Author's Note: The movie Conagher, starring Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross, is one of my favorite westerns of all time. Recently, I read the Louis L'Amour novel on which the movie is based and discovered that the book and the film are virtually identical, particularly in terms of dialogue. Being the hopeful romantic that I am, I was frustrated at the lack of a 'Hollywood' love scene in both the film and the novel, so I wrote one. Now, please understand that I would never presume to try to improve on Mr. L'Amour, which is why these stories (there is also an M rated version that leaves a little less to the imagination) will forever be posted on the "Movies" section and not the "Books." I wish to thank Pace Fan for being a great Beta reader. You always combine razor sharp editing skills with gentle encouragement. You're the bomb. Enjoy, and please remember that reviews are always appreciated.
Conn Conagher was as clean as he had ever been. He had bathed in a copper tub full of the hottest water he'd felt since that time two years ago when he had fallen in the hot spring near Nogales. He had used up a whole bar of soap washing every nook and cranny of himself from the roots of his hair to his toenails. He figured some of the dirt now sinking to the bottom of the tub might have been hidden away in parts of his leathered hide for nigh onto a year.
After drying off, he put on the only store-bought white linen shirt he'd ever owned, a pair of freshly laundered Levi's and his new boots. He was amazed at how well they fit his feet, like they were already broken in even though he'd only worn them twice since Evie bought them for him two weeks ago. She had called them an engagement gift.
He headed across the street from the bathhouse to the barbershop and plopped down in the establishment's one and only chair.
"Hello, Conn," said Smitty, the barber. "You look shinier than a new penny. You got somethin' special planned?"
"You gonna tell me about it?" Smitty asked as he placed the drape over Conagher's shoulders and started mixing the lather.
"Well, will whatever it is require a haircut, too?"
"Just a trim maybe, around the ears and a little off the front," he said, running his hand through his mop of wavy salt-and-pepper hair as he looked into the mirror.
"Ready when you are," Smitty said, indicating the cup of lather. Conagher leaned back and Smitty adjusted the chair so that his customer was lying in nearly a full recline. He brushed the lather on and sharpened the razor against the strap. As he began carefully scraping three days' worth of beard off Conagher's face, Smitty yammered on about his various misfortunes.
"You're the first paying customer I've had all day, ya know. Not the first work I've had to do, mind you, no sir. I had to give away two shaves and three haircuts this morning to some fellers I was playing poker with last night. I ought to know better than to get into a game with a bunch of drovers I ain't never met, but I do love to play cards, and I believe those boys saw me comin'. Me and my money. Now, if I'd had sense enough to quit when they got the last of my coins, I wouldn't have been working today for naught. But nooo, not me. I said if they'd let me try to win some of my money back, I give 'em all free services if I lost. Well, it ain't no mystery how that turned out."
Lying in the chair, covered in lather, he was a captive audience and Smitty knew it. Conagher suspected he wasn't the first person to wish it weren't dangerous to insult a man with a straight razor poised above his jugular.
Not coincidentally, the shave and haircut lasted exactly as long as Smitty's list of complaints, which included the widow Barnes' boy, Jackson, forgetting to come by the shop and sweep up like he promised and running out of clean towels because the Chinese woman who ran the laundry was too busy giving birth to get to his load of towels yesterday.
Handing Smitty six bits to cover the shave and haircut, Conagher was never so glad to be shed of a person in his life. But, he wasn't sorry he'd had the work done by a professional just this once. After all, a man didn't get married every day.
Evie Teale brushed her long chestnut hair until it fairly glowed in the shaft of late morning sunlight beaming through the bedroom window. With practiced hands, she swept the sides back in soft waves and secured them with a pair of silver combs that had real mother-of-pearl inlays in the shape of roses on them. They were a gift from Conn and when she opened them, he had told her that the roses reminded him of her.
"You are a rose, Evie," he had said. "A rose among us thorns out here in this rugged country."
His words had stuck deep in her heart and warmed her to her very soul. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her and if she never had any other reason that alone would have made her love him. But there were other reasons, many of them.
In the weeks since she had followed him to the saloon in Socorro, he had made good on every promise he had given her that afternoon. He deposited every cent of Jacob Teale's gold in an account in her name at the bank in The Plaza. He filed a deed on the Ladder Five ranch in both their names and bought forty head of cattle and a fine Brahma bull from Seaborn Tay. He had worked his fingers to the bone fixing up the house and out buildings on the ranch, often under the direction of Laban, who was proving to be a fine architect as well as a carpenter and mason.
