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       Ryan's Hand, p.11

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “We’re in a hurry, Miss Emma. Let’s get some things together for this tenderfoot here.”

  Without consulting Cara, Miss Emma and Jeth selected for her a wardrobe of Western work wear. The boots presented a problem because of Cara’s small, narrow shoe size, but eventually a pair was found.

  “Why is it so important for me to have boots?” Cara asked.

  “Because you’re going to be doing some riding, Miss Martin.”

  Cara closed her mouth without further comment. She would take this up with him later, away from Miss Emma’s well-tuned ears.

  The disapproval of the woman had hurt, and Cara felt cheap and soiled. When Jeth joined her, they walked in silence to the car where he chucked the packages to the backseat. Then they drove to a local grocery store to fill Leon’s request for a case of coffee. Unwilling to face another Miss Emma, Cara remained in the car while Jeth made the purchase.

  During the drive back to the ranch, Jeth broke the silence by reminding her, “You knew what kind of reception you would receive in these parts when you elected to come to La Tierra, Miss Martin. Surely you didn’t expect to be greeted with open arms.”

  “Indeed I didn’t, Mr. Langston,” Cara said with crisp dignity, staring straight ahead with her chin raised an extra inch.

  “I’ll have Fiona wash the stiffness out of those jeans for you. Also I bought you a dozen pairs of rubber gloves that will protect your hands while you’re washing dishes.”

  Cara’s head turned in surprise. “That was very kind of you.”

  “Not at all. I don’t want you crumping out on Leon because your hands can’t take the soap and scalding water he uses.”

  Rebuffed, Cara gazed out the window at the star-filled night. Only an occasional pumping jack, outlined by the afterglow of the sunset, disturbed the endless prairie. To her, the strange-looking monsters that pumped oil from La Tierra’s lucrative acres were a symbol of the land itself: proud, remote, relentless—like the man who sat beside her. She gave a silent sigh and withdrew into the folds of her coat.

  Eventually the wrought-iron gates came into view and then presently the Continental was pulling to a stop before the porticoed entrance of the house. Cara’s breath of relief was cut short when Jeth said, “You go on in, Miss Martin. I’ll take care of the packages. You’ll eat with me tonight. No need to change. We’ll make an early night of it.”

  Cara could not face another evening with the rancher. Her eyes clouded with dismay as she spoke. “Mr. Langston, haven’t we seen enough of each other for one day?”

  Jeth’s cool gray eyes held a hard gleam. “You’ll be seeing a lot more of me, Miss Martin, so you’d better get used to the idea. As for me, I don’t think I would ever tire of looking at you. It’s your black heart I can do without.”

  Dispiritedly, Cara went upstairs to wash, thinking more about the ruin of a good silk blouse than those last words. When she came back down to the kitchen, she heard Jeth giving Fiona instructions about the jeans. They had been taken from their wrappings, and the bill had floated to the floor. Cara picked it up and tucked it into her pocket. “Good evening, Fiona,” Cara said and was rewarded with a nod of the stern gray head. “I appreciate your washing the jeans for me.”

  Jeth turned from the counter to hand her a glass of wine. He had poured himself a bourbon. “Thank you,” she murmured without meeting his eyes. She was acutely uncomfortable under his gaze and knew that he was aware of her discomfiture.

  Fiona rescued her by saying, “Some mail came for you today, señorita. It is with El Patrón’s in the hallway.”

  Cara followed Jeth to the entrance hall where a lone letter lay beside a bundle of correspondence neatly stacked on the refectory table. “Why, it’s from Harold St. Clair!” Cara cried delightedly when she saw the return address on the envelope. Eagerly she opened it and drew out a letter, absently fingering the gold seagull at her throat while she read.

  Jeth thumbed through his collection of mail. “Anything to do with the estate?” he asked casually.

  “Oh, no,” Cara assured him with a happy smile. “It’s just a friendly letter, that’s all—a breath of sea air from home.”

  “Is it now?” Jeth’s voice had hardened. “Finish that later, if you don’t mind. I’m hungry, and Fiona is waiting to serve us.”

