"Never injure a friend, even in jest." – Marcus Tullius Cicero
A crow perched on a warped barren branch made a silhouette against the butterscotch sky. Flames appeared to be smeared above the Ruby Mountains as though God painted them. Sarai snapped a photo with her Canon as the same airstream that murmured across the Ponderosa pines swept her dark auburn hair around one shoulder and shivered her burnt sienna coat.
"And that is why they call the ranch Sundown," Rearden mused in admiration as the remainder of the amber sunrays were swallowed up from the desert ahead. He crossed his arms and added, "This is the first time I have ever been away from them. I appreciate me American family driving me here."
Sarai allowed a smile and gave his shoulder a squeeze as she passed by him and made her way to the passenger side of the beaten Ford, where Solomon stared at the horizon beneath the brim of his ebony Stetson with the hawk feather secured in its woven band.
The desert was consumed by darkness, except the crisp moon and the incredible douse of glitter in the heavens. The cry of coyotes resounded with the rare snort of a mustang exploring the dust until the first rays of dawn sparked the earth of the desert.
. . .
The sun rose above the Ruby Mountains and splashed the sky with fire, ponderosa pines silhouetted. Golden sunlight spilled down the Ruby Mountains and the sagebrush in the desert. Rearden stared between the parted leather drapes. The exhilaration of awe trickled through him and ended with a pang when he realized how much Liam would have appreciated the beauty. A cricket resonated somewhere in the corner, but silenced at the thump of approaching boots on the wood.
"Boots on the ground! Get up, sunshine!"
Rearden released his breath, but chuckled at the raucous announcement by Rodney. He peeled away the dense suede comforter and plaid sheets and leapt down from his bunk, saying, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou aren't more lovely and more temperate."
Rodney released a sharp laugh and placed a cornmeal Stetson over his copper hair. "Well, get a move on, Shakespeare. Everyone else is already up."
"Right, well, I will be up and out in five minutes."
True to his word, Rearden emerged into the crisp dawn as he gathered an ebony-and-cranberry plaid shirt over his shoulders and kept it open over an ebony tee shirt, surveying the apparently empty area for where he should start his morning.
The arid desert carried a breeze scented with sagebrush around the redwood log barn, where he heaved a flake of alfalfa-grass hay into the feeder of each stall. He snatched a rake from against the tack room and began to scratch it down the swirling dust of the center aisle to gather the loose strands of hay into a pile that was then spread around outside.
There was an emerald painted round pen in the middle of the house to the north, the bunkhouse to the west, and the barn to the east. Rearden peeled another flake of hay from the bale and delivered it to the coffee bay who had been trotting the perimeter of the pen the duration of his time awake.
"There ya are," he said as he dropped the meal into the galvanized feeder. The bay remained close as he started to chew and raised his muzzle to extend to the strange man ahead of him. Rearden eased closer to breathe into the flaring nostrils. The mustang pivoted with a squeal and a kick at the metal rails, sending Rearden reeling with surprise.
"Caliber gets startled as easily as a cricket," Wyatt crossed his arms when Rearden revolved around to see him. The mustang released his breath as he dropped his muzzle to the ground with the coal mane drifting in the wind. "Get over here so I can show you what we do here. We hear you act on the ideas that cross your mind, and we agreed we should make sure the right ideas are the ones that cross first."
"Rodney said everyone else was out," Rearden answered as he straightened and gathered the remainder of his composure. He slapped the burnt chocolate Stetson against his jeans with a mist of dust and placed it back over his rich auburn hair. "I assumed you would have them all eat."
"Yeah, everyone was out eating breakfast," Wyatt's cracked visage split with a smile, and he leaned forward with the emphasis. "And I hear you're mighty fond of that. I know you're eager, but you never know what horses may have a specific diet. Get something to eat, and we will get going."
Sausage and scrambled eggs awaited Rearden on the oak table clothed in ruby-and-emerald plaid at the main house. He was greeted with an amused smile from Mrs. Mesa Garland when she scooped a spatula into the copper skillet and slapped a sausage patty onto an ochre plate beside the eggs.
"We generally have to drag our boys away from their meals to work, not the other way 'round!"
Rearden raised his hands in surrender with a smile. "Yes, Mrs. Garland, I realize I must have surprised you all by doing so, and I assure you it will not happen again. You won't be able to drag me from either."