Evie was glad Conn showed such faith in Laban. Few things do more to build a boy's self-confidence than the honest praise and admiration of a respected adult.
Although it had required a week's worth of repairs to make it habitable for anything other than the local wildlife, the Ladder Five's main house had proven to be a treasure trove of furniture, including a beautiful mahogany double bed and a matching dresser with a mirror attached. The previous residents had also left behind a kitchen stove, a table and six chairs and a settee that had some words written in French on the bottom of it. Perhaps, Evie speculated, the original owners were wealthy, privileged people who had mistakenly believed that surrounding themselves with the best that money could buy would somehow make this hard country easier to live in. Why they had abandoned such beautiful things to the elements, she did not know, but she was grateful for them just the same.
She stood in front of the dresser now, studying her reflection in the mirror. Her floor-length ivory dress, with its lace collar, see-through sleeves and cinched waist, was the perfect complement to her hazel eyes and dark hair.
Out of habit, she started to weave the hair not secured by the combs into a single braid, but she stopped herself and undid the strands, letting them fall loosely down her back. Vanity was never one of Evie Teale's shortcomings, but just for today, she decided, she wanted how she looked on the outside to tell the story of how she felt inside. Today she wasn't a widowed mother of two stepchildren scraping out a hardscrabble existence from one day to the next. No, today she was the princess bride of a handsome knight in shining armor who was coming to carry her away to their castle in the mountains where they would live happily ever after.
"Ma! Ma! Mr. Conagher and the preacher are here," Ruthie blurted out as she came running into the room full tilt and slammed the door behind her. One look at Evie stopped the child in her tracks and she did a double take that nearly gave her whiplash.
"Ma! Look at you!" she gasped. "You look like a fairy tale princess!"
"So will you on your wedding day, Ruthie. Every girl should feel like a princess on her wedding day."
"I don't remember you looking like this when you married Pa. Didn't you want to be a princess for that wedding, too?"
"Oh, I wanted to be Ruthie, but your pa didn't need a princess. He needed a mother for you and Laban, so that was what I tried to look like that day."
Fortunately for Evie, a knock at the door silenced Ruthie's next question. Ruthie didn't need to know that while Evie admired Jacob as a hard working man and caring father, she never loved him they way she loved Conn Conagher. That had been a marriage of necessity. This was purely for love.
"Ma? Can I come in?" Laban asked, adding, "I have something for you."
"Ruthie, honey, could you open the door? If I do it, Mr. Conagher might see me from downstairs and it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the ceremony."
Ruthie opened the door a crack, peeked out into the hallway and said in a loud whisper, "Hurry up, Laban! We can't have any bad luck," as she ushered him into the room and slammed the door shut again.
"Ruthie, dear, I know we're all not quite used to having lots of rooms with doors between them, but could you please try to close the doors more gently from now on?"
"Yes, ma'am," she replied, giggling at her brother who was standing slack jawed staring at Evie.
"What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale princess before?" Ruthie chided.
"Good night, but you're pretty!" Laban gushed.
"Thank you, Laban. You look very handsome yourself," she said, noting that his face was clean, his hair was combed and he was wearing the new shirt and vest she had sewn for the occasion.
"You said you had something for me. What is it?" Evie asked.
"Stuff you need for a wedding, for good luck, I guess," he said, handing her a handkerchief tied into a small bundle.
She set the bundle on the dresser and undid the tie. Inside she found a sky blue marble, a tiny cut glass bottle of lilac scented perfume, a small drawstring pouch made of the same fabric as her dress and an Indian head penny.
It took Evie a moment, but when she realized the significance of his gift, she threw her arms around him and hugged him close.
"Oh, Laban, it's all just perfect. Thank you. Will you tell me which thing is which?"
"The penny is the something old. Look at the date; it says 1870."
"The year you were born! Well, I guess 12 years is pretty old for a penny," she said, smiling.
"The perfume is the something new. I bought it the last time Mr. Conagher took me into town. The marble is the something borrowed and something blue all in one. I hope that's all right," he said, his confidence stalling a bit.
"Oh, it's more than all right, Laban. It's just perfect," she said and kissed him on the cheek. "And I'm guessing that the pouch is to carry it all in?"
"Yes, ma'am. You couldn't very well put a marble in your shoe."
"Laban, how did you know to do all this?"
