Benni's taking time from her job at the folk-art museum to sponsor a "senior prom" at San Celina's retirement home. During the dance, she's surprised to find herself waltzing with Clay O'Hara, the Colorado cowboy she had a crush on when she was seventeen. She's even more surprised when Clay's uncle and an elderly woman are found dead in one of the residents' rooms. Now Benni's trying to find a link between the two victimsand the common thread that bound them together in death...
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I'm going to snatch you baldheaded, Benni Harper, if you don't haul your butt over here right now,'' Gramma Dove said, her voice as raspy as the old Hank Williams records she loves. All the orphan calves on the Ramsey Ranch had been milk-fed and soothed to sleep by her gritty-voiced renditions of &'grave;I Saw The Light,'' and &'grave;I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.'' For that matter, so had I.
&'grave;I was just walking out the door,'' I lied amicably, sitting behind the counter of the small gift shop in the empty folk art museum. An earsplitting click answered me when she hung up the phone. She hadn't called me &'grave;young lady'' yet. That meant I still had time. My stomach rumbled, reminding me I'd forgotten to eat breakfast again. I knew Dove though, and she never came down from the ranch without bringing something to eat, determined to bring me back up to what she called &'grave;fighting hen weight.'' I'd lost ten pounds when my husband, Jack, was killed a year ago when his Jeep flipped over on a lonely stretch of old Highway One, and I'd never regained it. Dove worries about that as she does every minuscule detail of my life. A born &'grave;heel snapper,'' she is a determined cattle dog of a woman and, according to her, I remain her most unmanageable calf. Her constant interference in my life is a good-natured but continual bone of contention between us. Hope and anticipation for her heart-melting sweet potato biscuits caused my stomach to growl again.
Ignoring my hunger, I turned back to the oak-framed cross-stitch sampler I was logging into the inventory book. &'grave;The Best Things Come But Once in a Lifetime.''
Stitched in a dashing sweep of blues ranging from robin's egg to deep, lustrous navy, each letter was outlined in black, causing the sentiment to almost jump out at me. It was one of the over two hundred samplers we'd received at the museum in response to our newspaper ad requesting cross-stitched and embroidered samplers for our newest exhibit. As curator of the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum, I was responsible for choosing the hundred or so we actually had room to display. To be fair, I had tried to select a wide variety of styles, ages and degrees of craftsmanship but especially ones with heart, ones that appeared to mean something special to each artist when they created it. What I had in mind was for the exhibit to tell its own story, about the individual artists, about our town and about the wider community of man. The success of the show was important to me. Though proud of my last exhibit of antique quilts and of the five newspaper articles written about the museum, I couldn't overlook the fact that the publicity had more to do with the murders that took place on the premises rather than my expertise as a curator. A reporter for the travel section of the L.A. Times had contacted me two weeks ago wanting to do a small piece on our new museum and she didn't even mention the murders. That made it essential for this exhibit to shine.
&'grave;The Best Things Come But Once in a Lifetime.'' I studied the daisy and lily-of-the-valley border, the fancy script, the blue and purple peacocks gracing each corner before writing down the name and address of the sampler's owner. The age-faded embroidered words stitched by K. G. Drusell in 1924 struck a melancholy chord in me. At thirty-four and, in less than a week, widowed a year, I was beginning to wonder if this lady might be right. My relationship with Jack had definitely been the best thing I ever had--though being married to him since the age of nineteen, I didn't have much to compare it with. Until now, that is.
Gabriel Ortiz. I'd met him, sparred with him and grudgingly allowed him to weasel his way into my life when murder was a major contributor to the museum's exhibit of antique quilts almost three months ago. His qualifications were listed in my head in a permanent resume. San Celina's temporary chief of police. Olive-skinned Hispanic-Anglo native of Derby, Kansas with a twenty-some-odd-year stopover in Los Angeles. Long, sinewy, half-miler's legs. A thick black mustache with touches of silver hiding a sensuously full lower lip that disappeared when he was tense or angry. Blue-gray eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean in January. And, for want of a better description, my steady companion these last few months. Was it love, loneliness or just an incredible physical attraction? That was the question of the hour. One I didn't have an answer for on an empty stomach so early on a Saturday morning. I glanced at the Daffy Duck watch on my wrist--a present from Gabe, who declared, in his husky, sardonic voice, that Daffy and I shared similar characteristics. I'm still trying to decide how to take that one.
I closed and locked the heavy Spanish door of the old Sinclair Hacienda, now the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum and Artists' Co-op, thanks to the generosity of our rich benefactress, Constance Sinclair. When I reached my old red Chevy pickup with &'grave;Harper's Herefords'' still stenciled on the doors, I turned and surveyed the newly painted two-story adobe house and stables with a bit of a proprietary air. Two weekends ago the entire co-op had banded together and whitewashed the outside walls, restained the rough wood posts supporting the front porch and planted the huge brick-colored clay pots in front with flowers native to San Celina County--tiny purple Shooting Stars, yellow Bermuda Buttercups, and exotic Leopard Lilies with their long stamens and polka-dotted petals. The building positively gleamed in the muted sunlight of the February morning. A crisp breeze whipped at the eucalyptus trees circling the gravel parking lot in a silvery-green windbreak. Tilting my head back, I took deep breaths of the spicy air, reveling in the unaccustomed warmth of the sun on my face. It was the first morning in over a week that the Central Coast hadn't been startled awake by one of the violent rain and wind storms that had ended California's drought this winter with a fervor not usually seen on the West Coast.
