A Very Unusual Romance

Prologue

“I cannot believe one person is worth this much trouble.” She leaned forward and tapped her clove cigarette into the ashtray. Julius patted the back of her hand. The scented smoke irritated his sinuses, as she was well aware, but he smiled frigidly through the haze of it and through her pettiness.

“Elita, my dear, jealousy is so unbecoming.”

“Julius, I have known you a great number of years, too many perhaps.” He maintained his smile, but it failed to reach his eyes.

“And you know I have nothing but respect for your judgment,” she said, pausing long enough to measure the effects of her remarks. No change was visible on his pale countenance.

She shrugged her shoulders, a delicate motion. “Why not simply take her and be done with it? Why make such a fuss out of it?”

“Fuss? You have adapted well to the clichéd words of this era, my dear.” His expression abruptly changed and, smooth as the velvet texture of his words, he leaned forward, drawing her close with a fierce stare. “I wonder, Elita, how you can question me at all.” His voice reverberated with buried passion. “You, of all people, should fathom the importance of her blood. In her veins run two thousand years of royalty. The first family. And with it, the power of the uncreation. Our people will have their due, and I shall be the one who gives it to them. We will honor the past by seizing the future.” He leaned back into his chair and luxuriantly sipped a cognac.

“This,” he waved futilely, setting the snifter on the table, “this centuries-old Diaspora will end. The Adamites had their chance. We let them play their little games and live their little lives in the sun. We have hidden away from them as if they were to be feared.”

He paused, savoring the taste of his own words, and then dropped his voice to a low, soft growl, a mesmerizing tone. “That is about to change,” he said. “I caution you, lovely Elita. It would serve you to remain on the winning side. Should you take it upon yourself to make some misguided effort to turn back this tide, well, I would miss you.”

He reached across the table and stopped her hand in midair as she moved her cigarette toward her lips. “My dear, I have seen the future and the future is Elizabeth Vaughan. Are we clear on this?”

She nodded sullenly and stood. As she did, every man in the bar stopped to study her: the pale skin, the silky black hair falling to her shoulders, the cling of the dress to her narrow hips, the erotic strength flowing from her. Women turned too. Elita, aware of the eyes but heedless, ran her fingers through her hair, arranging it behind her ears to reveal her slender throat. Bending toward the table, she stubbed her cigarette and brushed at imaginary lines in her dress as she straightened.

“Very clear,” she said. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of your machinations. As if I could. Elizabeth Vaughan. Such a tedious name. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He tilted his head in agreement, his lips forming a dismissive but appreciative smile. Elita turned and walked toward the door. Pausing by the bar, she laid her hand on the shoulder of a young man sitting alone. Leaning close to him, her lips brushing against his hair, she whispered in his ear. He nodded vigorously, gulped at his beer and slammed the glass down. Quickly he stood, marveling at this turn of extraordinary luck.

With eyes mocking her young victim’s adoration, Elita twined her arm around his waist. Smiling over her shoulder at Julius triumphantly, she disappeared into the night, hips swaying, her conquest in obedient tow.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Me, I like the sunrise.

There ain’t nothing on this earth that compares to seeing that first glow lighting up the sky, touching everything with golden fingers and dripping copper-red honey down the jagged slopes to the timberline below.

Sitting out on the porch with a steaming cup of coffee scorching my fingers through the enamel and Rex curled up tight at my feet, life seems close to perfect. There’s a quietness in the air that always makes me think today is the day to make things right. No matter how hopeless it might have seemed when I bedded down the night before, morning always comes and brings with it the familiar sense that maybe I can fix an old mistake or two and lay a claim on a parcel of the future.

Of course, oftentimes the sunrise comes way too early and I keep my eyes screwed shut against it, wishing I could sleep right through, especially when the remnants of last night’s whiskey are percolating around my bloodstream. Still, I can honestly say I’ve seen more sunrises than not, which is more than most folks can say.

This morning, however, I wouldn’t argue with most folks who would call me loco for being such an early riser. The high-beam lights from my truck were half-blinding me as I tried to herd my neighbor’s funny looking goats back through the hole in the fence, cussing and throwing rocks at them in hopes of getting them off my property.

