Part Twenty Three of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
"OW! Dammit!" Hannibal Heyes dropped the rope and looked at his hands. Rope burns cut across both palms.
"I told ya to wear gloves," Marty reminded him, unsympathetically.
"They're worn out," Heyes informed the older man as he picked up and coiled the rope.
"Why didn't ya say? I got a spare pair in the tack room. Go get 'em."
"No, you're not. Go get 'em or just get. I can't use ya if you can't do the job properly." Heyes stared at Marty. "Don't try that look on me, son, I'll out stare ya cos I'm old and ornery."
"Don't I know it," Heyes muttered as he headed for the barn. Marty looked over at Jed Curry who held a calf by its halter.
"What you doin' boy?" Marty asked as he re-coiled the rope Heyes had dropped.
"Exactly! Get that calf over here so we can try again."
Jed led the animal towards the corral fence. "Heyes will never rope it."
"Have a bit more faith in ya friend."
"I have faith in him. I have faith that he'll never rope it. Lock the calf up and he'll free it in no time. Have it run around and…" He shut up as Heyes reappeared from the barn, pulling on a pair of leather gloves as he walked towards them.
"They fit alright?" Marty asked.
"Grab the rope, remember how I told ya to throw it and, when you've got the calf, hang on tight this time."
"Yeah, Heyes. It's only a little animal how hard can it be?" Jed smiled.
"You think it's so easy, how come you don't try it?" Heyes challenged.
"'Cos Marty's already got me down for the shootin' events, ain't that right, Marty?"
"Well, yeah, but I don't see why you can't enter the ropin' ones too."
Heyes smiled triumphantly at his friend. "Good idea, Marty." He tossed the rope to Jed. "Let's see what you can do."
With a heavy sigh, Jed slung the rope over his shoulder and strode away. Heyes took up the position his friend previously held; that of calf-releaser. He looked to Marty for the word. Jed looked to Marty too.
"You ready, Kid?" the man asked.
"Yeah, let her go." Jed whirled the lariat above his head as Heyes released the calf. The young animal ran away from Marty and Heyes heading towards Jed. When it saw the boy whirling a rope the calf rapidly changed directions and Jed ran after it. The rope spun above him. Jed's eyes followed the calf as he tried to predict where it would run to next and…The rope flew through the air. Marty watched it fly. Jed watched it fly and Heyes frowned as the lasso landed around the calf's neck. Jed's grip on the rope tightened. He pulled it behind his body and across his hips, leaning into it as the calf pulled away. Teeth gritted, the battle between young human and young bovine ensued. Jed dug the heels of his boots into the ground as the small animal proved a match for him. The calf turned to face Jed shaking its head from side to side in an effort to dislodge the annoying boy. Jed's heels stirred up the dust as he was dragged along the ground.
"Come on, Kid," Heyes yelled. "How hard can it be? It's only a little animal!"
Jed shot his friend a sideways glare and dug his heels in once more. Slowly he began to win the struggle.
"That's it, Kid. You got him, son!" Marty whooped as Jed subdued the obstinate critter and reeled it in. "Looks like we've made a roper of you," Marty announced as the blond boy led the calf towards him, grinning proudly.
"Yeah, well done." His friend didn't sound quite so enthusiastic.
"Don't worry, Heyes," Marty said as he patted Jed on the shoulder. "We'll find an event for you."
"I'll try to contain my enthusiasm."
"Team ropin' with Bill and maybe bronc-busting," Nathan informed Jed as the boy headed across the bunkhouse to the large round table and handed him a cup of coffee.
"Bronc-bustin'? You sure?"
"Yeah. Why?" Nathan's eyes narrowed.
"Well, your leg. You know. What happened before."
Jed sighed. "You could break it again. Didn't the Doc say it was weaker now?"
"And?" Nathan could tell there was more the boy wanted to say.
"And I don't think Mrs Eldon would be too pleased if you broke it."
Nathan didn't reply. Instead he peered into his coffee as he swirled it around in the cup. Finally he looked up at Jed. "I don't suppose she would at that. Can't imagine Jeff would be too pleased with me either. Okay, so, no bronc-busting…this time! What about you?"
Jed smiled as Nathan acquiesced. "Marty says they have shootin' competitions." He watched as Nathan turned the chair around and then straddled it, leaning his arms on the chair back. Jed placed his cup on the table then mirrored his friend's actions.
"They usually have rifle shooting and sometimes quick-draw competitions. You entering those?" Nathan took a mouthful of coffee looking at Jed over the top of the metal cup.
"Just the quick-draw. Marty said I might win a few dollars." He smiled at the thought.
"That you might. Anything else?" Nathan took another swallow of coffee.
"Maybe calf ropin'."
Nathan laughed. "I saw Heyes this morning. He's not entering is he?"
Jed smiled back. "No."
"Good. We have the ranch's reputation to think of."
"I heard that!" a figure, lying on his bunk and hidden behind a book, stated.
"So what are you entering, Heyes?" Nathan asked.
Two socked feet uncrossed at the ankles. The book slowly lowered onto his chest and Heyes propped himself up on his elbows. Brown eyes fixed on them. "Why do I have to enter anything?"
"Because we all do. For the Bar T," Nathan informed him.