I'd grown to love the museum and co-op almost as much as the ranches I'd lived on all my life. After Jack died and I moved off the Harper Ranch, which he'd owned with his brother, this job had been my lifesaver. I threw myself into the daily rhythms of the museum and co-op, and with time, forged a new life. Though not one I would have necessarily chosen, I'd come to the point where waking up every morning was something I actually anticipated. Losing Jack taught me one important lesson. You had to enjoy each day given you, because it just might be your last. Something so simple to know, so hard to do.
Within a half hour, I was in the bedroom of my rented Spanish-style bungalow, jeans and pink flannel shirt on the floor, balanced on a makeshift dressmaker's platform of three old San Celina telephone books, doing what comes naturally to me when I'm around Dove--whining.
&'grave;I can't believe I'm going to wear this.'' Frowning at my image in the long brass mirror in the corner of my bedroom, I tugged at the tight bodice of the banana-yellow, hoop-skirted formal that was squeezing my midsection into jelly. From the waist down, I resembled a dime-store boudoir lamp shade.
&'grave;Quit wiggling,'' Dove said. &'grave;You're worse than a two-
year-old.'' She gave my butt a whack with the back of her hand. I barely felt it under the layers of netting and filmy chiffon.
When I acquired the job as curator, I'd anticipated, between eccentric artists, rich patrons and the dependably crazy public, having to deal with a variety of unusual circumstances. Nothing in my imagination ever included hoop skirts. Except when Constance brought around the occasional dignitary in hopes of finagling a donation and I wore my calf-length black skirt with a silk cowboy shirt and my good Tony Lama deerskin boots, my work attire consisted of the same uniform I've worn most of my life--brown Justin Ropers and Wrangler jeans laundered soft enough to sleep in.
&'grave;Turn around so I can get the other side done up,'' Dove said. With tiny steps, I shifted position, trying not to topple off the slick phone books.
&'grave;Do I look as ridiculous as I feel?'' I asked my best friend, Elvia Aragon. She lounged across my brass bed in a three-hundred-dollar Tabasco-red silk jogging suit, looking beautiful enough to grace a cover of Elle magazine.
&'grave;I don't know,'' Elvia answered. &'grave;How ridiculous do you feel?''
&'grave;On a scale of one to ten, I'd say nine and a half.''
&'grave;Oh, no. Eight, tops.'' She laughed and crossed her dainty size five feet. They were clad in sparkling white Nikes that no doubt cost half my weekly salary at the museum and probably had only jogged the distance from the front door of her new lakefront condo to her perfectly restored 1959 British Racing Green Austin-Healy. That she was wearing American-made tennis shoes was a reluctant concession to the rabid second-generation patriotic sensibilities of her six younger brothers. As proud as she was of her Mexican heritage, in her heart, Elvia was a European, preferably French. She eyed me critically. &'grave;It is a sort of a Glinda the Good Witch look, isn't it? Being from Kansas, that should light Gabe's pilot, so to speak.''
&'grave;Thank you, Ms. Blackwell, for that insightful fashion review.'' I hiked up the low-cut, sweetheart neckline and adjusted one tiny puffed sleeve. &'grave;What was your sister-
in-law thinking when she picked out these bridesmaid dresses?''
&'grave;I have no idea. Menudo had more taste than Gilberto's wife. She's from Mississippi.''
&'grave;Watch it, girlie,'' Dove mumbled, her mouth full of pins.
&'grave;I said Mississippi, not Arkansas,'' Elvia said. &'grave;Big difference.'' Her smooth milk-chocolate cheeks dimpled with a held-back smile.
&'grave;And don't you forget it,'' Dove said.
I ran my hands up and down my bare arms. &'grave;Are you positive you don't have something else in your closet? I feel soexposed.''
&'grave;That dress was made for a July wedding, not the end of February,'' Elvia answered. &'grave;And we dug through every piece of clothing I own. This is the closest thing I have to anything that remotely suggests the Civil War. Why in the world didn't you pick an easier theme for this Senior Citizen Prom than Gone With the Wind?''
&'grave;That was your little brother's doing. Ramon and his Adult Recreation 101 Class at the university. I'd have chosen a shuffleboard tournament.''
&'grave;I think it's real sweet of those kids to go to all that trouble for a bunch of old folks,'' Dove said.
&'grave;Well,'' I countered, &'grave;they do get out of writing a twenty-page term paper for it. That's pretty strong motivation.''
Elvia picked up her cup of Raspberry Delight herbal tea sitting on my nightstand and took a sip. &'grave;I'm still vague on how you became involved. I thought your teacher assistant days were over.''
