Through Better & Worse, A Montana Love Story
by D. L. Keur writing as C. J. “Country” James
Getting a boot in the door almost costs Jake Jarvis his life. It does cost him two good hats, some jail time, and a whole bunch of money.
But Dree won’t see him for dust.
Guns, roses, and the flow of raw whiskey take them both Through Better & Worse.
This novel is ‘semi-sweet’. It has cursing, because that’s normal to the culture, but it is otherwise ‘clean’. (It doesn’t have sex scenes.)
© 2015 D. L. Keur &/or F. W. Lineberry, her husband. All Rights Reserved.
Published in the U.S. by D. L. Keur, Sandpoint, ID 83864
To the good folk,
the men and the women,
the ranchers, cowhands, and truckers
who keep this land, the life,
and the culture alive—
its traditions & values.
And to Laddie, my awesome Aussie.
Huge thanks to my hard-working editor Marva Dasef. Thanks also to all my beta readers and advisors, all of whom must remain unnamed due to new online rules of engagement.
Extra special thanks to a Colorado Sci-Fi/Fant author who, “Awww, yeahh…know[s] those guys.” He’s Nathan Lowell of nathanlowell.org, and he’s super extra special.
Another person I can name is Patrick Tormey who bravely waded through this novel—not his cuppa—and helped with the land trust question.
Last, but never least, to my husband, Forrest W. Lineberry, the ultimate good guy—brave, kind, and, most of all, honorable to the highest degree. He exemplifies what’s right and best.
This novel is purposely written in the vernacular of the area, both narrative and dialogue, so there are many odd contractions and odder grammatical (mis)constructs. You can also expect idiomatic phrases, along with dialog and narrative syntax that are not the norm. This is intentional. It’s true to the culture; it’s true to its people.
1 – Close Call
Dree downshifted from fifth to fourth, but it wasn’t enough. Her old pickup just didn’t have enough guts to pull the hills, anymore. She dropped to third, losing momentum, and the truck’s speed stabilized at thirty-five. She put on her hazard lights.
Behind her, several cars came up fast and, after following for a minute, honked, then started weaving in and out across the centerline, hoping for an opportunity to pass. One of the Aussie dogs sitting on the seat next to her whined and glanced back—Chip, the more timid one. Laddie, the more aggressive but smartest, got down on the floor. There wasn’t a turnout where she could pull over to let the cars by on the narrow, two-lane highway, its asphalt crumbling at the edges of a non-existent shoulder, remnant snow berms still melting off over the steep drop-off into the ditch.
A semi passed going the other way, its wash buffeting the trailer enough that it swayed. White-knuckled, Dree fought the urge to over correct. She got to the crest and her pickup gained ground. She got it up to forty-five, then kept it there as she started the descent.
The cars behind her were piling up. Traffic in the opposite lane was steady, though, and there was still no turnout. There wouldn’t be until the bottom of the hill. Behind her, the line of cars was getting longer. And angrier, she guessed. Only half-a-mile to go to the bottom.
The oncoming traffic finally cleared.
In the rearview, she saw a fancy, black, RAM crew cab dive out to pass from three cars back. Ahead, a car came around a curve. Then two more, another semi behind them. “Omigod. You fool!”
The pickup roared past her.
Panicked, she jerked the wheel just in time to avoid collision with the black truck’s rear-end as its driver dove for safety, nearly clipping her. Her passenger side tires caught the pavement edge and gravel. The trailer yawed, pulling her pickup’s back-end sideways. She hit the trailer brakes and prayed, her grip ferocious, painful, on the wheel. They were going over. Chip joined Laddie on the floor.
But they didn’t go over. They steadied. She swore. Fought hysteria, red-darkness rising. And she cursed the black pickup for his stupidity. “Jackass!”
Finally making the bottom, she saw a pullout and, signaling, pulled in…braked. A state patrol car, lights flashing, made her jump as he screamed by. She put her forehead on the steering wheel and closed her eyes, waiting for the sound of traffic to thin out. She was shaking all over. Dree, you’re being a wimp, she told herself, and, forcing herself to, she opened her eyes and tried to take a deep breath.
…Only the deep breath wouldn’t happen. It was as if her chest was locked. So she took shallow ones, instead, and opened the door to let in the cool, late March air…sat a moment longer before getting out to check Cougar.
“You okay?” Her voice was breathy, barely a whispered croak.
The silver-dun mule swiveled an ear. As usual, he was unconcerned.
She leaned her forehead against the trailer. The ringing in her ears was deafening, muting the sounds around her. A spot in her left field of vision was pulsing. Again, she shut her eyes and attempted to will herself calm. But the pulsing seemed to intensify. So did the ringing. Then the roaring started, and she fought vertigo. She fought a sound of screaming and the flood of red-darkness still rising, intensifying, under her lids, chaotic voices shouting at her, pulling at her from somewhere outside herself, from underneath a crushing weight that smothered her. She was drowning in red. The vision of Adrian’s bloody, faceless body rose.
Desperate, she opened her eyes, the sunlight bright enough to shock the vision gone. The red-darkness receded, and, finally able to draw a deep breath, she bent over, hands on her knees.
The gravel crunched as a car pulled behind the trailer. She heard a couple of doors shut. …Footsteps. “You okay, honey?” came a woman’s voice.
Unable to speak, yet. Dree nodded.
A hand touched her shoulder. “You need us to call someone?”
Grabbing hold of herself, Dree straightened. A woman with a weathered face, bright red hair, and startling blue eyes looked at her, worry lines crinkling her forehead and around her eyes. “I just almost got clipped by someone,” Dree said. “I’m just trying to catch my nerve back.”
“You’re sure you’re going to be okay? We can drive you somewhere, and Denny here will drive your rig for you.”
Dree shook her head as a man’s voice agreed. She looked over at him—elderly, with kind, brown eyes—like her grandfather’s. “I’ll be fine. I just need to gather my wits.”
It was true. She felt better, either because her body and brain had finally calmed down or because of the strangers’ kindness. Maybe both.
