Stringbean Hooper cupped his hands around his mouth. "Look right smart, men," he shouted at the four cowboys across from him on the opposite rim of the coulee. "Cows in the brush below. I'll run them out into the open."
The cowboys kicked their mounts in the ribs and raced parallel along the top of the coulee. They had to be in position when the excited cattle burst out of the brush. The idea was to surround the cattle before they scattered off across the flats and escaped. At the brink of the coulee, Stringbean, a long legged, lanky cowboy in his thirties, held onto the saddle horn with one hand as he gave his black and white speckled appaloosa gelding his head.
Good old reliable Freckles braced his feet and slid down the steep, clay bank, sending rocks and clods avalanching to the bottom. Stringbean ducked and held his free arm over his head to keep from being beaten by the cottonwood saplings Freckles took him under. The horse zigzagged around the underbrush. With his eyes on the cattle, Stringbean didn't pay any attention to the stickers on wild rose and gooseberry bushes that dug in and tugged at his leather chaps.
Four Hereford cows popped their heads up from behind a clump of newly leafed rose bushes and stretched their necks to stare at the rider coming at them. Four newborn, white faced calves peeked from behind their mothers back legs. When the cattle realized their hiding spot had been discovered, they wheeled around and sprinted away. Kicking up a cloud of dust, they hightailed it toward the end of the coulee. The calves gave squeaky cries, frightened by the invasion into their peaceful world. Ever so often the concerned mothers craned their long necks to the side and bawled crankily to the offsprings to keep up.
The minute the cows reached open pasture, they cocked their tails high in the air and trotted across the open space, expecting to make a run for freedom. Lifting their back ends off the ground, they kicked both back feet high, flaunting their escape. When they caught up, the Rocking T cowhands surrounded the cattle, bunched them up and headed them across the grasslands toward the rest of the herd.
Stringbean tapped the top of his black hat to set it tighter on his head and raced after them. He closed the distance, slowed down and followed at the flank until the men pushed the cattle into the box canyon corral. Extending his lean frame in the creaking saddle to take a few kinks out of his spine, he felt every inch of his tired, achy six feet four inch body. His joints and muscles told him this had been a long day.
As soon as the lodgepole pine gate was dropped back in place, Stringbean yelled to the nearest cowboy, "Smily, let's call it a day. We've done a right smart amount of work for today. Be about dark afore we get back to the ranch."
The cowhand drew his roan horse along side Freckles. He brought his leg up and cocked it over the saddle so he could lean his elbow on it. Taking off his hat with the other hand, he wiped his sweaty brow with his shirt sleeve. Before he spoke he took the time to turn his head to the side and spit tobacco amber as far as he could fling it. With his mouth empty he managed a slight grin that creased his dark, leathery cheeks as he drawled slowly, "Aw, I'm ready anytime you are, Boss."
Stringbean turned away from the spent sun that rested on the snow capped mountain tops. He lifted his arm high in the air and waved a circling signal to the other cowhands. The riders headed his way and followed him toward home.
Twisting to take a look back at the mountains, Stringbean watched the sun's fiery glow turn the white peaks a bloody red. Take your pick. Any time of day, Montana had to be the prettiest place he ever did see.
Just above the peaks, the color of the sky had changed as well. He loved to watch the western sky aflame from the setting sun. At dusk, the blue horizon streaked with long fingers of pink and purple.
He never tired of the changes in nature as the seasons moved from one to the other on his ranch. Though if asked, he reckoned spring was his favorite. After a long, hard winter, he saw the promise of warmer days just around the corner. Although the chilly breeze did send a chill through him as he rode near Raspberry Creek. He shuttered and felt Freckles flinch under him. The snow fed creek, once covered with a layer of thick ice, now was bank full with ice chunks bobbing in the cold, bubbly water that flowed down from the mountains.
On the mountain sides, stately pine trees had taken on a brighter green in the last week, trying to out do the once naked cottonwood and birch trees now dressed in full bud along the creek. Everywhere lush, emerald grass sprouted and grew fast. The bright pastures made a rich contrast, growing through dead thatches left from last year.
The renewal of life after the long winter gave him hope that spring was really here, alive and pulsating with ever changing, expectant beats. The season announced to all who cared, humans and animals, this was a great time to be alive.
In the last few days while looking for cattle, Stringbean flushed out several does and elks hiding in the gullies. Their gangly babies raced along side the mothers, keeping up on stick like legs as they disappeared from sight over a knoll or into another brush filled gully. It was always a thrill to see new birth whether it be his cattle or wildlife.
