Special thanks go to Lacy whose friendship, loyalty and enthusiasm are beyond value.
All the usual disclaimers, and thank you for reading.
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He’d come a long way, sleeping rough, living off the land. He was bedraggled, thirsty and foot-sore as he passed by the Lancer arch. He was too proud and too weary to risk rejection and not wanting another cold, hungry night he decided to check out the lay of the land first. Slowly and carefully, he made his way closer to the hacienda, avoiding anyone working nearby. He edged around the side of the corral, eyes wide as he searched for signs of danger. So far, so good.
He wasn’t interested in staying long, he wasn’t after a job. That wasn’t his style. He liked to be free, a drifter, a wanderer, and some would say a beggar. Sure it meant times of hunger and loneliness, but he wasn’t ready to settle down. He couldn’t remember what it was like to have a family or friends and he didn’t feel the need to start looking for any now. He didn’t need all that nonsense. They just tied you down, had expectations of you, demanded time and attention. Things he wasn’t prepared to offer anyone. He liked the idea of never knowing what lay over the next hill. And come what may, he would never answer to anyone. He was his own boss and as long as he had his health and lightning fast reflexes he intended to keep it that way. He was afraid to admit to himself that he was getting older and slowing down but this realisation, and the confirming inability to catch anything to eat for some days now, was consuming him like a cancer. He chased those thoughts from his mind.
He considered sneaking around to the kitchen first, the aromas emanating from within a temptation beyond belief. But he had not survived this long by taking chances. The barn was a much safer option. He’d hide there for now and come out after dark, once the house had settled for the night. He softly, stealthily, made his way towards the open door. He froze, melting into the shadows, as a young man in a blue shirt left the building. He was usually a good judge of character and could deduce his reception from one look at a person but this young man had him puzzled. Sure enough, he was whistling a carefree tune and walked with a relaxed swagger but something about this man left him uneasy. He decided not to count on a welcome from this dark-haired youngster so he stayed hidden until he had passed. When the way was clear he left his hiding place and once again headed in the direction of the barn. He needed food and a warm place to spend the night and experience had taught him this was the safest place to start looking for such comforts.
He had almost made it when, from out of the darkness within, came a screeching bundle of feathers. He knew that geese made much better guardians than dogs any day and the noise this one was making confirmed it for him. He had to get away before someone came out to see what all the fuss was about.
It was beginning to appear as if the kitchen and a direct approach may be the safer bet after all. He quickly skirted the barn and made his way towards the house. In the past he had encountered a few women who had ignored their menfolk and had treated him kindly. If he was in luck he might find another such woman here. He had made it almost to the door when it was flung open and a young woman carrying a bucket pranced out the door, calling cheerily back over her shoulder at someone working inside. The sight of him startled her and she halted mid-step.
“Oh, hello, what brings you here?” She cautiously approached him but he felt she posed no threat so he stayed put. She was definitely one of those women whom he could rely on for a handout.
“Maria, can you bring out a saucer of milk please? We have a visitor.”
He would hold back and wait until she had placed the milk on the ground and retreated a little. It was no good going straight up to them. They had to feel that they had won you over. He’d played this little game many times before and knew how to play it best. He fancied himself a master of it, in fact.
She placed the saucer on the ground and remained crouched near it, ready to pat him as he drew closer. As hungry as he was he was determined to make her retreat first.
“Come on, puss. I know you want it.”
“Guess you’re a bit timid. Has someone hurt you? You don’t look loved or cared for, poor thing. Well that’s okay. I’ll go inside now and you can come and get it when you’re ready.” She moved inside and he knew she’d be watching his every move from the kitchen window.
As soon as she disappeared he stole over to the saucer, sat neatly with his tail curled around his body and delicately lapped up all the milk, never once dropping his guard. Finally sated, he walked off just a short distance then paused to start cleaning himself, a long-overdue task and one always easier to complete on a full stomach. He’d been at it for some time when he heard her speak again.
“Oh look Maria. The poor thing devoured that milk in no time. He must be starved. I’m going to give him some of the leftover beef from last night.”
She came outside again and placed a chunk of meat on the saucer he had cleaned. He knew it was time to show a little deference if he was to win her over. Just a little, mind you. He walked towards her, tail high in the air, swaying very lightly from side to side. She seemed to understand and stood still so that he could gently brush her leg with his tail as he passed on his way to the saucer. Then she made the mistake of reaching down to pat him so he darted away leaving her with nothing but a handful of air. He wouldn’t let her get too close too soon. That wasn’t the way this dance was meant to go. Once she had backed away he approached the meaty offering she had left for him. It was remarkably good and caused him to re-think his intention to move on in the morning. Perhaps he might just stay a day or two. However, to do that he would have to offer the young woman something more. Now that he was cleaner he felt it might be prudent to allow her a brief pat. He walked over to her, his stately bearing testifying to his lineage, and allowed her the briefest of touches of his soft grey fur. He knew that would be enough to have her working hard to get him into her lap.
