by DiVoran Lites
How do, ma’am.” You don’t look much like a ranch hand, the livery owner said.
Ellie opened her mouth to tell him she could handle about anything but the entrance of a young man captured her attention.
“This is Kenny, Donald Fitzgerald’s son” Mr. Leitzinger said.
“How do, ma’am,” the tall young man touched his forehead in a gesture of respect which usually included tipping a hat. She nodded.
“You’ll have to hold Ribbons back a bit,” the boy spoke to Mr. Leitzinger. “She’ll break into a run the first chance she gets.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” He moved past Ellie and reached for the halter and then backed the mare between the wagon traces.
“Put your cape on, Miss Morgan.” Mr. Leitzinger took the satin-lined garment from her arm, opened it, and settled it over her shoulders. She sighed as the warmth spread through her entire body. Capes had been a godsend in the ambulance corps. They protected the women drivers from the cold during the daytime and in an emergency, substituted for blankets at night. They could also be used to staunch blood.
Mr. Leitzinger watched as she pulled her doeskin gloves from the pockets of her cape and smoothed them over her fingers one by one. He looked away when she lifted her eyes to meet his gaze.
He then got busy setting her cases amongst other parcels in the wagon bed. In one graceful move, he was on the narrow seat with the boy handing him the reins.
“Put your foot on the axle and give me your hand,” he said reaching down for Ellie. When he hauled her up by one arm, Mr. Fitzgerald boosted her bottom from below as if she were a sack of goods. The men were so matter-of-fact about the process that she didn’t bother to be embarrassed.
“Take hold of that bar under the seat until we get out on the road,” Mr. Leitzinger suggested. She groped and felt the cold of the springy steel through her glove.
To her dismay, Mr. Leitzinger handed over the reins while he reached for a leather jacket amongst the parcels in the back. When he had shoved his arms into the sleeves, he took the reins again. A clucking noise from his tongue urged the big gray forward and the wagon moved out of the shed.
“You didn’t pay the liveryman,” Ellie reminded him looking back to see if anyone was coming after them. In her grandparent’s store anyone who didn’t pay for services rendered was a lowlife. She hoped this cowboy person did not fall into that category.
“It’s all right, Mr. Solano has me bring him to town once a month so he can pay the bills. At first he never left the ranch, but he’s getting better now.”
“Has he been ill?” she asked with a pang of anxiety. Surely they wouldn’t expect her to add nursing to her other duties. She had developed such an aversion to pain and suffering she couldn’t even listen to sad stories without weeping.
“Signor Solano came to Colorado to get cured of his tuberculosis, and he is getting well.” As he spoke, Mr. Leitzinger pulled back slightly on the reins.
“I thought TB was incurable,” said Ellie.
“People do get well here,” he answered. “It’s the clean, dry air and good food. They might have to stay a few years, and it’s important to take it easy, but a cure is possible. Signor Solano feels that the oranges he orders shipped from California and Florida are the main healers.
They headed straight for the edge of town toward the snow-topped mountain peaks to the west. They passed several small houses that looked as if they had grown out of the land surrounding them. “Those belong to our family,” he said. “The settlers around here started with log cabins. When they prospered in the cattle business, they built big houses closer to the range. Most family members worked the ranches, but when they got old they sometimes moved to town. We have strong families here. Strong families make strong countries, or so I believe. What do you think?”
“I’m in favor of families though sometimes you have to get away from them,” Ellie said. What she didn’t say was that she was also in favor of as much independence as possible.
“It takes guts to leave, but it feels good to come back home,” said Mr. Leitzinger. “Signor Solano’s grandson is coming from Switzerland tomorrow. We graded the road especially for his visit. It’s a good thing the spring thaw is over. Water rushes through the canyons when the creeks flood and it can destroy the roads and the railroad tracks. A gully-washer has taken the tracks out twice.
“I know what you’re saying, the roads in France were awful in winter and spring.
As the horse settled into a steady pace, Mr. Leitzinger handed Ellie the reins again. She held them tightly, hoping Ribbons wouldn’t take a notion to bolt.
Mr. Leitzinger pulled a mouth-harp from his jacket pocket and cupping it in his hands he began to play “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Ellie hummed along. It was a song she knew well from singing with ambulatory patients and off-duty nurses. At those times, she felt as if she were with family members even though they might never meet again.
“That’s a flier’s jacket, isn’t it? Were you in the war?” she asked.
“The Great War. People don’t want to think we’ll ever have another like it.” He slid the harmonica back into his pocket and re-possessed the reins.
“No sane person wants a war.” Hoping he wouldn’t notice, she inched closer to the warmth of his body.
“I wanted to be in the thick of the dog fighting,” he said. “But they needed men who could read maps and memorize terrain, so they taught me to fly and put me in a surveillance bus instead. A BeBe. That’s a pretty good little airplane. My brother was in the infantry, but he didn’t make it back home.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She felt the sting of tears at the back of her eyes and dreaded the crying she felt approaching. After the war ended, she had spent five years in the beauty salon at the department store. She fell apart every time a patron told a sad story, war-related or not.
Without saying anything further, he shrugged, handed her the reins and took out his harmonica again. He breathed into the instrument and snappy Dixieland jazz emerged.
The lively tune distracted and soothed her. Now she wouldn’t have to make a fool of herself with her tears.
* * *
The wagon turned and dipped under a large wooden board entrance with hieroglyphics burned into it.
“Is that your ranch brand?” she asked.
“How do you know about brands?” He looked at her and smiled.
“My grandfather was raised on a ranch, and he always wanted to go back. He’d tell any callers who came to the house, ‘go west, young man and grown up with the country.” He got that from a man named Horace Greely. I’m Granddad’s first convert, even though I’m not a young man.”
“We’ll have to invite him for a visit,” Mr. Leitzinger said.
“On your sign, I saw an L…? She glanced back, but they were on the other side of it by now.
“Circle L-Z,” he said. “That’s our family brand, but we’re leasing to Mr. Solano for the time being.
They drew up to a large Victorian house with windows across each of three floors. The lights on the ground floor issued a welcome. Large spruce trees grew as tall as the house on both sides.