I want to thank Calamity Carol and Cheryl G (thanks guys) for their kind reading over my chapters as I turned them out and the input they gave in shaping those chapters. Not only did they help in that vein, they offered to do the final beta read on what worked itself into a voracious monster. Carol cheerfully tossed the monster bones from time to time, making it grow fatter and fatter. Cheryl, on the other hand (you can thank her) toned down the wordiness and fabulously tuned things up with great adjectives (she’s truly a wizard). Again, thanks guys. Both, also, helped to try and convince me that my imagination wasn’t a sure sign of insanity and encouraged me onward. I’m not really sure if there’s any stories left to find in this old brain of mine, but then, who knows. If so, I’m hoping one or both might be there to cover my back(side) again should I attempt another. They were fabulous to work with and contributed so much to make this story come together. I hope you enjoy the read.
Where the Greenbriers Twine
The morning on the Sherman ranch broke like most, the sun coming up to wake the sleepy occupants. The days were growing shorter as summer was waning and fall was creeping up to assault them. The mornings were crisp and cool, sometimes even cold, but the days were sunny and still warm to hot as long as the wind wasn’t blowing cold air into Wyoming from Canada.
Even though it was only early August, Canada geese could already be seen cutting the sky in huge v-shaped flocks winging south to their wintering grounds. They make enough noise to wake the ranch house inhabitants hadn’t the crack of dawn, and the crowing roosters, not already done so. They were an ominous warning of what was to come to the territory in another month or two.
First to rise was Jonesy, stretching his back to force away the stiffness that always came upon him each morning. In his advanced years he found that the cooler mornings tended to create more and more aches and pains upon waking. His back had been a problem for many years due to an old injury from when he was younger, but it was the new twinges and discomforts that concerned him the most. He dreaded getting older and imagining how much more these nuisances could become more painful to the point that he might not be able to get out of bed to tend to his many chores.
His body resembling a walking question mark, the older man shuffled first to the living area putting some applewood and hickory logs into the almost extinguished fireplace. Stirring the coals, he woke a spark. Tossing some kindling into the red glow, a small flame resulted and started to lick at the larger logs releasing the fragrant scent of the burning hardwoods. He recognized that taking the chill off the house would bring some relief to the aching in his bones and joints. At least when the morning fire died down, the heat from the sun baking the roof of the small ranch house would warm it until dusk in the lingering summer days. Once Jonesy was sure the fire was well on its way to warming the little house, he ambled toward the kitchen rubbing his painful knuckles, to start breakfast for the three young men for whom he cared for at the ranch.
In one bedroom, Andy was awake and staring out the window from his bunk, looking out at the day as it was brightening. He knew he had to get up and get his morning chores done before going off to school. Hating the goose bumps from the chill of the morning, he got up, pulling his blanket around him as he shuddered against the cold. Going to his bedroom door, he opened it a crack to see if Jonesy was awake yet. If he was, the young teen knew that he wouldn’t have time to crawl back into his bed to grab a few more winks of sleep. Sure enough, Jonesy toddled by his door headed for the kitchen. Even if Andy hadn’t seen the older man, the flush of heat from the outer room hitting his face would have revealed to him that someone was already awake in the house and had revived the fire.
Noticing the door ajar, Jonesy stopped in mid stride, “Morning, Andy.”
Opening the door a little farther, Andy‘s face appeared, “Mornin’, Jonesy. I reckon it’s time to get up, huh?”
“I reckon,” Jonesy said, again reaching for the small of his back as he continued on to the kitchen. “If you want to eat, better get out to the coop and bring in some eggs.”
“I know, Jonesy. Gettin’ dressed right away.” The boy responded, closing the door to go find his clothes.
In another bedroom, Slim and Jess were awake. They were already discussing the chores they had ahead of them for the day while shaving at the dresser in their room. Half dressed, they were eager to get started while they had daylight on these shortening days. Chasing cattle or horses after dark wasn’t high on their list of things to do. With winter coming closer by the day, getting all the fences in good repair was a must. The weather was never kind during the winter months. Repairs were always necessary, even when the fence was in good shape before the heavy snows and ice storms came.
Once the two men were dressed, they carried their boots to the living area. Sitting down before the hearth, they were grateful for its warmth to loosen their own morning stiffness resulting from the previous day’s strenuous work. Slim smiled with the memories of home and hearth, grateful for what life had dealt him. The fire brought different memories of a terrible time in Jess’ life when he’d lost his family. Trying hard to push those thoughts aside, they didn’t pass by Slim’s scrutiny. Almost like reading Jess’ mind, Slim put his arm across his friend’s shoulders, pulling him a little closer, letting him know that he no longer needed to worry about those long ago days. Jess now had a family and was safe in the arms of his newfound kin. Jess looked at his boss, a smile spreading across his sullen face, fully accepting the message his best friend was sending him in that brief interaction. In silence, but enjoying the private moment fully, they pulled on their boots before heading for the kitchen.
“Morning, Jonesy,” the tall blonde man said as he entered the room. “Coffee ready yet?”
“Keep your shirt on, I’m moving as fast as I can,” the older man responded, conveying his agitation while using his gathered apron to pull a tray of biscuits from the stove. “I got two hands and both of them are busy right now.”
“Back bothering you again?” Slim asked as he noticed how difficult it appeared for the older man to straighten up after stooping over to retrieve the tray from the stove. Slim reached in the cupboard to pull out some cups for the anticipated coffee, trying to be helpful, leaving one less thing for the older man to have to do.
“Yeah, I reckon it’s going be a long winter, and it’s going to be here too soon for my liking,” Jonesy said, reaching for the coffee pot lid to check the progress of the brew. “Coffee won’t be long, Slim.”
“Is Andy up yet?” the blonde man asked, never to let anyone get away with not doing their share around the ranch, much less his little brother.
“Yeah, he’s out getting the eggs for breakfast. He should be back in a minute,” the older man said, pulling a fry pan out from the cupboard, unable to hide the wince on his face as another of his pains sneaked up on him. After throwing some of the bacon he’d previously sliced into the pan, he slowly hobbled to the door to see what was keeping Andy with the eggs.
The youngster came around the corner of the house, basket in hand, looking over his shoulder as if he’d seen or heard something unusual.
“Don’t dawdle, boy,” the impatient older man said, not taking notice of the young teen’s quizzical expression.
“Here ya go, Jonesy,” the boy said, handing the impatient man the basket. Looking to his brother, he said, “Mornin’, Slim. Hey, there’s somethin’ goin’ on out past the corral. I heard somethin’, not sure what it was, though.”
Overhearing the conversation, Jess came into the kitchen, “Yeah? What did it sound like?” he asked with suspicious interest.
“Mornin’, Jess,” Andy said, shaking his head. “Not sure. Almost like a calf, but not quite, and we don’t have any that young here now anyway.”
“Calf? This time of year? I doubt it.” Slim said, reaching for the coffee pot, checking the brew inside. Deciding it had steeped long enough, he poured some into the three cups, offering one to his friend and picking one up for himself. The last was for Jonesy once he was done cracking eggs into the frying pan.
Leaning against the cupboard, Slim inquired, “You say it was out the other side of the corral?”
“Yeah, I think so,” the boy reconfirmed his impression.
“Well, you get ready for school. Jess and I’ll ride out that way to check on it after breakfast.” the older brother said, taking a sip of his coffee as he followed Jess to the table.
Finished with breakfast, the two ranchers were ready to set out when a knock came to the door. Slim opened it to find a young, dark-haired girl about Andy’s age on the porch, her horse tied to the post near the house.
“Good morning, sir,” she said, her dark eyes dancing as she looked up at the tall rancher. “My father sent me to ask for your help. Our vardo, I mean, our wagon, broke down just over the ridge,” she said, pointing west of the corral. “The axle and wheel are broken. He was wondering if he could use some of your tools to try and repair it.”
“Of course,” Slim said, smiling at her.
Andy and Jess joined Slim as he went out on the porch with the girl. “I’ll ride out with you to see what you need. If you need a place to stay for a few days, you’re welcome to stay here at the ranch,” Slim added.
“Why thank you. I know my father will be very grateful to hear that,” the brightly dressed girl replied with a brilliant smile.
“I’m Slim Sherman, and this is my brother, Andy,” the rancher said, putting his arm across the shoulders of his sibling. “We own this ranch. Jess, here,” he added, nodding in the direction of his friend, “he’s our ranch-hand. We’ll all be glad to help you.”
“My name is Crina,” the young teenaged girl said, smiling shyly at Andy from under dark, long, full eyelashes.
“That’s a pretty name,” Andy replied, already taking a liking to the pretty girl with the sparkling eyes.
“You better get your books, the stage will be here soon,” Slim reminded the boy.
“Aw, Slim,” Andy said, reluctantly turning to go back to the house.
“Goodbye, Andy. Nice to have met you,” the young girl said, causing Andy to turn back around to wave to her before departing. A broad smile spread across his face. He was obviously already smitten.
“We have to ready the horses for the morning stage,” Slim explained. “We can ride out to check on your wagon once we get the stage on its way,” he quickly added.
“I can help you with your horses, if you wish” the girl said.
“You?” Jess asked, surprised that such a little thing would volunteer.
“Yes, I am quite good with horses. They like me and I like them, and they know it. You are so kind. Please, let me help,” she said putting her hands on her hips.
The two ranchers exchanged glances. “I think we’d better handle this one, ourselves, Miss, but thanks for the offer,” Slim said, amused by her spunk. “Why don’t you ride back and tell your father that we’ll be there shortly. We do this everyday and know what we’re doing, it really only takes the two of us. Besides, your father’s probably waiting and worried about what happened to you.”
“He won’t be worried, but I guess he’d like to know that help is on the way. I will go ride to tell him you will be coming. Thank you.” Crina said, turning to go to where her horse was waiting. Climbing up on the aged gray horse, she turned him to where the two men were still standing and watching her. “Thank you, again,” she said before booting her horse into a lope out of the yard, heading through an open field to the west part of the ranch.
In the distance, the two young men heard the sound that Andy had previously described. Listening closely, Jess commented, “Ummmm, Slim, I don’t know about you but I don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like sheep to me.”
“Yeah, it does. Maybe they’re driving some sheep to market.”
Jess shook his head as he ambled toward the barn to get the stage equipment, muttering, “Why did they have to break down here. They’ll ruin that pasture for sure.”
Following close behind his friend, Slim overheard Jess’ grumbling, “Don’t worry, they won’t be here that long. We’ll fix their wagon and send them on their way, Pard.”
Reaching for the leather harnesses hanging on the wall, Jess said, “I hope so. We sure don’t need any sheepherders around these parts. Every time I’ve run into sheep it seems like a range war breaks out.“
“So I’ve heard. They’re probably just passing through.” Slim replied. Worry lines creased his forehead as he looked off in the direction of where the distinct sound of sheep was carried on the morning breeze.
“Sure hope you’re right.” Jess said, carrying the equipment out of the barn toward the corral to harness the horses to await the morning relief run.
After the stage left, taking Andy off to school, the two ranchers saddled their horses to ride to the near west pasture to check on the broken down wagon. Upon their arrival they found a full gypsy camp of several wagons set up, along with a hundred or more sheep grazing on the lush grass of the field. Three men on horseback, along with four sheep-herding dogs, were tending to the flock.
Glancing at his companion, Jess could tell that Slim wasn’t happy to see so many sheep taking advantage of the grass that was to be used in the spring for the heifers giving birth where they’d be closer to the house and away from predator sheltering buttes. The sheep would eat the grass down to nubs, if not pulling it out by the root. Both men had heard of, but not experienced, fields destroyed by excessive sheep herding.
Riding into the camp, Crina ran out to meet them, calling to her father. Slim dismounted, handing the reins to Jess, who remained in the saddle.
The older gypsy came forward, presenting his hand in friendship, “My name is Dragos, welcome to our camp,” he said, as Slim shook his hand, trying to hide his displeasure of the situation.
‘His camp?’ Jess snorted to himself as he surveyed Slim’s land being used by the traveling troupe.
“I’m Slim Sherman, I own this ranch. I understand you’re in need of tools to repair your wagon,” Slim said, looking to see which of the wagons was in distress.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Sherman, that vardo over there,” Dragos said, pointing to one of the larger, gaudily painted wooden covered wagons.
“How did you get here? This is private property, there’s a fence…” Slim started to say, again looking at the herd of sheep, his irritation beginning to show.
“We took the fence down. We would have had to go around the canyon otherwise. We replaced the fence and would not have stopped if the vardo had not broken down. I am so very sorry. I know how ranchers frown upon our sheep. I am truly sorry, Mr. Sherman. If I could pay you, I would, but we have no money. I could give you some sheep in payment, if you wish…” the strangely dressed man apologized.
“No, no, we don’t want any sheep. We’ll help you fix your wagon so you can be on your way. What seems to be broken?” Slim asked, as they strode toward the damaged wagon.
“It is the axle and the wheel that is broken. It may take us some time to get it fixed, I’m afraid. The back axle took a lot of weight, as well, when the front axle broke. I am afraid that when we jack up the vardo, it may break that one as well,” the sheepherder said as two other men from the band joined them beside the broken wagon.
“This is Mihail and Grigore, my brothers.” Dragos introduced the pair. The two men were dressed in the same baggy britches as Dragos wearing brightly colored sashes tied around their waists. All were donning headbands, much in the tradition of the Apache Indians, keeping their long hair from blowing into their eyes. One man was sporting a rather large hooped earring, Slim noted.
Remembering Jess waiting on the horse behind them, Slim turned and waved him to where the men stood, introducing him to the Romanian men.
From the wagons, several people were looking out, while others were milling around the camp doing various chores, but all eyes gaped in the direction where the men were talking. The camp was full of all ages from the very young to the very old, all curious about the two men who had come to help them; each keeping their distance, but straining their ears to listen to the conversation. Not often were they welcome anywhere and finding anyone to help them was never an easy find.
From his horse, unconsciously chewing at his bottom lip, Jess tried to count the number of sheep, guessing that there was more than a hundred hungry mouths ripping at the grass. Already he could see near bare spots surrounding the herd where the animals had already grazed.
Slim examined the damaged wagon finding that, sure enough, the wheel was irreparable and that the axle, as well would need to be replaced. Sadly, as reported, the back axle looked seriously worn and wouldn’t last much longer even if the stress of jacking up the wagon didn’t break it. Checking the other wooden wheels, the men found another that was missing two spokes and would need repair as well. All in all, it would take days to get the materials together to make the wagon travel worthy once again, much to Slim’s dismay.
Deciding on which tools would be necessary, Slim promised the men he’d be back shortly with them so they could get started at trying to do what repairs they could manage before deciding on what other materials they’d need to complete the job.
Heading back to the ranch, Jess started to “baaaaaa,” unable to disguise his impish grin.
“Funny, Harper, real funny,” Slim commented with no humor visible in his tone, his own thoughts wrapped up in the damage he perceived that the sheep were doing to his pasture.
“Bet ya never thought ya’d be haborin’ any sheep here on the ranch,” Jess laughed, finding the situation amusing.
“They had to pick that pasture to come through,” the tall rancher said soberly, “It was coming back just the way I wanted and now this. We’ll have to use the east pasture for the calving now I reckon. I don’t like the wire there for the calves. We could lose a few out there.”
“Yeah, I know whatcha mean, Pard. We’ll manage. That grass is just as good.”
“But it’s too close to the butte. We’ll have to worry about the big cats, too.”
“Not much we can do about it. A few days fixin’ that wagon ‘n those sheep’ll have the grass ruined out there. Maybe we’ll have time to do something with that east fencin’ before we need to move the cattle there,” Jess tried to assure his friend.
“You still don’t know this part of the country, Jess. They’ll be calving while there’s still snow on the ground. We have them all in the pasture next to the west pasture, easy to move them, now we have to drive them to the east side,” Slim remonstrated sourly.
“So, we move ‘em now to the pasture south of the east side. We move ‘em there now, then come spring, they’ll be set to move in closer for calvin’,” Jess suggested.
“I reckon. They’ll owe us. I’ll ask for a few of their men to help us herd them there. I reckon that’s all we can do,” the tall rancher agreed.
“That looked like a pretty heavy axle,” the dark haired man commented.
“Yeah, I think they’ll have to get one from town. I doubt we have anything straight or heavy enough here on the ranch to work. They’ll have to go to town to find one, and I think we’ll have to haul it back for them. It doesn’t look like they’re equipped to be able to do it,” the blonde man said.
“That could take days,” Jess said, concern notable in his voice. “There won’t be much of anything left out there. They’ll be movin’ those sheep along to graze the whole time.”
“I know. That’s what has me worried. We have to get them moving as soon as we can.”
At the barn, the two men gathered the tools they thought would be necessary to get started at working on the damaged wagon. Before leaving, Slim went to the house to fill Jonesy in on the situation, raising the older man’s concern over the damage that sheep were known to cause to grasslands. “If sheep aren’t bad enough, but a thieving gypsy camp, to boot,” Jonesy muttered as he followed Slim to the door. “What if the neighbors find out?” were the final words Slim heard as he closed the door behind him.
Slim was glad to close the door on the older man’s ravings. He was already stressed over the circumstances. He really didn’t need Jonesy adding to his concerns.
Jess had the wagon team hitched and ready to carry the tools to the Romani camp when Slim reached at the barn. Climbing into the wagon, Slim remarked, “Jonesy isn’t too happy about those folks out there. He says that gypsies are known thieves. I sure hope he’s wrong.”
“Never met any. I’ve heard tales, too, but ya hear tales about all sorts of folk, Indians, Mexicans. I know good ‘n bad in all ‘em. I reckon we gotta give ‘em the benefit of the doubt, not much more we can do right now. They’re not gonna move on with that broken wagon, that’s for sure,” the younger man said.
Slim nodded in agreement, “I reckon we’ll have to keep it in mind and make sure nothing turns up missing. I’d like to think those folks are honest herders and just passing through. Jonesy said to count the chickens,” he smiled, shaking his head. “Funny how some people are labeled due to a few bad apples. Look what they say about Texans.”
“Huh? What do they say about Texans?” Jess asked incredulously, his thoughts of the gypsy band now forgotten.
“Nothing, Pard. Just funnin’ ya,” Slim said, grinning as he slapped the reins to get the horses moving.
The light-heartedness of the moment was short -lived when they arrived at the mended fencing where the sheep were pushed through into the pasture. They could see where the grass had been ripped from the ground. The reputation of sheep was being revealed to the two ranchers as a sad truth. Neither man had ever witnessed sheep damage personally but they’d heard tell from others and now understood the reason for the wars that tended to arise between the cattlemen and sheepherders. They’d be very happy to see these people and their sheep move on from the Sherman ranch as quickly as possible.
