San Pedro Valley, Arizona Territory 1880
Spring round-up was a hot and dusty job under the best of circumstances, but the overly warm winter and lack of precipitation of any kind had left the washes and arroyos drier and dustier than usual. The mild weather must have put every cow on the range in the mood for love, resulting in a bumper crop of calves, making the job of rounding the stubborn little critters take twice as long as it usually did.
The calves had to be rounded up and branded, after which the little heifers would be allowed to go back to the herd. For the little bull calves not needed for breeding, there was another horror awaiting as they were castrated and turned into steers. It was a bloody and disgusting job, usually assigned to one of the younger hands.
Lancer was sitting on his horse, watching the proceedings, and wondering why the cook had volunteered for the duty. Cookie had a pair of razor-sharp knives that he periodically swapped for sharpening when the blade began to dull. As one of the hands held the front end of the calf, Cookie would make one swift cut and the little bull would become a steer. Then he'd pop the testicles out of the sac and toss them into a bucket of cold water. The former bull scrotum was now a flat pouch that Cookie threw into a crate. The leatherworks just across the border in Mexico would pay top dollar for the empty sacs and Lancer didn't have a problem with his ranch hands making a few extra bucks from an item that was going to be dumped into a hole and buried to keep the coyotes away.
Lancer dismounted and tied his horse's reins to the post of the makeshift corral set up to keep the calves from wandering away until they'd had their turn at branding and nutting. He was the foreman for Apache Rose Ranch, and he liked to keep an eye on things. He ambled over to where Cookie and Willie were working.
Cookie's real name was Fred O'Toole. He was an Irishman from Belfast, and the nickname went with the job. Lancer doubted if any of the ranch hands even knew the man's real name. The name seemed to fit the grizzled Irishman and the ranch had acquired a reputation for putting on a good feed for the help. Good food, a clean bunkhouse, and fair wages made a position at Apache Rose a sought-after prize when one became available.
"Are you going to finish with those calves before suppertime?" Lancer asked, wincing involuntarily as a bull calf became a steer with a flick of Cookie's wrist and the flash of a well-honed blade. The calf started bawling as Cookie cauterized the wound with a heated poker before it was returned to the herd. Willie, the youngest and newest hand caught another bull calf as Cookie squeezed the testicles from the scrotum and dropped them into the cold water.
"Shouldn't be more'n another hour or so. Then I'll get supper started. Colonel Slater and them folks from town still comin' for supper?"
"You know they can't miss the last night of the spring branding," Lancer said. "The Colonel's the only one I've seen out here this week, but now that the hard work is done, you know the rest of 'em are going to show up for supper. You got anything special laid on for our company?"
"Nuthin' special. Got a recipe from when I was working for that outfit in Montana. Got a calf roasting in the coals, some nopales I'm going to cook up with some pork cracklin', ranch beans, biscuits, and a few other dishes. Nothing fiddly or fancy."
"Be sure to put on a clean apron before you start cooking. The one you got on needs a good wash, or better yet, a good burning," Cookie was wearing the leather apron he wore when he had to slaughter an animal for meat. "Miss Ivy and the new schoolteacher are riding in with the Colonel and some of the other men are bringing their wives and daughters. None of them need to see that thing. Come to think of it, you may want to throw Willie in the river, that is if there's enough water in the San Pedro for a good wash up."
Willie blushed to the roots of his hair. As the youngest ranch hand, he ended up doing the unpleasant jobs the more senior hands thought of as being beneath their dignity. He always got stuck riding drag, always got mid-watch, and had mucked out so many stalls he was finding himself to be an expert on all manner of horse, donkey, cow, and chicken droppings. He didn't whine or complain and took pride in whatever job he was assigned to do. Every payday he'd send half of his pay to his mama back in Texas and put half of what was left in the local bank. He was a friendly and personable kid and the rest of the hands kept one jaded eye on him when they were in town.
"I got sense enough to know to clean up for the ladies," Willie said.