  What a rude, bad-tempered man! Cara thought angrily, folding the letter and slipping it into her pocket next to the bill. She followed Jeth to the table, thinking how changeable his moods were and that the woman who married him was to be pitied.

  They were served in a small dining alcove off the main one, and Cara hoped the food and wine would induce sleep. They ate in silence for the most part, Cara apprehensive of the even blacker mood that had come over Jeth since she told him about Harold St. Clair’s letter. He probably thinks we’re conspiring against him, she surmised to herself. Well, let him stew!

  Waiting for coffee, Jeth pushed his chair back and remarked, “You know, of course, that there are no bathing or bathroom facilities at a roundup camp. When you pack, make sure you take that into account.”

  Cara gave him a dumbfounded stare, which Jeth met with an unruffled air of supreme indifference. “You’ve got to be kidding!” she exclaimed.

  “It’s not likely that I would ever kid you.” He struck a match to his after-dinner cigar and drew on it. “Enjoy your bath tonight. It will be one of the last you’ll have for a while.” He smiled, quite pleased with himself.

  She pushed back her chair and got up. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day. I’ll have to deprive you of any further dubious pleasure you might get from my company this evening.”

  “Pity,” said Jeth idly, tapping the ash from his cigar. “I had hoped you would play for me.”

  Cara paused in her escape from the room. Her expression when she turned back to him held its own irony. “You wouldn’t enjoy my playing, Mr. Langston. The piano is one place where you cannot make a fool of me.” She left him gazing after her, his eyes expressionless behind the smoke.

  The next day passed too rapidly for Cara. Between serving meals, packing the vans, and watching what was going on outside the ranch kitchen with horses and men in preparation for departure to the campsite, Cara could hardly believe it when Leon said, “That’s it for today, li’l lady. You go on up to the big house ’fore it gets too dark to see. I imagine you still have yore own packin’ to do. Get plenty of rest tonight, now. Yore gonna need it.”

  Tiredly Cara removed the big white apron that Leon had let her use. “You won’t have to tell me that twice,” she said. “Good night, Leon. I’ll see you in the morning.” But as she stepped out of the swinging back doors, she collided with the tall man who had nodded pleasantly to her yesterday.

  “Whoa there,” he said in a friendly voice, steadying her. “You okay?”

  “Of course.” Cara smiled up at him. “How about you?”

  “No harm done.” He grinned. “This gives me a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jim Foster.” With obvious reluctance he removed his arms from around her to hold out a hand.

  “Cara Martin,” she said, feeling her hand swallowed as he took it. “You’re the foreman, aren’t you?”

  “That’s right. I run things when Jeth’s not around. You must be sure and let me know if there’s anything I can do for you when we’re out there.”

  Leon was at the sink still tidying up, his back to them, but Cara sensed he was taking great interest in the conversation. “I’ll remember that, Mr. Foster. Thank you very much.”

  “Jim,” he corrected with a smile, and Leon turned from the sink.

  “Time you were goin’, Miss Martin. Daylight be gone soon.”

  With a polite nod to the men, Cara left, buttoning her new jean jacket against the stiff night wind as she walked across the ranch yard. There had been some sort of unfriendly undercurrent back there between the foreman and Leon. She was sure of it. She must be careful not to become inadvertently drawn into ranch politics.
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  Cara had glimpsed Jeth only once during the busy day. He had not eaten either breakfast or lunch in the Feedtrough. Now she looked back at the saddling pens that skirted the big central corral. In the pens were all the horses, the remuda, that Jim had assigned to each man for the roundup. Leon had said that each ranch hand would need a change of five horses a day for the work he must do. All day the riders had been shoeing them as well as preparing their own range gear for a month’s stay on the open plains. Tomorrow there would be a giant exodus of men and horses, trailers, and vans to the first roundup site fifty miles away. In spite of herself, Cara felt a thrill of excitement about the coming adventure.

  When she entered her room, Cara found neatly folded on the bed the new jeans and shirts laundered to an old-clothes softness and fragrance. She picked up the flannel shirts and buried her nose in them, inhaling the freshness with appreciation after a day of smelling horses, sweat, and manure. There was no way of knowing how many times these clothes had been washed to acquire the comfortable texture they had now. She must find a way to express her thanks to Fiona.

