The Cup Ranch

No need to go back out to the Cup Ranch. The facts had been confirmed and the paperwork filed. It was a remote place with Cup Butte as the landmark and a line drawing of a cup with handle as a brand. When Burt had bought the ranch, the sheriff — who quickly became a good friend — suggested that there ought to be an adjective with “cup.” Like, “Silver Cup” or “Loving Cup.” Eileen, Burt’s wife, had laughed, saying she liked the second one better. They were indeed a loving couple and the sheriff was not surprised that in their old age they chose a double suicide. Burt’d had Alzheimer’s for long enough to have needed a lot of care and they did NOT want to live in town. Eileen had used veterinary euthanasia drugs. She’s always been the ranch nurse. Maybe the Alzheimer’s meant that Burt’s death was technically murder — euthanasia. No blame, no shame.

The two-story house with its bay window looked the same as always but no dog came out to challenge him. Someone must have taken it to their place. The door wasn’t locked. The entry shed was full of jackets, hats, boots and general tackle the same as always. Downstairs was one big room except for a small guest bedroom and a bath big enough for an outsized soaking tub where in spring one was as likely to find a distressed calf as a person. It was cold. He missed the woodstove fire. Eileen didn’t really cook on it much, but it was always fluttering and snapping along.

The deaths were accounted for. Before helping the coroner remove the bodies from where they lay on the bed, holding hands, he’d never gone up to the master suite. At that time he’d been too stunned to note much except that there was a partner desk, two-sided for two people to work across from each other. A lot of bookcases. Now that things had settled down, he thought of looking around in the desk for people who ought to be notified or maybe some legal documents, though the will and so on was in town with their lawyer.

The big bay window downstairs was repeated upstairs. It faced east and sun was streaming across the floor over old-fashioned rugs rather than carpet. He stood in front of the bookcases, noting that they must have had every book in the Double Plume series, that famous on-going account of a wise chief and fierce warrior combined, back in the eighteenth century when the first trappers began to show up. It wasn’t just bow-and-arrow stuff, but a fine mixture of anthropology and philosophy with enough human truth for people to read excerpts at weddings and funerals. In chronological order of publication the long row of English versions was followed by sets in Japanese, German and French.

He was a little surprised, not being aware that they had been so devoted to this one writer. Then he sat at the desk and gradually realized, as he looked at the manuscript pages by a laptop, that one of the couple was the writer. Before he could decide which one, he found a letter from the editor making it clear that Double Plume was both white ranchers, not an Indian as publicized. Double Plume’s presumably Indian author had always been elusive.

Then he found a recent royalty statement and was shocked all over again to see how little money the series was making. Evidently they had borrowed ahead. Of course, a ranch is a money sink. And Eileen had not let the editor know about Burt’s Alzheimer’s. At the end she was writing alone.

He could understand why his friends had kept their white identity secret. Pretending to be an Indian was more sacrilegious to some people than anything in church — in fact, maybe it was mostly the people who scorned Christian terms who made such a fuss about Indian religion. The old timers in the tribe whom he’d known didn’t make a fuss. They just lived it. It was the wannabes who wanted to prevent anyone else from claiming their “thing.”

This ranch house was not full of art about Indians and didn’t display any artifacts. He remembered walking with Burt and finding an arrowhead. His first impulse was to put it in his pocket, but Burt had said, “Let it lay. It belongs to the land.” He’d complied, seeing the truth of that. The sheriff had read the Double Plume stories, of course, just like everyone around here, and he liked them but wasn’t the sort of person who discussed books or wrote to authors. He was busy with real life problems.

He did often ponder the marriage of Burt and Eileen. A couple of decades earlier they had arrived from back east — come to think of it, about the time of the first book in this series — and bought this ranch. (The phrase echoed: “bought the ranch.”) Though both were obviously educated and well-mannered, Burt had a hot temperament, not so much “bipolar” as so many of the sheriff’s troubled clientele were described, as a roller coaster between distraction and passionate confrontation. The modern syndrome that came to mind was “oppositional defiance disorder.” Plenty of examples in the sheriff’s life, but they fought over stupid stuff. Burt took on the cosmos. Hypocrisy. Injustice. Evil. Eileen seemed to understand and most of the time she could steer him out of trouble.

Then he remembered a time he ran into her in the hospital emergency room. She had fractured ribs, many bruises. Said she fell off her horse. Now he wondered.

He opened a file labeled “personal” and found an account of Burt’s boyhood, the abuse he took and how it made him the man she loved. A man who could only feel love through pain. When he realized what he was reading, he closed the file. None of it really mattered. Her faithfulness shone out of it. Or was it just stubbornness? So many tragic cases he’d investigated had the same markers.

He looked around the bedroom one last time. He knew they had no heirs. The land had been willed to The Nature Conservancy and the contents of the house would be auctioned. Double Plume’s identity might be outed. Or he could come back with some boxes and remove the evidence. That went against his inclination and training. But maybe people who studied literature would value the materials. He copied the name of the editor into his notebook.

Outside the house he sat on the porch steps for a while, just settling his head. Max the ranch cat spotted him across the yard and, recognizing him as a friend, brought him the dead mouse she had been carrying, making mama noises. That made him laugh. He took Max onto his lap and petted the soft little body until she purred and worked her claws on his leg.

It was a good day, without a lot of wind, and he looked out across the long flank of Cup Butte to the road winding off into the distance towards the Rockies. The course of the creek was marked by cottonwood growth and the grass had not dried off to the color of cougar fur yet. Eagles gyred the sky. Slowly he realized that this was the landscape that recurred again and again in the Double Plume books, the true thing out of which all else emerged.


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