The smile remained on her rosy mouth and made her freckled cheeks merry. Ginger curls crowned her hairline and there was warmth in her russet eyes. She unwrapped the buttermilk apron from her waist and slapped it over the chair beside her before dropping down into it.
"So are the men explainin' your role?"
A basset hound weaseled around an almost-closed door and started to weave around the redwood kitchen to gather any morsels. She cleared her throat.
"Julius! Eat your own meals."
The basset hound trotted away again with a swishing tail. Rearden swallowed another mouthful and returned to Mesa. "No, ma'am, they were eating breakfast."
She chuckled. "Right, well, they will."
Wyatt appeared at the door and knocked gently. Rearden shoveled the remainder of his meal into his mouth and smeared his palms on his jeans. Mesa rose and opened the door with a "Hello, Dad."
"Hello, again," he touched the brim of his caramel Stetson. "Rearden ready?"
"Yes, I am," Rearden appeared at the door and leapt to the ground with an eager smile. Wyatt rolled his eyes with a shake of his tufted silver head and started toward the barn. Rearden touched the brim of his Stetson and chased after the elder man.
"You are going to be helping feed the mustangs, clean their stalls, groom them, and exercise those who have been trained," Wyatt explained as they strode across the ground. "Eventually, you can put miles on the green ones. You will advance to the point where you can gentle them and train them from the start. At that point, you can also pair them up with people for purchase with Marshall."
"No. Shoulda known you'd ask. Caliber is not scared of people as most of these horses are when we get them. He plain and simple does not want someone to be his rider."
"But suppose I –?"
"Kid, you are a liability by nature. I can already tell."
"I'm here to learn," Rearden persisted as they reached the barn. "So show me your methods."
"Believe me, you will learn them as we go. Until then, you do know how to clean a stall?"
"Definitely," Rearden squared himself with a smile. "I will clean every single one."
"No arguments from me. You come let me know when you're done."
Sagebrush wavered in the same wind that coasted a single streak of ivory across the crisp sky and mustangs chewed their hay with contentment with every plunk of manure into the wheelbarrow. Rearden peered around the area each time he cleaned the run of a stall, savoring the scenery until he completed the last of the row and emerged to seek Wyatt as he returned to the barn.
"So, what else will we do today?"
"Today," Wyatt reached inside the tack room for a crimson halter and shoved it against his chest, "we have a trail ride out on the range. I will show you where everything is, and we'll meet some of the others out there to eat lunch."
"Seriously?" Rearden furrowed his dark brows and clasped a palm over it, then smiled. "Well, I can certainly handle that on me first day here."
"I'm sure you can," Wyatt pointed to the last stall on the right. "Get that buckskin mare down there. Rosaline is a sweetheart that everyone agreed not to sell on account that we all enjoyed her too much, and she proved to be a good partner out on the range."
Rearden retrieved the mare as he was directed and started to swipe a dandy brush against her hide, then reached for another brush to polish her until the morning sun set fire to her golden coat. He snatched a comb out of the bucket beside the tack room door and ran it through her ebony mane and tail. At last, he discovered a pick and bent down to clean out her hooves. When he accomplished all this, he straightened and crossed his arms with a smirk, peering above her spine.
"Yeah, I see how you prettied her up," Wyatt grumbled as he gave Chaps a pat on the shoulder and tossed his own pick back into a bucket. Rearden smiled and entered the tack room to saddle her up bit by bit, until he only needed a first aid kit to add to the saddle bags in case of emergency.
The moment he emerged into the dim room, a rough burlap pouch was thrown over his head, and he was spun around only to be slammed against the closed door. Someone wrapped a bandana around where his mouth was and knotted it behind his head as someone else kept his shoulders pinned. A third person twisted a rope around his wrists and fastened it snugly.
He thrashed around as much as possible and struck at their shins with his boots until one of the captors wrapped his arms around him from behind and raised him into the air. His eyelids illuminated into red when the door was pushed open and his captors struggled into the open with him.
"You boys know I don't like this nonsense," Wyatt griped as he heard the creak of a saddle. To his terror, Rearden was hoisted into the air and draped across another saddle that dug into his ribs. As he strove to sling one leg over the horse, someone helped drag him over the other side to enable him.
He straightened in the saddle and strove against the urge to grip the horse with his calves. He swayed without his bearings, especially when someone started to lead Rosaline out onto the range. Rearden could hear his own heart thundering with panic and strove to breathe beneath the dense cloth.
