Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fire Girl (Part 9)

     "Pump the pedal a few times, then crank her."
     "What about using some white gas as starter fluid."
     "Just some regular gas in the carb, if it needs it."
     "The timing's gonna be off by a year."
     "Accounted for.  We just want it to turn over and hold any kind of idle."
     "What are you doing?"
     "Is there a god of British cars?"
     A pointed look.. "There is only one God, and He is almighty, Roger."
     "I do know that.  Bad joke.  I apologize."

     The ignition was keyed, and four seconds of cranking resulted in a choppy idle.... Which smoothed out into an even purr over the course of ten seconds, and remained that way.  It responded to throttle input evenly and quickly.  Mookie put it into gear and putted down the long drive, purposely bringing it to a quick stop at the bottom: no bleeding of the brakes was needed.  The Midget zipped into traffic, matching speed quickly.  Not doing things by halves, she merged onto the freeway and opened it up, working through the gears until she was holding 85 mph, with room still to move.  She came back on the frontage road and up the drive, pulling in front of the workshop, shutting down in front of the double doors.  She got out as though she'd been driving it for years.... Then burst into tears, ran over to Pappy, and hugged him as hard as she dared.  First Roger, then Slim, then Chet, and everyone else burst into applause.  MGs were temperamental, fussy, difficult, somewhat unreliable, and just plain bitchy automobiles to own and drive.  And also fun, addictive, challenging and a thrill (in a good way) to spend time behind the wheel of.
     "Hey Angel!" called Slim.  "Whatcha need is onna them World War One leather flying helmets, with the goggles on the front!"
     "I like it, Slim.  I'll keep my eyes peeled for a pair.  I'll travel in style!"
     Mookie walked over to Ma and spoke, somewhat pleadingly, into her ear.  Ma stared into the distance briefly, then said, "What the hell, why not.  The old so-and-so can't even drive it himself, what can it hurt?"
     And moments later Pappy found himself being lifted out of his wheelchair by Slim and placed in the passenger seat of the Midget.  Before they took off on their joyride, Pappy, tears in his eyes,  turned to Mookie and said, "Thank you."
      "Thank you, Pappy.  You, your wife, and the Lord."

      Nine days later the dairy barn was completed: stanchions installed, water line for cleaning the floor, doors for entry and egress of cows, and low-temperature cooler for storing milk cans.  Along with everyone else, Mookie got to experience one of the true joys of life: ice-cold milk, fresh from the source, six hours out of the cow.

     Two days previous a rather interesting conversation happened in the late afternoon.  Mookie had pulled her eggs, fed and nursed the calves, cleaned the stalls, and her and Ma had milked the three dairy cows.  Milk and fresh butter was being distributed to all neighbors within fifteen miles.... Invariably by Mookie, under the guise of "adjusting to" the MG.  Ma was looking to buy an ice cream maker of a commercial size, something the whole ranch was looking forward to seeing put into use.
     And the father of James, Jeff, and Mark came to have a talk.
     Mookie was pulling on her leathers and saddling her horse when a familiar truck pulled in.  Given the mood when they'd left,  Mookie decided to forgo her whip and got her rifle hanging on her shoulder instead.  Thought I'd go my whole life without shooting another human, thought Mookie.  Lord forgive me.
     Closer inspection revealed the rather abused-looking Dodge Ram 2500 contained one person, the driver.  He hefted himself out --- his build suggesting a long-term taste for the hops --- his hands held apart from his body, indicating he was unarmed.  His dress was more suitable for golf than any form of ranching; Mookie couldn't help but be confused.
     "Help you?" called Mookie.
     The man laughed and said, "You must be the girl caused all the trouble for my boys.  Yeah, there's the whip."
     "I've added a rifle to my outfit, too.  You gotta be closer for the whip, but I can show you my skills with either one, if you'd like."
     Chet came out from the back of the workshop.  "Hello, Vernon.  What can I help you with?"  It wasn't Chet's friendliest tone.
     "Well Chet, I was wondering about my boys coming back to work for you.  I think they've learned their lesson."
     Chet bristled and said, "Well, that's real damn special they've learned their lesson.  They still are forbidden from being anywhere on my spread --- that's by court order --- and if I find them here I'll hold them at gunpoint while Mookie flays the skin off their backs.  I'm full up with good men, I'm not hiring, and I don't need any kids that try to pick fights with women.... and lose at them, too.  Between Mookie, Slim McCall, and three other riders, I've got a full set of professionals."
     "So the lady here is a cowgirl, is she?" laughed Vernon.  "She knit cozies for the calves while riding herd?"
     "Can I use my whip now, Chet?"
     "He's not wearing a hat."
     "I know.  That's the point."
     "Why don't you get in the saddle and show him how a true rifleman shoots."
     "Five of five, fifty yards?"
     "Sounds good."
     Chet retrieved a hubcap from the workshop while Mookie mounted up.  In lieu of a standard western hat, she wore an Oakland Raiders cap turned backwards, urban style.  She paced the horse while Chet walked out to position the hubcap so it wouldn't fall when hit.  When Chet returned, she walked the horse to a clear  position, stood up in the stirrups, and let five slugs go.  The clang of each one  hitting the hubcap was audible.
      Chet advised Vernon, "Why don't you go check that hubcap?"  Vernon puffed over to retrieve it, with a look of surprise when he picked it up.  He walked back with it in his hands like a serving tray.
     "Everyone talks about us having that crazy city woman riding for us.  We haven't lost a head since she jumped in the saddle.  If those were coyotes, she'd have saved us over ten thousand dollars in beef cattle when full grown.  Five shots, ten grand.  Better'n your boys ever did for me.  I'll take five crazy city women over a hundred schoolyard bully brats like your boys any day.  She can untie your shoelaces with her whip and part your hair with her rifle, if you'd like.  Care for a demonstration?
     "Now, when your boys can shoot like that, and do the work they're told, and have some manners, and I've got space, I'll think about putting one of them on.  Not all three.  One.  And I will not be holding my breath."

