Grant’s horse came to a sliding stop beside Luke at a hitching rail near a stable. Grant was smiling with satisfaction as he dismounted.
“Tom, that was hugely exhilarating! It is a good thing that you warned me. I was nearly unhorsed when this animal burst into a run.”
“Well sir, I’m happy with ya!” Tom replied.
Grant noticed a young dark complexioned boy of about fourteen years who had crawled through the corral fence and was leaning on the rail. The boy was accompanied by a black and white collie dog, which walked around Grant sniffing his new clothing and boots. Apparently overcome by some odor, which demanded his attention, the collie suddenly grasped Grant’s leg between his front paws and began moving his pelvis in a simulated act of mating. Grant’s cheeks turned crimson as Tom and the boy laughed.
“Well, it looks like ya meet with his approval,” Tom said.
“Yer late, Grandpa,” the boy said. “Everyone figured you’d met up with that newspaper fella and got drunk.”
“This smarty aleck youngster here is my grandson. For want of anything better you can call him Little Tom,” Tom said, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And this here gentleman that your dog is so fond of is Grant Collins from the Saint Louis newspaper. He’s come to interview yer grandpa about my days with the Pony Express.”
Tom pushed the dog with sole of his boot, dislodging the animal from Grant’s leg.
“That amorous critter there is ol’ Dawg. He’s Little Tom’s pal.”
Little Tom took the reins of both horses.
“Have they still got any warm groceries for a couple of half starved cowpokes over in the mess hall?” Tom asked.
“Yep,” Little Tom replied. “Mom was savin’ ya some food, just in case.”
“Good deal. Come on Grant, we’ll go over to the mess hall and get somethin’ to eat. Then I’ll settle you in.”
Tom slung his saddle bags over his shoulder while Grant retrieved his flour sack.
“Mighty fancy luggage you got there,” Little Tom said with a grin.
What had appeared at a distance to be no more than a cluster of ranch buildings had materialized into a small town. As they walked across a wide roadway Grant could not disguise his amazement. On the one side of the roadway where they had dismounted were various barns, outbuildings and stables overshadowed by several tall silos. Corrals and pens containing horses, cattle and sheep were spread over many acres.
Men on horseback were moving small herds of cattle or sheep from one enclosure to another. Vehicles were loading and unloading livestock while various pieces of farm machinery were coming from and going to work in distant fields. Grant’s excitement grew as it became apparent that he would be observing, firsthand, a real working ranch.
The other side of the road could have been a residential neighborhood in any small town. Laid out in a four block grid and predominated by a Victorian mansion, the well kept tree lined streets had been given names, “Nicolas,” “Agatha,” “Derrick” and “River” with signs so designating.
Tom pointed to the Victorian house three blocks away.
“That monstrosity down there is where I live. It is a monument to my ego and represents to them that sees it just what a pompous asshole I can be sometimes. I just had to keep up with the Conlon’s ya know. Ol’ Conrad Conlon helped settle this country and the sumbitch is richer than Job. Old bastard owns half of Flathead County, so I have to spend a lot of money on foofaraw so as not to be outdone. The smaller houses are for my family, the married hands who have families and our guests of course.”
They crossed the road and walked toward a long wood frame building that reminded Grant of structures he had seen at military facilities.
“This big barracks affair here is the bunkhouse and mess hall. On down yonder is the boat docks and such along the river. The whole area with the barns and corrals and all is what we call ‘The Compound.’ Damned nearly a small city. Ain’t it?”
“I thought it was a town when we rode in,” Grant said.
They entered the mess hall door and Tom was greeted by a woman with long black hair and dark eyes whom Grant thought to be Indian. However, she bore a resemblance to Tom and greeted him with a hug.
“Daddy, I was worried about you.”
Turning to Grant, she said, “You must be Mr. Newspaperman from Saint Louis.”
Tom smiled as Grant was left standing speechless.
“This overly polite little lady is my youngest child, Susanna Cries Too Much. She’ll answer to Sus,” Tom said.
Tom put his hand on Grant’s shoulder.
“This is Grant Collins. He’s gonna make your old man as famous as Bill Cody…so be nice to him.”
Susanna put out her hand as a middle-aged man accompanied by a young woman entered the mess hall.
The younger woman approached Tom and also gave him an affectionate hug.
“Uncle Tom we were worried about you.”
Tom smiled broadly, obviously deriving great pleasure from the attention.
“Grant Collins, this here pretty young darlin’ is my grand niece Dixie Lee. She quit Vassar College just to come and learn about livin’ on a ranch with her Uncle Tom. Now you be careful of her. She’ll steal the heart right outta your rib cage, while it’s still beatin’.”
The warning was too late. Grant was dumbstruck. Even in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, Dixie’s comely grace had overwhelmed him. Her skin radiated a tawny glow and flaxen curls framed a face that, for Grant, was a most beautiful portrait. When she offered her hand and said, “I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Collins,” Grant’s lips were moving in response but there was no sound. It was obvious to all that the young man was smitten.
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