Lancer raised an eyebrow at his youngest crew member. "Why, Willie, I do believe Cookie is being a bad influence. You're startin' to turn into a regular smart ass. Don't forget to wash behind your ears." He lit a cigar to cover the smell of incontinent calf and scorched cowhide.
"Cookie," Lancer asked, genuinely concerned about what Cookie had in mind for the calf parts. "What are you planning on doing with those calf nuts? If you're gonna cook 'em up, you better be ready to high tail it out of here when the rest of the crew finds out what you're feeding them."
"Nah, Boss Man," Cookie said with a twinkle in his clear blue eyes. "I wouldn't dream of feedin' 'em no calf nuts. I don't think their palate is sophisticated enough for that." Cookie had worked his way across the Atlantic as a cook on a passenger ship and could make rawhide taste good.
Lancer had a feeling Cookie was up to something and decided the less he knew about it, the better. He led his horse to the river for a drink. There wasn't much water in the San Pedro, and that was worrisome. The winter rains had failed to materialize, and the unusually warm weather meant there would be very little runoff from the snowpack. A bumper crop of cows would be of no use to anyone if they didn't have water. He filled his canteen from the clear cold water upstream from where the horses were watered. The cottonwoods had leafed out and the little buds that would eventually open into fluffy white down resembling cotton fibers were just starting to appear in the foliage of the female trees.
You either liked the cottonwood trees or you didn't. The trees did provide nice shade and the local Apache swore that if you found a green and growing cottonwood tree in the desert water was nearby. Lancer had seen this proved true on the Apache Rose Ranch. One of the hands had spotted a flourishing cottonwood in the middle of a mesquite and cactus bramble. After consulting with the Colonel, Lancer had ordered everything but the cottonwood to be cut down and cleared from a half-acre plot and a well dug. Sure enough, thirty feet down there was water. A windmill was erected, and a stock tank was built, enabling the Colonel to double the size of the cattle herd.
Lancer mounted his horse and began his rounds, seeing where hands were needed and solving any problems that arose. Apache Rose Ranch was located on the East side of the San Pedro River near a narrow strip of dusty, wagon-rutted road that ran between Tombstone and Camp Huachuca, home of the Tenth and Sixth Calvary and a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers. The Army was the Ranch's best customer, buying their beef cattle and spare horses.
The town of Tombstone, once known as Goose Flats, was growing in the mad rush of the discovery that underneath the mesquite, cactus, scrub brush, and sand of the Arizona desert was a mother lode of the silver and copper the rest of the country was screaming for. The town was named by Ed Schieffelin after one of the soldiers from Camp Huachuca had told him the only thing he was going to find out there in the desert was his tombstone. Schieffelin had the last laugh. He was making a fortune.
Even Colonel Slater had caught the silver fever. Just across the road, on the side of a hill overlooking the river, a crew was at work opening a shaft the assayers promised would lead to a vein of silver ore. Lancer hoped they were right. The Colonel had everything he owned tied up in the venture, and if no silver was found, the outlook would be bleak. He didn't care for mining or the mess it made of the land, but he wasn't in the mood for looking for another job. Ranching jobs were getting few and far between as the land around Tombstone was becoming mining territory. Silver claims were staked out all over the place, and it was pure luck and ranch hands riding the range that had kept the prospectors at bay until the Colonel had filed a mining claim for the entire ranch.
There was a muted boom as dust escaped from the mine shaft. There was a sudden flurry of activity as the men waiting outside until after the blast hurried into the shaft to dig out the rock and rubble brought down by the explosion. Lancer shuddered at the prospect. Mines were dark and dangerous places. Riding the range chasing cattle wasn't much safer, especially since the Cow-Boys had set up shop in nearby Charleston, but he'd take the sunshine and fresh air over a mine shaft any day.