     A thundering noise began rising.... Low at first, then increasing like an earthquake.  It took Mookie a few seconds to identify, then she realized it was the sound of a Percheron at full gallop headed straight at them.  Slim put on the brakes so that he slid to a halt next to Mookie and dismounted.
     "Angel, hold my reins for me a minute, would ya, darlin'?" Slim asked, the model of good manners.  He then strode up to Vernon and hollered, "Where the hell's my damn money, Vernon?"
     Vernon chugged around to the driver's side of his Dodge....  And came up short, literally.  A dwarvish, musclebound cowboy, built close to the turf, was leaning against the door, with a smile on his face.
     "Outta my way, pipsqueak," bleated Vernon.
     Carl tsk-tsk'ed at Vernon, then grabbed him by the collar and the belt, swung him up, and carried him over his head towards the small gathering, calling, "Slim!  Were you looking for this for some reason?"  Then he dumped him on the ground
     Booker squatted down in front of Vernon, squinted briefly, then smiled.  "Why Vernon!  I believe you still owe me about ten weeks pay.  That Is why you're here, correct?  To pay me the money you owe me?"
     Vernon squatted in the dirt, slack-jawed.
     "Well, no matter  I know how to get my money out of you.  I'll just marry one of your daughters.  Wouldn't you just love to see me every Sunday dinner?"  (Booker was never pleased with being addressed as "that colored boy" while working for Vernon.)
     Vernon was well cornered, with no allies at any side.  Slim walked up and lifted Vernon out of the dirt.  Vernon said, "S-Slim!  Why we were just discussing you!  Congratulations on your position here with Chet, and---- "
     "Two months worth of checks, Vernon.  I nearly lost my truck.  And you, boy, you're gonna lose a lot more.  I oughta use Angel's whip and flay you across the hood of your own truck, but that won't get me my money.
     "What's gonna happen is within the next seven days all that back pay is showing up in my post office box.  No excuses, no sob stories, no delays.  If it don't, I'm goin' to work. I'm rounding up every hand that you stiffed on wages, we're gettin' together, and we're suing you as one big group.  Aw hell, what's it called...."
     "A class action suit," said Mookie.
     "Yeah, that.  No beatings, no torching your outbuildings, nothing like that: we're just gonna take everything you have.  Totally legally.
     "Your choice, Vernon.  My pay, or your ranch. It's your call."
     Vernon, looking  green, nodded and said, "You'll get your pay, Slim.  I apologize for the delay in how long it took to catch up on my bookkeeping."
     A massive paw dropped on Vernon's shoulder.  "There, that wasn't so hard, was it?"  Slim relieved Mookie of the Percheron's reins with a tip of the hat and a "Thank you, ma'am" and rode back where he'd come from.
     In a gesture of a man who will never learn, Vernon walked up to Chet and said, "Chet, buddy, any chance you'd be able to load me three thousand dollars?"

     The profanity in response was long, loud, and almost poetic.  It was punctuated at the end by Chet grabbing Mookie's whip from her belt, uncoiling it, and walking toward Vernon with steely purpose in his eyes.  Vernon, as big of a fool as he was, was still able to grasp the obvious and ran for his truck, the whip cracking behind him.

     [As a postscript, Vernon was unable to pay any of his former hands and riders, and lost his ranch.  While the concept of "collective ownership" was a vague one to the parties involved, the ranch became the property of twelve former employees, who began operating it in a correct manner, building a bunkhouse and increasing the size from 600 rather stringy -looking cattle to 1000 healthy beef cattle, and looking to expand.
     Vernon moved to Salt Lake City and became a caddy-master at a golf course.  His boys moved to Montana, where they landed jobs on one of the mega-ranches, and where it would take a bit  longer for their screw-ups to be noticed.  They would be noticed, it would just take some time.]