“Okay. If you’re sure. We’re not in any hurry, if you’re just trying to spare us the trouble.”
“No.” Dree smiled, albeit a shaky attempt. “I’ll be fine. I’m almost to the four-lane. From there, it’s easy.”
They followed her, though, keeping their car behind her, their hazard lights on. Dree blessed them. Wished she’d gotten their names.
Two miles down the road, the state patrol car and a sheriff’s rig had the black pickup pulled over. She couldn’t help herself, her anger at the driver boiling up. “Good!” The logo on the side of the black pickup burned its way into her memory—a figure eight in a circle with a line running through it, all copper-colored, the top part of it filled in with gold-on-white, the bottom part silver-on-black. I’ll remember you, and I won’t forgive and forget.
Quick-thinking and slow talking got him down from reckless driving to improper passing. “There was nobody coming when I committed to pass, Officer, and it was a passing zone. Too late to do anything but punch it when the traffic showed up. Just bad luck and worse timing.”
“You were in a hurry.”
“Actually, not. Just thought I had plenty of time to get around ‘em. I misjudged.”
Ultimately, he got off, Marty and his Uncle Rick hazing him once the cops let him go with only a warning. Waiting till traffic cleared, Jake pulled out nice and easy. Behind him, the cops pulled out, too, going the same way. He kept it just at the speed limit.
Twenty miles up the road, the state patrol still shadowing him a couple cars back, Jake came over the rise to find the pesky, old, white beater chugging along in front of him, again, a car with its hazard lights on following close behind. And there was nothing at all he could do to get around them—no alternative roads, and the whole stretch all a no-passing zone. He had to suck black, stinking exhaust from the beater all the way to the four-lane.
Finally free to get by when they got to the north-south highway, he resisted the urge to blow by the nuisance. The state cop still had him in sight.
Easing by at the speed limit gave him plenty of time to see that what he’d thought was some old codger driving was actually a plain-faced girl with wavy, shoulder-length, mousy hair. There was a mule in the trailer.
He touched the button that rolled down the passenger window. “Get some horsepower,” he yelled.
Next to him, Marty rolled his eyes and put the window back up using the controls on his side. “Ya just blew my eardrum out, Jake,” the man said. “Ain’t no way she heard ya.”
Jake grinned. “Yeah. But I feel better.”
“You’re just damned lucky you talked ‘em out of that ticket. Franklin would have your truck and your ass, both, if you hadn’t.”
“Not if he didn’t find out.”
“He’d find out,” his Uncle Rick said from the back seat.
Jake glanced around, still grinning. “Not if you don’t tell him.”
The man raised his hands. “Not me. Nope. Franklin tends to flog the messenger along with the guilty party.”
“That’s the truth,” Marty agreed. “Claims if you know it, then you should’a done somethin’ to stop it.”
Jake knew that only too well—way too well.
2 – The Test
Forty-five minutes late, Dree called Larry Carter once she had cell phone signal. As usual, he sounded nice about it, even though she knew he was ticked. “We’ll see you when you get here.”
Ten minutes later, she pulled into the truck stop and, rolling the windows down for the dogs, got out and walked over to the café. There, a brand new rig with the Montana Department of Agriculture shield on it was parked near the door. So Larry Carter had finally gotten the new truck he’d been bucking for since he’d taken over the fieldwork from retiring Glen DeWalt. Dree preferred the old one. Heck, she preferred Glen, for all that, Larry was her first cousin from her mother’s side of the family. This truck looked smaller and less like a truck with its shorter bed and fancy sculpted lines. Dree went inside and, spotting Larry’s sandy head and Mike’s shaggier brown one, went over, but didn’t sit down. “Sorry. Had trouble pulling the hills and almost got clipped.”
Larry, looking more white-faced than ever without his summer tan, waved a hand at her. “We had a chance to eat some lunch. Are you hungry?”
She was, but shook her head. She’d already put them far enough behind schedule.
“All right. Let’s hit the road,” he said, getting up. “I called Jarvis. He knows we’re coming in an hour behind when I said we’d be there. Seems his dad has made us a little test. Wouldn’t say what.” He grinned. “Forewarned is forearmed.”
Dree stifled a groan. She hated her cousin’s false positives.
Two men came out to meet them as they drove in. The eldest looked like a caricature out of a movie with his jean-clad, bandy legs, his beat-up hat, and his plaid, flannel shirt. The other was a weathered fifty-something, broad-shouldered and tall, with hard, gold-brown eyes, a scar running down the right side of his face. He wore a very expensive Stetson, a clean shirt and jeans, and nice boots. And he immediately intimidated her. He was set-jawed with a dead-reckoning eye and no-nonsense look to him. Not good for Larry, was Dree’s thought.
The old man motioned at her, pointing backwards. She put it in gear and backed up.
Larry Carter introduced her after she parked her pickup and trailer where the elderly man indicated, his stained, battered hat pushed back on his head as he made her maneuver back and forth until he was finally satisfied. “That should do you,” he said, opening the passenger-side door to poke his head in. His sharp blue eyes sparkled with good-natured humor.
The dogs wagged—unusual—and popped up to beg strokes. The man obliged, rubbing fingers over happy ears, and got licks on the mouth and face from both Chip and Laddie for his troubles. He laughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, a broad grin showing slightly yellowed, slightly crooked teeth. But he still seemed to have them all, despite his age.
Joining the men over at Larry’s pickup, Dree was very aware of the gold-eyed man named Franklin Jarvis eyeing her, then her beat-up old pickup, as his father, who was actually called ‘Old Man’, quizzed Larry, his blue eyes now suspicious. “We’ve always been cut men, here. Never had no problems. What’s so durned good about your way?”
Dree glanced toward Mike who seemed to be trying to hide under his hat, head down, eyes on his boots. She wished she was wearing her hat. Instead, she looked around, noticed the barns, corrals, a round pen, and a big, double-story bunk house, men standing around talking, some of them smoking, on the long building’s porch, as Larry listed off the usual pros: less stressful on the animal, little chance of contamination or problems with flies, and approved by the animal welfare people. Of course, he didn’t mention the potential hazards. Sliding a quick glance toward the man named Franklin, Dree thought that stupid.
