The skies weren't their vibrant New Mexico blue, but instead were covered with dirty grey clouds. The weather was warm and sticky, totally different from the arid weather one expects in this dry land. Wearing a cotton blouse and a denim split skirt, Iragene Jones, Sheriff of La Madera, was trying her best to remain cool and civil. She loved warm days, but this unusual humidity was unpleasant, and she hoped the skies would open up and rain or just go away. This mugginess reminded her of home in Buda, Texas, and though she had loved every moment of growing up there, she was never fond of the humidity.
"How about some lemonade, Sheriff? Marni sent over a pitcher from the hotel." Her deputy, Cruz, came in with his arms full of beverage and snacks. Cruz was her right hand man and now a part of her family. He had stood by her side when her fiancée was shot down in a barrage of senseless violence by a family of sadistic land grabbers. Cruz then offered to be her deputy if she took the job of sheriff, replacing the older sheriff who had refused to acknowledge that the county was under siege. Now, instead of a wedding ring, Iragene wore a badge.
"Thanks, Cruz, but right now, I think I'd be happier sitting in the horse trough. It sure is sticky today. It always gets this way when the clouds come up from the south. I wonder why?"
"A friend of Dr. Steins says it's because there is a huracán off Mexico."
"Really? How interesting. Why don't we get a lot of rain and wind then?" She got up to stretch. "Whatever is causing this weather, I hope it goes away—soon. Give me some good old hot, sunny weather any day," and she smiled at him.
Cruz noticed her hair which was usually neat was coming out of her pony tail in tight curls. She didn't often sweat, but today even her hair was looking out of sorts.
"Sheriff, I was hoping you'd sip some lemonade and cool off a bit before I tell you the news."
"What news? Is the family all right? Have you heard something?"
"The Powells were at the General Store, and they mentioned they saw a familiar rider heading toward your ranch. They said they think they recognized him. The rider looked like your cousin Bobby."
"Bobby back in town? Oh no, I'm not sure I can handle a visit with cousin Bobby and this heat. The last time he came to town, he had the girls at Mrs. Brown's fighting over him. He stayed just long enough to put the town into a state of chaos. He caused more fights, more damage, and more problems than a dozen drunken cowboys."
"I guess he was trying hard to get over his friend's death. It was just his way of letting off steam, Iragene."
"You're too kind, Cruz. You know it takes days, sometimes weeks to put the town to rights after that man leaves," and she poured herself a large glass of lemonade and drank it down, wishing she could have added something stronger. "Damn, I mean, gosh darn it, just when I was thinking things in town were going smoothly. No more cattle drives expected, the miners have settled down, and the majority of the farmers had enough rain and snow this winter to have a bumper crop of beans. Oh, well . . . I'll let my brother Daniel handle this," and she sighed.
* * *
In the distance, coming down the dusty road leading to the Jones's ranch house, Daniel looked up and saw a large man, riding a black horse. He immediately reached for his rifle. As his dog, Lobo, now began barking, his wife, Pru, stepped out of the house, toting her own rifle. They heard a familiar voice with a strong Texas accent holler out, "Lord, folks, it's jes Cuz Bobby. Put them rifles away."
By now the entire working crew of Ranch Tecolote was out with rifles. Upon recognizing the rider and his voice though, they all set down their rifles and walked to greet the man, their former boss.
No one had over-reacted. The family and their hands had all been through so much in this formerly lawless land. Murderers, rapists, horse stealers, and land grabbers who wouldn't stop at anything to get their way. Bobby knew this, but loved the commotion his unannounced visit would cause. He laughed as he got off his horse and shook the proffered hands of his former team. They had brought the Joneses one hundred specially bred quarter horses over seven hundred miles with only three losses, and seven new foals as well. Breeding horses was in the blood of the Jones family, and those horses were the source of their wealth.
Iragene's gentle brother reached out and shook his cousin's hand. "Welcome home, Bobby. Good to see you, but what brings you out here? It's a helleva way to ride just for a family visit."
