Anything You Can Do
Part 29 of the Ranch Days series
By Maz McCoy
Jeff Collins sat in a chair on the porch outside the bunkhouse and took a long drag on his cigar. He let out a long slow stream of smoke before giving the cigar an admiring glance. Beside him Nathan made smoke rings.
"This is one darn fine cigar," Jeff stated.
"It sure is." He looked at the foreman. "Did I tell you what Annabelle's uncle wrote?"
"He said the cigars were as thanks for marrying the woman so he didn't have to worry about her anymore."
Jeff shook his head. "Kinda nice, in its own way. Does your wife know that?" Nathan's smile changed to a soppy grin. "What?"
"You said, my wife. I like the sound of that. I have a wife. My wife." He grinned and Jeff understood.
"Yeah, it does have a certain ring to it."
"Talking of rings, you got one for Rosalind yet?"
"Not yet." Jeff steered the conversation away from his recent proposal. "So how's married life going?"
"It's going well, very well."
"You like being a husband?"
"Oh yeah." He grinned at Jeff. "It sure has its benefits. Seven wonderful days of benefits. And seven even better nights."
"You got the smell of cow outta the cabin yet?" Jeff asked with a grin.
"Yeah. Gettin' the cow out was harder." He laughed. "I hate to admit it but it was a darn good joke."
Before Jeff could reply the ladies appeared around the corner of the bunkhouse. The men smiled at their respective other halves.
"I thought we'd find you here," Annabelle stated, stopping at the foot of the porch steps.
"We need your help," Rosalind added.
"With what?" Jeff sat forward in his chair.
"I thought that was all done." Nathan took another drag on his cigar.
"It was," his wife informed him. "But one of the poles fell down and we can't reach it. Do you have a ladder?"
"Sure there's one in the barn." Annabelle scowled as Nathan made no move. "What?"
"Aren't you going to fetch it?"
"Marty will show you where it is."
"Nathan…" Jeff warned as Annabelle bristled.
"Marty will show me?" Annabelle asked with forced patience.
"Will Marty also tell me how to rehang the pole?"
"I guess, if you ask him."
"Nathan…" Jeff warned again.
Female eyes narrowed. Feminine hackles rose. "So you'd be more than happy for me to fetch the ladder and re-hang the pole myself?"
"It's not a difficult job, Anna. I don't see what the…"
"THEN WHY DON'T YOU GET OFF YOUR BACKSIDE AND DO IT?"
Stunned silence followed Annabelle's outburst.
"Well, curtain hanging is…"
Annabelle gritted her teeth. "What?"
"Go on, Nathan, it's what?"
All eyes were on him. Somehow he knew he'd said the wrong thing but there didn't seem to be any way to go back or to get himself out of the situation. And, as his brain tried to figure out what to do, his tongue – never the brightest of body parts - finished the sentence for him. "It's women's work."
Jeff groaned. "Oh, no."
Nathan now had two women staring at him. Two very annoyed women.
"It's what?" they chorused.
"Fellas, get out here!" Jeff called and there was the sound of chairs scrapping on the bunkhouse floor before the ranch hands appeared on the porch.
"Boss?" Bill queried as he pulled his suspenders up onto his shoulders. He smiled when he saw the women and touched the brim of his non-existent hat. "Ma'am."
"Gentlemen, we have a small problem."
"Big problem," Rosalind corrected.
"Big problem," Jeff amended.
"What is it?" Marty scraped a match down the porch post and lit a cigarette.
"Nathan made a remark that didn't sit too well with the ladies."
"He did?" All eyes fell on Nathan. All eyes told him precisely what a fool they thought he was and didn't he realise when his bread was buttered and what the heck was he doing upsetting a gorgeous woman like Annabelle whom he went home to every night and sheesh if they were in his place… All eyes sure had a lot to say.
"The problem is the ladies are upset. Their skills and worth have been challenged and in return they have challenged us back."
"You did?" Henry looked at the women with admiration.
"We did," Rosalind replied.
"Sweetheart, maybe you'd like to tell the men what you said?" Jeff gave her a smile but it was not returned. This was war and pleasantries had been withdrawn.
