"What the country needs is dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds." - Will Rogers
One Sunday in early June, Rearden accompanied the ranchers to the small ivory chapel about an hour away. The sky was crisp and only the occasional wisped clouds drifted above them. Spurts of Apricot Mallow speckled the soil that remained in the sun. When entering the chapel, pinion pines sheltered the left side, and a turquoise creek that reminded Rearden of the one at Sundown trickled through the carved earth between the trees and the church. By the end of the service, which revolved around relying on one another as the body of Christ, Rodney accompanied the preacher to the creek and was baptized in its cool stream. Sodas and sandwiches were passed around in celebration.
"You gotta try that salami sandwich," Rodney suggested to Rearden as he chewed.
"Goin' to get some roast beef," Rearden smiled his amusement and returned to the meal.
"Remind me to make something similar to this when cousin Sedona arrives tomorrow," Mesa mentioned to Wyatt as she reached toward the sandwich Rodney so ardently suggested. "She and Marco will probably want something to eat soon after they get here."
By Monday morning, their breath misted out ahead of them as the wranglers mounted up and rode out onto the range. The calves were penned within the mile, and as the pickup pursued the riders and parked to the side, the wranglers got started.
Rafe climbed out of the pickup and made his way to the pen and opened the gate. He returned to the truck and clamored up into the bed to sit on the edge and watch August and Rearden dart their mustangs around the herd to gather them toward the pen, dust spiraling up behind them and dissipating in the crisp air. When the cattle emerged into sight again, Rafe climbed out of the pickup and made his way into the alley of the pen.
As dams and calves entered the alley, Rafe rushed to open one gate to allow calves into the right pen, and another to allow dams into the left.
"You're doin' well," August praised Rearden across the herd.
"Helped Jarah Morgan do the same thing in May," Rearden responded.
By the time the calves were all separated into the right pen, Rafe clasped his knees and released his breath. "Not easy to keep up with those ladies. Almost got run over a time or two."
"You were a pro, as always" August dismounted and led penny to fasten her lead to the fence panel, then returned to the pickup to rummage around for the vaccinations and electric clippers while Rearden dismounted to retrieve the liquid nitrogen and branding irons. Wind swept up the surrounding hills and swirled down into the valley, causing the mustangs to raise their heads and flare their nostrils.
Rafe climbed into the pen with the calves, ready to push them through the chutes and toward the table at the end. August removed a syringe cap with his teeth and spat it aside to insert it into the vaccine. Rearden assembled the sun-shaped irons in the container of liquid nitrogen.
"Ready to get the first?" Rafe asked.
"Ready," August answered. The calves came banging down the chutes until the first moved into the table. He inserted the needle beneath the hide and squeezed the end. "Who've we got to do the castration this morning?"
"Supposed to be Rodney, but he's on an errand," answered Rafe.
"Awesome. Let me add that to my list, then. I can even shave this one for ya."
As soon as August completed his duties, Rearden raised the iron and pressed it against the hip about three seconds. A sun was visible as soon as he removed the copper iron. He remerged the iron beneath the liquid nitrogen and released the steer calf, who scampered away with his tail in the air.
"That's an important task, and you did good," August started on the next calf Rafe pushed through.
"So why'd you ask me?" Rearden asked. "Being the new guy, and everything."
"Because Gunnar always goes 'Sunny, move 'em along,' and 'Sunny, get that syringe outta your mouth,'" August smiled around the syringe in his mouth, then removed it to vaccinate the calf. "But seriously, Marshall said you have the experience."
"Why does Gunnar call you 'Sunny?'"
"My sunshiney personality," he grinned and stepped back as he completed his duties. "Actually, my Blackfoot name is Chases the Sun. I was born in August, right after a sunset."
"Are there many Blackfeet around here?" Rearden reached toward the clippers and started to shave the hip area. August shook his head before answering.
"Most of us are up in Montana. Couldn't get any work on the reservation, so I came down here to answer a ranch ad. As a matter of fact, this happens to be enemy territory. My people went after the Shoshone something fierce. Ask Gunnar – apparently, some of his relatives were killed by Blackfeet."
Rearden smeared alcohol over the barren patch and raised the iron. He pressed it against the hip while the calf murmured a distressed cry. August reassured her with a pat while Rearden replaced the iron and set her loose. Rafe pushed another calf into the table, and they fastened him in.
"Aahsaapinakos," August murmured to him as he struggled a bit. Sparrows darted across the sky overhead, and more wind swept down the velvet tawny hills. Rearden surveyed the area around him and admired its beauty.
"I want to learn everything while I'm here," he commented. August and Rafe snorted.
"We have a lot of different tasks we do," Rafe answered. "As individuals, as well as a whole."