When the two men reached the gathering of wagons, they saw that the camp had already been set up as if it had been there for days. There were several cook fires burning with large iron pots puffing aromatic steam into the cool late morning air. Some men were setting up awnings attached to the sides of the wagons while a few women were cooking food in kitchen sized pans and pots over smaller fires closer to their wagons. Several children were playing games of tag and chasing each other, squealing in delight. Others, of all ages, were in the field tending to the sheep. They worked along with a few dogs keeping the flock together. One herder whistled cues to the dogs to move the herd, keeping them close together and not allowing any of the animals to stray from the direction they were driving them. Seeing that the sheep were being kept in a small area eased Slim’s mind some, but he knew that they would keep slowly moving as they grazed. Scattered or all in a smaller moving mass, the grass was being used up just the same.
Seeing the buckboard approaching, Dragos, and his brother Mihail, left the broken vardo where they were unloading some of their possessions to lighten it. Dragos smiled to see that the ranchers were well prepared with tools and a hoist to help them jack up the wheeled dwelling. “That was fast, Mr. Sherman. I am much obliged. We are unloading much of the wagon to take weight off the other axle so it too does not break, but there it looks like it was badly damaged, as well. I am afraid we will need to replace them both. That one will not last long and we have a long way to travel for the winter.”
“We don’t have lumber to make an axle for that heavy of a wagon, Mr., ummm. I’m afraid I didn’t get your last name,” Slim apologized, climbing down from the wagon.
“Oh, no, Mr. Sherman, Dragos is just fine. I am afraid most people have difficulty with my last name. I seldom use it. I will call more to help us get things unloaded from your wagon,” the darkly tanned man said, calling out to some of the other men. “I am sure you want to return to your own chores as soon as possible. I do not want to inconvenience you too much,” he smiled, as he grabbed a handful of tools and put them on the ground near the broken wagon.
It took no time for the seven men to unload the buckboard, hook up the pulley operation, and chain the damaged vardo in preparation for lifting. Once the broken wagon was stabilized, some of the camp’s men returned to unloading the defective wagon of furniture and goods to other vardos or under the outstretched awnings. When nothing more was to be removed, Jess took charge of the team of horses and pulled the broken wagon into position so the men could put empty water barrels under it to hold it in place for fixing any other damage to the undercarriage they might find.
“Mr. Sherman…” Dragos began.
“Slim, please call me Slim. We needn’t be so formal. I feel funny calling you by your first name and you calling me Mr. Sherman. Slim is fine,” the tall blonde said, wiping his sleeve across the bead of sweat that had formed on his forehead while helping to roll and then stand up the large, heavy barrels into their shoring places.
“Very well, thank you, Mr., I mean, Slim,” Dragos said, the smile spreading to his dark, sparkling eyes. Slim could see that Crina certainly had her father’s eyes. “My family and I have been talking about how to repay you for your help, and I know our sheep are not welcome on most ranches. We would like it very much if you joined us for supper tonight. You and your family? Crina said you have a brother, too?”
“Yes, she met Andy this morning. We also have a friend that helps at the ranch.”
Dragos interrupted him, “Of course, everyone at the ranch is welcome. May I ask how many to expect? We love to entertain guests. It will be a festival, my friend.”
“Oh, well, that would be four of us, but, I hate to impose,” Slim said, trying to dodge the invitation, already dreading what Jonesy might think and say.
“No imposing. You are doing so much for us. Many ranchers would have run us off, making us leave our vardo. We are a poor people, but we have food we can share. Let us at least do that for you and your family. You have already refused us giving you any of our sheep. Please. Please let us at least feed you and entertain you. We will have music and dance after we eat. Every night is as festive as we can make it. We wish to share it with you and your family,” Dragos said, pointing to the large cook pots steaming with tempting aromas. “The food and wine shall flow freely,” he winked at the two ranchers. “Watching the dancing may entice you to join us,” he smiled slyly then winked again.
Slim looked at his friend. Jess shrugged his shoulders, not knowing what to say. He knew Slim was trying to back out of the commitment, but he had no idea how to say no any more diplomatically than his boss. Besides, it had never been his strong suit to say no to food or wine.
“I reckon we could use a break from the ranch, and Jonesy might enjoy not having to cook tonight. We do have work that we must get finished today, though. I reckon we could come tonight and join you,” Slim conceded, looking at the camp, worrying a bit that it was looking more and more like a settlement than a temporary bivouac.
“Okay, then done. We will see you then. When is best for you?” Dragos pressed.
“The last stage today goes through around four. We should be able to head out sometime after that,” Slim replied.
“Ah, well before dark. We will look forward to spending time with your family, Mr. ah, Slim. Bring your appetites. There will be plenty for everyone and, please, plan to stay for the festivities afterwards. Like I said, we will have music and dance. We live a simple life, but we make the most of it. The weather will be good, look to the west. Clear. No clouds. It will be good. Bring blankets, though, it may be a bit cool after the sun sets. The fires will be warm, but a good blanket will keep out any chill. Ah, but if you dance…” the gypsy went on, his eyes giving away his pleasure at being able to entertain his hosts, and very grateful to having not been run off the property.
“I’m afraid we don’t dance,’ Slim smiled, “but it will be fun to watch.”
“Ah, we shall see,” Dragos, said with a wink. “Until tonight, then. And thank you, ah, Slim, for the tools and help getting the vardo up on the barrels. We can now work and see what we need and I will send someone to town to find what we require to fix it. I fear we will have to hire someone to bring us the axles, though.”
“No need to hire anyone. Once you have them ordered, Jess and I can take the buckboard to town and bring them out to you. Go to the livery, I think Wes can help you. He’ll make you a new wheel, fix the spokes in the other, and get you the axles. He might have to order them, though. We don’t have much need for heavy rigging like that around here much. Tell him that I’ll be picking them up for you,” Slim offered.
“That we will do. I hope he will take sheep as payment,” Dragos said.
Obvious worry spread over Slim’s face, “I don’t think so. You mean you have no way to pay for the axles and wheel?”
“No, we are a poor people. We work off what we need to buy or trade in sheep. Perhaps he will let some of my brothers work for him to pay for the axle?”
“Dragos. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what Wes will say or how he can help you. You’ll have to talk with him, but you have to do something. I can’t keep your sheep here on my ranch, you have to understand.”
“I do, Mr. Sherman, I sincerely do. I am sorry this had to happen. You must understand, too, we do what we have to do,” Dragos said, the sadness of the situation showed in his eyes.
“Yes, well see what you can do. We’ll talk again tonight. Jess and I have work we have to get done today. Winter is getting too close and there’s still too much we need to get done before the snow starts to fall. Good luck in town. The offer is still good for us to pick up your axles,” Slim said, as he climbed into the wagon, where Jess had been patiently waiting, but in deep thought as he eyed the grazing sheep. Taking the reins in hand, Slim directed the horses to return to the house.
Once out of earshot of the camp, Jess finally spoke up, “Looks to me like they’re settlin’ in for a while.”
“They can’t stay for a while. You saw how patchy the grass is getting already and they haven’t even been here much more than a day,” Slim commented dourly.
“If they can’t pay for the axles, then what? Are ya gonna make ‘em move on without the wagon?” Jess asked.
“No, I can’t do that,” Slim responded.
“I don’t know. Maybe Wes will take some sheep,” the blonde man said, the doubt evident in his words.
“Oh yeah, Wes is gonna become a sheepherder. That oughta make him a real hit in town. It’s gonna be bad enough when they find out you’re keepin’ sheep here at the ranch,” Jess chuckled.
“Hadn’t thought of that. But folks’ll know we’re not keeping them here, it’s just a temporary thing.”
Laughing, Jess said, “I sure wanna be with ya when ya go to town ‘n explain this to ‘em.”
“I don’t need to explain anything to anyone,” Slim declared, his voice rising, as the gravity of the situation was wearing his patience thin. “And if they can’t see it’s something that was unplanned, an accident of sorts, well then… How do these things just always seem to happen at the wrong times?"
Smiling, Jess quipped, “Is there a right time?”
“Here,” Slim said, handing the reins to Jess, “You drive” He was unable to hide his frustration with the whole turn of events and was losing his patience to even deal with the chore of driving the buckboard home.
After putting the larger buckboard in its place next to the smaller wagon in the barn and the horses in the corral, the two ranchers headed for the house.
“Hey, Jonesy, is the coffee hot?” Jess called out as they walked through the door.
Suddenly a crash in the kitchen was heard, along with some loud uttering of mild oaths. Both men ran to see what had happened, catching Jonesy picking up a large cook pot from the floor. Spilt stew was spattered all over the floor. “Dadgum pot handle gave way and look what happened to our supper!” the older man shouted.
“Are you all right?” Slim asked. “You didn’t get burned, did you?”
“No, no. I felt it letting go and jumped back in time,” the older man reported. “Too late to get another pot going, I’ll have to figure out something else for supper, I’m afraid.” Stooping down, Jonesy started to mop up the mess with a towel, dropping the hot slop back into the handless pot.
Bending to help the older man, Jess said, “Well, Pard, this might help to break the news.”
“News? News about what?” the older man asked, looking up from picking up some sloppy chunks of meat and vegetables.
“We’ve been invited for supper,” Slim responded, a dubious look spreading over his face.
“Supper?” Jonsey asked, suspicion rapidly raising his eyebrows. He stood up, fists clenched as if he were ready for a fight, and looked Slim square in the eye. Meanwhile, Jess continued to sop up the spoiled stew, trying to keep from burning his hands on the hot mess by using a piece of rough flour sacking, normally used as a dish rag.
“Yeah, out at the camp,” the blonde rancher said with a guilty smile. “They want to repay us for our help. It was that or them giving us some sheep. I know for sure I don’t want or need any sheep here on the ranch. I’ve already seen the damage they leave in their wake.”
“Oh, Slim, you’re sure right, there. I’ve heard about those sheep wars south of here. And sheep are known carriers of disease, too. I don’t cotton to those folks having sheep here on the ranch,” worry lines appeared on Jonesy’s face as he spoke.
“I know, Jonesy. I’ve heard it all, too, but these folks are stuck. We’re going to try and send them on their way as soon as we can. They’re still north of our herd and we’re going to have to move the cattle before they travel on in that direction. I’m going to ask them tonight to help us move our herd to the southeast pasture for the winter,” Slim said.
“But you never use that pasture for the winter. Do you think that’s wise?” Jonesy asked, crouching down to help finish cleaning up the thickening stew broth.
“No reason not to,” Slim responded. “It’s just been the usual rotation here, that’s all. I reckon we have to make a change due to the circumstances.”
Standing up, tossing the cloth he’d been using into the pot, Jess said, “It should be fine. The grass is thick enough. Besides, once it snows, they’ll be digging through the snow no matter where we put ‘em. I agree with Slim. I know the east pasture ‘n the butte isn’t ideal for calvin’ but we can make it work. Might just need to keep watch over the herd a little closer for the big cats that live up that way, that’s all. Maybe spend a little more time up that way huntin’ ‘em, too.”
“Oh yeah, forgot about them cats,” Jonesy said, looking up from his chore. “What about them, Slim?”
“I reckon we’ll deal with that when and if we have to. We don’t have much choice, Jonesy. Those sheep are eating the grass down to the nub, and it won’t have time to recover before the calves start coming, if it ever does. Right now it looks like it’s true what we’ve heard, they pull up the roots and all. It might take a couple of years before we can use that pasture again,” Slim sighed, shaking his head, looking toward the stove. “Is that coffee hot?”
“It’s on the stove, ain’t it? Of course it’s hot,” Jonesy retorted, a bit perturbed by what he perceived as a stupid question.
Reaching into the cupboard, Slim took down some cups while Jess went to the sink and pumped some water to wash the congealed stew from his hands. Once he dried his hands, Jess accepted the cup of hot coffee from his friend. Jonesy stood up and after wiping his sticky hands on his apron he reached for the cup waiting for him on the cutting table.
“Now, no one step there till I get me a bucket of hot water to wash it up,” the older man cautioned before taking a gulp of coffee. “So, what’s this all about with supper? I’m not sure we should get involved with those folks. Are you sure you want to?” disapproval was apparent in his question.
“They seem nice enough, and your worry about them being honest, well, so far they want to pay for what they’re needing, maybe not with money, but seem to not want to be beholding to anyone,” Slim assured the older man.
“Just count the chickens, Slim, count the chickens. What’s on the menu?” Jonesy asked, taking another swig from his cup and making a bitter face, whether from the coffee or from his question was arguable.
“Didn’t ask, but from the pots cookin’ on the fires, I’d guess stew,” Jess said, then cracking a smile, he added, “I sure hope they have a different recipe than yours, Jonesy. After seein’ Mulligan all over the floor, I don’t think I wanna see it in my bowl tonight.”
“Funny, Mr. Harper. Next time I make my stew, your portion can go out to the hogs,” the older man retorted sourly.
“I’m betting on lamb or rabbit stew,” Slim said, trying to alleviate the bickering between the other two men.
“Ain’t had a good lamb stew since I left Colorado. Might be nice to have somethin’ a little different for a change,” Jess said, finishing his coffee and reaching for the pot to pour himself another cup.
“Hold it, Pard.” Slim said, as he reached out to stop his friend from picking up the coffee pot. “We have to get out to the barn. The stage will be coming through soon and Andy’ll be back. We haven’t gotten anything much done around here yet today. Let’s get the horses ready and then we can work on the bad spot in the loft’s floor while we wait for the stage. Once Andy gets home, we can get him to help us with mucking out some of the stalls. Come on, Pard,” he said, lightly punching his friend in the chest with the back of his open hand as he headed toward the door.
Jess followed his boss through the door and out on the porch. Both men stopped, glancing in the direction of where the sheepherders where squatting. The light breeze carried the scent of sheep, a totally new smell to both ranchers, one that they inherently knew they didn’t like. The sooner their visitors moved on, the happier they’d be.
Working in unison, the two men readied the fresh team to await the arrival of the stage, due within the next half hour or so. Climbing into the barn mow, both men examined the area where some boards felt a little weak. The squeak when they walked on the suspicious boards gave the spot away quickly.
“Looks like a few boards over these should do it,” Jess suggested, looking for a quick and easy fix.
“And then you trip over them in the dark every time you have to come up here? Nope, we’ll pull these up and replace them the right way. Look, see these knotholes? “ Slim pointed at the place in the floor they’d felt the most springiness when they walked over them. “That’s where they’re weak. I’m surprised my father didn’t notice it when he built the barn. But then, with the barn raising, maybe he didn’t inspect all the work being done, I reckon. These two seem to be the only weak ones. I’ll get the crowbar. This shouldn’t take long. You get the saw and saw horses. I think the measuring tape is in the toolbox with the crowbar. I’ll get that and a couple of hammers.”
By the time they’d gathered the tools, wooden planks and set things up, they heard the clatter of the stagecoach coming over the hill, leading to the ranch. Leaving their repairs for the moment, they went out to meet it.
The breakneck speed at which the stage approached indicated that it was probably empty, except for Andy returning from school. Racing into the yard, the driver pulled up the team just short of where the two men stood, causing Slim to take a cautionary step backwards.
Grinning down from his seat on the stage, Mose observed, “Nope, still not on the mark, yet.”
“Close enough, Mose, close enough,” Jess said, always looking to push the margins and proud that he didn’t give into flinching to satisfy the driver.
Andy jumped down from inside the coach, “Great ride, Mose!” he commented, smiling up at the driver, thrilled with the adventure of his day. “Next time, kin I ride shotgun?”
“With Mose driving’ you’ll never ride shotgun as long as your brother has anything to say about it,” Jess said, giving the boy’s hair a tousle.
“Aw, Jess,” the boy said, as he tried to smooth down his hair, almost losing hold of his schoolbooks and book bag.
“That’s right. The way Mose drives, you’d end up bouncing off up on the hill, I’m afraid,” Slim added, smiling at the boy as the driver climbed down from the box.
“Come on, Andy, help me get the horses,” Jess said, leading the way to where the fresh team was tied. Slim and Mose began unhitching the spent animals as the dark-haired pair brought the fresh horses toward the stage. Once the tired team was released, Slim and Mose hitched the new horses to the stage while Andy and Jess took the spent team away to unharness them, give them a quick onceover and release them into the corral for some fresh water and hay.
“On your way, Mose. See you on your next run,” Slim said, as he watched to elderly driver climb back into the seat.
“You betcha,” Mose called, as he turned the coach in the yard then gave the team a slap of the reins to head them out at a fast pace. Slim watched, shaking his head, admiring Mose for his spirit and love of adventure with every trip, and hoping that when he reached Mose’s age, he, too, would be so spry.
Andy asked about the girl that he’d met that morning and Slim told him about the wagons and sheep out in the west meadow. “Sheep?” Andy questioned with excitement, never having seen any in his short lifetime. Eagerly he glanced in direction of where the camp was, only seeing a hint of smoke wafting in the nearly still air and a hint of bleating in the distance.
“You’ll be meeting some of them tonight. The folks at the camp have invited us to supper,” the older brother said, with a guarded smile.
“Yeah, and probably taste one, too,” Jess teased, then smiling added, “unless they’re servin’ chicken that they found around here. Did ya count the chickens like Jonesy said, Pard?”
“Jess,” Slim admonished with a stern look. Jess instantly understood and resorted to biting his bottom lip before uttering anything else that might raise his friend’s ire.
Slim took his little brother aside to explain to him about the lifestyle of the people he would be meeting that evening. Andy was totally fascinated that anyone actually lived a nomadic life, taking their herds to different territories with the changes of season and living in wagons all of their lives. He couldn’t wait to meet these people and to see the girl he’d met that morning once again.
“Come on, Jonesy, ya gotta go with us,” Andy chided the reluctant older man.
“I don’t think I want to. You boys go if you want. Besides, it’s gonna get cold tonight and my aches and pains will be back. I’ll keep a log on the fire so the house is warm for you when you get back.” Jonesy responded, disapprovingly.
“But ya gotta eat. Ya said that supper was ruined,” the boy continued trying to persuade him.
Jess came out of the bedroom where both men had been washing up and changing into clean clothes for their outing. Overhearing the conversation, he wandered into the kitchen where Andy was pressuring Jonesy. Taking a cup down from the cupboard, the cowboy poured himself some coffee then leaned against the chopping block, sipping at the hot liquid.
“Jess, tell Jonesy he’s gotta go. It would be downright unneighborly if he doesn’t go,” the boy said, trying to gain some support in nagging the older man into joining them.
