The rider stood in his stirrups to get a better look down into the valley where a ranch spread its arms near as wide as the valley floor, all the while nodding his head at every positive presentation ... house, barns, corrals, two horseshoe pits, a solid thus permanent outdoor fireplace signifying some mostly good times he figured.
It didn't take him long to seek a job at this ranch.
"So you're Nathan Nat Knowles, 22 year old cowpoke looking for another job, 6 years on 6 ranches or drives in your past few years." said the owner, George Bee. "Once I was a marshal but got tired of it and the ugly company I had to keep. Tell me some of those places you worked and why you left them. That's quite a change-over for a young stud. You that restless or looking for something special?" His face flooded with wonder. He looked with an affirmative gaze, and honest satisfaction, at the situation around him, a kind of conscious acceptance of things as they were. His conscious smile was significant, and the knowledge spanned between the two men in quick recognition.
The young cowpoke said, his voice coming back to George Bee without any added inflection, no spice or color in the mix; just plain fact. "With Harland Jackson at the Topeka spread before he moved to his new river place. Still there from what I heard. Then there was Spooky Shadock in Bristletoe, and Mark Waltham at the Circle W. Places like that. New slots of work, no pushing or shoving, just movin' along."
"Satisfies me, son," Bee said, putting out his hand. "You've been on some good spreads, with some mighty good folk. Welcome to another, to Beehive. Foreman's name is Quick 'n' Straight Smith, honest to gawd, way he introduces hisself to any and all. I like and trust him, he's almost old as me and been on some of the same road." He paused and added, "Course, that ain't forever."
It sounded as much a declaration as a warning, which Nat Knowles heard on the early syllables. Straight talk had a way of settling spats to small wars in the making.
As he turned to seek out the foreman for bunkhouse quarters, rules of the ranch, sundry other duties of the job, Bee added, "One other thing I might advise, son. I have a daughter, not yet 18, been her own woman since I lost my wife half a dozen years ago. Name's CarlaBee all together the way she likes it, of her own mind like I said and out of bounds unless she smiles at you." The wink might have been an eye opener, or a gesture with good will hanging on it.
He looked over Nat Knowles one more time and decided out loud, "She might find this interesting." He nodded a few times, the way older men nod with affirmation and not guesswork, and said, "Might she will." His head rolled in a slight indication, as though a determination was en route.
Nat Knowles felt the welcome on the spot, even as he looked about the ranch for a spur of color, for the flash of a yellow or pink shirt, for a horse prettied up beyond the barn, and suddenly understood he was looking for the wrong things the way his new employer had laid them out, plain as a brand worked into place, as good as land or law.
When he passed the side of the ranch house, he caught a glimpse of a pretty face moving away from a window. as though he had already been checked out by a one-way girl at her own leisure. The feeling shone in his face and a sense of guesswork walked with him, the sweet curiosity a sweet woman can raise in so many easy ways without even half trying.
A guess said it wouldn't be too long before they met, figuring curiosity worked both ways between men and women, between young folks full of energy and imagination, the old drawing power between folks that he had heard from old timers up and down the trail, from those who'd been there and back, as it was often summed around a kindly trail fire.
Knowles realized he was a listener from whisper to wail, could tell what people were like from their talk, as well as their silence, was often right on the mark; how would it be with this CarlaBee?
She was beside him in a rush, saying, "I'm going to follow you around. I'll be everywhere you go. Since I was 12 I've been waiting for my man to come along, my best love, my true love, and you are the best one I have seen in almost 6 years, the only one really. I promise you and myself I will be my own woman when I come to 18. My father knows it. All his hired hands know it, every one of them he's hired over the years, including you. There's no mystery to it. I am going to claim you as mine. You will be my first and only lover out there in some secret place we'll come to know every once in a while as 'our place.' I bring that with me though I haven't even found it yet myself. We are going to find it, our place and heaven of celebration, for our first time and for our forever. Your piece of the big pie because someday, like Pa says, this place will be mine and, of course, yours. You can bet on it for that first place whenever it comes up; the first one, the only one, and the sooner you realize it, the sooner it gets done ... once I am 18."
CarlaBee wound herself up, for the first time ever he saw her face flushed with excitement, all phases of it marked with her beauty. "You be ready for me, Nat Knowles; I'll be irresistible, and that's another promise you can dwell on. Think about the way you want me when the time comes."