He pulled a battered watch from his vest pocket, checked the time with the slowly sinking sun, and decided to go back to the bunkhouse to clean up before the company arrived. He hadn't had a chance to meet the new teacher and had heard she was different from most of the women in town. She was a convent-educated young lady from New Orleans, and, if the rumor was correct, a pretty one at that. A clean shirt and a different vest wouldn't be amiss, nor would giving his horse a rubdown and a brush-up. The big Appaloosa gelding looked as if he'd been dusted with desert sand.
As he pointed his horse towards the ranch proper, he couldn't help but wonder what Cookie was planning on doing with a bucket of calf nuts.
* * *
The sun was setting behind the hills, giving the mesquite and cottonwood trees a soft golden glow. The ranch hands had strung Chinese lanterns in the cottonwoods beside the river and set out tables and chairs borrowed from the local Masonic Hall. Cookie had the food keeping warm in a bed of coals and was setting up a kettle full of hog lard for a fry-up.
Lancer strolled over to check on dinner's progression when he saw what Cookie was getting ready to fry. Cookie had mixed up a batter of flour, fine Mexican cornmeal, eggs, and seasoning and was industriously dipping small round objects into the mixture and then rolling them into the cornmeal for a final coating.
"I hope you're not planning on feeding those to the ladies," Lancer said, "Because if you are, I will not be responsible for what they do to you afterward. No one wants to eat a deep-fried calf nut."
"No," Cookie said with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. "I'm not frying up calf nuts. These are Mountain Oysters. Got the recipe from when I was working in Montana, only there they was from sheep."
Lancer let out a put-upon sigh. He didn't think there would be a problem. He would just steer the ladies away from the oysters. He was getting ready to light a cigar when Colonel Slater arrived with his wife and daughter, and the new teacher.
The Colonel was the first to dismount and helped his wife and daughter down from their horses. Lancer helped the new teacher down. She was tiny, not more than five feet tall, with soft rounded curves and red hair pulled back into one long braid. She looked up at him with a pair of luminous green eyes behind a pair of gold-framed glasses as a blush bloomed across her cheeks.
Colonel Slater was making the introductions. "Jim, I'd like you to meet Miss Odalis Dupre, one of our new teachers. Odalis, this is James Lancer, my ranch foreman."
"Pleased to meet you," Lancer managed to get out.
"Likewise," Odalis said in a soft southern drawl.
The Colonel and his wife exchanged glances. Mrs. Slater had been itching for Odalis to meet Lancer since the young woman had arrived in Tombstone.
"When's dinner?" Ivy asked. "We're starved!"
"You will have to ask Cookie about that, but I'd advise you to stay away from the oysters. They didn't look real appetizing," Lancer said.
Odalis was from New Orleans, a city that prized its seafood, and she was skeptical of any shellfish being served in the middle of the desert.
"Thank you for the warning. I think I'll pass on the oysters," she said, smiling and blushing again. Lancer noticed a sprinkling of freckles, scattered like fine gold dust across her cheeks.
Before the menu could be discussed further, other guests began to arrive. Lancer went to help with their horses and wagons, his mind still on the small red haired teacher.
The hog lard was finally hot enough. Cookie dropped the first oysters into the pot as Ike and Billy Clanton, Curly Bill Broccius, and Frank McLaury rode up. Lancer knew trouble when it rode in on stolen horses. Broccius was the leader of a gang that called themselves the Cow-Boys, using the hyphen in the middle to differentiate themselves from the cowboys working the ranches. These honest and hard-working men had gotten so fed up with the Cow-Boys antics they were now calling themselves ranch hands and wranglers. This led to more than one fistfight in town when a ranch hand was mistakenly called a Cow-Boy.
"Well, now," said Broccius. He had a deep Texas twang. "Looks like we're in time for supper. What you got cookin' there, Lancer? I see your ranch hands have put on quite a spread."
"Curly Bill, you and your men are welcome as long as you behave yourselves. There's plenty of food and there's a corral set up by the river where you can put your horses. There are ladies here. I want you on your best behavior. If one of you misbehaves, you all go. Got that?"