&'grave;Two of the ladies in my quilting class at Oak Terrace are on the Residents' Board there. When Ramon and his class presented their project to the retirement home's board but couldn't find an adult sponsor, Thelma Rook volunteered me. I think she did it just to force me into wearing a dress.''
&'grave;Makes her a stronger woman than me,'' Dove said.
&'grave;You're one to throw stones,'' I said, reaching down and pulling at the strap on her faded denim overalls. &'grave;Are you anywhere close to being through? My toes are waving the white flag here in these pumps.''
&'grave;Keep your britches on, I still got one little part left to do.'' Dove stood up with a groan, tossed her waist-length white braid over her shoulder and turned sharp blue eyes on Elvia. &'grave;What did you do, dance with a gorilla in this thing?''
&'grave;Gilberto's brother-in-law, Dwayne, from Tupelo,'' Elvia said. &'grave;A reasonable facsimile.''
&'grave;I think I'll rest my knees and have a piece of that peach cobbler I brought you.'' Dove reached over and pinched my forearm. &'grave;Word to the wise, honeybun. If you want that man of yours to stay sniffing around, you best start keeping something more to eat in your icebox than Coca-
Cola and Hostess Cup Cakes.''
&'grave;If he wants food, let him date a chef,'' I said to her retreating back. She snorted in reply.
I kicked off my half-size-too-small satin pumps and sat on the bed, carefully avoiding the pins still holding part of the hem in place. &'grave;How's the Mardi Gras festival coming along?''
Blind Harry's, the combination bookstore and coffee house Elvia managed in downtown San Celina, had been chosen by the Chamber of Commerce as this year's official Mardi Gras headquarters. She was in charge of the Mardi Gras Street Festival and Parade to be held a week from today. It was, according to our own San Celina Tribune, the most authentic Mardi Gras celebration in the United States outside the state of Louisiana itself. It was started fifteen years ago by a bunch of Louisiana natives transferred to the Central Coast by the various oil companies to work on the offshore drilling rigs. When the drilling stopped, many of the workers stayed, along with their festive and sometimes rowdy customs. They fit right in here in festival-loving San Celina County, where any excuse to &'grave;let the good times roll'' was welcome.
&'grave;Everything's on schedule so far,'' she said. Elvia was in her element with a project like this. Nothing made her happier than being in charge. &'grave;It's been more work than I anticipated, but the money we've taken in selling Carnival beads, trinkets and Mardi Gras masks has already made the books look better than the last five Februaries. That should upset Cameron a bit.'' Her delicate red lips relaxed in a tiny satisfied smile. Cameron McGarry, the mysterious Scottish owner of Blind Harry's, had originally intended the bookstore as a tax write-off to defray some of the profits of his three casinos in Reno. When Elvia took over the store five years ago, amidst all predictions to the contrary, she built the business into the most popular and profitable bookstore in three counties by adding a basement coffee house, special sections for mysteries, romance and science fiction and acquiring the largest commercial inventory of ranching and animal husbandry books in the state.
The phone on the nightstand rang. Elvia handed the receiver across the bed to me and stood up, pointing toward the kitchen.
&'grave;Save me some,'' I said, my hand over the receiver.
&'grave;Benni?'' The caller was female and distinctly aged.
&'grave;Yes?'' I searched my brain trying to place a name to the semi-familiar voice. All fifteen women in my quilting class at Oak Terrace Retirement Home, a class sponsored by the Artists' Co-op and a small city grant, had my phone numbers at home and at work. While working on the projects for the coming Spring Has Sprung boutique two months from now, they'd taken to using them indiscriminately.
&'grave;Miss Violet,'' she said, her shaky voice sounding exasperated.
&'grave;Oh, yes, Miss Violet.'' I made a face at myself in the mirror. &'grave;How are you?''
All the ladies in my group had asked me to call them by their first names, except Miss Rose Ann Violet, who wasn't about to allow that sort of informality at this late date in her life.
&'grave;She said she was going to kill him.''
&'grave;She used the 'A' word, the 'B' word and the 'D' word. Twice.''
I shifted the phone to my other ear, wondering if senility had finally become brave enough to move in on the indomitable Miss Violet. &'grave;What are you talking about?''
&'grave;Oralee Reid,'' she said. &'grave;And Brady O'Hara. Of course, I'm not surprised it has come to this. Poker is the devil's own game. After Hattie told us everything, he turned mean as a snake and never could be trusted. We had to watch him every minute. Nickels or M&M's. Doesn't matter to them.''
&'grave;Excuse me?'' It wasn't the first time one of my ladies had strung together a group of sentences that didn't quite fit with each other. Many of them were at Oak Terrace because of slight strokes, not just old age.
&'grave;Haven't you been listening, Benni Harper? My goodness, you haven't changed much, have you?''
She reprimanded me like my fourth-grade teacher, which was entirely natural, because she had been. Besides me, there were forty-two years of San Celina's most upstanding citizens who had felt the sting of her tart voice and the humiliation of having their name scrawled in chalk on the corner of her clean blackboard. She didn't teach everyone in San Celina the intricacies of fractions and the history of California missions, but there were enough of her alumnae around to swing a vote if they were so inclined.