"Well, the ranch has more than enough men to enter the competitions. I'll provide the moral support." He returned to his book. Nathan looked at Jed and smiled mischievously.
"Moral support, huh?"
"And just how will that moral support manifest itself?" Kid shot Nathan a look at the sound of the long word. "Means what will he be doing to support us."
"Oh, okay." Jed smiled and looked at Heyes. "How you manifestin' it?"
Heyes sighed and lowered his book once more. "I will cheer loudly and say all the right things if you lose."
"We ain't gonna lose," Jed informed him.
"Then I'll save my voice for all that cheering I'll be doing." Heyes raised his book and disappeared from view.
Claremont, Two Weeks Later
Jed Curry landed on his back in the dirt with a loud WHOMP! Dazed, he could only stare at the clouds in the sky and hope that he hadn't broken anything vital. The sound of laughter rang in his ears as he contemplated his bruised pride and bruised…parts.
"You okay, kid?" a man asked, with genuine concern. Having just had the wind knocked out of him Jed couldn't reply. "Kid?"
A figure stood in front of him silhouetted by the sun. Jed squinted at the dark outline in a cowboy hat as the man bent down beside him. He detected a friendly smile under the black hat.
"You hurt?" the man enquired. "Broken anything?"
"I don't think so."
The man grabbed hold of the front of Jed's shirt and promptly hauled him to his feet.
"Let me guess. Otis suggested you just sit on the bull and get a feel of all that power, right?" Jed nodded, trying not to wince at the pain in his backside. "Then he opened the chute and you found yourself bull ridin'?" Jed nodded and the man shot a look at two men sitting on the fence laughing.
"I didn't think they'd do it," Jed complained, aware that he was walking stiffly.
"It's an old trick. Nothin' personal, kid. You were just fresh meat."
Jed looked up and studied the stranger. His black hat covered dark hair and a kind face. He was about ten years older than Jed. His blue checked shirt was tucked into jeans held up by a brown leather belt which sported a sparkling silver buckle. On his feet were the shiniest cowboy boots Jed had ever seen. He sure didn't wear those to do ranch work. The man met Jed's gaze and smiled.
"Name's Bobby, Bobby Cavender."
"Jed Curry." He shook the hand Bobby offered. "You with the rodeo?"
"What d'ya do?" Jed followed Bobby towards the corral exit.
"I ride bulls." He looked at Jed. "I tend to stay on 'em." Jed smiled. "You entering' anything?"
"The quick-draw contest."
Bobby stopped in his tracks, his eyes narrowed as he looked first at the skinny kid before him and then at the gun Jed wore strapped to his hips. "You good with that gun?"
Bobby pondered this. "How old are you, Jed?"
"Nothin'." Bobby started walking again. "So you enterin' anything else?"
"Calf ropin' too."
"What outfit you with?"
"The Bar T."
Bobby stopped in his tracks. He turned slowly, his expression thoughtful as he asked, "Jeff Collins still foreman?"
"Yeah. D'you know him?"
"I sure do," Bobby nodded then his eyes opened wider as he spotted a young woman heading towards them. All thoughts of the Bar T disappeared from his mind. She appeared to be looking for someone. "Can we help you, ma'am?"
Rosalind Tanner looked from Jed to the tall man beside him. He smiled directly into her blue eyes and…Oh. She smiled back, then blushed and looked quickly at Jed.
"Hello, Miss Tanner." Jed pointed to the man beside him. "This is Bobby Cavender. He's with the rodeo. Rides bulls."
Bobby touched the brim of his hat. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I'm Bobby to my friends, and I sure hope you'll be one of them." His eyes held hers.
Rosalind held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you Mister…" She smiled then corrected herself. "I mean, Bobby."
Jed watched as the man shook Miss Tanner's hand but then he didn't let go like you were supposed to. Miss Tanner didn't seem to mind. She didn't let go either.
"You looked a little lost, Miss Tanner. Can I be of assistance?" the cowboy asked.
"I was looking for someone," she explained. Bobby still held her hand.
"Allow me to help you find them."
"That's very kind of you. I…"
"…Am always willing to come to the aid of a beautiful lady." Bobby's brown eyes held Rosalind's blue ones. Jed didn't know if he was supposed to say anything. He opened his mouth to speak. Sheesh, was Bobby flirting with Miss Tanner?
"Who were you looking for?" Jed asked.
"Me," a male voice said from behind them. All three turned to see Jeff Collins standing there, hands on his hips. He didn't exactly look pleased. "You can let go of her hand, Cavender."
Startled that the Boss knew Bobby's name, Jed looked from one man to the next as they eyed each other. The warning in Jeff's tone had been clear. Bobby released Rosalind's hand, then held his out to Jeff. "It's been a long time, old man."
Jeff shook the hand that was offered. "Still chasing the ladies, I see."
"Only the pretty ones." Bobby touched the brim of his hat to Rosalind and she stepped closer to Jeff.
"Same ol' Bobby." Collins shook his head and then to everyone's surprise he pulled Cavender into a hug. "It's good to see you."
"Same here, Jeff."
"I take it you two know each other," Rosalind observed with a smile.
Breaking the hug, Jeff slung an arm around Bobby's neck, holding him close. "Rosa, meet my little brother."
