Late Visits to Maggie's Turf
Tom Sheehan

All Maggie Brody's suitors swore she could call down the moon any time she wanted to, call it right down on top of her, all its golden glory down atop all her glorious holdings in her own idyllic pocket of the Teton Range. When each suitor, and those who thought they were suitors, and there were plenty of them, came over the bridge to Maggie Brody's Meadow, they saw the wonder not only of the bridge that crossed the deep gorge and the magic of Maggie's place itself, but they realized that she of all people had had her dream come true. They would see the grassy plain spreading throughout the once-hidden valley, the waterfall at the far end sparkling in the sun in its free-fall from high in the heart of the Tetons, and the select herd of the finest cattle, and the fattest they'd ever seen, feeding on the rich grass of the meadow.

It was heaven, it seemed, and a beautiful, unwed girl of 25 owned it, ran it, and had seen it grow from the first day she discovered the site and conceived the idea to have a bridge built to reach her dream land. She got her way on that idea, the bridge spanning a wide, deep gorge leading to the hidden entrance to the valley. The bridge, too, was a miracle in itself, planned and constructed by a young engineer who had been enamored of Maggie, but he too fell by the wayside as she pushed her dream to completion, and putting aside any romantic interests in her life.

Those in the mix or near the edge of her dream land carried off their own hyperbolic impressions of Maggie's Meadow, so that the word on it went as far and as wide as travelers went when they left Mountain City, the nearest city to Maggie's Meadow and the bridge over the gorge.

Those who might consider themselves suitors, and those braggarts who pretended to be suitors, and there also seemed to be an abundance of them, would soon be identified by the most casual visitor to the Mountain City's lone saloon, or the newest citizen to find a local job as a cow poke on a nearby ranch. The false ones had the same delivery, which went something like the following; "I swear that when I crossed that bridge going over to pay my respects to Maggie Brody, on a previous arrangement, of course, that it felt like the Great Divide was being crossed, the great difference you might find between heaven and hell, like no-Maggie on this side and all-Maggie on the other side. Beautiful ladies have that effect on a lonely man no matter where he lights, and Maggie Brody does all of that."

If one of the saloon listeners piped in with, "Well, where did you two go when you visited out there with Maggie?" one of the pat answers would be, "A gentleman never talks about a lady no matter what they do together. That's his and her business."

All that came off as blow-hards doing the talking about their visits to Maggie's turf. The bartender in The Teton Ridge Saloon, having seen her only on a few occasions, didn't blame any cow poke from trying to brag a little and gain a little notoriety, because there was always a lady just short of similar glories who would entertain such young men of repute.

Maggie Brody's story was well-known. She was born soon after the family arrival in Boston, a short walk from the Bunker Hill where the militia of the new young country had waged one of their battles against the British. Members of the family said that she had gazed west with her first look. They couldn't argue much about that first look of the lone daughter in the family, as the lot of them (lucky en toto) had come west from Ireland because of the famine that was caused by the blight, which descended on all of Ireland's potato crop in the mid-1840s and often was felt in Europe as far away as the shores of the Caspian Sea. The near rotted loss of every potato in Ireland's ground, which was summarily followed by the starvation of many of Ireland's people, sure death of many confined to death beds with no food on hand, and work-house assignments for the emaciated unfortunates. With the onset of the famine, by 1847 the poor people were crammed into work houses far beyond their intended capacities. By 1851 the number of such consignments to the work houses reached upwards of 250,000 unfortunates. One result was often the sad statement that simply said in thousands of deaths, "died of starvation."

Maggie, as she was called immediately at birth, carried the family mantle with ease. It was said among them that as much as an Indian papoose gets its name from a first sign, the name stuck and the westerly signs continued with Maggie. When only a dozen years old, she told her parents she was born to follow the sun.

"Someday," she pronounced with certainty, "I am going out there where the wind will get in my face and the mountains will get in my eyes, and where there's enough room you can invite the stars down to share it."

It all fell in place at Maggie's Meadow.

The grass was as green as any place of natural riches in the west, the waterfall, ever sparkling, held the promise of the ages as it poured from the Teton Range, and the brand on the cattle was a Double M. The two letters shared the second leg of the first M and the first letter of the second M. It might appear to others as MM, but it was really two Ms on three vertical legs. Maggie's Meadow was a showplace of the Teton Range, and she was going to keep it that way with all her energy and all her will.

She would spend many late hours, after work of the day was done, talking to her mother about her "new world." Talk with her father would be entirely different, being spent on matters strictly on business, on ownership, on rights, and such.

Her mother, a most gracious lady from the Auld Sod, said time and again, "Make room in your life, Maggie, for the man that will come into that life and fill it up for you. Make it whole and worthwhile. Bring you the utmost of happiness." She'd look into her daughter's eyes, as if she was looking for Maggie's soul to appear and agree with her and her own romantic soul, the one which had driven the family to new hope in a new world.

"Oh, Mum, that's so far off for me," Maggie would reply, knowing an answer, whether she believed it wholeheartedly or not, was needed for the moment. "I have a few years left in me before I can manage to find romance out on the prairie where there is so much room for so many other things to happen to a soul looking for chances, or gifts that the earth can give us, not take away from us." Her heart was full of stories that the famine had given rise to. "It may be far off for me, this romance you speak of. You were 30 when you married Pa. I have all this time on my hands for looking." She said it as if she had a whole lifetime to find love.

Her mother might nod, or smile half a smile, or look out the window at a shadow in the making, and figuring all the while that Maggie's future might not be up to Maggie herself, but up to a man that would ride directly into her life and start filling it up right away, as soon as he dismounted from his horse or wagon, or turned around in Mountain City one day and they'd find each other's eyes; evasion often proved less than resolute at such times.

Love's advent might be a slow smoldering, an ignition that was never noticed at the start and grew with the slow intensity of age, like wine in a barrel, or, as it had happened to her, it might hit like a maul smacking down on a wedge, and life was different from that moment until forever was reached.

She had been there, found her sons now scattered through the west, and her lone daughter, presumably in her own heaven at the very minute.

Maggie, as it was, carried on her busy ways, only and barely thinking once in a while about a small spot in her life that might be lonely if she paid it any due heed.

That was her conscious assurance, until Laird Dockery came riding over the bridge one day, sitting his mount as a handsome young man in the blaze of afternoon sun, and liquid blue skies stretching behind him like a picture set against a selective backdrop.

