A Western Tale of Love and Fate

            As weeks dragged by, Buck forgot about the letter Nido was supposed to have written. One Saturday while he was biding his time at the cantina, the Mexicans were friendlier to Buck than usual, but Zulinda acted as if he had betrayed her. After a third drink, Buck could stand the suspense no longer and he asked right out, “What is the matter with you Zulinda. You act as if I am no longer your friend.”
            “I heerd you ordered a wife out of Chicago. I didn’t know you could do that—and I don’t even know where Chicago is.” She pouted pitifully, like a child. Buck didn’t think that he meant that much to her.
            Buck tried to reassure her. “Oh I’d never do a thing like that.” Buck had no idea that Nido had actually sent the letter. But Zulinda was uppity, as if Buck was the only man in her life and he had run out on her. Buck wanted to take her seriously, but he got to thinking, any one of the Mexicans would be better than he. If she really wanted to get serious with one man.
            Nido came in acting high and mighty, ‘cause he was a reading man. He stood there glaring at Buck. “You owe me the price of a stamp.”
            “Stamp.” A joke was a joke, but Nido was overstepping his bounds. Buck hit him a glancing blow on the cheek. “Right is right.” Buck didn’t want to fight unless he was right and had a good reason. Nido ducked Buck’s second blow and wouldn’t fight back.
            “You order me to write that letter.” He grinned, causing his mustache to curl up, and then he felt his jaw. “I mail that letter weeks ago, just like you asked me to.”
            Buck was itching to hit Nido again, but he never beat up on anyone who wouldn’t defend himself. Nido was no coward. He had saved Buck’s life once, when he shot an Apache from his pony using his thirteen-pound, dog-eared rifle—that was the accomplishment.
            Soon the cantina was crowded and everyone laughing at Buck and the letter. Two Mexicans went over and hugged him, glad Buck would no longer be in the running for Zulinda’s affections. But he was careful that neither stuck a knife into his gut. Both the Mexicans and Indians resented whites; their territory had been taken over recently by the Americans. There were minor revolts. Not all had buckled down by the new rule, but things were beginning to shape up, since a number of the perpetrators had been hanged for murdering Governor Bent’s family while he tried to defend them.
            Everyone was happy and bought a round of drinks. Only Zulinda acted cold and pouted. When Buck and Nido went to a corner table, Nido took Zulinda aside and explained. “Buck really do need a woman of his own. I don’t know any other way except to let one grow up. But, Buck at hees age, he don’t need a kid in the house.”
            Zulinda tried to smile, but couldn’t. She didn’t brush up against Buck with her big hips all evening. Buck didn’t think it would be long before she was herself again, ‘cause he never expected a reply from the letter. It was Nido’s way of getting a few bucks of support for his family. Buck never begrudged him of that.
            “Eff this deal go through, you still owe me forty-eight pesos.” Then Buck knew then that he had rifled his pockets of two silver dollars. Buck knew silver dollars were worth several pesos. Buck didn’t want to argue the difference, so he tried to forget all about it. Nido never mentioned taking the chewing tobacco, but Buck knew he had.
            Weeks later Buck went to the trading post with the wagon to bring back flour for tortillas. The damn cook always made tortillas until Buck never knew what a loaf of bread looked like. But he had to eat. He was thin at one hundred and seventy, so he didn’t want to get any thinner. He needed that weight for an unexpected tussle with an Apache who might sneak up on him at any time. They moved with the sun and the sun was always moving.
            Grover as Buck said was the only non-Mexican in town and he ran the trading post. It consisted of the store, wagon yard, corral and black smith shop. He was a skinny sneaky old bastard. He winked and whistled at Buck as he handed him the letter from Chicago. The way he looked at Buck, Buck knew he had read what was in it. Buck had never read a letter before. He was so overcome with this unexpected event that he added a bottle of whiskey to the grocery list, along with lye for making soap.
            He didn’t stop to see Zulinda; if a man was to take a wife, he had to become respectable. After he was down the trail a piece with the team, Buck took a big drink from the bottle before he opened the letter and another after he read it. She was a coming and Buck didn’t know what to do.
            Buck moped around the ranch until Elena felt sorry for him. “What’s ailing you Buck? Is it the spring fever? Could I fix you some sassafras tea?”