Franklin Jarvis’s eyes caught her looking and locked on. She quivered a smile and dropped her head away just as, at the mention of animal welfare groups, the old man spit a stream of tobacco juice out of his mouth, the brown slurry splatting real near the toe of Larry’s boot. Then he muttered something Dree couldn’t quite hear and nodded to Franklin Jarvis.
She heard Franklin reference the weather and something about last year, and the old man grunted, then looked back to Larry. “Well, I’ll see you do it, first.” Then, he set off down the main tractor lane, his stride quick and ground-covering despite his bowed legs, crooked back, and a slight limp.
Larry glanced her way. “Mike, Dree, get your tools,” he said, grabbing a bag from the bed of his pickup.
Getting her castrators—all three of them—Dree toyed with the idea of the spray bottle, decided no, then grabbed it anyway. Her dogs wagged, begging out, but she told them to stay.
“Let ‘em come,” said a voice behind her.
She turned to see the younger of the two Jarvises standing, waiting for her. She looked back at the dogs. “Mount out. He says it’s okay.”
Franklin Jarvis said nothing as he walked along beside her, keeping well to the side of the trailing dogs. From the corner of her eye, she caught him raise a hand toward the bunkhouse and point a jabbing finger. The men disappeared.
Inside a log barn that had to be one of the original homestead’s, a dozen young bull calves stood bunched up in a corner. Their mothers lowed from the other side of a divider made of use-burnished rails stacked between pairs of stout, log uprights.
Franklin Jarvis, moving slow, climbed over the rails and maneuvered the first calf into a wooden squeeze.
“Where are the calf tables I had shipped to you?” Larry asked.
Mike Guthrie ducked his head, fingers toying with one of the straps on his chaps like it needed adjustment.
Dree watched Larry’s face freeze into a tight-lipped, very forced smile. “No,” he said, his ears getting red with what Dree knew was his formidable temper. “Just makes things easier.”
She stepped back.
Larry Carter came from a family of sheep ranchers. While college probably had prepared him for handling everything from Alpacas to maybe even Zorses, the academic environment wasn’t ever like the real deal. Dree felt a measure of pity for Larry, but, at the same time, thought he needed to wake-up to real life. Working on a wiggling, standing calf that struggled and bawled for its momma, that momma calling back as she worried the fence, was a lot different than lazily working at one’s leisure on a pinned animal laid on its side in a crush. Larry managed, but not before getting a load of sloppy, runny manure on his person in the process when the bull calf defecated practically right in his face. Thankfully, nobody laughed. They wouldn’t, though. The bull calf was stressed pretty bad by the time Larry got the job done.
“It takes that long?” Franklin demanded, his face, stern before, now downright stormy.
“Not usually,” Larry replied, his voice tight and face whiter. “Dree, you want to handle the next one while I clean myself up?”
Why pick on me? she thought, but didn’t—wouldn’t—argue. Not with Larry. She did eye the squeeze, then chanced a glance to the old man. “Could I borrow a rope and piggin’ string?”
Her request seemed to catch him by surprise.
“…Or, if they’re not handy, I can run to my truck.”
He pointed toward the front of the barn.
Following his point, she spied what she’d asked for and went to grab them.
“What do you need?” Franklin Jarvis asked her, stepping up to the fence as she trotted back.
“I want to do him on the ground.”
“Okay.” He took the rope and leather strap from her and lazily threw a loop over one of the calves, sitting back on the rope as it fought. He let it get itself cornered, the other calves breaking to the other side of the small pen. Then, he walked himself up the rope and easily flipped the calf on its side with a quick trick with the bight, kneeling on the neck and folding the upper foreleg with one hand while he grabbed a hind leg with the other to anchor it between the two front ones. Dree climbed over the fence as he wrapped a quick-release hitch, decided to use the numbing spray, then did her job, nodding to the man to let the calf loose as she finished the last pinch.
“Your turn,” Old Man Jarvis said to Mike. “Let’s see you beat that. She was under two minutes flat from the time she went over the fence.” He actually held an antique stopwatch. It was worn, burnished gold.
Dree saw Larry glare her way and felt her face flush. Moving away, she chose a piece of fence farthest from them to get herself out of the pen. Daylight beckoned, but she resisted the urge to turn tail and run.
Each of them had to do four, and Dree was careful not to work any quicker than Larry or Mike after that. She went ahead and used her spray, simply because it kept the calf quieter. At the end of it, once the calves were returned to their mothers, Larry was back to his easy self, even when Old Man Jarvis announced, “Well, we’ll see how they fare come mornin’.”
Dree went back to her truck to stow her tools, happy to be clear of the ‘man politics’ Larry seemed to thrive on. She put the dogs in the cab and told them, “Stay.”
“What’s that spray?” Franklin Jarvis asked her, startling her as he came up to stand just out of reaching distance.
“A quick-acting topical anesthetic I get from my vet. It helps when I have to do the job alone—” She stopped, knowing she shouldn’t have said it, and, again, felt herself go red in the face.
His face stayed deadpan. “That happen often?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He watched her and his eyes changed, got browner. …Didn’t say a word. Then, after what was for Dree a long, tense moment, he turned on his heel and walked off.
3 – Trapped
Rounding the last bend in the long drive up to the ranch house brought Jake up short. His tires ground gravel, the ass of his truck slewing sideways as he hit the brakes too hard. It was the nuisance—the ugly, white, beater truck and trailer—parked right where, normally, visitors pulled in. Only the rig was parked sideways, across the breadth of the parking area. “What the hell!” What was she doing here? How did she know where he lived? How had she found him? His license plate? Did she have that good a connection with state law enforcement? He bet her dad or her uncle or someone was a cop. That would make sense of it.
‘She’ walked around the front of her truck, just then—a walking four-by-four. Well, not really. Not yet. She was just wearing a shirt five sizes too big, the shirttails left to flap in the wind. The signs were all there, though, that she would be, and in a very short time—squat, stocky, square-bodied.