"And don't go into the Faro tent unless you want to lose all your money!" Marty advised. "I'm gonna go get me a drink. You boys coming?"
"No, we'll look around some more. Jed's not up to sitting down yet."
The blond boy glared at his friend. "Whatcha tell him that for?"
"Because it's the truth."
"It don't hurt that bad."
"Ha!" Heyes looked at his friend. Jed was scanning the crowd as if searching for someone. Who would he be looking for? Jed's eyes fell on a young woman, walking with a friend. She looked a little like…Oh, so that was it. "She's not here."
"Clementine's not here."
"How do you know?"
"I asked her Uncle."
"You did what?"
"She went with her Aunt to visit a relative somewhere west of here."
"Oh." Jed considered this. "I wasn't looking for her or anything."
"'Course you weren't."
"Were you looking for her? Is that why you asked her uncle?"
"What? Me? No!" Heyes turned towards the nearby tent.
Jed noted the direction of his friend's gaze. "You ever played Faro?"
"No, but I watched a few games in the tent."
Jed turned quickly to face Heyes. "You went in there?"
"It's the only way to learn."
The blond boy considered this. "You gonna play?"
"Reckon I might."
"Well, do you reckon you could win us some money?"
Heyes smiled confidently. "I reckon I could."
Jed grinned back at him. "Then I reckon we should go into the Faro tent."
"I reckon we should."
"He's certainly a handsome man," Rosalind stated as she watched, appreciatively, Bobby walking away. Jeff studied her expression and followed the direction of her gaze. His eyes narrowed. Sheesh, was she looking at his…?
"You've got pickle on your teeth," he announced.
"You heard." Jeff smiled mischievously.
"Don't be ridiculous, I…" She ran her tongue over the front of her teeth and… Oh no! At her look of horror Jeff burst out laughing and she thumped his arm. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"You were too busy drooling over my brother."
"I was not drooling!"
"You were certainly appreciating something."
"Well, I have to admit he has certain appealing…attributes." She met his gaze defiantly.
"Well, I'd prefer it if you kept your eyes off his attributes."
"Are you jealous?"
"Damn right I am."
Rosalind smiled sweetly. "I promise I'll only have eyes for you."
"Yes. I adore your attributes."
Jeff smiled, wickedly. "That's understandable."
In the Faro tent men moved from table to table through the smoke filled air. At one particular table, Jed studied the cards pasted to a board and laid out before the players. Coins were hurriedly placed onto various cards. The dealer shuffled the deck he held and a burly man with a black bushy beard cut the pack in two. The dealer turned over a card and placed it on his left. He turned over another and placed it on his right. When he turned over a third there were groans and snorts of satisfaction in equal amounts. The dealer collected money from one card and paid out for another. Jed had never played Faro so followed the action trying to establish how the game was played. Heyes smiled as the dealer passed him his money.
"Are you winning?" Jed asked.
Jed lowered his voice. "Well are you?"
"Don't you have a quick-draw competition to go to?" Heyes asked.
"Does that mean you're losing?"
Heyes glared at his friend.
"Hey kid, you playing or what?" the dealer asked. Heyes nodded and placed coins onto two cards. Seeing his friend absorbed in the game Jed slid away from the table.
"I wondered if you'd show up."
Jed turned to see Bobby Cavender leaning against a wagon beside the area set aside for the quick-draw competition. He was eating something from a small paper bag. Did the bull rider have a sweet tooth for candy? Jed smiled; pleased to see his new friend had been waiting for him. It was more than his old friend was. Heyes was too busy playing Faro to care what he was up to.
Bobby screwed up the bag and pushed off the wagon. "You ready to try your luck?"
"Yeah." Jed stepped forward confidently as the last contestant walked away from the stand. "What do I hafta do?" Jed asked the man running the contest.
"Give me your entry fee first. Then I'm gonna release six plates. They run down that chute." The man pointed to a wooden chute off to one side. "All you gotta do is hit 'em all to win."
"Just hit 'em?"
"Even just a nick?"
"Even just a nick."
"What do I win?"
"That's right son. Takes skill to hit all six. I reckon any man that can do that's earned himself $50."
Jed smiled as he pondered this. Bobby could almost see the sums being done in the boy's head. Jed reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a few coins. He searched through them for the correct amount and handed over the entry fee. Bobby patted him on both shoulders. "I'll be rooting for you." He stepped away as Jed removed the safety from his gun.
The boy set his feet apart, dropped his right hand to his side and took a deep breath, just as Marty had taught him. A small crowd gathered to see if the skinny kid was any good. Jed tried to ignore them as he watched the man climbed a small set of steps and hold up the first plate.
"Tell me when you're ready, kid."
Jed flexed his fingers. He could do this. For $50 he could definitely do this. He nodded and the first plate began to roll.
Hannibal Heyes was not happy. He pushed his way through the crowd well aware that he had probably missed Jed's attempt at the fast draw contest. If the last card had turned in his favour he'd be feeling better. He'd been so sure he would win. So sure he knew what that card would be. Instead he'd let his friend down and his pockets were empty. He apologised to a man he bumped into, stepped around two small children and their dog and scanned the crowd for any sign of Jed. Faro had seemed such a simple game. Any fool could win; except this fool had just lost all his money on the turn of a card. His eyes moved from face to face, hat to hat stopping when he spotted a tall man in a black cowboy hat. It was the same man Jed had pointed out to him earlier as Jeff Collins' brother. How strange was that? He didn't even know the boss had a brother and then here he was at the rodeo. And look who was walking beside the cowboy. Jed spotted his friend approaching and waved.