The fence wires have a mysterious habit of cutting themselves right next to my water tank, and them goats, known to some as alpacas, mistakenly think it’s okay to come traipsing through to drink.

The first couple dozen times those damn alpacas trespassed, Rex rounded them up and sent them all skittering home like the champion cow dog he is. Eventually, the goats took to spitting on him and so damaged his pride that he now refuses to even get out of the truck when they’re around. Cow dogs are touchy about that sort of thing. This morning, he sat in the driver’s side looking nonchalantly the other way like he was dreaming of a better place, the kind of place where dogs don’t get spit on by goats.

All God’s creatures have a purpose and I suspect that holds true for alpacas, but I can’t tell what that might be. Best I can figure, their purpose in life is to act haughty and spit on whatever they can’t shit on, which is pretty much everything. All that really matters is they ain’t cows, and cows are all that was intended to be raised here. That’s why Wyoming is called the Cowboy State and not the Alpacaboy State. Times are changing and you got to go where the money is, but the day Wyoming becomes known for its overpriced goats, well, that’s the day I pack my bags.

After finally chasing the goats off, I set about splicing the wires together with cold, numb fingers. Ever since George Harlan moved here from back east, it seemed I’d gotten pretty handy at fixing this particular stretch of fence. A hundred years ago, this sort of activity would have gotten Harlan shot. Of course, a hundred years ago there weren’t alpacas in these parts, or big city folks looking to get away from it all. Back then, Wyoming was so far away they had to pay people to come here. Now we’ve got movie stars strutting around with purple cowboy hats and pointy silver boots trying to blend in with the locals.

Cursing under my breath, I stapled the wire into the posts and threw the wire stretchers in the back of the truck, scooting Rex over from the driver’s seat. I gave one last glare at them goats lined up at the fence glaring back at me. “For the love of Pete, Rex, this is your ranch too,” I said and poured a cup of coffee from the thermos.

It was so bitter, leftover from yesterday, that I nearly choked so I tossed it, steaming, onto the frosty ground. Rex ignored me all the way back to the trailer.

I stomped inside, pulling off my boots and throwing them in the corner, along with my coat. Rex slunk in and jumped up on the couch, curling up with a sigh. I was starving and was mighty disappointed to find the fridge woefully empty. Rex was still pretending to ignore me, but watched out of the corner of his eye as I pulled my boots back on. “I ain’t gonna apologize,” I said, “but you’re more than welcome to ride into town with me for breakfast.”

He jumped up and scrabbled past me, slipping on the linoleum, and nosed the trailer door open. By the time I stepped outside into the struggling sunshine, he had already loaded up through the driver’s window, which I always leave open for him except when it’s miserably cold. He was setting behind the wheel yawning and wagging his little stump of a tail and I reminded him for the umpteenth time that I was driving and to scoot the hell over, which he did reluctantly.

We set out, rattling down the ruts that serve as my front drive, bumping our way over two hundred acres of prime Wyoming grassland. When I say grassland, I mean just that: land with grass on it. Perfect for grazing though, and for decoration there’s a beautiful tree and some lovely rocks down in one corner right next to my galvanized steel water tank. That same well supplies the water to my single-wide trailer which makes up in charm what it lacks in size. One of these years I plan on building me and Rex a little cabin, or at least adding on to the trailer, but that sort of stuff is a long ways off. Right now, I’m just happy that me and the bank own such a lovely piece of property.

On the way to town, I met a bunch of folks on the highway who I knew well enough to swerve across the center asphalt line like I was going to hit them and then they’d throw their arms up as if to cover their faces from the coming accident. It was big fun on Highway 14 at seven in the morning, which says a lot about the entertainment prospects of living in LonePine.

LonePine, Wyoming, has a steady population of four hundred and thirty eight people, except on the Fourth of July Rodeo and Outdoor Barbecue when folks come from as far away as the next county. Suddenly, there’ll be several thousand people standing around in the sun, drinking beer and waiting until it’s dark enough to go inside and drink beer.