“I think Andy’s right, it wouldn’t be neighborly,” Jess agreed, winking at the boy to assure him that he’d support him in his goading Jonesy into joining them.
“Like I told Andy, it’s gonna get cold and I don’t want to be sitting out in it. It’s bad enough getting up on these colder mornings and trying to get my ol’ bones moving.” Jonesy countered, reaching for the small of his back to accentuate his point. “And they ain’t neighbors.”
“They’ve got a bunch of fires goin’ out there, ya can plant yourself real close to one, Jonesy. I don’t think ya have a good enough argument for bein’ unneighborly,” Jess pressed, enjoying putting the older man on the spot.
“Out numbered by a couple of whippersnappers,” Jonesy barked. “You two go if you’re so all fired up to it. Go! Go have fun. Eat till ya burst,” the older man said as he turned and walked out of the kitchen and met Slim coming out from his bedroom.
“Are we all ready?” the tall blonde asked, reaching for his jacket, hanging on a hook near the door.
“Jess ‘n me are, but Jonesy’s not goin’,” Andy dismally reported to his big brother. “I told him it wasn’t neighborly,” the boy repeated, turning to look at Jonesy accusingly.
“Jonsey, Andy’s right. We were all invited. I told them there’d be four of us,” Slim said, unable to hide his disappointment.
“Just tell them I wasn’t feeling well, or something,” the stubborn man insisted. “Besides, if I did go, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to make you breakfast in the morning. You know how my rhumatis is in the morning when it’s cold.”
“It’s a losin’ battle, Slim. We’ve both been tryin’ to convince him. You know how Jonesy and mules have a lot in common. I’m thinkin’ that’s why he wears that hat all the time. To hide them long ears under it.” Jess said, as he walked to the hook near the door where he took down his jacket and slipped it on.
“I know what I’m doing. It’s you boys who need time to learn as much as this old man knows,” Jonesy said, “And I wear my hat all the time so’s I know where it’s at, Mr. Smart-mouth!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Slim asked, puzzlement apparent on his face, though he could guess what the older man was hinting at. He surmised that they must have been discussing Jonesy’s opinion of gypsies while the rancher was still in his bedroom.
“Just go to your party and be careful. And don’t play no cards with them, understand?” Jonesy cautioned.
Deciding to not expose Andy to any more misconceptions, Slim quickly said, “Come on, let’s go. We don’t want to keep our hosts waiting.” He said while handing Andy his jacket and helping the boy to slip it on.
Putting his hand on Andy’s shoulder, Slim guided him out the door. Jess was behind them and before he closed the door he said, “I wish ya’d change your mind, Jonesy. I think it would mean a lot to Andy and Slim.”
Jonesy just shook his head and turned away, heading for the kitchen to rustle up something for himself to eat.
Jess followed the others to the barn to saddle their horses. Andy was so excited that he no longer had thoughts of Jonesy’s stubbornness, nor questions concerning the older man’s not wanting to go along to visit with their ranch-guest hosts.
Long before they reached the camp, the delicious scent of cooking food was wafting on the slight breeze coming at them from the west. The sky was clouding, but there wasn’t a sign of storm clouds, only light fluffy clouds that promised to keep some of the day’s heat from drifting off into space. It would be a cool evening but there was no danger of frost, at least not for another month or so.
As the three young ranchers rode into the camp they were greeted by several colorfully dressed men and women, including Dragos who showed them where to tie their horses. Jess stayed behind to loosen the cinches on the saddles while Dragos lead Slim and Andy around to meet the gathering group.
Jess joined the others once they were seated near a large bonfire. Barrels and logs were placed around the fire as temporary seating. Slim and Andy chose a large log, saving a place for Jess.
Music was gaily played by some of the men, two with concertinas, two on violins, one strumming a mandolin and one playing a balalaika. In an open area, dancers were frantically trying to keep up with the vigor of the music. Laughter was nearly enough to drown out the music as the dancers were so enjoying their workout.
Spotting Andy, Crina casually sauntered to where the ranchers were seated. “Hello, Andy. Remember me?” she asked coyly. She’d been watching and waiting for the visitors and bided her time before approaching them, not wanting to appear too bold.
“Oh yeah, a, sure,” Andy responded, nervously.
“Good,” she said, a broad smile with gleaming white teeth spread across her sensuous mouth. Taking Andy by the hand she said, “Come. Come dance with me.”
In a bit of a panic, Andy looked at his older brother for help, “A, I don’t know how to dance, I, a...”
“Come, I will teach you,” the teenaged girl insisted, pulling him up by his hand. He was unable to remain seated as she pulled him.
She stood close to him, close enough that Andy could feel the heat of her body, making the whole situation even more uncomfortable for him. Looking to his brother again, he got nothing more than Slim smiling and encouraging him with a flip of his hand to go dance with the girl, “Have fun, little brother. You know how to dance, I’ve seen you at the town dances.”
“But, but, they dance so different. Look,” Andy said, pointing at the dancers with his free hand.
“I will teach you. We will start slow. It’s easy. Really,” she said, demurely smiling at the timid boy. “And it is so much fun once you learn,” Crina prodded as she pulled him in the direction of the dancers.
Panic stricken, the boy looked back over his shoulder at the smiling older men; looking a bit like a calf being lead to the slaughter. Slim waved, amused at the sight of the boy’s discomfort, yet glad to see that he was probably going to have a good time once he was dancing and shook his shyness.
Off to the side of the field where the others were dancing, Crina stopped him. “Here, put your hand here on my hip,” she instructed the doe-eyed boy by placing his hand on the broad, colorful scarf adorning her hip, “and the other here on my shoulder.” She guided his other hand to her shoulder. Slowly she showed him the fundamental steps to the dance. Andy was a bit clumsy but he caught on slowly and was able to pick up a little speed while trying to control his movements. Trying to match Crina’s fluidity was impossible for the young man. Even if he couldn’t match her, he was finding himself absorbed in watching her as he tried to keep up with her. He’d never met anyone quite like her. None of the girls in town could dance, move or smile quite like this gypsy girl. Andy couldn’t take his eyes off her and had forgotten about all the other dancers in the field. He was charmed and felt that it was only he and Crina alone dancing, all the others in the field were no longer a part of his world.
The shadows were deepening and the firelight added a bit of a romantic aura to the dancing figures. Slim’s blue eyes sparkled in the light from the flames as he watched his brother awkwardly trying to catch the rhythm of the music and dance with the wispy, graceful girl.
The whirling and twirling of the dancers had Jess almost mesmerized. One gal had captured his eye and he couldn’t take his eyes off her. As she danced, her voluminous skirts spun, lifting higher and higher, showing her ankle, then her knee as she wildly gyrated, tapping a tambourine in time with the music. When the music stopped, she was breathless and bending over as she laughed, thoroughly having enjoyed the gambol. As the music struck up again, she seemed to have regained her breath and pranced off to dance with several others in some ritualistic dance that involved them all dancing in unison in a circular motion.
Between musical numbers, Dragos strolled out to the dancers, bringing a few back with him to introduce them to their guests. Unfortunately for Jess, Dragos did not bring the girl who’d caught his eye. The leader of the gypsy caravan introduced his visitors to more family members then sent them off for more fun and dancing while he sat down to talk with the ranchers.
“I have been to town to find some heavy axles for the wagon. I am afraid,” Dragos said, apologetically, “that they do not have any in that size here in Laramie. They must send for some special from Fort Collins. It will be more than a week before they can have them delivered. I have no way to go fetch them, and paying for them is also a problem-sheep are not acceptable.”
Deep creases weathered Slim’s brow as he heard the news. This meant that the sheep would continue to destroy the grass in this field and maybe continue to eat their way through the grass on his ranch. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, not knowing what else to say. He couldn’t send these people off to some other rancher’s land and there wasn’t any open, unclaimed land in the immediate area. He knew how ranchers felt about sheep and some wouldn’t think twice about killing them, leaving these poor people without their flock and livelihood. He turned to Jess to see if he had any ideas, but Jess was so absorbed in watching the dark-haired woman that he hadn’t heard any of the conversation.
“Jess?” Slim said, breaking the spell his friend was in.
“Huh?” Jess said, still not taking his eyes off the fascinating young woman, a dreamy look in his dark blue eyes as he watched her whirl.
“Any ideas how we can help these folks?” Slim asked.
“Help?” Jess repeated, turning to finally look at his boss. “Sorry, I wasn’t listenin’, um, I was watchin’ Andy,” he lied.
“Dragos says they can’t get the axles for a week or more. They have to come from Fort Collins in the next load coming this way. “
Unable to contain himself, Jess jumped to his feet, “Week or more? Why those sheep,” he caught himself before completing his comment.
Dragos knew exactly what Jess was thinking and apologized for putting them in the situation and for what his sheep were doing to their pasture. “I wish I could do something, but I have no way to go get the axles myself. None of my vardos are equipped to haul anything like that. We must wait, and my people will need to find work to make money to pay for them. No one will take any of the sheep to pay for the axles. I asked the man in town but he only laughed at me and told me that this was cattle country and no one wanted any sheep here. He wasn’t very friendly, but he was willing to order me some axles. He said he would wire Fort Collins to have them sent as soon as they could mill them. They told him it would take days to make them and then to send them in the next delivery to Laramie and Cheyenne.”
After calming down and dismissing his embarrassment, Jess sat back down. All thoughts of the beautiful gypsy woman were all but forgotten with the new dilemma before them.
“Let us forget our troubles for a few hours and enjoy a wonderful meal. Ah, but you said there would be four of you. Is there another coming to join us?” Dragos asked.
“No. Jonesy, our friend, had things he needed to attend to back at the ranch. He asked us to extend his apologies,” Slim said, uncomfortable with the falsehood.
“Ah, I see, “the gypsy man said absently, turning to look toward one of the cooking fires. “I see that some pots are being removed from the fire. The lamb on the spit is done, as well. We shall feast and forget our troubles, worry about them once we are sated. Come,” he motioned the men to where long planks were set up on barrels, forming a table where eating utensils, plates, bowls and cups were waiting.
The music stopped, signaling the dancers that dinner was about to be served and they started to wander toward the eating area from the trampled field.
Crina grabbed Andy’s hand, leading him toward where the clan was gathering. The honored guests were seated and tended to by several of the women, filling their plates with fresh lamb, bowls of lamb stew, all seasoned with herbs they’d found around the campground or had stored in their vardos. The aroma was divine.
Crina secured a seat across the makeshift table from Andy. As youthful as she was, she’d already learned a seductive way, smiling with her eyes as well as with her enticing lips. Andy was falling deeply under her spell, smitten, yet too shy for it to be apparent to those around him; but Crina knew. She liked the boy immensely and was conscious of the power she already held over him. ‘If only he was a little older,’ she thought, wishing she could wrangle his heart and entice him into marrying her. To leave the band and become a rancher’s wife would be wonderful, something she’d dreamed of, real roots, no more wandering from here to there and back again. No more drawing strange or poisonous stares from the people of the various towns they frequented in their travels. Oh, how she wished to belong someplace---not to always be on the roam.
Jess’ eyes searched up and down the table for the beautiful young woman that had captivated him. When he found her, she was seated next to a man, about Jess’ age. It was very apparent that they were a couple by the way he had his hands all over her and she wasn’t discouraging his advances, dashing Jess’ thoughts of meeting her and maybe taking her for a walk and talking to her.
Turning his attention to Andy and Crina, Jess tried to take his mind off the alluring gypsy woman. The teenaged pair was absorbed in telling each other stories, Andy about his menagerie and Crina about her exciting life, all the sights she’d seen and the country she’d traveled. Her stories seized the imagination of both of the young men, while Slim was absorbed in conversation with Dragos and his brothers.
The gypsy leader continued to sidetrack any conversation that pertained to their present predicament, insisting that they enjoy the meal in tranquility, leaving the serious talk for after they were finished eating. Slim finally relented, thoroughly enjoying the meal, having not had lamb often over the years.
The ladies brought second helpings around the table. Andy had been so drawn into his discussion with Crina that he’d almost forgotten to eat. “You do not like the food?” the older woman asked, as she stood over him with a platter full of sliced lamb.
“Oh, no, no,” Andy said, “it’s great, I’ve just been so busy talkin’ I forgot to eat.”
“Would you like a little more?” she asked, already pulling off some meat from the tray.
“Well, I reckon,” Andy said, not having much choice in the matter as she placed it on his plate.
“More stew?” she asked, signaling one of the other ladies to bring the pot around to Andy.
“Um, yes, please, I guess,” Andy replied, remembering his manners as more vegetable laden stew was ladled into his bowl.
“Goat’s milk?” the first lady asked, motioning to an adolescent girl with a pitcher.
“Goat’s milk?” Andy asked, not knowing that that was what was in his cup. He hadn’t tasted it yet, thinking it was cows milk. “Um, no thanks. Maybe later. I haven’t finished this,” he pointed at his cup, “yet.”
Crina giggled, so happy to see that Andy was enjoying himself and hoping that she’d see much more of him over the next week or more. “I think we’d better eat something,” she whispered loudly, “before they take away our plates and we get nothing to eat.”
“Would they do that?” Andy questioned, looking around to make sure no one was collecting any of the dishes yet. He was hungry, but just too busy and excited to think about eating.
“If they see us eating, they will leave us finish,” Andy’s new friend responded with a giggle, dipping her spoon into the thick stew. Andy followed suit, smiling as he tasted the delicious blend of spices, herbs, and fresh lamb’s meat. He followed it by taking a sip of the foreign goat’s milk, grinned that it tasted okay and moved on to taking a taste of the lamb’s meat and herbed potatoes on his plate. He realized that he was even hungrier than he’d thought. He was hungry when they’d left home, but all the dancing and talking with Crina had taken his mind off his stomach. Now satisfying that hunger took over his immediate attention, but his eyes seldom left the vision of the teenaged gypsy girl nor did her eyes often leave his.
The older women started clearing the table as the men and youngsters showed they’d had their fill. Crina and Andy continued to eat and were passed over by those emptying the table.
Dragos, his brothers, Slim, and Jess ambled back to the larger blazing fire. The sun was at the horizon; brilliant blues and pinks encompassed the clouds to the west while to the east a large moon was already rising and peeking out from the darkening clouds.
“Now we talk. The others may dance again, if they wish,” Dragos said as he motioned the ranchers to sit down with him. “I see my daughter and your brother have become fast friends. It is good for Crina to have a friend her own age. It’s been a long time. Her cousin was killed up north when she fell from a cliff when chasing after some stray sheep. The overhang gave way and she fell to her death. She was only a little over a year older than Crina and was my daughter’s best friend,” the gypsy leader told his new benefactors.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Slim said, looking Dragos in the eye, seeing the sadness there from the gypsy man’s loss.
“She was my sister’s daughter. I was raising her as my own since she’d lost her parents in a wildfire down in the Arizona territory three years ago,” Dragos continued.
“We have seen much tragedy in our family, but we make the best of what we have. We see and live much, even in our losses,” Mihail added. “I must tend to the herd and let the others come to eat. Nice to see you again, Mr. Sherman, and you too, Mr. Harper,” he said as he stood to leave, extending his hand.
Both Slim and Jess stood up to shake hands with the man before he left. As they sat back down, Dragos began again, “We must discuss arrangements for my people and herd. I know we are causing you great hardship. We do not want to be a burden. My people will go to town to find work so we can pay for the axles. The man in town was generous enough to order them for us without payment, but will not give them to us, of course, until we pay. I am glad he did that for us. Now to honor him with payment is our next challenge.”
“I don’t know how much work you’ll find in town, but some of the ranchers might need help. If your men can herd cattle, do some branding, you might find some work,” Slim suggested. Turning to Jess, he said, “You know, Pard, I was just thinking. Why can’t we make the trip to pick up those axles, they’d get here faster. I could extend a loan for them, and some of Dragos’ men could help with the ranch until we get back. We could leave a list of repairs for them to do while we’re gone. And I’m sure they could handle the relay teams.”
Uncomfortable with Slim’s suggestion, Jess didn’t know how to respond. He shrugged, but the tall blonde could tell by the look on Jess’ face that he didn’t like the idea.
Turning back to Dragos, Slim amended, “I reckon that Jess and I will have to discuss this further and I’ll let you know if we can get away to pick up your axles.”
“I understand,” Dragos responded with a knowing smile. He figured that Jess was worried about his integrity in repaying his generous friend. “You sleep on it, we will talk again tomorrow?” Looking across the fire at the shadows of people gathering in the dancing area once again, the gypsy man stood up clapping his hands together and calling to the minstrels to once again bring them music. Within moments the air was full of lively, dance music.
When Andy and Crina had finished their meal, Crina took Andy by the hand and rather than leading him off to the dancing area, she took him for a walk away from the camp. They came to a large brambled thicket. Ducking down under some of the twisted branches, the girl lead the young man into a perfectly hidden clearing encircled by the tangled greenbrier bushes. Amazed that he’d never known it was there, Andy said, “Wow, how’d ya find this place?”
“I was searching for herbs and saw a small opening. I made it bigger so I could see what I might find. I thought it looked like an animal may have found refuge in the brambles and found this. Maybe coyotes or rabbits, I’m not sure. Come, let us sit and talk some more,” she said, taking off the long, colorful scarf she had around her waist and laying it on the ground for them to sit upon.
The brambled cover was not quite six foot high, but it felt like they were inside a dwelling or cave that had an open top. Some branches overhanging the perimeter gave it a feeling of being enclosed. They were able to see stars starting to show themselves between the thick clouds when they parted. The moon lit things enough that Andy was able to mentally measure the clearing, marveling at how he’d never known that it was here and Crina, only being on the ranch for a day or two, having found it. It would be place where he could go if he wanted to be alone, not far from the house, yet secluded and unknown to the adults. Right now, though, it seemed like the perfect place to share with his newfound friend.
“Andy, what is it like to live in one place, not having to roam looking for fresh pasture or trying to beat the cold or the heat and always on the move?” Crina questioned, a haunted sadness resonating in her voice. If the moon had been brighter, Andy would have seen the same sorrow in her dark eyes.
“We don’t move around, an’ we don’t beat the cold or heat. We get both ‘n haveta live with it,” Andy replied, picking up a small stone and tossing it at the wall of brambles. “Other than the weather, almost every day’s the same. Not like you, your life sure sounds excitin’.”
“It must be wonderful to call someplace home, not a wagon that might not be there the next time you turn around,” she said longingly.
