Thursday, December 14, 2017

More of Old Sassy Pants

Last week’s posting of the Prologue to Donald T. Morgan’s novel, Old Sassy Pants, got a reaction from readers. Some of you asked for another dose of the story, so I’m giving Don one more bite of the apple as a guest blogger. He’s given us Chapter 1 of the book. I’ve been told readers will tolerate around 600 words before flaking off. This chapter runs considerably longer than that, but I promised to include it all. So please take the time to read it.

You will note from the sub-heading that the chapter predates the Prologue we read last week.

Courtesy of Pixabay

By Donald T. Morgan

Chapter 1

The Wagon Wheel Ranch, some weeks earlier

While struggling to work out the niche where I fit on my first visit to dad’s ranch, I hung around the Wagon Wheel cookhouse as much as I figured they’d put up with me.
The place was full of all these great odors like our kitchen back in Kansas City—except they were different. Out here, the nose-twitching smell of chili and onions and sizzling meat and potatoes permeated everything, including tablecloth and clothing. Mrs. Mulhoon’s—she was our KC cook—was yeasty and permeated with other herbs and spices. She always shooed me out of her kitchen, claiming I snacked on things and ruined my appetite. She served our formal meals in the dining room or the breakfast nook. And in the Weldon Prince Temple household, all meals were formal.
But out here, the cookhouse was the dining room—at least for the working hands—so I usually came over here to I stuff my face instead of eating up at the ranch house. Even on the rare occasions one or the other of my parents was on the ranch, I preferred the company of this rowdy crew. They kept the rafters rocking.
Today, by the time Pablo Garcia and I chaired up, the supply of rib eye steaks, mashed potatoes, chili, corn, and homemade bread was already getting low, and we couldn’t have been too late because the topic was still the weather. It doesn’t pay to be last at the supper table with this bunch.
Beans, whose expansive waistline was the best advertisement for his cooking, waved a meat fork as Pab and I started filling our plates with the meager leavings. “Thought you boys’d forgot the way over here.”
“Brian here, probably stopped by the ranch house for a snack ‘fore he came over.” That was Joe, our resident Texan. He was tall and rangy and had reached the ripe old age of twenty-one. I was kind of flattered he noticed I ate a man-sized meal.
An old-timer everyone called Tinker pulled the conversation back on track. “We don’t get rain soon, old man Temple’s gonna come out with a short stick. Them animals ain’t picking up no weight a t’all,” I was dying to ask what his real name was, but I didn’t have the standing for that… not yet.
The hands had a habit of talking about my father as if I weren’t present. At times I felt virtually invisible, something that cut both ways with this crew. On the one hand, it might mean they more or less accepted me, but on the other, they simply might not see me.
“Aw, one good rain, and grass’ll pop up. If it don’t, beef prices’ll jump like they was stuck in the fanny with a pointy stick,” Joe said.
“Tried to rain this morning,” Beans said. “Just couldn’t get over Diablo.” He ladled more potatoes into an empty serving bowl. Fading sunlight from the cookhouse’s two smudged windows lit his pug face.
Although this was my first summer on Dad’s New Mexico ranch, I knew Diablo was the mountain directly to our west.
“Rain gets hung up on that piece a rock.” Joe leaned back and ran a hand through his curly blond hair. “Be a help if it was setting over on the east side; like maybe over in the next county.”
“Don’t matter where it sets. Mountain hogs rain.” Charlie Paul Jones’s voice seemed to come up out of his boots. Charlie was the Wagon Wheel’s Indian. Short, dark, squat, and somewhere between fifty and a hundred and fifty, he originally hailed from one of the Pueblos around here but had been on the Wagon Wheel decades before Dad bought the ranch a year or so back.
“Sucks up rain for pure spite.” Joe lapsed into a heavier drawl.
The old man shrugged. “Mountain... bad.” As Joe got more Texan, Charlie grew more Indian.
“You still figure them mountain spirits or whatever they is lives up there?”
Charlie cut his eyes over at the younger man. “Dunno. Bad place. Charlie keep away.”
Joe let out a snort.
“That’s the plain truth,” Tinker said. I always thought of him as grizzled, like I knew what grizzled was. Everyone agreed he was a first-rate cowboy even if he was as thin as the hat rack in my dad’s office. They were all good hands, according to dad. Or as he put it, “there weren’t any water cooler lizards in the Wagon Wheel stable.”
