THE sun was high in the sky by the time all the horses were fed and watered. As soon as the basic chores were done, the hands of the Bar J Ranch gathered in the little cemetery near the main house. Obie stood with the others, hat clutched in his hands, sweat pouring off his head and trickling down his back to soak his shirt. It was hard to pay attention to Percy’s droning words, but he tried, out of respect for the departed.
“Our brother Walter lived a full life,” the old preacher was saying. “He traveled far and wide, visiting many parts of this great country. He had a wife who passed on many years ago, and a daughter, now grown. But I believe that he never truly knew a home nor a family until he came here. He lived out his final years doing work he loved, surrounded by friends, and went to the Lord peacefully in his sleep. And I tell you now, brothers and sisters, we should all pray for such a long life and such a gentle end.” Percy closed his Bible and stepped back. For a moment, they stood quietly. In the north corral, a mare whickered softly to her colt.
Ben stepped forward and crouched, scooping up a handful of dirt. He didn’t linger at the grave, just opened his hand and scattered the soil over the plain, pine coffin before moving on. Obie repeated the action, all the while studying his partner’s familiar squint, the tight line of his jaw. He took his place at Ben’s side, standing close enough that their arms were almost touching. Further comfort would have to wait until they were alone.
One by one, the men filed past, paying their respects to their old friend. When the last man had gone by, Porter and Larry took up spades and started to fill the grave. They all had work that needed doing, but no one left until the last bit of dirt had been tamped into place. Juanita, leading her small daughter Rosie by the hand, laid bunches of wildflowers on the mound.
Just as Obie felt his throat tighten up, Ben jammed his battered, tan hat on his head and sighed. “All right,” he said, scanning their faces before looking out over the ranch. “We all got work to do, best we get to it. Snow’ll divide up Walter’s duties. I know you all will pull your weight and then some.” The men dispersed, most heading to the barn to continue the day’s chores. Percy gave Ben a pat on the shoulder and mounted his plodding, old mare for the ride back to town.
Obie lingered behind, as did Snow. The foreman put his hat on over his prematurely white hair. “I’m gonna pack up old Walter’s things and send them to his daughter in St. Louis.”
Ben put a hand in his pants pocket and withdrew a wad of bills. “Send this along with. He always sent her most of his pay.”
Snow nodded and took the money. “You wanna write a letter?”
Ben winced and glanced over the foreman’s shoulder. “Why don’t you do it, Snow? You know what to say. I ain’t much for words.”
Obie snorted, earning himself a sideways glare. “What? I’m just agreein’ with ya.”
“I think you ought to go see to your work. You agree with that?”
Obie grinned fondly at the man who’d been his boss and his lover for just about a year now. Older than Obie by a good ten years, Ben had a weathered look about him, his green eyes permanently squinted as though he’d spent too long looking into the sun. On the outside he was tough as an old armadillo. Obie figured he was pretty lucky that he got to see the ’dillo’s tender belly. Not to mention the other tender parts. “Yes, boss,” he said, touching the brim of his hat and sketching a little bow. “Right away, boss.”
“Get to work, you lazy smartass,” Ben ordered, but one side of his mouth turned up. Obie was glad to see a break in the sadness the man had been sunk in ever since they’d found Walter in his bunk that morning.
The three men started down the hill to the barn. “You want me to bring down those new mustangs?” Obie asked.
“Not yet,” Ben decided. “We’ll see if there’s time before dinner, but I’m gonna carve a marker for Walter first. Porter, you posin’ for a statue?”
The man in question was standing still, gazing down the road that led up to the spread. He turned his pock-marked face to his boss and jerked his head. “Strangers comin’.”
Sure enough, two men on horseback were riding up the road. “Huh,” Ben murmured as they approached. It wasn’t often they got visitors they didn’t know. Mostly it was neighbors and regular customers who made the trip out to the ranch, but these men didn’t appear to be either. The first was a Negro, tall and thin with a neat beard and moustache, wearing a black hat and a dusty oilskin coat. The other, a white man who looked to be in his late thirties, was handsome and smiling with a mouthful of shiny white teeth. Obie saw that Ben’s attention was entirely focused on their horses and had to beat back a smile.
The new men dismounted. “Lookin’ for the owner,” the Negro said.
“Found him. Ben Johnson,” Ben said, holding out his hand.