When the crew neared the ranch buildings, Stringbean separated from the hands. While they made their way to the bunk house, he headed for the grand two story house he called home. The four white column porch that ran the length of the house always reminded him of the plantation houses he saw down south during the four years he fought in the Civil War.
Stringbean was born in a log cabin in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri in Vernon County to be exact. When he was a kid, he didn't know houses so grand existed until he battled the blue uniformed soldiers in cotton fields that surrounded the buildings.
After he moved to Montana, he heard tell Theo's first husband, David Sheffield, built the house to resemble his childhood home in Kentucky. No wonder Theo thought a lot of her first husband. For one thing, he thought enough of her to give his bride a beautiful home. Stringbean had looked real close at a picture of the man on Theo's dresser. Sheffield was a handsome man and from all accounts a go getter. He had intended to be the first governor some day when Montana became a state. Probably would have made that goal if he hadn't been caught in a cattle stampede during a lightning storm. He was knocked off his panicked horse, and the cattle trampled him.
Stringbean shook his head slowly in wonderment. That man sure was the opposite of Theo's new husband, namely himself, Stringbean Hooper. He still wasn't sure what Theo saw in him that made her want to take him for her second husband. For a long spell, he ran from her advances like the devil was after him. Now all he knew was he was glad she consented to marry him. Life had changed for the better for him from the moment they married. No more wandering over the west, ducking trouble. He had a home. No more working in Sully Town as the sheriff and being under the strong arm of cattle baron, Mac Sullivan. That man told everyone within his reach to jump when he commanded and expected them to ask how high. Stringbean wasn't that kind of man. He couldn't knuckle under to the old man. That made his job as sheriff mighty touch when things wasn't going Mac Sullivan's way. Eventually, Stringbean's principles cost him the sheriff's job.
Yip, I'm a lucky feller. I'm a rancher now. My life is takin' on an old married man routine since I settled down with Theo on her ranch. I pretty much know what's around the corner, and I like it that way. At my age that's a good thing even if I still get itchy feet once in a while. I've learned to ignore the yearnin' to travel, Stringbean thought as he rubbed his achy lower back. That subtle pain was some times hard to put up with when the night chill sank into his bones.
Right then, he longed for home looming in the distance dusk ahead of him. He was getting closer by the minute. It sure would feel good to get out of his saddle until morning. After a few long hard days on the range, he knew how his horse felt by the end of the day. Stringbean felt like he too had been ridden hard and put away wet. He could use a hot bath, and a belly full of his wife's ornery Mexican cook's good grub. After supper, he'd go to bed early. Nights seemed awful short during roundup and branding when the next day started before daylight.
Being a rancher was a lot more tiresome work than being sheriff of Sully Town, Montana, but the security was better. Besides, being part owner of a successful ranch was a sight better for his health. He actually liked herding cattle for a living. He didn't make as many enemies when he was stuck out in the sticks with his cowhands. That meant he didn't have to watch his back.
Now that he thought about it, he didn't think he had any enemies if he didn't count Maria, Theo's cook. He couldn't figure out why she didn't like him. Was she jealous of Theo's attention toward him? Perhaps, Maria thought she might lose her job because of him. It was a fact, her wicked feelings toward him started the moment she met him. Maybe she had a low opinion of him. She probably thought he was no account and not a good husband for Theo. Whatever her problem, the mean looks she gave him made him think she'd just as soon kill him as put up with him. He had to admit he didn't help matters any by irritating her in return. When her hackles were up, that woman sure made a believer out of him that she was the wickedest cook in the West.
Stringbean halted at the hitch rack, dismounted and tied Freckles. After hours in the saddle, he stood for a minute, trying to get his stiff knees to bend and hip joints to swivel so he could walk. Theo's black thoroughbred, Midnight, stuck his head out the barn's half door. The stud whinnied at Freckles. The appaloosa knickered a hello back.
Good. His wife had made it home before him. It didn't always happen that she got home first. For days, they had been riding out in opposite directions, splitting the hands between them to do the spring head count. Looked like most of the new calves were on the ground now. Once they had the herds rounded up and the calves branded, they could drive the cattle to the high country pasture for the summer.
Bowlegged Smily Wenndt trudged toward the barn, leading his horse. He took a cigarette out of his mouth and said through the smoke, "See you in the mornin', Boss."
"Bright and early, Smily. Hey, want to take my horse to the barn as long as you're goin' that direction?" Stringbean led the horse over to him.