Putting the truck in low, he stared as he rolled by her—couldn’t help himself. She stared back, her face emotionless. She had slate gray eyes. Jake’s heart thundered. Franklin didn’t brook “jackassery”, as he called it, and there was nothing Jake could or would say to defend himself—not to Franklin. He’d been reckless—in a hurry—and he had almost run her off the road…almost killed her, maybe all of them, truth be known. That he hadn’t was pure Jarvis luck. That luck had just run out. “Shit.” He might as well write off both his spring and summer, right now.
He hit the garage door opener, slipped into his bay, and shut down, listening to the big diesel’s whirring and ticking sounds as it tied up all its various processes, the engine cooling down. He laid his head back, unbuckled his seatbelt, then just sat for a long minute more, dreading what he knew was coming next—facing Franklin’s wrath.
Dree stood frozen, deer-in-the-headlights, watching the black pickup roll up the drive, then slow as it passed her, the driver turning his face to keep his dark brown eyes locked on hers. It was the pickup that had almost clipped her, almost caused her to wreck, the symbol, despite its colors, not a logo like she’d originally thought, but a brand—the Jarvis ranch brand. She knew that when he pulled in front of the very last bay of the ranch house’s huge six-car garage, the door sliding up automatically for him to disappear inside. That told her all she needed to know. The man in the black truck was blood relative to the Jarvises. He lived here. Anger climbed her back, her scalp prickling.
Larry came down the steps from the front door of the house. “Dree?” he called. “Franklin says we’ll be staying here in the main house…to put your mule in the barn. The second stall on the left is open.”
He walked over to his pickup, got a suitcase from the back seat, then disappeared back inside before she could summon a diplomatic way to tell him that she wasn’t staying, that she was backing out.
She went after him, trotting across the turn-around and up the short flight of broad stone steps, the sandpaper treads catching at the soles of her boots. Franklin Jarvis opened the door, stopped, then stepped out and stood when she stopped, too, hesitating to step on the ranch brand inlaid into a huge piece of stone. It was inlaid with what looked like real gold or bronze, silver, and copper. “Thought I’d help you get your mule settled,” he said, walking across it. He paused, held his arm out to the side, inviting her to turn around.
Dree didn’t know how to say no, how to politely extract herself from a situation she found uncomfortable. She knew how to make others comfortable—that was easy. What she couldn’t come to make herself do was blurt out the prickly truth, so she always wound up stuck doing things she didn’t want. Obediently, she turned to head back to her truck.
Her boot caught on the friction tape.
A hand caught her arm, steadying her. “Easy. I hate those treads. It’s why I always use the sides of these stairs.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled. “I’ll take the advice. I can be pretty clumsy sometimes.”
“The back ones don’t have this. It’s all for insurance, anyway, but they only stipulated doing these and the one’s out the great room onto the deck, not the ones out the kitchen.”
Dree realized he was giving her permission to use the back way. It was a nice thing, and it made her feel better.
“How’s your mule around horses?”
Dree shot him a glance. “Fine. Why?”
“I don’t think we’ve had a mule on the place in years. Not sure how some of the younger horses will act. Just so you know.”
Dree smiled…couldn’t help herself. “I’m used to that. So is Cougar. He’s a real gentleman and just backs off. Doesn’t retaliate.”
“Good. Then, let’s get him and you settled-in before dinner. We’ve got a few minutes, yet.”
Cleaning the soles of his boots, Jake jerked his hat off and hung it on its peg in the hall by the back door. Then, bracing himself, he went through to the kitchen where Marguerite and Olivia were filling the serving dishes.
He gave Marguerite a peck on the cheek, then grinned at Olivia who flashed a smile at him. Only fifteen, the girl was already a looker. “Smells great, Marguerite!”
“You’re going to make dinner late,” she scolded.
“Be right out. Just let me go get washed up.”
After sloshing water on his face and scrubbing his hands with a brush to get the day’s ground-in dirt out of the creases, he headed into the dining room, prepared to face Franklin’s worst. Why’d it have to be a girl? With a guy, Franklin would have gone easier. Straightening his shoulders, he stepped through to the dining room.
“Here he is,” Franklin said. “This is my grandson Jake…Jarvis, of course. Jake, that’s Ms. Dree Blake from the Blake Ranch down south, Larry Carter, who you met last month over at the sale yards, and Mike Guthrie, a hand from over by Billings.”
Franklin nodded to him. “You’re late, young man. And what held you up?”
Here it comes. Jake braced himself. Despite Franklin’s friendly tone, he wasn’t fooled. The ‘and’ was the give-away. “Marty and Uncle Rick needed a ride. Their rig broke down. I think the injectors are clogged, again.”
Heads shook, and Jake steeled himself for what was coming next, pulled out his chair, and sat down in his usual place next to Franklin.
“You mean ‘carburetor’,” Old Man Jarvis said.
Jake dodged a glance at his great-granddad. “I don’t think they even make carburetors for cars anymore, sir.”
“EPA probably banned them,” Franklin said with a chuckle. “Now, it’s a couple of computers feeding the fuel straight into the engine.”
Eyes on his granddad, Jake wondered what the hell was up. It wasn’t like Franklin to hold off, even in company. Still, best play along. “At least it’s still under warranty.”
“Yeah.” Franklin turned a half-raised brow to him. “And the last time it broke down, it took ‘em two months to get it back.” He pointedly looked around the table. “We used to call those ‘lemons’. Now it’s just called ‘regular maintenance’.
Laughter from around the table, Franklin grinning at his own quip. He was in a good mood. Confused, but grateful, Jake relaxed a bit.
Marguerite and Olivia rolled in the serving carts, and Franklin got up, introduced them, then helped them distribute the serving bowls and platters along the table length, like always. Jake rose, too, lending a hand like he always did—like he was expected to.
The women sat down, and Franklin said a quick prayer, Marguerite crossing herself on the “Amen.”