"Mr. McCloud told Mr. Conagher and me when we saw him in town that women set a lot of store by this particular wedding tradition and Mr. Conagher asked me if I would be in charge of it since he still had a lot of fixing up to do on the ranch. Ruthie helped me make the pouch and she's the one snuck the fabric out of the scrap basket, but I did all the rest myself."
"Well, then, Ruthie gets a kiss, too," Evie said, giving her little girl a peck. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Is it time to go downstairs now?" Ruthie pleaded.
"Yes, you two can go downstairs now and tell Mr. Conagher and Reverend Miller that I will be ready in five minutes."
Laban delivered the message and then went back upstairs and waited outside the bedroom door. Everyone else took their places downstairs. The reverend stood facing the stairs with his back to the huge stone fireplace that filled most of the north wall of the living room. Ruthie stood to the reverend's right and the groom to his left.
As he watched the bedroom door open, Conagher felt a herd of butterflies stampede through his gut, not from fear, but from pure excitement. He had come such a long way in such a short time, from a man who believed he wasn't the marrying kind to a joyful bridegroom anxious to start a life with the woman he loved.
And then, there she was. His bride, his Evie.
"Sweet mercy!" he whispered as he watched her take Laban's arm and walk slowly down the long staircase. He was positively awestruck by her beauty. How could anyone have ever thought her plain?
As she descended the stairs, the noontime sunshine coming through the second story windows cast a glow around her that made her look like an angel coming down from heaven. But what took Conagher's breath away was not her dress or her hair, but the love he saw shining in her eyes as she looked back at him. He had no earthly idea what he had ever done to deserve the love of such a fine, good woman. He only knew that from this minute on he could never live without it.
Evie's pulse quickened when she saw Conn standing there all clean and combed and utterly handsome in his new white shirt and blue jeans, but it was the look of unabashed joy on his face when he first saw her that made her heart sing. She flashed back to the first moment she had seen him last spring, sitting on his horse by the corral. She knew nothing about him, but the way he had looked at her with his warm, blue eyes had made her feel beautiful and special, as though he could see past all the pain and struggle right through to all of her secret dreams. Now, with one look, he was making all those dreams come true.
Their vows were both traditional and heartfelt and when the reverend said, "You may kiss the bride," Conagher's knees were shaking as he placed his hands on her face and very gently kissed her sweet lips. She slid her arms around his neck and pressed herself to him, encouraging him to deepen the kiss, which he did happily.
When they separated, she hugged him close again and whispered against his ear, "I'm yours, Conn, all yours, forever and always."
"Oh, Evie, I love you so," he answered breathlessly.
Turning to face the children, Conagher said, "If we're going to have a wedding party, I think we're going to need some music. Laban, where's your fiddle?"
They danced, all of them together, until Laban's fingers were exhausted and their feet were sore. After everyone removed their shoes and rubbed their aching toes for a minute or two, Conn asked Laban if he had one more tune in him.
"I reckon so, sir," he answered and put the bow to the strings.
Conn turned to Ruthie and bowed as he asked, "May I have this dance?"
She curtsied and took his hand, like she had seen Evie do, but instead of simply putting his arms around her, he swept her off her feet and carried her over the floor, twirling and twirling her until she giggled so much she got the hiccups. Evie had forgotten how musical Ruthie's laughter was. She hadn't heard her laugh like that since Ruthie learned that her father was never coming home.
Conn liked making Ruthie laugh. So often over the past weeks, he had felt awkward around her, unsure of how to talk to a nine-year-old girl about anything, let alone things that might interest her. He had asked Evie once how she thought he should approach her.
"Well, how would you get to know anyone else?" she had countered.
"I guess the best way is to ask each other questions and listen for honest answers."
"Why don't you try that? I'm sure you can think of something to ask her the next time you see her. Unless she finds something to ask you first," Evie had said, smiling mysteriously at him.
A moment later the cabin door had burst open and Ruthie ran in, stopped right in front of him and chirped, "When you and Ma get married, will I get a little brother or sister?"
After a silent beat or two, he had managed to say, "That's for God to decide, Ruthie," as sweetly as his suddenly dry mouth would allow.
"Oh, phooey, you sound just like Ma," she pouted and stomped out in search of her brother.
"See, she thinks of you as one of the family already," Evie laughed.
"Please, tell me you didn't put her up to that," he pleaded as the red began to rise in his cheeks.
"No sir, I did not, but I'm not surprised. She's been after me about it for a week now. I guess she didn't get the answer she wanted from me, so she thought she'd ask you."
