Authors: Carolyn Brown
Sophie wanted to rip up the plans laid out on the dining room table. They looked like blueprints for a presidential inauguration, rather than a cattle sale party held in a barn. She and Maud had simply met with the caterers who kept plans from year to year and tweaked them to fit with that year’s ideas. According to Maud, not much had changed in the fifty years they’d had the ranch.
She stared at the five feet of paper rolled out and held down on all four corners with a steak knife. “Why did you go to all this trouble? Cleaning out the barn and getting things ready is a big chore, but the caterers bring everything else. The band sets up and we have a party. This was unnecessary.”
“We’re setting a precedent this year. Maud is gone. Buyers are going to be cautious until they figure out how we do things. We make a big splash at this year’s sale and it’ll keep the stock up, so to speak,” he said.
She cut her eyes around to look at him. “Just exactly what did you do in the service? Was it air force or army or what?”
“Air force. I did many jobs. What has that got to do with this?”
“You remind me of…never mind.”
“Small ranches like this one are quickly being swallowed up by the big corporations. If we want to stay alive, we have to put on a united front that says we are prosperous. Maud was solid as concrete. They don’t know how you and I are going to run this operation together. If they smell a drop of blood, the bidding at the sale will be low. Coyotes always go after the wounded chicken,” he said.
Sophie didn’t feel like a wounded chicken at all. She was more alive than she’d ever been, but what he said made sense. “So these plans aren’t the whole story. Spit out the rest of it.”
“Truce. We have to call a truce and be business partners at least on the side that people see. No fighting in front of anyone. They have to think that we are settling into our halves so well that it’s the same whole package that Maud gave them. Our brand is still reputable. They’re buying from a prosperous little ranch, and we are running it together,” he told her.
She sat down and really studied the party layout. It was all backward to what she and Maud had done, but it could work. The old girl would turn over in her grave if they had a bad sale the first year they were out of the chute. She’d given her energy and life for the ranch—fought mesquite, rattlesnakes, and coyotes; pulled calves; managed the finances; and loved it all. To let it slide into mediocrity because Sophie was too stubborn to listen to good common sense would be a shame.
“Tell me more,” she said.
“We move out equipment today and clean the barn. Starting tomorrow morning, there will be a caterer out of Dallas here every day. They will set up a table and a bar in this corner.” He pointed to the backside of the barn, away from the center where the cattle would be displayed one at a time for the auctioneer to sell.
“Why there?” she asked.
“Put it close to the door and the buyers might be tempted to sneak on outside after they’ve gotten a drink or a food tray,” he explained.
“We didn’t wine and dine them during the sale before,” she said.
He sat down beside her. His face was serious, and there were no twinkles in his blue eyes. This was totally business. “They’ll stay if they have food and drinks. This is as important as the after-party. A man gets hungry, he’s going to find food, believe me. He’ll leave and maybe he’ll come back later, or maybe he’ll just go on home and watch NASCAR on television. If he stays, he’ll see a cow or a bull or a lot of calves that he wasn’t really expecting to buy, but they’ll look good. He’ll bid and the man who really came to buy those calves will bid higher because he really wants them. It’s all…” he looked for the right word.
“Manipulation,” she finished it for him, not knowing whether she liked it or not.
“I’d say ‘good business tactics.’ Are we in agreement up to this point?”
She nodded, even if it did mean swallowing a heck of a lot of pride. “It’s going to cost double what we paid for the sale last year.”
“We’ll make it back and more. Trust me.”
Now that was an oxymoron. He was a man, wasn’t he?
“The caterers will bring enough help during the days of the sale that they will circulate in the balcony with trays of drinks. Iced tea and lemonade. Drunk men don’t keep their heads on for bidding.”
“You got it all figured out, don’t you?” she said through clenched teeth.
“Yes, I do,” he said shortly.
“Don’t snip at me. I’m not stupid. I understand your logic. Keep them in the balcony, and they’ll buy more,” she shot right back.
He ran his fingers through his shoulder-length, straight black hair. It still had water droplets clinging to it from his morning shower and smelled so good that Sophie had trouble keeping her mind on the party. The white gauze undershirt didn’t hide a single bulging muscle. No, sir. It just clung to his well-defined abs like paint on a park bench.
“OK,” he went on. “Three days of sales. Starting at ten in the morning. Stopping at three.”
“We started at eight and went to five,” she muttered.
“Let them sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast at their motels or in their campers. Stop in time that they can prowl around the antique shops with their wives and think about what’s going on the bidding block the next day,” he said.
It made sense, and she wondered why she and Maud hadn’t thought about things like that. “Is that all?” she asked.
“Then, after the last bull is sold, we hire double the help to whip the sale barn into shape, and this is the layout for the party. White tablecloths, good food, and music that says thank you.”
She waited several seconds to see if he was finished. “I insist on the same caterers for the party that we’ve always used. They will take care of the sale business much cheaper than anything out of Dallas. And they’re big enough to have all those white tablecloths. Maud just never wanted to pay for that much.”
“No problem. You already have an appointment with them?”
She was shocked speechless. “Yes, I do. They’ll be here in an hour.”
“Then I’ll call the Dallas caterers and tell them to cancel their appointment for this afternoon. If the local one can do the job and keep business closer to home, that’s good business,” he said.
“That’s what Maud said,” she told him.
“Just one addition.” He flipped open a book and looked at the menu from last year.
“And what’s that?” Sophie asked.
“Steaks. Tell them we want a couple of big grills set up outside the back door of the barn so that the smoke won’t get in the ladies’ hair when they come inside. No one wants to smell like T-bone when they’re dancing with a good-lookin’ man.” He made a notation on the side of the page.
