RAIL STATION – ‘SCHILLING’ – A TRAIN CHUGS TO A HALT
A tired, bedraggled Kid Curry slides open the door of the freight car just an inch, a furtive glance to ensure no railway employees are watching. No. Saddlebags slung over one drooping shoulder, he opens the door an ex-outlaw width and jumps down. Weary blue eyes move down the small-town platform looking for – ah, there he is. A familiar figure in a silver-trimmed hat raises a hand in greeting. Hannibal Heyes, neither tired nor bedraggled, peels himself from the fence on which he leans and strides towards his partner, a smile dimpling his sun-kissed cheeks.
“Good journey, Kid?”
“I’ve had better.”
“How was the job?”
A look, no make that THE look from the Kid.
“Not so good, huh?” Heyes injects a touch of sympathetic concern into his voice.
“When did us splittin’ up to take two jobs ever turn out good, huh?”
“Mine went fine.”
The frown underneath the brown brim deepens to a glower. “Okay. I guess I shoulda said – when did splittin’ up to take two jobs ever turn out good for ME?”
“Be fair, Kid,” innocent brown eyes meet disgruntled blue, “we did flip for who took the…”
“Yeah! But with WHOSE coin?”
A pause. Mock offense on one side, bristling on the other.
“Did you get the bonus?” asks Heyes, with the air of a man willing to make an effort to keep things friendly.
“Heyes. You can see I ain’t had a shave in days; I reckon you can smell I ain’t had a bath; an’ you just watched me sneak out of a freight car. Do I look like a fella with a $100 bonus in his pocket? Huh? Do I?” The shoulders droop further. “I’m plannin’ to flatten you; I just need some sleep first.”
“There’s no need to get proddy, Kid. Anyhow,” Heyes presses on, forestalling the Kid who is about to argue there dang well IS a need for him to get proddy, “look on the bright side. You’re here now. I’m gonna take you for a cold beer, then for a hot meal …”
Kid Curry brightens. He follows Heyes, who is striding off, presumably in the direction of the promised sustenance.
“There’s a barber’s where you can get a shave and hot tub.”
More lifting of gloom from the blond ex-outlaw.
“We’ll get back to the ranch.”
A blink. “Ranch? What ranch?”
“Didn’t I say? Good news; I already found us a job here.”
Return of the scowl. “YOU finding me a job is not good news …”
Heyes has reached a wagon, the back loaded with supplies. His hand strokes the velvet muzzle of the mare between the shafts.
Kid Curry interrupts his grumbling. “Is this ours?”
A BEER, A BEEFSTEAK, A BARBER-SHAVE AND A BATH LATER
A sleeker, shinier, well-fed and watered Kid Curry sits beside his partner, bowling through fine scenery. He is still gently prodding at Heyes, but now simply in the spirit of: ‘hey, that’s-what-he’s-there-for-huh?’
“I thought we didn’t care for ranch work, ‘cept as a last resort?”
“Unless you got any bright ideas, Kid, I reckon we’re kinda AT our last resort.”
Musing under the brown hat. There is some truth in there.
“Besides,” goes on Heyes, “this is a nice place. A sheriff we’ve never heard of, there’ll be poker come Saturday when the other ranch hands come into town to lose their wages…”
“Uh huh,” nods Curry. No argument with any of that.
“And, if the work’s hard on the back, you’ll find Lazy Wing provides plenty of good food to keep your strength up and soft feather beds for you to rest up at the end of the day. I’ve been there near a week already. Not done me any harm – has it?”
Blue eyes look Heyes up and down. “Pffttt.”
Heyes grins. A pause. Kid’s expression signifies thinking.
“If’n this Lazy Wing place is so good, how come they’re scrapin’ the barrel and hirin’ you? Let alone takin’ me on, sight unseen. For all they know, I’m another skinny rail who yaks all day and likes to flip a coin to get himself outta anythin’ that means breakin’ sweat.”
“Why aren’t the locals snappin’ up these jobs?” An idea; the Kid gives a resigned shrug, “The pay’s lousy, huh?”
“Twelve dollars a week.”
A purse of the lips from Curry. Not great, but not lousy.
Heyes clears his throat, “I reckon I got hired ‘cos Mizz Matthews and Mizz Dexter are real good judges of charact…”
“We’re workin’ as ranch hands for a pair of females?”
“So – LAST time we did that, I ended up hog-tied with a shotgun on me and you ended up toting nitro for Harry Wagoner!”
“This is nothing like that. These ladies are respectable businesswomen. I told you, I’ve been there nearly a week.”
A stubborn bottom lip is stuck out, “‘T’ain’t fittin’.”
“Oh, Kid!” An annoyingly indulgent smile from the dimpled one. “Don’t be so parochial.”
Kid Curry opens his mouth to deny being paro – er – whatever, furrows his brow, decides not to give Heyes the satisfaction of asking, shuts it again. He shifts in his seat, opens his mouth, changes his mind, closes it. More thinking. With studied nonchalance he asks, “These ladies, they’re both single, huh?”
Another shift in the seat. Even more nonchalance, “Are they – y’know – good lookin’?” Dark brown eyes roll. “Not that it matters, o’course,” backtracks Curry.
“I told you, Kid. It’s nothing like last time. Ann Matthews and Jill Dexter are NOT Janet and Crazy Lorraine. They’re real nice ladies who run a ranch. Period.”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh! I’m only makin’ conversation. No need to get – er…”
“That’s the word.” Pause. “So – are they?”
“Are they what?”
“Y’know – lookers?”
“I guess they’ve two of everything they’re supposed to have two of and it’s all arranged roughly in the right order. But, they’re not…” Heyes stops.
“Look, Kid. They’re respectable ladies, not exactly in the first flush of youth, who are NOT interested in getting sweet-talked by the help…”
Kid Curry’s face holds a hint of: ‘Turned you down, huh?’, but he says nothing as Heyes goes on.
“They’re offering jobs that’d see us safe through the summer without much danger of getting spotted by bounty hunters, chased by posses, or having to sleep out in the rain listening to each other’s stomachs growl.”
The Kid takes the hint; according to Heyes, romance is off the agenda. A short pause.
“This ranch – er – Lazy Wing, was it? Cattle or horses?”
“Huh?” Heyes turns an innocent gaze on his partner. “Glorious day, huh?”
“Sure is. What are we lookin’ after, cattle or horses?”
“Erm,” Heyes twists his head to chirrup at the gray, “…Erds.”
“Yeah, but herds of what? Cattle or horses?”
“Oh, they’re – erermh – ‘erds.”
A crease appears on Curry’s brow. The breeze is balmy, but it has still carried away half his partner’s answer. Or – dawning suspicion – has it?
“We’re not farmin’ sheep are we? I mean, sure roundin’ ’em up is lighter work, but all that bleatin’ gets on my…”
“Nah! It’s not sheep. I told you, it’s – erermh…” Heyes leans forward to brush invisible dust from his pants. His lips move.
A frustrated Curry gets louder with every try. “For Pete’s sake, Heyes, quit mumblin’ and tell me…” He tails off. Something has caught his eye in the distance. It’s… It’s… “Heyes! What the Sam Hill is THAT!”
“That?” Guileless brown eyes watch several feet of gangly legs lollop across the grass, bringing the spherical fluff of feathers topped by a long, long neck and absurdly small head closer. The head tilts to one side. Huge eyes regard a gaping Kid Curry, curiously. A sunbeam sends reflections bouncing from a polished belt buckle. Whip-quick, a beak dips. A fearless blond ex-outlaw simultaneously recoils and coils to protect his important little places with something that, in a lesser man, would be a squeak. “That’s an ostrich, Kid. I told you. We’re ranching birds.”
A FEW MINUTES LATER – IN A YARD BESIDE A SERIES OF BARNS
“Of all the dumb jobs you’ve roped me into, Heyes…”
Hannibal Heyes is unhitching the mare from the traces. The backside of Kid Curry is still firmly fixed to the wagon seat, his arms folded, stubbornly.
“…this has gotta be the dumbest. Whoever heard o’ ranchin’ birds?”
“Are you done?” queries Heyes, moving the horse into a corral.
Apparently not. “And if you’re gonna get us a dumb job on a dumb bird farm, wouldn’t ya think you’d pick chickens? Or…”
“‘Cos, once you ARE done,” Heyes’ voice is all mildness, “You could make a start unloading.”
“…Or turkeys? Or some other dang bird normal folk have use for?”
“You know, you could even start unloading without having to quit griping.”
“Not pick some kinda overgrown cat’s fur-ball on stilts… HEY! Will you quit it?!”
This last ejaculation is aimed at an ostrich. Our original bird has followed the wagon, is circling and has now made a beak grab for Curry’s hat. She blinks at the raised voice. One scaly foot rises, paw-like, to hover, beseechingly, in the air. The flexible neck draws her head back. If an ostrich can look reproachful – picture that look.
“That’s Ophelia,” puts in Heyes. A grin, “She likes you, Kid.”
“SHE?” Curry stares at Ophelia; she stares back. Another blink. “How the Sam Hill can you tell?”
