Breeding Season

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The Foreman and the Oldest Hand leaned against the corral and watched through the rails as the new kid tried to unsaddle his horse. The crew had brought almost 300 head of cattle down from some of the more distant and inhospitable reaches of the ranch and most of them had already turned their horses out and gone in to eat or driven home to their wives, but the new kid seemed to be having trouble with his mount.

“Think he’ll get the saddle off that horse before next winter?” the Oldest Hand asked. He was rolling a cigarette and appeared to be concentrating on that.

“Probably not,” the Foreman answered. “If we’re lucky, he’ll starve to death in process. ‘Course, the horse will likely starve to death too, and I hate like hell to lose a good horse.”

The Oldest Hand blew through his nose very much like a horse himself. “You won’t be losing nothing. That damn roan ain’t worth the grass it takes to keep him alive. I watched him try to buck that kid off three times today and he couldn’t get her done. Any halfway decent horse would’ve killed the kid on the first go. Put him in the hospital at the very least.”

“I’m afraid you’re right.” The Foreman sighed. “Could be a long damn season of baby-sitting. Useless college boy.”

The Oldest Hand lit his cigarette, cupping his hands around the match flame and drawing the smoke in. “Having him along is like losing three good men. Why don’t you fire him?”

“Can’t,” the Foreman said. “The Boss hired him and said to make something out of him.”

“Why’d the Boss hire him?”

“He and the Missus met the kid’s sister at a church social and took a shine to her. Want to do her a favor.”

The Oldest Hand considered this for a while, smoking peacefully and watching the horse circle away from the kid. “How about bedroom slippers?” he said at last.

“What?”

“Well, if you got to make something out of him, maybe you could skin him and use his hide for something useful. He’s too soft to make anything practical, saddlebags or chinks or such, but maybe you could make some of them moccasin bedroom slippers.”

At that moment the kid got the girth undone and the saddle promptly fell off. The roan backed and reared, his hooves striking out. Both men’s faces lit up with hope, but the kid was able to hang on to the lead rope and get his mount under control. He took the halter off and turned the gelding out with the rest of the horses.

The Oldest Hand snorted in disgust. “Told you that roan wasn’t no damn good. If you’d put him on one of them Hancock horses that kid would be dead now and our troubles would be over.” He threw his cigarette away. “I just can’t hardly wait to see him swing a rope. Should be more fun than we’ve had on this ranch since all them bulls got loose on the highway. But for right now, I’ve had all the excitement I can take for one day.”

He turned and walked over toward the cookhouse where there was an enticing smell of beef on a grill.

The Foreman pushed himself away from the rails, but then he stopped to watch as the kid picked up the saddle and the blanket and the bridle and started to carry them all to the tack room at the far end of the barn. He watched as the kid stepped on the trailing girth and went over in a heap. The kid scrambled to his feet and stood looking at the tack lying in the dust.

“You got the fox and the goose and the bag of corn,” the Foreman said softly. “Let’s see if you can figure it out.”

The kid tried to pick up everything again, but then he stopped and put the saddle down. He picked up the blanket and the bridle and took them into the tack room. Then he came back out and picked up the saddle, wrapped the girth around the seat and disappeared into the shadows of the barn.

There was a light step behind the Foreman and he turned around to find himself gazing into the eyes of the prettiest girl he had ever seen. He yanked his Stetson off and wished he had gotten his hair cut the last time he was in town.

“Is W.W. around?” she asked.

“W.W? I don’t know of any W.W.”

“Will?”

The Foreman shook his head.

“Willy?”

“No Will or Willy either.”

“William?”

“No William working on this ranch.”

“He just started. Today was his first day,” she added.

“Oh! You mean the new kid. We were calling him….” He stopped himself just in time. “I didn’t rightly know what his name was. Yeah, he’s putting his tack away.”

She gave him a dazzling smile. “How’d he do?”

The Foreman was about to tell her when he suddenly remembered why the Boss had hired the kid.

“We brought 290 head down,” he said carefully. “Are you his sister?”

She paused. “Uh, yes.” She gave him another 500-watt smile. “Where is your tack room?”

“I’ll go get him.”

The Foreman swung himself up over the top rail of the corral and dropped lightly down on the other side. He had been up since five and out on a horse since eight, but now he felt suddenly energized and he had to force himself to walk slowly to the barn. He stuck his head inside the tack room.

“Your sister’s here.”

The kid was trying to get his saddle onto one of the few empty racks, up high, but now he stopped and stared at the Foreman.

“Who? My what?”

“Your sister.”