  A knock came on the door. “Come in,” she called, but it was Jeth Langston, not Fiona, who entered her bedroom. The hard light in his eyes warned her that he was in an irritable mood, possibly because he was as bone-tired as she was. A deep brim crease around his head suggested that he had not taken his hat off until a few minutes ago, and dust caked his clothes. Without preamble he said abruptly, “Here is a list of things you’ll need. Have everything packed and ready outside your door no later than six o’clock in the morning, earlier if you can manage it. Do you have any questions?”

  “Why—I haven’t had time to think of any—”

  “Too late now,” he said curtly, turning to leave.

  “That’s all right,” Cara said to the broad-shouldered back. “Jim Foster can answer any questions I might have.”

  Slowly Jeth turned back around to face her, and Cara could have kicked herself for the remark. Why had she said such a thing? she scolded herself. The rancher’s eyes glinted like sun off metal as he walked back to her. “What do you mean by that, Cara?” he asked softly.

  “Why, nothing!” Cara said, wide-eyed. She pressed the clothes protectively against her. “What else could I have meant?”

  “You tell me,” Jeth said, so near to her now that she could see the stubble on his face, smell the rough male scents of him. “You wouldn’t be thinking of playing your little games out there with any of my men, would you?”

  “I don’t know what you mean—” Jeth stopped her protest by grasping her jaw in a firm hold.

  “Because if you are,” he went on as if she had not spoken, “just remember that I would take a dim view of such a fool-hardy idea. That should dampen your enthusiasm considerably.” He gave her jaw a stern little shake. “Those men will be without women for over a month. They don’t need you to remind them of what they’re missing.”

  “Then why am I going?” Cara demanded angrily, clutching his wrist.

  “I told you why.” He released her and she retreated against the writing desk. Something fluttered to the floor, and he reached down and picked it up. “What’s this?” he asked, frowning.

  “It’s my check to you for these clothes,” Cara said, rubbing where his fingers had been. What a beast he was!

  Jeth looked at it with contempt. “Written on money that Ryan transferred to your account?” His scorn was as cutting as a scalpel. So he knew about that, too, did he? thought Cara. As he pocketed the check, she said in a futile, childish attempt at some revenge, “You are such a dreadful man.”

  “That is an opinion shared by a number of my enemies. Fiona will bring your meal. I suggest you turn in early. Now no doubt you will excuse me. I’m going for a swim.”

  The next morning was a virtual beehive of activity in the ranch yard as men gathered with their equipment to be stowed in the caravan of vehicles leaving for the campsite. The remuda had been assembled, and Cara overheard Jeth giving instructions to Jim about which men were to ride in the trucks and which were to drive the remuda to a canyon close to where the cattle would be gathered.

  The atmosphere crackled with excitement. Cara could feel the eagerness in horses and men to get started. “I should be frightened, I suppose,” Cara told Leon, “but actually, this is all very thrilling.”

  “The novelty will wear off for you after a day or two,” Leon told her, “but for most of those men out there, this ’n’ the fall roundups are the best times on a ranch.”

  What, Cara wanted to know, was the purpose of a roundup?

  “To gather up for brandin’ and inoculation all the new calves born this spring,” Leon answered. “On a ranch the size of this one, roundin’ up the cattle is about the only way to count ’em. At the same time we do that, we drive ’em up to the high country for the summer where the grass is more plentiful. Jeth believes in modernization, but there ain’t nothin’ like men on horseback to gather cattle. Some ranches have gone to usin’ helicopters for roundin’ up their herds. It wouldn’t work for us. We got too many cattle. Them helicopters ’ud just start a stampede.”

  By eight o’clock the kitchen had once again been cleaned after breakfast, and Leon told Cara to climb into the pickup truck that would lead the two customized, refrigerated vans that made up the chuckwagon. Leon tooted the horn and yelled out of his window, “We’ll have the chow waitin’!” as the three-vehicle cavalcade pulled out of the ranch yard. The cowhands cheered and waved their hats and lariats. Cara laughed, caught up in the excitement of the new adventure, and searched among the group for Jeth. She caught instead the eye of Bill, who couldn’t suppress a grin when she waved at him, and then the rather stern, speculative gaze of Jim Foster. The foreman nodded to her without smiling and touched the brim of his hat. Puzzled, Cara gave him a brief smile before settling back to experience her second ride across the open range of La Tierra Conquistada.