= = = = =
He’d been keeping watch on the comings and goings of the ranch from his vantage point on the top of the garden wall. From there he had a good view in all directions. Only one incident earlier had left him uneasy. The young man in the blue shirt had reappeared and hesitated mid-step when he had laid eyes on him perched on the narrow ledge. As soon as he saw the man stoop to pick up something he had fled, back over the wall, away from the man and towards the greater shelter of the garden. He was annoyed that this man had caused his pride to evaporate thus but a timely escape from men like this was more important. He’d been right the first time – this was one to watch warily.
= = = = =
It was almost evening and the last of the sun’s rays were dropping below the horizon. He knew the wall would remain warm for some time yet, and he settled in for a further nap when a tall older man came riding up on a horse. He backed into the shadows, sensing this was the one the woman would be appealing to. Sure enough, the man was barely at the door before the young woman swept out of the house and grabbed his arm leading him over to the very spot he had been settled in until this man’s appearance drove him into deeper cover.
“Oh Murdoch, you must have scared him off. He’s been right here all afternoon.”
“Steady Teresa. Now who have I scared off?”
“Puss. Oh I hope he hasn’t gone far. The poor thing, Murdoch. He was so hungry. Can we keep him please? We could do with a cat around the place. He’d keep the mice away and...” She had the look of a woman who knew how to get her way with this man.
“Hold on, sweetheart. You keep saying ‘he’ but are you really sure about that? We certainly don’t need a cat and her successive litters of kittens.”
There was no way he was going to let that affront to his manhood go unchallenged. He held himself to his full size and swept majestically from the shadows, tail held aloft, making his presence known.
“Oh here he is. Isn’t he gorgeous Murdoch? Look, he’s coming straight up to you. He must like you.” He walked from the young woman to the older man, gracing each with a gentle swipe of his tail before settling a few steps off to wash his face, showing off his greatest assets to their best advantage in the process.
“Teresa, I don’t think that it’s up to me to say whether you can keep him or not. He looks to me like he’ll take himself off wherever he wants and whenever he feels like it.” At this the young girl’s face fell. “But if you can convince him to stay he’ll be most welcome. Just as long as he stays outside and doesn’t come into the house. I don’t want to wake up to find a stray cat sleeping on my pillow.”
“Oh thank you Murdoch. You’ll see. He’ll be wonderful to have around the barn.” They started to head indoors, leaving him to his spot on the wall. “Do you know what? We’ll have to give him a name. I’m going to call him Puss.”
This announcement, which reached his ears as they passed through the doorway, sent a convulsive shiver down his supple spine. Once they named you it was time to move on. It was his unwritten law. One he had always lived by. Well, tomorrow he’d make for the road again. But it wouldn’t hurt to spend just one more night in a warm, dry barn.
= = = = =
He had barely settled back into his favoured spot on the wall when a fair-haired man stepped out of the doorway to his left. He watched cautiously, ready to flee at the least provocation, but prepared for now to allow this one to approach. He had a gentleness to him that inspired trust.
“Now what have we here?” The deep resonance of the man’s voice was soothing and welcoming. He stood up and stretched, beckoning with his tail. The young man approached and reached out his hand towards him. He approached, sniffed gently then vigorously rubbed his face against the man’s glove, in the process marking this one as acceptable.
“Well, well, you certainly are a friendly one. Does Teresa know you are here? Of course she does. I bet you’ve won her over already. Here, do you like this?” The man began to rub briskly behind his ear, a feeling both enjoyable and annoying and which he found hard to pull away from. In fact, he found himself pushing against the pressure, desirous of more attention.
“Ah, you’re a handsome one, but let me give you a word of advice. If you want to win over Murdoch you’d better make sure you earn your keep. This is a working ranch and there’s no room for freeloaders.” With those words of advice the blond left him alone on the wall once again.
= = = = =
He took up residence in the barn that night, determined to repay the young woman for her kindness. He had no difficulty at all as vermin always found the stacks of hay most inviting and in the morning she found a dead rat waiting at the back door, clearly a display of gratitude. He’d had no need to catch anything for himself, so well had she fed him earlier that day.
He’d told himself he’d move on today but his curiosity led him astray. So far he had only investigated the garden and the barn. Feeling more secure about his place in the scheme of things he decided to wander over to the corral and see what was happening there. Many men were milling about, saddling their mounts. He had their measure. Then once again he spotted the dark-haired one, this time in a brightly-coloured shirt. All show and no subtlety. He could tell he was being watched even though he was careful never to make eye contact. This one was slow to trust and his unreadable expression made him untrustworthy. He felt disturbed by his presence and knew this feeling to be mutual. He stalked back towards the barn, pretending nonchalance.