"Did I miss it?" Heyes looked apologetic.
"Yeah." Jed kicked the dirt with his boot. He gave a heavy sigh.
"Well, I'm sure you did your best." Heyes looked at Bobby Cavender. "Was he good?"
"Yeah. He did pretty good." The man looked from Jed to his older friend. "You must be Heyes."
"I am. You Jeff's brother?"
"Yep." The man held out his hand. "Bobby Cavender's the name."
"Hannibal Heyes." They shook.
"Shame you missed his fast draw. What kept you?"
Heyes didn't like the note of disapproval in Cavender's voice. "I was erm…"
"Did you win?" Jed interrupted.
Heyes looked at his boots. "No."
"How much did you lose?"
Brown eyes met blue ones. "Enough."
"You were in the Faro tent?" Bobby asked and Heyes nodded. Cavender chuckled. "Harry dealing today?"
"I think that was his name."
"No wonder you lost." Cavender nudged Jed's arm. "Why don't you tell him how you did?"
Jed appeared reluctant to do so.
"It doesn't matter if you didn't do well," Heyes commiserated. "You just need more practice."
"I don't need more practice."
"Jed, if you didn't win…"
Two blue eyes fixed on Heyes. "Who said I didn't win?"
Heyes looked from Jed to Cavender. "I thought…"
"You won?" Heyes' mouth opened in surprise.
Bobby placed a hand on Jed's shoulder. "He hit every plate, dead centre." Jed beamed with pride. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Don't sound so surprised, Heyes."
"You actually won?"
"YES!" Jed bristled. "And I got the money to prove it!"
"Money?" Heyes interest sparked.
"Thought that'd get your interest."
"Boys," Cavender interrupted. "I gotta get ready for my ride. I'll see you later."
"I'll come watch you," Jed informed him.
"Make sure you do."
They watched Bobby walk away then Heyes turned to his friend. "So how much did you win?"
"Is that all you can think about?"
"Yeah, I know. More important than coming to see me do something."
Heyes guilt turned to anger. "Well someone hasta think about it. I told you I'm not staying on a ranch all my life! We need money to move on."
"I don't wanna move on!"
"Well that's fine, you stay at the Bar T but I won't be there!"
"All right!" They turned and walked off in opposite directions. After a few paces Heyes stopped. He turned and saw Jed leaning on the corral fence. "Jed." No answer. "JED!"
"I told Nathan we'd go watch him and Bill roping."
"So, you coming or what?"
"Ooooooweeeeee! The Bar T!" came a cry and the small group of men, women and two teenage boys turned to see Nathan and Bill heading towards them. They were both covered in dust but clearly ecstatic about something. They had their arms around each other's shoulders in comradeship, broad grins on their faces and each waved a silver belt buckle. "We won!" Nathan announced. "We. Won!"
Bill grinned foolishly beside him. "We won."
"We sure did, partner." Nathan waved the buckle at his smiling friends. "Ladies and gentlemen you are looking at the two finest team ropers this town has ever seen."
"Ever seen," Bill repeated.
"You two?" Jeff asked with mock incredulity.
Neither man was about to rise to the bait. "Us two," Bill replied. "We won."
"We sure did," Nathan stated. "Got the buckle to prove it."
"And one hundred dollars each," Bill added.
"A hundred dollars?" Jed and Heyes chorused.
"One. Hundred. Dollars." Nathan reached into his vest pocket and fanned out the notes. "One hundred beautiful dollars!"
"Each," Bill announced as he mirrored Nathans actions.
Jeff's expression turned serious. "Best keep that outta sight boys."
Nathan nodded and both men slipped the money back into their vests. "We gotta celebrate, we gotta find the rest of the boys and…" His eyes fell on something behind Jeff.
"Nathan! Is it true? Did you win?" Annabelle Eldon asked as she hurried towards him. "Did you win?"
"We sure did!" He grabbed hold of her by the waist lifted her into the air and ignoring her screech of surprise twirled her around. "We sure did!"
"Nathan! Put me down! Nathan!"
Finally he lowered her to the ground. "I'm so happy. I am so dang happy I could…" His eyes met hers and he stood still.
"Nathan, what is it?" Annabelle grew concerned. Still he stared at her. "Nathan?"
"Annabelle." He cupped her face in his hands, drew her towards him and kissed her full on the lips in front of everyone. Jed and Heyes exchanged a look of shock. They quickly looked back at the couple in case they missed anything. Annabelle stared at Nathan in stunned surprise when he pulled away. Nathan smiled. "Oh heck, I don't care who sees." He pulled her close against his body, covered her mouth with his and proceeded to kiss the heck out of her. Annabelle did not appear to resist.
A tap on Nathan's shoulder brought him back to reality. "You might want to let the lady up for air," Jeff advised.
Sporting a stupid grin Nathan stepped back not taking his eyes from Annabelle's face. "Annabelle. My beautiful Annabelle."
"I reckon she knows her name," Bill muttered. "Are we gonna go celebrate or what?" Nathan ignored him.