"Well, Danny boy, ain't it worth a little ride to see family? Does there have to be a reason?"
Knowing for certain that there was a reason beyond family ties, Daniel let it go. "Come on, Bobby, let's get you a drink and a wholesome meal. Pru will be happy to see you," leaving off the I hope part in his mind.
Doc took Bobby's horse, Diablo, happy to see the magnificent stallion again. "Take good care of him, Doc," Bobby called back unnecessarily, and the two men walked toward the main door of the house. Pru stood waiting with a little red-headed waif with dark brown eyes hiding behind his mother's skirts. The big man bent over and hugged the little one's mother. "Lookin' purty as usual, Pru. When you git tired of ol Danny there, let me know, and I'll show you how a real man treats a woman," and he laughed. He entered the house, seemingly filling up the entire room.
"Welcome, Bobby," Pru managed to say in a soft Texas drawl. "Come in and get settled down now. How about some cool water and a bowl of hot chile for y'all. Ah bet you haven't had a one decent meal in days."
"You got that right, Pru," and he went to sit down.
"Ah know you haven't forgotten where the washbowl is, and here's a clean towel for you. Ah'll have it ready for y'all bah the time you get back."
Bobby came back a few minutes later and sat down. "Where's Cassie? She's usually with you all," and he looked around.
"She's been living in town with Iragene. She's been learning about medicine from the new doctor in town."
"Why hell, oops, sorry ma'am, she's as good a doctor as any doctor I ever met, and probably a whole lot better."
"Are y'all needing a doctor, Bobby?" Pru quietly asked.
"Hell no, I mean, no, Ma'am. I was just wonderin'. She's here so much she's like a comfortable piece of furniture."
"Well now, Bobby, if you see her in town, maybe you should use a different comparison for her."
"Well now, y'all are probably right," and he quietly ate the rest of his green chile stew while the married couple just looked at each other.
* * *
Iragene had just finished making the rounds of the town, checking into the eighteen bars and looking into all the stores. She was about ready to call it a day and go home to her small house down the road when she saw the telegraph operator running toward her.
"Sheriff, we got big trouble. It says here that 'Dirty Dave' Rudabaugh and John 'Little Allen' Llewellyn just shot and killed a jailer while trying to break out their friend, J. J. Webb, in Las Vegas. They then robbed the hardware store and are heading our way."
"Well thank you, Jake, for delivering my telegraph," she responded rather icily. "Anything you missed?"
"No, Sheriff. That's about all," he innocently replied, missing the sarcasm in her voice and handing her the slip of paper, rather pleased with himself, and shuffled back to his office.
Iragene wiped her brow and thought back to the first time she met "Dirty Dave." He was a constable in Las Vegas, NM, where violence and corruption were the order of the day. She remembered upon meeting him that he came by his name honestly. She easily recalled his revolting body smell, rotting teeth, and large disheveled mustache. Apparently the man avoided water of any kind, and the result was his moniker.
Great, I have outlaws coming from the north and Cousin Bobby from the east. Now all I need is a raiding party coming from the other directions. She walked back to the office to say good-night to Allen, a new deputy she had just hired who liked working nightshifts, and warn him about the notorious men headed their way. "They'll probably pick up some buddies on the way, Allen, so be on the look-out."
"Sheriff, how will I recognize the man?"
"We don't have a picture of him, but I can tell you one thing, you'll smell him before you see him."
Incredulous, Allen looked at her to see if she was joking, but saw she was plumb serious. "All right, Sheriff. If I see or smell anything, I'll wake you up."
"Thanks, Allen. Hopefully I'll see you tomorrow and not any sooner." She turned to the door and walked to the end of the street to a small cottage-like home that had once belonged to the previous Sheriff. It was neat and comfortable with a beautiful garden.
She walked into the house, happy to find her adopted sister, Cassie, sitting and reading a medical book. She looked up. "Iragene, you're late. Anything wrong?"