"Sure thing, Boss," the rangy cowhand said in his twangy voice as he accepted Freckle's reins.
Stringbean bounded up the porch steps with a renewed burst of energy. He was after all a changed man. Never did he think he'd be the type to live under a roof for very long or within fences. It surprised him as much as everyone else in this country when he married. After years of being shiftless, he settled down to become a respectable rancher. At that moment, he pictured in his mind the way his beautiful wife looked as she waited for him to come home.
He stopped at the front door and removed his black stepson to beat his jeans. Puffs of dust floated off in the gentle evening breeze, but not nearly enough dirt turned loose to keep his jeans from standing alone. When his plaid shirt was clean, the material was a bright red and white, but the day's cover of dirt dulled the red blocks to the color of clay soil and the rest to a dingy white.
In the entry hall, Stringbean tossed his hat on to a coat hook. He stalked down the hall. As he ran his fingers through his dark thatch of hair to flatten it in place, he bellowed above the clunking his boots made on the hardwood floor. "Theo, I'm home. Where ya at?"
Faintly, he heard her say, "In the parlor, Stringbean."
That she was. Already bathed, smelling of verbena and dressed in a fancy, blue house dress that brought out the brightness in her aqua eyes. Her silky, golden hair, fluffy and clean, hung loose in curls that framed her face. When in the house, Theo always dressed like she was about to have company. At first, it bothered him to see her spruced up so fancy for no seemly good reason, because he figured ever little whip stitch she'd expect him to get dressed that fancy, too. Being gentry just didn't fit his personality. It wasn't his style. Thank goodness he didn't have that worry anymore. Theo never complained about the way he looked or dressed. Finally, he'd gotten used to the way things were done in Theo's house. He could relax and appreciated that he had the prettiest wife in Montana.
He respected her for the strong woman she was. After all, she owned a large ranch and was highly thought of by all the men ranchers there abouts. They knew Theo wasn't just a ball of cottonwood fluff. She could ride and handle ranching chores as good as the hands. When the moment came for her to make a tough decision, she did it. Sometimes, she faced down men that stood in her way with a grit that Stringbean had to admire though her use of a gun scared the daylight out of him. She had a quick temper, a fast draw and a good aim. For her own safety, her guts and skill worried him. Now that he had her in his life, he didn't like the nagging feeling that he might lose her someday to a bullet.
With pride, Stringbean stood in the parlor doorway and considered his wife, all freshly scrubbed and soft looking. Nestled down in a blue stuffed chair, Theo glanced at him as he approached her. Stringbean bent down and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. He sniffed at her neck. "Howdy, Ma'am. Well, you sure smell fine."
When Theo didn't answer, he braced his back with his hand and slowly straighten up. Frowning, she dropped a paper into her lap with some other sheets and a couple of envelopes. She focused over his shoulder.
Stringbean had the impression that his wife's thoughts were worrisome. He asked, "What's wrong, Honey?"
Sadness crossed Theo's face. She sighed and paused to licked her lips. "Maria brought the mail from Sully Town when she went in after supplies. I received a couple of letters. When it rains it pours, and these couldn't have come at a worse time while we're busy with spring roundup." Her eyes glistened with tears as she picked up one of the sheets of paper again. "This is from a lawyer in New York. Uncle Jackson Claymore, Father's brother, died. He left his estate to my brother, Brock, and me. Since he never married, we're his only living relatives. The lawyer enclosed a document for Brock and me to sign so we can collect the estate."
"I'm right sorry to hear about your uncle. Was you close to him?" Stringbean asked, sinking down on the brown settee across from her. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his legs as he waited for her answer.
With a weak smile, she remembered her uncle. "I haven't seen Uncle Jackson in years since I moved to Montana. Brock and I lived close to him as kids. He always treated us as if we were his children. Uncle Jackson spoiled us rotten, giving us anything we wanted that our parents refused to buy for us."
She bowed her head and picked up the other letter from her lap. She glanced at it before she continued disbelievingly, "The other letter is from my brother, Brock. He lives in San Jose, California. He says he's met a girl he in love with. They're going to get married. He wants me to be at the wedding. Since we need to sign this paper for the lawyer at the same time, looks like I going to have to go ----." Her voice trailed off at the sight of the cook glaring at Stringbean's back. Theo finished faintly, "to California." Her voice took on renewed strength as she addressed the cook. "What is it, Maria?"