&'grave;I am too listening,'' I said, my tone reverting to a childish grumble. I cleared my throat and attempted a more adult tone. &'grave;I'm sure Oralee was kidding.''
&'grave;I think not. She swore on King Enoch's head.''
&'grave;Really?'' That shed an entirely different light on the matter. Oralee did not toss King Enoch's name about frivolously. He'd been her prize Black Angus bull, the core of her herd for years. About six months ago, he broke out of his pasture and was trotting across the highway, equipment waving in the breeze, heading toward a bunch of unsuspecting heifers, when he was struck and killed by a one-
ton Ford pickup hauling five-strand barbed-wire fencing. The rancher driving the truck came through without a scratch, but a lot of people believe the shock of King Enoch's untimely death brought on Oralee's stroke and her subsequent stay at Oak Terrace.
&'grave;I think we should inform the authorities,'' Miss Violet said. &'grave;Isn't your new beau connected with the police department in some way?''
&'grave;In some way,'' I said vaguely, hoping she wouldn't remember how. &'grave;What exactly is the problem between her and Mr. O'Hara?''
Miss Violet sighed. &'grave;Oralee said that he's been cheating at poker for the last two months. They play for nickels. Or M&M's.''
Well, that explained the earlier comment. The temptation was too great for me. &'grave;Plain or peanut?''
She sighed again. Louder this time. &'grave;Albenia Louise Harper, are you taking me seriously?''
&'grave;Yes, ma'am,'' I said. When Miss Violet used your full given name, it was time to stop joking. &'grave;I'm sorry. Can't you speak to Mr. Montrose about it? As manager of Oak Terrace, it seems to me he should be the one to straighten this out.''
&'grave;That man!'' Her voice grew as shrill as a parakeet's. &'grave;All he's concerned about is how many sugar packets we're using in our cereal every morning. He's absolutely no help whatsoever. He thinks he's going to save himself watching those horses. Why, we told him he was going to have to pay. Did he really think he would get off scot-free? You know, he never was dependable. Oralee should have known that, but a body can't tell her anything.''
I didn't even attempt to figure that whole story out. &'grave;What exactly would you like me to do?'' I asked with as patient and pleasant a tone as I could manage.
&'grave;Speak to Oralee,'' she said. &'grave;For some incomprehensible reason, she listens to you. Some control must be gained over that temper of hers or I shall be forced to officially place a request for a more agreeable room companion.'' Her voice lowered. &'grave;She smokes cigars, you know. In the bathroom at night. She thinks I don't know, but I do. Papa always said I had the nose of a bloodhound.''
Miss Violet and Oralee shared a room in one of Oak Terrace's ambulatory wings, where the criteria for matching roommates was, at best, hit or miss. In their case, it was as unlikely a pairing as Minnie Pearl and Ma Barker. Miss Violet's frantic whispered voice interrupted an amusing picture of Oralee puffing away on an old stogie.
&'grave;Oh, my goodness. Guess who just walked into the room?''
I heard a muted grappling for the phone. Oralee's coarse, burnt-grass voice bellowed through the telephone line. &'grave;Who is this?'' It was a voice used to pinballing orders across hills dotted with thick-trunked oaks to men reluctant to oblige the instructions of a woman, even if she did own the ranch.
&'grave;Hi, Oralee. It's Benni Harper. Miss Violet has just been telling me--''
&'grave;I heard what Little Miss Rosy-Posy-Pudd'n 'n'-Pie was tellin' you. Did she mention that O'Hara is a scum-bellied, cactus-mouthed, card-cheatin' son-of-a-biscuit?'' Only the slight slur at the end of her words gave away that she'd suffered a stroke to her left side.
For a moment, I sympathized with Miss Violet. I'd been on the thrashing end of this voice myself more than once. Eighteen years ago, when I was sixteen, to earn the down payment for my first car, I worked weekends for Oralee as a nightrider checking pregnant cows. She made it clear from the beginning she thought I was a snot-nosed kid with a smartass attitude she was only hiring out of respect for my daddy. She watched me like a savage old prairie falcon from underneath her stained and battered Resistol cowboy hat until I proved to her I knew the proper way to search for cows isolating themselves in preparation for birth, how to monitor their breathing and use my flashlight to check their sad, dark eyes for signs of trouble. She helped me pull more than one calf, her tanned, sun-leathered lips turning up in a rare smile while we watched the cow lick and lick its calf until the spindly legged baby stumbled up for its first milk. Twice when I pulled with her, we lost calves. Once, both the cow and calf. Each time, after a prolonged cussing fit, she didn't speak for the rest of the night. Then she fixed me warm almond milk and cinnamon toast in her old kitchen before I rode my paint horse, Zelda, home. I loved Oralee like she was one of my own relatives, but I didn't envy Miss Violet her roommate.
&'grave;Yes, ma'am, she did mention Mr. O'Hara once or twice in her conversation,'' I said. &'grave;Look, I'll talk to him myself about it tonight. I'm sure it's all just a misunderstanding.''
&'grave;Bull paducah,'' Oralee replied. &'grave;Brady O'Hara is evil and a crook besides, plain and simple. Always has been, always will be. Thinks that store-bought-oleo tongue and devil smile of his can get him out of anything. You just better call the cops and have him hauled off to the clinker before I kick that Irish butt of his all the way to Tucson.''