Maggie's breath was caught in place, perhaps only her own horse aware of the quick change as she pulled him to a standstill in front of the barn and the stranger rode right up beside her. She found a warmth enveloping her, a most pleasurable warmth and it sent her emotions in a quick swirl as she looked at a handsome face set off with blue-green eyes looking for discovery, a shapely mouth below a nose that might not ever caught a mean blow, and a smile hanging on lips so marked with promise that she felt herself alert to an ache never so plain in its onset.

She sent him a smile that was loaded with all her beauty, and a good deal of acceptance riding on that smile. He smiled back without saying a word and it was as if, at the same moment in their lives, a very special event had happened that both of them were fully aware of: he knew finally and fully why he had come west and Maggie knew that her heaven had been incomplete and had been waiting for this moment.

And neither one of them knew anything about the other; the mystery of discovery thrown open to love coming in for the long ride.

The first thing Laird Dockery said was, "I have been looking for this place for 8 years. And now I'm in heaven."

Maggie could have fallen off her horse if she wasn't the girl she was. This was the handsomest stranger that had ever crossed the bridge to Maggie's Meadow. And she found in his voice, detected she might have said if asked straight out, a most comfortable buzz of awareness in her ears.

Of three people in the immediate area, there had arrived a sense of change in the air. Each one would feel it differently. Each one would face it differently. Each one would scratch until the very end to keep in hand what was theirs to hold onto.

For Laird Dockery, it came evident at sight of Maggie and the glorious surroundings that seemed to wrap him in contentment.

For Maggie Brody, the handsome stranger set in motion feelings that had been put aside for too long by her drive to make MM the showplace of the Tetons.

And for Merchant Gavelin, roper, super horse rider and horse-breaker, cowpoke with illusions in his make-up, who saw, and feared at the same time, a serious candidate for Maggie's feelings and a healthy opponent in his desires for Maggie Brody, boss Maggie Brody, owner Maggie Brody of the magnificent MM spread tucked into the Tetons like a magnificent watch hidden away in a watch pocket.

Gavelin's hair was black as old leather, his eyes a little too close together for comfort at the same table, but his hands were large and strong and muscles moved inside his shirt like they were breathing hard. The eyes alone were enough to catch a wary man taking a second look at them, measuring their closeness, the intent in them, in their pale green and pearled color making them different from all his other parts.

He had a right to his uneasiness about Dockery, who had worked his way west from a coal town in Pennsylvania, as advised by his parents to "get out of this hell hole and when you find heaven, that dreamland, send for us. We'll rush to your side if we are able." That would be enough to keep most men working at it for a lifetime if need be.

With such a dream in front of him, and behind him, and imbued with a strong sense of duty and devotion, he plied his way west learning all that he could from all those who knew more than he knew, who had experienced more than he had. For a year he worked on a railroad, on freight lines and passenger lines, and learned all the nuances and bents of the trade that were exposed to him. Shoveling coal as a fireman was just back-breaking work, but he did a couple of runs at that job, and then was a flagman and conductor, and then a lead scout for one railroad line in its expansion. Learning to ride, and becoming accomplished at it was a must, and he took to it as if he was born on a ranch and given a pony on his third birthday. He became an excellent horseman, and with his native intelligence, excelled at the scouting job along with engineers who listened to his reports.

He bought a horse from an older man in Nebraska who had taken a liking to the young man full of energy. "Listen, son," the old gent had said, "You work as hard as any young man I've seen around these parts. Not any better, mind you, but as hard as any of the young bulls hereabouts, exceptin' you're ridin' the poorest horse of the lot. You make up some of the difference that that horse costs you. Now listen to me what I tell you about pickin' out a good horse, the one that'll make every day ridin' an easier one, and the one that might save your life someday. Out here, you'll darn well find out, the horse is as important as the man, and maybe more sometime and pray he'll be with you when that sometime happens."

Dockery listened well, learned well, and could about every time out pick out the best horse in a lot. He brought that knowledge and his other attributes across the bridge to Maggie's Meadow.

Maggie knew it from first sight, as if a message had been sent to her without her being aware of it. That gave Dockery a considerable head start without him knowing where his heart would eventually go. Gavelin felt it, the fear being part of his basic make-up, which barred his way to Maggie's favor. She sensed Gavelin's quick reaction as much as she sensed Dockery's strengths, the two ways that the men presented themselves to her.

And from that moment on, a heady triangle was in place from the initial meeting, in front of Maggie's barn at the edge of Maggie's Meadow, the three of them in a grouping for the first time.

From every place she worked, from each window of the ranch house, from the saddle of her horse to the high trail up beside the waterfall, her eyes fell on Laird Dockery as he went about his work with energy, earnestness and capability. Her foreman, Gus Trendle, said often enough that it sent signals to her, "That Laird, he ain't doin' any kiddin' when he gets in stride, when he stretches the leather on a job, and he knows what the heck he's about. I ain't seen a job he can't do as good as any hand we've had here for our four or five years."

"You're a tease, Gus," Maggie said. "You know well enough that it's seven years now that the bridge was built. You trying to catch me up in arithmetic or something?"

"Hell, no, Maggie. I guess you see as much as I do around here, except inside the bunkhouse. That's where the first sign of trouble 'tween them two trottin' in your trail. They 'bout came to fists and elbows 'cept I broke it up. I told them straight out, they want to fight over somethin', and me knowin' damn well what it was, that they should take it out of the bunkhouse and off the Double M, or I'd get goin' myself."

"How'd that go with them, Gus?"

"Dockery took it in his usual good nature and in stride, and stuck his hand out to give Mr. Ornery a handshake."

"And?"

"Oh, as I expected, Mr. Plain Damned Ornery refused to shake hands. Now I got to keep my eyes open, keep him in view all the time."

"Do we let him go, Gus? He's been here a couple of years. I know he's got ideas that I'm not buying and I hope he should have picked that up long before this."

"Maybe he could have, Maggie, and ought to have, but when that handsome one rode over the bridge, things changed in him. I can't blame him there. If I was 25 years younger I'd have busted both of them, or tried anyway. But that's no solution now. I'll just keep my eyes open. You let me do the worryin' about Mr. Ornery. You worry 'bout Mr. Handsome." The light and the gleam was in his eyes, and a day so long in the past he couldn't really bring it back.