Stringbean looked over his shoulder. When he saw the bedeviled look in the cook's eyes directed at him, he moved faster than he really wanted to and darted behind the settee out of Maria's way. He felt safer with that large piece of furniture between him and her.
The heavy set Mexican woman, in her mid fifties, glided into the parlor and stopped in front of her boss. As an added measure of insult, she made sure to position herself with her back to Stringbean. She clasped her hands in front of her and said formally, "The evening meal is about ready, Senora Sheffield."
Hearing his wife addressed as Senora Sheffield caused Stringbean to stiffen indignantly. His dark eyes blazed hotly as he glared at Maria's broad back. With all his might, he wished the cook would turn around and see his irritation.
"Thank you. I'll be ready soon," Theo assured her.
Maria nodded approval and hustled out of the room, keeping her eyes averted from Stringbean. As far as she was concerned, he wasn't in the room. Tarnation! The way she acted, he was on an extended stay in this house, just visiting.
"Theo, when is that woman gonna realize I ain't leavin' any time soon. In her book, it's as if I don't live here permanent," complained Stringbean.
"David hired Maria. She was very attached to my late husband. I suppose she's trying very hard not to be disloyal to his name," replied Theo absentmindedly, sighing deeply as she stared at the letters in her hands.
"That's all fine and good, but cain't she at least make an effort to call you Senora Hooper. After all, she knows your name changed when you married me. You really should have a talk with her about her place in this house. She's just the cook," Stringbean groused.
With a wry smile, Theo waved her hand at him. "Me talk to her? Oh no, String. Unless you want to have a talk with Maria you might be better off to let this ride for awhile until she gets used to you. You know how Maria can be when she gets mad. Frankly, I'd hate to lose such a great cook, and she is devoted to me, too. It means a lot to me to know that I can count on her. Isn't it enough that I know you're here to stay?" She got up, walked over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. She stretched up on tiptoes and gave him a kiss.
As nice as the gesture was, that kiss didn't take Stringbean's mind off the hurtful stings he felt every time that Queen Bee cook flew by him. "Maybe it should be enough," he relented slightly. "But how much longer is Maria's gettin' used to me gonna take? I've already been here almost a year now. That seems like a right smart spell to me."
Hands on her hips, Theo stepped back and arched one eyebrow. She slanted her head over her shoulder and asked dryly, "Does it now? To you it seems like you've already spent a long time living with me?"
"Hold yer horses! You know what I mean. Don't twist my words to put me in a hot camp fire. None of this problem with Maria is my fault. I've tried hard to get on that woman's good side. I'm talkin' about your mean tempered cook makin' me edgy every time I'm near her. Don't have nothin' to do with how long I've been livin' here with you. You know that," he said, feeling put upon with both women against him at the same time.
Pushing a lock of golden hair off her shoulder, Theo started for the door. "Perhaps, but obviously you haven't been here long enough to suit Maria so be patient. You don't want to make her mad enough to quit do you?" She turned to give him a knowing look and grunted. "Not the way you like to eat. Shall we go to supper?"
"Give me time to wash up and change clothes. I got to get rid of some of this trail dust before I sit down to food," Stringbean said, following behind her down the hall.
Theo twisted around. "All right, but don't take too long. You know Maria doesn't like her food to get cold," she warned, tracing his cheekbone with the tip of a finger.
"How well I know," he snorted. "Think she has hot water on the stove for a bath, or do I have to get up my nerve to ask her to put some on?"
"I put a couple buckets on the cookstove for you myself after my bath. I thought you might want to clean up. I'll go get them and bring them upstairs to you," Theo said as she walked away.
"Much obliged. Better you go in her kitchen than me. She might not let me back out alive. From the way you talk sometimes if there was to be a tussle between me and the cook, I don't think I could even depend on you to come in her kitchen to save me," Stringbean said sarcastically to his wife's back.
Theo laughed uncontrollably all the way down the hall like his problem with her cook was some kind of hilarious joke. She always seemed to find it funny that he had no control over the cook in what he considered his home now. Worse yet, he felt that Mexican woman had the notion that she was boss around there. It didn't help that Theo let her get away with it. He wasn't sure it was safe to turn his back on Maria. She kept a kitchen drawer full of sharp knives. Who knows what other weapons she stored in the cupboards just in case she needed to defend her kitchen from him.