"Yes and no," was her response. "We might have Dirty Dave and some cronies passing through town. On the other hand, they might have gone directly to Silver City. In addition to that news, we've had word that some unexpected relative showed up at El Tecolote."
"Hmmm, let me guess. Cousin Bobby is here."
"Right you are. I wonder why. What do you think?" she queried.
"My guess is as good as yours. After he delivered the horses last year and after his best friend betrayed him, I would have thought he'd had no stomach for New Mexico."
"Me too, oh well. Have you eaten yet? I'm starved," and she headed for the kitchen where the smell of corn bread and posole was enough to set her mouth watering.
"I ate, but there's enough there for you tonight and breakfast for us tomorrow." Without another word, Iragene grabbed a bowl, dished herself a large portion of posole and a large chunk of bread. On it, she slavered butter and could barely wait to sink her teeth into it. A beatific smile graced her face and she lost her problems in the delicious food.
* * *
The next day, there was still no word from Allen about unwanted gangs or a man with a large mustache and a terrible smell. Cruz had come by sometime that morning, telling her that he'd cover for the day and she should spend some time with Cassie.
"So what are you studying now with Dr. Stein?" she inquired curiously. Cassie was a curandera, an herbalist and midwife. While she had continued to use the natural herbs that grew in the mountains and the llano (the plains), she was now studying under Dr. Stein, who had taken a serious liking to her, as well as having a respectful appreciation of her medical skills. They were learning from the other.
"Germs—invisible creatures that cause disease and infection."
"If they're invisible, then they don't exist."
"Actually, Iragene, they're invisible to the naked eye, but under Dr. Stein's microscope, you can see them. They are what cause us to get sick."
"Really! What do they look like? Little devils? Dragons?"
"Actually, they look very benign, but their appearance is deceptive. Some even look like worms without eyes. They're responsible for all the diseases and infections that have ever tormented man. It's hard to believe that something that small causes such damage."
"Are they sure? It's hard to believe."
"Pretty much, Iragene. The book I'm reading is by an English doctor named Lister. It's fascinating."
"Sometimes I think that man has discovered all there is to know, and then something like this comes up. The world is full of surprises."
* * *
Back at the ranch, Bobby had eaten a breakfast large enough for three men and proceeded to saddle up his horse. He had respectfully thanked Pru, smiled at little Alexander, and made his rounds with his former hands. Now he was off to town. He rode up to his cousin. "Thanks, Daniel, for a very hospitable visit. Maybe I'll be riding back through or maybe not," and he shrugged.
"Bobby, what the hell does that mean and what's going on? Except for your usual appetite, you're rather subdued."
"Now Daniel, quit being the old worrier, there ain't nothing wrong with ol' Bobby," and he reached over and shook his cousin's hand. As he rode away, Daniel just shook his head. Bobby never shook his hand. Slowly he walked back to his house where he found his beautiful red-headed wife and son waiting for him.
* * *
Iragene and Cassie were walking when a large black stallion and an even larger-than-life cowboy whooped his way down the street. In a cloud of dust, the rider spotted the two women and rode his horse up to them. He jumped off Diablo, tied him to the post, and walked in three strides up to the women on the boardwalk.
"Well, howdy do, ladies! Just the two people I love to see most," and he picked up Iragene and twirled her around. Then he set her down and picked up Cassie, doing the same. Both women tolerated this man, having known him all their lives.
"Bobby, what a surprise, seeing you in La Madera." Iragene said curiously. "I didn't think we'd see you in New Mexico again so soon. What brings you here?"
"Hell, quit hammerin' me with questions, gals. Let's find us some food. It's been hours since I ate," and he took an arm of each of the women. "Let's mosie on down to the Hotel. I jes' love that hotel owners daughter, Marnie. Maybe I'll let her make an honest man out of me one day."
"We won't hold our breath, Bobby, but it's good to see you." Cassie's response was sincere, but Iragene still had her misgivings. Something is up.