"Damn, Lancer, we ain't from South Carolina, but we do know how to act like gentlemen when it's called for. Ain't that right, boys?"
Ike Clanton answered by spitting a stream of tobacco juice that barely missed Lancer's boots, much to the amusement of his brother and Frank McLaury. Curly Bill glared at his gang. He hadn't wanted to bring them along, only he couldn't find an excuse to leave them behind. There would be decent women at this gathering, and Curly Bill, like most outlaws, held decent women in high esteem and he wanted to make their acquaintance.
"That's enough, Ike," he growled. "You mind your manners. Tell me, Lancer, where's the whiskey?"
"There isn't any. There's some bottled beer and sarsaparilla in a tub of ice to keep it cold and there's wine and sweet tea for the ladies. No hard liquor allowed," Lancer said. This was a new ruling by the Colonel. At the previous year's branding two very drunken ranch hands had to be rescued from the San Pedro. They had stripped down and were determined to go for a swim. The mud-covered men were rescued before they passed out face-first and drowned in six inches of water.
"Good thing I brought my own," Ike Clanton said, taking a bottle from his saddle bag and helping himself to a long drink before passing it to his brother and McLaury.
"Put it away, Ike," Broccius said. "You heard the man, no whiskey. Damn, something smells good!"
"Our cook got his hands on some oysters," Lancer said, neglecting to tell them what species the oysters were harvested from. "Put your horses away and wash up by the river. Food should be ready soon."
"Let's go, boys! Put these useless cayuses in the corral and get ready for some fine eatin'. Apache Rose has the best food and the prettiest women!" Curly Bill handed the reins of his horse to Ike and went over to introduce himself to the ladies.
Lancer watched him go, glaring. Curly Bill was way too cocky and full of himself by half. He needed bringing down a peg or two, and Lancer knew just how he was going to do that. He had a few words quiet words with Cookie, who had nodded and smiled at the prospect.
This was going to be a Spring Branding to remember.
The women put the food on the tables while the men gathered around to swap tall tales about riding the range or battles with the local Apache. Lancer knew most of them were exaggerating. If a group of Apache ever came across a lone rider, that was the last anyone heard of them. Apache had little tolerance for strangers on their lands and no sense of humor whatsoever. Geronimo and his merry band of raiders kept the ranchers and miners on alert. Lancer, one of the few white men in the area who had bothered to learn about the local tribes, could understand why the Apache were angry. The land they were promised had been taken from them with a stroke of the pen and the entire Chiricahua tribe was forced to move north to the reservation they were to share with the White Mountain Apache at San Carlos. The problem was that although both tribes were from the Apache Nation, they did not get along. It was like suddenly finding out you were being forced to move in with your worthless brother-in-law and all seventeen of his bratty kids. The Chiricahua had retreated to Cochise's Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains as far away from their cousins as they could get.
Soon dinner was ready and after a short prayer from the Episcopal minister, everyone dug in. Lancer had managed to get a seat between Ivy and Odalis. He was having a grand time explaining to the young lady from bayou country about what nopales were and how it would be difficult to starve to death in the desert if you knew what to look for.
There was a commotion as Cookie brought forth his masterwork, a huge platter heaped with a mountain of, well, oysters.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced with an exaggeration of his usual Irish brogue as he set the platter reverently on a table laid for six. "In the tradition of Old Ireland and the Arizona territories, it pleases me to announce the first Oyster Eating Contest to be held in the Sonoran Desert! Line up men! Let's see who can eat the most oysters in five minutes!"
"What does the winner get?" Ike Clanton demanded. He was already down twenty dollars from losing at Faro that afternoon and was interested in recouping his money.
"The admiration of all present," Cookie stated. "However, the Colonel says he doesn't object to a side betting as long as it is kept to a reasonable amount."
"You hear that, Curly Bill?" Clanton said. "I've seen you eat your way through half a cow and still want dessert. Let's show these cow chasers what real Cow-Boys can do! I'm game if you are."