“It’s easy,” begins Heyes, “the gals have…”
“Heyes, I don’t care what the gals have! What I care about is… QUIT IT!” The brown hat is rescued from a second attack and stowed safely between Curry’s boots. Ophelia’s eyes fix on the newly washed blond curls. “What kinda dumb jackass gets a dumb job…?” Curry feels something stir on his head; insect maybe? A hand reaches up to swat it away. “…On a dumb – HEY!” The Kid realises his hair is being tousled by an exploratory beak. He jumps down from the wagon and scowls up at the inquisitive ostrich. Something taps him on the shoulder. He spins 180 degrees and fixes on yet another long downy neck. Blue eyes rise to meet another dewy dark gaze amid tufty feathers. A bony beak opens in a silent squawk.
“This one’s Olivia,” introduces Heyes, hefting the first box from the wagon.
Wings are fluffed. A trailing end of Curry’s bandana is tweaked.
“Guess I was wrong; looks like you’re gonna be a success with the ladies at Lazy Wing after all, Kid,” teases the silver-tongued one. “Now you’ve been persuaded off your perch, any chance of you working while whining?”
An absolute classic example of the ‘look’ is thrown at Heyes as a brown hat is tugged firmly back over the tempting curls.
Then, “Hello! Mister Smith!” A pleasant contralto voice is heard.
“Hello!” And another, possibly a mezzo-soprano this time.
Heyes raises his hand in friendly greeting. Kid Curry wheels round and wipes the scowl off his face as two women in sprigged calico run, gracefully, towards them.
“This is Mizz Matthews,” supplies Heyes, “And this,” he indicates the taller of the two, “is Mizz Dexter.”
Curry takes them in. Like his partner said; not in the first flush of youth and probably not raving beauties even when they were, but – all the same. Kid’s opinion is evidenced by the subtlest of signs. A shade of shoulder squaring, a suggestion of stomach sucking, the hint of a flourish as the hat is swept from the blond head, the extra winning quality added to the Curry smile.
Ann Matthews holds out her hand, “You must be Thaddeus Jones. We’ve heard so much about you.”
“Uh huh?” The Kid realises that – and the ‘what-tale-have-you-been-spinning’ glance he threw at Heyes – came out a touch suspicious. “I mean; the pleasure’s all mine, ma’am.”
“Finding Mister Smith so keen to take the job was such a relief. You see, our foreman broke his leg and went to stay with his daughter while it mends, and our other hand decided to go stake a claim in the Dakotas. All at the busiest time of the year,” explains Ann.
Wide smile from Jill, “Mister Smith’s been simply wonderful.”
Smug waves emanate from the fella with the dimples.
“Uh huh?” Curry’s enthusiasm for the wonderfulness of Heyes is underwhelming.
“And hearing he had a friend, also looking for work – well! Our luck sure is in!”
“Aw, dunno ’bout that, ma’am. I reckon the luck’s on our side, huh, Joshua?”
“You see, Jill and I have problems hiring. Some hands don’t think women should be running a ranch alone, so won’t come work here.”
“Sheesh, how – how parochial.”
Heyes blinks at his partner, then rolls his eyes.
“Exactly, Mister Jones. And other cattlemen think it beneath their dignity to farm ostriches. I’m so glad you don’t feel that way.”
Ophelia, neck sinuous as a serpent, curves her head to peer into the Kid’s face. He draws back, but manages a smile.
“Nah!” beams Heyes. “You can see for yourself, ma’am, Thaddeus has a real affinity with the birds.”
A quick glower directed partner-wards, then a return of the smile for Ann and Jill, “Well, ladies, I’d better get on.”
Is the Kid hefting boxes with an extra show of muscular grace to impress the new bosses? Hard to say. Let us simply join Heyes in a little fence leaning and enjoy the view of the blond breaking sweat.
THE RANCH HOUSE – SUPPER TIME
“You see Mister Jones, what with the current fashions for ladies…” The speaker is Jill Dexter.
“Jill means feather-trimmed hats and the passion for boas,” chips in Ann Matthews.
“…Whole evening cloaks trimmed with feathers if you can afford it,” continues Jill, “There’s a real demand for fine plumes. Ann was brought up on a cattle ranch. So she understands dealing with livestock. I’m city-bred, but have contacts with the fashion houses.”
“She means she handles the business side,” smiles Ann.
“Since I can count past ten and Ann works on the ancient; one, two, many, system…”
“Hey! At least I can hitch a wagon without half an hour of unladylike cussing and checking the manual to see if I’ve the horse right way ’round!”
A feminine version of the ‘look’. Mock frowns belied by affectionate smiling eyes.
“Do you realise, Thaddeus,” this is Heyes, an extra sparkle in his voice as he speaks on a topic close to his heart, “the value per pound of tail feathers is almost equal to the value per pound of diamonds!” The blond one is too busy chewing for speech, but raised fair eyebrows show he is impressed.
“AND,” Jill Dexter carries on, “what makes things perfect for a city softy like me, the tail feathers are plucked in the molting season. It doesn’t even hurt the bird.”
“So, all we hafta do is keep ’em happy an’ healthy?” muses the Kid. He mops up the last of what was clearly an excellent stew. A glance around the ranch house. Everything is spick and span and there are plenty of what Kid Curry would doubtless call ‘women’s touches’. Compared to most places we see the boys stay, this is a haven of homely comfort. He meets Heyes’ eyes. Heyes is radiating told-you-so vibrations. His partner gives a ‘guess-you-were-right’ shrug.
“Well, there’s a little more to it than that…” starts Ann.
Before Curry can fully switch off the ‘guess-you-were-right’ smile, Jill interrupts, “We’ll talk work later. Ann’s baked you a ‘welcome’ cake. Let’s have that first!”
“And I’ll go get the coffee,” chips in Ann.
Heyes half stands as the women rise. Curry goes further; he scoots ’round to pull out Ann’s chair. A sparkling smile with an extra dollop of blue-eyed charm. The ladies leave the table.
As Curry retakes his seat Heyes leans in and hisses, crossly, “For Pete’s sake, quit preening every time Mizz Matthews smiles at you. The woman’s old enough to be your mo…” Forehead furrowing indicative of mental arithmetic. “…mother’s younger sister.”
“So? You know what they say ’bout which fiddles play the best tunes. Since when did we not like older women?”
“Since I told you neither of ’em’s interested in flirting with the help.”
“Jill Dexter likes you, Heyes.”
“They BOTH like me. They BOTH like you. Don’t mean they wanna do more’n bake us a cake or make us coffee, does it? Get over yourself.”
The Kid is not convinced. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’, Heyes.”
“You’re THINKING stuff.”
“I still ain’t DOIN’ nothin’. They’re bein’ nice. I’m bein’ nice back.”
“Hmm.” Doubt in the dimpled one, but the Kid does have truth on his side. “Keep it that way. Now shaddup, they’re coming back.”
Our point of view moves away; we see, but do not hear, the smiling conversation as coffee is poured. We note a sharp glance from keen brown eyes, but Kid Curry is, indeed, just being nice.
THE NEXT DAY. BACK AT THE RAIL STATION.
Our boys sit on a bench. The Kid is casting wary glances up and down. “Don’t seem to be no one around.”
“We’re not robbing this train, Kid. We’re collecting a – a legitimate delivery.”
Curry opens his mouth for a riposte, but is forestalled by two cowboys striding onto the platform. Then, two more. Civil hat tipping and masculine ‘howdy’ grunts, then one set of new arrivals settle on the bench to the left of Heyes, the other pair settle to the right of the Kid.
“Fine day,” remarks Arrival One.
“Sure is,” agrees Heyes.
“You fellas work around here?” asks Arrival Two.
“Uh huh.” “Yup.” From Curry and Arrival Three in unison.
“You’re waiting for the noon train?” Arrival Two, again (what a blabbermouth, huh?)
“Reckon we all are,” replies Heyes, affably.
“Me an’ Pa, we’re pickin’ up a prize Hereford bull. Gonna improve the stock out at Twin Fork,” confides Arrival Two, cheerily.
A pinging tobacco spit from Arrival Three. “Uh huh? We’re picking up a new breedin’ stallion – thoroughbred – for Five-Bar-T.”
“Yeah? Sheesh!” The little sweetie that is Arrival Two is disproportionately pleased. “Hey, imagine if you two fellas,” a youthful grin is directed at Heyes and Curry, “were here to pick up some’n for stud too? Huh? That’d be a real – er – er…”
“Coincidence,” supplies Heyes.
“Uh huh?” Not very bright, but certainly good-hearted chortle. “A real co-in-side-dence! Huh? We’d hafta call this here train,” chortle, winding up for a supposed witticism, “the love train! Huh? Huh? If’n you were pickin’ up some’n for stud too.”
Embarrassed shuffle of a jean-clad backside on the bench, “Guess so,” says the Kid, carefully, “if we were.” Blue eyes slide sideways to meet brown. Brown eyes slide sideways to meet blue.
The wide friendly grin is still splitting the freckled face of Arrival Two. “I ain’t seen you two fellas afore have I? Which ranch are ya workin’ at?”
