Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Blue Prints and Scotch

I grabbed the pommel and threw my leg over the horse to dismount. As I lowered myself to the ground, the cinch and saddle groaned. Inwardly I joined them in the moan of despair. Dragging the reigns over the head of Zach T, the evening twilight caught my sight. The blue sky was fading to purple and the foothills cast lengthening shadows cross the rolling grassy meadows skirting their hips. For a moment I stood there – facing the west, lost in contemplation of my mission. My gaze settled on the gap between two hills where the sun was sinking and I identified with its slow decent. It reminded me of my life at the moment. A snort and stamp of a hoof from Zach brought me out of my reverie. Reaching up I removed my hat from my damp copper colored hair, which I was sure was springing in every direction and wiped my brow with the back of a gloved hand. Zach’s head swung around and looked as me as if to say, “What’cha waiting for?” “Right, right, I’m goin’,” I mumbled to my four-legged friend, and mounted the steps to the deep porch. The main door to the residence was directly in front of me, and to my left, was another door that led to the ranch office. The window beside the office door slowly brightened while I stood there undecided. Did I knock at the front door – or go to the office door as I always had in the past and just let myself in? Someone was lighting the lamp on the desk in there for an evening of reviewing bills, plans, and paperwork. I battled with myself. I’d only been here in the past to see her on social calls and that was always a front door proposition. But this was no social call. This was all business. Yet I’d never conducted business with her, just with her daddy. What was she going to think when I presented my idea? Would those wide blue eyes of hers narrow in disgust? Would she eye me with suspicion? Would she even give me a chance to outline my plea? I removed the gloves from my hands and strode toward the office door with determination. “Just get it over with”, I mumbled to myself. “The quicker you spit this out, the quicker you can move onto the next plan.” Irritated with myself, for being in this position of need, I yanked open the screen door and opened the interior door. As the door swung open I cursed at myself. The last thing I wanted to do was startle her, yet here I was, acting like a bull in a china shop and barging on in the office. To my surprise she wasn’t startled. Her head remained bent over the pile of papers on the desk – eyes fastened on the writing before her. Or so I assumed. I stood there for another moment, and she continued to ignore me. She didn’t even look up when the screen door slammed behind me. The discomfort of the situation stole over my body and I felt like a million mosquito bites had suddenly risen on the surface of my skin. Oh what I wouldn’t have given to scratch at my arms at that moment. But something about her posture stilled me. Maybe it was the way her shoulders moved at that moment, or the way I could see her chest expand, but suddenly I realized she wasn’t studying the paperwork as much as she was bowing her head in contemplation and reigning herself in. I stood there for another minute, although it seemed like an eternity, and then cleared my throat. Still no response. “Mz. RexAnne,” I queried? It sounded painful the way she drew in her breath, but her low voice emerged and she replied, “What is it Josiah?”, while her head was yet bent over the papers before her. Feeling like Zach outside, I shuffled my feet and said, “Uhh, m’am? I’m uhh here to uhh …”, and my voice trailed off because she still hadn’t lifted her eyes to meet my gaze. Then slowly she raised her head, and I wish she’d have kept staring at the desk. The features of her face that usually were so animated with liveliness were frozen without expression. It was as if someone had wiped all the intelligence and humor from her visage. The blankness startled me even more – and I simply stared back at her. All the words that had just been floating around in my head, ready to escape my mouth dried up. I might have even stood there like a fish with my mouth gaping open and closed. In fact, I’m sure I did, because eventually she said, “Close your mouth, sit down, and pull yourself together. Then say whatever it is you’ve come here to say”. The tone of these words was not comforting or tinged at all with kindness as I might have expected, but instead they were delivered like heavy boulders. Each on plunked down between us with a thud. Startled by this persona I did just as she commanded and dropped into the wood and leather chair across the desk from her. I leaned forward so my arms were resting on my knees and stared fixedly at my hands as I shoved my hat brim through them. Round and round that brim slid as my left hand met my right, then my right moved away. Left to right, right to escape. Left to right, right to escape. The hat must have made 5 or 6 circuits before she said, “Well, got it all together now?” I swallowed and looked up. “Yes’m. Yes’m I do”, I said trying to gain a measure of control. “Don’t call me Ma’am”, she barked. “I’ve been RexAnne to you for the last 15 years, and RexAnn I’ll remain, even if I am the boss of this here cattle ranch”, she said with some ire. The ire and her words caused a smile to tug at the corners of my mouth. This was a long standing dispute between the two of us. Here in the west they seemed to think it was okay to address each other by their first names. Where I’d grown up, women were always, “Miss or Missus”. If they were especially close family friends, it was acceptable to use a first name, but often the last name was employed. Upon our first meeting I’d called her Miss Howard. “I don’t know if those are southern manners or your military training peeking through” she said, “but I’m RexAnne”, and she stuck out her hand at that first meeting. I looked at the proffered hand, and the bold young woman attached to it, and found myself frozen to the spot. Her father quickly stepped in and said, “Josiah, forgive me for not warning you. This is my daughter RexAnne. She’s hot headed, forward, and doesn’t stand on formality. I hope you’ll forgive her.” “Forgive me?”, she arched an eyebrow and lightening snapped from her eyes as they rested on her father. “What do you mean by “forgive me”, Daddy? I am merely introducing myself to the renowned Josiah Hannaford, southern Mining Engineer and former West Point Cadet. What is there to beg forgiveness for?” At once I understood why he’d used the word “hot-headed” to describe this cool looking young woman. I also instantly understood why the Texan’s referred to her as a “cool drink of water”. I was sure she’d quench anything with one look from those icy blue eyes and the Nordic blond hair that crowned her head seemed tinged with permafrost. “Man oh man I thought. Fire and ice. Would you