"Let's make a deal," Rearden proposed without hesitation. "Anytime you teach me a skill, I will do it a week for each day it takes you to show me. Rafe, I saw that you tooled your own leather saddles. You did all of them in the barn, actually. You show me that, and I'll tool anything you want."
"Depends on how good you get," he smiled.
"I'll get good enough," Rearden promised, "if you show me what to do."
"You got yourself a deal, cowboy."
The men continued their routine with the calves until the last one scampered out of the chutes and to its dam. By this time, Marshall called and reported that lunch was nearly ready. They packed up their supplies into the pickup that Rafe climbed into, while Rearden and August mounted their mustangs.
"You're going to enjoy your time here," August said over the engine behind them. "Some of the most beautiful country there is, and you get to work with some of the most beautiful creatures."
"I believe it," Rearden answered.
"You get an open sky and the birds," August stared up where he pointed, "the mountains and the sagebrush and pines," he pointed at the land, "and the river. Doesn't get much better than that."
"Only if it rained occasionally," Rearden teased.
"It does rain occasionally," August sneered back with a smile.
"Maybe an average of one drop per month!
"We'll have snow," August assured him with a tone of admonishment. "More than enough, some days. You will enjoy yourself with that, I imagine."
A mauve car emerged into sight and stopped ahead of the main house as they approached at the side. A man rose up from the driver side and a woman from the passenger side, but from the backseat stood a young woman with smooth brunette hair almost to her waist.
"Speaking of beautiful creatures," Rearden mused.
"No, you don't even want to go there," August warned.
"That's exactly where I want to go."
"She is Maya Perez," August explained. "The daughter of Mesa's cousin Sedona."
"So?" Rearden watched as she turned to her parents, awaiting them to enter the house. The breeze lifting her hair across her eyes until she had to brush it away.
"The Garlands are related to her, which could make a relationship complicated enough. But more than that, Wyatt is related to her. He is already a skeptic of you. He would eat you alive if anything went south with her. But hey, man, if you want to delve into that can of worms, go right ahead."
"That I will," Rearden responded.
August snorted. "Man, I don't know if you're gutsy or stupid."
"I'll let you know, depending on whether or not she says yes," he released an infectious smile before swiveling his mare toward the barn and leaping down the moment he reached the hitching post.
When they arrived inside the house, the two basset hounds swirled around their legs with swishing tails. People milled around the kitchen, where plates of chicken sandwiches were lined up on the counters. As each person claimed one of these and some sort of drink, he or she would sit somewhere in the kitchen or the living room or on the porch outside.
Gunnar passed August a plate as he approached. "Behne."
"Oki," August answered and accepted the plate.
Rearden consumed his sandwich within about two steps of where he had picked it up and reached into the refrigerator to get a Coke. The Garlands were scattered amongst the ranch hands and relatives in an attempt to introduce them all, but Rearden wanted to search out Maya before that happened.
He could see her on the porch and he shoulder around people to move toward the door. She leaned her arms on the painted wooden railing and gazed across the horizon. Rearden leaned his elbows and back against the railing beside her and smiled.
"I can take you on a ride out there sometime," he proposed with a nod out to the range. She brushed away the strands of hair that had blown across her chocolate brown eyes and rolled them.
"Do you know how many guys ask me out?"
"But how many of them can do this?"
With a turn of his wrist, he produced a wildflower from within his sleeve and presented it to her with a smile and a spark in his own eyes. She accepted it with a smirk and a shake of her head.
"All right, cowboy," she raised her index finger. "I will give you one shot, and you'd better deliver."
"I can do that," he assured her with a nod. He craned his neck around to search out August in the kitchen getting another sandwich, and when he met his eyes, mouthed, Gutsy.
You're still stupid, he mouthed back, but Rearden dismissed him with a good-natured wave.
"We could go out right now," he continued.
"With everyone around?" she glanced behind her.
"Your mother is chatting with her cousin, who seems to believe she has sufficiently introduced everyone," he pointed out. "And I see a couple of pound cakes in there that I assume you brought. I imagine they will all be chatting still when we return in, say, an hour or so."
Maya smirked as she peered around at everyone. "That's a risk."
"So let's risk it," he said simply and started toward the barn. "Come on."
"You know we're in plain view, right?" she asked as she trotted after him.
"We can go out the back door of the barn," Rearden pointed out. "Less chance we'll be seen."
Maya smiled as she rushed after him, fastening the wildflower stem behind her metal studded belt as she went. As she entered the barn behind him, she discovered two horses already saddled and stashed in two stalls. He started to lead the first one out. "You planned ahead?"
"August and I came in on them," he answered.
"I haven't ridden since I was a child," she warned.
"That's all right," he waved her to the buckskin mustang and clasped his hands together. "Go ahead and mount up. We can take it easy and go exploring."