The next incident came almost from the horse's mouth, as Trendle told Maggie. "Laird came out one evenin' to take one of those lonely evenin' rides he's always takin' by hisself, and one look at the way his horse was standin' told him somethin' was wrong with the animal. He checked him out and found a shoe nail driven under one of his shoes, and it wasn't jammed in there by his kickin' sideways in the corral. So he pulled it out and went into the bunkhouse and Mr. Ornery was not there. He asked where he went and when, and one of the boys said he'd gone out maybe an hour earlier and said nothin' to nobody, and never came back."

"Where was he, Gus? Doesn't sound good for him."

"He came in and said he had a right to do his own moonlight ride. Never did it before, not like Dockery's done it since practically the first night here, what is it, about six months now?"

"Six months tomorrow, Gus," Maggie said with a masking laugh.

"Knew that right off, Maggie, and figured you do too, so we have no secrets in this matter. Thing bothers me that if Laird didn't pick that up right away he might have met somethin' not good for him out on his ride."

"He does bear watching, Gus. I thank you for that." She patted him on the shoulder and he was like a father getting a daughter's blessing and good thanks.

"We'll make it a two way job, Maggie. You watch one and I'll watch the other."

**

So it was a two-way watch for a few quiet but busy weeks, and herd branding completed and a drive scheduled for the end of the month, just after a dance was set up in town by the town fathers.

Trendle walked into the bunkhouse and announced his schedule of duties for the night of the dance to the six hands in the bunkhouse, three and three bunking opposite each other. "I got two pieces of paper in my hands," he said and held out his fists. "One says 'stay' and one says 'go' and that's for dance night, 'cause we all can't go, and of course I'm goin' 'cause I'm the honcho. Now who wants to pick a hand?"

Gavelin leaped from his bunk and said, "Let me do that, Gus. For our side over here."

Gus looked around the room and said, "Any objections?"

None came, so he held out his two fists and said, "You pick, Merchant."

Gavelin picked the left, Trendle handed him the slip of paper, and Gavelin unfolded the paper and said, "We go," and looked jubilantly at the others on his side of the room.

Trendle opened the piece of folded paper in his other hand, saw "Go" in his own handwriting, showed it to one of the others and turned around and punched Merchant Gavelin so hard in the face that he sprawled flat out on the floor, almost unconscious. The liar shook his head and sat up.

"You lyin' son of a bitch, you'll stay the night of the dance or you're gone forever from here. Is that understood?" Then he stomped out of the bunkhouse.

Maggie heard about it from the cook, Lem Too Sin, who heard it from one of the hands. "'Magine him tryin' to fool Gus like Gus was an idiot? What makes a man so stupid like that? Gus is no idiot. Gus is smart. Gus knows his way around things. I smell trouble from a troublemaker. I see how he beats a horse sometime when nobody is around to see him do it. Like he's mad at the whole ranch and takes it out on the poor horse. He doesn't like my dog either. Likes to tease him when I work in the kitchen, but I see, and hear him. The dog knows too."

Lem Too's dog was a barrel-chested golden mix of who-knows-what in dogs. Lem Too found him as a puppy and named him Huang Hu the yellow tiger, and when nobody was around the pair of them, Lem Too Sin would talk to Huang Hu in his native tongue, always looking around to see who was too close. " ."

("You are from a great race of animals, that is why I call you Huang Hu, and we share the wisdom of the ancient ones, for we hear it on the wind, you and I.")

Maggie had an answer to Lem Too Sin's warnings, but didn't like it; things weren't supposed to be like this and she looked forward to the dance, knowing it would be a good time, knowing that Laird's arms would be around her for much of the evening. That contentment was different from all the deeds she had accomplished and what they had brought her; she finally realized what love could do to her, for her. Her ride to Mountain City was full of new expectations, new hope, and life was a grand feeling as she looked at the sweep of the land, the grass running for green miles, the majestic rise of the Tetons crowding the blue of the sky where an eagle flew a lazy flight high over her head looking for the next meal. Perhaps that next catch would be brought back to the nest for one or two young ones cradled in the high peaks of a nearby mountain or the chiseled scarp of a steep cliff where the young waited, their heads cranked up looking for sight of the parent out on the hunt.

It all made her heart jump around, and in her mind she heard the music long before the playing began, the ride into Mountain City a sudden and whole new experience for her.

At dusk, as the sun pushed down beyond the Tetons, as it let go its grip on the land, Gallivan's Barn appeared all lit up with a dozen oil lamps and streamers hanging every which way in every gay and bright color. Signs of welcome hung all over the outer walls, and claimed the eyes again on entering.

The dance was a huge success from start to finish. It came with a mixture of guitars and fiddles and the old piano brought all the way from Independence to Mountain City in a wagon by Gus Lawton, the freighter. That grand instrument was shot at by bandits, and hit by bullets, and never was one of its wires disturbed or one of its keys. Gus Lawton swore ever after that during the gunfight, when he and his shotgun rider were fending off the bad guys, he could hear notes coming from the piano even while it was under a canvas cover.

"I heard some notes that day like they was from my mother's piano back in Peoria and her at the keys and me at her feet with some of my pals and she could calm the band of us kids or all the wild horses in a canyon or a pack of hungry peccaries with her playing. And I'll swear to you that I swore to myself and my dear mother that I would not let this magic thing be taken or hurt by any fool thinkin' he could."

He stopped short in his words, as though he was seeing an old image, and continued, "When you're hearin' some of these notes from its low end, you'll get my drift, for music ain't just the invisible sounds you hear, but the pictures they kick up in your mind, like they was just waitin' on your listenin' for them. And I heard them notes that day and you can hear them if you was just to listen like you got no place to go today and no way to get there anyways. I'll hold sacred forever that music is magic and sickness can get cured or fixed by music if it's the right kind like the good mothers can play."

The notes from that dark instrument the night of the dance were heard as if coming from a cave, or down from the far end of a tunnel into the heart of a mountain. The music was played all night, and if a townsman had not stepped inside the barn and was anywhere in hearing distance, he'd be clicking his heels on some floor or the boardwalk along the main street or up in a hotel room and soon called out of his lodgings by the music.