"We challenge you to complete two tasks better than we can. If you win we'll wash your clothes for two weeks. If we win, you'll plant Annabelle a garden."
"Seems fair but what have we gotta do?" Heyes asked.
"Bake a cake and chop down a tree," Annabelle informed him.
The men exchanged looks. Didn't seem so hard. They smiled confidently.
"There's one problem," Jeff added. "We'll have two teams, men against the women. Nathan, Bill and Marty, you're with me. Henry you're exempt seeing as you're the cook."
"But that means they are only two against our four," Heyes noted.
"I'm glad you mentioned that, Heyes." Jeff smiled. "You and Jed are going to be honorary women."
Marty gave a snort.
"We're what?" Jed asked eyes open wide in horror.
"Honorary women. You're on their team." Jeff jerked a finger at the ladies who smiled happily at the youngsters.
"Boss, can I have a word?"
"Have as many as you like, Heyes, but you'll still be a woman and that's that."
A look silenced him.
"The challenge will take place tomorrow. We bake a cake in the morning and chop down a tree in the afternoon. At 5pm we gather outside Nathan's cabin with the results."
"Who decides who wins?" Bill wanted to know.
"We'll ask Mr and Mrs Culver." Heads nodded. It seems that was acceptable.
"You gurls all right?" Henry asked as he walked past their bunks.
"Shut up, Henry!" Heyes snapped.
"Got your dresses ironed for the mornin'?"
Jed glared at Marty.
"Make sure you get your beauty sleep."
"Don't forget your corsets."
"Sheesh, Heyes, why'd Jeff hafta pick us to be women?"
"Must be our natural grace and poise."
"Cos we're the youngest, why else!"
"Well, I wish he'da picked someone else. We're never gonna hear the last of this."
"Yeah, I reckon you're right." Heyes climbed onto his bunk and his legs dangled over the edge. He peered down at his friend. "Of course we might actually win. If we did that'd keep 'em quiet."
"How we gonna win?"
"I got an idea."
"Morning boys," Annabelle chirped happily as they arrived at her cabin the following day. Nathan appeared beside her, gave his wife a kiss that made the boys blush. He grinned at them, then jumped down from the front porch and turned to Annabelle.
"May the best man - team. May the best team win."
"We will," she assured him, with a smile. "Come on in boys, we've got baking to do."
They walked past her into the cabin.
"See you later," Nathan said with a wave, then headed towards the bunkhouse as the sound of horses heralded the arrival of Rosalind Tanner. She waved and Nathan touched the brim of his hat. So far the relationship between the two teams was extremely amicable.
Inside the cabin, Annabelle had already laid out the crockery and utensils they would need to bake a cake. Rosalind placed a basket covered in a cloth on the table.
"I brought the dried fruit," she informed her friend as she withdrew a package from the basket. "And I brought flour and eggs in case you didn't have enough."
"That's great." She held up a piece of paper. "I gave Henry the recipe yesterday and he's promised to provide the men with the things they need."
"So we're both making the same cake?" Jed inquired
"That's right, Jed. It seemed fairer that way."
"What do you want us to do?" Heyes asked as he eyed the ingredients now spread out on the table.
"Wash your hands first," Annabelle instructed as she pointed to the pump at the sink, then we'll use your manly muscles for beating the mixture."
Heyes smiled as he headed to the sink.
"Sift the flour and baking powder," Jeff read as Marty and Nathan studied the labels on the ingredients while Bill looked at the set of scales Henry handed him.
"How much flour?" Bill asked.
"One pound," the ranch boss read.
Marty handed him a brown bag, Bill opened it and began to pour flour onto the scale pan. Nathan picked up the mixing bowl and a sieve. So far so good. If they could break a horse and rope a steer how hard could baking a cake be? He rested the sieve on the bowl and Bill dumped the flour into it with a whumph and a cloud of flour.
"Sheesh, Bill, watch it!" Nathan wafted his hand in front of his face as a fine white powder settled in his hair. When he recovered his shook the sieve from side to side vigorously and some made its way into the bowl below. A lot made its way into the air and onto the table.