She planted one designer leather boot into his hands and swung herself only somewhat awkwardly into the saddle. She straightened herself with poise and loosened reins in her hands and started an attempt to maneuver the mustang around. He swayed his neck, but did not move.
"Grip the reins closer to his neck," Rearden reached up and slid her hands down the reins. "Dusty here will behave himself as soon as he knows what you're asking him to do."
"Where are you from?" Maya asked curiously as he moved toward his mare and leapt into the saddle.
"Ireland," he answered as he moved the mare up alongside her. "Now where on the ranch would you want to explore? We have the creek down that direction, or the mountains over there –"
"Surprise me," she smiled.
"All right," he started out the door and motioned toward her to come. He watched their shadows move across the desert with a smile to himself, and the scent of sage whispering in the air. He started at the edge of the creek and moved alongside it, sensing the spray as the water rushed over unseen rocks.
"This is beautiful," Maya said as she stared down at it.
"Keep coming," Rearden encouraged with a wave of his arm. "We may run out of time."
She clapped her legs against the gelding and he leapt ahead. The two darted past Rearden and thundered ahead as he sent his mare after them with a shout to ease back on the reins. She released a shrill cry that resembled either thrill or terror.
"Stay on," Rearden murmured as his mare surged up to and ahead of the gelding. He reached out and snatched the reins, then eased back in the saddle until the mustangs slowed and skid to a stop. Maya swung out of the saddle with an almost maniacal laughter, then covered her mouth.
"I can't believe that happened!" she managed after regaining her composure a bit.
"Maybe I should have reminded you after all these years to not signal a horse that much," he smiled and dismounted himself with the reins all in his grip. "Ironically, this is where I was planning to stop."
She stopped and stared at the creek beneath its shade of ash trees, on one of which dangled an old tire on a rope. She started toward the wooden bridge that arched over the creek several yards ahead and crossed it, meandering around beneath the shade of the trees.
"You don't know it, but I spent a lot of my childhood here," she called to Rearden.
"Really," he answered, pleased.
"Yeah. Come across!"
He remounted the mare and led Dusty across behind him, allowing them each to smell the wooden planks beneath them before they could cross with confidence. He tied the horses in quick release knots to a couple of the lower branches and joined her near the tire.
"Go ahead," he nodded toward it. "Revisit that childhood."
She smiled and climbed onto it. He gave her a push until she swayed casually, the tire swiveling in a sporadic spiral. The mustangs stared incredulously at the girl swinging from an ash tree, but Maya could not erase her smile. Within about ten minutes, however, Rearden caught her around the waist and slowed her movement.
"We have to leave," he said to her smiling eyes as she climbed down. "But did I deliver?"
"More than you know," she answered. To his surprise, she snatched him by the shirt and pulled him into a kiss. His heart thundered within his chest as her arms wrapped around him and she clasped them.
"You're more than generous yourself," he said when she released him. She smiled and embraced him before agreeing they should return before anyone noticed their absence.
The return was much more open than the arrival. Maya explained that her mother was always close with her cousins as a child, and that as a result, she spent a great deal of time at the ranch during her own childhood. She said that she would often play with her dolls where the tire swing was while Rafe would swing, as he was already living there with his father.
"He got so sick of me asking him to play dolls with me that he chucked one into an ash," she smiled to herself at the memory and proudly added, "I made him go up there and retrieve it, without a care in the world if he fell out because of it. Would have served him right, I thought. But he got her down, and tossed her at me, and that was the end of that."
"I imagine he never threw one again," Rearden smiled.
"No, he never dared."
As the barn emerged into view, Rearden skirted around it and stayed alongside the creek with Maya in tow. She watched the people chatting on the porch and within the house, the basset hounds asking everyone for their leftover food, and the black cat sunning herself beside the steps. Chickens sometimes scuttled around and squawked at one another over minor disputes.
"We dismount, unsaddle the horses and get them into stalls, then sneak around the bunkhouse and into the back door of the house," Rearden plotted as they arrived into the barn. He dismounted first and held onto Dusty so Maya could do the same.
As he glanced toward the house to make sure the coast was clear, a man appeared in the door with crossed arms. He and August stared at one another a moment before August returned into the house. Rearden released his breath and rushed to stash the horses again.
When this was completed and they were in the midst of sneaking around the bunkhouse, Maya plucked at his elbow. "Promise me you won't say anything about us," she hissed. "You know Wyatt won't be pleased about it, and it will make things simpler for now."
Agreed," he said and started toward the house. When they came around behind it, Maya sneaked into the house first and integrated into the kitchen populous before Rearden pursued and started a conversation with the hands on the porch. He was rather impressed that with the scheme they had pulled within view of the house, that no one saw.
That is, until he and August exchanged a glance, and the man darted his eyes away.