The highlight, musically, of the evening further lit up the dance when a dozen fiddlers from surrounding ranches and towns both down and up the river, set up and began an impossibly marvelous heel-and-toe series of songs, and then swung into a significant session of melodies and old cowboy songs to please the souls of those in or near the barn. The lovers swooned, the cowpokes felt their horses at a trot or a gallop all according to the songs played that night. And the old favorites rang out, the way a single guitar player or a fiddler did his plucking by a trail's campfire, locking mind and memory onto other places and other faces, even as the words came at them. The dancers went swooping with Annabel Lee, and I'm Riding Home Again and My Fair Lady at Home Remains and Down by the River Lived a Maiden and A Cowboy's Love Song and felt their hearts break and held their partners close as Johnny Randall's Gone Away, Johnny Randall 's Bound to Stray sifted off into the night and dancing partners and lovers and dearest friends shared the grief about Johnny Randall, knowing joy sometimes comes right out of the heart though it's borne with sadness for another person in this life.

Gus Trendle, in a corner, sipping slowly at a drink slightly touched-up, watched as Maggie and Dockery merged closer as a couple, the music catching them up just as he felt the liquor catching him up. It made him think of Merchant Gavelin, and an edge came into his thinking, its disturbance warning him about the critter he called Mr. Ornery. Any more shenanigans out of him, against Maggie or Dockery, who was obviously going to be her husband down the road a ways, and he'd personally step in as protector of the young girl he had first seen when the bridge was built and she hired him, looking into his eyes like she was some creature from another place and had the power to see his mind. And accepting what she had seen.

The young couple seemed the happiest of all those at the affair. They were so close and so secretive in their talks that tongues went wagging for days afterward in Mountain City, five miles from the other side of Maggie's bridge.

That news, whether gaining other fancies in the telling or not, naturally was told to Gavelin by the two hands who had gone to the dance with Dockery and Trendle, and told to him with glee, as Mr. Ornery was disliked by those who worked with him and they often employed the jibe or the twist of a fact to get under his skin. And that dislike had continued to grow because of the attempted cheating incident, among other doings.

Maggie's parents also got into the act, her mother first, saying that she never trusted Gavelin from the first day and her father saying he was a damned good horseman and could break in a horse as good as any man he had seen at the task. "That boy's not afraid of anything," Paul Brody said at dinner one evening. "I saw him go into that stall the night Ginger went wild, like he didn't even take a second breath. I'm guessing there are some things in this argument that I am not aware of and that I don't wish to get into. You women folk seem to be working those considerations that we men folk should be attending to."

Maggie, as was her habit for a good spell when work was going on in a good fashion, the herd tended to and getting fatter, kept at her lone rides also, but always in the peak of the day when she could see all the beauty of the valley . . . . the waterfall, the grass leaping in its greenery, the air sometimes so soft on her face and the back of her neck that it made her think she was under a spell of contentment that would never end. She had found her heaven and loved it dearly, but now envisioned some kind of hurt coming down the trail or over the mountain, and realizing finally that it was already here.

More than once she had been interrupted on her ride by Gavelin who would slip out of a wooded area and come up behind her with an obvious insincere greeting, such as, "Say, Maggie, it sure is strange to meet you out here. I thought your ride would be over by now. My guess at the hour of the clock must be way off, but I'll ride along with you, if I can, right back to the ranch. That is, if you don't mind."

She would not believe him for a second, but never brought up her thoughts to him. "Let him be, loser that he is," she might have said to herself. "No sense of adding another sorry trick to the situation." Such a reaction would only run around the dinner table as well as the bunkhouse and get everybody, including her parents, her foreman and Laird Dockery, caught up in the mix. One of them would surely step into it and mess things up further.

The many small incidents that generally pointed at Dockery, like stolen property being discovered in his saddle bag or under his bunk and other obvious places, placed more testaments against Gavelin than Dockery. The other cow hands, and the foreman, all figured that Mr. Ornery sat behind the pointing, behind the left-handed pointing.

Nobody ever saw Gavelin doing the dirty work, though they stayed on the alert much of the time. But he was as smooth in trying to condemn another man, a suitor opponent, as he was at breaking in horses or riding the toughest ones to handle.

The situation, in some degrees of difference on occasion, was a lingering topic of conversation among ranch hands, Maggie's parents somewhat on opposite sides, and local citizens of Mountain City who sat in the saloon on too many afternoons with nothing else to talk about. That was especially true of those who mixed card playing, real hard card playing, into their daily lives. It was almost, with some of them, like reading Tarot cards or gypsy cards when a hand was dealt to them that they needed, or felt their blood stop its course when a poor card was turned over in a big game; the lot of them felt like the romance between Merchant Gavelin and Maggie Brody or the romance between her and Laird Dockery plain as daylight depended on the turn of the cards, the river card, the final piece not yet in place. A loser of a big pot, according to which side of the romantic war he might be on, would say, "Damned if it don't tell me that's a Gavelin card, plain as lookin' at it, loser from the word go. I was only tryin' to fill a good flush and got the odd man, the Jack of Spades and not the Jack of Hearts. I plain got the Gavelin card this time around. A loser by the nose."

The odd affair of hearts was wide open in the Double M bunkhouse also, which bothered Gus Trendle. He often made his feeling on the matter an open matter. "I don't need much of this love blabber when you're workin' and I sure don't want to hear it when I'm tryin' to sleep, so keep your accounts of the situation out of my reach. It ain't appreciated here. Maggie makes up her own mind on all matters, as you damned well better know by now, so leave it be."

One cowhand, eventually whispering to another, said, "I'll tell it straight out, Kirby, that when I fall in love with a woman, I hope that I don't get it like Merchant boy, all hung up in how to get what he wants and not takin' into account what he really wants out of all of it. I think he hates the pretty boy in Laird more than he thinks he loves Maggie who ain't havin' none of him and won't ever on which I'd bet my next six months' pay or I ain't no good at lookin' at women and havin' a mind of my own in it. Course, I ain't got too much real good experience in these things."

The laugh was low and guttural and fully aimed at his own inefficiencies in things romantic.

His pard, thinking over all things that had been tossed at him, said, "I wouldn't bet on Merchant either, and I sure won't bet against Laird 'cause we both can see how Maggie lights up about him no matter where she is, even us bein' right there in the open with her. Wouldn't it be this side of heaven to have a woman like her dote on you like that? What kind of luck does it take to get that done, will you tell me? I ain't ever been that lucky even back in Turtle Box in the territory when Molly Clare said she favored me over the devil his self. Course, we was busy at the time and that might have twisted her tongue so that it scared the hell right out of me."