The man tugged off his glove and shook Ben’s hand firmly. “Name’s Temper Free,” he said. “Fella at the saloon said you might be hirin’.”
“And I’m James Arcady, from Biloxi, Mississippi.” The white man shook Ben’s hand too, but he was a little too slow letting go for Obie’s taste. And the way his eyes roamed over Ben’s lean body made Obie want to put a fist in his smiley damn teeth. Obie edged a little closer to his lover and tried not to growl.
For his part, Ben didn’t seem to notice the extra attention. He looked over both men and walked past them to their horses, checking their body condition, their tack, their hooves and their teeth. Meantime, Snow introduced himself to the men and asked about their experience.
“I spent a year rounding up mustangs in Nevada,” Arcady said.
“Jack Hatfield’s, up near Lovelock.”
“Good outfit,” Ben grunted, pulling back the lips on Arcady’s bay. “How ’bout you, Mr. Free?”
“Haven’t worked horses,” Free replied. “Worked cattle for a spell. Sheep too.”
“You know there’s a big cattle outfit bordering this spread to the west?”
“Yassir. Like to try something different.”
Finished with his inspection, Ben drew Snow off to the side. Obie smiled tightly at the newcomers while they talked it out. He noticed that Free was looking with interest around the ranch, but Arcady was alternating between watching Ben and meeting Obie’s stare with challenging, teasing blue eyes.
Let him just try, Obie thought. I’ll kick his goddamn head in.
“All right,” Ben said as he and the foreman returned. “Truth is, Walter had a pretty light workload on account of being an old-timer, so his passing hasn’t really left us short. But I been thinkin’ on adding a hand anyway. I’ll give you both a try through the summer, but I can’t make no promises come fall.”
“Fair enough,” Arcady said, still smiling. Free nodded in agreement.
“One other thing.” Ben let his gaze drop to Arcady’s hip, then back up to his face. “Nobody carries guns on this ranch, ’cept for rifles to keep coyotes away. You’ll have to give me that pistol you’re wearin’. I’ll stow it up at the house.”
Arcady’s smile faltered, and for a minute, his pretty blue eyes went flat. His hand went to his gun, and Obie tensed, taking a step forward. Then the smile reappeared. “You’re the boss.” Arcady tugged the pistol smoothly out of its holster and offered it to Ben, butt first. Obie didn’t relax until Ben had taken it without comment.
“This way,” Snow said, heading for the barn. “You can put up your animals and stow your gear, then I’ll show you around the place.”
“Mr. Free,” Ben called as they started to move away. “Walk with me a bit.”
TEMPER fell into step with his new boss, catching Arcady’s suspicious glare out of the corner of his eye. Ain’t that interestin’.
They strolled away from the barn, down a path that cut between two pastures. Johnson didn’t speak until they were well out of earshot of the others. “The Bar J’s a funny place,” he remarked quietly, squinting into the morning sun. “All kinds of fellas end up here. Some runnin’ from the law, some fightin’ the bottle. Some of ’em just lookin’ for a place to fit in.” Johnson chuckled, low and deep. “I heard some folks in town call it the Last Chance Ranch.”
Temper nodded. “Bartender at the saloon said it ain’t for everybody.” Actually, the bartender had been pretty damn mysterious about it. “Let’s just say a fella’s either gotta keep an open mind, or keep his thoughts to hisself. Ben don’t judge nobody by the company they keep, and he won’t keep on those that do.” Temper never could resist a mystery. His mama always said it was a quality that would cause him no amount of trouble, and Lord knew she’d been proven right many times over the years. He figured one more time couldn’t make much difference, one way or the other.
He spit in the dirt and leaned on the fence. “I seen how it is with you and the boy. Ain’t no concern of mine, if that’s what you’re askin’.”
“Wasn’t, but good to know. Didn’t realize it was out there for everybody to see.”
Temper snorted, one side of his mouth turning up in a grin. “He was like to take Arcady’s head off for lookin’ at you too hard.”
Johnson actually colored a bit, scratching awkwardly at his neck. “Yeah, well. Boy’s a little possessive.”
“Love’s like that, I reckon.”
They stood and watched the horses for a spell, until Temper broke the silence. “You wanna ask me somethin’?”
“Yep. I wouldn’t ask in front of the others, but I need to know if you’re runnin’ from anybody.”