            “No. I don’t want any tea, but I could use another bottle of whiskey.”
            Later that day Elena washed Buck’s dirty trousers and didn’t even ask him to carry the water. That was when she discovered the letter in a pocket of his trousers. She spread it out on a log in front of the fireplace to dry. There was no privacy in the house as far as John was concerned. When he came in for supper he saw the letter. The ink had faded in the washing. But they made out the most important parts.
      Dear Buck,
            I was overcome by your romantic proposal of marriage. You write that I will be your very beloved forever. I had other proposals, but yours was the most romantic. I like the fact that you know Spanish as well as English. I take it that you are well educated and at the same time very modest. I will be on the stage that goes through Tucson between the fifteenth and the twentieth of June.
            Buck was glad that the rest of the letter was so smudged from the washing that John couldn’t read any more.
            Buck ate for the most part with the ranch hands, but that evening, he was invited to the main house. That was a real occasion. The table was set with white tallow candles and the room in lamplight. John and his son Jewell were already seated when Buck arrived. Jewell was from his first wife, Maryanne. He was eighteen, a blond kid. John babied Jewell, afraid he might get killed by the Indians like his mom did. But the boy knew how to handle a gun and went often on his own to shoot rabbits.
            He sat there quiet like and mannerly, minding his own business. He and Buck had a good relationship; he kinda looked up to Buck. Buck taught him more of the real west than his Pa ever would.
            They were eating Mexican style, the meat chopped in little pieces with tortillas, not tough at all like the steaks at the mess house. Everyone was quiet looking holes through Buck, expecting him to broach the subject of the Carver girl out of Chicago. He knew Elena was especially disturbed, thinking of another woman in the house. Her hands shook as she placed the desert on the table.
            John could stand it no longer. “What is this forthcoming marriage we hear about?” he asked bluntly. That was just the way he was. Big, getting fat and his face furred with wrinkles from the heat and wind. His hair was graying but it was hard to tell, his hair was blond. Buck’s hair was black, and he had only a grey hair or two in his head.
            Buck looked over to Elena; he shouldn’t have because she never talked about her life as a slave with the Apache. Buck realized he was responsible for the new girl. He felt sick.
            Elena then asked, “Who ees thees girl anyway? Deed you know her before?”
            “Some old biddy from Chicago—if you must know—she be a mail-order-bride. The scribe wrote the letter for me.”
            The three looked at each other and Buck wanted to skink through the dirt floor.
            But Elena eased the tension. “Maybe thees the best thing could happen to you, Buck. Now you never get drunk again.”
            Jewell stopped eating his desert and was about to laugh at Elena’s remark, but one look in her direction and his face sobered. “I’m glad it didn’t happen to me.” There was pity in his remark, as though Buck had been struck down by the plague.
            “Her name be Suzy Carver; probably couldn’t get a husband in Chicago so she advertised.”
            There was a long silence as the family seemed too astonished to speak, their eyes staring at Buck. Things were moving too fast.
            Buck poured coffee from his cup into his saucer and started to blow on it, then drank noisily. Elena was annoyed; she was always trying to break Buck of the strange ways he had acquired during his wanderings. “Buck, do you intend to drink coffee like that after you’re married?”
            Buck stopped drinking long enough to reply, “Why not? I’ve done it all my life.”
            “Why don’t you let his new wife train him some manners?” John glared at his wife.
            John had aged since he lost Maryanne. But he could still scream when things didn’t go the way he liked; Buck didn’t want any of that tonight.
            Buck was stunned at the thought of changing his ways. He didn’t think the Carver girl was any of their business. Buck lost his appetite and stopped eating. The tone in John’s voice seemed to indicate Buck didn’t have the right to get married, but Buck was hoping his brother didn’t really mean it that way. Buck didn’t think he would have anything very intelligent to say about Suzy Carver so he hadn’t brought up the subject. Now he knew exactly why he had been invited to supper.
            Suddenly, Jewell came to life, smiling in Buck’s direction. “Wow! Uncle Buck getting married!” He roared with laughter, poking fun at Buck. This was about the last straw. Buck could have held it against Jewell, but he felt about the same himself.
            Elena was pouring coffee to occupy her time; her dark hair was done up in a swirl on the top of her head and held there by two sharp wooden pins. She generally left the disciplining of her step-son to his father, but she looked sternly at the kid until he shut his mouth and started to bolt his dessert.