The healthy laughter ran right around the bunkhouse and barbs and other slingshots of words came riding on the air, all of them from cowpokes who felt the same way about love and women and the mix in life and always managed to bring some humor to their shortcomings, and their real lonesomeness.

When the fire started in a corner of the barn, and Gus Trendle spotted the first wisps of smoke as he sat on a log in front of the bunkhouse, all hell broke loose. No sooner did he set off the alarm than he started trying to keep in sight where and how and when Merchant Gavelin made himself available for firefighting. In his rush, though, he missed the appearance of Mr. Ornery, who was at his elbow and pitching in with water like he had never been away from bed or night watch.

The fire was put out with a burst of energy by all hands, and a small lamp was found burnt out at the center of the mess, a lamp no one had seen before. It did not come from the bunkhouse or the ranch house and all of them said they had never seen it before.

Only Dockery admitted to have seen it, "but I can't remember where," he said when questioned by Trendle and then by Maggie herself.

"I have seen that lamp, but where is a mystery to me, like it sat in the corner of my eye someplace and I never paid it much mind." A solid frown passed across his face, doubt fully in place.

Gavelin offered that the lamp may have been from Dockery's deep past. "None of us know really where you came from, Laird, and how you ever got here. Not that it matters too much, unless you're the one who set it in place to start a fire. Nobody gains anything here from the fire. But it might well have put some of us out of a job if it really got going."

"Merchant, you can speak a lot planer than that," Trendle said. "You have a whole series of problems that make their way from a dark place down inside your gut. You have a strange way of making your point on matters or shoving yourself in places where it really looks like you're not wanted."

"If you wasn't the boss," Gavelin answered, "I'd punch you right in the mouth." He had his fists clenched but didn't employ them.

"Oh, big man, you had a chance or two to bust me one and never got around to standing up to do it. I don't see nothing now to make that any different. Where were you when the fire broke out? Where you been for the evening?"

"I just been around. Couldn't sleep like Dockery there can't sleep and got to go out there to who knows where every night it seems. Maybe he meets someone out there that has ideas on getting this place in his grubby hands. Like some old pal from that wherever he come from when he landed here like it was a whole accident happening, him finding the bridge, coming on like he was lost and found. I plain don't feature none of that, and I don't care how close you think you are with Maggie, Gus, 'cause she'll cut you out of things in a minute if Mr. Wonderful gets his way in things. For me, all I ever tried to do was keep things in the right line. Maybe I did it all wrong, but I ain't the bad dog in this mess. I bet you ain't ever thought of it that way, have you?"

He looked at the other hands and added, "I never hurt none of you and never let you down when I had a chance to help, like when you was cornered in that canyon, Kirby, and was feared you wouldn't get back to a hot supper on the table. I was in it up to my neck then, and you know it. I don't suppose you're going to forget that now, are you, just because Mr. Pleasant there is on the other end of the see-saw from me?"

Kirby, looking as if he was in the middle of it all, said, "I never forgot that, Merchant. I never said I forgot it. I ain't forgot it now either. Why'd you carry me in on this? It's like you'll do anythin' to get out from under. That just sits kind of bad with me. I ain't sayin' I forgot and I ain't sayin' for sure that you're a fire starter, but I have to keep my head up and gettin' air or I'm too deep to get out. I just ain't smart like you or Gus or Laird, or Maggie, for all that matter. I'm just a cowpoke what tries to do his job and not get in any traps, though that one time when you saved my butt."

He stared hard at Gavelin, as though it was the first time he had ever seen him clearly, the way a body is silhouetted on a ridge and light all around him, or in the doorway of a brightly lit room, just like this moment with all kinds of illumination showing all the parts of Merchant Gavelin.

All that illumination made him conscious of other parts of the relationship, and they spilled from him. "It's just the way you carry on about things you know, Merchant, and things you think you're tellin' me and teachin' me for the first time. It's how you use things common as all hell, like you're the great teacher, like you think you taught me all that stuff about horses and how I'd be better off if you taught me the real stuff, like when their ears go flickerin' and tossin' about that they're hearin' somethin' you ain't heard yet yourself and better pay attention. Hell, man, my pa taught me that when I was hardly off his lap, because your horse is your best pal out there on the grass or on a lonely trail and you're huntin' down loose cows wandered off in their hungers or their thirst."

He caught his breath, the sudden silence in the bunkhouse casting him a centerpiece of the group for the first time ever. It hit him that this would be his last time doing it, too, so he let it go, freed a lot of things that had built up in him as he stood there in the middle of the room, blond hair like a mop on his head, a beard one could hardly see in its lightness, concern on his face as though all of life had gathered in him.

Even Gus Trendle, measurer of men at all angles, was seeing Kirby fully for the first time, saw his eyes with a fire not seen before, and a staunch tone in his voice, strong as it ever had been, and his body standing its ground the way it had in a forgotten stampede. Trendle nodded with his keen acceptance the spirit of the man.

"I ain't so dumb as you thought I was, Merchant," Kirby continued. "There's stuff I knew before you came along with all your schoolhouse lessons." He carried on, aware of the lone chance in this short life, being up front of all his pards. "It's like when your horse's ears are stood up alert and facin' forward, 'cause that's when the critter is just sayin' he's glad you're around and sure would like another apple out of your hand or a carrot, meanin' he's hungry and happy you're ridin' him. But all the time you're tryin' to make me think you're smarter than me, while you're tossin' me right in front of a runaway wagon or a wild-ass, bull-run stampede."

**

It was the longest explosion of words from the quietest hand in the bunkhouse and it startled everybody, including Gavelin and Trendle. Neither one of them could remember Kirby saying ten words at one time, never mind a whole mouthful and then some, and all of them as acute and to the point.

And it brought a sudden silence when he stopped and he became fully aware of what he had said, where he finally fit in the bunkhouse mix. He was not sorry he had said so much as a word; it had come at a good time . . . . something was wrong in the bunkhouse, something wrong in Maggie's dream and he didn't want to be any part of it if he could possibly help it. She was a special lady, like a sister set under his trust, and he had to measure up at last.