&'grave;C'mon, Oralee, the police?''
&'grave;Bet you know that number by heart.'' A harsh noise came over the line--somewhere between a cough and a squawk. If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn it was a laugh. &'grave;We'll make that young crossbred stud of yours earn his keep by doing something besides sitting there on his sweet little ass''--I heard a noisy struggle through the phone--&'grave;Ouch! Don't you pinch me, old woman. Oh, for pity's sake--fanny--looking pretty.''
&'grave;I'll talk to Gabe about it as soon as I see him,'' I said, stifling my laugh. It would only spur her on. &'grave;I'll see what he can do. Are you ready for the prom?''
&'grave;Waste of time. I'm eighty-two. Don't got much to waste.''
&'grave;You have to go. It's the quilting class's project. And you are the president.''
&'grave;Only because Mittie Barntower bit the big one and you all elected the only other person who has half her marbles around here.''
&'grave;Oralee,'' I said with mock sternness. That comment probably earned her another black mark on Miss Violet's mental blackboard. &'grave;Look, I have to go. Dove needs to finish fixing the hem on my dress. I'll see you tonight.''
&'grave;Okay,'' she said, reluctantly. &'grave;You tell Dove 'hey' for me and thank her for that deer jerky she sent by Mac. It sure hit the spot. And don't you be forgetting to talk to that cop of yours, hear me?''
&'grave;I won't. I'm sure he can work something out with you two.''
&'grave;Well, I expect results or there'll be you-know-what-hot-
spot to pay.'' Her voice became muffled when she turned away from the phone. &'grave;That make you happy, Miss Priss?''
&'grave;Oralee,'' I said in a loud voice. &'grave;Try and behave.''
&'grave;'Bout as much chance of that as a coyote at a jackrabbit convention.''
&'grave;Spare me the Western homilies. And wear a dress tonight. If I have to, so do you.''
&'grave;When a bull fills a milk bucket,'' she said cheerfully and hung up.
I was standing in front of the mirror, studying the ridiculous-looking dress, envying the freedom from vanity people Oralee's age had, when Dove and Elvia walked back into the room. Elvia settled back down on the bed, a china-
blue bowl of peach cobbler in her hands.
&'grave;Who were you yelling at?'' Dove asked.
&'grave;Oralee Reid. And I wasn't yelling. I was just trying to get her attention.''
&'grave;What'd that cranky old biddy want?'' Dove asked, an indulgent smile on her face. Dove was one of the few people who never let Oralee get under her skin, probably because she gave as good as she got.
I gave a Reader's Digest version of the incident.
&'grave;Well, it's a real shame she's having a hard time adjusting to Oak Terrace, but poor Mac didn't have any choice. Even though her stroke was a small one, she was getting to where she couldn't run that ranch. And she refused to move in with him. One time he came to visit her and all the burners on the stove was going full blast while she was out in the barn repairing a hay crib. About scared him to death.'' Dove picked up the apple-shaped pincushion from the dresser, her face pensive. &'grave;I really feel for her. Leaving your home is hard.''
&'grave;I know,'' I said, remembering the slow, satisfying tempo of ranch life--how Jack and I would lie in bed and laugh at the scratching of the squirrels playing tag on our wood-shingled roof, the new-fabric smell of fresh hay, the clump of his heavy work boots hitting the wooden service porch floor at the end of the day.
&'grave;Still having trouble sleeping?'' Dove asked, reaching over and brushing my curly bangs out of my eyes.
I turned my head and didn't answer. Jack's death wasn't something I felt the need to talk about anymore. You get to the point where it seems as if everything that could be said, has been. What no one ever told you, and maybe couldn't, was how much grief was like one of those long, slow illnesses where bad and good days were as unpredictable as a pull on a slot machine. Just when you thought you had it licked, when you weren't paying attention, some memory hit you right between the eyes and your senses throbbed with the loss, leaving you trembling with an emotion not unlike fear.
But the good days were finally beginning to outnumber the bad. Having Gabe in my life helped. He had an arrogantly zany twist to his personality that could make me laugh sometimes when nothing else could. On good days, I could almost forget how Jack died, lying in a ditch, killed by alcohol and stupidity. Instead, I liked imagining him with my mother, who died when I was six, both of them sitting together on a long white front porch somewhere, shelling peas and watching over me. Oh, I had sleepless nights, but it was the still-unaccustomed city noises as well as getting used to sleeping alone that kept me punching channels into the early morning, cruising the cable stations from The Donna Reed Show to old Gary Cooper movies. I understood what Oralee was feeling. Losing a way of life is a lot like losing someone you love.
&'grave;Change isn't ever easy,'' Dove said softly. &'grave;Human beings are surely fond of what they already know. But the good Lord helps us adjust.'' She gave me a gentle push between the shoulder blades. &'grave;Now, you hop back up on those phone books and let's get this done. I got to get back to the ranch and cook your daddy's dinner. And don't you worry none about Oralee Reid. She'll be just fine. That woman is pure seasoned oak.''