"Annabelle." He spoke her name like a sweet caress and the lady smiled. "Annabelle."
"Sheesh," Bill mumbled.
Nathan reached for her hands, ran his thumbs gently across her knuckles and then…dropped to one knee.
"Oh my!" Annabelle gasped and Jeff felt Rosalind squeeze his arm. "Nathan, what are you doing?"
"What I should have done a long time ago."
"Nathan you sure here's the right…" but a sharp pinch from Rosalind shut Jeff up.
"Annabelle Eldon," Nathan said formally as he knelt before her. "Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
Annabelle stared down at him. She didn't reply. Nathan held his breath. Rosalind held her breath and her hand tightened painfully on Jeff's arm. He placed his hand over hers trying to loosen her hold but she just squeezed tighter. He gritted his teeth against the pain and looked at Nathan kneeling like a fool in the dirt. Bill looked from Nathan to Annabelle, waiting to hear what they lady would say and hoping it'd be yes so they could all go get a drink. Jed and Heyes watched and waited.
"Annabelle? Will you marry me?" Nathan didn't sound so confident this time.
"Oh my." Annabelle's mind was whirling and she couldn't seem to catch her breath. Her chest rose and fell as she fought for air. Seeing her friend's distress Rosalind broke free from Jeff and stepped forward.
"Annabelle, are you all right?"
Nathan looked up at her, concerned. "Anna?"
"That's not quite what I was hoping you'd say," Nathan informed her. "Help me out will ya? I got my knee on a rock here."
Rosalind was now at her side. "Take a deep breath," she advised and Annabelle did just that. "And another." The woman obeyed not taking her eyes off Nathan. After a moment, or an eternity, depending on whose point of view you were watching the scene from, Annabelle looked down at Nathan and smiled.
"Annabelle? You got an answer for me?"
"Is that yes, you got an answer for me or yes, you'll marry me?" She nodded. "You're killin' me, sweetheart."
"Yes, Nathan. Yes, I'll marry you. Yes! Oh definitely, yes!"
"About dang time," Bill muttered and headed for the saloon.
"What do you think, Heyes?" Jed asked just before he stuffed a candy into his mouth. They worked their way through the rodeo crowd, watching the entertainers and listening to the claims of various salesmen. They had declined to try Faraday's Cure All Elixir assuring the Medicine Man that they really didn't have anything that needed curing. And as attractive as she was they couldn't be tempted to buy Venus Aphrodite's lucky love potion.
"About what?" Heyes eyed the Faro tent.
"What Nathan did."
Jed followed his friend's gaze. "I thought you'da had enough of that place."
"But you're gonna go back in there aren'tcha?"
"I haven't made my mind up yet."
"Sure you haven't." Jed knew better. "So what d'you think?"
"No, about what Nathan did. But as for Faro, you don't have any more money and you're not having any of mine. So you got no reason to go in there."
"I wasn't going in there. And are you talking about Nathan asking Mrs Eldon to marry him?" The tent flap opened and Heyes craned to see inside but the flap dropped again before he saw more than a few tables.
"He loves her, so why not?"
"I meant about the way he did it."
"Men are supposed to go down on one knee. It's traditional."
"I know that! I meant doing it in front of everyone. Isn't it supposed to be private?"
"Nothing in the rules as far as I know."
"There are rules?"
Heyes finally turned to face his friend, saw his confused expression and smiled, mischievously. "Well of course there are rules. Didn't you know that?"
"Didn't your Pa give you the talk?"
"You know the talk."
"Well sure we had that talk but he never mentioned anything about rules and proposin'."
Heyes smiled, devilishly. "Well you are in for a lot of trouble. No wonder things didn't go so well between you and Emily."
"That's cos she's got her eye on the soldier!"
"'Cos he knows about the rules."
"Then tell me them!"
"Not sure I can."
"What? Why not?"
"Well, my Pa told me they were…"
"They were private. I remember he said there was no need to tell my Ma we'd had the talk; that women were funny about those things and there were some things they didn't need to know."
"What things? My Pa never mentioned that."
"Sheesh! You sure he gave you the talk?"
"Yes, he gave me the talk!"
Heyes shook his head in amazement. "I just assumed you knew about the rules." He walked away from his friend.
"Heyes! Heyes, you're gonna hafta tell me the rules. Heyes!"
A dark-haired young man smiled. With Jed it was just too easy.
"Wasn't that romantic," Rosalind sighed as she walked arm-in-arm with Jeff between tables selling homemade cakes and candy.
"It looked darn foolish."
"It was romantic. It's what a woman dreams of. Her beau drops to one knee and proposes."
"Don't imagine Annabelle dreamed of him doing it next to the corral as she stood in horse s… OW!" He glared at her as she dug her fingers into his arm. "What was that for?"
"It's what a woman dreams of."
"Did you hear what I said?"
"It's what a woman dreams of." He met her gaze. "What?"
"You cannot possibly be this dense."
Before Rosalind could reply a commotion at the far end of the corral caught their attention. Men were shouting, the sound of a distinctly unhappy bull filled the air and someone yelled "Get him outta there!" People scrambled to see what was going on. For some reason he couldn't explain, Jeff felt the need to go and see what was happening. Unease gripped him.