The sun roasted him as he swayed atop the mare several minutes. Eventually, Rearden realized they must be leaving the ranch after such an amount of time, so he threw himself to one side. When his shoulder slammed into the earth, he heard a shout and sensed another horse leap aside. He pushed to his feet and rushed blindly as swiftly as his legs could carry him.
The sound of boots pounding behind him was followed by an arm around his chest and another collision with the ground. The aroma of spiced aftershave summoned the visage of Rodney in his mind as he was hauled upright again and shoved back to where he came from. Suddenly, he was shoved back onto the horse and assisted to a riding position.
Several minutes later, the horses stopped. Creaking leather indicated the others were dismounting, and soon, someone gripped his arm and dragged him out of the saddle. The trickling of a stream could be heard over the last several minutes, and after being guided some moments, he sensed he was in dappled shade. Someone spun him around and shoved him into a chair before removing the bandana and swiping the burlap sack from his head.
Sunlight made everyone a silhouette until the smug visage of Rodney cleared. Around him stood Wyatt and the rest of the wranglers. Rearden eased against the chair with a smile and an approving nod.
"I see," he mused as he stared up at the pine beside him and the creek rushing behind it. The horses stood grazing contentedly at a hitching post. "You hear that I am a practical joker, so you get me first."
Wyatt cleared his throat. "Jarah Morgan has advocated your ardor and resourcefulness since you lived out there. Marshall has hired you on that, so I plan to keep you accountable."
Rearden raised his shoulders. "That's who I am, and I can't sustain another personality."
"He also mentioned your mischief. I reckon Marshall has deemed you worth the trouble, and you better make sure that's true."
"That's me plan."
"Besides," Rodney smiled and crossed his arms with a glint of pride in his eyes, "it wouldn't be right to hire someone without a decent initiation."
"I appreciate that completely," Rearden answered.
"Might sleep with one eye open," Rafe admonished Rodney with a raised eyebrows as he replaced his Stetson over his rather rectangular head and moved toward the horses.
"We know what to expect," Rodney assured him.
"Pride is accompanied by a fall," Wyatt reminded them as he rummaged around his leather saddle bags. Rafe released Rearden's wrists in time for Wyatt to produce a sandwich wrapped in plastic and toss it toward him to catch. There was a cooler beside his chair that he opened and rummaged around the beers and various sodas and water for a Coke.
"So you got that on camera?" he asked Rafe as he placed a camcorder into his saddlebag.
"Well, some of the hands are burnin' scraps of wood today, and we're going to be enjoying the fruits of their labor. So we agreed to get this on video for them while they tore down some sheds and such."
"Let me send it to me family, too, if you don't mind."
"Sure," Rafe answered and removed each of his boots. He made his way down to the creek with his own sandwich and seated himself on the crisp grassy edge to splash his feet down into the water. Rearden rose to drop down beside him and lowered his own bare feet into the aquamarine stream.
"Worked here a while?"
"Since I was a kid. My dad was a wrangler and got killed in an accident. Marshall inherited this ranch when he was almost still a kid himself, so he let me stay here and keep working as a hand. Eventually, he let me become a wrangler, too."
"I'm sorry about your father."
"It was a long time ago," Rafe ripped another bite out of his sandwich and pushed to his feet. "We should get going again. Got to shoe and move more horses around before the fire this evening."
"I'd love to help with the shoeing," Rearden offered as he scrambled to his feet.
"Tell you what," Rafe clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll let you hold onto them while Gunnar shoes them, so I can get a move on some other things."
The softness of the heavens and the pastels of the earth were something to be admired as the wranglers mounted the mustangs and started back along the carved crevasse, whose stream shimmered in the sunlight. The spice of sagebrush arrived on the wind and almost burned their nostrils with fragrance. A screeching hawk soared above them on the currents. A painted mustang whinnied a greeting in the western pasture as they road north.
Several ranch hands still piled mangled wooden fence posts into a pile outside the bunkhouse by the time the wranglers returned. Tee posts trailed paths in the sandy dirt as they hauled them to a stack in the open air. The men dropped their chins in nods of acknowledgement to the wranglers as they passed and dismounted their horses at the barn.