&'grave;Speaking of Oralee, how's the church liking Mac?'' I asked. Oralee's grandson, MacKenzie Reid, had just been called as minister a month ago to the First Baptist Church over by Cal Poly University. It was a radical move for the conservative four-hundred-member church where I'd been baptized and married, then cried at both my mother's and husband's funerals. They were hoping, I'd heard through the grapevine, since I hadn't been the most regular attender lately, to attract a younger crowd into the aging congregation. Mac Reid was a hometown boy, just turned forty, and widowed five years ago when his young wife died of a brain tumor. He was a big man, ruggedly handsome and too charismatic for his own good. He and my Uncle Arnie, both six years my senior, had been best friends in high school. They used to tease me until I screamed, causing Dove to march them out to the barn to shovel manure. In the seventies, Mac played a pretty mean defensive tackle for Baylor University, and right before graduating, shocked everyone when he received and accepted a higher calling than even the NFL. Definitely not your typical Baptist minister.
&'grave;He's good,'' Dove said, bending down and going to work on the rest of the hem. &'grave;Which you'd know if you darkened the church's door more than once every three months.'' I didn't answer. &'grave;Talks real loud,'' she continued. &'grave;Keeps most folks awake, even that lazy back-row bunch.''
&'grave;I always thought it was funny that Oralee's grandson became a minister,'' Elvia said, setting the blue bowl down on my nightstand.
&'grave;Probably a reverse kind of rebellion. You know kids,'' I said in a pointed tone. &'grave;When you push them one way, they tend to go the other.'' Dove just grunted.
&'grave;Is he living out at the ranch?'' Elvia asked.
&'grave;Nope,'' Dove said. &'grave;Oralee doesn't know it yet, but he's put the place up for sale. He's got power of attorney since his dad died.''
&'grave;Does he have to sell out?'' I asked, feeling sad because I already knew the answer.
&'grave;He can't run the ranch and the church too. Besides, that place hasn't turned a profit for a long time. I heard he's been sending Oralee money for years. Even used up the money from his wife's insurance. You know most of the Reid land is leased from the oil companies and they're starting to sell it off now to developers. A plain old cattleman can't live off the land anymore.'' She looked up at me. &'grave;But then, I don't have to tell you that.''
&'grave;That's for sure.'' I was still in the midst of helping my brother-in-law, Wade, dissolve the holdings of the foreclosed Harper Ranch. Wade and his family had gone ahead and moved back to Texas to live with relatives, and we were transacting most of the business through the mail or over the phone.
&'grave;Are you really going to tell Gabe about Oralee and that card game business?'' Elvia broke in. I smiled at her gratefully. She knew how much thinking about losing the ranch bothered me.
&'grave;I guess I'll be forced to, since he'll see them tonight and he hates walking into situations cold. You know, since he and I have been seeing each other, I've had more people stop me in the street and tell me their problems. Mr. Treton next door grabbed me yesterday and told me he thinks the electric company is increasing voltage to the homes of senior citizens in an effort to cause more static electricity, which short-circuits their hearing aids. He says the electric company owns all the hearing-aid manufacturers, and he wants Gabe to set up a task force to investigate. Offered to go undercover himself.''
&'grave;That crazy old fool,'' Dove said. &'grave;He couldn't find a cowbell in his own bed.''
&'grave;Then I find it hard to believe you'd find anything he has to say worthwhile.'' I gently tapped the top of her pillowy white hair with the back of my fingers. She didn't raise her head.
&'grave;He has something of interest to say every now and then. I just like being there when it happens.''
The fact that she bribes Mr. Treton with home-baked bread and jars of her clover honey for information on my daily activities still tends to rattle my cage once in a while. Not that it stops her.
&'grave;All done,'' she said, standing up. &'grave;All I have to do now is whipstitch it real quick.'' I turned and studied myself in the mirror.
&'grave;Well, look at me. All Scarletted up and ready to face whatever.'' I pulled at a strand of my curly reddish-blond hair. A little over two months ago, in a mindless, emotional moment, I'd cut my waist-length hair up to my neck and now had no idea what to do with it except poke at it once in a while. &'grave;Maybe I shouldn't have cut my hair.''
&'grave;It looks fine,'' Elvia assured me, inspecting a strand of her own shoulder-length mink-black hair. &'grave;You look very contemporary. Verycute.''
I cringed inwardly the minute the word popped out of her mouth. Though I didn't usually spend much time thinking about my looks, at thirty-four and seeing a man eight years my senior, cute wasn't exactly the look I was striving for. Wirehaired terriers were cute. Opie Taylor was cute.
&'grave;Besides,'' she added, &'grave;anything is better than that boring old braid you used to wear everywhere.''
&'grave;You're really pushing it today, Suzie Q,'' Dove said, shaking the tip of her own white braid at Elvia.
We were laughing at Elvia holding up her hands in playful surrender when a triple rap on the front door interrupted us. I looked over at the clock-radio on my nightstand. Eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning. Some things were getting as predictable as spring onions.
&'grave;Dove, will you answer it?'' I picked up my full skirt and dashed into the bathroom, just off my bedroom.