“I reckon,” the boy said, turning to look at her, but all he could see in the darkness that was overtaking them was her silhouette. She was facing him, but he couldn’t see her enticing face. Her hand was near his, and she took his into her own and pulled it close to her breast. He felt something moist hit his hand. Looking up, thinking it could be rain, Andy suddenly realizied that it was a tear. Uncomfortable and not knowing what to do or say, his reaction was to pull his hand away. Immediately he realized that he’d done the wrong thing and reached his hand back out to her. “Are you okay?” he asked nervously, as she once again grabbed hold of his hand with her own and pulled it close to her.
“Oh, I am sorry, I guess I’m just being a silly girl. Just thinking about what it must be like to have a real home. You are a lucky boy to have your ranch,” she confessed.
“Lucky, heck Crina, I can’t wait to leave here. I hate it here, the same thing every day. Nothin’ ever new to see or do. You’re the lucky one. What I’d give to trade places with ya. Seein’ the country, just like Jess did. He’s from Texas, ya know. He’s been everywhere. I wanted to be just like Jess an’ if he moved on I wanted to go with ‘im.”
Crina giggled, “It seems like we are never happy with what we have. I never looked at my life as an adventure.”
“Why sure it is,” Andy said, unable to contain the excitement in his voice. “Why, you’ve seen things I’ve only read about. You’re right, Crina, every day is an adventure for you. Aw gee, I can only wish I could live your life.”
“How old are you, Andy?”
“I’m almost fourteen, couple more months,” he replied, “why?”
“With our people, you are almost a man. You should be able to do whatever you wish. Why not think about coming with us when we leave?” she tempted.
“Oh, well, why, I couldn’t do that. Slim would, well, I can’t,” he countered, stumbling over his words as guilt clouded the thoughts that were so appealing to him.
“Don’t decide now,” the young woman said as she put her index finger of her free hand to Andy’s lips. “We will be here for a few days. Think about it. When we are ready to go, you can decide then.”
“Oh, that would make Slim real mad,” Andy said, pulling his hand away, uneasiness overtaking his dreams of travel. “Why, he’d come lookin’ for me an’ your folks would be in real trouble.” The boy stood up, almost feeling that he should flee the situation as if that would force the temptation of adventure from his thoughts.
“But if you are a man, what can your brother say if you decide to leave?” she persisted.
“He doesn’t think of me as a man, I’m his little brother an’ he’d hunt us down, I know it. We’ve talked about me goin’ back east to school. He’s okay with that, but runnin’ off, I know he’d come after me. And what would your folks say? They don’t even know me.”
“We bring new people into the family whenever we marry. We could be promised and then you would be welcome,” she said, standing up and moving uncomfortably close to the young man. His blood turned hot and he was feeling unknown stirrings in his body. This girl was doing strange things to him, not only to his mind, but he was also feeling his body reacting to her. Pressing her body into his, she kissed him lightly on his cheek, then drew away and sat back down on the scarf again.
Andy remained standing, staring off into the darkness, his emotions tumultuous and confused. Swallowing hard, he turned to look at her shadow for a moment before he sat down next to her again. Searching for the right words, his lips trembled, but nothing seemed to be the right thing to say, so he said nothing. She reached her body across the distance between them, this time finding his lips, and kissed them lightly before drawing back.
The boy could feel the heat in his face was radiating. Finally he found some words, but they weren’t the ones he really wanted, “I, I think we’d better get back to the camp. They’ll probably miss us an’ be worried,” he said, standing up and moving toward the now almost invisible opening in the tangled briers.
“Andy, are you okay? Did I frighten you?” she asked. “I like you very much. I have never met anyone like you. I want us to be friends. I only offered for you to go with us because you seemed so unhappy.”
“I, I know that, Crina, but I really think we need to get back to the camp.”
She stood up, picked up her scarf, and went to stand by the youth, “Are you all right, Andy?”
“Yeah,” he responded, turning in her direction.
“Can this be our secret place? A place where we can meet while my family is here?” the girl asked, a glint of moonlight reflecting from her large, dark eyes.
“I suppose. You mean, ya wanna meet with me again?” the boy asked, afraid he’d alienated her with his reactions.
“Yes, I would love to see more of you. We could meet here everyday after you get back from school. I could help you do your homework and we could share more stories. Maybe you might want to change your mind. Maybe not. But it would be your choice. I think I was sent here to give you that choice. I believe in fate. We were meant to meet to give you this choice,” she tempted him again with another light kiss to his cheek.
Putting his hand to the place she’d kissed him, Andy turned away to the opening again and started to crawl through it. Crina followed closely behind him. Once clear of the briers, Andy helped her to her feet and they headed back to the encampment where the music was still playing and almost everyone was dancing.
To the north of the camp, Andy could see what looked like a fog in the pasture, the white fleeces of the large herd of sheep. Some dark figures were around the perimeter keeping them together, as were the black and white working dogs, only their white patches showing up in the moonlight.
Strolling to where Jess and Slim were sitting, enjoying the dancers, Andy sat down next to his brother. “Where have you been?” Slim asked, with a smile. Andy could smell alcohol on his brother’s breath and noticed the jug the men sitting encircling the fire were passing around. Jess took a swing, handing it back to his best friend, who held on to it awaiting a reply from his brother.
“Oh, me ‘n Crina went for a walk to talk about the ranch ‘n her travelin’ an’ all. We were just over there,” he pointed to a wagon at the far end of the field. “We hadda get away from the loud music so we could talk without shoutin’,” Andy fibbed, the blush that reddened his face not apparent in the light from the bonfire.
“That’s nice,” Slim said, throwing back the jug to take another swallow, then handing it to the man on the other side of Andy. “It’s getting late and you have school tomorrow. I reckon it’s time to get back to the house. What do you think, Jess?” he said turning to his friend.
Grinning, Jess said, with a slight slur to his words, “I don’t have school tomorrow.”
“No, but we have a stage line to run, that means you can’t have a hangover in the morning. Time to say goodnight, Pard.”
“Okay, goodnight, Pard,” Jess said, grinning even more broadly.
“Come on, you may be hung over by morning, anyway. Time to go,” Slim said, standing up and yanking Jess up by the elbow, himself not quite steady on his own feet.
“Dragos, thank you for the pleasant evening and wonderful meal and entertainment. I think all three of us really enjoyed ourselves,” the tall blonde said, extending his hand to the gypsy leader. “Thank your whole family for making us feel so welcome.”
“It is you who needs the thanks for allowing us to stay here on your land until we are able to move on. We are most grateful,” Dragos replied, half bowing to his landlord.
“Think about what we talked about, Dragos. If we go pick up the axles we can get you on your way much sooner. You don’t want to stay too long and run into bad weather heading south. You have a long way to go,” Slim said, as the two men walked, slightly staggering, toward where the horses were tied, followed by Jess being supported occasionally by Andy as he weaved in a not too straight path.
Near a wagon, Andy could see Crina watching them. There was enough light from the bonfire that he could easily recognize her. He smiled and waved to her and she waved in return before blowing him a kiss.
Watching the innocent exchange, Jess couldn’t repress a grin and gave Andy a little punch to the boy’s arm. Andy grabbed his arm where he’d been punched and shyly looked up at Jess, unable to stifle his own grin. “Ya got yourself a real purdy gal,” Jess teased, missing Andy’s blush as he stumbled over a rock.
Once mounted, the three ranchers said their goodbyes to those who’d followed them. Turning their horses, they headed for home. Andy, bringing up the rear, turned a few times to see if he could still see Crina, but she was no longer in his sight. Whether she was no longer watching them or that it was just to dark to see her, he’d never really know.
Pacing the floor, Jonesy was relieved to hear the three horses jogging into the yard and on to the barn. Not wanting to be too obvious that he’d been waiting for the boys to come home, he went to the old rocking chair, sat down and pretended to be asleep, a book lying open on his chest.
Opening the door, Andy came into the room, followed by his older brother. Seeing the sleeping Jonesy, the boy tiptoed to him and blew into his ear then smiled impishly at his brother. Feigning being startled and waking up, Jonesy grumbled some before asking about what had happened at the camp. Noticing the smell of alcohol on Slim’s breath, he asked, “Had some doctorin’ to do while you were out there, I take it?” To which the tall blonde only nodded his response with a smile. It was obvious to the older man that the rancher was feeling some effects of the spirits he’d imbibed, much to the older man’s disdain. “You, with your younger brother with you, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Nope, I’m fine. Just a friendly little drink with our visitors,” Slim insisted as his body wavered slightly.
Jess had stayed in the barn to finish caring for the horses. They’d all been rubbed down by their riders, but he wanted to make sure they all had fresh hay and water and that their stalls were secure for the night before blowing out the oil lamp and going to the house. When he went in, Jonesy was already hearing the stories about the evening at the camp, his arms folded across his chest. Seeing Jess, Jonesy moseyed over to take a smell of his breath. “You had doctorin’ done, too?” he asked sourly.
Looking helplessly at Slim, Jess didn’t know how to answer. “Never mind,” the older man said, returning to where the Sherman boys were still sitting at the table.
Jess followed Jonsey to the table, and behind his back he gave Slim a look of incomprehension as he shrugged his shoulders.
“Sit down,” Jonesy ordered, and Jess obeyed.
Walking around the table, Jonesy began firing questions at all three as if it were the inquisition. It didn’t take long before Slim couldn’t contain his amusement of the situation and let go a blast of air from trying to control his laughter. Not holding back any longer, he started the other two young men laughing as well.
Disgusted with the whole lot of them, Jonesy stomped off to his room, not even saying goodnight and giving his bedroom door a slam to let the boys know he was not pleased with any of them.
“Ya think this means we gotta fix our own breakfast in the mornin’?” Jess quipped, still chuckling over Jonesy’s behavior.
“I think he’s really mad at us,” Andy said, sounding concerned.
“Not you, Andy, me and Jess, I reckon. You know he doesn’t think whiskey is anything to use unless it’s for medicinal purposes. He knows Jess and I were being, well, a bit social, and he doesn’t like it.” Looking at Jess, “I wonder how the evening would have gone if he’d been with us.”
“It woulda been interestin’,” Jess said, getting up from the table. “I wonder if there’s still some hot coffee on the stove. Want some if there is?”
“Sure, thanks, Pard.” Slim responded, then looked at his younger brother, “and you, off to bed. You have school in the morning, remember?”
“Yeah, I am tired. All that dancin’ an’ all. I had fun. Thanks for takin’ me with ya. Night, Slim,” Andy said giving his brother a hug then calling out to Jess who was coming around the kitchen corner with two steaming cups of coffee, “Night, Jess.”
“Goodnight, Tiger. Glad ya had fun tonight. Sleep well, see ya in the mornin’. If you’re up earlier than us, maybe ya better scare us up some breakfast,” Jess teased with a smile. Then loud enough for Jonesy to hear in his room, “As hard as Jonesy slammed the door, it might take a few days to get it open again.”
The Sherman boys both laughed, and Andy headed for his room, wishing them both another goodnight.
Sitting down at the table, Jess handed one cup to his boss. “Do ya think it’s wise to go to Fort Collins for those axles? That’s a long drive. And do ya think Jonesy will be happy with some of Dragos’ men here to help with the teams? I mean, I don’t mind, they seem like good folks, but look at the fuss he’s already been makin’”
“He’ll be fine. He’s just stubborn and he hasn’t met any of them yet. Once he does, he’ll see they’re just plain folks like us and he’ll be fine,” Slim assured his friend. “He’ll have to rely on them while we’re gone. It’s that or he has to change out the teams and we know how he feels about that.”
“Whoa! Back up, Pard. I didn’t think I was goin’ with ya. I thought ya’d take Dragos or one of his brothers or someone from the camp. I really should stay here to make sure that things run smooth. Ya know, Jonesy ‘n all.” Jess countered, obviously not wanting to make the trip.
“No, I’m not taking anyone from the camp, they need to stay here and work to pay for those axles. It’s a long ride, like you said, and I sure could use the company. And I bet you could use a change from the routine around here,” Slim said, with an encouraging smile, truly wanting to have his good friend for company on the long drive to the far off town. Again Jess objected. “Okay, then, since I’m the boss here, I’m telling you I need the help and I want you to come along with me. How’s that?”
Shaking his head, Jess gave a pained look, but finally conceded to his boss’ wishes.
Jess and Slim started out early the next morning for Fort Collins, bidding the grumbling Jonesy and disappointed Andy goodbye as they pulled the buckboard out of the ranch yard.
Shortly after they left, two gypsy men arrived at the house. Andy answered the door, recognizing the two men from the night before. He called to Jonesy, who was washing the breakfast dishes. Coming to the door, Jonesy wiped his wet hands on his apron.
“I reckon these are your helpers for the day, Jonesy,” Andy proudly announced. “I forgot your names, I met so many people last night,” the boy said apologetically.
“Ah, we understand, young one. Most of our names are unusual and remembering them can be quite difficult. I’m Markos,” the older of the two men reached out to shake hands with Jonesy, who reluctantly offered his hand. “And this is my cousin Ion. We are here to help with the stages for the day. You will not have to feed us. We will return to camp for our meals, but we will be here to change the teams. We will need someone to show us where the equipment is kept.”
“Oh, that will be me,” Andy volunteered eagerly. “Come on, I’ll show ya where everything is, and those horses in the corral are the stage-line horses. You can use any of them. The one’s with the ear ticket are the lead animals.”
Jonesy stood in the door, watching as the trio headed toward the barn, Andy chattering away merrily.
The men took no time at all to ready the animals and had the early team harnessed and awaiting the stage before it appeared.
Mose arrived, pulling up the stage horses in his usual manner, startling the new teamsters. While the two men changed out the team, Mose went into the house to find out what was going on. Where Slim and Jess were, and who were the peculiarly dressed strangers changing out his horses?
While chatting over a cup of coffee, Jonesy filled Mose in on the goings on over the last twenty-four hours at the ranch. Mose was amused that the Sherman ranch was harboring a large flock of sheep. Jonesy cautioned Mose to keep it under his hat and was assured that Mose wouldn’t spread the embarrassing news.
Andy picked up his book bag and followed Mose out to the stage, hitching a ride to town. Before getting into the coach, Ion passed Andy a note, whispering to read it in the coach. He told Andy he was given the note in confidence and no one was to know what it said. Ion claimed that even he didn’t know what it said. Andy was about to ask who it was from when Ion held his finger to his lips and shushed him before closing the coach door behind the boy.
Once the stagecoach started to move, Andy unfolded the note. Delicately written it said “Meet me where the greenbriers twine when you get back to the ranch. Don’t forget. I will be waiting.” It was signed with the single letter “C.” Refolding the note, Andy smiled as he tucked it into his jacket pocket. The grin never faded for the twelve-mile trip to town. His thoughts were on the night before and the strange and confusing stirrings that he’d experienced with the alluring gypsy girl.
All day in school, he couldn’t keep his mind on his studies. His thoughts were of the dark-haired girl with the dancing dark-eyes and a smile that made him want to melt. He caught himself daydreaming and embarrassed when called upon to answer a question by the teacher that he’d never heard. He begged off telling the teacher he wasn’t feeling well. She believed him since Andy had always been a good student. She offered for him to leave or go lie down on the cot in the cloakroom but he declined saying he’d rather try and stay in class. If he could’ve gone home, he would have, but he had to wait for the afternoon stage, so why not spend his time in the classroom. Maybe he could get distracted and get his mind off Crina, but he doubted it.
During recess, he took out the note to read it over and over again. Holding the paper made him feel like Crina was close by and somehow he found that comforting. Still the day dragged on. He couldn’t wait for it to be over so he could head for home and then off to where the greenbriers twined, their secret place.
Suffering through the early afternoon, Andy finally made it to the end of the school day, writing out his homework assignment and counting the minutes before his release. Realizing just being liberated from the schoolhouse didn’t get him any closer to home, he had to find something to do for the near hour until the stage arrived and would take him home.
As usual, he walked to the mercantile and bought some penny candy then sat out front on a bench to eat it as he waited and watched, hoping that the stage might be early. Finally, right about on time, he heard the rumble of the stage arriving in town. Jumping up, he hurried to the stage depot, greeting Mose as he clambered down from his seat carrying a bag of mail, which he toted into the office.
Two passengers had been waiting inside and followed Mose out to the coach. Two men from inside the building brought out the passenger’s baggage and loaded them up on top of the stage, securing them for the bumpy ride. Mose helped the ladies into the coach and was about to hand Andy up inside as well.
“Kin I ride up on top with you, Mose? Slim won’t know, he’s on his way to Colorado,” the boy asked.
“Aw, wish I could, Andy, but if yer brother ever found out, he’d string me up fer sure,” the elderly man told him, sincerely sorry that he couldn’t grant the boy his wish. Mose would have enjoyed having Andy’s company and told him so.
“But Mose, if ya drive us out of town, stop the coach, let me ride up there with you, then stop the coach before we get to the ranch an’ I get back inside, no one will know,” Andy continued to try and wiggle his way on top, not really wanting to ride with the two elderly ladies inside. He hated the small talk that always happened when there were passengers with him.
“I’ll know ‘n you’ll know ‘n somehow Slim’ll find out. Nope. Not ‘til yer brother says it’s okay.” Mose replied with authority, no longer wanting to discuss it with the boy. Andy was disrupting his schedule.
“Aw, Mose. In some places I’d be considered a man an’ I could make my own decisions.”
“Well, ya don’t live in any of them places now, do ya? Here in Laramie yer still a boy ‘n yer brother still has say. Now git in the coach er plan on walkin’ home,” Mose said, about to close the door on the coach and make good on his threat. Giving up, Andy climbed into the coach, tipping his hat to the ladies, who smiled at his manners, even though they’d overheard the conversation. They liked his gumption, if not his try at deceit.
The ride home was torture for the boy, trying to keep up his part of the conversation with the ladies. Andy’s mind kept drifting off to where the greenbriers grew and meeting with Crina. A few times the ladies had to repeat themselves. Opening one of his schoolbooks, Andy tried to read, but the bumpy ride made it almost impossible, yet he pretended to continue reading because it kept the women from talking to him and allowed him to get lost in his dreams. The women chatted together, no longer trying to include the boy, and that was fine with him.
After what seemed like weeks to Andy, they arrived at the ranch. He was almost out the door before it stopped. He said hello to Marko and Ion as he rushed to the house. The two men started to change over the team while Mose accompanied the two ladies to the house. As he got to the porch, Andy was rushing out the door and past him, heading for the barn.
“Hi, Jonsey. I’d like ya ta meet the Lindsay sisters, Elizabeth and Victoria,” Mose said, as he entered the house, running into Jonesy who was just about to dash out the door and stopping him in his tracks. Seeing the ladies, Jonesy turned his frown into a smile and welcomed them in to have some coffee. They asked if he had any tea. Apologizing that he didn’t have any in the house, he offered them milk or water. They accepted the water and their host was forced to pump them some cold water, serve Mose some coffee and temporarily forget about Andy.