“Dig in,” Franklin told them, snatching up the basket of rolls with a smirk just as Jake reached for them. He took one, then passed them out of reach over to Old Man who passed them on down the other side of the table. Jake’s eyes followed them, then stopped when they came to the frumpy girl. So, maybe she hadn’t said anything.
“Jake.” Franklin held the bowl of mashed potatoes out to him.
He grabbed it, took a gob, then passed them on. Caught the pass of the vegetable bowl, then the meat platter, got himself a portion of each, then passed those on as the gravy boat came around. “Can I get a roll?”
Wil Strakes tossed him one from down-table. He caught it one-handed on the fly, Franklin frowning at Wil, then Jake. Jake grinned. So did Lane, Tom, Shawn, and the guy named Mike Guthrie.
Down near the end of the table, Jake saw the girl hide a smile under her napkin. So she had a sense of humor. And knew how to use a napkin, to boot. Maybe not quite so country trash as he’d thought. And she hadn’t said anything. She couldn’t have for Franklin to be in this good a mood. Jake couldn’t believe his good fortune. He might have a spring and summer left, after all.
4 – The Rodrigo Connection
“So, Ms. Blake, how’d you get wrangled into helping Larry Carter, here, with this edja-ma-cation project?” Franklin asked.
Jake saw the girl look up, her eyes startled. She put the bowl of veggies down, pulled her hands into her lap, her eyes on them as she shook her head. “I’m not sure.”
“I brought her along because Glen DeWalt said she’s been doing it right since she was a little kid,” Larry Carter broke in. “He told me there’s never been a busted penis or a steer gone staggy in the Blake herd, and that’s her doing.”
The table went quiet. Jean-clad legs rustled.
Getting over his discomfort, Jake said what he knew the older men wouldn’t, “Busted penis?”
“Catching the urethra.”
“Any other potential hazards with this…er, method?”
The man stared at him, the eyes going what Jake could only think of as ‘snotty’. Then they went squinty as he grinned. “Well, not getting a good crush, or even missing completely.”
Old Man Jarvis frowned. “And this is better than cutting?” He turned to Franklin.
Franklin fended him off with a wave. “Ms. Blake, who taught you, and how old were you when you started doing this job?”
A quiet answer Jake couldn’t hear.
Franklin cupped his ear. “Say again?”
“Since I was ten. R–Rodrigo taught me.” Jake heard a catch in her voice as she said it. He saw her face go oddly white just before she dropped it away.
“Rodrigo?” Franklin asked.
She raised her head, but didn’t look toward them…just stared straight ahead. “H–He was our foreman for a little while.”
“You mean Rodrigo Sanchez?” Old Man Jarvis boomed out.
Jake saw the girl hesitate, then nod. Around the table, Wil Strakes, Lane, Tom, Shawn, and, even Franklin nodded and went suddenly easy.
“Okay. That’s good enough for me, then,” his great-grandfather said, chuckling.
Who the hell, Jake wondered, was Rodrigo Sanchez? He whispered the question to Franklin.
Franklin grinned, then nodded toward his old man. “Ask him.”
“Great-grandpa? Who’s Rodrigo Sanchez?”
The old man started to chuckle, again. “Jes’ the best durn vaquero north of the Rio Grandé. You know old Cassie?”
You bet Jake knew Cassie. Who on the ranch didn’t? Hell, who in Montana reining horses didn’t? “Yeah. That’s my Coal’s dam.”
“Rodrigo Sanchez trained her.”
Jake frowned. “What does that have to do with castrating calves?”
“A vaquero,” Marguerite put in, “is an all-round stock man, Jake. Rodrigo was well respected by all, what you call a top hand. If Rodrigo taught Ms. Blake, you can know she is…what word?” She shrugged. “Good.”
“What happened to this Rodrigo? Why isn’t he here?” It wasn’t like the Jarvises to let a good hand loose.
Down table, Wil looked elsewhere. The Jarvis seniors, both Franklin and his great-granddad, were steadily focused on their forks. Finally, Marguerite said, “He died,” then crossed herself, ducked her head, and went back to eating.
Jake took the hint and went to working butter into his roll.
Uncomfortable, Dree couldn’t wait till dinner was over. When finally the men around her sat back and the two Latino women rose and started clearing the dishes, Dree got up and helped, ignoring the ‘you don’t have to do that’s from the two older Jarvis men.
Trailing into the kitchen, she tried to help there, too, but the two ladies—well, lady and girl—shooed her gone.
Finding the back door midway down a connecting hallway, she stepped out on the stoop and tried to get her eyes to quit burning, kept blinking until the evening cool finally eased the sting. Larry came out, the glazed-in screen door banging. “Sorry about bringing up Rodrigo. I didn’t know there was a connection between him and the Jarvises.”
Dree forced a smile. “It’s fine. It was a long time ago. I’m going to take my walk.”
Dree stopped and waited.
“I know Rodrigo died on your dad’s ranch, but what from? Do you know what happened?”
Dree shrugged. “I was a little kid.”
“You were what, eleven, right? Don’t you remember?”
Dree looked out across the lit back lawn, her eyes lifting to take in the snowy mountain bathed in moonlight beyond. “I remember explosions and lots of screaming and blood.”
Getting the dogs from the truck, Dree struck out down the drive, the cold evening air clearing the cramped feeling from her chest, the burn from her aching eyes. Clear and fine, the air was brisk and invigorating after the big meal and uncomfortable table talk. Dree walked longer than she’d planned, well into darkness, her eyes drawn to the sparkling ceiling of stars appearing overhead. The stars always made her feel the magic, again. They were the only thing, except maybe the morning rays of first sun. And the full moon.
By the time she turned around, she realized that she must have walked a couple of miles. A glance to her all but useless cell phone showed her it was nearly 9:30.
Reluctantly, she turned around, the dogs bounding ahead of her to lead the way. They stopped suddenly, Chip alert and upright, Laddie crouching down, his hackles rising. She stopped dead as she heard them both growl. The sound of gravel crunching reached her ears, then the swish and snap of brush as something in the darkness ahead moved off the road into the woods.