&'grave;Benni, watch that hem,'' Dove complained.
&'grave;Please,'' I called. &'grave;I'm unarmed.''
&'grave;You're what?'' Elvia asked.
A minute later, I stood in the doorway of the bathroom and watched Gabe follow Dove into my bedroom. He looked especially attractive and unprofessional this morning in his tight black running shorts and a faded gray sweatshirt displaying a peeling picture of Albert Einstein.
&'grave;Hey, Chief Ortiz.'' I walked sedately toward him, hands behind my back, hoop skirt bobbing around my ankles like a bell around a clapper. We locked eyes and exchanged big smiles.
&'grave;Hey, Benni Harper.'' His eyes scanned me from head to toe. &'grave;You look like'' Words appeared to have failed him.
&'grave;Scarlett O'Hara?'' I offered. &'grave;Vivien Leigh?''
He laughed. &'grave;Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of Little Miss Muffet.''
&'grave;Well, there goes my donation to the Police Benevolence Fund.''
&'grave;It is kind of cute.'' He reached over and ran a finger along my exposed collarbone, causing me to give an involuntary shiver.
&'grave;Hands off, mister,'' Dove said. &'grave;Until you're paying the bills.''
&'grave;Yes, ma'am,'' he said, pulling his hand back and winking at me.
&'grave;Dove!'' I said. &'grave;Do you mind?''
&'grave;Yes, I do,'' she answered. &'grave;That's what I was just saying.''
&'grave;Look,'' Gabe said, &'grave;I was supposed to pick up my gray suit at the cleaners by three o'clock, but I have a special meeting with the city council. Could you get it for me and drop it by the station?'' He pulled up his shirt to wipe the sweat off his face, revealing a hard, brown stomach.
&'grave;Sure,'' I said, trying not to stare at the line of coarse black hair trailing down and disappearing into his damp shorts.
&'grave;Thanks.'' He let his sweatshirt drop and grinned when he caught where I'd been looking.
Physically, our relationship had limped along with the speed of a hobbled horse, mostly due to my hesitancy to get involved. That didn't stop me from thinking about it. A lot.
&'grave;Eyes to yourself, young lady,'' Dove said.
My face tingled with warmth. &'grave;Gee, Dove, I don't think I'm embarrassed enough here. Maybe you could try a little harder and go for total humiliation.''
&'grave;You were the one whose eyes were grazing where they weren't supposed to,'' she said, lifting her white eyebrows.
Before I could shoot a smart remark back, Gabe diplomatically broke in. &'grave;I need to finish my five miles and shower. Do you want me to pick you up tonight?''
&'grave;No,'' I said. &'grave;I have to be at Oak Terrace early to supervise things. I guess I'll see you there. Try not to be late.''
&'grave;I'll try.'' He leaned over to kiss me, reaching for something from the back waistband of his shorts.
He was fast, but not fast enough.
When his lips touched mine, I pulled a small green water pistol from behind my back and shot him right in the temple.
&'grave;Head wound!'' I yelled. &'grave;Fifty points. I win!''
&'grave;Okay, pipsqueak, prepare to eat worms and die.'' He sprayed me in the face.
&'grave;No fair. Head wounds mean you're out of commission. That's cheating.'' I fired back with short, rapid bursts.
&'grave;I'm going to whip the both of you,'' Dove said, scurrying out of range, but not before getting hit with a stream of water.
After some artful dodging on his part and some juvenile shrieking on mine, he gave one last pull on his trigger, then shook his empty red pistol.
&'grave;Ha,'' I said, waving my still half-full gun in front of his face. &'grave;Looks like you're out of ammunition.''
&'grave;That's okay.'' He stuck his gun in the waistband of his shorts and wiggled his dark eyebrows. &'grave;I'm an extremely fast reloader.''
&'grave;You are one cocky son-of-a-sodbuster.'' I stepped closer and squirted him between the eyes.
&'grave;Grandson,'' he corrected. &'grave;And no farmer jokes this early in the day or I will be forced to arrest you. I'll invoke executive privilege and conduct the strip search myself.''
&'grave;In your dreams, pal.''
Over on the bed, Elvia cleared her throat. &'grave;Considering his means of employment, that is an incredibly sick game. You two need some serious counseling.''
&'grave;What they need to do is decide what they want to do with each other and get on with it,'' Dove said. &'grave;In my day we didn't make such a big darn deal of things. You tied the knot, did your business, then got up and fed the chickens.''
Gabe turned and looked at me, his face solemn. &'grave;The deal's off, sweetheart,'' he said. &'grave;You never said anything about chickens.'' He turned to walk out of the room.
&'grave;Smart aleck,'' Dove said, picking up the yardstick leaning against the wall and giving him a sharp smack on the backside. I have to give him credit; he only gave a fraction of a flinch. Without breaking stride, he raised a large hand in good-bye, the back of his neck slightly red.
Dove turned and shook the yardstick at me. &'grave;Trouble with young people these days is y'all make a joke about everything. And you think too much. Discuss everything to death.'' She fanned herself and headed for the kitchen. &'grave;My heavens, I think I need a cup of coffee. And wipe that water off your dress before it stains.''