     And two days later a 1996 Ford F-150 and a 1966 MG Midget departed the ranch, destined for Berkeley.  Before they left, Chet handed Mookie something.  Closer inspection revealed it to be a sizable wad of bills, which Chet assured her was $1300: wages, plus "bounty" on the predators she'd brought down.
     "My God.... Chet.... I can't take this, you and your family fed me, sheltered me, clothed me, I can't just---- "
     "You can, and you will.  Within a half hour of settin' foot on this ranch, you began working.  Sure, simple enough tasks at first, but you progressed into a skilled horseman and literally the best shot I've ever witnessed.  You see in the dark and have the aim of a sniper.  Too bad you can't incorporate rifle work into your routine, but I think the police would object,"
Mid-size Percheron, handler included to indicate scale.
Yes, Percherons do grow larger, depending on breeding.
     "Heeeyyy!" bellowed a voice from across the yard.  It came from where Slim had been inspecting the hooves and shoes of one of his Percheron horses.  Slim trotted over to put his two cents in.  "You can't just leave, Angel!  The hell will I find three riflemen to take your spot?  'Cos that's what it would take --- three men with rifles to replace one of you out there.... Plus the guys with the shovels to bury everything you dropped, haw haw!"
     "Remember, the trick is to keep your knees bent while your're standing in the saddle, and let the recoil bring you back into the saddle while still holding a bead.  If you need to fire again, just stand up and repeat the process.  It sounds funny, but letting the recoil take you backwards  makes it easier to stand and fire again than trying to stay upright  the whole time. Of course, not missing to begin with helps too...."
     This was a bit of a jab at Slim, who would be the first to admit to being mediocre, at best, with a rifle.  Mookie constantly encouraged him into riding up a finger canyon with some cans and old plates and work on his marksmanship, but he seemed to have written himself off as a rifleman.
     "Aw hell Angel, c'mere!" said Slim, and did what few men were capable of: picking up Mookie in a bear hug and swinging her around.
     The rest of the family came to give Mookie a hug goodbye; Ma and Pappy reminded her that so long as there was a standing structure on the ranch, she would always have a home to go to.  Mookie hugged them both.  You are the two most giving, loving, generous, wonderful people I've ever met.  You took in a punk rock girl from Atlanta and fed and housed her, and taught her how to work.  I can't thank you enough."
     "Brianna.... Two more years and you'll be in college..  In the meantime, I'm gonna send my phone number on, and if you need to talk about anything, you call me.  Don't hold it inside, girl.  You need to vent, I'm here."
     "Roger.... We've had our bit of differences, but I've grown to love you."
     "Hard to not love someone who saves your life," said Roger, tearing up.
     She gave hugs to Carl and Booker, and another to Slim.

     "A prayer before we leave?"

     It was a simple one:

Dear Lord,
Safe Travels.

     Mookie got in her MG, Chet got in his Ford, and they headed for the freeway.

     And for reference sake, by the time Mookie had reached the Nevada state line, she had named the MG "Ursula."  (You can't just rush into these things, you know.)

     "You know what I'm gonna ask," said Chet over dinner, somewhere in Nevada.
     "I do.  Will you feel better if I told you I've made a decision you may like?"
     "Tell me!"
     "You have a rider and rifleman during calving season.  I can do the most good then; I can free up the other hands to calve and I can eliminate predators."
     "That's as much as I can hope for, isn't it?"
     "As a promise, yes," said Mookie.  "It'll be hard enough finding a job that lets me take off for six or so weeks so I can eliminate bobcats and coyotes.  Oh! for crap's sake, get Slim working out with a rifle, he's convinced he's hopeless and he just needs some practice.  Whoever nurses calves, make sure they keep the nipple out of their teeth, so they aren't biting off the ends and choking.  Did you call the vet about that palamino?  It shouldn't be getting winded the way it does.  And the dairy cows?  The damn fools keep knocking dirt into their water pans, so someone needs---- "
     "You sound like a cattle rancher."
     "I might be.  Time will tell."
     "Don't make me wait too long, Mookie.  We're just starting this two weeks and I miss you already.  I love you."
     "I love you too.  And I have to see this through.  I can't give you answers I don't have.  But know that I do love you, and I'm not gonna disappear from your life.  No matter what, I'm a day's drive from you."
     "Mookie, let's spend the night here."
     "Why here?"
     "Maybe they'll let us pour sand in the bed."
     "We'll make love on the beach in San Francisco."

     They went into the casino for a while.  Chet had a net loss of $80 playing the slots, while Mookie came out $2400 ahead on blackjack.  Shot down twenties and twenty-ones like they were coyotes.

     It's all in the timing.

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