Not counting dirt roads, Highway 14 is the one major thoroughfare in LonePine, connecting it to other, more exotic places like West Yellowstone, Montana and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Cruising the main strip takes a grand total of three minutes. There’s a bank, a pharmacy, a dress store and a post office on one side. On the other side is Manny’s Dollar Store, which doubles as the mall, a video store, and the Sagebrush Cafe. Most important to the local folk, ’cause they figure so largely in LonePine’s social pursuits, are the Silver Dollar and The Watering Hole. These two bars — facing each other like gunfighters across the highway — are famous for near a hundred miles around and even this early in the day, several trucks were parked out front. If I happened to drive by around midnight, they’d still be there, with many more joining them.

Conveniently located behind the Silver Dollar is the Sleep-O-Rama Motel, where most of LonePine’s public affairs are tended to. LonePine was one of the first towns in Wyoming to institute a recycling program, only it wasn’t for empty pop cans and such, it was in the area of personal relationships. Due to the limited number of available mates, folks round here took to using other people’s. Under this system, one man’s wife might be another’s girlfriend and one woman’s husband might be another’s boyfriend.

For the sake of fairness, those who participate in this program switch off partners every couple of months or so and thereby prevent any sort of jealous altercations from developing. The system is not foolproof, however, and many a heated discussion has erupted in the parking lot behind the Sleep-O-Rama centered around just how married a given individual may be. It’s usually resolved, after many beers and a repledging of love, at one of the two saloons.

All in all, LonePine is just like any other sleepy, one-horse town in the wild, wild, dying west.

Although I was hungry for breakfast, I pulled into the post office first to check my mail that had been piling up for near a week.

Before I even had a chance to open my box, Melissa Braver walked in and started talking at me. Owing to the generous nature of her natural assets and her willingness to display them to her fullest advantage, she was somewhat of a destination resort around these parts. Melissa and me stepped out a few times back in the day, but lived through it and even remained friends against the odds.

“Tucker, where you been?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you around.”

“I’ve been up on Widow Woman Creek doing some work for Dad,” I said, and then checked my box. “Bills, bills, overdue bills,” I grumbled. “Hey, what’s this?”

“What’s what?” Melissa asked.

“It’s a postcard from Lizzie.” I held it up. It was a close-up photograph of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the heels clicked together, and ‘There’s no place like home’ written under them.

Maybe today would be better than I had thought.

“That from your city girl?”

“Yep.”

“I don’t know what she sees in a washed-up old cowhand like you,” she said, a trace of what’s-she-got-that-I-ain’t in her voice.

I shook my head. “Me neither. Must be my rugged good looks and keen intellect.”

“I think she’s just naturally attracted to bullshit,” Melissa said, pulling a bunch of envelopes out of her mailbox. “Hey, look at this. I may already be a winner.”

I didn’t want to read the postcard with Melissa standing right there watching me so I slipped it into my back pocket. “I’m gonna get some breakfast. See you later.”

“Next time she comes out, you bring her round, Tucker. Don’t be stashing her up at your trailer. She’ll get bored as hell up there.”

“Like she won’t get bored in town,” I said. “She’s from New York goddamned City. There’s more people living in her apartment building than in all of LonePine put together.”

After the post office, I went to the Sagebrush Cafe, counting up the money in my pocket which, frankly, wasn’t very much more than all the money I had in the world. It was still enough for coffee, biscuits and gravy and some scrambled eggs. The spare change I found in my jacket would cover a double order of hash browns.

Hazel, a waitress at the Sagebrush since the American Revolution, or at least for the thirty-five years I’d been eating there, took my order. I had her bring the cup of coffee first and then pulled out Lizzie’s postcard. It might’ve been my imagination, but it seemed to smell like honey and oranges. Didn’t say much, just that she missed me and thought maybe it was my turn to visit; and something about her latest assignment on Dracula.

For the life of me, I will never understand city people.

Hazel brought a plate of food, so I slipped the postcard back into my pocket and let my mind drift back.

I met Lizzie about six months ago. She’s a journalist from New York City, one of those real intellectual types. I’d like to say it was her smarts that caused me to fall for her, but that would be a lie. I was first struck by how dang pretty she was, but I knew right off that behind them looks was a powerful mind capable of rankling me without even trying.

