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Saturday, October 1, 2016

THE MAN THIEF

A just for fun fiction with a little Psalms 119 thrown in.




She doesn't know what she's doing it's plain.
Just standing there looking pretty, she's not to blame.
Young men's eyes are drawn in un-innocent ways
She's stealing their glances, eyes that graze.

Girls don't like her, it is plain to see.
Their jealousy rages needlessly.
 A green-eyed monster grew from them,
and envy turned ugly, dances with him.

She's a man-thief, or so they say.
She's going to take their boyfriends away.
Just look at her collect every man's attention.
Even if it's not at all her intention.

Is it her eyes deep dark chocolate brown,
or lips that nervously smile instead of frown?
Is it her glossy long locks of hair?
They say, she's so pretty it isn't fair.

She's a man-thief, or so they say.
She's going to take their boyfriends away.
She doesn't know what she's doing it's plain.
Just standing there looking pretty, she's not to blame.

  

Elise stood hesitantly in the back of church wondering which pews were taken.  It was a shame her uncle was not a church-goer.  She was sure wishing he had come with her.  No one greeted her or invited her to sit with them.  She received just stares.  So she waited until others sat down, and then slipped in three pews from the back on the right along the aisle hoping she was not infringing upon someone else's territory.  However, her neck prickled knowing eyes were upon her.  Some even looked back with malevolent stares.  She did not know what about her presence they found so distasteful.  Elise wore a gown, not too fancy, not too plain, or so she thought.  Glancing about her now, she saw that her dress was indeed by far the finest, even though that was not her intention.  Back home, this would have been what any of the others would have worn to the House of the Lord on a Sabbath.  Oh well.  Next time, she'd blend in better she hoped.  She couldn't afford to make enemies.  Her welcome was tenuous at best.


Unfortunately, she had sat in the wrong place.  Elise could feel his glare before looking up.  Her eyes fell to look at a pair of boots planted in the aisle before her eye traveled up to see his black felt cowboy hat clutched to his chest.  Without a glance, she knew he was unsmiling.   Was she supposed to allow him to climb across her or should she scoot over by the older gent further down the pew?  Elise chose to swivel her knees so that the man could step over her.   However, he accidently stomped on her toe with the heel of his boot, then tripped trying to get off and practically stumbled into her lap.  In all of her days, nothing came close to the embarrassment she felt as all two hundred plus pounds of cowboy fell thudding in beside her too closely.  Perhaps it was the "Ouch!" that gushed out of her unintentionally that also caused her heated face.

"Sorry, ma'am," the man whispered.   "I hope I didn't hurt you none."  He may have said "sorry," but he did not look it with the way he glowered as if it had been her fault.

"I'm fine," she lied.  Her toe might never be the same the way it was throbbing.  She blinked back tears.  It couldn't hurt worse than if a horse had stepped on her.  Make that a bull.  A big black snorting bull like the kind her uncle had in a corral, the kind sitting next to her.

Having lost her home after her parents perished with the yellow fever, Elise had been set adrift.  She stayed with her brother and his family for awhile, but it was evident that she had to leave.  It was a small house, and his wife who was in the family way again made no bones about it being too cramped.  So after sending a letter ahead and not waiting for a reply, she decided to go find her father's brother out west in Colorado.  She journeyed by blind faith grasping for hope in the form of a train ticket west.  Last they knew, her uncle had a ranch in the Gunnison Valley.  She assumed ranchers did not move often and that he would be there at that same address.  He was.  However, the letter had never arrived, so he was utterly surprised and unprepared to greet her. 

Now, Elise was trying to make her way in a foreign place though it did not seem as if she would ever belong.  She clung to a portion of Scripture God had comforted her heart with in Psalm 119.  The verses 49-55 became her prayer, "Remember the word unto Thy servant upon which Thou hast caused me to hope.  This is my comfort in my affliction: for Thy word quickened me."  This was how she moved forward in spite of her grief when she felt God leading her to move to the great unknown. 

After Sunday, she now understood the next verse, "The proud have had me greatly in derision: yet I have not declined from Thy law.  I remembered Thy judgments of old, O Lord, and have comforted myself...Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.  I have remembered Thy name, O Lord in the night, and have kept Thy law."   In spite of the rejection, the derision she'd felt in church on Sunday, not to mention the cruel note left for her in the wagon, "Go home, you don't belong here," she only felt "horror," sorrow for them as spoken of in verse 53.  She read these verses every night before going to sleep as a blanket to her soul.

Elise's pilgrimage had indeed lead her to her Uncle Gil's home, a simple log cabin.  At least he had a bedroom for her once he moved a pile of furs and boxes of horse liniment and other livestock medicines out of her quarters.  He had a Spanish woman who did his cooking and cleaning for him, the wife of one of his cowboys.  She also was unwelcoming as if Elise was trying to rip her apron off of her and take over.  Elise knew how to make a few things, but not well.  They too had a cook and other house servants before the fever turned her world upside down.  The last thing she wanted was to replace her uncle's help.  Besides, the woman was too good, as her introduction to Mexican food proved.

