, but the plastic ones were hooked. The Last Real Cowboy was cooking and to do that cooking, over the hat, the shirt, the vest, the gunslinger’s belt, and the chaps, he’d tied on one of Aunt Quina’s ruffly flowered aprons.

As I watched he reached for a teaspoon, ruffled the top of whatever tomato sauce he was cooking, dipped up a tiny sip, tasted it, nodded to himself, tossed a perfect score toss of the spoon into the dishpan, and sang worse than the rest of them, She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, she’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes!

He saw me, waved the men’s attention toward me so that they came and took the bags, Austin scurried out to the porch to pick up two hands full of the rest, and all of them never missed a beat, never missed a word, and sang as loud as if they were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir without any innate sense of music at all. My head began to ache and, of course, it started to rain again.

Chapter 4

The Last Real Cowboy couldn’t carry at tune in a bucket, but then neither could anyone else in the kitchen. He could cook though. Spaghetti. And meat balls. If I’d cooked it they’d have eyed it as if it were tofu and given me a wide berth as they slunk back to the bunkhouse hungry.

Where on earth did you get the pasta? I’d been the one to check the cupboards and I was the one with the grocery list. No pasta.

Pasta’s easy to make.

I stared at The Last Real Cowboy. He’d made the pasta? It comes in a box, like noodles.

I can make noodles, too.

He’d taken off the ruffley apron, hung his cowboy hat on the antler hat rack with the other hats some of the Xgenarians had walked up to the house wearing and was sitting back over coffee while all the old guys wrangled the pots and pans into and out of the dishwater.

Can you tell the front end of a horse from the back?

One kicks and the other bites, it’s best to stay away from both.

Why are you really, really here?

Your Cuz owes me, I’m here to collect.

Oh, my God! Another adrenalin junkie. Next I’ll find you cowboyin’ from the strut of a helicopter.

Not my thing, Honey, I like to feel the dirt under my boots.

I looked at his boots then, they weren’t dirt boots. Dance hall boots, maybe, but not dirt boots. I could feel my lip curl.

Instead of being embarrassed he just stuck his long jean clad legs out in front of him and crossed those little citified booted feet right out where I could see them. It made a really good picture, those little citified boots and that hulking six shooter hanging off his thigh because he didn’t have it tied down at the moment.

I don’t know how long he could have sat like that and had me not say what was boiling in my mind. I needed a man. A real man. A gun totin’, pony ridin’, rootin’ tootin’ ranch man ready to go out and hunt down rustlers, save my cows, and save my ranch—it was my ranch, too. Barring my adrenaline junkie cousin Cuz marrying some brainless twenty-something and begetting a passel of whining brats—God, I’m going to start drinking bottled water. What is happening to my brain?—I was in line to own the ranch, somewhere down in my dotage. I had a vested interest to protect this place.

Some of my best childhood memories had been summer here, hot dry sunny summer weeks riding with my hellion pack cousins and their friends, and yes, I was a presumptive heir. At least that was the final argument my mother mustered to send me to this mudhole. Cuz had no known legitimate heirs and with his adrenalin junkie love of exotic places and hot zone politics, he had the chance of snow in July of planting any.

The Last Real Cowboy toyed with the handle of his coffee cup like he had some secret he wasn’t going to tell me. Fake. Fake. Fake! After he twisted his cup back and forth like he was making a cup angel on the table he said, Did you ever think of putting in a pool?

Pool? Like billiards?

Naw, swimming pool, jacuzzi.

If those geriatric hellions want to swim they can go jump in the stock pond.

I looked around. The geriatric hellions had evaporated. Gone. The kitchen was silent except for me and him and I didn’t think they’d sneaked out to leave us alone. They’d sneaked out for another reason entirely, albeit one I didn’t know.

Oh, shit! he said, abandoning his cup of coffee and rushing to the door. He paused then, as he started to push open the screen door to tie down the damn gun.

What? He was headed for he OK Corral?

I went to the computer, looked up the last damn email I’d had from Cuz, and sent him a note that was sweet and too the point. I told him to kick one of those damn adrenaline junkie cowboys off his helicopter and send him out to where the buffalo roamed and the antelope played and all that other nonsense so I could concentrate on his books and reports and not on whether the rustlers were going to sneak into the dooryard and slash the tires on the ranch truck, the ancient museum piece of a truck that I had to use since his mother, my Aunt Quina, had crashed the real one. I punched the button and waited a few seconds to see if this email would be routed back, but I didn’t get the daemon message, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t get it, but I didn’t get it right away.

Then I sent an email to Aunt Quina at her nursing home and told her except for the rain dripping through the sieve of a roof, she could come home whenever she wanted to, her broken hip convalescence would be fine here. I sent an email to Aunt Gina saying that Aunt Quina was not in residence and I needed a cook for the geriatric set, would she please come help me.

Even as I pushed the button to send that message I could feel my native cunning dancing in my brain. Maybe I could get the two of them to cross paths and break the feud finally.

The email from Aunt Quina pinged almost faster than my send out message. Aunt Quina informed me that she had a broken pelvis not hip, and she needed rest and physical therapy.

I was ready to ping her back, email tennis match style, then I remembered the men’s things I had unceremoniously tossed in the clothes hamper to make room for The Last Real Cowboy in the big bedroom and I wondered if Rick was in the same nursing home as Aunt Quina.

I put another hour in trying to straighten out the ranch books. Someone should have done it long ago. It looked like Aunt Quina, or Rick, just ran Social Security checks through their bank keeping the books on the checkbook stub and must have called Cuz to cut a check for taxes and upkeep when they ran short. If there’d been any upkeep done. I started sorting bills into piles. Feed store. Hardware store. Auto Parts store. Doctor bills. Doctor bills. Doctor bills. There seemed to be an awful lot of them stuck into several pigeon holes in the desk. I read them for a while and started sorting the doctors’ bills into different piles. Finally I logged back on to the email and typed in Cuz’s address.

Damn it, Cuz! I wrote. Your Foreman is blind as a bat or soon to be!

I pushed the button but almost before I could exit the undeliverable message pinged back, taunting me. If he took my longer first message, why send this one back? Cuz was going to owe me big time. He was going to owe me a platoon of Marines on R and R to ferret out the rustlers and blow them to kingdom come.

The rowdy noise from the bunkhouse broke into my thinking. I went to the kitchen door and pushed it open, slipped onto the porch. I hadn’t turned the light on, not that the light would have made any difference. I think, on the whole damn ranch, no light bulb was brighter than 40 Watts. Maybe Aunt Quina preferred not to be seen in the bright light of day, but the weak fuzzy yellowness of all the lights was driving me bats.

The rowdy crowd was still singing at the top of their lungs, or shouting—I went

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