Sitting in the tub full of extra warm water eased his aches some. The bath felt so good Stringbean could have soaked long enough for the water to grow cold if he'd had his way about it. Not that he had any say around there between those two women. Theo would be waiting for him to get to the table. Maria was probably chomping at the bit to feed them. When he thought about the cook, he scrubbed faster. He best make it a hurry up bath. Otherwise, Maria would be coming after him, swinging her butcher knife, because he let her supper get cold. That crazy woman sure had a real viperous temper.
For the life of him, Stringbean couldn't figure out why Theo seemed to think it great fun to let the cook threaten to torture him. Maybe Theo just hadn't thought through what could happen if Maria tried to attack him. He feared his wife would be no help to him if the cook really did decide he wasn't worth keeping around. Who knows how Theo would react if he got in a fracas with Maria and wound up dead. His wife thought so highly of that cook, she'd probably help Maria bury him out back. They might just tell everyone he took off for parts unknown. The ranchers would believe his wife since he'd been known to have a wanderlust nature. Besides, no one would question such an honest woman as Theo. Maria and her could get away with his murder, because that's just how women were. They stuck together.
Suddenly, a picture of how Theo looked when he entered the parlor ran through his mind, all soft and pretty in her fancy dress. His feelings of distrust faded away. Theo loved him as much as he loved her. He had to remember that when he got these crazy ideas in his head. He could trust her with his life. She'd already proven that last year when she stood up against Mac Sullivan's bunch to protect him.
He scowled when another thought scrolled through his head about what happened right after he walked into the parlor tonight. What was it about the letters that Theo dropped in her lap? He had been so distracted by Maria he forgot about the hang dog look on Theo's face until now.
Hold yer horses! What had she tried to tell him about those letters when Maria showed up? Did Theo say she was going to California all by herself? That meant she'd be leaving him home alone to run this big ranch during spring roundup. On top of that, he'd be stuck alone with Maria every night. No way was he going to let that happen.
Did I hear her right? Stringbean started to doubt himself. After all, he hadn't been paying half enough attention to Theo after he spotted Maria in the doorway. Right after he moved in, he made a mental list about how to survive around the Mexican cook. Number one -- when Maria was in the same room with him he best get out of her path as quick as he could. Number two -- don't ever turn his back on her, because she'd love to have that advantage. Number three -- watch her every move at all times until she left the room.
Standing in the same room with Maria took so much concentration, it didn't leave time for worrying about anything else. Now that he thought back on it, what Theo said was right worrisome. The best he recalled when Maria interrupted them, Theo sure sounded serious about taking off on a trip to California by herself.
Stringbean sprang to his feet. He had an urgent need to get downstairs right away. Rivulets of dingy water flowed down the length of his tall body. Riled water sloshed in waves back and forth against the sides of the tin tub. I got to get Theo to tell me about those letters again, he thought.
Her traveling all the way to California alone wasn't a possibility. That was a crazy unsafe thing for her to do. No telling what kind of life threatening trouble she could get into being a woman alone on the trail like that. He had to talk her out of it.
Moving as though the room was on fire, he vaulted out of the bathtub, throwing water splatters everywhere. Stringbean grimaced as he looked down at the mess. Tiny pools settled on the shiny hardwood around his feet and speckled the floor for several feet away. He reached for the folded towel on top the stack of clean clothes on the ladder back chair.
His mind raced as he frantically rubbed himself dry in fast swipes. No way was he going to let Theo take off by herself. California was too far away and too dangerous a trip for a woman. He had to get dressed and get downstairs fast. He had to talk to her about this nonsense before she had time to make plans for such a trip.
Wait! He knew how stubborn Theo could be when she had her mind set on doing something. He had to be prepared when he talked her out of this trip. Viable excuses he could give flew around in his head like dusty whirlwinds on a hot summer day. He best be prepared to change her mind if he intended to stop her.
As he put on his jeans it came to him if anybody should be going to California, he was the logical one. He was a man. He knew how to handle himself on such a long, dangerous journey. Besides, wasn't he the one that had the itchy feet? He told Theo more than once he used to have a hankering to see what California looked like. He'd always dreamed of taking a gander at the Pacific Ocean.
After all if she used her head, Theo couldn't go anywhere. She had her ranch to run. Truth be told, she still made all the decisions around here. This place was her responsibility. Since he was just learning how to ranch, he did what she told him and liked it that way. Therefore, she had to stay home while he went to California for her.