"So, he died, did he?  The fever you say?  That's a shame.  And your mother too?  Such a good woman.  It's hard to believe they're both gone.   But I must say that I find it hard to swallow that his affairs were in such disarray that you had to leave your home so suddenly.  I'm sure you would have been much more comfortable there than coming all this way out west to live with your bachelor uncle." It was all her uncle had said making it sound like perhaps she should have stayed and not bothered him.

"His partner claimed to have the controlling interest in their business.  At least my brother was able to retain his modest home and still have a job.  We had always assumed he would take our father's place, but evidently our father had never put it down on paper," she explained.  "My brother is hoping to retain a lawyer to look into it, however."  It still made a lump in her throat to talk about it.

"Too bad," Uncle Gil said shaking his head.  "Your father was a good man.  Always was a better man than me.  I can't imagine him not thinking ahead to protect his children.  But I'm sure he never thought he'd be snatched away so quickly by the yellow fever either."

"It looks as if you've done alright for yourself, Uncle Gil.  You have a lovely ranch here," she stumbled with her words.  Lovely wasn't exactly a fitting description of his place.

"Don't know about the lovely part, but I'm a respected rancher hereabouts.  I can't imagine that it's very comfortable for the likes of you though.  You're more refined than probably any gal around here except maybe Marybelle.  She's the mayor's wife from Boston.  She'd keep up her end of the conversation if you were to meet up with her.  Me?  I'd ride ten miles out of the way to keep from talking to the woman."

"Why is that, Uncle Gil?" she couldn't help but ask.

"Cause she loses me in the first two minute when she latches on to me with her jawing.  I learned to just nod my head no matter what she says 'cause I couldn't win an argument with that woman if I tried.  If I said that skunks all have stripes, she'd try to argue."

"Well, there is such a thing as spotted skunks, Uncle," she grinned.

"See?  See what I mean?  You two are a pair.  Not many around here can hold their own with the kind of gal you are, so I doubt you'll get too many friends.  People will think you are uppity even if you're not.  Besides, you're too pretty.  The other females will be green with envy and meaner than a pile of rattlesnakes most likely.  I hope I'm wrong, but just be prepared, darling," he warned.

"Oh, goodness, I hope you're wrong, but I'm afraid I did get the cold shoulder in church on Sunday."  She had told no one of the note she'd found.  "Not many were willing to greet me.  At least the parson and his wife made me feel welcome. There was a Willa Smith too.  She also was friendly, especially when she overheard me say that I was your niece.  She said that you were long-time friends and I was to tell you hello for her.  I took an instant liking to her."

"Yes'um.  She's one right fine woman.  She was married to my best friend.  He died in a stampede a few years back.  I sure miss him," her uncle mused.

"Do you know a man named Cotton?  He said that he'd be riding over to talk with you soon.  He seemed to be an unpleasant sort."

"Who, Cotton?  Why I thought all the ladies swooned around that young buck.  He's welcome here any time.  His pa and me were pretty close when he was alive.  I've tried to take him under my wing and help him out every chance I get as a good neighbor should.  Our property is adjacent to each other in fact."

"Well, he certainly scowled at me.  In fact he stepped on my toes, literally."

Her uncle threw back his head and laughed.  "So that's why you're limping," he said.  "I'm not laughing at your injury, jest at that galoot hoofing it on you.  I think he's scowling 'cause he's never seen someone like you, probably thinks you're a duck out of water."

"Well, that's certainly unfair.  I don't think it speaks much of one's character to be so judgmental.  He doesn't even know me.  He practically tried to argue me out of truly being from the Rocking G Ranch. Mr. Cotton was downright rude to me.  He thought I was trying to pull the wool over his eyes."

That sent her uncle into another spasm of laughter.  "I bet he did.  I don't guess he'd think I'd have such a pretty thing like you related to me.  Other than Margarita, we haven't had another female on the place.  Ever.   That explains some of my shock when you rode up in your rented buggy.  That was the first buggy to ever grace our ranch too.  And then you climbed out.  I thought I was seeing things and my cowpokes all stopped what they were doing too.  Joe even got bucked off the bronco he was breaking as soon as he saw you.  I've told them all they are never to talk to you or come near you, that you are a lady and too good for them."

"Oh, Uncle.  Was that really necessary?"

"You bet.  If I didn't lay down the law, work would never get done 'cause they'd be mooning around you like moths to a candle."

"And here I was beginning to think there weren't more than a couple of friendly people in the whole territory.  At least that explains why the hands have been so stand-offish.  But I hope you are wrong with what you said about other women shunning me." Elise chewed on her lip.

"I hope I'm wrong too, darling.  I just have been witness to human nature for a lot of years.  Sometimes a fella can get jaded.  It's hard for me to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.  It's too bad there aren't more Miss Willa's in this world. Maybe she'll pave the way so you can meet some ladies on more pleasant terms."

"Perhaps we could invite her out here for supper one night," Elise suggested.

Her uncle went into a coughing fit like he choked on his own spit.  She patted him hard on the back until he could speak again.  "I think it would be a much better plan if I was to take you to her place one day next week when I will be going to town to get supplies.  How's that sound?"

"I would enjoy that.  In fact, I wish you would go to church with me, Uncle Gil.  I'm just not comfortable taking that big ol' wagon all by myself.  That is something I've never done before.  See?"  She held up her hands to show him her blisters from the reigns.