"Cream butter and sugar together," Jeff read.
"How much butter?" Marty stood with his knife hovering over a large pat of butter.
"Marty, you can't use that?"
"Why not? It's sharp enough. Heck, if I can skin a deer with it it'll cut through butter."
"It don't seem right. I reckon we need something a little more delicate."
"Humph," Marty snorted. "Henry, you got a delicate knife out there?" He went off in search of such an implement.
"Wait, you said cream, right?" Bill asked. Jeff nodded. "But it doesn't mention cream on the ingredients."
"I bet that was the plan," Nathan suggested. "They leave something out so's we'd get it wrong. Henry! We need some cream."
"That's it, Jed, beat them together as well as you can."
The wooden spoon whirled around the mixing bowl under Rosalind's instructions as Heyes lit the oven for Annabelle. A small amount of flour dusted the table but apart from that all was calm and well organized in the ladies' kitchen.
"Add molasses, then yolks of eggs and spices," Jeff read.
"I got the eggs," Bill held them in his hand.
"Molasses here." Marty held up a tin.
"What spices?" Nathan asked.
The newly married man studied the recipe which was now covered in sticky fingerprints and flour. "It just says spices. But what spices?"
"Go see what you can find in the kitchen," Jeff suggested and Nathan nodded.
"How d'you get the yolks out of the egg without the rest of it?" Marty asked as he broke one into a cup. "Do I scoop the yolk out?" He reached in and pulled out a yellow slippery circle which slid from his hand onto the floor. "S*$*!"
"Here, let me." Bill broke an egg into the cup and reached in. "Sheesh they're slippery little…" He held the yolk in triumph and threw it into the bowl.
"I'll add the molasses." Marty prised off the lid with a spoon and delved inside.
Jeff smiled as the ingredients came together. It didn't seem so hard after all.
"Add the fruit now," Annabelle instructed Jed and he poured in the currents, candied lemon peel and cherries.
"Heyes, we need the rest of the flour," Rosalind informed him.
The flour was added, the mixture stirred thoroughly and all eyes watched. When the final ingredients had been added, Rosalind poured the cake mix into a tin, and then headed for the oven. Annabelle opened the door and in went the cake.
"Anyone for a cup of tea?" Annabelle asked, removing the kettle from the stove.
"Yes, ma'am," the boys chorused.
"Any takers for licking out the bowl?" Rosalind asked.
Jed and Heyes exchanged a grin, being an honorary woman wasn't so bad after all.
"Bake for three hours," Jeff read as he removed his watch from his vest pocket.
"Is that well-greased?" Marty asked pointing to the cake tin Bill carried towards the table.
"It says, 'pour into a well- greased cake tin'," Marty read.
"What grease? Axel grease?"
"Can't be." Nathan scratched his chin and left a flour mark across his jaw.
"It says grease," Marty confirmed. "Jeff, what'dya think?"
"Grease is grease. Must add to the flavour."
"Are you fellas really that dumb?" Henry asked scornfully. All eyes turned to face the cook who stood in the doorway to the kitchen. "Grease it with lard or that left over butter! Axel grease! Sheesh!" He disappeared back into the kitchen. The men exchanged embarrassed glances.
"My mother always made us cookies for tea on Sunday," Annabelle said as she poured herself another cup of tea. "And a special cake if it was your birthday."
"Another cookie?" Rosalind held out the plate to Kid and he took one. "Heyes?"
"Thank you ma'am." He selected one and took a bite.
They sat at the cabin table as the smell of warm cake filled the room. The ladies had provided tea, cookies and sandwiches for their lunch as the cake cooked in the oven.
"I remember my Ma making cakes and the house smelling of her cooking. We'd have a huge roast on special occasions and you could actually hear it spitting as it cooked in the oven." Heyes looked up to see the ladies and Jed looking at him. He suddenly felt very self-conscious. "It was a long time ago."
"I remember helping Ma bake cookies," Jed recalled.
"You couldn't have been very old." Rosalind refilled his cup.
"I guess not, but I can remember it like it was yesterday." He lowered his eyes, focusing on the tea. The room was suddenly very quiet.