By the time the stagecoach left, Andy was nowhere to be found. All he’d told Jonesy, when the teen flew out the door, was that he had a couple of things that he had to take care of and he’d be back in time for supper. Looking in the barn and calling out his name, the older man came up empty. Even the gypsy men were gone now. They’d be back for the last stage, he was sure. So far they were doing exactly what they’d been asked, and from what Jonesy could see, they were doing a good job of it, including sweeping the yard of any horses droppings.
But where was Andy? Calling out his name, Jonesy checked the caged area where Andy kept his crippled or orphaned critters, then the chicken coop. Other than all the animals, it appeared that Jonesy was the last living soul around the ranch house and barn. Going behind the house, he checked the smoke house, the butter house and looked out across the field, he didn’t see hide nor hair of the boy. “Just wait ‘til he gets back, I’ll give him what for for disappearing like that. First gypsies showing up, then the boys going off to Colorado and now Andy running off! What’s this world coming to?” he grumbled to himself as he gave up and stalked into the house to start preparations for supper.
Running as fast as he could, Andy made it to the brier patch without being seen, cautiously hiding behind rocks when he thought he might be in sight of anyone. One time he saw the grass moving and he hit the ground, hiding on his belly in case someone was out in the field gathering roots or some such thing, but it was only a pair of jackrabbits playing and jumping at each other. Once the rabbits realized that they weren’t alone they dashed off, leaving the boy feeling foolish for hiding from a pair of bunnies.
When he reached the bramble stand, Andy looked around to make sure no one saw him before bending down to crawl through the small opening. As promised, Crina was waiting for him. Dressed all in red, a wild red rose in her hair, Andy found his breath taken away. As he entered, she stood up and put her arms around his neck, giving him a peck on the cheek. “I didn’t think you were coming,” she said, a small pout finding its way to her bottom lip.
“I got here as soon as I could. I thought about you all day while I was in school. I didn’t think the day would ever end. And then Jonesy, he’s takin’ care of me while Slim is gone, well I didn’t think he was gonna let me outta the house. All he worries about is my schoolwork. I told him I had somethin’ I had to do first an’ got away before he could stop me.”
Sitting down side by side on the blanket she’d brought, he told her about the long, boring coach ride on his way home and about trying to keep his mind on being polite to the ladies, but finally was rude enough to pretend to read his book. Crina found this humorous, laughing while visualizing Andy trying to read during the bumpy ride, knowing all to well how hard the vardos rode. He told her though, that he was almost grateful that the ladies were there. Jonesy had to take care of their stop-over needs and wasn’t able to try and stop him from coming to meet with her. Again, she found him amusing, holding her hand daintily to her lips as she giggled.
“Do you think he would have tried to stop you?” she asked, gazing at the boy coyly from under her long, dark lashes.
“Oh, you bet. Jonesy is real strict. He won’t let me do much of anything. If he knew I was out here with you, he’d have my hide. He’ll probably have it anyway once he can’t find me. I know I’m in trouble already, so I reckon it don’t matter much how long I stay,” the youth told her.
“I do not want to see you punished. What if he does not let you out ever again? I do not think I could bear knowing I was at fault for making you a prisoner,” she said as she sidled up closer to him. Again her closeness caused his blood to rush. It was a pleasant yet scary feeling for the young teenager. He swallowed hard, trying to control his careening emotions.
Taking his hand in hers, Crina asked, “Andy, do you like me?”
“Now that’s a silly question,” he chided. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I suppose,” she said shyly. “Did you think about coming away with us?”
“Sure, I can’t think about anything else, but I told ya, I can’t. It would cause you, your folks, Slim and me too much trouble. And after he found me………”
“But what if he didn’t find you?”
“Oh, he would. He’s got Jess. Jess is the best tracker around these parts. He’s taught me so much an’ I don’t know yet half of what he knows. He did it for the army, ya know. He’s been trackin’ since he was a little kid. He’s probably better than most Indians,” Andy told her proudly, rambling to cover his growing discomfort.
“Let’s say he did not find you. Do you think you could learn to love me?” she asked, her doe eyes pleading with him.
Looking away, Andy was speechless. He had feelings for the girl but never thought anything about love. “I, I, don’t know. I haven’t thought of that, I’m still a kid,” he stammered.
“Here, you are a man. In our camp you are a man and a man can make those decisions. He can love a woman. I’m nearly a woman just as you are nearly a man. We can talk of this, we can plan, Andy. I do think I am in love with you,” she confessed, lowering her eyes, hoping to not find rejection.
“Crina, I don’t know. I just met ya. I like ya a lot, but I’m so confused. This is all happenin’ too fast. More time, we need more time,” he cried, standing up, scared, confused and very unsure of himself. He bent over to make his escape through the small opening in the briers.
“Andy, please stop. Do not go. I will not be so forward, I promise. I was only hoping you felt the same way I do,” she pleaded, causing him to pause and turn around. He sat down on the ground in front of the little doorway, drawing up his knees and hugging them, putting his head down on them.
As she came closer he asked her not to. He needed time to think. Acknowledging his request, Crina sat back down on the blanket she’d spread out on the ground for them. Picking up a fringed edge, she fingered it as they both sat silently in each other’s company.
Thinking seriously about how he felt about the gypsy girl, Andy had trouble sorting out what he should do or say. He was glad that Crina was leaving him alone in his thoughts, but it was still hard to have her so near him. Hearing her shifting her anxiously on the blanket made him almost hurt not to go to her and hug her, yet he didn’t feel that it was proper or that he was really ready to make that kind of move. Inside he still felt like a boy but, in some strange ways, he did feel as if he were becoming a man. A young man, but a man just the same.
After what seemed like an eternity to both teens, Andy unfolded himself. Sitting with his legs straight out in front of him and his hands out behind him to hold himself up, he looked at Crina and sadly smiled.
Acknowledging that she’d been too forward and scared the boy, Crina sat quietly, looking deep into Andy’s eyes and smiled wanly back at him. Not saying a word, she patted the blanket beside her, but Andy shook his head no, his smile disappearing as sadness clouded his eyes.
Crina started to get up and Andy stopped her, “No, please. I really need to think this out. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I think that’s what we are, right? Girlfriend and boyfriend?”
The girl smiled shyly, lowering her eyes as she nodded her head affirmatively.
“It’s gonna take Slim ‘n Jess at least five or six days to get to Fort Collins an’ back, that’s if they have the axles ready when they get there. Can’t we just meet here an ‘see if we really do like each other enough to be boyfriend an’ girlfriend? I think I feel that way, but I’m not sure. And, and as far as runnin’ away with ya, I” he paused and sucked in a deep breath, “I gotta think real hard about that. I gotta know what I’m gonna say when Slim catches up with us. I gotta figure out how to make ‘im understand, do ya see, Crina?” Andy asked, his eyes pleaded with her to allow him the time to sort things out..
Getting up, Crina came to sit beside Andy in the grass. He immediately folded back up, his arms around his knees again, bowing his head. “Please, can we just sit here quietly for a few minutes?” he asked. She put her arm around his shoulders, pulling him close to her in a hug, then got up and went back to her blanket, picking it up and shaking it out before she folded it.
“Yes, I understand. I am sorry if I may have frightened you. I am a girl who goes after what she wants and I have been lucky enough to almost always get it. My father has spoiled me, too. I guess being his only child he has wanted me to have everything he could provide for me. I am not sure I really know how to treat people, especially those I care about. I want to be with you, Andy, if you were to allow me to stay with you or if I were to have you come with me. I know now that it would be wrong for me to force my will on you. I see your brother already does that to you and it is wrong. I will be here in these lovely greenbriers when you come home from school. If you wish to see me, I will be here. I hope you still want to see me. I really do care about you, Andy. You are the nicest young man I have ever met and you treat me like a lady. I like that, and I like you very much.”
Andy looked up at her as she stood over him, the blanket folded over her arm.
“I think we should both go now. I will be here everyday at the same time. I will understand if you don’t come back. I will also understand if you can’t come back for any reason. If that is true, please send me a note with Ion. He is an honorable friend and will not tell anyone about our messages. May I kiss you goodbye?” she asked, kneeling down next to the confused boy.
Nodding his head, Andy accepted her gentle kiss on his cheek. She then turned his face toward her with her hand and she lightly kissed him on the lips. Standing up, she asked him to move away from the opening so she could pass through the hole in the brambles. Remaining seated, he shuffled away from the opening, allowing her to leave. Neither said another word.
Andy sat alone in the little clearing long after Crina was gone, needing the time to think alone. Was this his chance to finally get away from his boring life at the ranch? Was Crina right that it was fate that brought the gypsy caravan to their pasture to give him the choice to let his heart lead the way to his future? Andy didn’t want to hurt his brother, taking to heart what Crina said about his brother controlling him and not allowing him to make his own decisions. He loved Slim and knew that his big brother would never want to see him hurt and wanted what was best for him, but Andy felt that Slim wasn’t always right. How could Slim know what was right for him?
Crawling out from the brambles, Andy slowly headed back toward the ranch house, knowing that he was fully going to get what for from Jonesy. What was he going to tell Jonesy about where he was and what he was doing? He hadn’t given that any thought yet. A plausible story was what he needed, now if he could only think of one.
Cutting through the corral, Andy saw Jonesy sweeping off the porch. Moving to the far side of the corral, hiding behind some horses and trying not to be seen, the boy was able to make it to the barn and slip in through the side door. Once he thought he had his story ready, he exited out the large open front doors.
Jonesy caught the movement immediately and moved quickly off the porch to meet Andy with the broom still in his hand. “Where were you, boy? I’ve been looking all over for you?”
“I went to the gypsy camp. I promised Crina I’d show her where the lake was on the other side of the butte. She wanted to surprise the camp with some fish for supper. We kinda forgot about the time while she was fishin’ an’ talkin’. Did ya know she was born in one of those wagons somewhere in Oklahoma?” the boy asked, hoping that the older man was buying his wares.
“If she can’t find something as big as the lake, then she needs eyeglasses. Why are you hanging around with those people? Don’t you know anything, boy?” Jonesy said, punctuating his tirade by shaking his broom at Andy.
“About what?” Andy asked, knowing full well what Jonesy was getting at, but daring him to come out and say it.
Grasping for words, Jonesy finally blurted, “Well, they’re not like ordinary people.”
“An’ what are ordinary people, Jonesy? They’re just like us only they like to move around a lot. They have sheep an’ we have cattle. Just because they’d rather move around that doesn’t make ‘em bad. I think it would be fun to keep on the move, see the country, an’ go places where I’ve never been before. I’ve heard stories about gypsies, too, Jonesy, an’ meetin’ this band, none of those stories are true,” Andy said, holding his ground, his stance making him appear that he was ready for a physical fight as well.
“You listen to me, boy, that’s no way to talk to your elders. If your brother heard you talking to me that way, why, why I don’t know what he’d do,” the older man replied as his ears started to turn red under his derby.
“Jonesy, ya just don’t understand. If ya woulda gone with us to meet those folks the other night, you’d see they really are good people. I like ‘em an’ you can’t make me stop likin’ ‘em,” Andy said defiantly as he walked away toward the house.
Jonesy was flabbergasted. He’d never seen the Andy act this way. ‘It has to be them gypsies. Put a spell on him or something,’ he thought as he followed the teenager to the house.
Opening the front door, Jonsey was in time to see Andy closing his bedroom door. Not sure if he should confront the boy again or not, the caretaker decided to only remind him to do his homework and let it go at that until it was time for them to eat.
Lying on his stomach on his bed, Andy opened one of his schoolbooks to start his homework. It was hard to keep his mind on his work. His thoughts of what was said between him and Crina kept creeping through his mind, interrupting his ability to do his lessons. Giving up for now, he figured he’d get back to his homework after supper. Right now he had too much to sort out about his future. Turning over on his back, resting his head on his hands behind his head, he drifted off to sleep, dreaming about Crina.
Slim and Jess arrived in Fort Collins early in the afternoon of their third day on the road. It had been a pleasant drive with good nights under the stars and a few stops to look up people Slim hadn’t seen in a long time.
Their first stop was at the café for a good hearty meal. The town was bustling with people moving from store to store and the café had a fairly large crowd of customers. Finding a table near the middle of the room, the two dusty cowboys sat down to await the waitress. While waiting for their meal to arrive, they sat drinking coffee and discussed their trip, planning how they would strap down the axles in the buckboard, along with what supplies they’d need for their trip back to Laramie. They were grateful for the invitations along the way to stop for meals or overnight lodging at some of the homes they’d visited along their way. If the timing were right, they would take some advantage of one or more of those invitations.
Leaving the diner, the ranchers drove the buckboard to the livery to let the proprietor know that they’d arrived and would be picking up the axles in the morning and to arrange for the horses to be stabled for the rest of the day and overnight. The stableman showed them the two axles leaning against the barn wall that had been delivered by the mill that morning. Once things were settled, the blacksmith assured Slim that he would have the axles strapped appropriately in the wagon by the time they were ready to leave in the morning.
“Let’s head for the store and give them our supply list for the trip home,” Slim said, pulling a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “Maybe they can have it ready for us to pick up when we get the wagon and are ready to leave in the morning.”
“Sounds good to me. It’ll be good to get back to the ranch. I’m tired of eatin’ trail dust,” Jess agreed with a smile, slapping his friend on the back.
“Seems to me I remember someone coming to my ranch thinking that trail dust was his favorite meal,” Slim retorted, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze as they walked along the boardwalk.
Behind them they heard a foreboding voice, “Harper.”
Jess continued to walk like he didn’t hear the man call out his name, while Slim paused for a second to look over his shoulder. Jess quietly said, “Just keep walkin’, Slim.”
“I said, Harper,” the man behind them yelled loud enough that he could be heard for a block away. Jess stopped in his tracks, Slim stopping with him. Slim turned to look at the young man standing in the street glaring at them. Jess turned slowly, “You talkin’ to us?” he asked, his hand hovering over the butt of his handgun.
“No, just you. Ain’t you Harper?” a boy of about seventeen loudly queried, his hand positioned over his revolver in a stance clearly ready to draw.
“Depends on who’s askin’,” Jess responded in the same ominous tone while gently pushing his friend aside and now fully facing the youthful man, trying to show that he was no threat, yet ready to draw if forced to it.
“I hear you’re supposed to be fast, real fast. I reckon I wanna find that out. So are ya? Are ya Harper?” the boy continued to prod.
“Why don’tcha go home before ya get hurt,” Jess wearily encouraged, not wanting to face off against the kid. “I got no argument with ya. Let it be.”
“Oh, no. I gotta know, so draw, Harper,” the boy snarled as he crouched and reached for his gun.
Like lightning Jess pulled his .45 and shot the boy in the arm between his elbow and shoulder, breaking his arm immediately and causing the gun to fly from the boy’s hand. Grasping his bloodied arm, the boy stood staring in shock before he staggered off, leaving his gun where it lay.
“What was that all about?” Slim asked as a crowd gathered from their cover after witnessing both the call out and the resulting gunfight.
“Let’s get inside somewhere, I’ll tell ya all about it,” Jess said, as he grabbed Slim’s shirtsleeve and started to pull him toward the hotel. “I kinda expected some trouble. That’s why I didn’t wanna come with ya. That wasn’t quite what I expected, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve run into some hot-headed kid wantin’ to make a name for himself.”
Ducking into the rooming house, Slim walked to the check-in counter where an attractive young woman was seated behind the counter at a desk doing some bookwork. She looked up, a smile blooming on her lips as her eyes met those of the tall handsome man. “Can I help you?” she asked, now flashing her most flirtatious smile, looking up at him.
“Howdy, Miss,” Slim said, removing his hat while giving her a charming grin in return. “Yes, we need a room for the night.”
Handing the tall cowboy a pen she asked him to sign in, accepted payment for their lodging and gave him a key and directing him down the hall to where the room was located, smiling with feigned shyness.
Jess followed the taller man down the hall to their overnight accommodations. Unlocking the door and unable to wait any longer Slim asked, “Who was that kid?”
“I don’t know. Just some kid wantin’ to make a name for himself, I suspect, unless Murphy put him up to it,” Jess responded.
“Murphy? Okay, then who’s Murphy and why would he send someone to try and kill you with so many witnesses?”
“Like I said, this ain’t the first time somethin’ like this happened. Ya get a name for a fast gun and there’s always someone out there that wants to test ya. Wantin’ to be known as the man who killed ya. Most times I can talk my way out, sometimes I can’t. A year ago I was passin’ through here ‘n met a kid called Tom Murphy. Somehow he found out who I was. Just like that kid, he called me out and he drew on me. I tried to shoot him in the arm, like I did this kid, but he was a lefty. When I fired, he moved just enough that rather than hit him in the arm I hit him just below his heart. He died shortly after the fight,” Jess said, the quiver in his jaw revealed his regret.
“Luckily, there were a lot of witnesses and there was no trial. It was considered a fair fight and that the kid had provoked it. I was asked to leave town by the sheriff, but before I had my gear together and able to leave, Matt Murphy caught up with me. He was Tom’s father. He swore he’d avenge his son, called me a murderer, even though the town folk knew better,” Jess said, lying down on one of the beds. “I left town like the sheriff ordered. Now ya know why I wasn’t too anxious to come with ya. It was Murphy I didn’t want to confront. I knew he had a vendetta ‘n I didn’t want ya to get involved if we ran into ‘im. It wouldn’t surprise me if he sent that kid. Maybe he thought the kid was fast enough to take me or hoped I’d kill ‘im in what might not be found a fair fight this time and they’d have an excuse to hang me. I don’t know.”
“Is there any town where you haven’t found trouble?” Slim asked, sitting down on the bed where his friend was lying.
“Sorta comes with the territory, I reckon,” Jess said with a sad smile, rolling over on his side, resting his head on his hand held up by his elbow planted in the mattress. “Sure amazes me how things like that travels. Seems like so many times people know who I am long before I ever show up somewhere, and there always seems to be someone wantin’ to find out how fast they are with their guns. One day, I’m sure I’ll face somebody who is faster than me. I’m just not lookin’ forward to it happening.”
“So that’s what your life’s been like up until now?” Slim said incredulously.
“A little too often for my liking, but, yeah,” Jess responded as he rolled back over onto his back.
“Not a good way to live, Pard,”
“Nope. I was hopin’ things would change, but comin’ here, I had a feelin’ somethin’ like this would happen, knowin’ how Murphy’s out for revenge.”