"Well, I'll be a hound dog...I never thought of how soft your hands were and unused to such a common things as driving a wagon.  Maybe I could go with you, at least until you've earned your callouses."


"Thank you," she beamed.  Now she could look forward to Sunday with eagerness instead of dread.  One thing's for certain, she'd never sit in the third row from the back on the right side again if it was that cowboy's place.

She was working in the garden that Margarita had planted.  It was hot.  She was sweating.  She had dirt everywhere from the crown of her head down between her bare toes.  Every time she'd yank up a weed, it'd shower dirt down on her again. Elise was on her haunches and was wiping her forehead with her sleeve when someone on a horse rode up.  She didn't turn around because the ranch hands had been warned not to talk to her.  However, she soon saw a familiar pair of boots when a man walked up next to her.  This time the black hat shadowed his eyes while hers had to be shaded with her hand to block the bright sunshine as she looked up.



"Hello, Mr. Cotton." She went back to weeding.  "My Uncle Gil isn't here in the garden as you can plainly see."  She pointed toward the barn.  "Look over there." She kept her face down so he wouldn't see how upset she was for him to find her like this.  How dare he as a gentleman purposefully walk over to take pleasure in catching her so filthy.   He didn't need her to find her uncle.  He just wanted to see the unseemly way she was covered with dirt with a beet red face both from the heat and her embarrassment. 

"You surprise me Miss Waters.  I didn't know gardening was your passion."

She ignored him knowing he was just baiting her.  He didn't deserve a response.  Now she was even angrier.

"I'd hate to see you get heat stroke though," he went on.  "Most gentle folks know to go inside at this hour of the day.  This part of Colorado is at a little higher elevation than most other places back East and as such, is closer to the sun.  Take care."  With that he walked away while she attacked another whole row of weeds with fury.  She had indeed planned to quit right about the time he rode up.  Elise was not stupid.  She could feel the warning headache coming on from too much sun.  When  she finally stood up, she wobbled and made it only to the porch steps before she collapsed putting her head down in her hands.  She just needed a moment.  Margarita ran out 
speaking Spanish.  The woman knew how to use English, but seldom did around Elise.

Elise wanted to get up and go inside, but was seeing spots before her eyes.  Maybe in a moment.  She thought she heard Margarita calling from a distance, "Mr. Gill, Mr. Gill," but that was her last thought before she sprawled out.

Margarita was clucking worse than a hen who was forced off her nest when Elise opened her eyes.  Her head was pounding.

"Is she sweating?  It's not good if she's not sweating," some man was saying.

"Think it's heat stroke then and not just altitude sickness?"  She recognized her uncle's voice.

"Maybe both."  That was Margarita.

She wanted to argue, but didn't have the strength.  It had all drained out of her.  She was even too tired to see who was speaking, but she knew it wasn't her uncle.  She forced her eyes open only to see blue eyes bent over staring her in her face.  They both were startled.   He stood up and took a step back so fast that he almost knocked her uncle over.  It had been that cowboy's hand which she had felt on her forehead. 

"Please leave," she managed to say mortified.

Her uncle cleared his throat and then said, "Well, I think Margarita has it well in hand now, Cotton, but thanks for carrying her in for us.  I'll keep checking on her.  Margarita, I will pump you a couple more buckets of water to cool her down with.  Just keep her drinking too."

Then the door mercifully closed. 

The woman spoke in her lilting tongue softly.  It was soothing.  Elise was almost glad she didn't know what she was saying, but the tone was comforting.  It felt good to have her face bathed.
Suddenly she had to retch though nothing was on her stomach to lose.  Margarita held back her hair while holding the bucket before gently laying her back against the feather pillow.

"Too much sun, pequeno.  I should have been watching over you better.  You don't need to work so hard to prove anything to Mr. Gil.  He so very happy you are here."

Elise was too tired to talk.  Her head was pounding and she just wanted to sleep.  It was dark when she next woke up.  Margarita was not there.  She was really thirsty.  Elise reached for a glass of water, but her grip was so weak she dropped it.  She fell back thankful that it landed on the rug and did not break.  Elise left it there.  It was too much to bend over to pick it up.  Her door opened and the light that flooded in caused an onslaught of pain. 

"Please close the door.  I need it dark."

"Sure, sugar."  He closed it, but opened the curtain to let the gentle moonlight stream in.  Her uncle bent over and picked up the glass that had fallen.  "You had me worried there for a moment when you blacked out, darling.  Then you got delirious.  Once you get sun stroke, it can make it to where you can't take the heat nearly as well from then on out.  It's something you are going to need to be careful of.  It can kill a body the same as a snakebite or a gunshot, or a  stampede.  You have to respect all the dangers around here.  Your daddy would skin me alive if I let something like that happen."

The mention of her daddy made a single tear escape from her closed eyes.  Her uncle's rough calloused finger wiped it away.

"There, there.  You're going to be just fine Margarita says, but you need peace and quiet for a few days to build up your strength, and you definitely need to stay out of the sun."

She felt weak as a kitten.   Never in her life had she felt so limp and devoid of strength.

He propped her up and helped her drink a fresh glass of water.

"Thank you, uncle."  Then she turned her face away and slipped back into sleep.  The pounding in her head was still there, just was a hammer now instead of a sledgehammer. 

When Margarita came in the morning, she begged, "Please close the curtains.  It's so bright, it hurts my eyes."