He is annoying, but an ex-outlaw would have to be much meaner than either of our two to snub this boyish human Labrador. There is, however, reluctance in Curry’s eyes and even the supposedly nonchalant Heyes is poker-faced. Arrival One, whom we previously heard addressed as ‘Pa’, notes this.
“Zeke,” he grunts, “mind your business, son.” A half-apologetic glance at Heyes and Curry.
“We work out at – Hey, looks like the train’s arriving, huh?” says Heyes to Zeke. The ploy succeeds. The crestfallen look disappears and, pushing back his hat, Zeke hurries to stare down the line.
The five older men also stand. Adjusting of pants, hooking of thumbs in belts. Pa advances to join Zeke. The two cowboys from Five-Bar-T also stride forward as the train wheels slow and squeal and churn to a halt. Our two boys are, discretely, hanging back.
The platform becomes a bustle of activity. Crates are hefted onto trolleys. Shouts of greeting. Barked instructions. Our point of view zooms in on the pair from Five-Bar-T. One is signing paperwork. The other pats the flank of a magnificent stallion, as the animal is brought out of a car. The horse is led, whinnying and tossing his mane in the summer breeze, past our boys.
“Pretty fancy, huh?” grunts Arrival Three.
“Sure is,” agrees Heyes, genuine admiration in his voice.
Kid Curry contents himself with a low whistle.
Our focus moves to where Zeke and Pa are, respectively, excitedly and calmly, urging a magnificent bull out of HIS car. The man who has guarded him on the journey is, with due wariness, encouraging from behind.
“Wooo-weee-wooo!” enthuses Zeke. To Kid Curry, “Sheesh! Just look at him, Mister!”
“Fine beast,” agrees Curry, respectfully returning the stare of two dark eyes glowering beneath ruddy curls and gleaming ivory horns.
“Fine?! I should say so. It’s times like these you get to feel – y’know – that being a cowboy is …well, it kinda makes ya – y’know! Sheesh!” He turns to the Kid. “Don’t it make you feel kinda proud? Working with animals like this,” a finger points at the stallion, “an’ – an’ like that!”
Blue eyes slide down the length of the train: crates, men chatting, general busyness. The Kid clears his throat, “Guess so.”
The four cowboys move off. A hint of relaxation and relief on our boys’ faces, when…
“Any’un here from LayZee Wing Ranch?” The piercing yell travels the length and breadth of the station. All heads turn. All heads except two turn in the direction of the booming voice. “We’ve a d’liv’ry here for LayZee Wing!” The two rogue heads (no pun intended), one dark, one fair, are examining the clouds, their boots, an advertisement pasted to a wall.
The cowboys have slowed in their walk away. Interested glances thrown over shoulders. ‘Lazy Wing?’ ‘Didn’t them two females…?’ ‘Ain’t they farmin’ them…?”
“LAYZEE WING? HEY! YOU TWO FELLAS?” The bellow is indisputably heading in an ex-outlaw direction. “You from Layzee Wing?”
Hopes of waiting for an almost empty platform evaporate. Heyes assumes a nonchalant smile. The Kid, more flush in his cheeks than usual, squares his shoulders. They stride towards the source of the hollering. Eyes follow them.
“You gotta get this fella out. We cain’t move him. Whaddya call this, anyhow?”
“Whatya collectin’?” This is Zeke, also loud, from the opposite edge of the scene. “Bull? Horse?” A cheery laugh, “It ain’t a sheep is it?”
No. It is not a sheep. If only.
“C’mon, Handsome,” encourages Heyes, a black hat disappearing into an open car from which straws flutter out, “c’mon. You’ll love it at Lazy Wing.”
By now the boys have the undivided attention of everyone there.
“Don’t just stand there, say something encouraging, Thaddeus.”
Still more flush in his cheeks, Curry makes the chirruping sound with which one usually encourages poultry to come to a bucket of grain. A scrabbling sound from inside. More straw floats in the breeze. Heyes gives the Kid a ‘well done’ glance and joins in the chirrups.
Audience on tenterhooks. Then…
A comical head, all beak and eyes, peers around the car door. Up. Down. Blinking left. Blinking right. Beak opening in a silent gape of surprise. A scaly foot emerges, hovering high above the platform. Shall I? Shan’t I? Toes flex. More wide-eyed gaping from the bug-eyes.
A titter from one of the watchers. Amused murmurs. More titters. Explosive squawk of laughter from Zeke, who goes so far as to sweep off his hat to have something to beat against his leg to fully express his enjoyment of the visual joke.
The Kid wheels and subjects Zeke to the full force of his icy blue ‘dangerous’ look. Zeke raises a hand in apology and is making a genuine effort to cough back the chortling when…
A desperate splurt of laughter forces its way out from the youth. Even the staid face of Pa twitches with mirth. Giggles from girls. Guffaws from guys. Kid Curry, not used to having his best gunslinger’s stare elicit such a reaction, deepens the frown.
“You thinkin’ of sharin’ the joke, son?”
Zeke points about a foot to the left and then to the right of the Kid. Too far gone to speak, he flaps his arms indicatively.
Curry glances over one shoulder; feathery softness rising in a graceful arc. He glances over the other; the same, gently flapping plumage. He is trying to do his standoff stare with wings. All he needs to complete the effect is a halo. He looks up. From a height of near eight feet six, huge eyes look back and blink. An exploratory beak comes to peck at the low-slung and always so well-polished gun. Silent questioning gape of the beak, as if to say, ‘what’s this?’ The Kid flinches away. The edge of the thong tying down his gun twitches like a tempting worm and…
A yelp, followed by explosive laughter from the audience.
There are circumstances in which no man, NO man, can sustain the role of strong, silent Western hero. Kid Curry gives it up. “Heyes,” he hisses, under cover of the surrounding hilarity, “let’s get’em outta here. THEN, I need to make good on that promise to flatten ya!”
THE MAIN STREET OF THE TOWN – OUTSIDE THE BANK
Heyes tries to look as if he is NOT with the fella attached by a rope to an eight foot six ostrich. Curry wears the mingled puzzlement and proddiness of an ex-outlaw wondering how the Sam Hill he ended up holding the bird halter. Passersby check out him and the ostrich. Some politely hide their smiles; others do not.
“Beats me why we’re pickin’ up another of these dumb birds anyhow,” Kid tilts down the brim of his hat with one finger to give him a shade more cover and directs a glower up the neck towering above him. “We fed near on two dozen of the dang brutes this morning. Seems like enough to me. Nope, strike that. Seems like two dozen too many.”
“Ah, but they’re all hens. They lost their buck, Orsino, last month and this fella’s come all the way from New York to…”
“Huh? They don’t have ostriches in New York.”
“No, Kid. They have ostriches in Africa. They have the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and a port in New York. Fill in the blanks, can’t you? Now, ostriches are polygamous, a successful male guarding a harem of up to seven hens. They mate from March to September…”
“Sheesh, no wonder this Orsino tipped up his toes at the end o’ May. Musta been plumb tuckered out,” grins the Kid. Then, “Heyes, where are you gettin’ all this guff?”
Heyes slides a book from his pocket and shows Curry the title: ‘A Simple Guide to Ostrich Breeding & Rearing.’
“Uh huh. Shouldn’t ya have a plain brown cover on that?”
Anything further is forestalled by Jill Dexter coming out from the bank.
She hands over a clutch of notes, “Here are your wages.” Happy smiles and murmurs from the boys. “Now, I still have to go have Mrs. Rodgers fit my new alpaca, AND I want to find a surprise for Ann, because next week’s her…” She tails off, seeing the expression on two ex-outlaw faces. A rueful smile, “And, you don’t want to stand around waiting for me to do women’s stuff.”
“Not a problem, ma’am.”
“Take your time, ma’am.”
The demurs of the ex-outlaws are gallant, if untruthful.
“Listen, why don’t we tether this handsome fellow outside the dressmaker’s, in the shade with a bucket of water? I’ll ask young Carrie Rogers to watch him. He’ll be fine. Won’t you, gorgeous?”
“And you two can take a little refreshment.”
A mute, though happy, exchange between the boys. An employer that pays AND gives breaks. Okay, it comes with feathered embarrassment, but – all the same!
Our boys stride through the bat-wing doors. The saloon is quiet, as one would expect on a weekday. The barkeep serves two cold beers and returns to his paper. A rather ‘off-duty’ saloon gal sits with three cowboys, half watching them play blackjack, but giving more attention to buffing her nails. She glances up, registers the attractiveness of the customers just arrived and sashays over.
“Hi, I’m Kitty. Buy me a drink an’ I sit on your lap an’ purr.”
The boys grin at this and signal the barkeep, who pours something feminine-looking. Kitty does not, in fact, sit on either lap and, indeed, the tone was more passing-the-time friendly than shall-we-do-a-little-business flirtatious. Instead, she slithers between Heyes and Curry and studies first one, then the other.
“Gonna tell me your names?”
“I’m Thaddeus Jones and this is – hey, never mind who he is, huh?”
“Joshua Smith,” supplies Heyes, “A cat-lover, entirely at your, service.”
A giggle, “Well, ain’t you two just the cutest things ever?”
“I reckon that’s half true, Kitty,” smiles Curry.