"Sure does smell good," Heyes stated.
"Well, shall we see if it's done?" Annabelle asked.
"How do we know when it's cooked?" Bill asked as the four men stood around the oven.
"I don't know." Jeff stared at the oven but it refused to tell them the answer.
"Open the door and have a look," Nathan suggested.
"Okay." The Boss opened the door and the other men peered over his shoulders. The cake looked just the same as when they had placed the tin in there.
"Don't look done to me," Marty informed them.
"We'll give it a while longer." Jeff shut the door fast and the men returned to their posts. Jeff leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Marty sat in a chair by the kitchen door. Bill sat on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him and Nathan sat on a wooden crate beside the oven.
Time ticked by.
"Should I open it again?"
"Worth a look, Jeff."
The ranch foreman opened the oven. "Don't seem to be rising much."
"Story of my life," Bill muttered.
A newly baked fruit cake sat in the middle of the table guarded by Hannibal Heyes and Jed Curry. The ladies had gone into the bedroom to change their clothes for tree cutting.
"You know Heyes," Jed said as he stuffed a cookie into his mouth. "I hate to admit it but being an honorary woman sure has its perks."
Heyes nodded as his tongue searched between his teeth for the piece of nut wedged there.
"I wonder how the others are getting on."
"I hope Henry isn't helping them." Heyes resorted to using a fingernail to shift the awkward kernel.
"He said he wouldn't."
The bedroom door opened and the ladies emerged. Each wore a pair of pants pulled up high at the waist and secured with a belt. On top they wore a man's shirt tucked into the pants.
"Ready to go boys?" Annabelle asked.
Unable to stop themselves from staring the young men simply nodded.
"Do you have an axe?" Rosalind asked Heyes.
He held up the aforementioned tool.
"Good." Annabelle reached down for her boots, sat at the table and began tying them on. Rosalind sat next to her doing the same thing.
"You boys ever cut down a tree before?" Rosalind asked.
"Oh sure," Jed assured them before exchanging a glance with Heyes.
"Well, fellas there it is." Bill stopped in front of a tall tree marked by a cross cut into its trunk.
"Sure is a big one," Nathan observed as he rested his axe on his shoulder.
"Big uns always impress the ladies," Marty reminded them with a snort.
"That remark earns you first whack at it." Jeff handed him an axe. Marty removed his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He spat on each hand and picked up the axe.
"I never did understand why he does that," Nathan whispered to Jeff.
WHACK! The axe cut into the trunk. WHACK! It cut another notch in the wood.
"Wonder how the gurls are doin'." Nathan removed his hat and wiped sweat from his forehead.
"Which gurls?" Bill asked. "Heyes and the Kid or your ladies?"
"What about that one?" Annabelle asked, pointing to a tall spruce.
"No ma'am," Heyes stated and marched on into the woodland.
"Heyes, what about this one?"
Heyes stopped and looked back at the tree Rosalind now pointed to.
"Is he always so picky?" She asked Jed.
"What about this…?"
"This one looks…"
"I think this one would do."
"No ma'am, not right at all."
Finally Heyes stopped. His three followers paused behind him. Surely he hadn't found a tree he approved of? I mean they had only been trekking through the woods for an hour or ten. Annabelle took a deep breath. Okay that was a bit of an exaggeration but still…
Heyes smiled and pointed to a tree. A very small tree. The two ladies and Jed exchanged puzzled looks.
"Er, Heyes, it's a little small," Jed ventured.
"Yes it is."
The ladies considered the tree.
"Why that one?" Annabelle asked.
"It looks right," the dark-haired young man informed her.
"Isn't it too small?" Rosalind asked, studying all the much bigger trees around them.
"The agreement was that we would cut down a tree. No one stated how big the tree had to be."
Jed, reluctantly, because he knew just how insufferable his friend would be after this, also…smiled.
Annabelle stepped forward. "Heyes, you're a genius." She took his face in her hands and kissed his forehead.
"Come here!" Rosalind cried and enveloped Heyes in a hug.
Heyes smiled and blushed. He looked at Jed.
"I ain't huggin' yah and you can forget about a kiss."
