Part 27 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
"What do you think?" Jeff Collins asked as he looked at the land around him. The man beside him didn't answer. "Nathan?"
"I said, what do you think?"
Jeff's eyes narrowed. "Were you listening to anything I said?"
"Truthfully?" Jeff waited. "I know you were talking about having a wife and responsibilities and all and then... I guess I stopped listening."
"So I just wasted my breath, huh? All those good ideas were lost on you."
"You could tell me again."
"Would you listen?"
Jeff shook his head. "All right. What I said was this would make a good place to build a cabin." He waved his hand at the area of land a few hundred yards beyond the bunkhouse.
Nathan studied the ground. There was a flattened piece just above a rise and it wasn't too far from the well. Heck they could probably even sink another one if needed. There'd be a great view of the sunset and a cooling breeze in the summer. It would be near enough to the bunkhouse to keep an eye on the men but far enough away to allow the foreman privacy with his wife. Nathan smiled. Assuming Jeff ever got around to asking Rosalind to marry him. "I reckon you're right."
Jeff smiled. "Good."
"So you got anyone in mind to occupy it?"
"You told Rosalind yet?"
"You told Rosalind about the cabin?"
"Actually, I have."
"What did she say?"
"She thought it was a good idea."
"Then I guess you'll hafta build it now." Nathan chewed his lip in thought. "What about Mister Culver?"
"I mentioned it to him. Seemed only fair as it's on his land."
"I meant with the ranch being in trouble an' all. Seems an odd time to build a new cabin; to spend money on lumber. You know?"
"He was all in favour of it. In fact he said it was nice to see someone looking to the future. Nice to see some optimism."
"Who's gonna build it?"
"We as in...?"
"All of us. The men of the Bar T."
"So what do we get him?" Bill asked as he sat on his bunk and pulled off his boots.
"Something for the house, maybe?" Henry suggested as he placed a fresh pot of coffee on the stove.
"Don't seem very romantic." Jed shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a hook beside the door.
"Who said it hasta be romantic?" Bill asked as he tugged off a sock.
"Well, it's a wedding gift, so I just assumed…"
"Well don't! Sheesh, I ain't gonna give Nathan anything romantic, he'll think I've gone sweet on him." Bill sniffed the sock then placed it on the bed beside him.
"Do you hafta do that?" Henry asked.
"They're good for another day."
Henry shook his head and disappeared into the kitchen.
"We're helping him build a cabin." Everyone turned towards the door, where Jeff Collins now stood, silhouetted against the night.
"We are?" Marty poured a cup of coffee.
"We are," the boss informed him.
"Where?" Bill tossed his other sock onto the bed.
"On the ridge out back."
"What does Mister Culver say?" Marty handed the coffee to Jeff.
"He says it's a great idea and we should go ahead."
"I gotta admit it's a darn good gift." Bill swung his legs onto his bunk and crossed them at the ankles, showing everyone the balls of his dirty feet. "Gonna take hours of our time."
"It will." Jeff pulled out a chair and sat at the table. "But he can't know. I want him to think it's gonna be for me and Rosalind."
"You asked that woman to marry you yet?" Henry reappeared from the kitchen.
"None of your business, Henry."
"Leave it." The cook fixed eyes with the ranch foreman. "I said, leave it."
"I think the cabin's a great idea but we should still give him something he can open on the day," Heyes said, finally lowering the book he was reading.
"I reckon he'll have his hands full opening something all right!" Marty sniggered and the others laughed.
"What?" asked Jed and there was more laughter. "What?"
"OW!" Bill put his thumb in his mouth and glared at the hammer in his hand. All around him the sound of metal on nails rang out. Saws cut wood, men hefted lumber, and horses pulled ropes. The new cabin was taking shape. The floorboards were laid, three walls were up and the fourth was about to be completed. The frames for the windows leaned against the front wall and Marty was busy finishing the top of the chimney. Nathan was inside hammering something and muttering. Even Bobby Cavender was helping out, although quite what Jeff had the bull rider doing, Bill didn't know. The Boss was out somewhere on the range with the rest of the hands. Funny how he'd got himself out of all the heavy work.
Bill studied his injured thumb, decided he would probably survive, and hammered on.
An hour later, Bill raised his head at the sound of a buggy drawing up to the cabin. Rosalind Tanner held the reins.
"Hey, Miss Tanner," Bill stuck the hammer in his belt and walked over to the buggy.
"Hello, Bill. Is Jeff around?"
"No ma'am, he's out with the herd."
"Something I can do for you?"
"I came out to measure for curtains. I hoped Jeff would be here."
"Will I do instead?" Bobby asked, sticking his head through a window hole.
Rosalind laughed. "Dare I choose one brother over the other?"
"You already did." Bobby climbed through the hole and landed on the porch beside Bill. Napier shot him a look which Bobby duly ignored.
"How can I help my beautiful future sister-in-law?" Bobby jumped down beside the buggy.
"If you think I'm that then you know more than I do, Bobby."