Putting on his shirt, he came up with another idea. Maybe she'd change her mind if he could get her to feel sorry for him. If anyone needed a vacation it ought to be him. He'd been working pretty hard. Surely, Theo would see he deserved some time off to unwind if he spelled it out for her. What better way than to take a trip to California to see the Pacific Ocean like he'd always dreamed. Now that he thought about it, if he took his sweet time he'd get out of the rest of the roundup and all of the branding. He wouldn't mind that at all.
Stringbean tromped down the stairs two steps at a time. When he burst into the dining room, Theo patiently sipped her coffee as she watched the hall doorway. She raised an eyebrow at his frenzied entry. With a slight grin, she surveyed him up and down, giving him an approving look. "Slow down, Cowboy. I thought a herd of cattle was stampeding down the stairs and through the hall. It's all right, String. Maria's not going to do anything to you for being late to dinner. I told her I'd eat better if you didn't make the dining room smell like cattle. She approved of that." Amused, Theo burst out with a tinkling chortle as she rang the small gold bell by her plate to signal Maria to bring the food.
Stringbean pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. About to burst, he got right to the point. "Never mind that crazy cook right now. Listen, Theo, somethin' just came to me while I was sittin' in the tub. Did you say anything about takin' a trip to California to see your brother, or did I just imagine it?"
Theo's lips tightened together as she nodded her head in the affirmative.
"Well, put your mind to rest. That's a long, hard trip. I don't mind goin' for you. Give me the estate paper for your brother to sign. I'll see that he does it," Stringbean said eagerly.
Theo lifted her head and looked him in the eyes. "Of course, you would volunteer. My husband, with the itchy feet, seems suddenly all too eager to help me out when it comes to taking a long trip." She entwined her fingers, laid her hands on the table and stared at them. "Now tell me how it would ease my mind to see you ride off alone and be gone for ages?"
This sure wasn't working out like he thought it would. "Y-you can't possibly think you can go all the way to California on your own. It's too dangerous, " Stringbean stuttered.
"Brock is my brother. I want to be at his wedding," she said quietly.
Stringbean leaned his head to one side. "I don't see how goin' to that wedding is such a big deal. I have six brothers. I've never thought about askin' you to go to one of their weddings."
Theo sounded too calm when she said, "If you ask me I'd go with you."
He had to back down before he hurt her feelings. "No need to worry. Doubt any of my kin will ever ask me to their wedding so you don't have to go either." He had to get this talk back on the right track. "How some ever, I'm willin' to go get Brock to sign the estate paper for you and bring it back as fast as I can." He slapped his hand on the table as if the matter was settled.
Maria set a bowl of fried potatoes and one of corn down by Theo. The cook glared through narrowed black eyes at Stringbean, wondering about the dire reason for his loud demonstration. "Is everything all right, Senora?" She hissed.
"Yes, Maria. Everything is fine. Bring in the rest of the food, please." Theo straightened in her chair while she gave Stringbean the same type of evil eye Maria had used. "You're not going anywhere without me, Husband. I'm not dumb. I know I married a tumble weed. Until I feel sure about you, I intend to keep my eyes on you so you don't roll out of sight permanently. So that's settled," Theo said firmly.
Stringbean's mind tumbled just like that tumble weed on a windy day, trying to come up with new excuses. He could forget about telling Theo he deserved a vacation. That idea wouldn't work especially if he intended to take it by himself. Stalling for time, he filled his plate from the fried potato bowl, the corn bowl and grabbed a hunk of steak off the platter. This conversation wasn't at all going the way he wanted it to go. He hated to ask, but he needed to know what Theo had in mind. He cocked his head over one shoulder and asked innocently, "What's settled?"
"We'll both go." Theo grinned at him. "You can relax. I hadn't planned on leaving without you. What you said had some merit to it. I wasn't too eager to make the trip alone. A big, tough man like you just might come in handy along the way." The corners of her mouth twitched as she busied herself filling her plate.
Obviously, she was trying not to laugh at the surprised look on Stringbean's face. "You ain't goin' without me?"
"No. We didn't have a honeymoon. I thought this would be the perfect excuse for us to take a trip we could call a honeymoon. Now we've plans to make so we can leave soon. I need to telegraph Brock we're coming and get a couple of stage tickets for San Jose, California," Theo planned.
"Oh no, not a stage," groaned Stringbean.
Theo laid her fork full of fried potatoes down and gave a deep sigh as she studied her plate. "Why not? How else are we going to get to California?"
"Theo, that's no way to see the country. I've always dreamed about travelin' on horse back when I went to California to see the Pacific Ocean. That's the way to get a right smart look at the country we're travelin' through," he said as sincerely as he could. Another thought came to him. Maybe such an inconvenience might make his city bred wife change her mind about going. Maybe she'd rather send him alone.