            Elena still had the coffee pot in her hand as she held her head high and in a queenly fashion announced, “No one is going to make fun of Buck. Marriage is a sacred contract.” Buck recalled how she frequently brought up her brief few months of book learning and religious training at the mission. She expressed it sincerely to prevent botching things.
            Jewell sobered up and stammered, “I didn’t mean to laugh at Uncle Buck. It’s just that I never thought of you getting married—ever.”
            John sat there taking it all in, but being Buck’s brother, Buck knew he’d have his say and that would be the hardest blow. He always thought he had to guide Buck; but listening to the three of them, Buck was beginning to realize what he had gotten himself into.
            Elena was all compliments. “It takes a lot of nerve to get married. It shows what you Garetts are made of.” She sat down and started to eat her dessert. She looked over to her husband, waiting for what he had to add. Buck was expecting him to explode.
            Buck’s half-brother—that’s what made him a lot older than Buck—looked as though he might be posing for a painting; such was his esteem for himself and his opinions. Buck could have used a little of that esteem right then himself. Buck knew his brother was boiling inside because of the way he had handled this proposed marriage contract.
            “It takes nerve to get married, but it also takes a sense of responsibility.” He started waving his hands at Buck and turned red in the face. Buck knew he was in for it. “Do you realize that girl is due on the next stage and the Apaches are plundering every wagon train along the trail—have been for weeks? You can see smoke from the hills in the north pasture right this minute.”
            John was at the head of the table, Elena at the foot and Buck and Jewell on either side. Elena beamed at Buck, she was only happy for him. “Oh, Buck, it will be so good to have another woman in the house, but you do have to make plans.”
            She got up and went around to her husband and put her arms around him in his high-backed chair. “You sound so angry—you don’t want Buck to have a wife of his own?”
            “Like hell I don’t—the way he looks at you at times—I know what he’s thinking, but I married you fair. The trouble with Buck, it takes him too long to make up his mind. He left you at the mission and went west, didn’t he? He never said he was ever coming back.”
            John paused and asked Elena to sit down, and then he went on. But Buck butted in; he had to say something sensible. “I know my shortcomings; I’m not trying to be perfect.” The three looked at each other as though they had known that all along.
            Then John took the floor. “I’ll bet that girl is out there right now surrounded by Marques Colorado and his braves. He used to be our ally—stood up against Cochise to keep him in check. Then those fur traders at the post beat him up ‘cause he lied to them—then he went mad. He headed south again this year with his whole tribe to plunder. He’s waiting for the Frenchman Du Lac—they got all his goods last year and he didn’t have any better sense than to come again this year. She’s on that stage—Buck, you’re responsible for her life. You don’t want her to go through the hell Elena did living with the Indians.”
            John looked at his wife; he was disgusted with his brother, but that wasn’t difficult for him. Buck tried to take everything in a kindly way, but John was his half-brother and still thought he had to wipe Buck’s nose.
            They got up from the table and John put his hand on Buck’s shoulder. He was taller than Buck and Buck felt he was trying to remind him he was still boss. Buck was just the foreman; Buck had spent his intended investment buying Elena back from the Indians.
            “Tomorrow before sun up,” John said, “we’ll be on our way to find that coach. The Frenchman is due in the territory with a new caravan of trade goods any time now. We hope the stage had sense enough to join up with him.”
            They settled in the spacious parlor where a fire was burning in the hearth, laid with native stones that covered half the wall. The adobe walls were crumbling in places and Buck felt as though they were tumbling in on him, but the furniture was sturdy enough to support the walls even if they caved in. Then Buck began to feel more at ease, realizing everyone meant the best for him.
            It was late when they had finished the plans for the next day. As Buck got up to go to the bunkhouse, Elena walked over and kissed him. “Good luck, Buck,” and Buck felt out of place because it was his brother’s wife, but any touch from her brought back regretful memories.
            Miss Carver had written she would arrive between the fifteenth and the twentieth of June, but Buck knew of no stage with a real schedule. There were a few fine weather coaches that stopped at cow towns and fleeted across the dry prairie like dust devils. It would soon be too blamed hot for the lackadaisical drivers, but there were always a number of unscheduled mud wagons.