“Same here,” dimples Heyes. “Half true. ‘Course, me and this other fella, we may not agree over which half.”
Another delighted giggle. A swallow of drink. The voice becomes more matter-of-fact. “Haven’t seen you fellas in here before. Staying in Schilling long?”
Heyes smiles, “Dunno. A few weeks maybe. We’ve got us jobs out on one of the ranches.”
“You’ll be around for the fourth then?”
“I reckon so,” confirms the Kid. “There’ll be celebrations, huh?”
“Oh, sure.” A mop of untidy curls nod towards a poster displayed on the wall. “There’s the contest for the Schilling Ranch Cup.”
“What’s that?” Heyes’ sharp eyes scan the print.
“Well,” giggle, “it’s a kinda contest, for ranches. It got started by old man Schilling, who the town’s named after. An’ the winner wins this, er…” Kitty drains her glass and looks hopeful.
Signaling the barkeep for a refill, Heyes nods at this utter lack of useful information, “The winner wins a cup? Uh huh; with you so far, Kitty.”
She catches on to the gentle teasing and gives another giggle. “It’s a big thing round here. The ranch owners, they all like to get their names on the Schilling Cup an’…”
Curry catches Heyes’ eye and flicks a glance at the blackjack table. A cowboy who originally ignored Kitty’s departure is looking over at every giggle. A scowl deepens between his brows. Now, six foot five and 290 pounds of solid muscle, pushes back a chair and swaggers over. His friends nudge each other, turn to watch. Curry and Heyes keep their faces friendly. Belligerent thumbs are hooked into a belt. A pugnacious jaw is thrust out.
“These guys botherin’ you, Kitty?”
“Nope. They’re talkin’ civil to me. Which is more’n you were doin’, Buck.”
“I don’t like fellas messin’ with MAH gal.” A stubby finger pokes the Kid in the chest with every syllable.
The Kid, not looking for a fight, but not appreciating the pokes, grasps and pushes aside the hand, opens his mouth, but finds himself forestalled.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, give it a rest, Buck! I was only passin’ the time o’ day with these boys.”
“Which made our day a little brighter, ma’am,” charms Heyes.
“You see how pretty Joshua talks? Why can’t YOU talk like that, Buck? Ya big lummox! Besides! If’n you’re that keen to keep me a one-man gal, why ain’t ya got a ring on this finger?”
“It’ll go with the one she’s put through ya nose, Buck!” is chortled from the table.
Buck shuffles his feet.
Kitty fluffs her hair, “I was tellin’ these boys ’bout the Schillin’ Cup an’ askin’ if’n they was gonna take part.”
“Take part!” A snort of laughter from the table. Hey! Now they have turned around, we have seen Cowboy Two and Cowboy Three before! They are the pair who picked up the prize stallion for Five-Bar-T. “Them two?! Pffftttt!”
“Why not?” protests Kitty.
“Why not?” asks Curry, with deceptive mildness. He receives a scowl from Heyes, but scowls back firmly.
“Because it’s a RANCH contest!”
“And…?!” prompts the Kid, with just a glimpse of the edginess beloved of Kidettes everywhere.
“Well,” snorts Cowboy Two, “you work at Lazy Wing!”
“You’re from Lazy Wing?” echoes Kitty. Another giggle. “Ain’t them birds the dang cutest?”
Buck stops looking cross. A slow grin creases his face.
“You ain’t gonna call that overgrown henhouse a RANCH, are ya?” he says. Another couple of pokes – admittedly, more jovial than threatening – for the Kid, “It’s a tough contest for MEN working real MEN’S jobs. NOT for blue-eyed, baby-faced – er…” His eloquence has run out. “Not for fellas who run round after a passel o’ freak-show giant turkeys for a pair o’ dang fool women who like play at bein’ farmers!”
The Kid squares his shoulders and settles into the mode usually seen before his ‘walk-off’ speech. “I reckon the way I see it, fellas, is…OW!”
The ending is both inelegant and sudden. Almost as if someone very close, not interested in winning profitless debating points with dumb cowboys, or in involving them in a small town contest for no real purpose, had kicked Curry sharply in the ankle.
OUTSIDE IN THE STREET
“He’s a blowhard, Kid. Let him blow!”
The Kid does not look convinced.
“You’d have liked a fight, huh? You wanna get the sheriff over to see who’s causing trouble in the town?”
“Him saying you can’t go in for this Cup bothers you? I read that poster. Are you itching to get thrown off bucking broncos, or run ragged persuading ornery critters they wanna get in a pen? All for the honor of Lazy Wing?”
Brow furrowing from the blond. “I guess not. But…”
“You can’t mind him calling Ophelia and the rest overgrown turkeys – ‘cos you called ’em far worse this morning.”
A contralto voice is heard, “Mister Smith! Mister Jones!”
It is Jill. She is frowning; her foot taps on the boardwalk.
“Have we kept you waiting, ma’am?”
“Not at all. You are punctual to the minute.” Still frowning.
“Shall we load the parcels into the wagon?”
“I suppose so.”
A glance is exchanged.
“Has something annoyed you, ma’am?”
“Huh?” Heyes’ query registers. “I do beg your pardon. Yes, something has annoyed me and, to answer the unspoken follow-on question, no, I should not take my bad temper out on you two.”
“What is it, ma’am?”
“It’s THIS!” She taps a poster displayed outside the store. It is a duplicate of the one in the saloon, extolling the forthcoming excitement of the Schilling Cup. “Ann and I knew we’d no chance of… I guess, I don’t like being told I’m not allowed to even…”
These half sentences are interrupted by two prosperous gentlemen coming out of the store. If a lady worthy of the name can be said to ‘glower’, Jill glowers.
“Miss Dexter,” says the first. “If we said anything to offend you, we do apologize.”
“Nothing could have been further from our intention,” chimes in the second.
Their eyes move to the boys.
“This is Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones,” introduces Jill, voice civil but with a touch of frost. “And this is Mister Crawley who owns Five-Bar-T and Mister Osbourne who owns Twin Forks.” Ex-outlaw hats are touched. “We’ve been talking about the Schilling Cup. Every year there’s a contest of skills to decide the honor of being declared the best ranch.” Jill’s voice drops further into the chill zone. “These gentlemen have been explaining women ranchers are not allowed to enter…”
“Now, ma’am, that’s not exactly what we said. The Pie-Bake competition is wide open…”
“And a sure thing for Mizz Matthews! After her performance at the Christmas Bake-Off I’m guessing no one else stands a chance!”
“Her pies sure are special.” This last comment is from a suddenly misty-eyed Curry.
“Without in the least denigrating the domestic arts,” fumes Jill, “the pie competition is NOT part of the Schilling Cup!”
“Surely, ma’am, you can see all that tussling and hard-riding is too arduous for two such lovely ladies?”
“If ranch owners have to compete personally, it’s news to me.” Jill’s fine dark eyes rest a moment on the spreading waistlines and balding heads before her. “Isn’t the rough stuff left to the young men on their payrolls?”
A pause. Crawley and Osbourne look at our boys. A bland smile from Heyes. Curry fingers his collar and opens his mouth, possibly to volunteer, possibly not. We will never know, as he is forestalled by Jill Dexter.
“That was NOT a hint Mister Smith, Mister Jones. Unless you happen to LIKE rodeo games, offering to take part is above and beyond the call of duty.” Despite her words, there is wistful hope in her voice. Another pause, but no rush of volunteers. She turns back to the ranchers, “It is not so much that Miss Matthews and I want Lazy Wing to take part,” (she does though, we can tell) “it is simply frustrating to be told we are barred! Do we not pay the same community taxes? Is it not enough that our skirts prevent us voting in local affairs – so much for no taxation without representation – without also stopping us taking part in patriotic celebrations?”
As she is speaking three familiar figures exit the saloon and approach.
“Miss Dexter, it is not you and the charming Miss Matthews being ladies which is the issue. Perish the thought! I bow, a slave, before the superior sex…” Osbourne takes her hand, and bends over it, puckering up. Jill slithers it free and hides it in her pocket.
“It’s the livestock, ma’am,” says Crawley. “I’ve no doubt this – er – creature,” the ostrich’s foot rises in affront, “is profitable. But what could it possibly do pitted against a horse or a steer?”
“That’s what I told baby-face here,” chimes in Buck, walking into shot. “A hen-house for walkin’ bonnet trimmin’s growin’ outta a bird’s backside…”
“Now, now. Ladies present, Buck,” warns Crawley, who all the same, twinkles approval at his muscle-bound head hand.
“… AIN’T a ranch. However well Blue-Eyes and Smart-Mouth here go down with the gals.” Another poke at a shirt front. The Kid still does not like it. “They won’t do nothin’ for the Schillin’ Cup.”
“You know, fella,” says a provoked Curry, “I wouldn’t be too sure of…OW!”
Jill Dexter, who had clasped her hands in rising hope blinks at this sudden and inappropriate sentence-ending. “Have you a pain in your ankle, Mister Jones?”
“Yeah,” grimaces Curry, rubbing an abused bone, “it came on real sudden, ma’am.”