She waited, heart pounding, breath pent. When she heard nothing more, when the dogs finally relaxed, she moved to the other side of the road and went on. Probably a coyote or maybe a moose, she reasoned. When she finally climbed the final curve to see the lights of the Jarvis ranch house, she relaxed. Her leg with its artificial knee joint was beginning to ache. She’d walked too far.
Getting a flashlight, she put the dogs in the trailer, fed them, then waited till they were done. Letting them back out to relieve themselves, she followed, picking up their dung and sealing it in a plastic bag. She filled their water bowl from a tap in the barn, then re-trailered them and stuck the bag of poo into a garbage sack in the truck box.
The back door was locked when she tried it, so she walked back around to the front, took the sides of the stairway, then scooted around the inlaid brand purposely illuminated by an overhead spotlight and the lights of twin electric sconces that were mounted to each side of the massive front door. Trying the latch, she found it was open and stepped inside, again avoiding the brand inlaid here in the entry floor.
Franklin Jarvis was sitting in a chair in the great room. He looked up when she walked in. “Thought I was going to have to send out a posse,” he said.
Staring at the huge stone hearth, the Jarvis brand also inlaid into its face, again, in colored metals, it took her a moment to answer. The thing must have cost a fortune! The whole house had cost a fortune. “Ah, I walked longer than I meant to. Sorry. The stars carried me off.”
“Yeah. They’ll do that. Where are your dogs?”
“I’ve got them locked in the trailer.”
He got up. “Bring ‘em in. I want them with you in your room. Too many men in the house.”
She smiled and thanked him. “I’ll be fine. The guest room I’m in has a lock.”
“Bring ‘em in.”
It was a brook-no-argument command. “Okay.”
Doing as bid, Dree went out and got the two Aussies, the dogs skulking in behind her as Franklin held the door. “Breakfast is at 5:30,” he told her as he led the way up to her room. Unlike Larry and Mike, she’d been given a room upstairs, and the room had its own bathroom. It even had a shower and a Jacuzzi tub—a big one—man-sized. “Lock the door,” he commanded.
When she had, she heard him whistle. Something thumped down on the floor outside, and her dogs growled. She waited until she heard the clip of Franklin Jarvis’s boots fade on the hardwood floor, then, unlocking the door, she peeked out.
A big, black, lion-headed, bearish-looking dog, maybe some sort of Great Pyrenees crossed with Rottweiler, but huge, stopped chewing on what looked like a cow’s thighbone. He watched her—silent, still. A chill ran down her neck. She closed the door and twisted the dead bolt home.
5 – Jarvis Bulls
Up at four, Dree unlocked the door and peeked out, her dogs pushing their noses into the crack. Laddie shoved, his nose pulling long sniffs, then tried to leverage it wider with both nose and paw. “Quit.”
The guard animal was gone. So was the bone. She heard faint sounds of activity. Slipping out, her dogs at her knee, she cautiously made her way along the open balcony to the nearest arm of the double staircase leading down to the great room. Then, when there was no sign of man or the big beast, she went through to the kitchen.
The two Latino women were there, one grinding meat, the other mixing up a batter. “Anything I can help with?” she asked.
The woman called Marguerite smiled, but shook her head. The girl just flashed her a curious look.
Dree let herself out the back door and, after the dogs did their duty and she cleaned up after them, she stuffed some hay into Cougar’s feedbag from the bale in the truck bed and got some grain from the box. Then, grabbing her grooming kit, she headed to the barn to feed him.
His ‘brinny’, the mule equivalent of a whinny, greeted her, and, when she opened the stall door, Cougar stuck his nose on her shoulder and nuzzled his greeting. She kissed him on the soft spot between and below his nostrils, and he stuck his lip up and grunted. She poured his ration into the corner feeder, then clipped up the hay bag and began brushing him down. Somebody had already topped off his water bucket, the water fresh and ice cold.
Done, she cleaned his feet, picked up his droppings from the stall, then, just to be ready, went and got his saddle. It was twenty-to-five when she was done saddling him, and she still had plenty of time for her morning walk. This time, though, instead of just heading off, she set her cell phone alarm.
Whistling the dogs, she set off down the drive, again. When she came to what looked like a tractor lane angling off through the trees, snow berms still melting to either side, she followed it.
A half mile later, the trees ended, and the snow berms were down to small humps as she found herself walking along a formidable stock fence, its heavy duty, tube-steel panels attached to six-inch steel posts buried in concrete.
Dree recognized a bull fence when she saw one, albeit a very expensive bull fence, not like her Dad’s post and rail one. An inner strand of heavy gauge electric wire running through enamel, rather than plastic, insulators audibly pulsing with life reinforced her conviction. The pasture seemed empty, though, but, since the fence was on, there had to be bulls in there somewhere. She wished she could see them.
Another half-mile or so down the tractor lane that edged fields and loafing sheds, her cell phone alarm went off. She turned around and headed back. This time when she got to the bull fence, a small herd of purebred Herefords stood watching her, or, more accurately, watching her dogs.
Stopping, she stood looking at them—big, solid, well-developed yearling bulls. They carried the ranch brand on their left hips and what looked like freshly laid freeze brands on their necks. These were prime stock. No wonder the Jarvis Ranch had such a good reputation.
Back at the ranch house, she went to her room and washed up, then headed to the dining room. She was the first one there, and, uncomfortable, she went to the kitchen.
Again, she tried to pitch in, but the women were having none of it. So she sat down on a stool and simply watched, feeling out-of-place and out-of-sorts. If she wasn’t ‘doing’, she wasn’t comfortable.
Jake Jarvis walked in, got himself a mug of coffee, turned, stopped, then just stared at her. Then, when she just stared back, he stalked out. Marguerite pushed by with a serving cart, the girl, Olivia, behind her with another. “Breakfast?” Marguerite said, giving a lift to her chin.
Dree got up and, when the women just stood waiting, went through to the dining room ahead of them. The men were already seated, talking.
“There you are,” Larry said. He got up and held a chair out for her.
