Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fire Girl (Part 8)

   Mookie ended up staying on the ranch  for another six or so weeks, loving almost every minute.  (Cleaning the nursery pens  wasn't high on her lists of fun activities.)  The activities most people would find appalling were fascinating to her, like calving.  It was late in the season so there were a few  left to be whelped,  but she helped with them all.  Pappy, supervising from his chair, commented on how Mookie was the first damn woman he'd ever seen that hadn't tossed cookies while taking part in the process.  She never assisted in slaughtering, which was done partially for the ranch and mostly for a couple local markets.  She just.... No.  Not happening.  She learned how to butcher, cutting to large portions, then portioning to sections for the store butchers to bring to workable pieces, but slaughtering was right out.  She was glad to be of use in the processing, though, saving Chet and Roger quite a bit of time.  She also learned about using the small smokehouse they used for personal use.  She developed a taste for homemade jerky which replaced her Slim Jim fixation.  Store-packaged  jerky would never cut it after having "fresh" jerky, somewhat thick-cut, and smoked and spiced by their own recipe.  Her vegetarian friends  on both coasts didn't know what they were missing.

     She had one last encounter with the three boys, Mark, Jeff, and James.  She had laid her whip outside the hen house while she gathered eggs; It was in the way if she wore it.  She stepped back out to find it missing....
     ....Lying on the ground off to one side of the hen house.  Mark, Jeff, and James were standing fifteen feet away; James had his rifle in his hands.  "I got a souvenir.  Try to take it back and you might end up with a hole or two in you."
     Mookie skipped fear and carried straight on into rage.  She was sick of the schoolyard bully games.  She pulled her shirt off and pointed at her scar.  "It's happened before and I'm still here."  She began walking towards her whip.
     James fired a shot at her feet.  Their distance was now equal: Mookie, whip, boys.  She kept walking.
     A second shot kicked up sand at her feet.  Mookie looked at James and said, "You need a gun against an unarmed woman?  You really are a coward.  Nothing more."
     "Why you bit---- "  BAM.
     The bullet tore a groove in Mookie's upper left arm, blood began running down her arm and dripping off her fingers.  The boys were in a panic: they expected her to run away at the first shot.  Mookie could hear a buzzing noise in her head, a combination of pain and adrenaline, with a good dose of anger.  She made the last few steps and snatched up her whip, and swung.  Her target was James, and she caught him in the neck, hard.  He screamed and dropped the rifle.
     Mookie strapped the rifle to her shoulder and began chasing the boys around the yard with her whip, putting welts on anyone in distance.  She was getting dizzy, but refused to stop.


      Chet's rifle drew everyone's attention, as he galloped into the yard.  Mookie still wanted to use her whip, but dizziness and weakness were slowing her down.  She went down on her knees.  She shook her head  to try to clear it.  It was a bit like shaking a jar of mud to see through it better.
     Through the finger-pointing and accusatory statements Chet was able to figure out what had happened very quickly.  "You stand there and don't move a muscle.  You two, throw those rifles over here.  Mookie, are you okay?"
     She giggled and said, "Tequila dizzy.  I'll be okay."
     Chet finally took a good look at Mookie, saw how she was bleeding.  He swore loudly.
     "Get  in the house and dial 911, sheriff and ambulance both needed.  Sure you can make it?"
     "I feel pretty bad, but I'll make it  'Less you want me to keep an eye on these idiots."
     "Would you have your whip?"
     "You better believe it."
     "You better make the call."
     Mookie half-walked, half-staggered to the front door of the house.  Ma and Pappy were used to target practice and had given the shots no thought.  Mookie, aware of the amount of blood running down her arm, opened the door and called, "Could someone bring me a few paper towels?  It's important."  Then she went to her knees again.
     Ma came to the front door and then ran for the kitchen for paper towels.  She folded them and wrapped them around the wound.  "Who did this to you, girl?  What happened?"  Mookie felt that speaking was a lot of exercise, but finally managed to get out a mumbled, "Bastard James shot me.  Gotta ussa phone."
     "Whaaat!?" shrieked Ma.
     "Gotta call 911."
     "Of course girl, you need an ambulance, but after they get here, I'm puttin' a hole in that little bastard."
     "I think Chet called first turn on that."
     "Well, damn."

While the three boys were being booked on assault with a deadly weapon charges, Mookie was getting sixteen stitches put in her.  "You're in too good of shape, young lady," said the doctor.  "Harder to work through all this muscle tissue instead of fat."
     "And if I stop working and having fun, I'll keep it in mind," said Mookie.