Her smile, the movements she cast off from her beautiful body almost hidden in colors, the promise loaded into her message, the aura of her selection and presentation, landed atop Nat Knowles like a stick of dynamite had been flung his way like a single target under barrage. Not knowing if it was curse or promise, he was speechless, said nothing in response, but rode off to the balance of his day, his mind loaded with images, with pictures she had created, cast his way, the challenge of a 17 year old owner's daughter soon to be 18, soon to be his.
Cows, horses, riders, the grass itself, faded in and out of his mind, much of that mind occupied otherwise with a host of miracles, coming attractions, events of a lifetime, majesty of thought of a man's thoughts on the very loose, like a whole remuda breaking free of bonding, or a whole vast herd of cattle on the roll. All the possibilities of tomorrow came in a rush, just as if she had spun the whole matter through her mind a hundred times, rehearsed them, corrected them, re-spun them to her ideas of sweet perfection.
He was blushed, overpowered, feeling his visibility and his long secretive self was now exposed, but he was alive, kicking, thinking. "This is a girl, a woman, setting the way, calling the shots at 17, but knowing more than he had ever dreamed about a woman along the long trail, the crowded bars and saloons. Things like this never happen, but I've never met someone like CarlaBee. There's no one in all the west, in all the country, like her and I know she knows that. She made herself that way without a mother for the last 6 years. A challenge she took on herself. Now it's my turn. It's pointed right at me and nobody else. How the hell do I handle this? Will her father fire me? Will he chase me off? Will he send her away? Oh, that's easy ... if he did, she'd come back in a hurry. She's sure gonna do what she promises."
CarlaBee's birthday came along the way, all hands invited, music and gaiety galore, two bonfires lighting up the area, her dancing, in turn, with a dozen hands that wouldn't once have put a hand on her, though they might have dreamed it or thought it. And her father sitting off to one side, thinking again and again how his wife would love this moment as much as he did, and would most likely dread it at the same instant. Some hands stood fully agape, some in line for her minute though generous favors, some glad the moment had come for the future owner of a most prosperous ranch in hundreds of miles.
Then, the gala in full swing, the moon almost filling up the sky, her having danced with every one of the hired hands, young and old who had stood in line it seems (except for one, of course), she sought out Nat Knowles, her hand touching him on the shoulder while he was talking to another hand twice or three times as old as he was, her face lit with realization, charm, pleasure, and a ferocious kind of intensity as though something had come over her from a long wait.
Her father had raised his hand at the hour of midnight, signifying her birthday had come upon all of them, and then CarlaBee had raised her hand, had touched him for the first time, said, "Dance with me," her voice soft, almost diminutive for the first time, and added, "and then we'll take a ride looking for a secret place out there someplace."
Nat Knowles gulped, the gasp caught in his throat, "Yes,'m," he said, conscious of two things, that she was a raving beauty who had come to him, and she was now 18, and her own woman, as she had promised.
:Your horse is ready. So is mine. Quick 'n' Straight took care of it for me. 'Part of a birthday present' as he said. I think he must have been talking to my Pa too. Seems to know more than any of the hands. At least he's aware of a few things that really count with me. They've been tied off at the back of the big barn, waiting all night for us.
In the bright moonlight and the glow of two fires, the young couple walked away from the gathering, CarlaBee casting one long and serious look at her father sitting with Quick 'n' Straight before she put her hand in the hand of her announced one-love-forever.
In the darkness behind the barn, in the company of two saddled horses, CarlaBee kissed Nat Knowles for the first time. He kissed her back, the revolutions and spirits abounding in each of them. When they finally let go of each other, he lifted her onto her saddle with a whisk of energy, and mounted his own horse.
"You're leading the way, Ma'am," he said.
"From now on it's CarlaBee, or 'my love' or 'darlin', or whatever you want to make of it, but often and sooner each time. I am delirious. I am with my one love forever, as promised when I was 17, but now I'm 18, my own woman, and your own woman. I have no regrets for my waiting, for what I might have put my father through, him without his wife, my mother, all these years of waiting. I am deliciously happy. Now let's go find a happy place for our first celebration."
She led the way out of the barn's darkness into the moonlight of the night, the wide grass drifting off to wherever out in front of them, rolling the way a river does its work, slow at times but full of promise, happy times, wonders by the wagonloads or boatloads, but it was obvious to Nat Knowles that CarlaBee knew exactly where she was going.
Her mount reacted to the spurs as she galloped across the moonlit prairie.