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Christmas Eve was in full swing at the sprawling Byrnes house in Prescott Valley—or Preskitt as most folks called it. Chet's family members had gathered to celebrate the holiday, and the piano music coming from May's fingers on the grand piano in the crowded living room added to the holiday spirit.
May, his brother's widow, was now married to one of his ranch foremen, Hampt Tate. Beside her on the bench, Chet's two nephews, Ray and Ty, fingered keys and added notes to her music at her nods to them. That trick by his all-cowboy nephews amazed him the most. Their stepmother had been in the family for years before anyone knew she could sing like an angel and play the piano so well.
Hampt, a big-shouldered great cowboy, married her six months ago, and a short while after that she showed up singing. May, like his own wife Marge, was going to hatch in the spring.
He met Marge coming from the kitchen, shaking her head as she brought out more treats on a tray. "She's so talented, isn't she?"
"Amazing what she can do. May, who sat around all those years and never sang a note."
"You said one time that your brother married her to babysit his three kids."
He nodded and smiled. "I better go check on my partners, be sure they're ready to take the stage in the morning."
She frowned. "Why didn't Cole and Jesus come up here and celebrate with us?"
He wrinkled his nose. "I asked them. They said they'd be too self-conscious."
Leaning forward, she kissed him. "We can talk later."
Nice thing about having a woman as tall as Marge, she was easy to reach over and kiss. She'd had several miscarriages in her two past marriages, but the twice-widowed woman fit him well and, so far, the baby situation was going along fine. The baby had begun to kick and she said that had never happened before.
Chet tended to believe it was more a matter that she hadn't ridden her jumping horses since she learned about her condition. But he shrugged that off, 'cause he knew so damn little about such things. All he really knew was they would have an offspring. Boy or girl, he didn't care, as long as it had five fingers on its hands and five toes on each foot.
Inside the back porch, he slipped on his sheepskin-lined coat, then walked out into the frosty night. The bunkhouse lights were on and, when he stepped inside, the warmth from the potbelly stove struck him in the face. The men sitting around were eating fudge, cake, and cookies. Three were vaqueros that worked for Raphael, the foreman for this ranch. Some of the other men who worked the ranch had families and lived in nearby jacals.
"How are you doing, boys?"
"Fine," Jesus, a Mexican youth in his late teens, said.
"We'll be ready to go in the morning," Cole Emerson, a bright faced young man in his mid-twenties, replied. "You heard any more?"
"No. Nothing. I guess we're lucky JD even got that one letter smuggled out of the jail."
These two were his appointed companions. Marge insisted, and his ranch foremen agreed, he needed them to back him wherever he went. He didn't know how he got by for thirty-four years, handling his own problems.
"I guess we won't find out anything about JD's troubles till we get to Socorro, New Mexico. I'm supposed to have the best law firm in the territory coming to clear it all up."
One of the other vaqueros spoke up. "Good luck, señor. We all like JD and are sorry he is in jail."
"Thanks, Raoul. We'll get it settled."
In Spanish, both men told him Merry Christmas.
He thanked them. Then, satisfied his two sidekicks were set to go, he went back into the cold night air. Outside, he looked at the million stars overhead and recalled a story from his cattle drover days in Abilene, Kansas. They said when the Texas cowboys got to Kansas, they shot so many holes in the sky it was daylight at midnight there. He chuckled to himself. Those days had been wild all right.
He slipped back in the kitchen and hung his coat on a peg. Their housekeeper-cook, Monica, was busy getting two large beef roasts out of the oven.
"They all right out there?" she asked.
"Doing fine. They've got more sweets than a candy store."
She wiped her damp forehead with a towel and smiled. "You round everyone up and say grace. Then we can eat."
"I can do that."
He went out into the great room. "The food is ready. Let's all stand and bow our heads to pray.
"Our dear heavenly father, we are here to celebrate the birth of your son. If we sound irreverent, that is because we feel it should be a joyous occasion. We thank you for our good health, and ask you be with Susie's husband and his crew who are driving our cattle to the Navajos, and with Reg and his wife Lucy up on the top ranch who had to stay home and work. Lord, we ask you to be with JD, who is in jail in New Mexico tonight. Give us the strength and wisdom to get him free and exonerated. Lord, bless this food and all gathered here and on our other ranches. And, dear Lord, when you are ready for us, have a staircase to heaven for all of us. Amen."
"Amen," everyone repeated.
His sister, Susie, joined them. In a low voice, she spoke to him. "I told Sarge before he left about the baby, and he agreed it was no problem for him. I'm going to have Leif's child, but it will have Sarge's name."