"Wait here," he told Rosalind, then headed towards the uproar. He caught the arm of a man running past him. "What's happened?"
"A bull rider just got trampled bad."
Collins broke into a run. When he reached the stock pens, they were still trying to get a massive white bull under control. Three men whooped, hollered and flapped their arms trying to steer the bull into its pen but the animal took no notice of them. Jeff looked around for Bobby but couldn't see him. "Who was hurt?" he asked. No one answered. He caught hold of the sleeve of a man leaning on the rail. "Who was hurt?"
Blood drained from Jeff's face. A lump formed in his throat and he felt the breath knocked out of him.
"Where is he?"
"They took him to the tent over there." He pointed to a canvas construction a few yards away. As Jeff turned towards it, he felt a hand on his arm.
"Is it Bobby?" Rosalind asked. The darn woman never did what he asked and once again he was glad of it. He needed her support. Jeff nodded and Rosalind took his hand in hers. "Come on."
Pushing back the tent flap, Jeff stepped inside. There were men in various states of dress, fixing tape round their hands, wrapping their ribs before pulling on their shirt. Such was the activity in the competitors' tent. Jeff scanned the area for any sign of Bobby.
"I don't think the lady should be in here," a tall man, with a curly black moustache, stated as he approached them.
"I'm looking for Bobby Cavender," Jeff informed him. The man's expression darkened.
"He's in back with the doctor." He jerked a thumb towards a screened off area. "You'd best have the lady wait outside. He's in a pretty bad way."
Jeff turned to Rosalind but he didn't need to say a word.
"I'll be outside. Go to him." She patted his arm reassuringly, and then walked away.
Bobby lay unconscious on a rough wooden table, his head on one side. Blood matted his hair. His clothes were covered in mud and dust. His shirt was torn and bloody on the left side and his left arm hung over the edge of the table at an odd angle. Jeff stood perfectly still watching the doctor as he tore open Bobby's shirt to reveal a gash across his ribs.
The medic turned. "Jeff, what you doing here?"
"He's my brother."
"Your…?" The doctor didn't waste any more time. "Bring that bowl of water over here, will you. We need to clean these wounds."
"How bad is he hurt?"
"I'll let you know when I've examined him properly. Now you gonna stand around gabbing or you gonna help?"
Jeff picked up the bowl.
Annabelle Eldon wore a silly grin on her face and didn't care who saw it. She linked her arm through Nathan's as they walked along the bank of the brook that ran along the edge of town. The man beside her strutted like a proud peacock and touched the brim of his hat in greeting to another couple as they walked by.
"You look pleased with yourself," Annabelle observed.
"That's because I am."
"Any particular reason?"
"Well, the most beautiful woman in town just agreed to marry me." He turned to face her. "Does that count?"
She pretended to consider it. "I suppose it's a good reason."
"It sure is."
"Is she worth it?"
"I think so." He pulled her close and kissed her lightly on the mouth. "I don't want to wait. Let's get married today."
Annabelle stepped back. "No."
"What?" He looked shocked.
"I don't mean I don't want to marry you. I do. Just not today. I have things to plan. We have things to plan."
"I can see you've never been married before."
"You know I haven't."
"Nathan, I want to do this properly. I want to pick out a dress and you need a suit."
"I've got a suit."
His eyes narrowed. "What?"
"I think you should have a new suit."
"What's wrong with my old one? I don't see no reason to go wasting money on a suit when I got a perfectly good one already. We're gonna need every penny we got to…" She held up a hand to stop him.
"I will not marry you in your old suit. It has a tear in one elbow, a stain across the front of the jacket and the pants legs are at least two inches too short. I will not marry you in that suit."
Her beautiful eyes met his waiting for his reply. Nathan had been perfectly happy with his suit but now that she pointed out one or two of its minor faults…She waited for his response. He gave her his most stern look.
"You know a woman's s'posed to respect her husband. Ain't one of them marriage vows about promising to obey?"
"You're not my husband, yet. And if you insist on wearing that suit…" She left the threat unspoken.
"You know we might need to get a few ground rules established before we tie the knot."
"Seems sensible." Annabelle folded her arms across her chest.
"I'd expect my wife to do as I ask."
"I'd expect her not to question my decisions."
"Unless you're wrong."
Nathan's eyes narrowed once more. "Dammit woman are you gonna agree to obey me or what?"
"No Nathan, I won't obey you. But I will love you with all my heart. I will honour you and comfort you when you're hurt or sick. I will grow old with you and if God blesses us I'll even bear your children." Nathan couldn't stop a silly smile forming on his face. "But…" She grew serious. "I will not marry you if you insist on wearing that horrible, old suit."
Silence hung between them. Annabelle Eldon waited to hear what her intended would say.
"So that's the way it's gonna be, huh?"
"You're not gonna obey me?"
"Gonna be thinking for yourself."
"Making decisions without me?"
Nathan removed his hat and scratched his head. "In that case I guess I'm gonna hafta buy me a new suit."
Annabelle hugged him. "I knew you'd see it my way."
"Just don't tell anyone! Especially not Jeff. If they knew I'd let a woman tell me what to do they'd never let me forget it."
"Nathan, when you went down on one knee in front of everyone, you told them that yourself."
"I gotta get you a ring!"