“I don’t think we’ve much to worry about, Buck,” smiles Mister Crawley, “Looks like I’ll be staring at the Schilling Cup as I drink my evening brandy for another year.”
“We’ll give you a run for your money, Crawley,” puts in Osbourne.
Synchronously with Osbourne: “Looking at the Cup makes the brandy taste even better, huh?” smiles Heyes, demonstrating to the Kid the arts of: not taking offence, keeping in good with wealthy men, and NOT offering to be thrown off horses and kicked by cows just to make a point to burly cowboys with hay for brains. “I think Mizz Dexter, it’d be the sensible thing to stay outta…”
“And,” goes on Crawley, as if there had been no interjections, “I reckon we know who’ll be winning another $200 prize, don’t we Buck?”
Chortle from Buck.
“…This competition,” finishes Heyes. He registers the last words out of Crawley’s mouth. A quizzical smile, “$200 prize?”
“The ranches compete simply for honor,” explains Jill, “but there’s a cash prize for the best individual performance.”
“Uh huh? Like I was saying – it’d be the SENSIBLE thing to stay out of this competition. But, when honor’s at stake, who wants to be sensible? I can’t see nothing in the rules of this contest saying the livestock entries have to be cattle or horses,” Heyes, following the smoothest change of direction since someone invented reversible seats on trains, is studying the small print on the poster, “Last time I looked, our birds were live and they were stock. As for the question of whether Lazy Wing is a ranch; I think a glance at the title deeds would settle that, huh?”
BACK AT THE RANCH
The wagon, proudly striding ostrich beside it, pulls to a halt.
A yelp from the direction of the ranch house. Ann Matthews, hands covered in suds from washing-up, races out.
“Oh! Look at you! You’re so handsome!” Ann Matthews enthuses.
An ‘aw shucks’ expression appears on Kid Curry’s face. Then, half a second later, he realises she is talking to the ostrich. He catches Heyes’ teasing eye.
“You are SO gorgeous! Aren’t you? Aren’t you gorgeous?”
“I sure am,” grins Heyes, “but what do you think of the bird, ma’am?”
Delighted laughs from two ladies.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he, Ann?” asks Jill Dexter. “What shall we call him?”
“What about – Oberon?”
“Ann likes folk to think we actually read the fancy books on her shelves and not just the dime novels hidden behind them,” Jill tells the boys, teasingly. Her hand reaches up to caress plumage. “Oberon, what do you think of that? A name fit for a king.”
The ostrich ruffles his feathers.
“He likes it! You see! Don’t you, Oberon?” coos Ann.
Another squawk. The boys exchange a glance. And an eye roll.
“Look, the girls have seen him,” says Jill.
Indeed, on the other side of the fence feathered lovelies are gathering. Oberon opens his beak, widens his eyes and takes a step back. He looks down, beseechingly, at Heyes.
An inquisitive beak, almost certainly belonging to Ophelia, reaches out.
Squawk! With a flump of feathers Oberon flattens himself to the ground.
“Oh, Oberon,” reproves Heyes, “you must never let women see you’re scared.”
The boys, leaning on a fence to give us a view of their pert buttocks, watch a still-nervous Oberon mingle with the hens.
“Which one do you think he’ll go for, Heyes?”
“I like the look of Odette. Good bushy tail, huh?”
“Yeah, but take a look at the drumsticks on Olivia!”
“He’s gotta court her, not cook her for Thanksgiving, Kid!”
A pause, while both boys watch hen ostriches strut their stuff.
“How do they – y’know?”
“We’ll know he’s picked himself a gal when he starts flapping his wings. He has to show off first, see. A bit like us, huh? But, when it gets serious, we’ll see the female running circles around the male.”
“Figures,” sighs the Kid.
“Hey! He’s flapping at Ophelia.”
Blue and brown eyes both watch.
“C’mon, Kid, let’s go get supper, give them some privacy.”
The boys walk towards the ranch house.
“Heyes,” Curry looks worried, “Ophelia’ll be okay, huh?”
“Aw, Kid,” mock-concern in the brown eyes, “you’ll get over her. She was too tall for you anyhow.”
A few paces in silence. Kid Curry shakes his head, “Oberon! Oberon?! And the one before they saddled with Orsino?! Sheesh! Y’know what, Heyes, I can’t figure why nice ladies like Mizz Matthews an’ Mizz Dexter didn’t get snapped up years ago, but at least it saved their sons draggin’ round names like that!” A long pause. Contritely, “Sorry, Hannibal; I forgot. No offence.”
“‘S’orright,” grunts Heyes.
“I still gotta flatten you for getting us in that dang Schilling Cup.”
THE SUPPER TABLE
“Oh, Mister Jones, I couldn’t believe it when Jill said you and Mister Smith were willing to enter the Schilling Cup on our behalf. I think you’re wonderful.”
Ann Matthews beams admiration at Curry. The Kid basks.
Ann’s gaze returns to a sign she and Jill are working on. Jill, ruler in hand, is pencilling even squares. Ann is sketching fancy lettering within the blocks.
“Sheesh, this is good!” Curry is masticating pie.
“Oh! Ann has a gift,” says Jill, “Every place we’ve lived, she always wins any pie contest going.”
“Never mind that!” dismisses Ann. “The Schilling Cup! I know we won’t really win but…” Her eyes sparkle with pleasure, “…just to see Osbourne and Crawley’s faces when we enter. Just to take part!”
“Not win!” scathes Heyes. “Does Thaddeus here,” the Kid is patted on the back by a supportive partner, “look as if he even knows the meaning of the word ‘lose’?”
More waves of admiration from the ladies. More basking from the Kid.
“It’s such a beautiful evening,” sighs Ann, looking out of the window. “It makes me feel, oh, I don’t know, romantic I guess.” A self-deprecating glance over at her friend. “At my age!”
“It sure is lovely,” agrees Jill. “Why don’t we leave this a while and go stroll by the edge of the lake, watch the sun go down?”
“That sounds irresistible.”
Both ladies stand and, with a final smile at the boys, leave.
Kid Curry drains his coffee mug, stands, walks to a mirror, straightens his hair and smoothes his shirt. He reaches for his hat.
“Where are you going?” asks Heyes.
“Didn’t you hear ’em? They’re feeling romantic and wanna watch the sun go down by the lake. Call me dumb…”
“You’re dumb,” obliges Heyes.
“…but, if that ain’t an invitation, I don’t know what is.”
“Kid, an invitation is: ‘Will you come down to the lake?’ Not, ‘We’re going down to the lake.’ Spot the difference?”
“I’ll say it once more; they’re not interested.”
“Heyes, if there’s one thing I understand, it’s women. You comin’?”
“You’re gonna find yourself superfluous.”
“Heyes,” the hat was adjusted to a jaunty angle on the blond curls, “I am always super. As for -er – fluous,” a wicked grin, “watch and learn!”
TEN MINUTES LATER
Heyes, glass of whiskey in hand, is reading the sign the ladies were working on.
‘Schilling Ladies’ Committee: Guess the Number of Beans in the Jar.’
His eyes turn to an absolutely enormous empty glass jar, bunting ribbons attached, standing, in a corner. Picking up Jill’s ruler, he goes over and measures it. He picks up a much smaller, ordinary glass jar from the sideboard, measures that, walks to the storeroom. Rummaging sounds. When Heyes emerges, the small jar is full of dried beans. He sits at the table, spills out the beans and starts to count. He pauses, takes a spoonful of Ann’s pie and chews, consideringly. He purses his lips, nods. Back to counting.
The door clicks. Kid Curry walks in, tosses his hat aside and, a pole-axed expression on his face, flumps into the chair opposite his partner.
“They resisted you, huh?” asks Heyes, without raising his eyes from his beans.
“Down by the lake… They’re…” Blue eyes fix on Heyes. “You knew!”
“I didn’t know. I might have guessed. None of my business.” Brown eyes look up with a hint of sternness, “None of yours either!”
A blond ex-outlaw is still stunned. “‘Ain’t natural,” he pronounces. A shrug from Heyes.
“Heyes,” more tentative tone, “what d’you think they actually, y’know, do?”
“I dunno. Use your imagination, Kid.”
Curry’s face indicates thinking. Swift clicking of beans being counted. A log in the stove pops. Kid Curry wriggles in his seat. The clock ticks. The Kid crosses his legs.
Heyes sweeps the last handful of beans into the small jar, takes them back to the storeroom, returns the empty jar to its place. He pulls a pencil stub and paper from his vest pocket. “Kid…” he begins.
“Shaddup,” breathes Curry.
Heyes looks down at him.
“I’m usin’ my imagination – an’ I’m not done yet.
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING
“I’m telling you, it can be done! Look, there’s a picture.”
Kid Curry pushes aside the book his partner is thrusting under his nose and carries on tacking tarpaper onto a section of barn.
“I’ve seen a picture of a man ridin’ a flyin’ carpet. Don’t mean I’m gonna saddle up a hearth rug.”
“But, Kid, it’s a photograph; the camera cannot lie!”
“Anythin’ can lie after spendin’ time with you, Heyes.”
“All you’d need is to get one of the birds to trust you.” An inquisitive beak stretches over Heyes’ shoulder, huge eyes blink at the illustration. “Look! Odette’s on board already!”