"Brock said he wanted to get married soon. He'll wait for me if he knows I'm coming. I need to get there as quick as I can," Theo insisted.
"What's his hurry?"
Theo smiled as she said coyly, "My dear, what is anyone's hurry that contemplates marriage?"
"Reckon you got a point there. Anyhow, it don't take any longer to go by horse. May even take less time what with being able to travel across country where a stage cain't go," Stringbean reasoned. "But if you ain't up to it, I'd be more than happy to make the trip for you."
Theo let out a long, exasperated sigh. "All right, I'll give in only because I love you."
"You're givin' in?" Stringbean said suspiciously. Theo had changed her mind way too easy.
"That's right. I want you to enjoy this trip with me on our honeymoon. We can go by horseback," Theo said, smiling at him.
"If that is what you want. Now I help me make out a list of supplies to take with us. You can go into Sully Town tomorrow to purchase what we need. Make sure and tell Mr. Markum at the general store that anything the ranch needs Maria or Smily can put it on a tab. I'll pay him when I get back. You send that telegram to Brock. I'll write down what to say. Have Smily pick two pack horses out of the remuda. We've got good riding horses, Midnight and Freckles. In a couple days, we'll be all set to leave," Theo planned.
Stringbean waved a bite of steak on his fork at her. "For one thing, one pack horse will be plenty. For another, you cain't ride that thoroughbred on this trip." He stuck the bite in his mouth and ducked his head to cut up his steak so he didn't have to see his wife's flashing eyes.
"Why not?" Theo snapped.
Stringbean swallowed hard. "We wouldn't be on the trail no time until some thief would steal a valuable horse like that out from under you. Might get us both killed in the bargain," he vowed, thrusting another large bite of meat into his mouth.
Theo paused to give that some thought.
Stringbean knew she thought a lot of her horse. Maybe she wouldn't go if she couldn't ride Midnight.
"I really don't want to go without my horse, but I don't want to lose him, either." With resignation in her voice, she gave in. "Fine then. You pick me out a good riding horse. Get everything ready as quick as you can. In this short time, I have to decide who's going to be in charge while we're gone. I need a foreman. Should have picked one right after I shot my last foreman, Hawk Mason."
Deep in thought, Stringbean rubbed his chin. He brightened with an idea. "How about I asked Whiskers Parker to be foreman just until we get back?"
"That lazy pig farmer! You have to be kidding," Theo squealed as sharp as one of Whiskers's pigs.
"Nope. He made a right smart deputy while I was sheriff in Sully Town," Stringbean said earnestly.
"Trust me. Asking him is out of the question. I think Smily Wenndt might be all right. After all, he's worked for me a long time. How long do you think we will be gone?" Theo asked.
"Maybe I'm throwin' a wide loop cause I've never been that direction, but it might take a couple months to get to California. Add some time to find your brother. Once we get him married off, it will be that much time gettin' back home. So whoever you pick will be runnin' the ranch for a good long time." He scratched his sideburn as he paused, thinking about the time line. Maybe he needed to stress that point again and see if Theo would decide to stay home. The ranch meant an awful lot to her. "That's a long spell to be gone. You sure you want to leave the Rocking T long enough to do this? Now me, if I was go alone, no one would miss me."
A hurt look crossed Theo's face. "Is that right? No one here would miss you at all, huh?" She snapped.
"Now Theo I didn't mean it that way. I meant work wise." He never could figure out how he managed to put his foot in his mouth when he was around his wife. He did it so often, he figured it would just save him the trouble of raising his leg each time if he'd just stuffed his foot in his mouth permanently.
Theo's voice held some patience as she tried to explain, "It's my only brother, String, that I'm talking about. I want to attend his wedding for him and me. I want to meet his bride. I want them to meet you, my new husband. Besides, the lawyer's letter states we needs to sign the claim form in front of each other to get Uncle Jackson's estate cleared up." Theo pushed the food around on her plate, looking worried again.
Stringbean asked, "You think there's another reason besides wantin' to get married as soon as possible that Brock seems in a hurry?"
"Brock's letter didn't give an explanation. Why shouldn't he be in a hurry to settle down? He's entitled. He's waited long enough to find the right woman," she said, defending her brother. "I don't want to hold his wedding up any longer than I can help. Now think about what we should take for provisions?"