Standing up, Slim said, “Well, I’ll go to the mercantile and give them our order and arrange to pick it up in the morning. I reckon you better stay here and out of sight. Don’t open the door, I’ll take the key and let myself in. If anyone knocks, don’t answer. Enough people saw us come in here together. This Murphy will know where to find you if he doesn’t see you out in town.”
“I ain’t goin’ no where,” Jess promised. “I had enough excitement for one day.”
“I’ll leave word at the desk that we don’t want anyone to know what room we’re in, for what that’s worth. Just lay low, Pard,” the blonde cowboy said, turning to the door to leave.
Sitting up, Jess stopped him, “You’re gonna lock me in here with no way out?”
Stopping and turning, Slim said, “Good point.” Walking back to the bed, he handed the dark-haired man the key. “Lock the door and don’t open it for anyone. I’ll knock and let you know it’s me. If I don’t want you to open the door I’ll mention Andy. If I say Andy, don’t open the door.”
“So, you’re expectin’ trouble, too? Ya think maybe Murphy might try to make ya lead ‘im to me?” Jess worried.
“Better to plan for anything,” Slim smiled, turning toward the door. “Now lock it!” he ordered.
“Sure hope we don’t need any plans, just get the axles ‘n get out of town. If Murphy didn’t know I was here before, I’m sure he does now. Be careful, Pard. I don’t know much about him ‘n if he’d try to use ya to get to me or not. With luck, maybe he’s come to his senses by now ‘n that kid had nothin’ to do with ‘im,” the young Texan said hopefully. “Get back as soon as ya can.”
“You bet,” Slim said, as he once again reminded his friend to lock the door.
Stopping at the front desk, Slim requested again that their room number not be given out to anyone. The clerk assured him that she understood, due to the shooting earlier in the day, and that she would not share the information with anyone, unless it was the sheriff. Slim agreed that it would be fine if the sheriff were looking for them and that he could be advised of which room they were staying.
Cautiously making his way to the local general store, Slim ran into no one who seemed remotely interested in him. Looking around the store, he was approached by a young, pretty, petite blonde girl who asked if she could help him. “Oh, hi. Yes, I need some supplies and want to see if you could get them together so I can pick them up in the morning when we’re ready to leave town? I’ll pay you in advance,” he said, opening his folded list.
“I’m sure that would be fine with my father. It’s his store, he’s down the street picking up some nails,” she said, accepting the list. Looking it over, she smiled telling Slim that they had everything he needed and she would personally box it all up for him to pick up in the morning. Totaling his bill, Slim paid and told her they’d be there around eight in the morning, right after they’d had breakfast.
Back on the street, Slim looked up and down the boardwalks on both sides but saw no one lurking around or paying any attention to him. As he strolled back to the hotel, he tipped his hat to two ladies that passed on the walkway. One turned to take another look at the handsome stranger, putting her gloved hand to her mouth when she whispered and giggled with her friend who then also turned to take a second glance.
At the hotel, the clerk greeted Slim when he reentered. “Was anyone been here looking for me or my friend?” he asked, leaning on the counter.
“No, no one has come in since you left. In fact, you and your friend are the only people who have been in here all day. It was kind of nice to have someone to talk to,” she said, batting her eyelashes at the handsome stranger while smiling kittenish. “Are you only staying the one night?” she purred.
“Yes, we have to head for home as soon as they load up our wagon. Nice town, except for what happened earlier. I wish we had time to look around a little more. I was here several years ago, the place has really grown,” the tall blonde remarked.
The front door opened and an older gentleman stepped in. Walking to the front desk he asked about a room. Slim took his leave, saying goodbye to the girl, heading for his room. Knocking at the door, he told Jess that it was him and to let him in.
Feeling a little impish, Jess said, “How do I know it’s you?”
In no mood to play games, Slim growled, “Damn it, Jess, let me in,”
“Unlocking the door, Jess peeked out, while Slim gave the door a shove open, knocking Jess backwards into the room. Closing the door behind him, Slim turned the key that was still in the door before turning around to face his friend.
“So?” Jess asked, as a guilty look spread across his face.
“So why are you playing silly games. This could be serious.”
“Why? Did someone follow you?” Jess asked, worry creases appearing on his brow.
“No, but if someone is looking for you, it worries me that I didn’t see anyone looking suspicious,” Slim replied.
“Now who’s paranoid?” Jess remarked. “Maybe Murphy’s over it or not in town. That kid might not’ve had anything to do with Murphy. We’ll be outta here tomorrow,” Jess said, sitting down on the bed.
“I sure hope so, not that they wait until we’re well out of town hauling those heavy axles and have no way to out run them.”
“Maybe we should talk to the sheriff. You know, feel him out about Murphy. He should know what kind of man he is, whether he could still be holdin’ a grudge,” Jess suggested.
“I agree. We both might be making more out of this than there really is. You want to come with me to talk to him?” Slim asked.
“Sure, why not,” the dark haired man said, standing up and heading for the door.
Taking the key from where he’d laid it on the dresser, Slim unlocked the door and looked both ways up and down the passageway before they stepped out into the empty hall. After locking the door, Slim lead the way down the hall with Jess following closely behind him, looking cautiously behind them.
“You gentlemen going out to explore the town?” the pretty clerk asked.
“Yeah, I think we’ll take a little walk. We’ll be back shortly,” Slim replied, tipping his hat.
On the boardwalk, Jess nudged his friend with his elbow, “I think she likes ya,” he teased with another nudge and an impish grin.
“That’s cause I’m a likeable fella,” Slim teased back, a broad, easy smile on his face.
“Yeah, I know, you get the girls, I get the gunfights. It just ain’t fair,” Jess countered.
The street was full of riders and wagons going in each direction. People crowded the boardwalk going in and out of the various shops. Both ranchers met and greeted several ladies, tipping their hats and getting sweet smiles from them. “Sure seems like a friendly town,” Slim commented, “too bad you made such a bad impression.”
“Follows me wherever I go,” Jess sighed, wondering what it might be like if he could go somewhere, sometime and not run into trouble of some kind, wishing that he was back in Laramie where he was known and didn’t feel he needed to be on his toes and on guard every minute.
Arriving at the sheriff’s office, Slim turned the knob and entered the small room, followed by Jess. A deputy was sitting behind a desk cleaning a revolver. Putting it down he stood up to greet the two strangers.
Slim introduced himself and Jess to the deputy, asking where the sheriff might be. He was told that Sheriff Malone was down at the livery fetching his horse after getting a lost shoe replaced and he’d be back in a few minutes. The deputy invited the two ranchers to sit down while they waited. Jess eyed the coffee pot sitting on the stove, but the deputy never offered the men a cup and Jess was too polite to ask.
It wasn’t long before the sheriff came through the front door. The two men stood up, being recognized by the sheriff from their earlier meeting.
“What kin I do for you young fellas? I told ya you were in the clear but to leave town before there was any more trouble,” the older man said, sounding a little perturbed with having to deal with the man who had already made his day more difficult than usual.
“Yes, sir. And we’re leaving in the morning, but we have a few questions that could be connected to what happened this morning,” Slim said, trying to smooth a few feathers.
“Okay, shoot,” the sheriff, said as he sat down, forcing the deputy to find a new chair to bring into the office from the adjoining storage room.
Knowing that the man wasn’t too thrilled with him, and that Slim was doing fine on his own, Jess decided to keep quiet, unless he was needed to clarify something.
“That young man this morning, do you know if he had any connection with Matt or Tom Murphy?” Slim asked, watching closely for the sheriff’s reaction to his question.
“None that I know of. He just came to town about a month or so ago. He works down at the livery or did until your friend here busted his arm,” Malone said, nodding his head in Jess’ direction with obvious distaste.
“I was there, sheriff. We were just walking down the street and that kid came up behind us trying to start a fight. Everyone who saw it already confirmed that the kid provoked it and drew first. Jess had no alternative but to draw to protect himself,” Slim reminded the sheriff.
“Yeah, an’ I heard that same story a little over a year ago, but that time the boy was killed by a man by the same name, Harper. Jess Harper,” Malone said, looking straight at Jess. “I ran ya outta town then an’ I want ya outta my town before noon tomorrow.”
No longer able to remain quiet, Jess stood up to defend himself. Walking to where the sheriff sat, Jess put his hands on the desk and leaning over it said, “And that was another wet behind the ears kid that called me out. I wasn’t aimin’ to kill him, either. He was a kid. If he hadn’t moved when I fired, he’d still be alive today. Everyone here saw that, too. Both those kids were only tryin’ to get themselves a name as a fast gun. Too bad they lost….”
“Enough, Jess,” Slim interrupted, taking an angry Jess by the elbow and pushing him aside and back toward where he’d been previously seated.
“I can see you’re as hot-headed as those kids you shot,” the sheriff said, standing up to defy the dark-haired man’s temper. “Are ya proud of yer reputation, Harper?” the man jeered.
Jess moved forward again, his fists tightly clenched. “No, I’m not. I earned it by just tryin’ to stay alive, Sheriff. If I wasn’t fast, I’da been dead a long time ago. I don’t go lookin’ for trouble, it comes lookin’ for me. Another thing, Sheriff, I ain’t never hired out…”
Slim stepped between the two men, “Don’t push it, Sheriff,” he said, his own temper rising. “The way I see it, Jess was pushed into both gun fights. Would you expect him to stand still and be a target? Would you? Or would you defend yourself, too?”
“You’re right, there young man,” Malone had to agree, “but I still want him out of town. He’s trouble an’ I don’t want any more dead bodies left behind by him,” the sheriff said, a hard look in his eyes as he glared at Jess.
“Could you please stop the pot shots, sheriff? We came here hoping to stop any more trouble,” Slim said, feeling frustrated with the exchange.
“Trouble? So ya are expectin’ more trouble?” Malone asked, a little more in control as he sat back down behind his desk. “So talk. I’m listenin’.”
“The shooting a year ago, Matt Murphy’s son. We need to know if Murphy might still be gunning for Jess,” Slim inquired.
Leaning back in his chair, the sheriff looked long at Slim, squinting his eyes as he thought. “Ya know, I really can’t say. I’m sure someone told him about the shootin’ an’ that Harper’s in town. He was pretty angry about his son’s death, still in mournin’ it seems. We don’t see ‘im here in town much anymore. He usually sends his foreman in for supplies. He don’t even come to town for a haircut anymore, kinda like a hermit out there on that big spread of his. If Murphy’s out to get Harper, he won’t do it himself, he’d send out one of his men.”
“Then what you’re telling me is that it’s possible that Jess could still have a target on his back as far as Murphy’s concerned,” Slim said. “Are you going to do anything about it?”
“Nothin’ I kin do, not unless something happens,” the sheriff replied matter-of-factly.
“So, if Jess is forced to defend himself, again, you won’t do anything to stop it?” the tall man asked, already knowing the answer he’d get from the lawman.
“Come on Slim, we won’t get any help from him. He’s just a tin star with no backbone,” Jess said, causing the sheriff to rise to his feet again. Slim was sorry now that he’d brought Jess with him. The friction between the two men was impossible to overcome.
“Thanks for all your help, sheriff,” Jess said, the words dripping with sarcasm as he walked out the door, followed by his boss.
“That was productive,” Slim commented dryly.
“Yeah,” Jess returned, “I reckon if he had his way, he’d lock me up ‘n throw away the key; right into the lap of the leader of the lynch mob.”
“Come on, Pard. Let’s get you back up into the room. At least we have a little control there. I’m not looking forward to leaving town with those axles, but I reckon the farther away we get away from here, the better chance that Murphy won’t send someone after you.”
“If he’s gonna send someone after me. Maybe the old man won’t.” As they walked toward the hotel, Jess’ face lit up as an idea came to him. “I got it, Slim. Why don’t I get a horse n’ ride out tonight or sometime after you. You take the wagon. If they’re after me, they’ll leave you alone. I can move a lot faster on my own. We can meet at the Phillips place n’ if nothin’ happens by then, I’ll ride back with ya, then.”
“That could work. I don’t like the idea of you riding out at night though. Stay in town tonight. We’ll have breakfast and split up then. You ride out first and I’ll follow after I get the supplies. Let’s go buy you a horse,” Slim said, slapping his friend’s back, relieved that they now had a plan that sounded like it could work.
At the livery the two ranchers found a likely looking black gelding. He appeared speedy and they could see more than just a spark of fire in his eyes. From his build, he looked like he could travel long distances over long periods of time. Jess tried him out and was satisfied that the horse had a lot of heart. Settling up with the owner, they also purchased a used saddle, telling the proprietor they’d be there in the morning for both the horse and the buckboard. The man assured the two ranchers that all would be ready for them before eight in the morning.
Satisfied with the horse and that everything was set for them to leave in the morning the two men strolled back to the hotel. Upon entering, a male clerk was at the desk. He stood up to greet the two cowboys. Slim mentioned that they were already checked in, so the man nodded allowing them to head on down the hall to their room. Taking the key from his jacket pocket, Slim unlocked the door, looking into the room before entering to be sure no one was waiting there.
“So what are we gonna do about supper,” Jess asked, before flopping down on the bed.
“No matter what, you never forget about your stomach, do you?” Slim teased.
“Nope, us bad hombres gotta keep up our strength, ya know. I never know when it might be my last meal before some ornery sheriff runs me outta town,” Jess said, as he rolled over on his side to face his friend, sitting in the rocking chair near the window. “Sorry ya ordered me to come along with ya?”
Slim looked at his dark-haired friend and smiled, “I’m always glad to have your company, but the surprises that come along with you being around, I’m still not sure if I’ll ever get used to them.”
“Me neither, Pard, me neither.”
“Ever think about changing your name?” Slim asked.
“Did a few times, it didn’t help. I’ve met and know too many people who always end up knowin’ who I am. And after a while, I forgot who I was supposed to be for the week anyway,” Jess said, a frown forming as he remembered a few bad experiences from his past when he tried using an alias.
It was Friday and raining all day while Andy was in school. Daydreaming out the window he wondered what he would do when he got back to the ranch. He didn’t think Crina would be waiting for him in the clearing while it poured. Rain had never come into their plans. Andy found that Jonesy was getting impossible to dodge and make his getaway meetings with the gypsy girl as well. At least tomorrow was Saturday and he had no school to get into his way. He hoped that the rain would be stopped long before morning so it wasn’t sopping wet at their secret meeting place, the greenbrier thicket.
Excused for the weekend, Andy made his way down to the stage depot, not wanting to go first to the mercantile and walk back again in the rain. He figured he’d wait inside at the depot, hoping he didn’t have to entertain any passengers. Remembering that being engrossed in his books worked with the ladies on the coach ride, he reckoned he could do his studies at the depot and then feign to be reading on the stage, if necessary.
Luckily, when Andy arrived at the stage office, there was no one inside but the clerk, who was busy doing some bookwork of his own, only acknowledging the boy’s presence. Andy sat down beside the window, looking out as the rain continued to come down in a steady, heavy drizzle. Wagons driving by on the road splashed water in their wake. There wasn’t a soul walking on the boardwalks and hardly a horse was tied to any of the hitching posts along the street, only a small group tied in front of the saloon.
His thoughts eventually returned to Crina and what she might be doing on a day like today. He felt bad that the torrents would make things difficult for the caravan, causing problems with keeping their cook fires going and how the dampness must be creeping into the wagons. There were no fireplaces in the vardos Andy came to the realization, wondering how those folks warmed themselves in this kind of weather. If he was to run off with them, he really wanted to know more about how they lived and how they grappled with the elements. Maybe living in a house wasn’t so bad after all. The sudden thought came to him about the tornadoes he’d witnessed and worried about how this clan of people could deal with that kind of cataclysm, having no storm cellars in which to hide.
Something as simple as a cold rain made the boy rethink his future and running off with Crina.
As questions to ask the gypsy girl raced through his mind, Andy was brought back to reality as he heard the clatter of the stagecoach as it splashed down the muddy street and pulled up in front of the depot. Mose, dripping wet, walked into the office carrying the mailbag slung over his shoulder.
“Andy, boy,” the elderly driver said, shaking some of the water off his oilskin overcoat. “Ya still wanna ride up top with me?” Mose teased with a big grin.
“Thanks Mose, but I think Jonesy wouldn’t take to me drippin’ all over the floor. I reckon I better ride inside, you’ll have to handle the shotgun and the reins all by yourself I’m afraid,” Andy countered with a smile as he collected his book bag and made his way out the door to climb into the coach.
The stage pulled into the ranch yard and Ion came out from the barn immediately leading two harnessed horses while Grigore met the tired, steaming animals and started to unhitch them. Both men were very adept at the job and had the animals switched out long before Mose was finished kibitzing with Jonesy over a hot cup of coffee.
Andy said very little to Jonesy when he entered the house, instead going straight to his room. Since the rain was letting up when Mose was about to leave the house, Andy accompanied him out the door as he headed to check on his menagerie and bed down the chickens who hadn’t left the coop all day. They preferred to stau in and away from the drenching rain. While in the coop, Ion approached Andy, startling him. He hadn’t heard the man approaching due to the steady pitter-patter of rain on the roof of the coop.
“Oh, Ion, I didn’t hear you,” the boy said as he turned around, his surprise evident in the size of his eyes.
“I’m sorry if I frightened you, little brother,” the youthful gypsy man said. “I have another message for you from your inamorata,” he added, handing the boy a folded piece of paper, surprisingly dry considering the circumstances of the day. “I will be here for a little while if you wish to respond. Once the horses are settled, Grigore and I will be leaving for the day. Mr. Mose said that the last stage for today has been canceled.”
Smiling as he opened the note, Andy read over it quickly and then told Ion that he would have a message waiting to send back to Crina and to please wait. He ran to the house and straight to his room, begging off any conversation with Jonesy by telling him he had something to add to his homework before he forgot it.
Jonesy was pleased to see Andy showing interest in his studies again after the past couple of mysterious days when the boy disappeared without having valid excuses.
While Jonesy was out in the butter house, Andy left through the front door and ran his note out to give it to Ion. The older man smiled as he took the folded paper from the boy and tucked it in a pocket inside of his slicker “I shall deliver it. She will be very happy to hear from you, I know. She’s been like a little sister to me and has told me much about you. I agree with her, if you are not happy here, you should come with us.”
A shocked look came across Andy’s face. He had no idea that Crina had told anyone about what was going on between them, but he did know that she trusted Ion exclusively.
“Fear not, Andy. No one knows anything. If you decide to travel with us, I will share my vardo with you. My brother joined another band when he married and the vardo is my own. No one needs to know that you are with us until you are comfortable,” Ion informed him.