"This is the best place I ever worked, and I ain't goin' to hurt it none at all, 'cause every bad thing comes back, not on us, but on Maggie and she deserves more than that. She made this place happen and I wouldn't want to be anyplace I ever been before but here. If it takes a dumb yokel like me to help out, then I'll damned well do every little thing I can to help out, even if it means I got to speak up like this against you Merchant, against one of my pards. It ain't easy, but it's easy to choose between you and Maggie; she deserves more than you. Simple as that."

Gavelin stood mouth ajar, words failing him, knowing he'd been exposed more than ever before by a hither-to near-silent but trustworthy man. The light on him was too bright, the exposure too complete, his true aims and character never shown in such a revealing manner. He remembered saving Kirby in the canyon and thought, if he hadn't saved him, this illumination would not have happened; nobody else in the bunkhouse would have said it the same way.

Gus Trendle, wanting to get Kirby off the center of discussion, thinking now was the appropriate time to carry out a desire he had wanted to fulfill for a long time and through a number of tell-tale incidents, said directly to Merchant Gavelin, "I think, Merchant, now is the best time for you to go. Pack your gear and light out. It's been comin' for a long spell, at your own doin', but now it's wide open and I'm not goin' to allow any of this to hit back at Maggie. And I'm damned sure the rest of you share my feelin's."

The silence there had been before carried on again, but all of the hands nodded a slow appreciation of what they suspected, or knew, of Merchant Gavelin, saddle pard for a few years. The quiet one among them had let it loose and it had the teeth of a mountain lion in it, or a she-bear with her young tagging along.

Trendle's own qualifications on the matter hardly dented the scene. "You've been a good hand at times and a damned good horseman, Merchant, breakin' the broncs and all that, but you carry too much trouble with you, like your saddle bags are full of trouble you ain't sprung loose yet. Kirby hit it right on the head when he said what we do all comes back on Maggie, or what we don't do, which is sure enough at times to do a whole wagon full of damage. There's too much poison all carried in one place for me. So best go now. You'll catch a job someplace down or up the river. Anyone asks me, I'll just say we ain't seein' eye to eye on things."

The Ornery One did not say a word to Trendle or to Kirby and the other hands. He was quit of the place, but they would know his anger and his wrath. As he forcefully kept his mouth shut, as plans loomed in the back of his mind, he must have shaken some of them loose in his eyes, in his demeanor.

Gus Trendle caught that look and understood the man sending the hidden message. "If I catch you pokin' or sneakin' around here, Merchant, on this side of the bridge or anywhere near the bridge, I'll drop you like a charging bear or a wild bull out for no good. Don't ever underestimate me on this. Nothing happens in or near Maggie Brody as long as I'm alive."

For days afterward, Kirby and the other hands could hear Gus Trendle's final words on the matter delivered to one of their pards thrown off the job. A few of them, without fully voicing their concern, worried about Trendle, who was a good boss and deserved more than Gavelin had given him already . . . . and might try to give him somewhere down the trail or out on the lonely grass.

There was a threat in the silence that they understood, like the silence of a herd of cows just before a big boomer breaks loose from the sky directly above them and sends them on the run . . . . and beware all things in the path of stampeding cattle.

Meanwhile, even with Dockery living in the bunkhouse and a member of the ranch outfit, his time with Maggie accelerated quickly, and he was spending much of his off-work hours with her, either out on her rides around the valley and beyond the bridge when he was not working, and as a guest in the ranch house where the cook and handy-man at all tasks, Lem Too Sin, had a small room at the back end of the building, just off the large kitchen. He was devoted to Maggie and her parents and served every need he could without ever a harsh word or the least reluctance. He had found, early in his service to the Brodys, that the more ways he could find of preparing potatoes for a meal, the greater would come the relish of those at the table. He was inventive, and called often on the mystical masters of his past world in the far mountains of China. They had been ingenious at meals, making the land give of its gifts to those who had imagination.

Lem Too Sin, with a first advance on the subject of Maggie's love life, volunteered one day his opinion on the matter, to which Maggie paid heed. He had been in the kitchen for nearly six years and was treated by Maggie and her parents as close as kin.

"He too is a good man besides being one who is happy with himself," Lem Too Sin said. "Old Chinese wise men say, 'Man who is happy with self is a good man and make the umbrella stay open.'" And he added, with a clumsy turn at a wink, a quick qualification so the opportunity for his vote on the matter would not be wasted, "Lem Too think Mr. Dockery is to be a good man to keep around forever, for when it rains." He let off only a minor touch at laughter, it saying he had said what was on his mind, agreed with the way it came out in the conversation, and found pleasure in the chance to speak his mind on a family matter. Like them, he had come from somewhere else, from far-off China and deep within the Asian continent. It had taken him five years to complete his journey to this place. In a few more years, not known to any of the others on the ranch, he would send for his family. His timing was "Right on the frog's back and ready for the leap," as the old masters of his past world would have said. He'd hate to leave Maggie and her parents, all of them fair and decent to him in his daily work, but they were not really his family.

His memory of his woman Ah Won Ya never faded, nor the memory of his children, but he enjoyed each and every day thinking of the coming surprise he would have when he'd see just how tall his two children had grown, only now and then putting aside the constant though single memory to engage in a kind of guess-work on what they'd look like the next time he saw them. It was a most delicious trick he'd use to get him through any sense of lost time that came down on him, though the kitchen and his other chores kept that sense of lost time at bay; he had a knack for losing himself in work, and being good at it. Maggie was the first to make not of his efficiency to her father, when she said, "If all our workers and hands could handle themselves and work like Lem Too Sin, we could sit back and just get rich, but there's no fun in that. She did notice that her father, but not her mother, went into a deep study after she had said it. Her mother, obviously, had known it all along, whereas her father, as with many men, had to be pointed at a fact or a condition. Men were often unaware or unconscious of some of their surroundings, especially the traits and habits of others that were not in their path every day.

Maggie, thinking back to what Lem Too Sin had said about Laird, being used to his references to masters of philosophy and conduct as old as the world itself, nodded, then smiled with a brightness that filled the kitchen for Lem Too, and said, "Your wise men, Lem Too, always say the right thing," and punched it up with her own qualification, "and know when to say it." Her smile radiated the whole message.

He, of course, accepted the compliment, and whistled much of the day at his work, believing Maggie and he were in total agreement on the subject of Laird Dockery. He had seen too much of Merchant Gavelin, upon whom he measured his judgments on others, all to the others' benefit.