There was a pause while the kid looked at the Foreman with his mouth open. Then he seemed to come to himself.

“Oh. Yeah. Sure. Tell her I’ll be right there.”

The Foreman walked back across the corral and swung himself over the rails with such ease he nearly landed on the girl.

“He said he’d be right out.”

“Thank you.” And again she gave him a smile as bright as fireworks.

The Foreman had a satchel-full of things in mind he meant to say to her, but that smile distracted him and left him confused and a little dazed, so instead he just stood and tried not to stare at her while he wondered what to do with his hands.

The kid came out of the barn and walked across the corral. As he clambered over the fence the Foreman finally found his voice.

“If you come back out here, if you’d like to see the horses, or go for a ride, or like that, we’ve got some pretty good stock, if you’d like to, you know, I mean some people like to see horses, good horses, you know, if you’d like….” He trailed off.

The girl looked at him and there was something, the Foreman couldn’t have said exactly what, but something almost like laughter in her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said.

She and the new kid walked away and climbed into a geriatric yellow pickup. The Foreman watched it disappear where the road dipped out of sight behind the willows at the river and then walked slowly over to the cookhouse.

The Oldest Hand was standing in the doorway with his plate in his hand.

“That was a fine looking young filly,” he said, “great conformation on her.”

“It’s his sister.”

“Oh, yeah? Did you tell her to find him some other line of work? Did you tell her to find him a job more in keeping with his talents, like maybe a shoe salesman or something? Did you tell her—”

“I didn’t tell her anything,” the Foreman interrupted. “The Boss wants me to make something out of that kid and that’s what I intend to do. He just needs a little experience, that’s all. You and me wasn’t top hands when we started out.”

The Oldest Hand stared at him. “Hmm.” He looked down at his plate. “Well.” He looked at the Foreman again. “It’s spring,” he said cryptically, and turned back into the cookhouse.

………………………………………………………………………………

The cook and the Oldest Hand and the Foreman were the only members of the crew to live on the ranch and not in town. The cook was married, and he and his wife lived behind the cookhouse in a converted bunkhouse. The Oldest Hand and the Foreman lived in cabins built in the shade of a cottonwood grove near the barn.

A few minutes after five the Oldest Hand emerged from his cabin and walked to the barn. The light was on and the Foreman was already putting hay in the back of an ancient jeep they used to take feed to the remuda. At the sight of him the Oldest Hand stopped and stared.

The Foreman was wearing his new, clean, Sunday-go-to-Meeting Stetson and a pair of clean jeans. His boots had been cleaned and oiled—for the first time, the Oldest Hand knew, since the winter’s snows had melted off more than a month ago—he was wearing his fancy silver-overlay spurs, and a spotless silk wild rag was peeking out over the collar of his jacket.

The Foreman saw him staring. “Anything wrong?” he inquired, but there was an edge to his voice that made the Oldest Hand cautious.

“No, no, I was just thinking about… about it being breeding season and all.” He turned away quickly and busied himself with his handkerchief.

They finished loading up the jeep and then drove the hay out to the remuda in silence. By the time they were done the lights were on in the cookhouse and they went there to get their coffee.

The cook did an unmistakable double take when he saw the Foreman. “Well,” he said.

The Oldest Hand dropped back a step and put a finger up to his mouth and shook his head.

“Well what?” And again the Foreman’s voice was at least as sharp as one of the cook’s knives.

“Well…. Well, how would you like your eggs this morning? And do you want grits or toast or a biscuit?”

“I want my eggs sunny side up, the way I always eat them, and I want grits like I have every damn day. What’s wrong with you?”

The cook had been married long enough to recognize dangerous waters when he saw them and was wise enough to know when to avoid them. “Nothing, nothing,” he said. “Just every now and then, sometimes, for no particular reason or anything, a man feels like a change, you know, and I just thought I’d ask.” He picked up the tongs and turned the bacon.

The Foreman ate quickly and by first light, when the trucks started driving up, he was lounging on the cookhouse porch with his coffee. Some of the crew were still sleepy enough to make the mistake of commenting on his appearance, but he woke them up in short order. When the geriatric yellow pickup pulled in, the windows of the cookhouse behind him suddenly filled up with curious faces.

W.W. climbed out and walked toward the cookhouse. The yellow truck turned around, then slowed, and the Foreman was rewarded with a wave as she drove off. The faces at the windows vanished before the Foreman turned around, but the kid had seen them and he paused, looking at his boss.

“Nice hat,” he said.