Heyes laughed then held out an axe. "Would either of you ladies like to go first or should Jed and I do the honours?"
"I reckon we should do it," Jed stated. "Seems only fair seeing as how you ladies made the cake."
"All right," Annabelle agreed. "You boys cut down the tree and we'll help chop it into fire wood."
"We don't have to do that," Heyes stated.
"Why not?" Rosalind queried.
"Because the agreement was to chop down a tree, not to actually make the firewood."
The ladies gave him another beguiling look. "Awww, Heyes, you are so smart!" Once again he was lost in the arms of female hugs.
"Sheesh!" someone muttered.
"Sure is taking a while to fell this devil!" Bill huffed as he swung the axe. He was striped to the waist and sweating.
Beside him working in tandem was Nathan, also devoid of a shirt, equally sweaty and equally pungent.
Whack! Thunk! Whack! Thunk! They swung in turn. Wood chips flew into the air, the back cut in the trunk grew larger but still the tree stood tall.
On the other side of the trunk Jeff and Marty had worked at cutting the hinge made after Marty had cut the face notch. Now they stood to one side, in dirty Henleys, watching as the tree finally began to creak in submission.
"I reckon it's almost there boys," Jeff encouraged.
A snap! A crack! A…"Get the hell back!"
"This has actually been a really lovely day," Rosalind observed as the four team members dragged their little tree, now removed of its branches, through the woods.
"I can't remember when I had so much fun," Annabelle added, then blushed as she caught Rosa's smile. "Apart from that!"
"What?" Jed asked.
"Nothing," the ladies chorused.
Jed looked at Heyes. 'How the heck should I know?' he conveyed with a shrug.
They fastened the tree with ropes and ladies and honorary women alike pulled it along the ground. Finally the cabin and bunkhouse came into view.
"Not far to go now," Heyes encouraged, unnecessarily.
Mr and Mrs Culver sat on the porch outside the bunkhouse sipping coffee and chatting to Henry and a few of the other ranch hands. A sudden movement caught their eye and around the corner of the bunkhouse came Annabelle, Rosalind, Heyes and Jed pulling a small tree trunk. Their clothes were dirty, their faces covered in muddy smudges, but they each wore a broad grin.
"Ladies, welcome back!" Mr Culver called as he got to his feet to greet them. Mrs Culver beamed with pleasure to see the women's team back first.
"Are the men back?" Rosalind asked, looking around for Nathan.
They dropped the ropes and the women's team exchanged triumphant looks and big smiles.
"Ladies come and sit a while," Mrs Culver urged. Rosalind and Annabelle looked at Heyes and Jed. Mrs Culver smiled. "All of you, ladies."
It was the cosy scene of Mr and Mrs Culver sharing coffee and a joke with the women's team that greeted the men when they finally returned to the Bar T. Their state of dress had moved beyond dirty into the filthy. Had the others not heard the men approach, huffing and puffing as they dragged part of a tree trunk on a makeshift sled, they would surely have smelled them.
"Jeff, Nathan, welcome back," Mr Culver waved a greeting. "Quiet a tree trunk you've got there Bill, Marty."
The men looked at the tiny offering lying at the bottom of the porch steps. Looks were exchanged and their demeanour took a sudden boost. They smiled, shoulders pulled back and they stood a little taller as they ascended the steps.
Handkerchiefs were swiftly raised in front of female noses as the men drew nearer.
"My, you boys sure worked up a sweat," Rosalind observed from behind a square of white linen.
"Cut us a pretty good tree too," Jeff stated proudly.
"That you did, Jeff, that you did." Mr Culver leaned back against the porch rail. "So I guess we'd best get to the judging."
"I'll fetch the cake." Annabelle stood up and headed down the steps.
"Need a hand?" Nathan called. His wife met his gaze and recognised that hopeful look.
"Not until you've had a bath!" was her mouthed reply.
"Our cake is in the kitchen," Bill stated and went into the bunkhouse to fetch it.
The teams eyed each other and waited.