They made their way to The Hotel—its name, a stately building out of place in this quiet town, but enough wealthy ranchers, mine owners, and lumber men passed through to maintain the business. Its rooms were lovely, the food was memorable, and the father and daughter who owned the place were handsome and gracious.
They were seated in the back, where Bobby and Iragene preferred, and had ordered coffee and red chile apple pie, a favorite at the hotel's restaurant. Iragene was about to ask Bobby about all the family in Buda when her deputy Cruz came walking in at a little quicker pace than usual.
He smiled at Bobby and touched his hat at Cassie. Then he turned toward Iragene. "They'll be here any minute. Just got a telegraph from Mountaineer. Dirty Dave has picked up a dozen cronies and they've been bragging how they were going to pick up some spending money at the La Madera Bank before going on to Silver City."
Iragene stood up. "Sorry Bobby. I have to cut this short. Cassie, how about you going over to Doc Steins and warn him that he might be having some patients soon—hopefully them and not us." As she stood up, she adjusted her holsters and then hurried over to her office to get her rifle. Cruz was just ahead of her. She took her rifle off the rack and pulled out a box of shells that she poured into the overlarge pocket on her riding skirt. She then turned and bumped into a solid wall of a man.
"Bobby, what the hell, I mean, what are you doing here?"
"Why, I'm here to help!"
"Please, no, these men are killers and everything else that's bad. Please, just let us do our job."
"Oh, I will. But I'll be by your side. Don't want ta lose my sweet little cuz. Got my rifle, and I'm ready to go."
Too late to fight with him, she just pushed her way out, joined Cruz, and headed toward the bank. "Cruz, did you have a chance to warn Mr. Benton and have him close up the bank?"
"Yes, but I got another telegram warning us that one of the things Dirty Dave and the gang stole when they broke into the hardware store was dynamite."
"Oh, no, we can't let them get near the bank." Iragene shot a few shots into the street and announced that all shops were to be closed and all people were to be off the street. "We're expecting some serious gun fighting, and we don't want anybody hurt, so get inside, stay down, and be sure to protect your children."
Just at that moment there was a large streak of lightning and a crack of thunder. The thunder startled everyone, and she heard some woman scream. "Damn, just what we need now," and she didn't even bother to apologize for her language.
Bobby, who was standing by her side, merely chortled. He had seen Iragene and Cruz in action, and quite frankly, he pitied the poor bank robbers. They were an army of two. Now, with him there, he felt they were invincible, because he had nothing to lose, and if he went down fighting, even better. That way, death would be swift. But his thoughts were interrupted as a dozen riders turned onto the main street of La Madera, headed directly to the bank.
One of the head riders sported an oversized mustache and a mouth of blackish teeth. Still he smiled as he lifted his arm to throw a burning stick into the bank. Iragene took her rifle and shot his hand, and the burning fuse fell and was lost. The shooting then began in earnest. Cruz took up his usual spot on the roof of the hotel while Iragene stood on one side of the street and Bobby stood on the other.
The gang hadn't anticipated a welcoming party of lawmen and were surprised at this inauspicious greeting. Two of the men in the back reared up, turned their horses around and disappeared from sight. Others welcomed the challenge, assuming they'd win in the end, coming out of it, Dirty Dave said, with thousands in their saddle bags.
By now the heavens had opened and rain was pouring down. Iragene saw Bobby walking directly towards the riders, shooting and yelling, "HEE YA!" The first stick of dynamite had disappeared but a second one came out. Llewellyn now held it in his hand and tried to light it. The heavy rain extinguished his match before it even came close to the dynamite. Desperate now, he looked at Dirty Dave, and like the other two riders earlier, they turned their horses around and rode out through an alley to escape the barrage of bullets now being fired at them, most of those bullets coming from the two Colts in Bobby's hands.
The fight was over. Ten men lay dead or dying in the street. The leaders had fled, and the town was seemingly safe. Allen had arrived at the last minute, and now the four defenders stood together in the rain, relieved that they had vanquished the gang and little or no damage was done to the town.