“You’re the one with the silver tongue. You get one of the birds to trust you.”
The exchange stops as Ann Matthews walks across the yard. Curry returns to tacking tarpaper, he does not glance round as Ann arrives.
“Another fine day, ma’am,” Heyes touches his hat.
“Isn’t it?! Now, what I want to know is, have you seen Ophelia this morning?”
“Nope. But, Thaddeus has.”
Ann looks, hopefully, at the Kid. A pause.
“She was down by the creek,” he says, not looking at her.
“Oh. And did she look, er, happy?”
A shrug from a blond ex-outlaw. Another pause. Hammer, hammer, hammer.
“I’m sure she’s fine, ma’am,” says Heyes, he tries to throw a quick scowl at his partner but Curry will not shift his eyes from the tarpaper.
“Of course, Mister Smith. I’m just being foolish. I’ll go get the pancakes on the stove.” Ann walks away, stops, squares her shoulders, turns, comes back. “Have I – have I done something to offend you, Mister Jones?”
“Nope.” Hammer, hammer.
Drooping, Ann turns back to the house. Curry scowls at his own hands holding the tacks, scowls harder, then, “Ophelia was pecking around at the ground in a quiet spot, gathering twigs and stuff, ma’am.”
“Nest building behavior!” Ann’s hands clasp together, “Wonderful!”
“And, Oberon, he’d got Olivia runnin’ circles round him just after dawn.”
“And, ma’am,” the Kid lays down his hammer and meets her eyes for the first time, “you haven’t done a dang thing to offend me. I guess I’m just a grouch before breakfast and I apologize.”
“Oh!” A relieved smile. “That’s fine! And easily solved! It’ll be ready in five minutes.”
As she walks away, now with a spring in her step, Curry goes back to hammering. Heyes comes over, gives the broad shoulder an approving pat.
“I never said a word!” Pause. “Now you’re not so proddy, let’s talk about what you’re gonna do for the Schilling Cup.”
“All it’ll take is a little practice.”
“You’re right. Not before breakfast, huh? After.”
“Heyes, listen carefully; I am not – repeat NOT – ridin’ an ostrich. Not after breakfast! Not after lunch! Or supper! Not never!”
LATER THAT DAY
In the middle distance, Kid Curry is riding an ostrich. He cuts an awkward figure slipping and sliding astride the lolloping…
Oh! Strike that.
Kid Curry is NOT riding an ostrich. He cuts an awkward figure, flat on his back, limbs waving in the air like an upturned beetle. Meanwhile, Olga, much more elegant in movement without the 165 pound encumbrance, scissor-steps her way swiftly towards an exhausted-looking Oberon. Ophelia, twig in beak, steps over to take a look at the floored ex-outlaw. She shakes her head, sadly.
“You’re doing fine!” praises Heyes, running to help Curry to his feet, “Nearly twenty seconds! Next time, keep your…”
“I was taking notes and…”
“If’n you know the right way to stay on a buckin’ bird, then you get up on one. ‘Cause I quit!”
Ophelia, who has followed the conversation like a tennis spectator, looks up. The boys notice and follow suit. A horse stands on the other side of the fence, topped by the substantial figure of Buck, the saloon blowhard. He pushes back his hat. His shoulders shake. The boys exchange a glance and walk over. As we get closer, we hear guffaws.
“Anything we can do for you?” asks Heyes.
Curry contents himself with his best ‘dangerous glower’. He is unaware feathers sticking perpendicularly from the backside of his jeans negate absolutely any chance of this impressing Buck.
“I need to water my horse.” Snort.
“There’s a trough by the barn,” Heyes sticks to inter-ranch etiquette.
“I guess the free show was a bonus!” Hoot.
“We’re generous that way.”
“You sure are! Gotta get my gal Kitty a front row seat on the Fourth! Watchin’ Feather-Fanny is better’n the circus! ”
Kid Curry follows Buck’s pointing finger. Scowling, he removes the unwanted plumage.
“I hope you ain’t lettin’ that pair of dried-up old maids think they really stand a chance of the Cup?” Snort. “That’d be just cruel!”
Heyes puts out a restraining hand to the Kid, who redoubles the scowl.
“Hey,” chortles Buck. “Am I wrong? Ain’t they so dried-up after all? Has Feather-Fanny been battin’ them baby blues? Did he…?” Huge guffaw at his own imminent wit. “manage to stay on for that ride?” Honk. Snort. “Only joshin’. No offense.”
Kid Curry shakes off Heyes’ grip. “You know, Joshua, I reckon what we got us here is a walk-off…”
“Blah, blah…Left out the brains an’ they up an’ walked off,” interrupts Buck. “Stick to slapstick, Feather-Fanny, your jokes have whiskers!”
Kid Curry is a picture of chagrin.
Heyes’ expression suggests he is torn between annoyance at the muscle-bound blowhard and a grudging admiration for a man who saved him having to listen to his partner’s routine one more time.
“Like I said, the trough’s by the barn,” he says, coolly.
“And like I said, no offense meant,” responds Buck, good-temperedly. “See you at the Cup.” He gathers his reins, “‘Course, I’ll be up on the platform with the winners, an’ you an’ Feather-Fanny’ll be down in the mud with the other losers, but I’ll wave, huh?” He ambles trough-wards.
“Hey, Buck,” Curry calls. A horse is wheeled.
“Uh huh?” Safe in his six inch and 125 pound advantage, Buck is not worried by the challenge in Curry’s eye as he swaggers towards the fence.
“Care to put your own money where your mouth is?”
“Twenty dollars?” suggests Buck. “Fifty?”
Heyes puts up a gloved hand to cover his mouth. “Don’t,” he coughs.
Ophelia serpents to face the Kid and shakes her head.
“Your best pal an’ your best gal are givin’ good advice,” grins Buck. “Skinny legs here…”
“…ain’t so bird-brained as you, huh? Back down afore you lose $50 you ain’t got!”
Another cough from Heyes. Wide warning eyes from Ophelia.
The Kid considers their wise advice, “Make it a hundred…”
A VERY SHORT WHILE LATER
“All the times you’ve gone for me for opening MY big mouth! For Pete’s sake…”
Heyes, hat pushed back, hands on hips, has clearly been delivering this tirade for some time. A calm Curry is letting it wash over him.
“I told you yesterday – the guy’s a blowhard – let him blow! So, what d’you do?”
“Offer him $100 we haven’t got!”
“I was thinking…”
“You were WHAT? You know we have an agreement on that! Sheesh!”
“You done?” checks Curry.
The lips of the dark-haired fella purse. Is he done?
“Listen, what’s the problem? We were gonna win $200, now we’re gonna win $300.”
“The problem is you just skewed the odds! Ten minutes ago we had two possible outcomes: We’d end up ahead $200, or we’d at least wind up even. Now we still got two outcomes, but number two is: hand over our wages to a human gorilla in a bad hat who’ll be within his rights to flatten us both when he finds it a few dollars short!”
“Last night, you said we couldn’t lose!”
Incredulous brown eyes blink. “Have you MET me?” A hand is held out, “Hi, I’m Hannibal Heyes; I stretch the truth. In fact, some folks even say I tell lies. Besides, you said I was crazy and we couldn’t possibly win!”
“Yeah, but I was only yankin’ your chain, Heyes. I knew you’d got a plan.” Pause. More tentatively, “You do got a plan, dontcha, Heyes?” More pause. “Was the plan to let me bruise myself black’n’blue while you crossed your fingers?”
Wide, innocent brown eyes.
“For Pete’s sake, Heyes!”
“Not JUST that, Kid! I’ve been reading…”
We watch hot ex-outlaws run, full pelt, across a wide open space. Arms flail, crazily. Hats are brandished. Shouts of ‘Giddup there!’ and ‘Yah! Yah! Yehah!’ bellow from two lusty throats.
Our point of view moves back. They are chasing a startled-looking Oberon. The ostrich hits his full stride which, joking apart: is something fine to see. The boys, gasping for breath, stop. Heyes pulls his watch from his vest and opens it. Curry, grasping his knees as he pants, keeps his eyes fixed on Oberon. Oberon passes a pole to which a bright bandana has been fixed.
“Now!” wheezes Curry.
Heyes’ gaze is glued to the watch. Oberon, glorious in motion, approaches a second bandana-decorated pole approximately 440 yards away.
“Twenty three seconds!” cries Heyes. “That’s” rapid mental arithmetic, “over forty miles an hour! And, the book says they can do a steady thirty!”
“I didn’t believe it,” grins Curry, “but,” blue eyes watch a smoothly striding ostrich eating up the ground without any sign of flagging, “I do now! Let’s check the distance one more time!”
A fair and a dark head bend over a much-creased set of Schilling Cup rules. They exchange happy smiles.
“It’s cow ponies against thoroughbreds all over again, Kid! Now, for round two, we gotta find you a one-man gal.”
“Ophelia!” coos Heyes, “right on cue, Gorgeous! Howdya feel about me cosying up to you?”
Backing off. A warning foot is raised.
“I thought so. What about Thaddeus here? Go on, Kid.”