“I been here six years and hereabouts for fifteen,” Tinker said, “and I don’t recollect nothing good about it. It just hunkers down over yonder oozing evil.”
“That little old pimple?” Joe scoffed. He grabbed his ever-present Stetson from the chair post at his shoulder, plopped the hat on his head, and tipped his chair back on two legs.
For some reason, a trickle of sweat steamed down my right side, and I wished Joe hadn’t smarted off with that remark.
“They’s things a wet-nose like you don’t know nothing about,” Tinker said. “Take them miners, for instance.”
“What miners? You saying they mined up there?”
“For years. Till the place caved in with five of them inside. That mountain’s their graveyard.”
“What’d they mine?” Joe asked. “Nothing around here except some gypsum.”
“Get outa here. Gold up on Diablo? You pulling my leg. I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Don’t make no never mind, you believe it or not. They done it. It was purely rich over there for a while. Took the stuff out by the washtub-fulls. Then it went to petering out. They was talking on closing it down when old Diablo up and done it for them, burying five of them inside for good measure.”
Joe blew through his lips. “That can happen in any mine...any time. That’s why I ain’t tried my hand at it. It pays a sight better than cowboying, but pay ain’t everything.”
“That ain’t all.” Tinker scowled. “You ever see stock graze up there?”
“Sure. Lots of times.”
“Down at the base, maybe, but not up on the slopes. They’s some right pretty parks up there a ways. Never see no round browns up there.”
These guys had a language all their own, but I’d begun to decipher a little of it. Enough to know round browns were cow pies.
“Decent grazing down lower. No need to go climbing.”
That sounded lame even to a newbie like me.
“Now, Joe, you know them sons a Satan do about anything to make life miserable for the hired help. Run off anywheres.” Tinker shook his head. “But not up there.”
“And there ain’t no deer up there, neither,” Beans said. “Not a rack on the mountain.”
Joe’s laughter bounced off the smoke-blacked beams overhead. “I can show you lots of places there ain’t no deer. ‘Specially around hunting time.”
A lull settled over the room for a moment. Spooky. This was the noisiest bunch of men I’d ever seen. They were never quiet except when Dad was around. Then they just answered his questions and shut up. It wasn’t that they didn’t like my father; they just didn’t know him well enough yet. The fact he had bazillions of dollars didn’t rate with this crew.
         He’d made the money himself, so he was a workingman, not somebody living off his ancestors. That would be me. But he wasn’t their kind of workingman; he wasn’t one of them. He was a banker, an investor, the boss, a city man. They gave him the respect and the loyalty paid hands owed the honcho, but it stopped there. The fact they let his only son and heir hang out on their turf was a minor miracle. They could have treated me like they did Dad, clam up and freeze me out so I’d eat up at the big house. But they didn’t do that.
Joe dropped the front legs of his chair to the plank flooring, breaking the quiet. “I don’t know about you fellers, but I ain’t gonna set here and gas all night. There’s a little bitty gal over in Winnie just pining for some comfort.”
Everyone got up with a general scraping of chairs, directing insults and offering suggestions for handling the tall Texan’s lady.
My running buddy, Pablo Garcia, the sixteen-year-old son of our housekeeper and blacksmith-slash-general handyman, had promised to do a chore for his mother, so I was at loose ends. That was okay; I felt like being alone, anyway. Since it was still light, I wandered outside to some high ground behind the bunkhouse where I sat in the dirt and rested my spine against a piñon. That was when my mood took a downer.
Let’s face it. I was exiled. Banished from Kansas City and plopped down out here in West Nowhere, stripped of all the essentials of a civilized life. No cell phone, no computer, no texting, no Tweeting, no Facebook. No nothing! Nothing but an MP3 player and a satellite TV in the ranch house den. Man, that was death by cerebral strangulation.
And why? Just because I’d been caught texting in class. And on the last day of school yet. The Instructor—we didn’t have teachers at Cravens Academy, we had Instructors with a capital “I”—sent me to the Headmaster who promptly called my father.