Temper felt his gut drop and wondered if his disappointment showed on his face. “You mean is some owner gonna come chasin’ me down.”
“Yeah. That’s what I mean.”
Johnson’s calm voice only made him madder. “Ain’t no man owns me,” he spat. “I was born free.” He pushed off the fence and turned away. “You ain’t the first man don’t wanna hire a nigger. Too much trouble, ain’t we?”
“Mr. Free.” The calm voice stopped him in his tracks. “Every hand on this ranch is trouble of some flavor. I’ve learned to try and suss it out ahead of time, so’s to avoid surprises.” Temper turned and found those hard green eyes squinting at him. “From this point on, you’re under my protection, like every other man here. I just wanna know what to expect.”
Temper’s cheeks burned. He felt a right fool and admitted as much.
Johnson didn’t seem bothered by his fit of temper. “I guess you’ve come to expect it. You don’t know me, got no reason to hope for better. But I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth, Mr. Free. I don’t give a damn what color you are or what you’ve done in your past. Work hard, put the horses first, and keep on Snow’s good side, and you’ll work out fine. And you may want to thicken up that skin o’ yours. The other fellas’ll hack on you something fierce if you go about all tetchy.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’ll go stow my gear.”
“One more thing. That other fella, Arcady. How well you know him?”
“Not at all,” Temper replied. “Just met him at the saloon today. Heard me talking to the bartender about finding work and figured he’d try his luck too.”
Johnson made a “hmph” noise but didn’t ask any more questions. Temper wondered if his boss was getting a funny feeling about the new man. Temper kinda was. He hesitated, but offered, “You want me to keep an eye on him?”
“No. That’s Snow’s job, you just worry about yours. Go on and get settled.”
“Yassir.” Temper touched the brim of his hat and headed to the barn. He’d see that his horse was put up proper before settling himself.
THE bunkhouse was dark and blessedly cool after the swelter of the late morning sun. Temper paused in the doorway and looked around, taking in the bunks lined along the wall, each with a trunk at its foot. There wasn’t a soul in the place except for James Arcady, who looked up from stowing his gear and tossed him a nod. “That one on the end there is empty.”
Temper made his way down the row to the last bunk on the right and dropped his saddlebags on the bed. Days of hard travel caught up with him in a rush. For a long moment he fought the urge to just pull off his boots and stretch out on the clean blankets, but Lord knew if he lay down now, he wasn’t getting up ’til tomorrow morning. And that was no way to start a new job, was it? He pulled his Bible out of a side pocket and then dropped his bags into the footlocker, sending up a cloud of dust as they hit bottom. He paused, cradling the little book in his hands. The durable black cover was worn in spots, and some of the pages were thin and creased from travel and constant handling. Even though it had last touched his mama’s hand almost twenty years ago, he swore it still held her scent—strong lye soap and honeysuckle. He raised the Bible to his lips and kissed it before sliding it under his pillow. When he turned around, Arcady was right there in his face.
“Boss say anything about me?” He was still smiling, but his eyes were hard and searching.
“Just asked how long I knew you.”
“Yeah? What’d you tell him?”
“Truth.” Temper held the man’s gaze until his eyes softened, and he backed away.
“Well, that’s all right, then,” he said. His grin widened, and he gave Temper a friendly slap on his shoulder. “Come on, buddy, let’s get to work!”
Temper followed him out, but not too close. Fella’s just not right.
The white-haired foreman, Snow, was waiting outside along with a huge mountain of a man. “This here’s Lonnie. He’ll show you around and get you started.” Snow nodded to them and went into the bunkhouse, closing the door behind him. The big man, Lonnie, watched him with sad eyes, then gave himself a visible shake and offered his hand to both new men in turn.
“Hey, fellas, welcome aboard. I’m gonna give you a quick tour, then put ya to work. We’re a little behind today on account of Walter’s funeral. Well, you’ve seen the bunkhouse, and this here’s the barn.” Temper thought that was fairly obvious. The biggest building on a horse ranch was bound to be the barn, wasn’t it? Especially given how close it was to the bunkhouse. And especially as how it was a goldarned barn. He followed along inside and kept his thoughts behind his teeth. It seemed wise not to sass a man who was six and half feet tall and as broad in the chest as a rain barrel.