Of all the people on the ranch, including Maggie's parents, and Gus Trendle, foreman, and all the cowpokes and old Harry Crosby, the barn man, who never spoke up about anything, Lem Too Sin realized he had the best view of everybody and everything except what went on out there on cattle drives, and branding time, and how the chuck wagon cook might manipulate his trade secrets to scratch up quick meals on the fly. Labor and constant attention were needed for such work, and he could imagine what men would perform well; he knew each one from only the contact within the confines of the ranch house and the barn. Even then, from the way body language talked to him, the way some treated their horses with the greatest kindness and awareness as opposed to those who were too casual in that deepest of obligations, he marked his men, said they were most dependable or not. It was simple with him; most dependable, or not most dependable. All the other possible rankings did not enter his acute judgment.

And Laird Dockery, from the first minute, measured up as a most dependable man, and Merchant Gavelin did not.

Lem Too Sin settled on himself the fact that he'd be a constant watchdog for Maggie, in her love life as well as her dealings with hired hands. "The eye sees other shapes when one is in love," the masters had said long in his past, "and sometimes the shape is a tiger and not a lamb for petting."

Dockery, caught up one night in Maggie's moon, the moon she had drawn down upon them in a ride out of the grass, looked at her in the moon's soft beauty and said, "Maggie, I love you. I've loved you from the first moment I saw you. Now, in this moonlight, in the setting in which I could be happy forever, I never want anything to change, except that we get married someday, that you think on it as often as I do, knowing that you make all the beauty there is here for me, all this that abounds around us at this very minute."

They were standing beside their horses, all the creatures caught in the moon glow, a soft and sensuous breath of a breeze at their necks, on their faces, and silence coming at them from the mountains ringing Maggie's Meadow, a silence that came golden in the moon, full on the air and the breeze moving that air. At one moment there came silence, and the next moment there was the call of a coyote so faint and so distant it could be imagined, and the hoot of an owl so close it might threaten a mouse or a small rodent at their feet.

And before Maggie Brody could say yes to a proposal of marriage, there came a gunshot. A bullet passed in the air over their heads. Dockery dove against Maggie and flung her down on the ground, his pistol in hand as he prepared to seek out the shooter, and Maggie grasping his ankles and dragging him down upon her again.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I'll marry you. I love you, but don't go looking for someone in the night, even with this moon lighting up the Earth. Let's wait until tomorrow." She refused to let go of him and he gave up the struggle as a cloud passed between them and the moon.

"Quick," Dockery said, "mount up and we'll get out of here and get you home. I'll come to check things out in the morning. There must be signs left. The shooter might not find an ejected shell in the dark if he went looking for it. He might have dropped something else belonging to him. I'll be he sure must be scrambling now somewhere in the vicinity. That shot was within a couple of hundred yards of us." He looked eastward, toward a peak that he had come to know well. "Whoever he is might have shot from up there. There are lots of places to hide in this range of mountains, which is full of caves and tunnels and crevices wide enough for a man to slip through."

In their quick mounting of the horses, in the relief of getting Maggie out of rifle range he hoped, Dockery put out his hand on Maggie's arm and said, "This is heaven in spite of that shot, Maggie. Pure heaven, and I'm the luckiest man in the world."

Maggie Brody, on the cusp, of a new and dramatic turn in her life, said nothing, and let the moment sink into her whole person, and found it as good as anything she had known in her 25 years.

In the moonlight, in the broad and golden glow from that celestial power, she was the most beautiful woman Dockery had ever seen, and she too felt that way as he and the moon looked on her with favor.

They were speechless on the ride back to the ranch house, the threat of the rifle shot gone past them, each one of them locked into their feelings, knowing their love was shared . . . . and that someone was trying to break it up.

Maggie didn't tell her parents about the single shot coming near her and Laird on their ride, keeping all of it, and the proposal as well, to herself, rolling that pleasantness clean through her mind time and time again during the following morning, though her good spirits were soon detected by her mother..

Dockery, though, was with Gus Trendle the first thing in the morning, pulling Trendle aside before going into the great kitchen for Lem Too Sin's breakfast spread, the staple smell of steak and eggs and fried potatoes filling the air, drawing attention upon the rich aromas from everybody in the ranch house vicinity, the sun still a promise, with daylight so far on weak legs as it advanced from the mountains that circled Maggie's Meadow.

They found nothing. But that night, hidden in the shadows and the darkness, Lem Too Sin and Huang Hu moved silently out of the ranch house area and walked for an hour across the grass, to the area where he had heard Dockery say the shot came from. He opened the bag he was carrying, a small parcel, and removed the denim leg torn from a pair of pants, with its owner's odor hopefully still present on it.

" , " he said to Huang Hu, his voice full of sincerity and simple direction. ("Go seek, Huang Hu, and find the one who has hidden here and where he goes.")

Huang Hu went off on a trot, his nose more in the air than on the ground. In 20 or 30 minutes he was standing at the entrance to several small caves, where the scent surely had faded away, or had been displaced by another odor or had been obliterated for one reason or another, which Lem Too Sin quickly assumed to be an attempt, a successful one, to cover all traces of the culprit . . . . no one other than Merchant Gavelin, whose pants had been thrown into the trash after a bad fall from breaking a rather wild horse, and which Lem Too Sin, never trusting the man for one minute, had put aside . . . . just in case there might be a future use. He heard at that time, on the whisper of the slightest wind, one of the old masters say, " . (A man who flees an incident is bound to leave more than the track of his boots on the ground, for he brushes himself on all that he touches.) Lem Too Sin knew that it also meant the marking on the very air that was breathed in by the man and then breathed out again, for all to know and own who could find it.

He could not recall the name of the old master who said, on the voice of the wind also, faint as ever, ("One man does not live in a secret; a secret takes at least two men to be a secret.)

The kitchen's jack-of-all-trades, with his usual deep thought, knew he could not tell Maggie or her loved one, Dockery, about the secret he and Huang Hu had discovered, that Merchant Gavelin, Mr. Ornery, had holed up for a time in one of the three caves, according to the trail that Huang Hu followed, and lost. One of the caves, for sure, would be a better place to start than what Dockery had described.

So Lem Too Sin went to Trendle and unloaded all he knew, and volunteering to lead him out there along with his dog.