Curly Bill thought for a minute, wondering if the women present were included in the admiration thing. He wouldn't mind some admiration from Ivy Slater or that little redhead teacher. He did love him a redhead. Too bad he was too old to go back to school.
"Count me in, Ike," Curly Bill stated, grinning from ear to ear, white teeth flashing in a grin beneath his mustache. "Well, y'all gone leave it up to us to show you how to eat oysters? We need more than me and Ike. I got a ten-dollar gold piece says I can eat more oysters than any man here." He reached into a pocket and took out the gold piece. "Sheriff Behan can hold the bets and keep everyone honest!" The assembled crowd roared with laughter at the thought of Johnny Behan keeping anyone honest.
"The Cow-Boys have named Ike Clanton and Curly Bill as their champions," Cookie continued. "From the Apache Rose Ranch, we have young William Hammond. Step up Willie, I've been trying to get you fed up for the last year and a half and now's my chance to finally do it right!"
Willie stepped up to the table. He was seventeen years old and had lied about his age when he'd rode up to the Apache Rose and asked for a job, claiming to be twenty-one. Willie had grown up hungry, his Pa having died when he was six, leaving his Ma to raise and feed four kids by taking in sewing and laundry and any other odd job that came her way. In Willie, Cookie had found the ultimate food tester. The kid didn't turn down anything presented to him on a plate and could pack away food like there was no tomorrow.
"Any other volunteers?" Cookie asked. "It's now or never, so get 'em while they're hot!"
Two more men stepped up, one was a single miner known only as Early Bob who worked the Toughnut mine. He'd ridden out with a pal because there was a rumor free food and pretty women could be found at the end of branding party and he hadn't planned on missing either. Winning an eating contest would be a happy bonus.
The other was a jolly fat man named Carmichael who owned a restaurant in town. He'd been dying to sample Apache Rose fare for ages. He'd heard the ranch cook was a talented chef and hadn't been disappointed.
"We need one more volunteer," Cookie announced. "Don't be shy, boys! Step right up!"
A small effete looking man wearing a deputy's star and wire-framed glasses stepped up after being prompted by a none to gentle shove from Sheriff Behan.
What's your name, son?" Cookie asked.
"Billy," he managed to get out. "Billy Breckenridge."
"Well, Billy, have a seat with the rest of the contestants. Colonel Slater, would you be our timekeeper?"
The Colonel stepped up to the table and took out his pocket watch. "It will be an honor. Cookie, ready when you are."
The men all sat down. Cookie heaped the small plates in front of each man with a pile of fried mountain delicacies.
"The object is to be the last man eating. You have five minutes to consume as many oysters as you can without getting sick. Everyone ready?"
"Let's do it," Curly Bill said, still grinning.
"Colonel, when you're ready."
The Colonel was waiting for the second hand on his watch to reach the twelve. "Get ready," he said. "Get set, gentleman, start eating!"
The crowd went wild as the men started chewing. Money exchanged hands as bets of all sizes were made. Each side cheered their own champion. Willie seemed to be in the lead as he started on his second plate, followed closely by Carmichael, who was practically inhaling the food. Curly Bill was in third, chewing industriously on each bite, pacing himself as if he was planning on eating all night. Early Bob, true to his name, dropped out after the second plate. Billy Breckenridge was still working his way through his first plate, looking slightly green, and Ike Clanton was shoveling food into his face and appearing to swallow the mountain oysters whole.
Billy didn't make it past the first plate. He hiccupped, turned an even more bilious shade of green, covered his mouth with his napkin, and ran to the river. Ike almost gagged at the sight of a distressed Breckenridge but kept on eating. Willie, Curly Bill, Carmichael, and Ike seemed to be in for the duration.
Carmichael finished his third plate, gave a tremendous burp, turned his plate upside down, and left the table, bowing to Cookie as he did. He knew a master when he saw one. He went off in search of a beer, wondering what was for dessert.