"Plenty of ammo and a bedroll," Stringbean said, thinking to travel light.
Theo pursed her mouth as if she was ready to explode. She said softly exasperated, "I mean in the way of food so I can tell Maria what to pack."
Stringbean swallowed a bite of steak. "Coffee, bacon, plenty of canned beans, jerky, dried apples, ----."
"Doesn't sound like very appetizing meals," Theo interrupted, eying her half eaten plate of good food.
Stringbean shrugged his shoulders. "Well, we can shoot game along the way for you to cook."
Theo looked startled. "Me cook?"
"You can cook, cain't you?"
"Oh dear, I - I ----." Theo paused. Her eyes traveled back and forth before they lit on the kitchen door. She brightened. "I have an idea. Let's take Maria with us to do the cooking. It'll be just like eating at home."
Stringbean darted a glance toward the door and hissed, "Now you're the crazy one. We're not taking that loco cook with us. I want to get to California and back all in one piece. Don't want to spend my nights not sleepin' cause I'm worried about that woman in a bedroll close by, plottin' to do me in while I'm asleep. It's bad enough here in the house where I've got walls and a closed door I can lock between me and her when she's in one of her temper fits."
"Fine!" Theo snapped at him. She spotted Maria watching them intently from the doorway. The maliciously questioning look Maria held on Stringbean made Theo soften her tone, "Everything is all right, Maria. Mr. Hooper and I are just disagreeing over how to plan a trip we're taking soon."
Nodding that she understood, Maria back out of sight. With his eyes trained on the kitchen door, Stringbean tried to relaxed as he finished his meal.
A few days later just after daybreak, Stringbean yelled in the ranch house entry door. "Theo, got the horses out here. I'm ready to leave."
Theo appeared in the parlor doorway. Not much was different about her appearance from any other work day. She had on a buckskin jacket for cool mornings and evenings over a light blue chambray shirt and jeans with a black hat on her head.
What caught Stringbean's eye was the pearl handled, nickel plated six shooter in a holster on Theo's hip. He'd seen the pistol she wore occasionally. It wasn't that fancy. "Where did you get that gun?"
"David gave it to me for my birthday one year. He said I might need it. I had my other pistol so I laid it away until now. Have to have some protection and I can't very well carry my hand bag with my derringer in it on this trip. How do I look?" Theo turned in a circle.
"Like any other cowhand cept for one thing," Stringbean said.
He shook his head. "All that blond hair stickin' out from under your hat won't do. It's a dead give away that you ain't a man."
"I never in my life wanted to look like or be a man. Is that important right now?" Theo puzzled cryptically.
"It might be for you when we run into rough hombres along the way that don't know us. They don't often meet up with a good lookin' woman out on the trail," Stringbean said with meaning.
"I'll be back in a minute." Theo hurried up the stairs.
"Tarnation, Theo, don't take all day. We need to get goin'," Stringbean yelled after her. He stepped into the hallway and leaned against the wall. Crossing his feet at the ankles, he busied himself, rolling and lighting a cigarette as he prepared to wait. All the time, he mumbled, "Just when I thought she was ready to go, she has to back track. No tellin' how long it will take her to make up her mind about changin' her looks. I should know when to keep my mouth shut. We could have been way down the trail by now."
In just a few minutes, Theo came down the stairs, wearing her hat tucked down tight to her ears. Only fringes of her blond hair stuck out from under the hat brim. She whipped the hat off to show Stringbean she'd braided her hair. The braids wrapped around the top of her head and were secured with hair pins.
"How do I look now?" She chirped, proud of her camouflage.
"Reckon, it will do," Stringbean conceded. "It'll have to."
Early morning was chipper enough to see their breath when they talked. Stringbean and Theo loped along side by side. He on Freckles and Theo on the big, red, line back dun he'd pick out for her. They exchanged smiles, enjoying the ride and feeling an exhilarating sense of adventure ahead of them.
The warmth from days of sunshine made fields of pink bitter root blossoms amid stemy blue lupines peek out of the grass. Blooming wild rose bushes were pink splotches, dotting the coulees. As the couple rode across neighboring ranches, they scattered peaceful cattle herds. With calves at their sides, the cows went back to contentedly grazing on lush, fast growing, knee high grass as soon as the riders got out of their way.
The couple came to the road that led to Sully Town. It forked just before town. The one fork headed south, working its way toward Texas. So far, they hadn't passed any other travelers. At the fork, they crossed the road, disappeared into the thick timber and headed west.