Trendle rejected his help, but thanked him in his manner. "I know the place, Lem Sin. I've been there before, but never inside. I have no idea what's there, but I'm damned pleased you didn't tell Maggie or her friend, or her parents. That would have been a real problem for me and Maggie and all of us. Merchant may get to be the animal he's capable of becomin'. I've seen his kind before, out on the trail where you need it least. I'll take care of him."

In half an hour, with one trusted hand, Dutch Miller, and under cover of darkness, they headed out for the caves. There was no moon to see with, no stars popping in the sky, no falling stars dragging your eyes from a hard watch. The horses, for some reason, were skittish, and each rider was aware of a change happening, in the horses, in the air.

As they road, Trendle said to his pard, "Tell me what you think of Maggie and Dockery, Dutch. How they stack up in your mind? Can we brand them as a couple?"

"Honest, Gus, I think they're both winners. I thought that right from the first, knowin' I'd never be in the tent with Maggie, no matter how hard I tried. And Laird came as the perfect spoiler for Gavelin, who was plain-ass mean all the time when anythin' came between him and Maggie, him tellin' lots of folk he had the inside track." He almost halted his horse in the middle of a thought, then added, "Course, none of us ever believed his line of bull crap. Him and Maggie never matched and never would. Maggie'd make damned sure of that."

The stance of his riding pal at the moment pleased Trendle, and he pictured, almost in one frame, Miller's broad and round face full of a smile and Gavelin's tight eyes in a narrow head, sort of like he had seen in a funny drawing with pencils a drawing artist had done one night in the saloon in Mountain City. The obvious difference came full bore to the ranch foreman.

As the two searchers neared the caves, darkness fully around them, night noises from the mountains in the usual slow chorus, one shot, a wild shot, rang out as if it was a warning in the shooter's mind and there was no target. Neither Trendle nor Miller heard a bullet whiz through the air near them, nor did they observe a muzzle flash from the weapon.

Neither man dismounted as they read the signs attached to the shot.

"Someone heard us out here, Dutch," Trendle said, "but he can't see us. We can't see him and he can't see us, so we'll use that. He's not out on the grass, that's for sure, so we'll split up, go on foot from the big rock at the base of the cliff, and try to flush him out. Don't take any chances. Shoot if you have to. I'll be on your left, at least 50 yards away, so gauge on that if you think you might shoot."

Trendle thought he was through with directions, but was suddenly grabbed by another warning that he relayed to Miller. "Dutch, we got to be careful on all of this, for Maggie's sake. That's the only reason we're in this fix, and if we don't do it right, Maggie's the one who'll have to pay. Give it your best shot."

"Sure, Gus," Miller said, "I wasn't plannin' on doin' anythin' else while I'm out here. Gavelin ain't no nice fella and I ain't about to worry my life away on account of him."

As he walked away onto the path he planned, the echoes of words came to Trendle like dire warnings . . . . "Give it your best shot . . . . I ain't about to worry my life away on account of him."

The unease didn't drift through his body like a tumble weed caught in a slight breeze, but slammed home the way a bullet would have in the eventual end to its making. He shivered so much that he felt it in his legs and in his hands. The bother of it came home to him.

Trendle, no dummy, a man who had been on a posse a number of times, went slowly at his work, placing his boots down softly with each step, and moved toward the three caves. Once, in a careful step, he felt the presence of a stick with his booted toe, and knelt down to move the stick out of his way. At first he was surprised to find the stick had been recently broken, snapped in pieces, with sharp ends. He was about to put it aside when he felt another one, another recently snapped stick. The ground was littered with them. The realization came with a fully blown image of Gavelin salting the path to the cave with a bunch of freshly broken sticks, which would surely give off a crunching sound or a snapping sound if stepped on.

He said to himself, "I hope if this trick is over there with Dutch that he finds it quick." He had a sudden picture of Miller stepping on a stick and the sound resulting in a shot coming directly at him. The picture caught him with its terror. He picked up a stick and flipped it in the air toward a point further to his left, and away from Miller. Let's see what happens now, he said under his breath.

The stick hit a solid surface and emitted a snapping sound. Immediately following the snapping sound came a rifle shot, a muzzle blast from off to his right, at which he fired both his side arms in a steady volley, and saw and heard the same sounds and sights coming from off to his right as Dutch Miller, seeing the gun fire develop, and aware of the lay of the land, fired away with his guns too.

Caution and suspense developed. Breath was held in place for a long stretch and silence came down off the mountain, from the caves, from the secret shooter's place of hiding. Burnt gunpowder filled the air with its acrid smell. But no moan sounded its death knell. No man cried out with his last breath.

Then, at a distance, faint as a spiritual punctuation, nature finding a resolve in the sudden eruption of gunshots, a coyote gave warning, as if to alert all living things that death was on the march. A horse nickered out of bounds somewhere, the sound coming off a rocky face with its giveaway clue. Scrambling claws said a peccary was in flight on a rocky surface.

Gus Trendle and Dutch Miller, in the bright light of morning, the sun already warm on the whole meadow, came riding across the grass. They were doubled up on one horse, and across the saddle of a second horse was the body of a dead man.

In a sad ceremony, the body of Merchant Gavelin was laid to rest, the first body ever put down in Maggie's Meadow.

A month later, life continuing on Maggie's Meadow, the threat of a too-serious Merchant Gavelin put out of their minds, and their romance blooming stronger than ever, they went on with nightly rides on the meadow, knowing the land, its impact on them, and what it would demand of them as a couple in the future.

The night was a dark night, overcast with unseen clouds that seemed to be nothing more than a solid blanket, and the two lovers rode slowly in a routine that each one loved and doted on.

"Don't worry, Maggie," Laird Dockery said, "about that moon stuff. I never believed any of it, so don't worry about me being disappointed when it doesn't happen. I'm just so happy that we're getting married and all that Merchant stuff is behind us."

His arms were around her and all her glories as they stood together out on the grass, her white horse standing behind her and his black off behind him. As she hugged him back and then kissed him, he felt the awe of the woman who was to become his wife, and the warmth now coming from her body and a new-source warmth settling quickly on the back of his neck.

He opened his eyes in a moment of revelation and saw their shadows, now one shadow, fall across her white horse, and Maggie said, almost like a fortune teller, "Don't be too sure about that, Laird. If I ever call and you come this quick to me, I'll be as happy as any woman in the entire west."

CONTENTS


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