So, Crina had already been making plans for him to run away with her and had a cohort in the escape plan who would hide him from the others and Slim, as well, he assumed.
“I will see you tomorrow, little brother. I understand there are four stages on Saturdays. If I have a message for you, you will be here?” the man asked.
“Yes, I’ll be here. I sure hope it stops raining by then,” Andy said, his mind churning with all this new information.
“Tomorrow,” Ion said as he turned and left Andy standing alone in the barn.
The next morning Jonesy rose and went about his usual habits. His aches and pains were emphasized due to the dampness of the day before. After putting the logs in the fireplace he went back to the stove and stood warming his arthritic hands over the cast iron heat. ‘At least it stopped raining,’ he thought, as he looked out the kitchen window. Water was still dripping from the roof, but the sun could be seen on the horizon and the clouds were burning off, promising at least a partially sunny day.
A rooster crowing outside Andy’s window woke him. His head was still in the fog of the dream he’d had and it took him a moment to regain his faculties. Hearing the cock crow again, he realized that it must have stopped raining or that bird would still have been holing up in the dry coop. He got up and went to the window, looking out to see that he was right, the rain appeared to be past them and a dry day was ahead. ‘Yippee,’ he thought, already thinking of meeting his, what did Ion call her, his girlfriend out where the greenbrier twines. He was beginning to like the sound of that, ‘If only I could write poetry,’ the boy mused. ‘That would be a wonderful name for a poem. I’ll have to give more thought to that. I think Crina would like a poem.’
Dressing quickly, Andy was thinking of rhyming words, but had trouble finding words that rhymed with brier or twines or green for that matter.
Putting the idea of a poem aside, the boy left his room and greeted Jonesy who was slicing bacon while the frying pan was heating on the stove.
“What are you going to do today,” the older man asked, as Andy started to pull out plates to set on the table.
“Not sure yet, Jonesy. Looks like a nice day. Maybe the fish will be bitin’ an’ we can have fish for supper.”
“Maybe, but you be sure you finish all your chores here first. Do you have homework to do? I don’t want your lessons slipping.”
I did my homework last night. Not much more you can do when it’s rainin’ that hard.” Suddenly the thought of his poem came to him. “I still have to write a poem though. Do ya have any ideas of words that will rhyme with green or twined maybe?”
Slicing bacon with his aching hands, Jonesy wasn’t in the mood for trying to rhyme words. “I reckon I’ll give some thought to it,” he finally said as he took a towel to wipe the greasy knife.
“You’re not planning on going to that gypsy camp are you? I hope not. You should stay away from those people,” Jonsey said, putting the just sliced bacon into the heated frying pan where it started to sizzle and spit.
“Jonesy, I wish you’d come with me. You’ve met some of them an’ ya can see that they’re not like all those old stories say.
“Nope. I ain’t going out there. It’s bad enough they’re hanging around here. I just wish your brother would get back here and real soon to send them on their way. It’s not only them that’s a problem, it’s those sheep of theirs. I don’t know why your brother let them stay here with those animals. He won’t have any grazing land left by the time he gets back home,” Jonesy continued to rant.
“You know they can’t go until the wagon is fixed,” Andy reminded him.
“That’s not the way I see it. They could’ve left the wagon and moved on and came back for it later. Anything to get those sheep out of here. Sometimes I don’t think that brother of yours was born with the sense of a goose. Going out of his way and paying for those axles and then going to get them no less! Why does he feel he owes those people anything? All they’ve done is cause him trouble, just like they’re known for.”
“You said the same thing about Jess once, that he was nothing but trouble. You don’t think that anymore, do ya, Jonesy?”
Muttering to himself, Jonesy then said, “Jess is different. I guess I was sorta wrong about him, but he brings his share of trouble down around our ears, too. But he didn’t bring sheep!” the older man blustered while turning the bacon. “Go bring in the eggs if you plan on eating, boy. This bacon’s about done.”
Andy finished putting on his boots, grabbed the egg basket and fled out the kitchen door. As he hastened into the chicken coop, he heard a horse coming into the yard. Looking out from the coop, Andy saw Ion and Markos arriving to ready the horses for the morning stage. Before going to the house, Andy ran out to greet them and Ion passed the boy another folded piece of paper.
Beaming, he took the message and tucked it into his pants back pocket before running back to the house.
“What took you so long,” Jonsey asked, taking the basket from the boy. He chose four eggs and cracked them into the pan.
“Ion and Markos just got here, I just went to say hi. Ya know, Jonesy, it would be a mite neighborly of ya to go say hi to ‘em, too.”
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Depends on how busy I am. I have a lot to do around here to keep this house running properly for you boys,” Jonsey said, but it was obvious that he had no intention of rubbing elbows with any of the gypsies, including those who came to help at the ranch.
After breakfast, Andy went to his room and wrote a note to Crina telling her to meet him at their secret place and to bring a fishing pole. He reckoned he’d better have some fish to bring back to Jonesy to explain his absence since he’d already told him he was thinking about going fishing.
Jonesy was on the porch, not doing anything in particular, just watching to see where Andy was when Andy came out from the barn with his pole. Because the lake was behind the butte and in the opposite direction of the briers, Andy set off to the east rather than to the west. Once he was out of site of the house, he rerouted to the west, keeping behind any cover he could find, trying not to give away his destination.
Coming in from a different direction, he crested a hill that overlooked the twisted thicket. Even from that vantage point, it was impossible to see that there was a clearing in its midst. He wondered if Crina was already there and waiting for him. It seemed like ages since he’d been with her and wondered if she’d missed him as well.
Ducking down to enter their lair, he snagged the back of his jacket on one of the thorns. Before he untangled himself, another pair of hands was there busy helping to get him free. “I thought I had them all pulled off from our doorway,” her voice sounded like music to his heart and ears.
“Th--- thanks,” Andy said as he was unencumbered. He crawled forward into the irregular circle while Crina worked at the branch, removing the thorns that had grabbed his jacket. After she examined Andy’s jacket for more snags, she then wove the branch in amongst the others that were entwined to form their passageway. After checking a few of the other branches that had come loose with Andy’s struggle, she made sure they were all weaved neatly so they wouldn’t come loose when either of them used the opening. Once she was sure they met her satisfaction, she turned to give Andy a huge smile.
“I was so sad we did not see each other yesterday. It was like the sky was crying my tears,” she said, throwing her arms around his neck to give him a big hug and then a kiss on the cheek as she released him. “Your message said to bring my fishing pole, there it is. We’re going fishing, then?”
“Yeah, that’s where I told Jonesy I was goin’ so he wouldn’t give me a bad time about gettin’ away for a while. It’s real nice out at the lake, well, we call it a lake, it’s really just a big ole fishin’ hole out the other side of the butte,” he said as he pointed to the northeast. “We can walk there and spend the day fishin’ while we talk, I thought. We can surprise our folks with fish for supper, if we’re real lucky. I only haveta catch enough for Jonesy an’ me, any others I can give to you to take back to your folks.”
“That sounds like a really good idea, Querido. I brought us something to eat, so we can have a picnic while we are fishing,” the girl said, pointing at a handmade basket sitting with blankets folded on it so they wouldn’t soak through from the damp grass.
“You brought all this stuff out here by yourself?” Andy asked, missing the endearing name she’d called him when he saw the blankets, basket, canteens and fishing pole. There was even a small can of freshly dug worms to use for bait.
“Took me two trips, but I got them here all by myself. I am not about to give away our little nest. I looked for the worms right after I got your message. It was easy. They were almost anywhere something was lying. I only had to lift things up and there they were, ready for the plucking,” she smiled proudly.
“Looks like you thought of everything. I’m sure glad you thought of the worms. I was too anxious to get away from the house before Jonesy changed his mind about lettin’ me go fishin’. But after the rain, I figured we’d find a lot of ‘em under the rocks by the lake.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sure there will be plenty of worms there, too. That will be fine for that means we can fish all day and even throw back any of the little ones.”
“Oh, we always throw back the little ones,” Andy said, surprised that it didn’t sound like it was common practice with Crina.
“But of course we throw back the little ones, we’ll just throw back some of the bigger little ones,” she said with a grin as she reached to pick up the basket and hand it to her beau.
Andy grasped the basket and watched Crina as she gracefully draped the brightly colored blankets over her arm. Picking up the can of worms, she handed them to Andy then reached down to pick up her fishing pole. At the opening she stopped, “Why don’t you go through first and I’ll hand everything out to you?” she suggested, as she set down her pole and the blankets next to the passage.
“Oh. Yeah. Sure,” Andy said, setting down the items he was holding next to where she had put the blankets. He crawled through the opening and turned to wait for Crina to pass everything through to him. Once it was all on the outside of the greenbrier hideaway and Crina emerged, the two redistributed their load and headed toward the butte, taking the long way around to avoid being seen by anyone, especially Jonesy.
Settled in a shady spot, the two teens spread out the blankets, keeping them doubled up so they wouldn’t soak through. They planted themselves on a mound that had drained well since the rain, where the ground wasn’t soft or spongy under them. There was some moisture still resting on the grass, but the thick wool blankets didn’t allow the dampness to soak through.
Taking their poles to the edge of the pond, both threaded worms on their hooks, the girl giggling at the gooey, wiggly creature as it tried to escape her manipulations. Andy offered to bait her hook, but she shunned his offer, telling him that she knew how to do it. She just found that the worms felt funny in her fingers and they made her laugh.
Tossing his line into the water, Andy sat down on a log that edged the lake. Slim had dragged it there long ago. It was their favorite place to sit and ponder whatever was on their minds while they fished on those lazy summer evenings when work was done and there was still enough daylight to come out and relax while catching some fish for breakfast the next morning.
Her worm finally secured to the hook, Crina cast her line into the pond and sat down next to Andy, her hip and leg tight against his. Andy felt a little uncomfortable and stood up, pretending he didn’t like where his hook had landed and tossed his line once again a little farther out into the water. When he sat down again there were a few inches between them, but the distance wasn’t there long before Crina leaned in his direction to kiss him on his ear.
It tickled and Andy jumped up and put his hand to his ear, “What didya go an’ do that for?” he asked.
“Because I wanted to and I thought you might like it,” she said with raised eyebrows, a bit shocked at his reaction.
Wide-eyed, Andy sat back down next to her, “ I, ah, I mean, I thought we were here to go fishin’ is all I meant.”
“I’m fishing, but I can still pay attention to you, Andy. You don’t like it when I give you a kiss?” she asked, pretending to be hurt and allowing her sensuous mouth to form a pout.
“No, I like it fine, I guess, but it just kinda surprised me. I, I didn’t think, I mean, well, we’re here fishin’ an’ all an’ I thought…”
“And you thought it was not appropriate for us to act like girlfriend and boyfriend when we are fishing? Is that what you thought?” Crina asked, still amused and puzzled at his reaction.
“I just didn’t think, aw heck, I don’t know what I think,” in frustration, the adolescent boy gave up trying to make excuses for his unexpected behavior.
“Okay, so we fish. Sit down, Andy. I will behave myself, no matter how hard that might be,” she said, suddenly pretending to be totally absorbed in looking into the lake in the direction of where her line disappeared into the water. A sly smile crept across her face. She then turned to look at him, surprising him at her sudden movement. “Andy, do you remember when I asked how old you were?”
“Sure, that was a few days ago. You told me that with your people I was almost a man. I remember that fine.”
“I didn’t tell you then, but I just turned fifteen, and I am a woman. I have had a boyfriend before. My father promised me to him.“
Andy looked at her, shocked, as she continued. “He was killed by a rancher last spring, cheating at cards, I was told. We were promised that as soon as I was fifteen we would be married. I didn’t love him. It was all arranged by my father. Pesha was much older than me and, well, he thought that since we were promised, he would, well, he…” a tear rolled down her cheek. “I was not pleased and I hated him for what he did to me. It happened more than once and he told me I’d grow to love him, but I only grew to hate him more every time. He said I was already a woman and I was his to do with as he pleased. I was glad that he died,“ Crina said with bitterness, biting down on her bottom lip. Just then there was a tug on her line. Standing up, she brushed the tears from her cheeks and pulled the struggling fish toward shore.
Andy was stunned and in awe of what the girl had told him and yet she was composed enough to bring in a good sized fish. Landing the bass, she removed the hook and tossed the fish into the dammed holding area. Without saying another word, she threaded another worm on to her hook, this time without giggling or making a sound before tossing her line back into the water. The whole time Andy continued to stare at her silently.
Sitting back down beside Andy, Crina turned to him and sadly said, “Does my story surprise you? Do you hate me now? Andy, I couldn’t bare to have you hate me, but I thought you should know. In many ways, I am a woman. I like you very much, Andy, and I hope you like me, too, and will decide to run away with me. I know I would be very happy and I would do my best to make you very happy, too. You are not happy here. You have already told me that.” Putting down her pole, she took Andy by his hand. “I do not want my father to arrange another marriage for me. I am getting old, as far as my people believe, and I will be an old maid if not married soon. My father will give me away to anyone who will have me. Andy, I want to be with you.”
Doe-eyed, the boy was speechless. His lips moved but not a sound tumbled from them.
Dropping Andy’s hand, Crina stood up and walked away to where the blankets and basket sat. She stood looking down at them, her back to the boy. Putting down his pole, Andy got up from the tumbled tree and walked up behind her. She didn’t turn around, but sensed his closeness. “I am sorry, Andy. Maybe I should not have told you. I guess I wanted you to know why I have been so forward. I was only doing what I thought men liked, what you would like. I wanted you to want me. I guess I was wrong, maybe even frightened you. If I did, I’m truly sorry. I have disgraced myself,” she said, finally turning to face him, tears visibly rolling down her cheeks.
Andy stiffly took her in his arms and she put her head on his shoulder as she started to sob inconsolably. Taking his hand, Andy ran it down her long ebony-colored hair and back trying to soothe her, “Shhhhh,” he said, holding her close, his muscles finding themselves relaxing some, but still tense from this so new situation. They stood holding each other for a long time until her sobs subsided. She finally lifted her head and looked at him, a small smile trying to find itself to her lips. “Are, are you gonna be okay?” Andy asked, still holding her close, his muscles tensing again.
The girl pulled away and sat down on the blanket, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around her legs. Andy sat down next to her. Leaning toward her, he put his arm protectively around her shoulders. “I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve been through. I had no idea. It musta been terrible.” the boy said solemnly. Timidly, Crina put her head on his shoulder.
Sitting up and looking him straight in the eye, Crina said, “I suppose now that you know about me you will no longer want to see me.” A tear started to roll from her eye. Andy reached up and wiped the droplet from her cheek with his thumb.
“I never said that,” he replied. “I’m glad you told me, and I reckon it was good for you to be able to tell someone. Does your father know?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’m sure some people knew and people talk,” she responded. “If he does, he never did anything about it. He gave me to Pesha. He probably did not really care.”
Andy looked up when he heard a rustling in the grass near the pond and saw his pole being pulled into the lake. He started to get up to go chase after it, but realized he’d never get to it in time to stop it, so he watched it disappear into the lake, thinking, ‘Oh great, what will I tell Jonesy now?’
“What you must think of me now,” Crina said, regaining the confused teen’s attention as he turned back to look at her, forgetting immediately about the lost fishing pole.
“None of that makes any difference in how I feel about ya, Crina. How could it? It wasn’t your fault. Do you really think your father will just give you away to anyone?”
“It is the way of our people. If my father finds a new wife, she will not want me around. My mother has been dead for five years now. I am surprised he has not taken a new woman yet. I know when we meet with other wagons that he is looking and if he finds a wife, I will be pushed out. Right now I am safe. He needs me to help him with his needs, but if he finds a wife, he will not want or need me around to do his laundry or darning or cooking. We will be meeting other families in Kansas or Missouri, I am sure. If not, when we get to the south grazing lands there will be many other bands in the area. He speaks often about getting married again and has been looking to promise me. I have been lucky since Pesha died that we have not found another band with someone to promise me to.”
“I wondered about your mother. I’m sorry to hear she died. What happened?” Andy asked, once again putting his arm over the girls shoulder.
“A bad birth. She had six children I was the only one to survive. She died having my little brother. He died the day after he was born. My brothers and sisters are buried in many places. We have many deaths. Many in childbirth, many in accidents in the fields, some of sickness as we travel. It is not an easy life. That is why I wanted to know what it was like to live in one place. Andy, I wish I could stay here with you, if you will not come with us.“
“Oh, I don’t think Jonesy would like that, and I can’t say what Slim would think about that, you staying here, that is,” Andy said, as he laid back on the blanket to give the whole ideas some thought.
Crina lay back on the blanket and snuggled into the crook of Andy’s arm. He wrapped his arm around her and drew her close to him. They laid quietly in each other’s arms and it wasn’t long before Andy heard the even breathing of the sleeping girl. Putting his face closer to the top of her head, he smelled the sweet perfume of her hair and gently kissed her on top of her head. Rolling slightly into her, he put his other arm around her and it wasn’t long before he, too, fell asleep, protectively enfolding her; entwining much like the tangle of the greenbriers that they called their own.
Jess slept fitfully that night. He was awake long before the sun reached the horizon. Anxiously he waited for daylight to show through the window before stirring and getting up to pull on his pants. His boss seemed to be sleeping well and he didn’t want to wake him. Going to the window he looked out at the quiet street below. Only the lamplighter could be seen going down the street extinguishing the street lamps for the coming day. Yawning, he stretched and turned to look at his sleeping friend, unsure if he should wake him. They weren’t supposed to pick up the wagon and supplies after they’d had breakfast, and he wasn’t sure that the café would be open yet. ‘Sure could go for a cup of coffee right now,’ he thought.
Sitting down on the bed then lying back, his legs hanging off the side, he put his forearm across his eyes. Shortly he heard Slim stirring. Sitting up, Jess saw that the tall man had just rolled over in his sleep and was lightly snoring.
Jess ran his fingers through his hair, knowing he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, but figured it was far too early to wake his friend. It was going to be a long morning. Lying back again, he drifted off into a dreamless sleep only to be shaken awake by the tall blonde rancher, “You didn’t sleep hanging off the bed like that all night, did you?”
Sitting up and rubbing his eyes, Jess said, “No, I was up before the sun. I didn’t think I’d get any more shuteye. Reckon I drifted off, though. What time is it?”
“Almost seven. I reckon we better get ready or we’ll be behind schedule. I told them at the store I’d be by around eight.”
“Yeah, I know,” the dark-haired man said, getting up and walking to the wash stand where twin pitchers of water stood in two washbowls.