"Ol' Jeff'll get around to askin' you any day now, you mark my words."
"I not so sure."
"Well I am."
They smiled at each other but Rosalind was not convinced.
"We have the windows." Bill pointed to the frames. "And the holes for 'em to go in." He indicated to the gaps in the wall and Rosalind considered them.
"I suppose I could add on an inch or two either side and work from there. But how high will they be? I'll need to know the drop."
"The drop?" Bill questioned.
"Yes. How long the curtains will have to be."
"Oh. Hang on. Nathan! Marty! I need you here a minute!" The men dutifully appeared. "Grab hold of the window frame."
Under Bill's direction they took the frame inside and showed Rosalind where the window would be in each wall, including the unfinished one. Rosalind took out her tape measure and notepad. She measured and scribbled. Bobby buzzed about her holding the other end of the tape measure and making nice. Rosalind asked the men questions about colours. Nathan in particular was asked the most. Did he like brown or blue? What colour did he think was best for the bedroom? Sheesh, how the heck did he know and what kind of question was that to ask an unmarried man? Would he prefer a full lace curtain or a half one in the kitchen area? He didn't even know there was a difference.
Half an hour later Rosalind climbed back into the buggy, thanking the men for their assistance as she did so.
Bobby held the halter of the horses. "You got a message you'd like me to pass on to Jeff?"
"Not one I'd want you to hear."
Bobby smiled. "I'm his brother, we don't have secrets."
"I don't believe that for a minute, Bobby and you know it."
"Worth a try though." He released the halter. "You drive safely, Miss Tanner." He touched the brim of his hat and she flicked the reins.
The men watched her go.
"I'da thought she'd be better askin' Jeff about colours and lace an' all," Nathan stated.
"Hmm," mused Bill.
"Still I reckon blue would be better than brown in the bedroom," Marty stated and the others turned to look at him. "Well it would."
"JED! JED!" Bill stood on the bunkhouse porch and looked around. "Where the heck is that kid?"
"Probably daydreaming somewhere," Bobby suggested as he struck a match on the porch post then used it to light a cigar.
"You been fillin' his head with stories of the rodeo life again?"
"One or two." Bobby shook out the match then took a long draw on the smoke.
"You think you'll go back?"
"You're almost healed up, right?"
"So what you plannin' to do?"
Bobby let out a long stream of smoke. "I'll let you know when I do."
"Fair enough." Bill turned back to the yard. "JED!"
"What are you doing?"
Gabriel Robinson looked up to find a dark-haired young man staring at him over the side of his wagon.
"I'm putting in a lock," Gabriel informed the youngster.
"How d'you do that?" The kid tilted back his cowboy hat and leaned closer.
"I hafta cut a space in the door like this, see?" He pointed to a freshly cut section of wood. "The handle will go here, the lock will go in there, and then I hafta cut a piece outta the frame." He jerked a thumb at the cabin behind him where hammering, sawing and cussing could be heard in equal measures.
"What are those for?" Heyes pointed to a cloth roll laid out in the wagon bed in which unfamiliar metal tools lay.
Gabriel pushed his spectacles up onto the top of his head. "Tools of my trade, son."
"I don't recognise any of 'em."
"A locksmith needs specialist tools."
"Specialist," Heyes repeated with a hint of reverence. "May I?" He indicated the tools.
"Sure. It's nice to have someone interested."
Heyes picked up a tool and studied it. He tried to figure out what it was for. The locksmith smiled, watching the kid out of the corner of his eye as he continued with his work. Heyes frowned and replaced the tool. He picked up another. Nope, no idea what that did either. He tried another and this time Gabriel took pity on him.
"It's a lock pick."
"Yeah, you know, to pick a lock."
Heyes' eyes sparkled with interest. A lock pick. "How does it work?"
"Well, now, if I told you that you might go off and open locks you weren't meant to."
"Oh no, sir, I wouldn't do that!"
"You got quite a poker face on ya, son, cos I don't know a boy born that wouldn't do that if I showed him how to use a lock pick."
"I'll admit I'd want to try it out but I wouldn't open something I wasn't meant to."
"Not even if you were real tempted?" Robinson looked at him over the top of his spectacles.
"Hmm, I guess you got a point."
The locksmith chuckled. "If you're that interested I could use an apprentice."
"Yep. The lad who's been working with me's gone and got himself a wife. He's going to move back to her home town so she can be with her family. I might be looking for someone to assist me."
Heyes looked at the tools and the lock. He thought of the box under his bunk full of metallic objects Mister Hannerby, the owner of the general store, had given him. Apprentice to a locksmith, imagine that.
"I have a job here."
"I understand." Robinson went back to his work.
"But I could…" Heyes paused and the locksmith looked up. "I mean, maybe I could learn on my day off?"
"How often d'you get a day off?"
"Once a month."
"Gonna take you a long time to learn the trade."
"I'm a fast learner."