"Let us start with the tree," Mr Culver decided. He walked around the small tree the ladies team had cut. He looked at the cut across its trunk. Noted its freshness as he ran his hand over it. He nodded his approval. Then he made his way over to the men's tree. Again he studied the cut, patted the trunk as he walked around it and talked to Marty about the makeshift sled. Finally he turned to face the teams.
"The task was to cut down a tree. Both teams have achieved that. I call it a draw."
"What?" Nathan was on his feet. "You can't call that a tree!" he pointed to the women's offering.
"It is most definitely a tree, Nathan," the ranch boss assured him.
"But we meant for them to cut a bigger one."
"Then you should have been more specific in your challenge."
Nathan sat back down on the porch steps. Damn, the boss man was right.
"And now to the cakes," Mary Culver said as she looked at the cooked produce sitting on the table in front of her. One was decorated with cherries. The other sat sulking on a plate, its middle sitting much lower than its rim. Mrs Culver picked up a knife and cut into the first cake. She cut a slice, lifted it onto a plate and studied it. It was firm, full of fruity deliciousness and a pleasing hint of cinnamon and spices filled the air. She picked up a fork and took a bite. The teams waited. Mrs Culver smiled. "That is truly delicious. Ladies you must give me the recipe."
The ladies, real and honorary, beamed with pleasure.
Mrs Culver looked at the other…cake. The outside was…She searched for the word. Burnt, came springing to mind. Yes the outside was indeed burnt. Having survived Indian attacks on her journey west and numerous other hardships Mary Culver was not a woman to give up easily. She picked up the knife and cut into the ...cake. As she removed a slice it became obvious to all that the middle was somewhat…soggy. Extremely moist would be a kind way to describe it.
"Sheesh, is it cooked?" Jed asked, expressing the concerns of all.
"Well of course it's cooked," Nathan told him. "Look at the outside."
"I know it's burnt," Heyes admitted. "But is it cooked?"
"Gentlemen, please." They stopped arguing at Mrs Culver's request. Bravely she picked up her fork and tried a piece. Her jaw moved. Her expression remained…expressionless. They waited. Mary removed her handkerchief from her sleeve and turned away. When she turned back her mouth was empty.
Something told Jeff that did not bode well.
"A very interesting mixture," Mrs Culver informed them.
"Bet she don't want that resissippi," Jed chuckled and received a glare from Jeff in return.
"The ladies cake is quite delicious," Mary announced. "The gentlemen have obviously tried hard and created a most unusual offering. However there can only be one winner and that is the ladies team."
Jed and Heyes whooped with joy. Annabelle and Rosalind hugged them and the four danced around in circles as the men stood quietly watching.
"Could you move that rock just an inch to the left?" Annabelle asked. Her husband narrowed his eyes. That rock had to weigh fifty pounds. His wife smiled at him the way she did when…Oh sheesh, all right he'd move the darn thing.
Annabelle scurried over to where Marty was planting flowers in a plot that ran in front of the porch. "Marty," she called sweetly. The man looked up. "I'm not sure about that." She pointed to a rosebush at the bottom of the steps. "I think people might scratch themselves on the thorns. Could you move it to the end of the porch?"
Marty looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. He'd already scratched himself on the darn thorns and now she wanted him to dig up the son of a… Annabelle smiled sweetly and Marty smiled as he reached for the shovel.
"Seems to be going well," Rosalind observed as Annabelle joined her on the porch for tea.
"Yes, it does," Annabelle agreed as she settled herself back in the chair.
"Cake, ma'am?" Jed held out a plate on which sat familiar baked slices.
"Thank you." Annabelle took a piece.
"Tea?" Heyes held up the teapot and poured a cup when Mrs Tyler nodded.
"It is very relaxing sitting here on the porch, don't you think?" Rosa said with a smile.
Nathan struggled by with another rock, had to sidestep to avoid Marty, who was carrying a prickly rosebush, and ran headlong into Jeff Collins as he lugged yet another bucket of water over to the new flowerbeds. There was a moment of cussing, a lot of water sloshed and a rock landed with a thud, followed by more cussing.
"Yes," Annabelle agreed. "It's very relaxing sitting here. More tea, boys?"
End of Part 29