Iragene looked at the three men who had helped save the town. "Anybody hurt?" She had been winged, and her white shirt sleeve was ripped and bloody. Cruz was not hurt, and neither was Allen. Iragene looked closer at the last hero and saw he was shot in the thigh.
"Bobby, come with me and let's get that wound looked at."
"I'm okay, Iragene, I think I can treat it myself. It don't hurt none," but his expression said otherwise.
"Come, let's let Doc Stein and Cassie decide that. Cruz, can you get the undertaker out and start the paperwork on the dead ones? I think one or two might still be breathing. Let's take them to the jail, and I'll send the doctor over when he's done with me and Bobby." She stopped and looked up, "Ahh, the rain has stopped. At least it cooled things off a bit," and she started walking with a limping Bobby.
Out of nowhere a woman screamed. Now on high alert, Iragene ran to the sound. "What is it?" and she turned to see where the woman was pointing. Her three year old son had picked up the forgotten stick of dynamite under the boardwalk and was gleefully running with it. The woman, who was holding a baby could only stare, terror written all over her face.
Bobby sprang forward, seemingly to have forgotten his wounded leg, and ran to the boy. He scooped the toddler up, smiled, and then grabbed the stick from his chubby little hands. He put him down and ran down the street to the nearest horse trough. He threw the stick into the trough and started to walk away, relief on his face. However, he was about twenty feet away when the trough blew. Pieces of wood hurtled out and he was struck with some large splinters and knocked down. The town stood silent, and then everyone rushed to Bobby. He was a bloody mess, and Cruz and Allen gently lifted him and carried him over to Doc Stein's.
Bobby was in and out of consciousness as his clothes were carefully cut off. While the doctor worked on the larger pieces, Cassie carefully picked out the smaller ones with a tweezer. Bobby started coming around, and the doctor decided to put him out with some chloroform. He was worried since Bobby had a concussion, but they needed to get the wood debris out of him and stitch up the larger wounds. Throughout all of this Iragene sat in the corner, unseen, chastising herself for any ill thoughts she had had of her crazy cousin.
They had worked on Bobby for over an hour now, and they looked over him, finding no more splinters, wood fragments, or other wounds. They were about to cover him up and let him awaken, when Cassie spotted a lump in Bobby's groin area. "Ari, look at this. Is this a tumor?"
Stein came around and looked closer and rubbed it with his index finger. "No, it's a cyst. It's nothing, it would probably dissipate itself, but I might as well aspirate it. He took a sterile scalpel and carefully made a little incision. Immediately, a clear fluid appeared. He squeezed it gently until the fluid stopped seeping out.
They cleaned him up and then covered him with a sheet. Finally Stein looked up and around as if he just awakened from a dream. He was surprised to see Iragene sitting in the corner watching him work on her cousin. As was always, he was taken by her beauty, though his feelings were for Cassie.
"Oh my God, Iragene, I forgot you were there and you're hurt. Please forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive. Bobby needed the immediate help. I think my bleeding has stopped anyway."
"Maybe so, but we still need to check it and clean it to avoid infection." He walked over to her and cut apart what was left of her sleeve. "Ahh, it has stopped bleeding. I'll just clean it off and bandage it. You may wish to go easy so the wound doesn't open up."
"Thank you, Doctor. Will Bobby be all right? How serious is the concussion?"
"Concussions are always serious, but I think he should be fine. We'll just have to wait until he wakes up though to be sure and then keep him up."
* * *
The next morning Iragene walked over to Doc Stein's office. She was still angry at herself for being so impatient with her cousin. Hadn't he always come through for her? He was always there for her and her brother. It was he who was responsible for bringing in their prize quarter horses. He had been around when they were growing up and when a child, she had a serious case of hero-worship for her cousin. It was Bobby who found their lost dog, got the doll off the roof, helped her learn to shoot. Though he was a rascal, he was a good man, and she felt ashamed of herself.
When she entered the office she found her cousin sitting up and demanding his clothes and teasing Cassie about taking advantage of him while he was unconscious. Having grown up with him, Cassie merely smiled and rolled her eyes.