From then on, he had put more effort into finding things to ask her, like what color should they paint her room in the new house and would she like him to teach her how to beat her brother at marbles.
After Laban packed up his fiddle, they all sat down to supper. Ruthie had done most of the cooking with a little help from Evie and Laban. There was roasted chicken with cornbread stuffing, boiled carrots and a fresh apple pie that Ruthie made all by herself.
"Well, that was a fine meal, but I'd better be going now," Reverend Miller said, standing and putting on his hat and coat. "God bless you both. You have a wonderful family, Mr. and Mrs. Conagher. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Reverend. Thanks for everything," Conagher said, closing the door after him even as Evie's new title was still sending shivers up his neck. Mrs. Conagher. Boy, he liked the sound of that.
While the children began cleaning up the supper dishes, Conagher slid his arms around his wife's waist and asked, "Well, Mrs. Conagher, was your wedding day all that you hoped it would be?"
"Yes, it certainly was," she said out loud, but then hugged him close and whispered so that only he could hear, "but I was hoping it wasn't over just yet."
Her words sent a hot tingle down his spine and into his nether regions, causing him to whisper back in a husky voice, "It's not. Not by a long shot."
"Children," Evie said, stepping reluctantly out of her husband's arms, "that's enough for tonight. We can finish the dishes in the morning, just this once. Time for bed."
Once Ruthie and Laban were settled in their beds, the newlyweds walked hand in hand up the stairs. Evie started to open the bedroom door, but Conn grasped her hand in his and draped it over his shoulders as he bent down and scooped her up in his arms.
"I think you deserve the whole fairy tale, Mrs. Conagher," he said, smiling sweetly as he pushed the door open and carried her over the threshold, kicking the door shut behind them.
"You are too good to me, Mr. Conagher," she said, meaning every word.
"You haven't seen anything yet," he said, laying her down on the bed and kissing her fully on the mouth as he settled himself beside her and pulled her close.
He started to reach for the kerosene lamp on the bedside table to put it out, but she stopped him.
"You right, you know. I haven't seen anything yet. I want to see you and I want you to see me," she said, sitting up and undoing the buttons on his shirt one by one before sliding it off of his shoulders. She ran her fingers through the soft dark hair on his chest.
Desire rushed through him like a mountain stream in the spring thaw. His hands shook with anticipation as he reached behind her, forcing himself to take care with the buttons on her handmade wedding dress. Were it up to him, the gown would already be in tatters on the floor, but he knew it meant a lot to her, not only because she had created it herself, but also because one day she would pass it on to Ruthie.
"Do wedding dresses always have so many buttons? Are you women trying to drive us husbands crazy with excitement?" he said, only half joking.
"Yes, I believe that's exactly the reason," she said. Her voice was a tantalizing whisper against his chest, her hot breath dancing across one of his nipples just before she closed her lips on it and sent a shockwave of arousal through his entire being. He grabbed her shoulders and forced her away from him, his own breath coming in ragged gulps.
"Evie, honey, please can you help me with these dang buttons? And if you keep at me like this, I'll get where we're going way ahead of you, and I don't want that."
"No, I don't want that either. I want us both to get where we're going together," she said, standing up and quickly undoing the remaining buttons. She let the dress fall to the floor in a puddle of ivory linen and lace and then removed her chemise and pantaloons to stand before him totally naked. The way Conn's eyes moved over her made her feel tenderly loved and deliciously wicked all at the same time.
He couldn't get over how lovely she was. He stared at her, awestruck, taking in the silky curves of her hips and her breasts, her creamy thighs and welcoming arms. At last, he reached out and pulled her into his arms, sliding his hands slowly from her dainty waist up her back and into her hair to remove the silver combs and toss them onto the pile of her clothes.
"Your turn," she said, undoing his belt buckle and then the buttons of his jeans. She slid her hands inside his waistband and pushed them down past his hips, revealing his obvious desire for her. He reached down and pulled the pants off completely and added them to the growing pile of laundry. Standing before her in all his naked glory, he was, Evie thought, magnificent.
"I love everything about you. I wouldn't change a thing," Evie said.
"Well, there is one thing that's going to change pretty darn quick," he replied, "and that's the distance between you and me." He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her to him just as he claimed her lips with his. The feel of her bare skin against his almost sent him over the edge. Fighting for control, he scooped her into his arms again and sat down on the bed with her in his lap.