Flushing slightly, Curry approaches Ophelia. Welcoming nuzzles. He takes a gentle grasp on her flank and raises a leg as if about to mount a horse. An ostrich back is lowered accommodatingly. A serpentine head twists around. Slow, fluttering blink of ostrich lashes.
“No accounting for taste,” grunts Heyes.
ESTABLISHING SHOT – MAIN STREET
Crowds of happy townsfolk head for a field behind the whitewashed schoolhouse. A banner announcing ‘Schilling Cup Contest’ flutters gaily. Stands have been erected and a competition arena fenced in. Ladies have filled groaning tables with baked goods and barrels with lemonade. Bunting flutters from every conceivable angle.
“Competing today, we have” A megaphone-assisted voice booms across the scene. “High Ridge; Silver Falls!”
Applause greets each name.
Pan to Zach, huge bag of popcorn in his hands. He stamps his feet and whoops out a cheer. Elbows settle on the fence, a huge grin announces to the world he is looking forward to a treat.
Loudest applause yet. Pan to Buck, very smug, among the other cowboys in a corner of the arena, all limbering up to do manly, Old West stuff. A familiar blue-eyed blond flexes his shoulders then bends to tweak a strap on his boot. Despite the protests of Kidettes everywhere, we pan away.
Zoom in on Heyes, very dapper, escorting Ann and Jill to an area above which a sign announces: Competitor Stand. Osbourne and Crawley are already settling centre stage among the other ranchers. Patronising hat touching and smirks. Jill and Ann hold their chins high and take their places in the all-male enclave.
Some laughter, but plenty of warm-hearted applause with it. Youngsters in particular, a group of whom we see admiring Oberon as he scratches for insects, are cheering for the birds.
“Go Lazy Wing!” shrills a particularly piercing voice. It is Kitty! Dressed up to the nines and showing her support by the number of vividly dyed plumes in her hat.
Pan to Buck and Curry. One scowl. One smug smirk.
“It’s the feathers,” deadpans the Kid. “They tickle a woman’s fancy.”
Back to Heyes. After making sure the ladies are comfortable, brown eyes roam the crowd. We see what he sees: Happy townsfolk, a bookie plying his trade, limbering cowboys, a bookie plying his trade, judges settling into their seats, a bookie plying his trade.
“Excuse me, ladies,” he dimples. “I have to go join Thaddeus.”
Wide shot. Heyes makes for the preparing cowboys – with a detour.
With a booming voice-over giving commentary, we see a montage of shots of the competition.
“A random draw determines which ranch hands round up which stock…”
Shot of Heyes and Curry, both mounted and yipping competently at ornery cattle.
“The boys from Lazy Wing are rounding up stock from Silver Falls.”
Shot of Heyes and Curry working a system where one pens up the halfway cooperative steers and the other chases the two mavericks with attitude. Shot of a glum-looking Buck shrugging. Shot of the judge’s table. Decent scores: sixes, sevens, one generous eight, are raised.
“The fellas from High Ridge are rounding up our feathered friends from Lazy Wing.”
Shot of two extras, one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to Monty Laird, chasing squawking ostriches. Birds scatter to the four corners of the arena. Wings flap. Eyes goggle. Horses circle in confusion as prancing legs cancan past them.
Shot of the crowd. Helpless laughter.
“Can’t see them gals gettin’ penned anytime soon! No, wait! Monty’s got him a plan.”
Shot of extras concentrating on a single ostrich – Olivia. They move in; classic pincer formation. They back her to the pen. A tiny head on a long, long neck swivels, searching for an escape route. Nothing. The one-at-a-time ploy is going to work, when… Flump! The High Ridge fellas face a motionless hump of feathers, fluttering dust around her edges and demonstrating how she would disguise herself as an earth mound if evading predators on the African savannah. The cowboys circle, trying a few quick approaches. Not a flicker from Olivia, though some of the other gals stop with the chorus-line high-kicking and gather to watch and exchange ostrich versions of the ‘look’. Monty dismounts and puts every ounce of his strength into trying to lever Olivia’s backside out of the dirt, the other fella takes the strain at the front. She shifts not an inch. Boots scrabble in the dust as they heave and heave and…
“Well folks, looks like the first cowpokes flat on their faces this year are the fellas from High Ridge.”
Monty, slapping dust from his hat, stomps up to the judges’ table.
“I reckon Monty’s gonna call for the fellas from Lazy Wing to come prove it can be done. We know the rules. If’n they can’t round up their own stock in a set time, their ranch is penalized.”
Our boys tether their horses to the fence. Slow stroll to the pen. Chirruping. Soft calls of: ‘Hey, Olga, look what we got’; ‘Olwen, you ain’t never seen a worm this big!’ Revolting handfuls of – euw – are dug from pockets. Slowly at first, heads stretching to check what is on offer, the birds approach. Beaks nuzzle the boys. Necks are stroked. ‘Aw, Opal, you flirt!’; ‘S’okay, Oonagh, I’d never leave you out’. Following the ex-outlaws the gals pad into the pen.
“WhooHoo! They sure made that look easy! But they gotta get ALL the birds penned to avoid a penalty.”
Heyes strides to the flattened Olivia. He stretches out beside her, mouth close to where we would guess her ear to be. His lips purse; he blows. A soft whisper, “You scared, Gorgeous? You want a big fat worm?” Nothing. “No? I know what’ll make you feel better; ‘T’is a gift to be…'” A flicker. A flutter. A head comes up, then a backside, then, unfolding like a deckchair, a whole ostrich. Olivia trots to join the rest of the gang.
“They’ve done it!”
Cheer from the crowd.
Close shot of Heyes and Curry.
“Works every time,” smugs Heyes.
“Well, she ain’t gonna lie there an’ suffer, is she?” deadpans Curry.
“…right folks, Buckin’ Bronco round. Same rules – random draw for which beast you hafta tackle. There’s the fella from Lazy Wing…”
Kid Curry climbs a mounting pen. Cheers. A significant proportion from sopranos and altos.
“Sounds like he’s a popular fella with you ladies! But how’s he gonna do with ‘Firefly’ from Five-Bar-T?”
Shot of a magnificent stallion, breathing metaphorical fire from his nostrils and glowering at the Kid as the dragon may have eyed up Saint George.
Close shot of Heyes, on the sidelines, beaming support. Close shot of Curry taking another look at the fearsome horse and, mouthing ‘I’m gonna flatten you!’ in a dimple-ward direction.
The pen releases. Kid Curry is revealed in a classic one arm raised, one hand clutching the reins, flat-bellied, torso-bending, bucking manly pose, fit to warm the hearts of Kidettes everywhere.
Cut to Heyes watching, pocket watch in hand.
Megaphone-Voice: “The points start one minute in. But, can he stay up there sixty seconds? That Firefly sure is feisty!”
Back to Curry. He is slipping, sliding – BUT, still up there.
“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty! He’s done it! Anything extra’s a bonus!”
Heyes snaps shut his watch, tucks it into his vest. Turning his back on the arena, he focuses first on a stand announcing ‘Pie-Bake’ and displaying, unsurprisingly, dozens of pies; second on a ‘Guess the Number of Beans’ booth; lastly on the fella with a showy hat, chalkboardbearing odds, and a cheerful line in fast-paced patter as he takes folks’ money in exchange for scribbled slips of paper.
A synchronisedgasp from the crowd is followed by a sound suggestive of 165 pounds of yelping ex-outlaw thumping into the dirt after first having been launched skyward to a great height.
With not so much as a backward glance, Heyes strides off.
“Plucky performance there by Lazy Wing! Now we’re in for a real treat, folks. Buck from Five-Bar-T is gonna ride one of the gorgeous gals from Lazy Wing. Give a warm Schillin’ Cup welcome to – Ophelia!”
A calm Ophelia is backed into the Bronco pen by a very dusty Curry. A helpful beak straightens his hat.
“She looks a sweetie, don’t she folks? Last year, Buck here stayed ten full minutes on one o’ the meanest bulls we’ve ever seen. I can’t see this lovely little lady givin’ him much trouble.”
Buck smirks at Kid Curry as he takes his place.
“And – they’re off!”
Buck sits astride Ophelia as the pen opens and …
“He’s hit the dirt! I made that less’n a second!”
Buck hefts himself off the ground and scowls at Ophelia.
“‘Course, Buck ain’t one to give up. He’ll try for a remount.”
Buck picks up his hat, replaces it. Ophelia beaks it off, tosses it two feet to the right. Scowling harder, he steps over, bends. A whip-quick scaly foot delivers a swift kick to the pants. A sprawling cowboy eats dust.
“Now, THAT ain’t very lady-like, Ophelia!”
Buck, breathing hard, approaches our gal. She is not backing off. Relieved, he grasps her neck. Smug smile. Then… a huge cowboy yelps as a whip-quick beak goes for a sensitive spot. He jumps back. Ophelia’s foot helps him on his way. His backside hits the ground. He buttock shuffles away from the approaching beak, manages to turn onto all fours, is scuttling away, when…
“Ouch! That’s gotta hurt!”