  Fifty miles later, in a high clearing fringed by scrub oak and mesquite trees, Leon drew up beside a great blackened pit dug in the earth. Beside it was stacked an enormous supply of firewood, cut and piled, Leon explained, before the roundup began. “This is where the first campsite was last year,” he told Cara as they climbed out of the truck. “We’ll have to get the fire goin’ so we can get the coffee on and the steak fried ’fore the men get here.”

  Cara took a minute to stretch and take stock of her surroundings. Her eyes swept acres of rolling, semiarid dun hills and mountain slopes, still under the last dull wash of winter. With a trick of the mind’s eye, Cara thought, you could almost imagine you were looking at the Atlantic; the land had the same unbroken endlessness. She took a deep breath of the snappy morning air, letting some of the tense excitement ease out of her shoulders. If she could manage to keep from incurring Jeth Langston’s wrath, maybe this wouldn’t be such an unpleasant month after all.

  By noon the chuckwagon was in operation. Tiered shelves had been unfolded from the back end of the covered pickup truck, and the earthen pit was crackling with red coals. A ten-by-ten-foot tarpaulin, in the gray and yellow colors of La Tierra, had been stretched over four metal posts anchored in the earth. Kettles of beans, chili, and stew hung from an iron bar over the campfire, simmering for the evening meal. Their spicy smells blended richly in the pure mountain air with those of coffee and fried steak. Lunch was a catch-as-catch-can kind of meal. As their work permitted, the men came in twos and threes to eat quickly the huge slabs of fried steak served between thick slices of bread. They washed the food down with scalding cups of coffee before mounting up to ride back to the draws and mountain passes to flush the cattle and lead them to a holding pen.

  In midafternoon, when no kettle needed stirring or seasoning, Cara strolled over to an enclosure where three young calves were penned. They had healthy, russet-colored bodies and white faces, and the sun shone pinkly through their short, perky ears. One of the calves ambled up to Cara and let out a plaintive bawl. “What are you doi
ng here, little fella?” she soothed. “Sounds like you need your mother.” The calf seemed mollified by Cara’s attention and let her continue to stroke it, batting tender brown eyes that she found endearing.

  After a while she went in search of a place where she could wash and dress privately away from the hub of the campsite, and found an outcropping of brushy rocks that screened a shallow hollow. There were several flat boulders in the depression, perfect for holding a mirror and a pan of water. Cara returned to the pen and patted her new friend, then carried water and her clothes satchel to the depression to freshen up before she had to help with the final preparations for supper. She was able to manage a thorough wash, she’d like Jeth Langston to know, and after a change of clothes she felt as clean and refreshed as if she’d had a soaking bath. She applied fresh makeup and brushed her hair until it shone, securing it away from her face with a blue ribbon that matched the blue in her eyes.

  Leon surveyed her over the top of his glasses when she rejoined him under the tarpaulin, but she could not tell from his permanent scowl if he approved her appearance or not. Busy ladling out flour into a huge bowl for sourdough biscuits, he remarked, “Put on that big white apron there and wrap it around ya two, three times, Miss Martin—that’s a good girl.” Cara did as he instructed, smiling to herself. In his own gruff way he was trying to protect her from the too-curious eyes of the men.

  She was rolling out biscuits when the men began returning to camp. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw for the first time that day Jeth’s tall figure astride the big bay. He dismounted without glancing toward the chuckwagon and strode quickly to a gray pickup that Cara knew contained a telephone for communicating with his office at the ranch.

  Busy with her chores, Cara barely noticed Leon leave her to join a group of two Mexican cowboys, vaqueros, and a plump, merry-faced man who earlier in the day had arrived bumping over the plains in a white van. “Harry’s Meat Market” was emblazoned in red on the door of the van, and Cara had thought the man had come to dicuss an order for beef. Leon had greeted him jovially, and the two had enjoyed a gossip session over steaming cups of coffee.

 
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