There were few people on the street when Slim and Jess started toward the café. They were the first two customers, so they were waited on immediately. Hot coffee was placed in front of them in a matter of minutes while they waited for their order of bacon and eggs to be prepared.
An elderly couple came through the door. They must have been regulars, and were greeted by the waitress who showed them to a table near the back of the room. Taking their order, the young woman disappeared into the diner’s kitchen.
Slim and Jess were discussing the route they’d planned to take when a man of about thirty, dressed like a wrangler, walked through the door. He looked around the room and then approached their table.
“Are you Jess Harper?” the man asked, looking from one man to the other, not sure which man might be Harper.
“Who’s askin’?” Jess queried, already showing some tenseness as he looked up at the cowboy.
“Mr. Murphy sent me,” the man said, getting an immediate reaction from Jess.
“Sent you instead of comin’ himself,” Jess said, about to stand up when Slim grabbed him by his right wrist, making him sit back down. The man stepped back, he appeared a bit terrified, holding both hands in front of him, shaking them with palms forward to the two men sitting at the table.
“What do you want?” Slim asked.
“No, no, I, I’m sorry, I guess I shoulda introduced m’self er somethin’. I’m not here ta fight with ya. Mr. Murphy sent me ta talk with ya. Umm, please, kin I sit down? I’ll tell ya why I’m here,” the nervous cowboy said.
“Gun on the table ‘n sit down,” Jess said, “Take it out slow ‘n with your left hand.”
The man did as he was ordered, pushing his six-gun toward Jess before he sat down.
“Coffee?” Slim asked as he sat back in his chair to get a better look at the man who was now seated at their table.
“Ah, yeah. That would be good,” the cowboy said nervously, working at a wavering smile.
Slim called to the waitress, who had come out of the kitchen to see the tense moment and was too petrified to move. She cautiously came to the table. “Miss, could you bring Mister….ah?”
“Crawford, m’ name’s Crawford.”
“Mr. Crawford some coffee. Anything else you want, Mr. Crawford,” Slim asked, not taking his eyes off the man.
“Nope, coffee will do just fine,” the man said, his voice almost cracking, he was so anxious.
The waitress left and Jess said, “Okay, Crawford, what are ya here for?” his blue eyes turning darker by the moment.
“Let me start from the beginin’,” the man said, and then cleared his throat.
“Good start,” Slim agreed, amiably.
“The sheriff came out ta the ranch last night ta tell Mr. Murphy that ya was in town an’ that he didn’t want no trouble. Mr. Murphy, well he’s been real sick. He had a stroke a couple months back. He’s had lotsa time ta think about what happened between ya an’ his son. I’m Mr. Murphy’s foreman. He wanted me ta come ta town an’ tell ya he doesn’t hold no hard feelin’s fer ya. He knows that he was wrong about ya. Lotsa folks saw what happened an’ they told ‘im. It took ‘im a while, but now he knows that ya had no choice, that his boy was gunnin’ fer trouble. He wanted ya ta know that no one was comin’ after ya, like the sheriff was worried about. I reckon that’s about all,” the man said, thanking the waitress for the cup of coffee she set down in front of him.
Jess leaned back in his chair, squinting as he studied the man, not sure if he believed Crawford or not. As edgy as the fella appeared, Jess could tell that he was no gunman. He sure wanted to believe what he’ heard. Looking to his boss, Slim gave him a nod of reassurance and that he was confident that the man was telling the truth, putting Jess a little more at ease.
“So, you’re tellin’ us that Murphy has no intentions of sendin’ anybody after me?” Jess wanted to reconfirm that he’d heard the man right, still skeptical, feeling that it was too good to be true.
“Yep,” the man said, setting down his cup after taking a few gulps. “He said he was sorry that any of it happened an’ that he has no ill will against ya.”
“An’ who was that kid who came after me yesterday?” Jess asked, suspicion rising in him again.
“Just some kid that works in town. Mr. Murphy doesn’t know ‘im. The kid came ta town after Mr. Murphy had his stroke. They never met. I only seen him at the livery a time er two, never spoke ta him m’self,” Crawford replied, becoming skittish again at the question.
Prudently, the waitress brought the two ranchers their plates with their breakfast. “More coffee?” she asked, anxiously wishing she was anywhere else than there, in the room with these strangers. She had witnessed the gunfight the day before and was afraid that anything could happen in the café after hearing only part of the tense conversation and noticing the gun on the table.
All three men shook their heads in affirmation. The woman went back to the kitchen and returned quickly with the coffee pot as Slim and Jess dove into their breakfast.
“You tell Mr. Murphy that I’m real sorry about what happened to his son. I had no intentions of killin’ his boy. Like the folks here said, he pushed it, I had no choice,” Jess said, apologetically between bites of his meal.
Picking up his cup and finishing off his coffee, Crawford stood up, motioning toward his gun. Jess pushed it across the table to him. The cowboy picked it up and holstered it. He tipped his hat to the waitress and the elderly folks in the back before he left, bidding Slim and Jess a safe journey.
“So, what do ya think?” Jess asked his boss as he sopped up some egg yolk with a piece of buttered sourdough bread.
“What do you mean?” Slim asked, sipping some coffee.
“What he said,” Jess replied, picking up a piece of bacon.
“Why? Didn’t you believe him?” Slim asked, surprised that Jess needed to ask. He studied his friend as he awaited his response.
“I don’t know. I reckon I’m a bit shaky about this whole thing. First what happened a year ago ‘n the old man swearin’ he’d get his revenge. Then comin’ here ‘n that kid comin’ outta nowhere to call me out,” Jess said as he reached for his cup. After taking a swallow he said, “I’m not sure about much of anything, I reckon.”
“You don’t think the old man sent that fella here to take you off your guard, do you?”
“Could be. Nothin’ surprises me anymore. I’m thinkin’ we should still split up like we planned, at least for today. If no one follows you or me by the time we reach the Phillips’ place, I reckon we’ll be okay,”
“I’m game,” Slim said, settling back in his chair, looking down at his empty plate, wishing there had been one more egg and about three more slices of bacon.
Jess pushed his empty plate away, took up his cup and gulped down the last of his coffee.
Noticing that Jess was done, Slim stood up and took money from his pocket and left it on the table. Putting on their hats, the two ranchers left the café and headed for the livery stable.
As promised, the buckboard was loaded with the two heavy axles, both secured with heavy ropes. The horse they’d bought the night before was saddled and ready for Jess to leave town as well.
“Wish I had my rifle with me,” Jess said as he mounted the big black gelding.
“I hope you won’t need it. I’ll see you later, Pard. Don’t eat the Phillips’ out of house and home before I get there, you hear?”
Smiling down at his friend, Jess said, “I’ll be sure to leave ya some bones ‘n grease on my plate.”
“Get out of here!” Slim said smiling, “Be careful. I’ll see you sometime tonight. Anything else you can think of that we might need from the store?”
“Nope, I’m good. See ya later, Pard,” the dark-haired Texan said as he put his spurs to the gelding and jogged out of town.
Slim watched his friend ride off, hoping all their concern was over nothing. When he could no longer see the dark horse and rider, he climbed into the wagon and headed toward the general store.
“So this is what you young folks call fishing these days?” Andy awoke startled to hear a male voice. Not recalling where he was, he tried to sit up, at first unaware of what the burden was that held him down by his arm.
Awakened by both the male voice and the sudden jerk under her, Crina sat up. Once relieved of Crina’s weight on his arm, Andy was able to sit up, as well. The young people bumped heads in their startled awakening, both rubbing their heads, looking up at the dark silhouette that stood before them, hands on hips.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Jonsey demanded, the anger evident in his voice.
Andy quickly got to his feet, reaching down to help Crina to stand next to him to face the cross man. The girl drew closer to the teen boy, cringing at her first meeting of Jonsey, her face turned downward.
“We, we, were fishin’,” Andy stammered in his guilt as Crina grasped for his hand.
“And where are the fishing poles? I don’t see any. And isn’t it a little difficult to fish while you’re all tangled up with each other lying on a blanket?” Jonesy continued.
Remembering his fishing pole being dragged into the pond, Andy realized how things looked, assuming the same thing had happened to Crina’s pole while they slept. “It was over there, really, Jonesy,” Andy pleaded. “They musta been pulled into the water when we fell asleep.”
“Uh, huh. I suppose you don’t get enough sleep at home? You lie to me about going fishing to come out here to meet with her?” Jonesy accused.
Frightened, Crina let go of Andy’s hand and ran off into the field in the direction of where the wagons were camped. Andy started to follow, “Andy, stop! Come back here,” Jonesy commanded, stopping the boy in his tracks for a moment.
Turning toward Jonsey, Andy defied him, “No, Jonesy. I have to go after Crina. You’ve really scared her. I have to find her. I’ll be home later,” he said, then turned to run after the girl.
“Andy! Andy! You come back here!” the older man bellowed taking steps in the direction where the two had run off. He knew he couldn’t keep up with them, so he stood watching as they ran away. Shaking his head, he stomped back to where he’d parked the farm wagon. He could see the trail in the grass that the two had left but was unable to take the wagon through such rocky country. Resolved that he’d have to go back home and wait for Andy to return, Jonsey turned the wagon around and drove it back to the ranch, hoping that he wouldn’t have to ride out later to the gypsy camp to look for Andy should he not come home.
Calling to Crina, Andy finally caught up with her. Looking back, they saw they weren’t being followed by Jonesy. Andy took Crina in his arms, both breathing heavily from their escape; they tried to catch their breath. As her breathing quieted, she began to cry. “I’m afraid I have caused you much trouble now, Andy. I am so very sorry.”
Soothing her, Andy said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell Jonesy that he was wrong. I’ll tell him what happened and why our poles were gone and, and that we just happened to fall asleep. I’ll take care of it.”
“Look at it, Andy. Look at what he found. He’ll never believe you,” she sobbed.
“Come on, let’s go to where the greenbrier twines. No one will find us there. We can talk. I’ll figure out what to tell Jonesy and I’ll make him understand,” Andy encouraged, taking her by the hand leading her toward their secret place.
Drying her tears on the hem of her full skirt, Crina followed his lead and they continued on slowly in the direction of the greenbriers in silence. Both were engrossed in thinking about what they would say to the other once they were secluded in their safe abode.
Reaching the brambles, Andy bent down and crawled through the opening. Crina followed after him. The grass was still damp within the confines of the greenbrier’s barren circle. The sun hadn’t had enough time to dry it. Sinking down into grass, Crina took Andy’s hand and pulled him down next to her.
Reluctantly, Andy sat down, not liking that they were going to get wet and the coolness of the day would make them cold in wet clothes. He wished they had Crina’s blankets to set upon, but that was something beyond his control.
“Boy, Jonesy is sure mad,” he finally said. “He probably won’t let me out of his sight until you’re gone or at least until Slim gets back.”
“Oh, Andy, I never meant to cause you all this trouble. Maybe we should run away now? Just the two of us,” Crina said as she took his hand.
“Crina, we can’t. Where would we go? We’ll work this out. It might take some time. I need time to think about it. You have to go back to your camp and I’ll go back to the ranch an’ talk to Jonsey. I’ll get away as soon as I can. I know I can get away, somehow,” he said as he stood up and pulled her up from the damp ground. “Let’s go. I don’t want Jonesy goin’ to your camp an’ causin’ any trouble for your folks. I’ll try an’ meet ya here, tomorrow. I’ll go to the lake to get your things before I come to meet ya here.”
“No, I will send Ion for my things sometime today. Just come here tomorrow if you can. I will be waiting for you. Come as soon as you can. Ion will be at the ranch to help with the stagecoaches and you can send a message with him,” the girl said, a tear escaping and rolling down her cheek.
Pulling her toward the passage, Andy hugged her before ducking down to crawl through the opening. Crina followed and the two hugged again before heading in opposite directions to return to their respective homes. Turning around after a few steps, Andy looked back toward Crina. He watched her disappear through the field before finally dashing off toward the ranch house. He was not looking forward to the confrontation with Jonesy.
Pacing the floor in the ranch house, Jonesy was muttering to himself when Andy came through the front door, walked quickly past Jonesy and into his bedroom and closed the door behind him. The older man was astonished that the boy didn’t acknowledge him. It was almost as if he wasn’t there or that Andy hadn’t seen him.
Jonesy wasted no time in following after the youth. Opening the door without knocking he went into the room and sat down on the bed next to the slumping teen. The tension was thick between them as they both sat waiting for the other to speak. Finally Jonesy broke the silence, “Andy, I’m real disappointed in you. I wish your brother was here to handle this. I don’t know what to say,” Jonesy began.
“You don’t haveta say nothin’,” Andy said, standing up to confront the older man. “You don’t even know those people an’ ya act like ya hate ‘em,” he yelled.
“You’re right, boy, I haven’t met them, but I’ve heard enough about their kind. It’s best that we stay away from them.”
“Why? What have they done to you?” Andy asked, the pain of the situation plain on his face as he lowered his voice, realizing his disrespect.
“Well, they haven’t been here long and they already have you lying and running off,” the older man countered, then stood up, putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder. Andy shrugged it off and walked to the window to look out at nothing.
“Okay, I’m listening. I know what I saw, now I want you to tell me what I saw,” Jonesy said calmly.
“I told ya, I went fishin’. Yeah, I asked Crina to go with me. We had a long talk. She told me some terrible things about what happened to her. While we were talkin’ I saw my pole slip into the lake. I reckon that’s what happened to her pole when we were sleepin’. She was cryin’ when she told me about the things, an’ I only put my arms around her to make her feel better. I reckon we fell asleep while I was holdin’ her. That’s all that happened, Jonesy, ya gotta believe me!” the boy said, turning to face the older man, his eyes pleading to be believed.
Jonesy stood silently looking at the boy, wanting to believe him, and after giving it some thought, he did believe him. After all, what Andy said did explain what he’d found. Sitting back down on the bed Jonesy asked, “What terrible things happened to her?”
“I don’t think she wants me to talk about it, but she was…” Andy was at a loss for the right words. Sitting down next to Jonesy, he continued, “She, she was hurt by a man. I think ya know what I mean. She was upset an’ scared. She needed someone to talk to.”
Concern showing on Jonsey’s face as he thought a for few moments then asked, “Did she tell you when this happened? Is it still happening now?” sympathy and concern for the girl’s safety had come to his mind.
“No, not now, the man is dead. He’s not hurtin’ her anymore, but she’s still upset that it happened. I don’t think she’s told anyone else. She trusted me an’ needed to tell someone,” Andy replied, looking down at his hands. “We’re only friends, Jonesy, we talk, that’s all,” he said barely louder than a whisper.
“I still think you should stay away from any of those people until your brother gets back. It’ll be up to Slim who he wants you to see. I’m supposed to be taking care of you. And in my care I want you to stay away from them. I don’t know if Slim would want you hanging around them either,” Jonesy said, standing up, looking down at the young teen before him, the sternness no longer predominant in his words. “Do you understand me, Andy? It’s not my thoughts about those folks, it’s what I think is right for you until your brother can make a decision. He’ll be back in a day or two. You can wait that long, can’t you?”
“She needs me, Jonesy. She has no one else to talk to. I’m not meeting her at the camp. I’m not seeing any of the others, well, except the ones comin’ here to help at the ranch. I only see them in the barn. Please, Jonesy, she needs me to talk to, that’s all,” Andy stood up to again plead with the older man.
“I’ll think on it,” Jonesy said in a kindly way, placing both hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Andy, I’m not being mean. I’m looking after your best interest while your brother’s away. Whatever Slim decides when he gets back will be fine with me, okay? He left me in charge and I’m looking after you as best as I can.”
Nodding that he understood, then hanging his head, Andy deferred to Jonesy’s wishes, at least until he could give it more thought. Andy truly cared about Crina and hated to see her with no one to talk to until Slim could get back to the ranch. Once Slim returned, it wouldn’t be long before Crina would be gone. The thought of her going away was suddenly realized causing the young man’s heart to skip a beat as he felt panic creep into his stomach and making it ache.
When Crina reached the camp, she saw there was several strangers with some of the men from her family out in the field where the sheep were grazing, talking in an animated manner.
Going to one of the wagons where several women were gathered, she eavesdropped to find out what was going on. She overheard that the strangers were ranchers from the area concerned about the diseases that sheep could bring to their cattle and were insisting that the caravan travel on and get out of the area.
As she watched, she saw some pushing and shoving turn into a brawl as the men started to fight physically with each other. One man, still on horseback, drew out his rifle. The men continued to fight on the ground until a man on horseback shot five of the sheep. The gunfire caused the fighting to stop as everyone looked in the direction of the rider and then at the fallen sheep. At the sight of the dead sheep, the gypsy men lit back into the ranchers. This time the man on the horse fired into the air, stopping the fighting, then he spoke to the men staring in his direction.
Crina couldn’t hear the conversation from the vardos, but whatever was said, it was over and the strangers mounted up on their horses and traveled off. The shepherds quickly ran to the dead sheep and gathered up their bodies to bring them into the camp.
Dragos walked to where the majority of the camp was gathered to watch what had been going on. Crina was now within their midst, absorbed in the present situation.
“They want us to move on. I told them about our wagon and that we are waiting for the axles. I told them that they will be here in a day or two and we would need another day to install them and then we would all be leaving. They will not wait. If we are not gone before tomorrow, they will be back to kill the rest of our sheep.” Dragos said angrily. “I believe they will do it. They killed five of our good ewes already.
“I think we must consider moving on. I will stay behind with the broken vardo and catch up with the rest of you later. I know the route. I ask that you make longer stops to give me time to catch up with you. I will be able to travel quickly without having to herd any sheep. These sheep need to be cleaned,” he pointed at the dead ewes. “ I suggest that we work quickly. You can leave the meat with me and I will smoke it and bring it with me. I don’t want to see this meat wasted. Does anyone else have any other ideas?” Dragos turned to look at the men in the gathering.
There was chatter amongst the people, both men and women discussing what else they might be able to do. Crina was in a panic, maybe she would never see Andy again and how would she get word to him that she was being forced to move on immediately. She stepped forward to her father, “What about the Sherman’s? They have been so kind to us, we can’t leave them without helping them while they are away.”
“You are right, Crina,” he quietly replied to the girl, then raising his voice to the crowd again he said, “Crina brought up the Sherman’s. I suggest that Mihail, you stay with your vardo and Grigore you stay here, too. Your families can travel together in Grigore’s vardo. We can live in Mihail’s wagon until Mr. Sherman comes back with the axles. We can then travel with the two vardos to meet the rest of you and the flock. I will stay with the vardos and cure the meat, while Grigore and Mihail contin