He hugged her tight. While chasing rustlers with Chet, her husband had been killed in a horse wreck. Shortly after that, Sarge Polanski, the foreman at the Windmill Ranch up on the high country east, married her. Sarge had always been fascinated by Susie, but never so much as danced with her before he learned she'd married Leif—but he wasted no time in coming to her aid after her husband was killed. They made a good couple and they'd work out well.
"When things open up, you two will have a great life."
"I warned him this might happen, but he said not to worry that he wanted me anyway."
"If I can get JD cleared of the horse thief charges, maybe things will settle down for all of us." He shook his head and started to join his wife at the table.
Susie caught his arm. "They won't ever settle down for you. You draw trouble."
He couldn't help chuckling. She might be right.
Seated beside Marge, he soon had his plate full from the food dishes being passed. My, how he'd miss Monica's cooking on this trip. His wife was a hand, but her cook was the world's best. For a while it looked like a gray-headed rancher might steal her, but evidently the rancher's grown married daughter didn't think he needed a Mexican wife. Monica might be better off working right here than to get entangled with a prejudiced family.
"Susie talk to you?" Marge asked quietly.
"Yes. Back when she was considering the marriage, she thought she might be expecting. But it isn't any scar. Sarge knew then and knows now. He's accepted it. I think they'll have a great life, and this family will be blessed with another baby."
"I'm trying to be cheerful, with you leaving me in the morning and your son kicking me inside."
They both laughed.
Later, in bed, they kissed and tried to breach his absence coming up. He was so glad he married this woman. He wasn't sure at first about the rich girl that paid all his small bills behind him when he first came to Arizona looking for a ranch. When he found out what she spent, he paid the money back to her. Before he left to get his family and bring them from Texas, he told her not to wait. He had other obligations to take care of, but if things worked out they might, or might not, find some common ground.
In the semi-darkness, he gazed at the tin ceiling squares and recalled Marge coming to his aid after stage robbers killed his nephew, Heck. She took him through the funeral and all, but he never let his guard down, still shying from marriage.
When he returned to Arizona Territory, he had no obligations to anyone in Texas. She joined his camping trips to explore new range up on the Rim, and lived in a tent. His conscience made him marry her, to save her reputation. But, for his part, he never regretted a day of it.
He turned over on his side, kissed her, and they were back on their honeymoon.
Cole and Jesus were already at the kitchen table eating breakfast when he joined them. When he spoke, they replied, "We're ready."
"Get a plate. Food is on the range." Monica pointed his breakfast out to him.
He took a dish, added scrambled eggs with chilies and cheese, fried potatoes, and ham, plus biscuits and gravy.
When he sat down, she brought him steaming coffee and patted his shoulder. "I love the housecoat and dress you gave me for Christmas."
"Marge did that. But I approved."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Long enough to get JD's name cleared."
"Oh, men." She shook her head as if disgusted. "Months? Years?"
"Monica, if I knew that, I'd know so many things I'd be rich."
"Well, you are that. I just wonder how long I will have to put up with her being upset that you're gone."
"No telling. Mexican people, unlike you, are slow to do things."
"You can kick them in the seat of the pants and hurry them."
His men laughed at the banter between him and Monica.
"Maybe we should take her along to help us," Cole said.
Busy eating, Chet only nodded in agreement, knowing full well this was probably his last good meal for a while.
They rode out the ranch gate in the cold predawn. In the frigid air, both men and beasts breathed steam. One of the stable hands went along to bring back their horses. A packhorse carried their bedrolls and war bags to where they'd meet the Black Canyon Stage line to go on to Hayden's Ferry. The stage usually left the night before, but with Christmas, they changed the schedule to leave that morning.
Once they reached the station, they loaded their gear in the back, climbed inside, and wrapped up with blankets. The canvas curtains over the stagecoach windows kept out little cold, so they got in their cocoons and the stage rocketed out of Preskitt.
As the day progressed, the temperature rose and they shed the blankets. At stations where they changed horses, they got out and stretched and walked around. Chet promised them a good meal that night at Hayden's Ferry, so they skipped the food offers. Monica had sent along cookies and snacks aplenty. By the time they crossed the Salt River, it was eighty degrees in the valley and the sun was down.
When they arrived at Hayden's Ferry, Chet led them to a café. Business was slow and the southbound stage didn't leave for Tucson for an hour, so they ate a leisurely meal. Cole teased the pretty Mexican waitress while he and Jesus watched. They left her a nice tip, and she kissed Cole on the cheek before he left.
They reached Tucson about noon the next day, where they'd shift to another stage line to Lordsburg. They sat outside the depot in the hot sun.
With a frown, Cole asked, "They ever had a street cleanup crew in this town?"
"You talking about the dead animals in the street and the buzzards feeding on them?"
"Boy, it is bad here, isn't it?"
"This is Arizona's other capital," Chet said, amused. "They switch down here, back and forth with Preskitt."