………………………………………………………………………………

All that day the Foreman was unexpectedly solicitous and helpful to the new kid. He put him on a sweet-natured gray the Boss’s grandchildren sometimes rode bareback when they came out to the ranch. He sent him out to look for strays in the gentlest and safest canyons. And after lunch, when they went into the holding pasture with the cows, the kid was asked to do nothing more than sit his horse on the far side and keep any of the herd from leaking into the next pasture. Some of the crew grumbled amongst themselves that there was a perfectly good gate there, but no one seemed to feel the need to point this out to the Foreman.

That evening, when the yellow pickup drove in, the Foreman had already dusted off his best hat and washed his face and hands with care. The girl got out and leaned against the side of the truck as he walked over.

“Hi,” she said. “How did W.W. do today?”

“Real good,” the Foreman replied. “For a guy who’s never worked on a ranch before, he’s a natural. I’m going to show him how to rope, and he’ll get plenty of practice.” Embolden by the truth of the last statement, the Foreman embroidered a little. “He’ll be a top hand in no time.”

“It’s very sweet of you to take him under your wing like this.”

“Oh, it’s no problem at all. It’s the kind of thing I like doing.”

The Oldest Hand was walking past just then and had a sudden coughing fit.

“Everybody’s been so nice to us here,” the girl went on. “Mr. Jacobs hiring W.W. and you training him and everything.”

“What brought you to this neck of the woods? We got a pretty small town here and we don’t get too many… folks… moving in.” He had wanted to say, “beautiful girls,” but his nerve failed him.

“I got a job at the bank and these days a girl needs to take any job she can get, no matter what kind of a town it is.”

The Foreman thought perhaps it wasn’t the most diplomatic reference to his hometown, but he let it go. “Well, it may be small, but we do have a movie theater, and maybe… maybe you’d like to go to a movie one evening. Maybe tomorrow evening, it being a Saturday and all.”

He hoped for a yes, and he was braced for a no, but he wasn’t prepared for her answer.

“Well,” she said slowly, “that would be nice, but of course I’d want W.W. to come along.”

The Foreman was stunned. “You want that—you want your brother to come with us?”

“This is an awfully small town, and you know how gossip is in a small town where everyone knows everyone and knows their business. I wouldn’t want people thinking the wrong thing. I wouldn’t want any of the people in my church thinking the wrong thing. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, for instance.”

The new kid walked up just then, safe and secure in his inability to read the Foreman’s mind. “Hey, Sam, let’s get out of here.”

“Sam?” the Foreman asked.

“Samantha.” She put out her hand with grave formality, but again the Foreman thought he saw something like laughter in her eyes.

“Mike,” he said, and he held her hand longer than was strictly required for a handshake.

“Tomorrow evening, then,” she said.

“What’s tomorrow evening?” W.W. asked. His head snapped back and forth from the girl to the Foreman.

“I’ll tell you as we drive home,” the girl said, climbing in the truck. She started the engine.

Again the Foreman stood and watched until the pickup disappeared from view.

……………………………………………………………………………….

The next day the crew was treated to an even more extraordinary display of solicitousness. W.W. was put back on the old gray, despite a time-honored rule about not riding the same horse two days in a row. When the crew grumbled about it amongst themselves, the Oldest Hand pointed out that as little work as the new kid was doing, two days in a row on the old gray hardly qualified as one moderate day of riding. That shut them up, but it didn’t seem to satisfy them.

In the afternoon, when they started roping calves for branding, the Foreman took great pains to teach W.W. how to throw a loop, patiently showing him over and over how to shake out his line and how to swing it. He was enthusiastically encouraging, even though the only things the new kid caught all day were his own horse’s tail and the Oldest Hand’s hat. The Oldest Hand showed considerable enthusiasm himself for teaching the new kid a different kind of lesson and stepped off his horse with alacrity, but Mike rode between them. After that he sent the new kid outside the branding corral to practice his roping there.

But what the crew noticed most of all was the new kid’s attitude. He was cautious and deferential around them, and he gave a wide berth to the Oldest Hand, but around the Foreman he seemed to have a sense of entitlement, and he had a cocky swagger to him that they found almost intolerable. The Foreman had a reputation in the whole northern half of the state as being very free and handy with his fists when the occasion called for it, but now occasion after occasion went by and nothing happened, and the crew was torn between disappointment and disgust.

………………………………………………………………………………

The movie was only a partial success. It was a Western, and entertaining enough, but Samantha sat on one side of the new kid, leaving the Foreman no alternative but to sit on the other side, and there was something about the presence of W.W. that discouraged casual conversation as they waited for the movie to begin. In fact, there was something about his presence between them that made the Foreman want to bounce the new kid up and down, perhaps upside down on his head.