There weren’t any pancakes, and there wasn’t any ground sausage for breakfast. That must have been for the hired hands, Dree realized. It was biscuits, gravy, bacon, hash browns, and omelets—enough to feed almost twice the number at the table. Thankfully, there was also orange juice, a gallon pitcher of it set near her. She poured herself a glass, offered Larry some, then, when he declined, put the pitcher back on the table.
The biscuits came her way, and she passed them on. Same with the gravy. When the bacon came by, she took two slices.
The omelets were huge and filled with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and bits of ham. She sliced a section off of one with her knife and the serving fork, then sent the plate of them on.
“You’re not eating much,” Larry commented when she passed on the hash browns without taking any. “Still trying to diet?”
Dree ignored his jibe. “You know I’m a two eggs, two bacon, and orange juice girl,” she told him, looking at his laden plate. “I wouldn’t be able to move if I ate all that.”
“You want some toast or something?” Dree heard Franklin Jarvis say to someone.
Dree looked up to find him watching her. “Are you talking to me?”
“Ah, no. Thank you. This is…plenty.”
“Yes. I’m sure. Thank you.”
The man eyed her, looked at her plate, then got up. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“At least have some hash browns.”
He picked up the dish of fried onion and potato mixture and came around the table. “Here. Let me,” he said, scraping a small pile onto her plate. He looked up the table. “Pass me the bacon,” and, when somebody did, he dropped a couple more pieces on top of those already there, snagged the omelet plate and slid the rest of the one she’d cut a piece from onto her plate, too. “Eat up. We’ve got some four-hundred-plus calves to work through today. I don’t want you passing out on us.”
Beside her, Larry was smothering a grin and chuckles. Down the table, so was Jake Jarvis. Even Old Man Jarvis up at the head was grinning. Dree wished she could crawl under the table.
Jake could barely stop himself from busting out laughing. He’d suffered that treatment from Franklin a lot, and the look on Ms. Dree Blake’s face said it all. There goes her diet. But he’d felt just that way when, from the time he was six on, he was faced with having to eat through what Franklin considered a meal. When he’d managed his way through the pile, Franklin keeping a dead eye on him while he did, he’d always felt like a foundering horse. He didn’t envy her Franklin’s attention. “You learn to eat big here,” he said, trying to catch her eye, but she didn’t react, just kept her head tucked.
She might not be a looker—too short, too stout, too plain-faced, and way too much mousy, blowsy hair, but he still felt sorry for her. He had a small warm spot for her, very grateful that she hadn’t told Franklin about the incident on the highway. He’d have been stuck mending fences up on the northwest sections with no help for days, maybe weeks.
Getting a refill of coffee for himself from the pump pot, he quizzed Wil about assignments.
“Franklin, you, me, Lane, Shawn, and Tom are learning to castrate. Six men will vaccinate and run the irons. A couple or three, if we need, will handle the dehorning spoons. The rest will run the calves up the chutes and in and out of those calf tables.”
Jake looked at Franklin for confirmation, and the man nodded. “I’m going to cut?”
“No. We’re going to learn this newfangled crushing method.”
“It’s only new here on the Jarvis spread,” Larry said with a laugh. Then he looked at Jake. “And it’s not hard. Just tricky.”
Jake blew breath. Castrating made him feel sick at his stomach, and Franklin knew that.
“You’re going to run this ranch some day, Jake. You gotta be ready.”
Jake flinched as, across the table, Wil buried his face in his coffee mug. There were hard feelings about Franklin’s decision to pass the ranch onto him, and Wil was strong in his sentiments that Jake wasn’t right for the job. In private, Jake was “Little Jerk” to Wil, even though Jake now stood a good six inches taller and five inches wider in the shoulder than the rangy ranch foreman and horse wrangler. To Wil, Jake fell from the wrong branch of the tree, a good-for-nothing bad apple, a cull, and Jake knew he’d probably never outlive the man’s bad opinion of him, especially for what had happened with Lea, no matter how hard Jake tried to make it up to him…and her.
6 – Jackassery
Dree was trying to figure out how to get rid of all the food Franklin had piled on her plate. There was no way she could eat it, no matter how much he wanted her to. And he kept watching her.
She managed the hash browns. Luckily, he’d gone light. But the rest of the omelet and extra bacon were just too much. She should have kept the dogs with her, but hadn’t. She’d locked them back in the trailer.
As the discussion centered itself near the head of the table, she surreptitiously scooted chunks of egg onto the paper napkin on her lap. Finally down to just the bacon, she waited till she was sure everybody was watching Franklin and Jake, then dropped those into the napkin, too, rolled it up, then wondered what next. The napkin paper was warm and getting soggy.
It was Old Man Jarvis who came to her rescue. His sharp blue eyes on hers, he tipped his head toward her, then, looking down at his feet, did something with his hand.
Moments later, from under the table, Dree felt a big, black-furred head and wet nose stick itself between her legs. Then, it just waited. Carefully, Dree unfolded the napkin, and the muzzle—a huge muzzle—opened, the teeth gargantuan, but delicate as they took first one, then another of the pieces of bacon, then the omelet, painstakingly selecting just one piece at a time.
It took forever, but, by the time Franklin stood up to tell them to “mount out,” him glancing down toward her, then nodding when he saw her cleaned plate, the great hound had finished and, just as silently as he’d come, vanished.
Wadding up the napkin, she quickly helped clear dishes, dumping the soggy lump of paper into the plastic-lined pail Olivia was using for the paper trash. Then she fled to her room’s bathroom to wash her hands and face.
Everybody was gone except Old Man Jarvis and the women in the kitchen by the time she came out, even though it had been just minutes. “Thank you,” she said to the old man.
“Anytime. You best get to hoofin’ it, girl.”
Dree took his meaning and bolted for the door, glad she’d saddled Cougar before breakfast. Strapping on her chaps, she grabbed her saddlebags and hat from the trailer, the dogs bounding out. At the barn, Jake Jarvis stood in the alleyway next to a big, black Quarter Horse stud.