“Because perfume and good-smellin’ hair smells better to a man than steak when he’s hugged up to a woman on the dance floor.”
“Not that. Why steaks? They bring every kind of barbecue you can think of for the buffet,” she said.
“Because of the smell of a grill. It drifts out across the pasture and yard and makes them hungry even before they step in the doors. They’ll remember that for a long time, and it’ll bring them back next year,” he answered.
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?”
He shrugged. “I’m making this my home. I want to do well.”
She remembered what Tandy had said at the lunch after the funeral. She’d been right—Elijah had come home, just
like she had. No matter how mean or cantankerous she got, he wasn’t leaving. That meant accepting the fact that she had a new business partner. It also meant she’d have to stay on her toes and be alert, or he’d gradually take over the ranch anyway, and she’d just be a name on the deed.
“Is that all?” she asked again.
“Just one more minor detail. We will stand united at the front door to greet each guest. It’ll only take an hour or so and will say thank you in a special way. You got a problem with that?”
She shook her head. “We can’t circulate among the buyers and friends if we are stuck at the front door, so yes, I do have a big problem with that.”
“There will be plenty of time for circulating and talking to the people. After the first hour, we’ll make the rounds together. And we’ll meet each person for sure if we are at the door.”
“That looks like we are a couple,” she said.
“No, it looks like we are partners,” he argued. “If we danced every dance together and I looked down into your eyes with ‘I want to kiss you’ written all over my face, that would make us a couple, God forbid.”
She bristled. “Why ‘God forbid’?”
“God forbid because there would be a murder. One of us would be dead. The other would be in jail, and the ranch would be sold on the auction block to some big corporation that would bulldoze the house down and grow wheat to send to a third-world country,” he said.
“So what’s my job in all this?” She ignored the statement about murder because it was the gospel truth and couldn’t be added to or taken away from.
“Call in the crew to start cleaning. I suppose you and Gus have already discussed that, haven’t you?” Elijah asked.
“Of course,” she lied. “If that’s the end of the conversation, I’m going out to the barn to take a look around. Unless you want to tell me how to fix my hair and what to wear to the shindig?”
She was amazed at how it softened his angular face. “What?”
“I reckon you’ll wear jeans and a fancy shirt. After all, it’s a western-type barn party, not a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf.”
Had he been to such an affair? She wouldn’t have asked, even if it meant the difference between visiting with Lucifer or the angels on Judgment Day, but suddenly she wanted to know more about the Elijah who wasn’t a soldier, who wasn’t as stubborn as a Missouri mule, and who was a very handsome, well-organized man.
He rolled up the plans.
She headed to the barn, hoping that Gus was there and he’d already hired help to start the cleanup process. If not, she was in big trouble with her new “partner.” She made quote marks with her fingers before she put a hand on the yard fence and hopped over it with the agility of a cougar. She found Gus sitting in the smallest John Deere tractor about to start it up to move it out of the barn.
“Hey, Miz Sophie,” he waved.
She motioned for him to get out of the cab and kept walking toward him, keeping an eye over her shoulder the whole time. Hopefully, Elijah was making his cancellation calls to the Dallas caterer or pretending to do so. She wouldn’t put it past him to have never called one at all. That way he could concede a small point to her without losing anything he wanted.
“How many men we got coming for cleanup this afternoon?” she asked.
“Regular crew. I called them last week and set it up,” Gus said.
“Can you get four or five more? Pay them extra if you have to. We’re doing a little more this year. Caterers will be here the whole time starting tomorrow morning, and they need a place to set up earlier than the day after the sale.”
Gus rubbed his chin. “Well, Rick’s son would be glad for the work, and he’s got a nephew that just got laid off over at the plant in Abilene, and I bet he’d know a few men who’d be glad for some extra work. Pay ’em in cash?”
“That’s right, at the end of each day. See if they can come on in right after lunch. And you supervise when they get here. They can do the heavy stuff,” she said.
Gus was a man of few words normally and didn’t get into anyone’s business. He’d been on the ranch for years and knew every square inch of it.
“Miz Sophie, who is my boss? You or Mr. Elijah? I ain’t got no beef with either one of you, but I need to know who to listen to.” He removed his old straw hat and ran his fingers through hair that had more gray than black. His face was a study in weathered wrinkles.
For the first time in all the years she’d known him, his eyes looked worried.
“We both are. If I tell you something and he says different, just come talk to me, and we’ll work it out among the three of us. I tried to buy him out. I’ve tried to run him out. Nothing works, so I guess we are partners until one of us dies of pure old stubbornness,” she said with a smile.
Gus slapped his old straw hat into shape and resettled it on his head. “How do you feel about that?”
“Don’t matter how I feel. It’s the way it is. He won’t sell to me, and I ain’t budgin’. Been thinkin’ about putting a trailer on the back corner of the property. Back in that pecan grove,” she said.
“Guess that’s one way to deal with it,” Gus said.
The actual cleaning began right after lunch.
The fighting began ten minutes after that, when the two chiefs disagreed on what the hired hands should do.
All the equipment had been moved outside: the ranch’s two biggest John Deere tractors, two four-wheelers, and the company work truck. At that point Sophie figured they’d get out the four-foot brooms, sweep the joint out, make sure the cobwebs were knocked down, and call it a day.
She’d located half a dozen wide brooms and scanned the interior of the barn for spiders and scorpions. She saw a couple of bugs scoot off in search of a hidey-hole, but, after it was swept out, she’d bring out the foggers and that would take care of them. Tomorrow the hired hands would sweep up whatever dead varmints the fog had killed, and then they’d help round the cattle up into pens for the sale. She’d done this the year before, back when it was just a cattle sale and not a Broadway production.