Margarita did so without complaining.  I brought you just a little bit of cream of wheat with butter, brown sugar and cream."  The woman helped her to sit up.  Elise took two bites before her hand felt too heavy to lift the spoon back up to her mouth.  So the woman fed her.  It was humiliating.  She managed to eat about a fourth of the bowl  before giving up.  She was overwhelmingly sleepy.

"Sorry to be so much trouble, Margarita.  Don't worry about me.  I'll just sleep for awhile.  I know you have too much to do without having to take care of me."

"Horse feathers.  This ranch needed a young senorita around here to brighten up the place.  We just want you to get strong again, and you will.  He'll have you out riding horses before you know it."



"I'd like that, but I don't know how I'll do it in a skirt with no sidesaddle."

"I will make you a split skirt.  That's what ladies wear around here."  When she saw Elise's wide eyes, she laughed.  "You will like, you'll see."

Later that day she heard Mr. Cotton in the kitchen.  The words were too soft to hear, but his voice rolled like distant thunder.

Her uncle came in that evening.  "You look like you are feeling better, sugar, but still have the stuffings knocked out of you.  I think you should wait one more day before you try to get up.  After that, too much lying around will just make you weaker.  But I told Margarita to only let you sit in the kitchen on the morrow until you are stronger."

She appreciated his concern, and wished he was wrong, but she was in no shape to try to prove a point that she was ready to get back up on her feet again.  Instead she just said, "It makes me feel silly to cause this bother.  I'm sorry."

"You just plumb wore yourself out in the hot sun, darling.  There's no need for that.  Margarita has always managed to keep her garden and the house and cook the meals and do the laundry..."

"That's just it, Uncle Gil.  I feel useless as a Shetland pony on a cattle ranch."  She wouldn't cry.  That would be more of a show of weakness, so she just chewed her lip.

"Well, I have been giving it some thought.  I'll have to admit wondering how you would be at helping with my books.  If you're any good at math at all, I'm sure you are better than me. These old eyes are having a hard time focusing on the figures even with a pair of glasses.  Then I was pondering how you were at sewing, if you could maybe sew me up a new shirt now and then.  It also came to mind how nice it would be to sit in my chair come evenings and listen to you read me one of those novels you have.  Sometimes I jest get a hankering for a story, but my eye sight's not what it used to be.

"Oh, Uncle Gil, I would love to do all those things," she said with a timid smile.  "It would feel so good to belong.  You don't know how much it means that you've opened your home to me.  It takes my breath away sometimes though hearing you and thinking it's my daddy's voice.  If I can't have my daddy, at least I can have his favorite brother."

Uncle Gil got out his red handkerchief and wiped his eyes then blew his nose.  "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that Cotton has come by to check on you.  Several times.  He was real concerned."

"I'm embarrassed.  He must really think I'm unfit on the ranch."

"Nah, he just was worried about you.  He normally keeps his distance from any females, so it's quite the honor he's even noticed you at all, and believe you me, he's noticed," her uncle cackled.

"Well, I'll feel better the less I see of him," she mumbled.

Her uncle didn't hear her as he rose from the straight back chair and said, "It's time I get back to work.  Mind Margarita, you hear?"  He shook his finger at her and tried to scowl, but it just turned into a silly grin.  "I'm just glad to see you coming back around, darling.  Don't overdo it."

"Yes, sir."  It was time for another nap anyway. 

When she woke up, she was able to feed herself the chicken soup Margarita made.  "This is so good, Margarita.  Uncle is lucky to have you."

"Mr. Waters has been good to me and my Manuel.  We had fallen on hard times when he hired us on even though Manuel was recovering from a broken leg at the time.  Mr. Gil had him mending harness and such until his leg was healed.  He is a good man, your uncle." 

"I don't know what I would have done if he did not let me come live with him.  I didn't have enough money for a return ticket on the train."

Margarita laughed.  "I don't think I've ever seen him so turned inside out as when you arrived.  The man didn't know what to do with himself worse than a cowboy who didn't know which  end of a branding iron to put in the fire."

Mr. Cotton didn't come until the next day when she was sitting in the kitchen watching Margarita make tortillas.  He swept his hat off his head leaving his hair trying to decide which way to lie down.  Hers was probably worse, and she nervously fingered her braid which was down with all its mused hair from laying in bed so long. 

"I'm going to the spring house to get a round of cheese," the housekeeper announced.  "There's cookies in the crock, Mr. Cotton.  Help yourself."  With that Margarita disappeared.

The man nodded without looking at Margarita peering at Elise's face.  "How are you feeling today, Miss Waters.  It's good to see you up and around."

"Well, I'm much better, thank you."  Somehow he made her more nervous than a cat caught in a rainstorm.  She felt like streaking out of there.  "I believe my uncle is out riding the fence line today.  I don't know how far out he is though."

"I saw him before I came to the house, but I wanted to check on you.  You were pretty sick there for a day or two.  Sun stroke is nothing to mess with.  Lost one of my new hands one year.  His horse had gotten away from him and he tried walking in, but didn't find shade soon enough and passed out  apparently.  He'd laid out in the sun for too long before we found him.  After a couple of days being delirious, he died.  We just couldn't get his temperature down."  Cotton was practically wringing his hat.