"Well, at least there ain't any dead pigs in the streets at Preskitt."
"You're right, and it's cooler in the summertime than it is down here."
"Are we getting closer?" Jesus asked.
"I hope we're about a third of the way there."
"Well, no doubt we're going faster than we could on horseback, but that stage isn't a feather bed."
They nodded in agreement and laughed.
"You met your wife on this stage line?" Cole asked.
"Yes, we met on the one going north from here, and we rode on to Preskitt together."
"What did you think? She is a pretty lady."
"I guess I was impressed. But I had a woman in Texas then. In the end, she couldn't come out here and leave her parents. So, when I came back, I guess I thought as fancy as Marge was I'd lose her by offering to take her on a camping trip. No way. She went right along. That's when I discovered the real Marge. My sister, Susie, kept saying Marge had gone to a finishing school. That really impressed a Texas ranch girl, but now she agrees I couldn't have done better."
"Thing I saw, you two are like a team together. When I first come here, I thought you'd been married to her for years."
"Easy for her to look like she always belonged here," Jesus said. "He's such a slick talker."
Laughing, they scrambled to load their saddles and gear to the other stage line. A woman in black clothing also waited for the stage. Obviously, from her dress, she was a widow.
Chet helped her in and told her the back facing seat was the best place to ride in the stagecoach. She thanked him and the four were soon off in the rocking coach, with whips cracking and the driver scolding the horses as they clattered through the narrow streets of Tucson.
"Ma'am, these two are my men, Cole and Jesus. I'm Chet Byrnes and we work the Quarter Circle Z Ranch at Preskitt and Camp Verde."
"Elizabeth Karnes. My husband was Captain Loren Karnes. He's recently departed."
"I am sorry to hear that. If we can help you in any way, let us know."
"Thank you. The three of you are much better company than the three drunk drummers I rode with from El Paso when I came out here two years ago."
Chet smiled. "Where will you return to?"
"Texas, of course. My parents have a farm near Austin."
"We hope you have a safe trip."
She thanked them, then Chet and her talked idly about his wife and his business. They swept across the chaparral country and made the stops to change horses—eat if they dared and back in the coach and the churning dust. Lordsburg was a sleepy Mexican village past the large area of playa lakes.
Deming, the next town, was the terminal for the railroad tracks coming west, and was on fire with business. But there was no track building going on. Either they were out of money, out of iron rails, or out of help. Progress had halted. A train car with a locomotive going backward headed for Mesilla. On this part of the ride, Mrs. Karnes was more talkative.
"You know, it isn't easy for me to go back home. Who wants a soldier's hand-me-down? I married Karnes expecting to be a colonel's wife someday. He died of a heart attack in, of all places, a brothel. Now I can go home and hope some desperate poor man comes along who wants a wife to raise his eight snotty-nosed kids."
Amused, Chet about laughed. He gazed out the open window at the passing sagebrush and mesquite with fuzzy brown mountains in the distance. "I can see your situation."
"You said you married a woman twice widowed?"
"Yes, and I wouldn't trade her for anyone else."
"Tell me why."
"I knew other women. Some were damn nice. As I told you, I had to leave a great lady in Texas. Then, here I was with this woman who I thought was too fancy for me. But whatever had happened in the past, I didn't care. We came together and we have a life. Of course, she didn't have eight snotty-nosed ones, either."
"You're telling me I may have to give up a lot to get a real man."
"No, I just told you my story."
"Thank you. You have been most kind. I hope you get your nephew released from prison."
"Oh, I'll do that."
She nodded as if in deep thought. "I know you will succeed. You are a forceful man. It has been nice to share my misfortunes with you."
They made it to Mesilla and took the stage north the next day. The country they passed through looked dry and desolate.
"A cow could starve to death out there," Cole said.
"Or die of thirst."
"Yeah, Chet. That would be easy, save for the water in the Rio Grande over there in those cottonwood trees."
"I have no idea what we'll run into up here. We'll play it by ear. The first thing is, don't go for your gun unless it's life or death. In a new land, we need to learn all we can and be unseen."
"What do you figure they're like?" Cole asked.
"New Mexico Territory is mostly Spanish. They've been here for centuries, and they do things their way."
Jesus agreed. "I'd say you are right. I will listen. Here, you will need the Spanish side of things."
"They must fear something. Not letting him mail letters, so that he had to smuggle them out."
"That is strange." Cole shook his head. "I hope it isn't long. I like northern Arizona, pines and grass for cows. What else did you learn from the widow who left us back there?"
"Hardest thing in her story was that her husband died in a whorehouse. She's a real nice-looking woman. I ain't seen many women in that business that good looking."
Excerpted from Brothers in Blood by Dusty Richards. Copyright © 2013 Dusty Richards. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Posted December 20, 2013
Posted December 10, 2013
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