"Bobby, do you have a change of clothes in your saddlebags?" Iragene asked.
"I shore do. How about you getting them for me, Sheriff," and he winked. "This here little gal can't keep her hands off of me." Cassie hid her smile and continued to check his wounds for infection.
"Bobby, I just came over to tell you how proud I am of you. You helped stop those killers, and you saved that little boy and possibly his mother and other bystanders. But, you were out there in the open. You could have died."
"Hold the applause, Iragene. I ain't that brave. The truth is, I just got nothin to lose. You and Cassie might as well know, I'm dying. The Doc should have let me go."
Both women were shocked. Tears welled up in Cassie's eyes. "Tell us, Bobby. What is it?"
For the first time they could remember, Bobby was choked up. They waited until he could speak and then quietly, he answered without his exaggerated twang. "I have something they call cancer."
"Cancer, what kind of cancer?" asked Stein softly as he entered the office.
"Hell, sorry ladies, you must have seen it. I got a tumor near my well, you know . . . Doc in Buda says it's cancer, and I have just about enough time to sow some wild oats and wrap up my affairs."
"Bobby, are you talking about Doc Black, the drunken quack?" Cassie asked pointedly.
"Yeah, Doc Black. Are you telling me I don't even have that much time?"
"Bobby, was that prognosis based on the lump on your thigh?" asked the doctor.
"Yea, that lump. I see there's a bandage on it. So it's that bad, huh?"
"Actually Bobby, the lump on your leg has been removed. It was a cyst, not a tumor. It shouldn't come back, and you have a lot of years ahead of you."
"What? I do? Oh, Lord, you mean I could have been killed walking toward those killers out in the open? And that dynamite. I figured if it went off, death would be quick. Damn. I'm lucky I wasn't killed."
Cassie and Iragene both approached him and hugged him. At first he allowed them to be demonstrative, then he realized he was naked under a thin sheet. "Enough of this mushy stuff, I need some clothes. I gotta make up for some lost time at Mrs. Browns."
"Bobby, I'd like to recommend that you take it easy for a few days. You've got stitches and some pretty nasty areas that were damaged by the flying wood. How about a laying low a day or two? Your body needs a little time to heal," the doctor suggested.
"Bobby, Mr. MacDonald and Marni were by and said you were a real hero, saving that boy and helping me save the bank. He wants you to stay at The Hotel for a week and recover—free of charge, all expenses paid. Marni says she'll personally oversee your recovery."
"Well, I'll be darned. Marni said that? I do feel a bit woozy, now that y'all mention it. How about someone gittin' me my clothes so that I can git over to that hotel and start my recovery?" He turned to the doctor. "Doc, y'all sure that I ain't dyin?"
"Yes, Bobby, I'm quite sure, but just don't get too physical, if you know what I mean, and rip open some of those stiches. I'll be removing them in about a week."
* * *
A week later, a large shadow passed Iragene's office window. A second later, Bobby came through the door.
"Bobby, it's great to see you up and about. I hope you didn't overstay your recovery at The Hotel. Rumor has it that you exhausted their pantry and drank them dry. Marni says she'll be needing at least a month to recover from nursing you back to health," and Iragene laughed.
"Well now, Iragene, I think I'll be headin' home. Nice being here with you and the family, but I left some things undone back home, thinking I wasn't coming back. Gotta git home and straighten that all out."
"Are you at least going to go by the property and say good-bye to everyone?"
"Naw, I just thought I'd make my presence known at Mrs. Brown's and then git an early start. I heard them gals over there were missing me something fierce, so the least I can do is visit them all. See ya, cuz," and he walked out the door.
Iragene just sat there, shaking her head and smiling, but Bobby was soon forgotten as she looked at the pile of mail before her.
* * *
The next morning at about six, Iragene and Cassie were awakened by the whooping and singing of a familiar voice.
Then a final "Adios!" and the women heard no more. Cousin Bobby was back.