"That must have been terrible for you," she said sympathizing and looked up at him while his eyes assessed hers.

"Well, I can see you're better, so I'll take my leave."  He grabbed a couple of cookies out of the jar and lit out like a fire was under him almost knocking Margarita off the porch steps as she was coming in. 



"I swear, for a man who rides his horse so effortlessly, he's as clumsey as an ox when his boots are flat on the ground," she laughed. 

Somehow word got out that she had been sick and callers started coming.  No ladies, only men.  A couple of gents from town came all slicked up, but mostly it was cowboys with wildflower bouquets, or a handmade card with a verse, or a woven braid to wear round a cowboy hat.  They all came bearing gifts.  She tried to turn them away.

After the first fella settled himself into a kitchen chair, Margarita stood behind him shaking her head no.  Chad Miller was nice enough, but she didn't like his appreciative stare.

Later after the man left, Margarita explained, "That's Miss Johnson's boyfriend.  The gossiping tongues call you "the man thief," you know.  Those silly women think you are of a mind to steal their beaus."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Well, you may think so, but just look at the herd of young men pounding a trail to your door."  Elise wanted to discount it, but they were interrupted by a knock on the door.  It was a cowboy she'd seen loitering in town.

"Howdy, Miss Waters.  Heard you were sick.  I thought I might come over and try to cheer you up with my mouth organ.  With that he began playing.  It was enough to bring back her headache.

"Thank you Mr...what did you say your name was? But I'm afraid I need to go lie down."

Once she was safely tucked under the cool sheets, in her chemise, Margarita stepped into the room.  "That one was Miss Reynald's boyfriend.  She'd be fit to be tied if she found out he was here."

"Well she can have him for all I care."

The next one pounded on the door while they were eating supper.  Her uncle jumped up to answer since people did not knock like that usually unless something was wrong.  Nothing was.  It was just another suitor.  Her uncle turned him away at the door. 

"I thought that dandy was engaged to Miss Ellis.  Fancy him come-a-calling."

After the dishes were done, someone was at the door again.  Her uncle answered again, took the flowers and sent him packing.

"That was Isabella Mason's boyfriend.  I don't know what that fella was thinking trying to two-time a gal like her.  'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' I think that Shakespeare fella said it once upon a time.  These galoots are stirring up a whole pack of trouble by showing their faces around here."

"Please tell them to go away.  I don't want any more company." 

"Earlier today, I came upon three would be suitors standing in the yard looking like stallions pawing the ground.  I ran them off too," her uncle said disgustedly.




Several more appeared uninvited in the next few days.  Margarita made quick work of sending them down the road during the day.  It helped when Cotton dropped by in the evenings which he had begun to make a regular practice of doing.  He took it upon himself to be the one to answer the door, and one look at him and they'd scoot.   The young rancher liked to come over and listen to Elise read to her uncle.  Then they would have a surprisingly pleasant discussion of the literature, a discussion that then would stray onto other topics.  Cotton would even stay after her uncle would give in and go to bed.  Finally, he'd take the hint and leave when her yawns grew so large she couldn't hide them behind her hand.  Right now they were reading one of James Fenimore Cooper's books, "The Pioneers".

Elise noted that not one female came to call except her friend the Widow Willa.  She was thoughtful enough to have brought a loaf of cinnamon swirl bread.  They sliced it and slathered it with butter.  It was so good and easy on her stomach that still felt shriveled like a dried prune. 

"So what's the gossip from town," Margarita sat down after pouring coffee. 

"You mean besides Gil's niece here?"  She winked at Elise.  "I'm afraid the young women in town don't cotton to having competition show up," Willa said with tight lips drawn.  "They are having a regular tizzy fit because you're here.  I guess they're threatened because you're so pretty.  You do know what they are calling you, don't you?"

"The man-thief," they all said in unison then began laughing.

Elise sighed.  "If they only knew I had no interest in their fellas.  I am just glad to have a roof over my head here and a welcome from my uncle.  It was quite scary coming out here by faith riding the train to parts unknown.  I still can't believe I did it."

"I'm sure that was brave coming all that way by yourself," Willa said.

"Maybe a little brave but mostly desperate.  I had a suitor back home, but when he found out that my brother and I were left with nothing, he disappeared.  After a lifetime of what I now know was ease, I was thrust out with no preparation to make my way in the world.  My poor brother was having all he could do to survive and take care of his own little family.  I truly did look for work.  But I'm not that good of a seamstress, I don't have a teaching certificate, and I'm not a very good cook.  I became tired of waiting for a governess position to open up.  Since I had never taken care of children and was without a reference, it seemed hopeless.  So when I had just enough money left for train fare, I jumped on board.  I'm glad I did now. But if it wasn't for my uncle and you two, I don't know what I'd do."

Willa patted her hand.  You are the daughter Gil never had.  Then the widow looked away out the window.  "There was a time when Gil courted me, but I chose his best friend over him.  He's always been such a quiet man that I never was sure of his intentions.  I always wondered why he never married."

Margarita and Elise exchanged looks.  "You do know that you are only the third woman to ever step foot on the Rocking G Ranch.  Uncle Gil would probably have a heart attack if he knew you were here.  He's about as shy as a wild turkey," Elise grinned.