     By orders of both Ma and Chet, Mookie was forbidden from doing any work for 48 hours, due to blood loss.  That, and having the healing process start before engaging in such activities as cleaning calf pens or chicken coops.  A new project would be starting, though: Ma wanted to save three of the cows for milking.  The possibilities were limitless, if Ma had an unending supply of fresh dairy.  Of course, building a milking shed came first....

1966 MG Midget
 Roger managed to sneak down to Salt Lake City and perform a generous act of safety: fresh tires on all four corners of the MG.  Rubber that was fifteen years old was a risk to the driver and those around it  In their absence, Chet  and Mookie replaced fluids and protective sealing, removed plastic wrap, and bled the brakes; they'd need to get the machine running before the brakes could be tested.  A new battery also went in, and Mookie pulled the stereo out of the old MG and placed it in the new one. (It did bother Pappy  to see her cutting the holes in the doors to place the speakers.  So far as he was concerned, the sound of the engine and the wind was all the symphony needed in an MG.)
      The re-assembly was literally happening in twenty and thirty minute increments, as the men (and Mookie) found time to work.  Pappy and Chet were interviewing hands, and doing a thorough job of it.  While waiting for the hiring to happen, they found themselves riding herd on top of everything else they did during the course of the day.  Chronic exhaustion was setting in for all the men of the ranch.  Two of the three cows Mookie birthed solo so the men could get that much more sleep.

     Mookie offered a solution at dinner one night.

     "I already know how to ride a motorcycle, and being around the horses doesn't bother me.  Why don't I ride herd?   Hell, Brianna could ride with me until I get the hang of it, she doesn't start school for a few weeks so her and I could do the night-riding together."
     Eyebrows shot up around the table.
     "I'll do it!" exclaimed Brianna.
     "It's more'n just getting on and ridin'," said Roger.
     "Oh,  I know.  I'd have to learn  how to operate the throttle, steering alignment, rotating the tires.... Don't give me that look Roger, I know there's a few differences."
     "It can be damn dangerous, girl," said Pappy.
     "So can taking a shower.  Look, I don't need to be a professional rider, just a proficient one.  I know which end of a rifle to hold, and I ain't scared of the dark.  Start me at the basics, like putting on a saddle, and get me riding.  I'd like to try to be more useful than nursing calves and getting in Ma's way in the kitchen."
      Chet said, "Well.... With her in the saddle, we could circulate through riders so we're not getting exhausted.  I've been in favor of bringing on herd riders one by one, so we don't end up with crowds of idiots like we just got rid of.  Mookie learns fast, so she can ride herd while we train new employees, not have anyone set in their ways."
     Holy shit, thought Mookie, I'm gonna be an honest-to-god cowboy.  Or cowgirl, whatever.