She’d come out to do a story about cowboys and ended up in LonePine with a bunch of notebooks, a computer and a fancy camera, looking sort of lost. The first time I saw her was at the Silver Dollar, all made up in a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, skin-tight jeans with someone’s name on the label, shiny, leather-fringed cowboy boots that looked like they pinched her feet and a bandanna knotted around her neck. She looked like an extra from one of those fancy catalogs, a big city notion of country. Despite the fact that she took my breath away, my day had been pretty dismal, so I did my best to ignore her and took a stool at the far end of the bar for a nice, quiet beer.

She was sitting with a broken-down old alcoholic named Vince McCready, who we all call ‘Reride’ due to the number and extent of his rodeo injuries that grow in proportion to the number of times he’s retold his story. It all dated back to one unfortunate incident he had with a milk cow that formed the whole of his rodeo experience, and was as close to cowboying as he’d ever get.

She was making a real point of not noticing me not noticing her, which I noticed much to my chagrin, and it began to interfere with the enjoyment of my beer. I paid for it and left it sitting half full on the bar and strolled nonchalantly for the door. Reride saw me and grabbed hold of my arm.

“Tucker, I’d like you to meet Lizzie Vaughan,” he said. “Lizzie, this here’s Tucker, an old friend of mine. We go way back.”

She stuck out her hand, smiling mischievously. I touched the brim of my hat. “Pleasure, ma’am,” I said.

“She’s here from New York City writing a story about cowboys,” Reride said.

“I hope you find some.”

Her eyes danced and there was a reply forming on her lips, but I went on outside before she could deliver it, leaving Reride sputtering in defense.

I hardly thought about her at all until the next time I saw her, which was several days later at the Cooper Ranch. They hold a monthly jackpot roping so all the cowboys from around LonePine can put ten dollars apiece toward the jackpot that Mr. Cooper always wins.

Ten dollars is more than a fair price to pay for the privilege of roping in his outdoor arena and drinking warm beer. Add in the chance that somebody’s sister-in-law could be visiting from out of town and that’s some four-star entertainment in metropolitan LonePine.

Since it’s only a few miles from the trailer, I rode Snort down.

Rex trailed along behind us, sniffing and pissing on every bush and post while I followed a routine Snort and I developed for ensuring maximum performance from him: flattery. Horses are a bit vain by nature and Snort is even more so, and he constantly needs his ego attended to. I guess it’s not so much empty flattery as it is positive reinforcement. Seems fair that if I expect him to perform like the best horse on the planet, he needs to know he is the best horse on the planet.

That’s exactly what I told him as we trailed along, bent forward over his neck whispering in his ear about how fast he is, how strong and smart, how handsome and how lucky I was to have such a fine horse. I could feel the pride swelling up in him with each word and even though he can’t tell me what a wonderful, strong and handsome rider I am, it’s pretty damn clear that he trusts me right up to the end. It’s there in his eyes and in every fiber of horse muscle underneath my legs keyed up and poised, waiting for my command.

There’s a bond develops between a horse and rider stronger than just about any, with the possible exception of parent to child. It’s different, though, because it’s more like equals coming together to form one powerful thing which is sort of like the bond between the night sky and a shooting star. Without Snort, I don’t think I’d be who I am today. I suspect, however, that without me, Snort would probably be just as happy in somebody else’s barn, so long as there was plenty of oats.

The field behind the Cooper Ranch was already full of trucks and trailers and horses and screaming kids and horse shit. Someone had the foresight to bring a big old grill; charcoal smoke filled the air and they were burning hamburgers and hot dogs for a dollar apiece. I guided Snort on through, nodding at folks I knew, which was everyone. Rex found a truck to crawl under, a rig I didn’t recognize, and lay there panting in the shade.

“Rex, get on outta there. Come on, go find Kenny’s dog. Come on, Rex, find Lady. Find Lady.”

“Is your dog LonePine’s version of a matchmaker?”

I kneed Snort around and saw Lizzie with her camera. “Stop that,” I said, but my damn fool horse went all National Geographic. He started horse-smiling and puffed up his chest and struck his most noble horse pose. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and dug my heels into his flank, but by that time she was bent over taking pictures of Rex who adopted his most sensitive dog look and rolled over on his back so she could scratch his belly.