As expected, the barn contained rows of clean stalls, about half of which were empty. Near the front were a tack room and a work area with shelves of bottles and jars. “This here is where Ben works his magic when the horses fetch up sick. We do hooves here sometimes too.” Lonnie gestured to the stalls. “You fellas will probably be on muckin’ duty for awhile. Snow tends to grind the new guys a bit before he lets ’em loose.”
Temper was okay with that. Hard work never killed nobody, and so far as he was concerned, his job was to do whatever the foreman told him to do. Arcady, however, looked like he’d swallowed a bug. “No offense to my pal, here, Lonnie, but I ain’t exactly new at workin’ horseflesh.”
Lonnie had a broad, boyish face that naturally shone out friendship and good cheer, but Temper saw his smile tighten just a bit. “You’re new here, friend. Snow won’t let you near the horses until he sees what you’re made of. Don’t worry,” he assured, leading them back out of the barn, “if you’re as good as you think you are, it won’t take long.” Arcady still didn’t look happy but had the sense to keep his mouth shut.
Back out in the sun, Lonnie shaded his eyes and pointed to various fenced-in areas. “Holding pen. That’s where we put the horses we’re gonna work with for the day, once we drive ’em down. We’re not working any today so far, since the day’s all thrown off. North pasture, south pasture, and that one there is the big pasture. I know, it ought to be called the east pasture, but I didn’t name it, and it’s always been that way. Oh, see that big, black stallion in the south pasture? Keep your distance from that bastard. The only one who rides him is the boss. He’ll kick or bite anybody else that goes near him.”
Temper eyed the huge horse warily and mentally agreed to stay clear. He figured Arcady was probably thinkin’ he’d just jump right on and go for a trot.
“Up there’s the main house. Boss lives there. Obie stays there too, most nights. We all go up for Sunday dinner and special occasions.”
“What’s that small house behind it?” Arcady asked.
“Normally, it’s the foreman’s place,” Lonnie explained. “Only, Snow gave it up and moved into the bunkhouse last summer.”
“So who lives there now?”
The big man looked sheepish. “Well, I do. Since me and Juanita got married. It was sort of a weddin’ present. We were meant to build Snow a new place, but we’re havin’ trouble getting the lumber. Anyways, you’ll meet Juanita soon, when she brings supper on down from the house. She’s a damn fine cook, best fried chicken in the state.”
BY THE time the bell summoned them to dinner, Temper felt he’d gotten a pretty good idea of the lay of the land. It was a nice ranch, though smaller than some he’d worked on, and so far as he could tell, the animals were all top quality. The buildings and fences were in good shape, though he’d seen a few less-than-pretty repairs. Temper chalked them up to Lonnie’s comment about not being able to source the wood and wondered again why that was, what with a mill so close by.
He and Arcady had met a few of the hands, but the rest were only now coming in from the far pastures and lining up at the pump to wash up before supper. Arcady headed for the bunkhouse, set on changing into a clean shirt for some damn fool reason, while Temper took a place at the trundle table set up outside. Lonnie settled in next to him, making the wooden bench groan, and introduced him to each hand as he arrived. “This here’s Porter; he’s a grumpy bastard that don’t talk much.” Temper nodded a greeting to the tall, lean man with the pock-marked face, who returned the gesture. He must have been used to Lonnie’s sass and didn’t pay him any mind.
A young man on the lean side of thirty, his shirt sleeves damp and rolled up to his elbows, sat down across the table. “And that’s Larry,” Lonnie said, “the only one ’round here that talks less than Porter.” The man in question pushed his long brown hair out of his face, revealing a neat beard and moustache. He offered a shy smile. Temper couldn’t help but smile back.
He met them all: Miguel, the young Mexican with the friendly grin and the missing front tooth, the surly Go to Hell Mel, whose catch phrase made an appearance within ten seconds of his arrival at the table, Billy and Dave, Everett and Dexter. All of them had a friendly greeting for the new man and immediately set to horseplay. Temper was already getting a good feeling about this bunch.
And then Arcady sauntered out of the bunkhouse, and Lonnie started his introductions all over again. Temper wasn’t paying him any mind, though. His focus was on the young man sitting across from him, the one called Larry. All the blood had drained from his face, leaving him whiter than tallow. He looked like he might bolt or puke or both, and his wide brown eyes were fixed on James Arcady.