     And four days later, Mookie and Brianna were double-teaming Mookie's first herd-ride (or as she still thought of it, "cow patrol").  She had been taught how to keep the herd grouped, how to watch for predators , and had dropped her first coyote.  Just stood up in the stirrups, aimed, and fired.  With a rope, she dragged it off a far distance so it's scent wouldn't spook the cattle.
     Chet and the new hand named "Slim," rode up at a gallop to find out the source of the shot.   ("Slim" was six foot six and 290 pounds.  He rode one of his own two horses, both massive Percherons with painted noses, standing six and a half feet at the shoulder.  Mookie thought of them as SUVs with hooves.)  They waited for Mookie to return of disposing of the coyote for her to explain what had happened.
     "I saw him winding his way toward the young stuff we've got at this end.  He was coming straight towards me, so I stood up in the stirrups, drew a bead, and let fly.  Head shot.  I was lucky, I guess.  Then I tied a rope to him and dragged him off about a quarter mile so his odor wouldn't freak out those yearlings.  Did I get something wrong?"
     Three jaws rested on chests.  "Mookie," said Chet, "where did you learn all this?"
     "I just, y'know, did what made sense.  Why, what did I do wrong?"
     "You did everything exactly right.  Here," Chet said, and reached into his saddlebag, "for taking down your first predator."  He handed Mookie a bottle of Miller.  "Hop down, I'll join you.  You three, keep moving."  Slim, Brianna, and Roger rode off.
     "Mookie, this is gonna sound like a stupid question, given how hard you work around here," said Chet, "but can I offer you a job?"
     Mookie's face started off as amused and dissolved into sadness.  "I'd love to work here," she said, "but the commute would be murder."
     "Yes, the one from Berkeley.  California, Nevada, Utah, and into Wyoming.... That'd be a hell of a drive every day.
     Mookie cleared her throat.  "I suppose I could live here.... Be next to a man I love to make love with, that I've come to feel very close to.... But I won't have completed my journey, My path will be incomplete."  She pulled off her gloves and wiped her eyes.  "I have to complete my path."
     "How do you know your journey isn't done?"
     "This sounds stubborn, but.... Because I said so.  I haven't used my whip to knock playing cards out of people's teeth or breathed fire in public areas in Berkeley or Oakland or San Francisco, blown peoples' minds in the Bay Area.  I  haven't done the things I set out to do."
      With a bitter tone, Chet said, "Sure you're not just runnin' away?  Afraid of planting roots?"
     "Afraid your roots are too deep, Chet?" she said quietly.  "Nothing stoppin' you from coming to the Bay Area with me.  You might like it.  Or do you have excuses about having a ranch to run?"
     "They aren't excuses, they're fact!  I've got  a high-end ranch to run here, one that pays for new trucks every few years cash, and money that supports my family. Girl, you've got two whips, cotton wadding, jugs of kerosene and white gas, and a car my father is giving you!"
     Keeping her voice calm, Mookie said, "Empires have been built on less.  Look at Tracy Chapman.  Or, more in line with what I do, look at Penn Gillette, performing card tricks on street corners."
     She suddenly grabbed Chet by the shoulders and yelled, "Do you think I want to leave?  Do you!?  The first man in my life I can say I love is right here in front of me, and I have to leave him, because it's what I need to do!  If I stayed, I'd never know what I missed by not going on to the Bay Area, and that would ride me until the day I die!  So don't talk to me about runnin' away: I'm running towards something.... What it is, I don't know, but I gotta find out!"
     She wiped her eyes again.  "It hurts, Chet.  It hurts like hell."
     "Mookie, I'm so torn up right now I don't know what to do."
     She put her arms around Chet's neck.  "I know we need to mount up and ride.  And try to not think too much.."
     "A hard demand."
     "Chet, tell me.  When was the last time you had a vacation?  Left the ranch and went somewhere?"
     Chet scratched his neck and said, "Excluding college?  Ahh.... I don't think ever, to be honest.There's always been something to do.  Twelve hundred head of high-end beef cattle, $2100 for full-size cattle each, --- now you know why we're so protective of them --- plus the calves, and Ma wants to bring in those three dairy cows, and---- "
     "And I'm offering a deal.  I stick around and run herd, help put up a dairy shed, and help you get your new riders hired.  Once it's done, you and I head for the Bay Area.  You for two weeks, and me for.... I don't know."
     In genuine confusion, Chet asked, "Why would you be helping with the hiring?"
     "Because if a potential hire can deal with me, they can handle anything that happens around here."
     "Lord knows things seem to have stayed interesting since the moment you crossed our wire to practice with your whip.  I need to think about it."
      They both jumped back in the saddles.  Chet said quietly, "Do you think you'd come back?"
     Mookie replied with a lump in her throat, "I honestly don't know.  We'd bring both vehicles, I know that.  And it hurts like hell to say it."

Mookie took down three more coyotes that night.  Slim rode into the ranch and got a shovel to bury them, to keep away carrion animals.
     "Makes me wonder about animals we lost when James and his brothers were out here.  Impossible to not lose any, but maybe that number ---- especially yearlings --- could have been lower," said Roger.
     "Damn woman, you're a hell of a shot!  Took 'em down like they were sitting in your lap! Where'd you learn to shoot like that?" said Slim.
     Mookie smiled and said, "Atlanta."

     Within two weeks a couple new hands had been hired.  A couple more to go, but the shorthanded-borne exhaustion would end.
     The first was Carl, who was five foot three and about the same distance across at the shoulder.  Ancestors of Carl were who Tolkien had in mind when he thought up the dwarves in the 'Lord of the Rings' saga: he was, by far, the strongest man on the ranch, even out-lifting Slim
     There was no point in making short jokes, for two reasons: partially self-preservation, but mostly because Carl had already told the joke.  He knew there was nothing he could do about his height, so why be stressed over it?  He was happy about being in Evanston, as he had a (five foot eight) girlfriend in Salt Lake, so he could see her more often.  When a tacky barb was made about the two of them making love, he insisted all sex with him and his girlfriend were three-way affairs.... Him, her, and someone to operate the pneumatic lift.
     Coming from the same ranch was Booker, an unusual cowboy because.... Well.... No other way to put it, Booker was black as the ace of spades.  A Texas native, he learned to ride and rope at a young age thanks to an open-minded neighbor.  He was hired on at sixteen, and things went fairly well: only about a third of his fellow riders were knuckle--dragging racist assholes.  He decided to try his luck up north and found things somewhat improved.
     Both Carl and Booker had been let go from the same ranch under the same conditions.  The ranch was hurting financially, and they were two of five who drew short straw.  Their former foreman spoke glowingly of both men, would loved to have kept them on, but everyone had agreed to the "short straw out" method of determining who got the sack.
     When Mookie first met Booker, she thought she'd have someone to talk music with.  Nope. Booker was an even bigger shit-kicker musically than Roger. She brought up the Ramsey Lewis Trio and Al Green and Quincy Jones....  And was greeted by blank looks.  Booker and Roger went back to arguing Kitty Welles versus Patsy Cline.  Mookie spent the rest of the day muttering about "a black dude who doesn't know who John Coltrane is, the hell is happening to this world,"

