Ranch Romance
Once by Starlight
Tom Sheehan

Ranch Romance

When Britt Sanders saw Lyla Kusch for the first time, at a trail campfire halfway to a sale point for her father’s herd, he thought he’d never seen anyone as lovely as her. That was beside the point that he probably had seen her a hundred times as she was growing up, but she had suddenly become, in leaps and bounds, the whole beautiful woman she had already promised to become. He just could not imagine the change, though her eyes sought his eyes every once in a while. Like a telegram of interest. A wire slung across the open plains. Her arms almost open across the width of Texas itself.

She could talk without moving, without saying a word.

He was sure none of the crew knew what he knew, but evidence of any kind proves a case of curiosity and wonder about first heart-swapping in the middle of a cattle drive. It is inevitable among those wrapped into close quarters, even on the wide plains. If it’s there, love is tell-tale everywhere you look. So, we know Britt was in love with her, though he was not sure about her feelings, her being a very high-spirited young lady, on the move all the time, active in sight from dawn until dusk.

Heroes happen to snag the lovelies; it was always that way, and he was no hero, not with a pistol, a rifle, nor with his fists; he was a plain old cowboy, but Lyla made other observations, measures, interpretations of the smallest act a man can do on the great plains of Texas, room there for anything, any possibility.

She liked the way he cared for his mounts, took care of anybody’s trash, helped other riders, and Cookie, too, whenever he could, not wondering if he was being watched. He was, in the first place, his own man, doing things the way they ought to be done; and those points obviously had mounted in his favor in her eyes.

Lyla did not, could not, display her feelings otherwise, not on a trail run; a bit at a time, but a look, a remark, a smile from out of nowhere in the middle of a dark day from driving the herd, or a side view of herself against some neutral background so Britt could or might spot the difference in the displays, what she was marked against, or how she appeared; there was the mere secret of the move that even teased herself; love, she knew, catered to the lover in most cases.

The day she fell to the ground from a half-way mounted position, he was first to the scene, and it didn’t take him long to determine that someone was bound to hurt or embarrass her; it was easy to see how her saddle had been loosened, but he had not seen any of the other ranch hands near her horse; he was bound to keep his eyes open while he was still in a fit of anger, unable to punch someone in the face, or face the culprit on the spot, teach him a good lesson..

He fully understood that he could not let any of the others know what he was up to. And Cookie was the only one who spoke to him about it. “I saw your move, Britt, saw what you found. Someone’s going to get shot here if I catch him at his tricks, if you want to call them that. I don’t know what you’ll do, but I can imagine it. I think something’s rotten on this drive and right from the start, like some of my goods got mixed together that don’t belong that way. Never did a thing like that even when I get drunk once in a while, nobody looking, no meal on the fire, no mix on the dish, hoping we have enough to feed the boys all the way.”

He paused, added, “Two pair of eyes are better than one pair, and I know I can count on you and you can count on me. What do they say, ‘Something’s wrong in Miserablo?’ Doesn’t the Mex Kid say that all the time?” He seemed intrigued by his own question.

And it was Cookie who said a few days later, “One of our horses has got a shoe missing. I saw the prints this morning when I first started to heat things up. Must have ridden past me but minutes earlier, but I didn’t leap off the wagon to see who it was. Would have given me away, but I’ll catch him yet, if you don’t get there ahead of me. No horse in the remuda should go with a horseshoe missing, and one that Lyla might go for a ride on, if someone’s hoping that will happen, hoping it does for some mean-spirited reason.” His fists were knotted with anger, his chin poised firm as a cliff-side.

Britt went looking for the mount with a missing shoe, a situation any good range man would not let a mount stay in for long. And it would hurt himself before he knew it in some cases; and the present situation said it was going to be hard to explain to the boss rider, let alone himself and Cookie, as he looked for any leads to bigger trouble in the offing.

It was early in the morning of a new day, when he noticed one of the hands poking around inside the tied-up remuda, at no normal purpose. It was Chip Walker, always a sour-faced individual from one end of the day to the other. Britt had noted his disposition on previous occasions and assumed he was born that way, on the open plains, subject to a cursed-on personality from some cursed animal, a kick from a horse, a nudge from a mule, a steady fear of an unknown critter on the loose.

Britt, for the lack of any real evidence, thought he ought to check him out. “What are you doing now, Chip? Shaping up some new accident for someone, like Lyla, perhaps? You got some stupid reason behind some of her incidents, like her saddle coming loose, embarrassing the heck out of her, possibly hurting her?”

Britt discerned some loosening up on Chip’s part, how his day-long scowl was freed for a moment. “Memories get me, Britt. I ain’t a bad guy but old man Kusch let my Pa go when he got too old for the long ride, Pa couldn’t take care of my Mom anymore, so she died right in his arms, like she had starved to death, so skinny and frail had she become, like a rag on a stick. It just about killed Pa and near killed me until I figured I’d get even some way.”

He paused for a moment, and added, “I know how much her Pa shines on her and how much she shines on you. We all see that. Someday you being the boss here and letting me go the way old man Kusch let my Pa go. No righteousness in that, is there?”

He was being kind of apologetic, scoring his own poor soul, his whole history laid

right out in the open, on his face, in the palms of his hands, his voice starting to shake with a long-held weight caught up in his throat.

Britt patted Chip on the back, said, “It’s all between me and you and Cookie, and nobody else will ever know.”

“Cookie knows, too?”

“Yep,” said Britt, “soon as I did. He thought at first that it was the Mex Kid who was fooling around. No more thinking that way, and nobody else ever mentioned it. Not even Lyla herself. Lucky for us. Lucky for you she never caught you, you’d be chasing down your Pa forever.”

In the early morning, that shining star was still there, still in place, for all of them on the trail.