Cory reined Diego Don to a halt atop the post oak covered ridge, surveying the fence. The barbed wire appeared banjo-string taut. Down the slope it disappeared into a gulley in an overgrazed pasture. Just past there, near a clump of trees in the adjoining native growth sanctuary of Conrad Blue, it sagged, about where a rifle barrel poked from behind a tree.
“Hello, the rifle. I’m coming down.” It was probably cantankerous old man Blue, or his foreman. Cattle were nibbling sparse tuffs of grass near the sagging fence. He pointed Diego Don off the hill.
When Cory arrived, Conrad stood beside a gap in the wire, waiting for him. “This is your last warning. Your cows get on my place again; I’m gut shooting ‘em.”
“I’m sorry about the fence, Mr. Blue. I’ll fix it. Please, don’t shoot Dad’s prize Beefmasters. He will pay you for the grass they ate. Just tell me how …”
“I ain’t interested in money. You heard what I said -- keep ‘em off my place.”
“Dad’s going through a tough time. We buried Momma last week. I’m …”
“I heard about Sarah. She was a good woman. It don’t matter though.”
“I know. Dad’s got his problems. He’s overgrazing with the drought, trying to raise enough cattle to get me graduated. I’m majoring in ranch management. I’ll drop out if he doesn’t start looking after things.”
Conrad Blue spat a stream of tobacco juice, his rheumy eyes studying Cory. “Your problems ain’t mine. Keep ‘em out.” He turned and stalked away. A four wheeler, it sounded like, started up, and growled off unseen.
“Well, Diego. I guess we better fix that fence. What’cha think?”
Old Conrad and his twin brother Alvin, both bachelors, were polar opposites. Conrad aggravated everybody with his obnoxious ways. He dressed shabbily and acted worse. He could squeeze an Indian head nickel until the Chief rode the buffalo.
Alvin lived on an adjoining ranch. It was rumored he made a fortune playing the stock market and maybe it was true. He came and went by helicopter and was seldom seen locally. Both Conrad’s had offered to buy the Double S, but his father was adamant – “I’ll die ‘fore that happens.”
It was nearing sundown when Cory returned to the ranch house. He had mended the fence and hazed the livestock onto a distant pasture, then returned and finished riding out the fence line. His dad was slumped in a rocking chair on the porch, swirling ice cubes in a half-full quart jar of sweet tea. Cory reported on his day, how the cattle were faring, and made several suggestions about their care. His dad was non committal until he told him about Conrad.
“That scoundrel, him and his brother want this place.” He rubbed tears from his leathery old face with a soiled red bandana. “Cory, you may have to drop out of college. I promised your mother I’d see you through, but I don’t see …”
“It’s okay, Pop. If I have to, I can go back later. With your experience and what I’ve learned so far about ranch management, we can make the Double S ...”
“Still, I promised …”
“Hang on, Pop. I’ll finish this semester in six weeks. How about I fry some ham and eggs for supper? Can you still eat six cackle-berries?” he asked, teasing.
Three weeks later Cory called his dad. “Pop, I don’t know what to think. The registrar called me into the office. Someone paid for the rest of my schooling. You got any idea who did it? They won’t tell me.”
Sam didn’t know, but the more they talked Cory realized a burden had been lifted from his father’s shoulders. He began to sound like his old self.
When the semester ended, he went home. His father was sitting on the porch, an obituary from the local newspaper in his hand. “This is the dang’dest thing I ever read.
“’Alvin Conrad Blue died …’” He handed the lengthy article to Cory.
“Huh? Which one died?”
“They wuz one and the same. Old Conrad gave everybody a hard time to check out their mettle and true feelings. Alvin was the generous side, giving anonymously to people and places all over the world he thought deserved it. That’s what it says.”
“Do you think…?”
“Yup. And that little valley between the hills your mama loved --- a surveyor is …”
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