"Did you know there were rules?" Jed asked as he hoisted himself up onto the corral fence.
"Rules for what?" Bill asked from his perch on Jed's right.
"Well, askin' women to marry you for one."
Bill looked at Jed, then at Marty who sat on a barrel in front of them. The men's eyes met. What was Jed talking about? No idea.
"You plannin' on asking someone to marry you, Jed?"
"You got a woman in mind then?"
"No. I just want to know what the rules are."
"Yeah. Heyes said there were rules about these things."
Marty smiled. Heyes. All was becoming clearer. "So what exactly did Heyes tell you?" he asked.
"He said my Pa should have told me when we had the talk but he never said anything about asking a woman to marry you. Nothing about rules either."
Bill looked at Marty and smiled. "Oh those rules."
"Yeah, those ones."
"I'm not sure we should tell you if your Pa didn't," Bill mused as he took a cigar from his pocket and searched another for a match.
"Well then who will tell me? I haven't got anyone else. Marty?"
"I agree with Bill. Your Pa should have told you."
"I don't have a Pa! And when I did he clearly left something out. No wonder Emily preferred that soldier to a dumb ranch hand!" Jed jumped off the fence and walked quickly away.
"Jed!" Bill called but the boy kept walking. Bill looked at Marty. "One of us needs to go after him. Have the talk."
"One of us needs to have a word with Heyes too."
Neither man moved.
Bill bit the end off his cigar and spat it out. "Toss you for it."
Marty struck a match and held it out towards Bill's cigar. "Whose coin?"
Familiar pain was the first thing he felt when he woke up. He didn't open his eyes. He knew he wouldn't appreciate the light. His head felt as if it was splitting in two, it hurt to breathe and his left arm was obviously being ripped apart; possibly by a pack of wolves. He'd give anything for something to dull the pain but knew from experience that nothing did. A bull could do a lot of damage to a man. He groaned.
"Bobby? You awake?"
Jeff? What was he doing there? He cracked open his eyes and squinted. Someone approached the bed he was lying in. He had no idea where he was. Maybe the town hotel? It sure didn't feel like he was in his wagon.
"Yeah, it's me." He could hear the relief in his brother's voice as he drew closer. A blur moved beyond the haze of Bobby's eyelashes. "You had me worried for a while there. I thought you were never gonna wake up."
"Not a bad...idea. Wouldn't hurt…so…so much." Bobby shut his eyes.
"You need something for the pain?" Jeff looked down at the battered man. "I can go get the doctor. Bobby?" No response. "Bobby?" His brother was unconscious again.
Jeff opened the door of the hotel room and found Jed Curry standing in the hallway.
"Jed. What d'you want, kid?"
"I heard Bobby got hurt. How is he?"
Momentarily confused as to why the boy would be inquiring about his brother Jeff suddenly remembered Jed had been there when he'd first spied Bobby earlier that day. "He's hurt pretty bad."
"Can I see him?"
Jeff shook his head. "He's unconscious."
This clearly worried the boy. "He's gonna be all right ain't he?"
"I hope so." Jeff couldn't add anymore. He didn't know any more.
"When he wakes up will you tell him I was asking after him?"
"Of course I will. I didn't realise you two had got to know each other."
Jed smiled. "He came to see me win the fast draw contest."
"Heyes told me you won that."
"Yeah. He was proud of you."
Jed looked surprised and a little hurt. "He never said. Just wanted to know how much money I'd won."
"Heyes is at a difficult age. I don't think he wants anyone to know how much he cares about things."
Jed appeared downcast. "Seems he's been like that for a while."
"He'll get through it. He's just trying to figure out who he is. He's not a boy anymore. He wants to be in charge and do his own thing. Thinks he has all the answers but we sure don't agree with him about that do we?" Jed smiled. "It's tough for him right now."
"He's making it pretty tough for me too."
"Well you're going through it yourself." Jeff smiled at a memory. "Bobby was a real pain in the backside when he was Heyes' age. I lost count of the number of times we nearly came to blows. Sometimes I just wanted to dunk his head in a barrel of cold water and leave him there."
Jed smiled. "Wish I could do that to Heyes."
"I imagine he feels the same way about you sometimes."
"Probably," Jed conceded. He rotated his hat in his hand. "I hope your brother's okay."
"So do I. And Jed." The boy looked his boss in the eye. "Thanks for asking about him."
"He said what?" Rosalind Tanner asked as she lowered herself to the ground and sat on the blanket Nathan had spread out for the ladies.
"He said he wants us to get married as soon as possible," Annabelle informed her as she poured a glass of lemonade for her friend. Nathan had found a spot on the riverbank for an impromptu picnic with his fiancée. However he'd gladly offered his place to Rosalind when they heard of Bobby's accident and was even now at the refreshment tent gathering together something for them all to eat.
"He must love you very much to be so impatient to share is life with you." Rosalind's respect for the man went up another notch.
"I know he does." Annabelle glanced towards the refreshment tent. "However, I want to do this right. My first wedding was a rushed affair and we had to compromise on so many things. I want the day I become Nathan's wife to be special."
Rosalind smiled. "You'll be his wife. How much more special do you want it to be?"
