By Betty McMahon Buman
He had the day all planned. Or rather it was planned for him. Unlike the bankers in town, ranchers didn't put their daily activities on a calendar. Even though no day was like any other, ranching still had a rhythm as predictable as the sun rising over the Floridas that bounded the east side of the ranch.
Within that rhythm, unexpected things happened. Like every spring, he helped birth a half-dozen calves whose mothers wandered out into the mesquite. When and where they arrived was not decreed—but the fact that it happened every year was predictable.
He knew what was expected of him. He'd roped, branded and herded cattle for 19 years on his father's ranch in Galisteo. That was before he hired out on his own when his father moved into town and the bank took what was left of his ailing ranch.
Now, he'd settled into a comfortable flow, working for Will. And month after month, little occurred to upset the ranch's underlying day-after-day rhythm.
Recently, she'd intruded into his thoughts, upsetting the harmonious flow he'd established for himself. And tonight he would put those thoughts into action.
He'd rolled out of bed as usual about 5 a.m. Pulled on his boots, jeans, shirt. Stepped outside in the early morning desert coolness. Walked over to the water tank by the windmill. He picked up a dipper hanging on a wooden post and pulled it through the dust blanketing the water. Emerging with a fairly fresh scoop, he poured some over his head and neck and splashed the rest on his face and through his hair. He did a cursory swipe across his two-day-old beard with a grimy towel hanging on a nail next to the bunkhouse door. He plopped his battered Stetson on his head.
He thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to have the whole place to himself. Will had let Ken go, what was it, a year ago? Now, with a little help at branding time, the two of them handled the drastically reduced herd. Once the drought broke, they'd build the herd back up. And he'd have to share the bunkhouse with more hands. That was another predictable thing about ranching. The boom-or-bust cycle dependent upon rain falling out of the sky.
The air was redolent of frying bacon when he stomped up the wooden steps and across the porch into the house. Will was slopping up the last of his gravy with half a biscuit. She had left his plate on the table, beside Will's, heaped with fried potatoes, bacon, beans and biscuits. Enough to keep him going until tonight—with only a couple of biscuits and a can of beans tucked under the wagon seat to stave off the day's hunger. He picked up his cup of hot coffee and took a sip.
"When you're checkin' the fence over west, see if the coyotes have kilt any calves, won't ya?" Will said. "They've been pretty active lately and Lord knows we can't afford to lose any more."
"Um-hmm. Heard 'em close last night. I'll pack my Winchester. Sure to get a shot at a couple of 'em."
"Be sure 'n take enough wire in case the windmill up there needs fixin.'"
He nodded. He knew what he needed to take, and Will knew he knew. Twice his age, Will was like his own father. He respected and admired him, and the feeling was mutual.
What happened next, though, made his world wobble on its axis.
"Mary!" Will shouted into the next room.
She appeared in the doorway, cradling six-month-old Charlie. She patted him on the back, cooing to him to stop whimpering, while she peered up at her husband through a mane of black hair that cascaded across the baby.
"I'm takin' that broken-down harness into town today," Will said. "I'm hopin' they can fix it by tomorrow. If they can, I'll be back tomorrow, late."
Will turned to him, talking so she could hear.
"You'll eat in the bunkhouse. She'll leave somethin' for you on your table," he said, nodding toward his young wife.
Will slapped him on the back. "Hope you can do with biscuits and beans for a coupla days. Just 'til I get back."
"That's okay. That's good. Beans and biscuits'll be fine."
His remote corner of southwest New Mexico was a lonely place. Even though the modernizing 1950s were on the horizon, town was still a couple of hours away in Will's rickety 1940 pickup. And he liked it that way. Born to the lonely life, he thrived on it and couldn't imagine living any other way.
But as he dwelled on the sublime contentment that ranch work gave him, his mind drifted to her. Right now, she'd be doing the drudge work she'd bought into when she married Will a year and a half ago. Carrying water, cooking on the ancient range, tending the scraggly garden, caring for Charlie, and trying to keep ahead of the interminable dust that filtered through every crack in the aging adobe. All without benefit of neighbors or kin.
He'd learned how much that life affected her when he'd run an errand for her last month and again a couple of weeks ago when he was in town. It seemed innocent enough—pick up a record for her that she'd ordered through the mail addressed to General Delivery. He regretted doing it behind Will's back. "He doesn't like me buying this music," she'd said. But if it gave her some pleasure, he decided to do it for her.
He lay back on his bunk, waiting for full dark. He knew from the last time that she preferred the darkness and the cooler breezes the desert night would bring.
About nine, he went outside and looked up toward the house. A dim light was burning in the living room. He could see her shadow moving behind the curtains.
It was time.
He pulled on his boots. Running his fingers through his hair, he put on his hat and quietly made his way toward the house. Like before, she had pulled the big boxy Victrola away from the wall into the center of the room. Its top was propped open.
Like before, he approached the house cautiously, not knowing what kind of reception he'd receive. And like before, he paused on the top step and waited. Last time, his hesitation had cost him his nerve and he never advanced beyond the top step.
But tonight, he was emboldened by the music she had ordered. This time, she had sent him a message.
He leaned against a porch post, gathering his courage. The night was so still, he thought he heard a coyote stalking across the desert in search of its evening meal. A slight breeze rustled the muslin curtains, causing them to flutter at the open window.
His eyes followed her as she opened the front door of the Victrola, knelt and reached inside. She pulled out the record he had brought for her and caressed it against her chest. His heart expanded, knowing he was responsible for the delight she was feeling at this moment.
She withdrew the record from its jacket and put it on the Victrola's turntable. He watched as she wound up the machine with the crank on the side, then turned it on so the turntable began to revolve. Carefully, she swung the needle arm across the record and a melancholy sound floated out into the night.
It was now or never.
Watching her through the window, he took a step toward the door. Just as he lifted his hand to knock, she walked across the room where Charlie gurgled in his cradle. She picked him up, cuddling the boy to her breast as she slowly began moving around the room to the measured rhythm of a bluesy guitar. The intimacy of the moment confounded him, and he again hesitated. He watched and listened as the words spilled out of the machine:
She clung to her baby, softly humming along with Hank Williams as he crooned his anthem of loneliness into the New Mexico night.
When the song finished, she moved to the machine, cranked it again, and replayed it, repeating the process again and again, until finally, spent, she turned off the Victrola and rolled it back against the wall.
When she turned off the light, he crept back to the bunkhouse, wrapping disquiet around himself like a quail tucking her young under her feathers. And he knew deep in his heart that the chasm created by the old adobe threshold was one he'd never hurdle, no matter how many opportunities the future presented.