After the movie they went to The Busted Latigo for a beer and again the new kid endangered his life by sitting between Mike and Samantha, but now the girl focused on the Foreman so intently and with such charm that Mike had trouble breathing. The new kid sat slumped over his beer and seemed to take little pleasure in the conversation that flowed back and forth across him. And when the girl reached over and put her hand on Mike’s, the new kid stared at it with his mouth open.

But then Samantha said, “You will look out for W.W., won’t you? Working around cattle can be awfully dangerous. You won’t let anything happen to him, will you?”

The Foreman had thought the new kid was doing so little already that the only thing safer would be to leave him in a rocking chair on the cookhouse porch, but his hand burned like a flame under the girl’s touch and his throat swelled up so much it was all he could do to croak.

“You bet I’ll look out for him. I’ll look out for him like he was my own brother. Matter of fact,” he had to swallow twice and his voice still sounded as if it had been rasped with a farrier’s file, “I’ll look out for him like he was your brother.”

Samantha rewarded him with a smile that made any other words he might have spoken dissolve in his mouth so that he had to swallow again.

The new kid shut his mouth and glanced at the Foreman. Then he looked at Samantha, a long and lingering look that combined equal amounts of amazement, appraisal, and amusement.

………………………………………………………………………………

For the next several weeks W.W. was little more than a symbolic presence on the ranch. He showed up on time, driven by his sister, and tagged along and got in the way and generally caused more harm than good, but instead of throwing him into one of the stock tanks, the Foreman treated him with a deference that drove the crew into frenzies. They discussed taking matters into their own hands, but the Oldest Hand pointed out that the only result would be a bunch of cowboys looking for work at a time of year when all the ranches already had their crews set for the season. The crew consoled themselves with heavy-handed comments on the new kid’s abilities, whenever the Foreman was out of hearing, but W.W. proved that he combined a thick hide with a sharp tongue of his own, and he generally gave better than he got.

For his part, the Foreman was as frustrated as his crew. He was unable to pry Sam and W.W. apart, and his dinner bills at the El Vaquero Mexican diner and The Sagebrush Steakhouse began to take a toll.

At the Memorial Day rodeo he was able to buy some time alone with the girl by waiting until the line for refreshments stretched all the way back to the stands before giving W.W. some money and orders for beer and tortilla chips. The new kid looked at the money and the line without relish, but there was little he could do about it, and Mike was rewarded by the girl’s sliding over closer to him as they talked, and when W.W. came back she stayed where she was, holding the bag of chips on her lap for the two men on either side of her to share.

When she came out to the ranch on a Sunday after church, she proved a far better rider than W.W., and the Foreman immediately suggested a gallop along a winding dirt road. The race didn’t have the result Mike had hoped for—the new kid didn’t break his neck—but they were able to lose him, and when they turned back to find him, by carefully following the wrong tracks the Foreman was able to spend most of the afternoon alone with Samantha. To Mike’s delight, the girl seemed perfectly content without W.W. and only occasionally made token sounds about looking for him. When they stopped to drink their thermoses of coffee, hobbling the horses as they sat under a cottonwood by a year-round stream, the girl made herself comfortable by leaning partially against him, and the Foreman wore that particular shirt again the next day, just because her scent was on it.

Without the new kid around, Mike found it even easier to talk to the girl. Much of the reserve she maintained when W.W. was present vanished, and she laughed more easily and frequently than she ever had before. She also looked at the Foreman in a way that sometimes made him forget what he was trying to say.

When they went to mount up again, Mike turned to her as he held her horse’s head.

“Would you maybe like to stay and eat with us tomorrow night? Cookie does a tri-tip that’s out of this world, and it would…” He had intended to say something about how much it would mean to him to have her there by his side at the big trestle table, but the words seemed to get stuck somewhere between his brain and his mouth. “It might be a nice change of pace for you.”

“It would be nice.” She looked at him in a way that made his breath short and choppy. “It would be very nice to eat dinner out here with you.”

They finally found the new kid back at the barn. He was sullen and unappreciative when they both told how hard they had looked for him. He even seemed disbelieving, and he looked at Sam in a way that made the Foreman uneasy.

………………………………………………………………………………

The next morning the geriatric yellow truck didn’t appear. Mike delayed and stalled as long as he possibly could, but he finally had to lead his crew out without the new kid. And without him, they were able to move a little over 200 head in half the time it might otherwise have taken.