Elvia gave a deep chuckle. &'grave;My brother would have paid fifty bucks for a picture of that. Can you imagine Miguel passing a snapshot around the police department of his boss getting a swat on the butt from your grandmother? Priceless.''
&'grave;Dove has four sons, nine grandsons and two great-
grandsons,'' I said. &'grave;Believe me, she is no respecter of men's butts.'' I went into the bathroom and grabbed a towel.
&'grave;So, what is the status between you and Gabe these days?'' Elvia asked casually.
&'grave;As in nada?''
&'grave;You got it.'' I dabbed at the water that was causing the yellow chiffon to glue itself to my skin.
&'grave;I take it that means you don't want to talk about it.'' She stood up and brushed imaginary lint off the front of her thighs. &'grave;I'm deeply hurt. We've been friends since second grade. We've always told each other everything.''
I ignored her and reached back to unzip the lamp-shade dress. My relationship with Gabe was something I wasn't ready to discuss in depth with anyone yet, not even my best friend. I was confused and nervous about going into another relationship, and when I get that way I tend to turtle into myself while trying to figure things out. It wasn't just the physical part that was intimidating, though after being married all my adult life to my high-school sweetheart, the thought of even taking my clothes off in front of another man was terrifying. It was really the emotional part that frightened me. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to love anyone again the way I had loved Jack. It was too hard when they left you. Fortunately, Gabe hadn't pushed it except in jest. He'd been happily divorced for seven years and wasn't even sure if he was staying in San Celina. His friend Aaron Davidson, San Celina's official police chief, had been diagnosed with liver cancer a month or so ago. Talking about the future was something Gabe and I both had reason to avoid. I stepped out of the dress and reached for my flannel shirt.
&'grave;Well, speaking of your love life, guess who's back in town?'' Elvia's black eyes glittered with mischief.
&'grave;Forget my love life, and who?''
&'grave;You're kidding.'' I sat on the bed and pulled on my jeans. Clay O'Hara. He hadn't crossed my mind in years, even though I knew he was Brady O'Hara's great-nephew. He had been the love of my life one whole summer when I was seventeen and mad at Jack for some reason I can't even remember now. Clay O'Hara, with the thick-lashed, wounded brown eyes, long, sandy sideburns and insolent pirate smile. &'grave;I wonder what he's doing here.''
&'grave;Apparently seeing to his uncle's financial business. He came into the bookstore yesterday. When he saw me, he walked right up and the first question out of his mouth was about you.''
I buttoned my shirt and tried to sound casual. &'grave;What did he ask?''
She inspected her long red acrylic nails. &'grave;Just wondered where you were living now. What you were doing. All I told him was where you worked. He knew about Jack.''
I couldn't resist the obvious question. &'grave;How does he look?''
&'grave;Actually, pretty good. He still has his hair. And that killer smile. Remember the night he crashed the Senior Farewell Dance and cut in on you and Jack? If Jack had been wearing his buck knife that night, Clay O'Hara would be singing soprano now.'' We grinned at each other. That night they both ended up with bruised knuckles and swollen mouths and I didn't get a goodnight kiss from either one of them.
&'grave;That was a long time ago,'' I said, tucking my shirt into my jeans. &'grave;He's probably married with six kids.''
&'grave;He didn't walk like a married man.''
&'grave;What's that supposed to mean?'' I laughed and threw a patchwork pillow at her. &'grave;You're a real troublemaker, Elvia Aragon.'' I checked my watch. &'grave;Shoot, I gotta go. I have to get Gabe's suit and drop by Oak Terrace and make sure those kids are actually getting the decorating done. And since I forgot to tell Gabe about Oralee and Mr. O'Hara, I better leave him a note.''
&'grave;Picking up suits,'' Elvia said, tsking under her breath. &'grave;Sounds pretty domestic to me.''
&'grave;I've picked up your dry cleaning a time or two,'' I pointed out. &'grave;I'm thoughtful to all my friends.''
&'grave;Well, don't forget, a certain chief of police is a pretty hot commodity on the singles block in this town. In between refereeing senior-citizen fights and pouring punch, you might try to fit in a dance or two with him. You might also consider making this a night to remember.''
&'grave;Pretty corny, Elvia. Wasn't that the theme for the Senior Farewell Dance? Wonder how long it took them to come up with that gem.''
&'grave;Watch it, I was chairman of the dance committee. Besides, it was a night to remember for you.''
&'grave;No kidding.'' Besides the fight between Clay and Jack, it was the first time Jack told me he loved me. He spoke the words from behind lips so swollen they could barely move, but got out &'grave;I love you'' nonetheless. Then we broke up two days later for the rest of the summer. &'grave;I can't believe it was seventeen years ago.''
&'grave;You know, something feels vaguely familiar about this prom business. I have an eerie feeling this is going to be another night you'll never forget.''
&'grave;Maybe. But probably not in the way you think.''
And, as so often happened in our friendship, we were both right.
Copyright 1995 by Earlene Fowler
Excerpted from "Irish Chain"
Copyright © 1996 Earlene Fowler.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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