Wide shot of Buck being chased around the perimeter by Ophelia. He scrambles over the fence, landing in an undignified heap before the Judges’ table. Once back on his feet, we see, in dumb-show, outraged ranting accompanied by finger jabbing at a now preening ostrich.
“Once again the boys from Lazy Wing are bein’ asked to prove it can be done.”
Kid Curry steps into the arena. Ophelia stops prancing, sidles up and head nuzzles him.
“I think whatever these gals like – this fella’s got it, huh?”
Curry mounts a perfectly amenable Ophelia and the pair do a prancing circuit to warm applause.
“Time for our grand finale – the Schilling Six Furlong race.”
Distance shot of four, sleek, proud-stepping horses, being lined up by their riders.
“I reckon none of us has seen nothin’ like what’s in lane five afore!”
Shot of Oberon, Curry in the saddle, joining the line up.
“Lazy Wing coulda entered a horse – same as the cattle ranches – but the ladies have chosen to race a bird!”
Shot of Ann and Jill looking anxious.
“And – they’re off! Five-Bar-T is well out in front, High Ridge comin’ up fast on the inside. Sheesh! I dunno if the big rooster is gonna even start!”
Shot of Oberon, startled, head swivelling, one foot raised.
Shot of Heyes behind the finish line, holding Ophelia’s halter. “Here she is, boy! Isn’t she lovely?! C’mon fella! Call him, Gorgeous!” Squawk from Ophelia.
Megaphone-Voice: “Five-Bar-T looks sure to win. That bird was a mistake.”
Crawley is on his feet in the Competitor Stand, fist punching the air. He throws a pitying look at Ann and Jill, whose bottom lips are caught between their teeth as they jig in frustration.
“Oh! He’s off!”
Oberon, spurred on by Curry urging and pointing at one end and Heyes flaunting Ophelia as a lure at the other, is finally running.
“Still, ain’t no way he’s ever gonna catch…” The confident Megaphone-Voice tails off as Oberon hits his stride. He is eating up the ground as the horses begin to slow.
The smile drains from Crawley’s smug face. Beside him, it is now Ann and Jill punching the air.
“I’m gonna hafta eat my words, folks. I reckon Lazy Wing entered a ringer!”
The judges are up on a platform with the fella we know as Megaphone-Voice. A gleaming trophy stands before them. Townsfolk gather round, buzzing happy conversation. Ann, Jill, Curry and Heyes are at the front.
“After counting the scores…” announces Megaphone-Voice.
“Better get ready claim your cup, ladies,” smiles Heyes.
“…we have a unique situation,”
“Does my hair look alright?” frets Ann. “I kept clutching it in exciting moments.”
“You look fine,” lies Jill, smoothing her own eyebrows with a licked finger.
“Two ranches have tied for first place.”
Stunned looks from the Lazy Wing quartet.
“Five-Bar-T,” Cheers. “And newcomers, Lazy Wing!” Louder cheers.
“They got a bonus for that fancy rope work in the round-up!” reasons Jill. “I forgot!”
Heyes explodes, “For Pete’s sake! How can anyone reckon odds with this dang fool scoring system?!”
“The judges have decided each winning ranch will hold the cup alternate months.”
A feminine glance is exchanged.
“Suits me fine,” declares Jill.
“Since we were happy just to enter, suits me better than fine!” concurs Ann.
Ann, Jill and Crawley mount to shake hands and be photographed, smiling, trophy in hand.
“The bet with Buck was ranches not individuals, huh?” checks Heyes.
“I guess all bets are off,” says Curry.
He, grudgingly, touches his hat to Buck, standing a few yards off. Buck, after a poke from Kitty, shrugs and, with a sheepish grin, returns the gesture.
Ann returns. Jill walks into another part of the crowd.
“Before declaring the winner of the $200 individual prize,”
Curry cannot suppress a confident, indeed smug, grin.
“Let’s hear the results of the other competitions.”
Heyes removes two slips of paper from his vest. A smirk dimples his cheeks.
“The winner of the Pie-Bake is..,” Tantalising pause. “…Mrs. Hannah Jenkins!”
Heyes’ jaw drops.
A surprised murmur followed by hearty applause, as a plump grandmother bustles forward.
“You were robbed, ma’am!” Curry tells Ann.
“No!” Jill rejoins them, tucking an impressive bundle of notes into her bag, “She, or rather WE, made a bundle.”
Questioning look from a pole-axed Heyes.
“You see, Mister Smith, I hope it does not shock you, but bookies always work the crowd at events like this…”
“Gambling, ma’am?” manages Heyes. “Really?”
“…and, an occasional wager is one of Ann and my vices. Now, the odds on Ann winning the Pie-Bake, given her track record, were…”
“…twelve to two on,” glooms Heyes.
“So even if we’d laid a bet so large as – ooh…”
“Fifty dollars,” suggests the dimpled one. “Just picking a number at random.”
“We’d still have won next to nothing. But betting on the second favorite…”
“Because, it’s just possible I somehow mixed sugar with washing soda…” giggles Ann.
“…odds of ten to one,” finishes Heyes.
Misinterpreting his appalled face, Jill says, “It’s not cheating. It doesn’t affect the funds raised. We’ll just buy Ann’s pie back ourselves for a real good price. And, I’m sure a professional bookie can bear the loss; that’s his trade.”
“No, it’s not cheating at all, ma’am,” agrees Heyes. “It’s real smart.”
The ladies turn back to hear the next announcement. Heyes tears one of his slips, lets it fall to the ground.
“Heyes,” sighs Curry, “not a whole $50?”
“We couldn’t lose. And, you heard ’em. The odds were so short it had to be a decent stake.”
Megaphone-Voice is speaking, “Next, the winner of the ‘Guess the Number of Beans in the Jar Competition’. The actual count was…”
Heyes perks up, clutching his remaining slip.
Once again, Heyes’ jaw hits the deck.
“…Four hundred and thirty two. The nearest guess wins, and that was from: Zeke Harper!”
It is our own Labrador-like Zeke, grinning all over his face.
“Zeke!” Utter Heyesian disbelief. “Can he even count?”
The ladies finish applauding the delighted youth and turn back.
“At Christmas, we’d folk trying to work out the number rather than guess,” says Ann.
“Because, there’s a formula for everything,” continues Jill.
“Pi R squared by the height,” murmurs Heyes.
“Exactly! But it’s supposed to be a guessing game even a child could win; so this time…”
“…we hid an EMPTY jar inside the beans!” finishes Ann.
“Making any calculations from the math – useless,” sighs Heyes.
Two pleased female nods. Once again they turn to listen to the announcer.
Curry shakes his head, sadly, as he watches Heyes confetti another betting slip.
Heyes squares his shoulders. “Never mind. Any minute now you’re going to win us $200. We’re still ahead of the game…”
“And, finally, the best individual performance, for which we use not only judges’ scores, but sounding of popularity with the audience.”
Smug Kid Curry, already edging to the platform steps.
“The prize goes to…”
Blond curls are smoothed in readiness.
Wild applause from Ann and Jill. The Curry jaw takes its turn falling to the floor.
“This prize,” Heyes tries to be heard above the delighted hubbub, “it’s for the best animal? Not the best ranch hand?”
“Yes!” nods Ann.
“That’s not in the rules, ma’am!”
“Isn’t it? I guess it’s just one of those things everyone knows.”
“Not quite everyone,” deadpans Curry, rolling with the punch.
“Excuse me,” beams Ann, “we must go fetch her!”
Ann and Jill lead Ophelia up to the judges. Admiring pats to her flanks. The ladies collect $200. Ophelia, beak wide, swivels her head and, with dignified nods, acknowledges the crowd.
Pan to Heyes and Curry. A mute conversation. Shrugs. With rueful grins they join in the applause for a worthy winner.
Pull back to reveal the bookie with the showy hat bearing down, purposefully, on Heyes. Heyes spots him. A moment of stillness. Then, best persuasive smile in place, Heyes goes to meet him. An arm goes round the bookie’s shoulder. Hand gestures and dimples show silver-tongued wiles are being deployed. The body language of the bookie, who, with a raised finger-click summons from nowhere two heavies, shows they have failed.
EPILOGUE – THAT EVENING
Heyes and Curry sit on the ranch porch, boots propped on the rail, cigars lit.
“So, we started the contest with nothin’.” A smoke ring from the Kid’s cigar.
“We won nothin’ from Buck. We won nothin’ for best performance. But I got me a fine set of bruises fallin’ off that brute of a…”
“AND, the ladies decided Ophelia’d like to share her win four ways – ‘cos she’s such a generous gal,” Heyes puts in before Curry can dwell on the bruises.
“So, that made us $100 ahead of the game?”
“But, you lost $50 on a pie?”
Pause. More reluctantly, “Uh huh.”
“So, that left us $50 ahead of the game. But, we hafta take off whatever you lost on them dumb beans?”
Curry’s inflection makes it a question. But answer comes there none.
“Are you tellin’ me I’m black and blue for nothin’, Heyes?”
“Nope. I’m not telling you that.”
“How much ahead of the game did we finally come out, Heyes?”
A cigar-holding hand indicates the sunset. “How can you think about money on a beautiful night like this, Kid?”
“How much, Heyes?”
“In round figures…?”