They were riding back to the ranch headquarters for lunch when the Foreman spotted a stock tank overflowing. The control valve was worn out, water spilling lazily over the edge of the tank. It was the kind of thing that normally would be fixed if and when time permitted, but now he turned to the Oldest Hand.

“After lunch, run on into town and pick up a new valve at Ranch Supply. And see if you can find out where the hell that damn kid is and why he ain’t here.”

The Oldest Hand looked at the trickle of water. If he had any opinions about the urgency of the errand, he kept them to himself.

………………………………………………………………………………

That afternoon most of the crew had already unsaddled their horses when the Oldest Hand returned with the valve. There was normally a race to be the first in line at the cookhouse, but now the crew showed uncharacteristic concern over details that were normally treated cursorily and frequently ignored altogether. Horses were curried as carefully as if they were about to enter the show ring, feet were checked and re-checked for non-existent pebbles, tack was dusted and put away with more care than it normally received in a year. Ears, human ears, quivered at attention.

The Oldest Hand turned the valve in his hands as he spoke.

“That kid ain’t working here anymore.”

“Where the hell’s he working?”

“Don’t know. He’s left.”

“Left?”

“Left town.”

“What about his sister? What about Samantha?”

“Don’t know exactly. I swung by the bank, had to cash some checks, you know, and she didn’t show up for work this morning. Called in sick. But—” The Oldest Hand paused. “She may have left too.” He examined the valve closely. “Cause she ain’t his sister.”

Curry combs hung frozen in the air. Men put hooves down and straightened up. Saddles about to be placed on racks were held above heads. Even the horses seemed to freeze.

It took the Foreman a while to speak. “She ain’t his—What the hell is she?”

“Fiancée. She told it all to Debbie-Lynn and Debbie-Lynn told me. They’re fixing to get married. They just told people they was brother and sister ‘cause they didn’t want people thinking anything about them living together, especially Mr. and Miz Jacobs, what with them being in the church and all.”

The Foreman turned back to his horse, but no one else moved.

“For what it’s worth, Debbie-Lynn told me that girl talked about you all the time. Said she started just wanting to get you to make things easy for the kid, but then she talked about how you was a pretty nice guy and all, how she was starting to like you—”

“That’ll do,” the Foreman said.

The crew finished unsaddling and turned out their horses.

……………………………………………………………………………..

The cookhouse was unnaturally quiet. The Oldest Hand sat across from the Foreman, but everyone else sat as far away as they could get. No one spoke. Salt and hot sauce were pointed at or just reached for. Even the cook seemed to be making a special effort not to touch a pot with a spoon. The dripping of the coffee pot was louder than any man could remember hearing it before. So when the door opened, people started as if a gun had gone off.

The girl stood in the doorway. She was wearing dark glasses.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said.

She crossed over and sat next to the Foreman, looking down at the table. No one spoke.

The Oldest Hand stood up with his plate and walked over to the door. He cleared his throat, and the rest of the crew got up and filed out. The cook was standing with his mouth open, and the Oldest Hand cleared his throat again, so loudly the cook jumped, and when he jumped, he jumped for the door.

“You didn’t expect to see me?” the girl asked.

“No.”

“I came to say I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for. You wanted me to go easy on your brother… on W.W…. and I did. You got what you wanted.”

“W.W. suggested it. He saw the difference, how you treated him, I mean, after you met me, and he told me to go along with it. While he learned the ropes, he said. But I could tell he wasn’t ever going to learn the ropes, that he didn’t even want to, and then I—” She broke off.

“You what?”

“I began to like you for real. To really like you.”

There was a long silence. The Foreman suddenly realized he still had his fork in his hand and he put it down.

The girl got up and moved to the door. “I just wanted to apologize.”

“Are you going to go… wherever he’s gone?”

“No.”

“I thought you were getting married.”

“No. I told him I wouldn’t marry him. He left me with this.” She took off the dark glasses. Her left eye was swollen shut.

The foreman drew his breath in through his teeth. He stood up and moved slowly toward her, and the look on his face made her shrink back toward the window.

He raised one hand up near her face, and then, realizing it was balled up into a fist, he opened it slowly and gently touched her cheek below the swollen eye.

“Where did he go,” he asked, his voice a barely audible whisper.

“I don’t know. I didn’t care enough to ask.”

For a moment they stood looking at each other. Then she looked down.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

She reached out and opened the door, but before she could turn he raised his hand to her face again. He drew her gently toward him, bent his head, and with infinite delicacy he kissed the swollen eye and then her upturned lips.

There was a loud cheer outside. The Foreman immediately turned to go outside, but the girl hugged him to her, and this time she kissed him. There was another cheer outside, accompanied by applause.

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