The animal was blocking her way. She waited, but the Jarvis boy ignored her. Finally, she just squeezed under the black’s neck, her saddlebags dragging the cement, and got to Coug’s stall.
Checking the girth, she threw the saddlebags on and buckled them home, then waited for Jake Jarvis to lead his horse out. But he didn’t. He just kept standing there—leaning, actually—his back to her, blocking the stall door. “Could you move?”
He turned around, a smirk playing his mouth, dark brown eyes full of ‘dare me’. “Why, su-uure.” He moved, all right, but only to get on the other side of his horse to shift the black over so it completely blocked the opening.
“Is this payback?”
The young man looked over the saddle, grinned, then shook his head. “Nope.”
“Would you please let us out.”
“What’s a little thing like you doing riding a great big, ugly, ornery mule?”
“None of your business. And he’s not ugly. Or ornery. But you are.”
“Whooo. A missy with a mouth.”
“Please let us out.”
He shrugged, then, untying his horse, mounted up right there in the aisle. But he didn’t move. Instead he shifted his horse with a clatter of shod hooves until its barrel and hip were pinned up against the doorway.
Getting ticked, Dree looked at Cougar, looked back at the black’s big body filling the stall door, then grabbed Cougar’s water bucket and flung, the cold water hitting the stallion under the flank. The horse grunted and squealed, and, shod hooves clattering, swung away.
Dree had her foot in the stirrup, hissing to Cougar. The mule launched himself, ears pinned, toward the now cleared doorway, his momentum swinging her up just in time to miss getting smashed by the uprights. It was a dangerous thing to do, but Dree was mad.
She dug her heels in, and they were out the barn, driving hell bent for sunrise toward where she saw the men riding out ahead, her dogs running full out, trying to catch her.
Heads turned, the men frowning as she galloped toward them. She reined up as she neared and heard pounding hooves behind her. Again, heads swiveled, and, with a glance back, Dree saw Jake pull up, his stallion’s ears pinned flat, the horse’s tail wringing in temper. She maneuvered Cougar in between Mike and Larry’s borrowed horses, and settled there, but Jake Jarvis moved in close by, riding just off to the side and behind.
“Where’d you disappear to?” Larry asked, frowning.
“I had to use the bathroom.”
“Looked like more than that to me,” he muttered, and Dree felt her face flush.
All he’d wanted to do was apologize and thank her for not telling on him. Why he’d baited her, he didn’t know, maybe to try to break the ice. He wasn’t used to approaching women. They always initiated. And he’d thought she had a sense of humor. Obviously not, though. Sour bitch was more like it. And now Coal was pissed at him, too, the horse tossing his head, and popping his tail. The day was not starting out well.
Behind him, a horn honked twice. He sidepassed Coal, the riders ahead of him splitting to let the rig through. Before they closed ranks, he urged Coal through to catch up to Franklin and Wil.
“Who put the burr under your saddle?” Franklin observed. “Coal looks like he’s ready to eat somebody. And why’s he all wet?”
“I sprayed some dirt and manure off his sheath.”
“You should have used warm water. You know he’s touchy about his privates. Fran’s told you again and again.”
“Cuz he’s too much in a hurry to wait for it,” Wil snapped, putting his horse into a lope to catch up to the truck hauling Carter’s calf tables and the extra panels to make run-in chutes.
“He’s right, you know,” Franklin said with a nod. “You gotta find more savvy and slow, Jake. Cattle or horses, neither one, like hurry-up. It’s gonna be your undoing.”
Stung, Jake touched just a finger to his hat and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Don’t ‘yessir’ me. Just do it.”
7 – Change Up
Fifteen minutes of riding, and, suddenly, the men beside her pushed ahead, catching up with those in front. Then, with whoops and hollers, all of them took off at a mad gallop to disappear over the crest of the hill, Mike Guthrie right with them. Cougar bounced once in surprise, then, one ear swiveling back toward her, pulled at his bit. “Walk,” she told him, and, heaving a rib-spreading sigh and a blow of snot in protest, he dropped his head and went back to long-walking, albeit a little faster.
She pulled up in surprise at the top of the hill and stared. There, scattered over what had to be a fenced quarter section was a gather of mother cows and their calves more than twice the size of her father’s whole herd. “We’re doing all these today?!” she asked Larry as he circled around to pull up beside her, his horse jigging and tossing its head as it fought the bit.
“That’s the plan. And tomorrow and the three days after that, too, we’ll do that many and more.”
“How many mother cows do the Jarvises run?”
“Around sixteen-hundred, I think. Maybe eighteen, now. Nobody’s really told me. I know they keep expanding.”
Larry laughed. “There are a lot bigger herds than that in this state, Dree.”
Dree knew that. She also knew about the huge herds throughout the western states all the way down to Texas. Still, though, considering the work she did daily at home with just over two-hundred cow-calf pairs, she couldn’t even imagine trying to manage this many. “We’re branding, vaccinating, tagging, and dehorning, too, right?”
“Well, they are. We’re here to train.”
She looked again at the size of the herd. Shook her head. “We’re not going to be able to get through this bunch all in one day unless we do the castrating.”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
But Dree was proved right. It was clear from the start that the job wasn’t going to run smooth unless they worked with the teams, rather than holding up the works trying to teach the men to use the emasculators. And the calf tables—brand new—were sticking, their pretty paint jobs making them bind.
Franklin was the one who called a halt after the first hour. They’d gotten a whopping twenty-four calves done. “This is stressing the calves too much,” he snapped. “It won’t work. We’re going back to the old way.” With a sharp, piercing whistle that hurt Dree’s ears, he raised his hand.
Dree stepped up. “Mr. Jarvis?”
He turned to her, but Dree sensed his anger. He didn’t like it that his calves were stuck so long on the calf tables and suffering for it. “Let us do the castrating. We can do it on the ground without the tables. Your men will pick up on it as we go. That’s how I learned—by watching. Then, when Rodrigo saw I was ready, he guided me through my first few, and it was easy from there.”
Franklin Jarvis muttered something, then turned and walked away….