“For God’s sake, quit with the pictures. Rex, come on.” I yanked at the reins and Snort jerked his head back like he was about to pull a stubborn until I fixed him with a savage look.

“I’m Lizzie,” she said, “Lizzie Vaughan.”

“I know damn well who you are. Now put that thing away.”

“You’re Tucker, right? How about you give me an interview, Mr. Tucker?”

“Just Tucker. No mister. And no thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a roping to attend.”

“Well, good luck, just Tucker. Maybe I’ll get some nice shots of you roping.”

I heard her talking nice to Rex, that little traitor, so I left him to her as Snort and I eased into the holding pen beside the arena. Snort kept looking back over his shoulder to see if maybe she’d take some more pictures of him and I had to gently remind him with my boot heels to watch what he was doing.

There was probably forty people up in the stands or else leaning over the fence spitting tobacco juice out into the loose dirt of the arena. Forty people is a big turnout, what with haying season in full swing.

One of the Dryer boys, probably Junior by the crease in his hat, was backed up in the chute waiting his turn, so I pulled Snort to a stop so we could watch from outside. Junior gave a nod and they turned the calf out. As soon as it cleared the chute, Junior put the spurs to his old nag and they jumped out after it. He spun his loop and galloped along and directly gave it a toss. By the time the calf hit the end of the rope, Junior had jumped down and was running up to it, holding his pigging string. He tossed the calf and grabbed three of its four legs and looped his string around them once, twice, and then with a half hitch, threw his hands clear to signal the judges he was done and to stop the clock. He got back on his horse grinning because it was a good time. It wasn’t a winning time, but it was good.

The crowd was hollering and he saw me and took off his hat to wave across. I waved back and then pointed behind him at the calf. He looked around in time to see it struggle to its feet, the pigging string coming loose. He slumped in the saddle and everybody groaned. I could hear his dad laughing from behind the stands.

After two beers and a burger, it was my turn in the chute. Snort was keyed up and I knew I could come close to Mr. Cooper’s time, which was all anybody wanted. They dropped the gate and the calf darted out. Snort bunched up and exploded after him, and I had my loop built and it sailed out graceful as can be, floated above the calf’s head, then settled down over him. The calf kept running forward — they ain’t particularly bright — and hit the end of the rope, causing it to flip around. Snort immediately started backing up and dragging the calf along, bleating in distress.

I leapt out of the saddle, the pigging string clamped down between my teeth, feeling each second reverberate between me and Snort as they ticked by. I ran down the rope with one hand looped over, measuring the tension as I caught the calf by the neck and flank, dug a knee in and hoisted it up to flop it down sideways.

The arena was dead quiet, everyone silently marking the seconds.

I caught Snort’s eyes, all chestnut concentration, and then disaster struck.

From the distance came a faint sort of shriek. Snort and I both swung our heads in time to see Lizzie lose her balance after leaning too far over the fence and tumble, camera and all, into the arena. I caught Snort’s eye again and there was panic there and bewilderment, and though I tried to calm him with a look, he fell all apart.

Before I could get the string looped around my calf’s legs, Snort stepped nervously forward, craning his neck to look at Lizzie sitting all sprawled out in the mud and wiping the cow shit off her camera. As the rope slacked limp, the calf got a foot down and lunged out of my grip, butting me in the nose and drawing twin streams of blood and a string of curses that was quickly lost in the laughter from the stands.

Glaring at her now, as she stood up and dusted the filth off her ass, I threw my hat and sat down in the mud. She give me a little nervous kind of smile that rankled me deep and I swiped my sleeve across my face to mop up some of the blood and fought the urge to go over and give her what for.

Snort came back to his senses pretty quick, took one look at me and ducked his head in shame. He started shuffling his feet as I pulled my rope off the calf and coiled it, tying it to the saddle, all the while whispering to him things like, “I ought to sell you for glue, you worthless turd,” but kept on petting him so it’d look to the spectators like I was trying to reassure him. “I’m walking you home, you understand me? You ain’t even worth sitting on, you walking sack of Alpo.” To a horse, there was nothing worse than being walked.