He was almost to the doors when an older man came into view, cursing and spluttering. “Shoo, shoo. Don’t you get any ideas about making Dewdrop your supper ‘cos I’ll make mincemeat outta ya if ya try. Go on now, git.”
He looked disdainfully at the old man, pitying him for his lack of understanding. Toying with some noisy old goose was beneath his dignity. There was no test in that. No skill was required, no stealth, no dexterity. There was simply no challenge and therefore no point in playing the game. He moved away at a measured pace communicating his contempt with every step he took.
“Yeah, that’s right. You keep right away from her.”
The old man’s lack of understanding was truly deplorable.
= = = = =
The young woman had once again provided him with a substantial supper which had left him deliriously drowsy. She had settled herself on the grass a respectable distance from him after she had put down his plate and he had watched surreptitiously as she spread her skirt around her while he delicately devoured his repast. Perhaps it would be a good time to offer a little more of himself. He spent a considerable length of time cleaning himself, allowing more time to observe her movements. She was waiting patiently, a well-mannered human worthy of more trust. He finished his toilette then purposefully strode over to her and found a part of her lap almost to his liking. He circled left once, twice, then proceeded to knead her lap into his desired shape and softness. If she put up with this he would favour her with a brief snuggle.
She was rewarded.
= = = = =
By the time she emerged from the kitchen door next morning he had already deposited his gift from last night’s efforts. This time all he could manage was a mouse. The good food and changed lifestyle were slowing him down. He’d have to attend to that very soon or he would find himself unable to compete and that was a dangerous state to be left in, in his line of business.
He watched from under a nearby tree as she inspected his latest offering.
“Scott! Scott come quickly. Look!”
The blond emerged from the door behind her.
“What’s wrong Teresa?”
“Look. It’s just a baby mouse. The poor little thing.”
“Teresa, you do realise that baby mice grow into big mice?”
“Of course, Scott. I’m not a complete fool.”
“And you realise that mice are vermin, just as much as rats are?”
“Yes, Scott. I know that too. But this one is so little. He never had a chance.”
“Teresa, honey, this was why you wanted to keep Puss.”
“Oh Scott, you just don’t understand.” She stamped her foot and returned to the kitchen, pushing past him in her frustration.
The man shook his head wearily then looked up and saw he was being watched.
“A word of warning, Puss. She’s a bit unreasonable about these gifts. I recommend you stick with ugly, old rats in future. You’ll get a better reception.” With that he picked up the dead mouse and made his way around the side of the house.
= = = = =
Early on in his visit he’d found his way to where the horses were stabled and instantly felt comfortable. He’d always had an affinity with horses and enjoyed their company. The feeling was mutual. They seemed to appreciate his company. They certainly behaved well around him. Unfortunately, early on, he discovered also, to his chagrin, that this place was much frequented by the dark-haired one. He’d like to believe it meant this one wasn’t all bad but his closed look was still disturbing. However, all was not lost as they seemed to have come to an understanding and each studiously avoided the other.
= = = = =
Days passed, and each one saw him promising the next would be his last. It was time to move on. He’d known that from the day she had first named him. It was a very great pity because he was not keen to go hungry again. He’d discovered that the relationships he had so studiously avoided all his life weren’t such a bad thing after all. He had food, comfort, even love and understanding. They cared for him. And, much as he hated to admit it, he cared for them, too.
The only thing that stopped him from staying was the dark-haired one. They had no trust for each other and it kept him on his toes. Were it not for that one he would have turned completely soft already. He certainly would have decided to stay. Of that there was no doubt. He was yet again pondering the timing of his departure and found himself lost in thought. He’d made his way to the back corner of the barn and was preoccupied by his deliberations. Too preoccupied. Suddenly, he realised he was cornered and this predicament made his decision for him. He still had some speed, enough he prayed, to scoot past the dark-haired one standing in the doorway and make directly for the road away from here. Now was as good a time as any. He watched warily, waiting for the slightest move that would give him an inkling as to what the man had planned. Any moment now. All he had to do was watch and wait his turn.
He waited and waited. He knew the man knew he was there. He also knew he was watching his every move, pretending otherwise. They were at an impasse. Suddenly the man threw something down on the ground, not exactly in his direction but not exactly away from him either. He edged closer to it and sniffed it cautiously. It was a piece of cheese from the hunk the man had been chewing on. It seemed okay so he took a cautious bite.
“You sure are a cagey one, Puss.”
Maybe sticking around a bit longer wouldn’t be so bad after all, he thought. He stalked steadfastly past the young man, his tail barely brushing his trouser leg and the man’s hand barely brushing his tail, as he made his way to the kitchen and tonight’s supper. Just one more day.