"Gil's always been that way."

"Now who's talking about me?"  The man walked in and stopped dead in his tracks.  Elise could see him swallow hard.   Finally he managed to say, "I didn't know you were here, Willa.  It's kind of you to come calling on my little gal though.  She gave us a scare passing out in the heat like she did."

Margarita jumped up and grabbed another coffee cup.  She winked at Elise behind their backs as Gil took a chair. 

"Here's some delicious cinnamon swirl bread that Willa made," Elise said as she was generous with the butter on his slice.

"Hmm.  That sure is good, Willa.  It's just like old times drinking coffee and eating your good bread, except I sure miss your man."

"I've had to go on all by myself.  I won't say it hasn't been hard, but I have gotten a little satisfaction knowing that I've made it this far on my own and with the good Lord's help what with our son clear back in Ohio.  And yes, my husband was a good man.  I miss him every day."  Yet Willa was looking Uncle Gil straight in the eye, and he held her there almost without blinking.  Margarita elbowed Elise before she sat down. 

After an hour of visiting, Willa stood up.  "I better leave,"

"Why don't you stay and have supper with us, Willa.  T'ain't no sense in you hurrying back to town at this hour and trying to rummage up some grub by your lonesome."

She sank back down saying, "How could I not accept an invitation to supper after smelling that Mexican food cooking all afternoon.  Besides, it's a rare day indeed I've heard to have the owner of the Rocking G Ranch himself extend such an offer."  She looked pleased as punch and so did her uncle.  And so were Margarita and Elise.

It was a pleasant evening even though Willa needed to leave while there was still daylight left to drive her wagon back to town.  Her uncle went out, hitched her horses, helped her up and kept her talking a while longer.

When he came in, Elise said, "You'll have to have her over more.  She probably gets lonely there in her little house in town."

"Maybe we will," he said practically blushing.  Her uncle went out to the barn to talk to his foreman and to get away from their prying eyes and smirks.

"I think they are sweet on each other, Margarita," Elise said.  Margarita had stayed to serve the supper even though she usually went home to be with her Manual by this time of the night.  The woman wanted to see for herself how the evening went.

"They've been friends forever.  It's about time Mr.Gil took a step forward," she laughed.  "I wouldn't care if there were three of us women here in my kitchen just so long as he was happy."



Saturday morning, Elise went out while it was still cool to pet the friendliest of the horses in the corral.  It knew she had carrots in her pocket.  She had not ridden since she was a little girl sitting in front of her father in his saddle.  Her heart burned with the memory even though it was a special one.

"That big white one is a gentle mare.  She'd be a good mount for you.  Maybe when you're stronger you can ride her," a handsome young cowboy flashed her a smile before looking over his shoulder not wanting to get in trouble for talking to her.  "Maybe the boss would let me take you out on her."

She grinned.  "I'd like that."  Then she went back inside the ranch house.  The last thing she wanted to do was cause trouble with her uncle's hired hands.  She sat at the table and studied her uncle's ranching books.  His handwriting was terrible, but she was catching on to his system.  She did some figuring on a separate piece of paper and finally shut the book with satisfaction.  "Everything looks to be in order."

That Sunday when the pastor finished preaching his sermon, her uncle quickly stood up and cleared his throat loudly before anyone else could stir.  He'd caused quite a buzz anyway for even darkening the church door.  "I'd like to say something, if I may, preacher."  When the man nodded looking curiously at him, her Uncle Gill went on,   "I want to thank you for being so welcoming to my niece, especially when she got sick this past week."  He looked down and winked at her since they both knew that it wasn't entirely true.  "However, I just wanted to let you know, she won't be accepting any more callers at this time.  I want her to build her strength back up and that might take a good long while."


Then he reached his big hand down for Elise and escorted her out holding onto her elbow.  When they got outside he whispered, "I needed to nip that in the bud and keep those oafs away from you and just maybe keep you from being in hot water with the other gals.  That's called killing two birds with one stone.  I hope it made it plain that you have no interest in their beaus."

"I hope so, Uncle Gil, and thanks.  I know that wasn't easy for you to speak up in church, but I appreciate it ever so much."

He grinned at her.  "Anything for my little niece."

When Cotton walked over, he was scowling like usual.  "What's the matter, Cotton" her uncle asked.  "Did you think I was including you shooting off my mouth in order to run off the whole pack of coyotes howling around the ranch?  Of course you're still welcome."

Elise looked down kicked her shoe against a dirt clod. 

"So, would Margarita mind another plate at the table?"

"No more than usual.  I was thinking about asking Miss Willa to come as well.  She's good company."

Cotton's mouth dropped open as Gil walked off to catch up with the widow.  "Well, I'll be hog tied and hung up to cure in the smokehouse."

Elise grinned.  "Did you know they were sweethearts once upon a time?"

"You're pulling my leg now, Elise."




That got her dander up.  "Why is it you never believe a word I say.  You didn't believe I belonged at the Rocking G Ranch and now you doubt my word about my uncle and Miss Willa.  I'll have you know she told Margarita and me that herself when she drove out to visit!"  How could this man make her so angry and ruin the good effect she thought the sermon would have on her?

"Well one thing's for certain, you may be staying at the Rocking G, but you don't belong there.  Not really.  And you never will.  You'll be high tailing it back East before winter is over.  I'd take a bet on it."