I did too, walked him right out of the arena, through the parking lot and past her sitting on the fence with Rex down at her feet.

“How’s the nose?” Lizzie asked, jumping down to stand in my way.

“It’s all right,” I said, trying to step past. She laid her hand on my arm and I pondered for a moment how someone so irritating could look so damn beautiful and how her hand could feel so warm through my shirtsleeve. “If you’ll pardon me,” I said.

“You looked good. Good form, I mean.”

“Thanks, you too,” I said. “Falling off the fence I mean. Come on, Rex.”

“Look, I’m sorry if I distracted you,” she said.

“Sorry don’t buy the groceries,” I said and turned sideways to step past her.

She ran her hand down Snort’s neck and he nuzzled up against her. “Your horse seems to likes me.”

“He ain’t real particular,” I said.

“And you are?” she asked.

I nodded and led Snort on by.

“How about that interview?” she called out.

“I think you’ve done just about enough damage,” I said. “Come on, Rex.” I looked over my shoulder and saw Rex wasn’t moving. He was mesmerized complete. “Fine, stay.”

He must’ve quickly found out she didn’t have any food, because by the time Snort and I got to the road, Rex came slinking along behind, just out of yelling range. Once we got home, I didn’t say nothing to either of them, just pulled Snort’s saddle off and turned him out. I left Rex outside too, pointed grimly at the alpacas and shut the door. He looked hurt, but had the good sense not to whine.

Which is more than I could say for myself, since my nose hurt like hell.

Three beers, two aspirin and one hour later, and my head had just about quit hurting. It didn’t come as much of a surprise when I heard a rig turning up my road. Rex wasn’t barking, and he barks at everyone, so I knew right off it was her. Despite my better judgment, I opened the door just as she got out of her rental with a six-pack of beer in one hand and her camera in the other.

She held up the beer. “Hi. I brought a peace offering.”

“Good, leave it on the porch,” I said.

She smiled. “How’s the nose?”

“Why? Want before and after pictures?”

“No, I came by for that interview.”

“What interview?” I asked.

“I didn’t know you raised alpacas,” she interrupted, gesturing behind her.

“I don’t. Them’s my neighbors. And I don’t give interviews either, so you should probably just leave.”

“Look, if you don’t give me some time, I’ll just make up some stuff and put your pictures along with it.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Probably not, but it sounded good.” She peeked past me into the trailer. “How long has it been since a woman’s been in here, anyway?”

“That really ain’t none of your business. And that you can print.” Rex was sitting on her foot, grinning up at her like an idiot. “And another thing, you’re ruining my dog.”

“Come on,” she said. “An hour, that’s all I’m asking for. The beer’s getting warm.”

How’d she know I’d just drank my last one? “All right. One hour and that’s it.”

She asked me lots of stupid questions about being a cowboy. I guess I gave the right answers because before too very long when I leaned over and kissed her, she kissed me back. Then she spent the night. Not naked and under the covers as I’d hoped, but fully dressed and talking ninety miles an hour until we fell asleep on the couch. When the sun came up we were under a blanket all spooned up together.

We spent most of the next week together, during which time we drank a great deal of beer, ate microwave burritos and spent every night together, though nothing much happened, which was something kind of new for me, but didn’t feel too particularly strange.

By the time she left for New York, we were both feeling kind of awkward. I sure didn’t know what to say and if she did, she wasn’t saying it. I told her I’d visit her soon, but not too very soon, since it was haying season and then after that I had cows to trail back from summer pasture and then maybe between that and calving season I’d try to fly on out.

I gave her a hug goodbye and then stood there in the Jackson airport watching her plane labor up over the mountains and felt what could only be described as, well, I just plain missed her.

She did come back though, and brought a copy of Harrold Magazine chock full of pictures of me, which was mildly embarrassing, considering how the story was called “The Last Cowboy.” I got quite a ribbing about that around town, but that was okay considering she stayed well on to two weeks. We got down to some serious rodeoing, mostly at night in my bedroom, and she taught me a great deal about riding rough-stock. By the time she left, she’d grabbed my heart by the horns, wrestled it down and slapped her brand on it. That was three months back and now I was starting to think real serious about buying a plane ticket and taking a trip to New York.