Gabriel chuckled. "You'd hafta be." He studied Heyes. "I tell you what. Help me out with this door and we'll see how you get on. That way you'll be working on the cabin and starting your studies with me at the same time. What d'you think?"
Heyes smiled. "Where do I start?"
"Bill asked me what I was gonna do once I was fully healed," Bobby said as he leaned on the corral fence. A bay mare pranced around in front of him, all too aware of the attentions of a tall stallion in the next paddock.
"What d'you tell him?" Jeff asked, raising a cup to his lips and taking a gulp of coffee.
"Told him I didn't know." Bobby turned to face his older brother. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"When are you gonna ask Rosalind to marry you?"
"That's not your business," Jeff bristled.
"You're my brother that makes it my business."
"No, it doesn't." Jeff stared off at the horizon.
"I like Rosalind. I don't like seeing you string her along."
The cup hit the ground; Jeff's hand whacked Bobby's arm. "I AM NOT STRINGIN' HER ALONG!"
"Woah, looks like I hit a nerve there, big brother."
Nostrils flaring, Jeff glared at Bobby. "I am not stringing her along."
"Sure looks like it to me."
"Bobby, so help me…"
"I'm trying to help you, Jeff, but if you won't make an honest woman of her maybe I should. You want it that bad? Put a ring on it!"
Jeff's fist connected with his brother's jaw sending Bobby stumbling backwards.
Jeff's next blow set him back on his butt. "You stay away from Rosalind!"
"Why? You don't want her." Bobby wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing blood across his face.
"Well, she don't know that." Using the fence for support, Bobby pulled himself to his feet. Jeff stood before him, hands balled into fists, ready to strike again. "Why don't she know that, Jeff? If you want her so much why don't she know?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do. She's not convinced you want to marry her."
"How do you know that?"
"I asked her!" Jeff stood before him dumbfounded. "The question is why don't you? Huh?" With both palms on his chest, Bobby pushed his brother. "Huh?" Push. "Why?" Push. "Why don't you ask her?" Push.
"Because I don't want to kill her!" Bobby stared at Jeff. Oh no, he'd said that out loud. "$*%!" He lowered his fists and turned away.
"Leave it, Bobby."
"You think you killed Mary?"
Jeff spun on his heels. "Well didn't I? She was carrying my baby! She knew how much I wanted a son. If I hadn't…"
"No one knew she had a weak heart. No one could have known what would happen. It wasn't your fault."
"She did it for me."
"No, she did it for both of you. Mary wanted that baby just as much as you did. She told me that herself."
Jeff gripped the corral fence with both hands, his knuckles turning white. "What if it happens again? If I get Rosa pregnant?"
"Well, you're not the sort of man to force yourself on a woman so I imagine she'll have something to do with it. That you'd have talked about it first."
Jeff kicked the ground with the toe of his boot. "I don't want to lose her."
"Then give her a reason to stay."
Jeff looked at the blood on his brother's face. "I'm sorry about that."
"It's nothing. You're getting weak in your old age." Bobby rested a hand on Jeff's shoulder.
"Nathan, can I have a word, outside?" Jeff asked as he walked past Nathan's bunk. The man eased himself off his bed and limped after the foreman.
"What is it?" he asked when they were out on the bunkhouse porch.
Nathan gave a sigh and followed. Why the boss couldn't talk to him there he didn't know. His leg still ached in the mornings so he didn't appreciate the stroll.
"What is it?"
"In a minute."
"Is it a secret?"
Jeff smiled but gave no more away. Nathan limped on. They walked around the back of the bunkhouse and up the slight incline towards the cabin they had been building. Whatever it was, Jeff was making sure no one would be able to hear them.
"Boss, can we stop yet?"
"Just a little further."
"My leg's kinda…" Nathan stopped. In front of the cabin stood the rest of the ranch hands. How the heck had they got there so fast and what the heck was going on?
"Nathan." Jeff had finally stopped walking. He held something out in his hand.
Nathan limped closer. Jeff held a key.
"What's going on?"
Still confused, Nathan took the key. "I don't understand. What's this for?"
"My ca…" He looked up. Marty, Bill, Jed, Henry, Heyes, Bobby, everyone smiled back at him. "My cabin?"
Jeff placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Yeah. It's yours."
"But I thought…I thought it was for…"
"That's what you were supposed to think."
Nathan looked at the building. "Mine?"
"Does Annabelle know?"
"No. We thought you'd like to tell her that."
"I can't believe you did this for me." Nathan fought the lump in his throat and stared at his boots.
"It's our wedding present," Jeff informed him.
"Just don't go all mushy on us," Bill called out.
Moist eyed, Nathan looked at his friends. "I don't know how to thank you."
"Buying us a few beers would be a start," Marty informed him.
As Nathan stood with the other hands marvelling at his new home, Bobby moved to stand beside his brother. "So, you gonna build a cabin for Rosalind now?"
"Don't you ever give up?"
"Then I guess the only way to shut you up is to ask her to marry me."
"About time big brother, about time."
End of part 27