"Okay, I'll bet you my father's special gold dollar he gave me, and you can give me...a train ticket back," she said with her arms crossed.

"I don't bet with females.  I can't say with a lady, because a real lady would never make a bet in the first place."  He walked away leaving her fuming.

On the way home, she told her uncle, "I really don't like your neighbor.  Mr. Cotton is an awful man.  He takes every opportunity he can to insult me."


Her uncle looked over and about dropped his cigarette saying, "Truly?"  He thought for a moment before saying, "He must really have it bad, but doesn't know it yet."  Then he chuckled. 


"I don't know what you think is so funny because I'm not laughing.  He told me just now that I don't belong on your ranch and never will."  She was furiously blinking tears away.  She'd finally begun to feel at home, and then that man had the audacity to try to tug the rug right out from under her.

"That was uncalled for.  I'll speak to him," her uncle growled.  "You will always belong at my ranch, sugar."

When Cotton arrived after eating their dust the last mile home, her Uncle bellowed, "Cotton, in here, now!"  He took him into his office and slammed the door.  She didn't want to listen to her uncle's raised voice, so she went out to the front porch.

A much  quieter Cotton came out and found her there with his hat in his hands to say his apologies.  But just looking in his eyes, she could tell he still didn't believe she belonged."

"I can tell just looking at you that your opinion of me has not changed.  You can apologize all you want for having said aloud what was in your heart, it won't matter to me one way or the other.  You may not have accepted my bet, Mr. Cotton, but I'm going to prove to you that I belong here, just you wait and see.  When you're pushing up daisies, I'll still be rocking in a rocking chair on the Rocking G Ranch's porch.  You won't find me watering your mound of dirt neither.  I'll just let those daisies wilt away to nothing," she said through gritted teeth.

He had the nerve to allow a smile to tug at his mouth which soon erupted into a full on belly laugh.  It just made her madder than a wet hen and a soaking wet cat all thrown together.  Elise just stomped off to change out of her Sunday dress.  If Miss Willa wasn't here today, she'd refuse to eat at the table with that Mr. Cotton.

He ruined the meal for her.  She did not say a word.  That was okay as Willa and her uncle kept a steady conversation going between them.  She caught  that irritating man glancing at her a lot.  She just kept eating but not tasting.  It was a shame as she loved Margarita's cooking.  It was all his fault.  She would not let any tears fall.  She would not!  But it wouldn't be the first time she cried from being  mad.

"I'll do the dishes while you go visit.  I insist," she waved her uncle and Miss Willa away to the sitting room.  That's when she saw Mr. Cotton with a towel in his hand.

"I'll dry."

"My foot, you will.  Go on.  Your help is not wanted, not appreciated, and is not asked for."

He just grabbed the dish out of the drainer and started wiping it dry.  "Remind me never to get you mad."

"Too late."

"I mean it when I said that I was sorry for saying you didn't belong here.  That was uncalled for.  I just meant...

"Don't dig a hole bigger than the one you've already dug, sir.  There's nothing you can say that I want to hear anyway."  With that, she ripped her apron off threw it on the ground and ran into her room  slamming the door.  She was going to have that mad cry after all.  She stuffed her face into her pillow and stifled a scream.  When she came back out an hour or so later, the dishes were all done and the table was washed off.  She figured Willa must have done it, which was mighty rude of her leaving a guest to clean up.  She peeked in the living room to see that Willa was still there playing a game of checkers with her uncle.  Mr. Rudeness must have left.  Good riddance.  No wonder the house seemed so peaceful now.

She went out to the corral to take carrots to her favorite horse.  She was sweet talking her when a shadow fell..  She recognized those boots.







"I thought you went home."

"Nope.  My business wasn't done yet."

"You must be slower than molasses," she said grimacing. 

"Your uncle wanted me to look after a  colt that was injured in a fence.  Do you want to see?  It's cooler in the barn anyway.  Besides, you shouldn't be out in the sun."

She looked up at him trying to judge his sincerity before following him into the dark interior of the barn.  She leaned over the stall.  "Is he hurt bad?"

"Nah, but we'll need to look out for infection just the same.  Maybe you can help your uncle keep an eye on his leg.  If it starts oozing or turning red, have one of his men ride over to get me.  Before she knew what he was doing, he had her cornered with an arm blocking her exit.

"I mean it, Miss Elise.  I don't like to have you angry at me."  His blue eyes searched hers.  She froze with her mind going a million directions.  She had no experience with men, so she hadn't a clue what he was doing other than making her pulse race.

"Howdy, Miss Elise and Mr. Cotton."  Someone stepped out of the tack room and saved her.  Cotton took a big step back. 

"Hello, Manual.  Cotton was just showing me the injured colt," she stammered embarrassment written all over her face.

"Si, Uh huh, I see." At least the man didn't allow anything to show on his face while Cotton was combing his hand through his hair and nervously setting his hat back down. 

"Well, I'll be by tomorrow to look at the colt." With that Cotton strode off to mount his horse and kicked up a dust cloud leaving.

Her heart was still strumming hard when she went back to the house to lay on her bed to think.  She couldn't figure Cotton out at all.