       Slim became night foreman (with corresponding pay), due to his experience, wits, and argument-ending size.  The cement had been poured and framing put up for Ma's milking stall.  Mookie had picked up the nickname "Angel," short for "Angel of Death," due to her uncanny skill with a rifle and dispensing of coyotes and bobcats.  (No sign of wolves: perhaps the predator rumor mill had this particular ranch marked as too dangerous to attempt a meal.)  The running joke was they needed to hire another rider, to follow her around with a shovel and bury the trail of dead predators she left.  "The secret, boys?" she said over post-round beers, "is setting yourself on fire on a routine basis."  They didn't believe her, so she got a mouthful of kerosene and blew fire like a dragon.  It reminded her of her teenage years, when she was one of the guys.  They were duly impressed, even if the "crazy city women" comments kicked back in.  She didn't mind.  Between breathing fire and her preternatural skill with a rifle, she was treated as an equal, which was all she wanted.  She had nothing to prove, except her value on the ranch.

     Another change was in sleeping arrangements.  Despite all attempts at subtlety, the amount of time Chet and Mookie spent under the stars together was not a secret, and Ma finally said, "Why don't the two of you just share Chet's room?  You'll be more comfortable, less sandy, and you won't have to sneak around like teenagers.  So long as you don't howl like cats it's no matter to me, you're both adults."  After overcoming their initial embarrassment, they agreed  it would be both prudent and result in less sand in their clothes.  (The "howling like cats" part did take some adjustment, though.  They were used to being as vocal as they felt.)
     The timing, to be frank, worked quite well.  Mookie would shower and join Chet in bed.  They would have good time to make love, so that Chet would start the day with a smile, and Mookie would go to sleep with a smile.   The only thing they missed was time to hold each other, to stroke and touch.

Glare and Mookie, on one of the rare shots into Salt Lake City and a cyber-cafe, did something which demonstrated trust on both their parts: they exchanged phone numbers, Mookie getting permission beforehand..  The next night while Mookie was riding herd, Glare tried to call her.
     "May I speak with Mookie please?"
     "Be kind of a wait, as she's out riding herd."
     "Um, how long?"
     "'Bout forty-five minutes to locate her, plus forty minutes for her to ride in."
     "What is it she's doing again?"
     "Riding herd.  Keeping the herd gathered in, and shooting predators that try to attack the stock, especially the young stuff and yearlings.  Girl's a hell of a shot, she drops coyotes at seventy-five yards."
     "Umm.... Okay.  Does she always work at this time?"
     "Ooh, lordy!  That girl works as hard as any two men!  She takes care of the laying hens, the yearlings, and the calves, helps with any projects going on, pulls on her leathers, eats dinner, saddles up, checks her ammunition, mounts up, and rides out.."
     "Is it ever possible to get her on the phone?"
     "Maybe 'round two o'clock, our time.  Two to two-thirty."
     "Tell me, does she ever rest?"
     The woman on the other end laughed.  "Lordy!  We're at the end of calving season, so nobody gets much rest.  Cows'll birth at any time of day, and you have to attend to them when they do.  I've seen her elbow-deep, gettin' a calf to come out straight, else they snap a leg.  Tell me, is there a message I can leave?"
     Glare felt like saying, "Better her than me," but settled on, "Tell her The Silo should have a small room open in about five weeks, love, Glare."
     "Open room.... Five weeks.... Claire.  Okay, girl, I'll let her know.  You have a good night now.  From where are you speaking from, girl?"
     "I'm in Berkeley, California."
     "Well, goodnight from Evanston, Wyoming!"
     Glare couldn't wait to learn all about the metropolis that was Evanston.  And how an online friend had become a cattle rancher.  Her online friend had many a story to tell, Glare was sure of that.


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