Ike Clanton was starting to fade. He was on his fourth plate and the food wasn't sitting well on the whiskey he'd been imbibing most of the day. He swallowed his final oyster, got up shakily, and staggered over to the cottonwoods by the riverbank. He lay down on the soft, cool grass, hoping like hell he wouldn't embarrass himself like Breckenridge, who appeared to be bringing up every meal he'd eaten in the last month.
Now it was one on one, Willie against Curly Bill. Cookie had finally done the near impossible. Willie's stomach was beginning to get full, and he was slowing down. He was on his fifth plate, while against all odds, Curly Bill was starting his sixth!
Willie finished his plate as Cookie heaped on more. Curly Bill finished his sixth and called for a seventh. Willie, try as he might, couldn't eat another bite, he acknowledged defeat as he stood up from the table. Curly Bill kept right on eating until the Colonel called out.
"Time's up! And it looks like we have a winner! Curly Bill Broccius is the winner of the first annual Mountain Oyster Eating contest. Stand up, Bill. Let's all give him a hand and a cold beer!"
"Wait just a doggone minute," Curly Bill said, suddenly looking a little green. "What in the hell is a mountain oyster? I may be from Texas but I sure as hell know you don't get oysters in the mountains."
"Back home we call 'em calf fries," Willie said. "My Ma use to cook up a mess of them every year when we'd make the little bulls into little steers."
Curly Bill looked around. Everyone was having a good laugh at his expense, except for Billy Breckenridge and Ike Clanton, both of whom were hanging their heads over the riverbank being sick.
Sheriff Behan came over and dropped a pile of gold and silver coins and a wad of greenbacks on Curly Bill's empty plate.
"Congratulations, Bill, that's over two hundred dollars. And you have the admiration of the crowd."
He was suddenly being cheered on by everyone who was still standing. He looked around for Lancer, knowing full well the Apache Rose ranch foreman was the one who'd set this up. Sure enough, he was over by the river, talking to that little redheaded schoolteacher and Ivy Slater while Mrs. Slater chaperoned. All three of the women were giggling as if Lancer had told them the funniest joke they'd ever heard. Curly Bill caught Lancer's eye, and the man had the audacity to doff his hat and give him a sweeping bow. Curly Bill did not like being the butt of anyone's jokes. He smiled back at Lancer, nodding his head as he did.
Lancer had made an enemy for life. From now on he would have to watch his back every time he left the ranch.
A few of the ranch hands and folks from town had brought musical instruments and had been tuning up for the last few minutes. Now they started in on a slow waltz as the stars came out and the new moon started to rise over the hills.
"Would you care for a dance, Miss Dupre?" Lancer asked.
"I would be honored," she said, smiling as he took her in his arms and led her to the makeshift dance floor. "I've never danced in riding boots before, or under so many stars."
Lancer smiled down at her. Looking into the deep green eyes of a woman who wasn't afraid to dance in riding boots and had looked up into the clear, star-lit skies of Arizona.
That was the moment he knew he was going to have to get to know her much better.
Curly Bill and Ike Clanton were leaning against one of the cottonwoods. Curly Bill was glaring at Lancer.
"You want us to give him a seeing to, Boss?" Ike asked.
"Not now, you idiot! Too many people. Did you know we was eatin' calf nuts?"
"Yeah. I thought you knew that was what they was. Thought everybody did, 'cept maybe Billy, and he's delicate about his food. I heard the Colonel and Behan talking about having another contest next year, only with better prizes. Hell, you could go down in history as the greatest calf nut eater in the territory. I'd like to see the Earps and Holliday top that."
Curly Bill was still fuming. "Shut up, Ike," he said as he glared at Lancer who was dancing with that little redheaded teacher. He was too full to move, let alone dance, and he knew the ride back to Charleston was going to be a miserable one. He leaned against one of the cottonwoods growing by the river. All he wanted was a stomach powder and a cold beer. Lancer would have to wait.