Turning to face him, she swung her left leg over his and straddled him, kneeling on the bed. Kissing him hungrily, she pushed him over backwards.
"I need you, Conn. I need you now," she begged.
"Take me, Evie. Please take me and never let me go," he whispered eagerly.
And they surrendered to the passions rising inside them both, riding limitless waves of ecstasy, marveling at the power of their bodies to satisfy one another so completely. When they were finished, they crawled under the covers and lay quietly in each other's arms, hovering on the brink of sleep.
"I'm really glad I married you, Mrs. Conagher," he said softly, stroking her hair.
"So am I, Mr. Conagher. So am I," she answered and reached over to put out the light.
Nine months later, almost to the day, Ruthie got her wish as the Conaghers welcomed Tay Jonathan Conagher, whom his older sister nicknamed T.J. almost immediately. He grew to be a happy little boy who favored his mother mostly, but had his father's warm, blue eyes.
The Conaghers loved all their children, never making mention of whose blood was whose, and they all grew up calling Conn 'Pa' and Evie 'Ma', even though only T.J. was related to them by blood.
Over the years, the Ladder Five came to be known as one of the best and biggest outfits in New Mexico. Conn and Evie owned the ranch together, with Conn punching the cows and Evie crunching the numbers.
Before Seaborn Tay died, he wrote a will leaving the ST outfit and his entire estate to Tay Jonathan Conagher, with Conn as executor until T.J. was old enough to run the place on his own.
"You went and named the boy after me, Conn. I can't just let that go, now can I?" Tay had said when Conn asked the old man what in the world he was thinking.
Laban Teale worked the ranch until he was old enough to go to college and earn a degree in architectural engineering. There he fell in love with the daughter of one of his professors, a sweet, shy girl named Madelyn Price. They got married and moved to Albuquerque, where there were more opportunities for Laban to design and build new places for people to live and work, but he always thought of the Ladder Five as home. He and Madelyn visited often, spending holidays and birthdays on the ranch. In the fall of 1899, while home for Thanksgiving, Madelyn went into labor and gave birth to Jacob Conagher Teale in Laban's boyhood bed.
Ruthie Teale grew into a fine young lady, who announced on her eighteenth birthday that 'Ruthie' was a child's name and she would now like to be called simply 'Ruth'. Everyone obliged her except T.J., who continued to call her 'Ruthie' for the rest of her life. That same year, she got a teaching job at the school in Socorro. A young cowpuncher named Everett Thompson came to work for Conn that summer and he and Ruth fell head over heels in love.
At first, Conn bristled at the thought of his daughter getting hitched to a cowhand, even one as good, hardworking and honest as Everett, and he and Ruth had some tough moments because of it.
But Evie settled the matter once and for all when she said, "Well, if Everett makes Ruth even half as happy as my good, hardworking, honest cowhand of a husband has made me, then how can we deny her that? I know this life isn't always easy, but Ruth knows it, too. She was raised by a cattleman who she adores; it stands to reason that she would fall in love with one who adores her."
Ruth celebrated her nineteenth birthday by marrying Everett in front of the big stone fireplace in the main house of the Ladder Five. She wore her mother's ivory wedding dress and when her father gave her away, he cried.
T.J. Conagher was a handful as a boy, always getting into one kind of scrape or another. His mother used to say that it seemed like he was trying to cram as much living into every day as he possibly could. Climbing trees to heights that would have dizzied eagles, jumping off rocks that mountain goats would fear to tread, and taunting the bulls until they chased him across the pasture were all in a day's fun for T.J. But he worked as hard as he played and was eager to learn everything his father could teach him about running the ranch, which was a considerable amount. When he was sixteen, Conn insisted that he work the same hours, eat the same food, do the same chores and sleep in the same bunkhouse as the rest of the hands.
"If you ever expect men to work for you, they first have to respect you, and you can't earn their respect unless they know you've walked in their boots. I never asked any of my hands to do anything I couldn't or wouldn't do myself," Conn told him.
When T.J. was twenty-five, his father turned over the reins of the ST to him, confident that T.J. was ready and able to run the outfit on his own, sure that Seaborn Tay would heartily approve of the man in charge of maintaining his outfit's reputation for good cows and fair wages.
Since the ST and Ladder Five had an adjoining property line, father and son often worked side by side, sometimes riding the line together, gathering up strays and driving them home.
And in the evenings, Conn and Evie would sit on the porch and talk, or just be quiet and hold hands while they watched the tumbleweeds roll by.