"Well, I want him to buy a new suit for one thing." The ladies exchanged a look and then burst out laughing. "I can't believe he asked me, Rosa. Just like that and in front of everybody."
"You did look stunned."
"I'd hoped he would ask me one day but…I never expected. I am so happy."
Her friend smiled as she moved to place a hand on her arm. "I can see that." And as she smiled with joy for her friend she felt a twinge of jealously. Would she ever feel the way Annabelle did? Would Jeff ask her to marry him or would his love for his first wife always be between them? And now he had his brother to worry about. Perhaps they were not meant to be together after all.
Boots moved across a wooden floor. Someone was in the room.
"Who's there?" Bobby asked, not opening his eyes.
"I thought you had a ranch to run?"
"I do, but I got a brother to look after too."
"Maybe he can look after himself?"
Jeff chuckled. "Coming from a man who looks as bad as you do, that's hard to believe."
Bobby opened his eyes and instantly regretted it. He groaned. "Am I hurt as bad as I feel?"
"Probably." Jeff pulled a chair close to the bed, turned up the lamp and sat down facing his brother. "A hoof caught your head. You've got quite a gash back there. The Doc said once you woke up I was to keep you awake, so he can examine you."
"You got kicked in the ribs. That broke a couple of 'em and your left arm got stomped on according to someone called Dabner. Broke your arm too."
"Dabner runs the rodeo."
"Well, he's gonna be doing it without you for a while, little brother."
Bobby's eyes narrowed. "Sounds like you're pleased about that."
"You were almost killed, Bobby."
"It's not the first time."
"I don't imagine it is. Doc pointed out a few old scars as he was patching you up. It's a tough life you lead."
"You saying ranch life is safer? Ropin' cows? Herdin' steers? Ridin' drag for hours on end?"
"Safer? Not always but you got more chance of living longer."
"I'm not a rancher." Bobby's tone turned angry. "Pa saw to that."
"Bobby, you know…"
"Tell me about your lady."
"Changing the subject won't make it go away."
"Will it make you go away?" The minute he said that, Bobby regretted it. He saw the hurt in Jeff's eyes. "I didn't mean that. It's just the pain talking."
"Yeah, it's the little pain talkin' again."
Bobby smiled. "My brother's a comedian." Jeff smiled. "So, the lady? You serious about her?"
"Are we talking marriage serious?"
Jeff considered this. Nathan was wandering around with a stupid grin on his face. He smiled thinking how happy his friend was. He remembered that happiness; remembered it well. Remembered loving someone that much. Remembered the plans they made, the dreams they had. He remembered the heartache of loss too.
"I don't know. I keep thinking about Mary and…"
"That was a long time ago."
"Not that long."
"She was a beautiful, kind woman. D'you think she'd want to see you lonely?"
"That's not a fair question."
"I think it is. She's gone, Jeff. You still have a life to live and it sounds as if you want to do that with this woman. You just want Mary's permission first."
The foreman of the Bar T looked at his battered brother. "Since when did you become the philosopher?"
"Since I got my own share of regrets."
Jeff studied his brother's face. "A woman?"
"Don't sound so surprised."
"You were serious about her?"
"And? Sheesh Bobby don't make me drag it out of you word by word."
"There was a woman, a couple of years ago. I let her go and I shouldn't have. End of story."
"No chance to go and find her again?"
"I don't think her husband or kid would be too pleased."
"Yeah. I waited too long. A better man beat me to her." The brothers shared a moment of silent understanding. "So, big brother. You asked her yet?" Bobby tried to sit up and… "Ah, that hurts." He waited for the pain in his side to pass before lowering himself back onto the pillow.
"I'm gonna go get the doc. Think you can stay awake?"
"Yeah. If I feel like dozing off I'll just whack myself in the ribs."
Jeff didn't smile. "You're lucky to be alive."
"Just go get the doc." Jeff headed for the door. "And Jeff."
"Don't think I didn't notice you still avoided the question."
"Bobby's gonna ride in the back of the wagon," Jeff explained to Rosalind as he threw in another couple of sacks and watched as Jed and Heyes used them to construct a makeshift mattress.
"You're not making him sleep in the bunkhouse are you?"
Jeff shook his head. "No. Mrs Culver was kind enough to offer him a room in the house. He can stay with us until he's healed. Then it's up to him. He's gonna be spoilt rotten when Judith Tyler sets her eyes on him."
Rosalind smiled, having met the Culver's housekeeper. "What woman wouldn't fall for those beautiful eyes?"
Jeff stopped mid stride. "You doing it again?"
"Appreciating my brother?"
She smiled. "Did I say I'd stop?"
His eyes narrowed. "You said you'd only have eyes for me."
He leaned closer. "Yes."
"But do you only have eyes for me?"
He looked surprised by her question. "Of course I do."
"Jeff, we're ready to move out." Bill Napier informed him. "D'you want us to go get your brother now?"
"Er, yeah, sure Bill, thanks." Jeff never took his eyes off Rosalind. Something was wrong, but what? "I'll be up there in a minute." He heard the men move away. "What is it?"
"Nothing," she lied.
"Go see to your brother. You know where I am next time you're in town." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "You be careful, Jeff Collins."
Jeff gave a heavy sigh. "On my way." He could only watch as Rosalind walked off along the boardwalk. What was all that about?
End of Part 23