"Keep her out, so we can get started," Gunnar said as he stepped into the tack room to retrieve the rasp and gather the remainder of the required tools. Rearden remained beside Rosaline, whose soft eyes observed Gunnar with innocent curiosity as he secured a leather apron around his legs.
"Any chance of my participation?" Rearden asked.
"None. Let me explain as I do, and I'll show you more in depth next time. Our picnic took up time."
He moved to the side where Rearden was positioned and bent to raised her hoof into view. He secured it between his knees and picked clean the grooves. A knife was then used to remove excess sole. After nipping the excess trim, he started to even the surface with his rasp, mentioning the motions as he did so. Rearden peered over his shoulder and examined the completion.
"She has been recovering from white line."
"Smart observation," Gunnar praised as he released the hoof and moved on to the rest.
Disintegrating cottony tufts stretched across the sky until they dissipated into the evening. Gunnar explained his methods and reasoning with each mustang as Rearden studied over his shoulder until the last mare was to be released into the pasture.
By this time, the sky was fiery as lava and the silhouetted clouds resembled molten rock. When he released the mare, she leapt into a gallop and streaked across the range, a silhouette against the setting sun. The remainder of the mustangs thundered after her until they disappeared past the horizon. His heart thundered in his chest.
Sparks crackled into the night sky by the time Rearden arrived at the fire. He plopped into a canvas chair beside Gunnar, whose bronze visage appeared more chiseled with the shadows cast by the flames, and accepted the plate of grilled ground beef with peppers and onions from Rodney.
"Hands grilled us hobo dinners before the fire got too big."
"Much obliged," Rearden smiled appreciatively as he started to shovel the meal into his mouth. The flames reached several yards into the atmosphere and flushed his cheeks with heat. He observed the ranchers and their hands and wranglers speaking and laughing around the fire, listened to the Native American folklore explained by Gunnar, savored the country melodies strummed by Rafe on the guitar, and chuckled along with Rodney's uproarious laughter whenever it arose.
His heart ached some with the close familial atmosphere that reminded him so much of his loved ones in Ireland, but he rose and seated himself beside various people around the fire with a hand extended in introduction and a smile on his lips.
He remained until deep into the night, when he sensed the fire starting to wane. He rose and excused himself to shower and retire to the empty bunkhouse, where sparks rose past the window and the cricket in the corner chirped merrily.
So much dust coated his skin that it seemed as if it was only able to breathe after the stream of water swirling around the drain dissipated from cinnamon to clear. When he emerged, he dressed and brushed his teeth, and adjusted the covers on the bunk Rodney slept on beneath his. After seating himself at the mahogany desk in the main room to pen a letter to his family, he retired beneath the sheets and lay awake with the crickets and the merriment outside.
Soon, the wranglers stomped the mud from their boots at the door and emerged into the room. There were sounds of rushing water in the sink, the brushing of teeth, murmurs at the door, and the removal of spurs. Eventually, they trailed into the room in their pajamas and each made his way to his own bunk to lie down.
Rearden peered down in silence as Rodney peeled down the covers and leapt back with a shriek and started toward the door with the rest of the wranglers scrambling toward the lamps. Scorpions scuttled across the wood with raised pincers, swiveling around every direction in the chaos. Rearden clasped his hands behind his head with a satisfied smile as the shrill screams pierced the night.
Meanwhile, Marshall rose and switched on a lamp so he could peer out the window. Lights appeared in the windows of the bunkhouse as wranglers streamed out the door with Rodney in the lead, shrieking madly. He snorted with an amused smile as Mesa stirred and asked, "What happened?"
"Rearden happened," Marshall answered, and he returned to bed with a switch of the lamp.
. . .
Until Sarai and Solomon leave: "Like a Wave" by Rosanne Cash
Sunrise: "Bovaglie's Plaid" by Alasdair Fraser, 0-43 seconds
Cleaning Stalls: "Bovaglie's Plaid" by Alasdair, 43-end
Feeding at dawn: "Tommy's Tarbukas" by Alasdair Fraser
The ride back: "Violin Intro Into 'Free'" by the Zac Brown Band
Bonfire visiting: "Beauties of Autumn" by Dervish, 42-1:25 seconds
Letter: "Beauties of Autumn" by Dervish, 5:13-5:40; 8:12-8:16
Scorpions: "Singer in a Cowboy Band" by Ronnie Dunn, 0-19 seconds