A few days later she was helping Margarita shell peas on the porch when he rode up with her uncle.  Uncle Gil waved a letter in his hand.  "Looks like one from your brother for you, darling."

Margarita got up to get the men a cold drink of water.  Elise tore open the letter and scanned down quickly.  She gasped.  Her hand started shaking while she gripped the letter.  "He says that his new lawyer finally got to the bottom of my father's affairs.  His partner had taken advantage of us and tried to cheat us out of what was in our father's will.  So now that the thief's gone, run off to try to escape prosecution, my brother is in charge of our father's business as was always planned.  He was also able to take back possession of our home.   The letter says that they want me to come live with them again."

She looked at her uncle with her mouth open.  He just sank onto the porch steps, took off his hat and fanned it slowly in front of his face saying, "Well, darling, you've got a decision to make."

Then she looked up into Cotton's unswerving blue eyes.  They stared at each other for a long moment taking each other's measure.   Finally she tore her eyes away and said with a sigh, "This is my home now, unless you'd rather I go back East, Uncle Gil."

"Not a chance, sugar.  You've made yourself a big part of the Rocking G Ranch, so much so that I can't imagine the place without you.  However, this here is a far cry from what you are used to.  I just want you to take some time to think it over to be sure."

"I'll pray and sleep on it. Then maybe I'll send my brother a telegram tomorrow with my answer.  She tucked the letter into her apron.  She could finish it later.  The bit she'd read was enough to keep her head spinning. 

"Do you want to check on the colt with me," Cotton asked.  Her uncle went dragging into the house.

"I looked at him this morning, and he seemed fine."

"Show me."

He put his hand on her back as they entered the shade of the barn.  For some reason, it felt reassuring.  Cotton looked around then pulled her close to him.  "Whatever you do, don't believe what I said Sunday.  You do belong on the Rocking G.  I was being an idiot.  I  don't want to be a reason for you to leave your uncle's place.  To be truthful, I don't want you to leave.  In fact, I'd like to give you another reason to stay." With that he gently pulled her in closer for a feather light kiss and let her go immediately. 

They stood there for long moments.  She had not pushed him away.  She had allowed him to kiss her.  Not even her former suitor had kissed her on the lips, just on her hand.  She for some reason wished this cowboy would do it again.  Her heart was pounding so hard that she found herself gripping his shirt to stay standing.  It was just a slight movement as she swayed forward.  He kissed her again in ways she hadn't ever imagined.  Then he just held her. 

"I'm sorry for all I've put you through from stepping on your toes to every mean thing I said.  I think you scared me worse than if a tornado had swept in here and sucked me up right off the ground.  I had coffee with your uncle in town this morning, and he set me straight.  He told me  that what had me upset every time I was around you was the fear that I was falling in love with you, that I was scared stiff.  I had to agree that's what was turning me into a snarling, snapping mess.  But I had no idea what was in your letter.  He stroked her hair back away from her face."

"I belong on my uncle's ranch," she said fingering his buttons. 

"I'm still not positive that's true."

She practically choked and pushed him away as hard as she could.

He laughed and grabbed her back to his chest so her fists couldn't pound him.  "I meant that someday, I'd hoped you'd belong to the Cotton brand. 








She searched his eyes and found the truth there.  "Besides," he continued,  "I have it on good authority that Miss Willa might get a proposal of marriage soon herself."

Elise's squeal of happiness was quieted by another kiss to seal the deal. 

"I figured the only way you could ever make lady friends in this silly town would be for me to take you out of the marriage market by marrying you myself.  Then the green-eyed monster of envy would roll over and die. 

"Hardly.  I'll be marrying the prize bachelor in the county.  I'll have even more of those cattie females mad at me than ever."  But she swallowed hard and said, "But I'll make a pretty puny rancher's wife.  I don't even cook well enough to keep a grasshopper alive, and look at the trouble I got in just trying to weed a garden.  Besides that, I don't even know how to ride a horse and got blisters driving the wagon my first time."

He snorted.  "None of that worries me as I've got plenty of good help at my place anyway.  How do you think a bachelor like me has survived this long?  Margarita's sister works for me.  I can teach you to ride as soon as you want.  But as long as you're not mad at me, I can stand anything.  It about killed me when I made you cry Sunday.  That's when I really knew I loved you.  I've never felt that kind of regret.  Why, I felt lower than a snake's belly.  Then when you read that letter just now, I was afraid I'd lost you.  I realized I couldn't let you make your decision without telling you how I felt, for I do love you, Elise."  Just then he accidently stepped on her hem making him loose his balance.  He fell back onto a bale of hay pulling her on his lap as he did so.  But he also knocked down a pitchfork that was standing close by, the handle of which hit her on the head. 




"Ouch!"

"Sorry, sweetheart.  I'm afraid you're in for a life of calamity with the likes of me.  Are you sure you're up for it?"

"You are the only one this man-thief would ever care to steal cause you already stole my heart, cowboy."  In case he still doubted her word, she proved it by stealing another kiss.  



*This story was very loosely inspired perhaps from what some called the freshmen rush in college.  That's when the upperclassmen would abandon the girls they'd dated the year before and go after the new batch of freshmen fillies every fall.  I was always glad that I was already in love back during those days of the herd behavior.  Once again, country music got me musing until I came up with the man-thief idea.

 



 









































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