burn up or freeze first with this one?” “Well?” her irritated question brought me back to the present. “RexAnne”. I met her eyes and wished once again I hadn’t gazed there. But I continued to hold the look. Taking another deep breath I said in the most measured tone I could muster, “I am so sorry about your Father. He was a good man, and well respected within this community. There was none finer”. She dropped my gaze and in a soft voice, filled with pain she said, “Thank you again Josiah for your condolences. I know Daddy thought a lot of you too. Now shall we get on with what you’ve come out here to tell me?” That last sentence startled me, and I peered a little more closely at the bent crown of her head. “Well, uhh, this is most uncomfortable for me Miss Rex, I mean, RexAnne. But I’ve come to offer my help.” “What makes you think I need your help, Josiah? I am not selling this ranch, and I don’t need you to “help” me out by purchasing it, or by finding a buyer for me. Nor do I need your help in figuring out the price I want to ask, or reviewing the ranch books to figure out my assets and liabilities. But thank you very much for offering. I’m sure Daddy would think you were looking out for my best interests, but I’ll have to say, “No thank you”, and now you may leave. You’ve done your duty.” The voice that had started out soft had ended on a strident note – and her eyes were flashing those lightening bolt. For a moment her face was animated with anger. But just as quickly – the animation disappeared and the blank mask slipped down over her face. Her words took me by surprise. If she sold the ranch, I really was going to have to consider another plan, and although it was awkward to be asking her for a job … I’d really been planning on it all working out. Not because it was such a great idea, or even the type of job I was suited to, but because I didn’t have many other options to earn a living at this point and I was in dire need. And I also remembered how this particular idea kept appearing in my mind each time I prayed to God about my situation and his will for me. Inwardly I said to God, “See! See what you’ve led me too? Another chance to look foolish. First it was the effects of the hydraulic mining that I thought were going to improve lives, but have ended up ruining livelihoods. Then it was agreeing to provide testimony for the plaintiffs, even though I had a 26 year career as a mining engineer, and now it’s asking this woman, 12 years younger than me to work as the ranch foreman.” “RexAnne, you misunderstand my purpose in coming here this evening”, I started to say. “And marriage is not an option either! Josiah! I am surprised at you. What makes you think an old spinster like myself and a long-term bachelor like you could ever enter into that union?” Her words were so unexpected and so far from the mark – and so ludicrous, it was me who ended up losing his temper. I unfolded my frame from the chair and these words tumbled out of my mouth. “Now damn it. You just hold on there. I know I’m a mess and ain’t right … but you’re not making this easy for me. Maybe you should just go back to being quiet and give me a chance to stumble through my proposal. Which has nothing to do with marriage, I might add, instead of leaping ahead of me like you do with everyone else and imposing your ideas onto the reality of the situation which is not aligning with the blueprints. Why you’ve gone off on tangent angles to my intended plot line, and, and, and, why you’re just not mining much color where you’re digging! I think we were both alarmed at the tone and volume of my voice. Not knowing what to do to salvage the situation I jammed my hat back on my head, spun on my boot heal and headed toward the door. I’d taken about three steps when her voice cracked through the deafening silence. “Josiah”, she called, her voice strained. “Please, please forgive me. You are right, I’ve jumped ahead without giving you a chance to say what’s on your mind. Please forgive me. I’ve ….”, she hesitated for a moment and her voice caught. “I’ve just been trying to ward off all the “kind offers” without losing friendships, and I just don’t think I’m up to it anymore. But I should know you better. Please. Please won’t you forgive me and come back here and tell me what’s on your mind. You always look at things so clearly. I’m sorry I made you loose your temper. Please? I need a friend right now.” Something settled on my shoulders, it was like a mantle of confidence, enveloped me. Slowly I turned around and retraced my steps back to the chair. I lowered my body into it and stretched my legs out before me. I looked at the tips of my boots and said, “Alright. I guess we’re both in tight spots and need a friend. You just be patient with me, let me lay out the structure of my idea, and then you can pick it apart for foundational weaknesses and where it needs to be shored up. I know your Father always respected your ability to analyze things and I do too.” She returned to the other side of the desk, regained her chair and composure and said, “Thank you for the compliment. I’ll just make notes as you outline your plan and not interrupt you with questions or observations until you’re done.” I couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke at her. “You sure you’re up to that challenge, RexAnne? You’ve never been able to do it before … let’s make this interesting, want to place a bet on it?” I guess the twinkle in my own eyes and the curve of my lips clued her in, and for a moment a responding smile lit her eyes and a lilting laugh escaped her lips. “Fine, we’ll bet two fingers of Daddy’s scotch I can keep my mouth shut,” she replied. And I’ll be damned if that’s not what she did. She sat there for two hours as I outlined my ideas and reasons – at times she’d hold up her hand to stop me, but never once did she ask a question. She just scribbled like mad on page after page in the journal book. At the end, when I was exhausted from expounding on the framework, she sat and stared at me in silence. Then she rose from her chair, walked toward the liquor cabinet and said, “Josiah, I’m going to have to break the bet. That’s such a good plan, we’re both going to drink two fingers of this scotch – and celebrate our partnership. Then we’re going to pray. After I finsih thanking God, you’re going to leave here, ride Zach T. to your place and give me a few days to examine this from all sides. When I’m done, we’ll meet again – with Chadwick Bingham, and finalize the relationship and the agreements.” I smiled, accepted the glass of liquor and proposed this toast, “May the best we've ever seen Be the worst we'll ever see May a moose ne'er leave our girnal Wi' a tear drap in his e'e May ye aye keep hale an' he'rty Till ye're auld eneuch tae dee May ye aye be jist as happy As we wish ye aye tae be” And with that we sipped and entered into the future.

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