Like usual, he overreacted, claiming I was turning into an e-zombie. Okay, I texted a lot, but not that much. The old man thought I was a cyber bug living in chat rooms and discussing intimate family affairs with anybody and everybody. Like anybody and everybody gave a crap about Brian Temple’s intimate family affairs. Heck,I wasn't a slug. I played golf and tennis and got my laps in at the country club pool. I collected my share of rays and got in some exercise.
Didn’t matter. The Patriarch instantly trashed my plans, hustled me aboard the company plane, and abandoned me out here in Boondock Flats. And I’d had big plans with my ace bud, Dolph Mason, for the summer break between our freshman and sophomore years. We’d figured on blowing away a skateboard contest with some serious moves, getting in some teen clubbing, hitting a few concerts, and maybe even taking a wagon ride with a couple of girls over at Pumpkin Hollow.
I shifted my weight in the sand, tried to find a more comfortable spot on the piñon supporting my back, and adjusted the volume to my player. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” blared away in my ear, but I wasn’t really listening.  Actually, I was just sitting and staring at nothing until the mountain across the desert claimed my attention.
It wasn’t big like Truchas Peak north of Santa Fe or Sandia over in Albuquerque. It was really nothing but a pustule on the butt-end of the Great Rocky Mountain Range. But even so, something about that rock pile caught my imagination.
Charlie and Tinker had probably been pulling our legs. But maybe not. Being an Indian and all, Charlie was hard for me to read, but Tinker was another matter. The old cowhand had believed what he said. Some of these guys were so superstitious it was downright funny...or weird, as the case may be. I recalled the uneasy feeling I’d experienced when Joe laughed at their concerns.
Then there was that name. El Diablo Blanco...the White Devil. You just had to wonder about a christening like that. The slab of gypsum-laced sandstone crowning the top accounted for the “White,” but the mountain didn’t look particularly rugged except in some indefinable way. Still in all, there had to be a reason for that moniker.
This great little book on place names I’d bought at the airport said people out here in New Mexico were kind of exacting about what they called things. Big Dog Canyon to the south got its name from this giant feral dog that used to haunt the area. That was over a century ago, but it was still Big Dog Canyon to everyone, including the US Geological Survey.
There’s a craggy, volcanic plug southwest of us called Cabezón, which meant “big-headed,” and damned if it didn’t look like a great big head plopped right out there on the desert flats. And Drygulch Wash was where a man named Castillo got himself bushwhacked five generations or so back.
Anyway, just about any place out here had a reason for being called what it was, and so would this tit of a mountain over there. I decided then and there to find out everything there was to know about old Diablo. All of a sudden it wasn’t just a mountain anymore; it was a puzzle worth solving.
I peered through the failing light until my eyes went out of focus and the distance grew as indistinct as my thoughts. Even the blossoming reds and purples and greens of a great sunset failed to pull me from some mystical connection with the mountain. Pablo’s mother finally broke me free of the spell.
“Bri-an.” Mrs. Garcia’s silky voice floated up from the direction of the ranch house. I liked the way she trilled the “r” and broke my name into two distinct syllables. It made me feel she was taking time to savor it. I can’t do it for some reason…the trilling part, I mean. It sounds phony every time, and I can’t stand a phony.
“On my way,” I called.
As I uncoiled, I stopped to give the mountain one last look. Unable to keep my big mouth shut, I put my thoughts into words. “You don’t look so tough. You don’t look like a demon. You’re just an old.…” I paused, searching for a term of derision and settling on my Aunt Millicent’s ultimate expression of annoyance with anyone. “an old sassy pants.”
A low rumble rolled through the coming twilight. Gooseflesh puckered my neck. My mouth went dry. Then I caught sight of giant thunderheads churning over the southern horizon and gave a shaky laugh.
All the same, I had the disquieting feeling some ill-defined challenge had been issued and accepted.


Let Don know if his story continues to hold your interest.

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