A steady, increasing wind blew dust and sagebrush across the path of Magdalene Rogers. The graceful curving skeleton of a snake long ago disturbed from its resting place formed an S, straightened out, then broke up, its delicate white head carrying four vertebrae with it.
Mags, as she was called, looked down and hoped this wasn't a portent. Putting her hand palm inward to the left of her left eye, she craned her neck upward. Pieces of debris flew harder now. She watched as one small, crooked slip of sagebrush fastened itself to the P-47 propeller in the middle of the high crossbar forming the entrance to Wings Ranch. Just as quickly the brush dislodged, sailing farther into Red Rock Valley. Great sheets of Confederate-gray clouds interlaced with charcoal ones, crested the Peterson Mountains, which in essence divided Nevada from California.
Looking west toward that range, Mags saw that the ridgeline at its highest point--2,250 feet--was already engulfed in snow. Within ten to fifteen minutes the snow's advance guard would be swirling through the Wings Ranch gate.
Baxter, her three-year-old wire-haired dachshund, sat alert in the passenger seat of the rental car. Better Mags stand out there in the cold wind than himself. It had been a long day for the fastidious, very proper canine and he'd hated every last minute of it. The worst was the flight from JFK Airport to Reno. At least that was over--never to be repeated, he hoped fervently.
She flipped up the collar of her shearling jacket--a long-ago Christmas present from her great-aunt who owned this sprawling, 10,000-acre ranch located about twenty-two miles south of Reno.
The first snowflake tentatively appeared as Mags stood under the propeller blade. Aunt Jeep never did anything halfway, so her western entranceway was wide and high. Each spring, the old prop blade would be lovingly cleaned, touched up if needed, and a sprig of evergreen was tucked behind its nose for good luck.
Magdalene was named for her aunt. As Magdalene is a three syllable name, Americans shortened it. Who wants to say a mouthful? Hence, Mags. Aunt Jeep earned her nickname in 1941 when she first began driving Jeeps. She still had an old war issue that ran like a top. If you had any sense, you ran when Aunt Jeep took the wheel. The old lady craved speed whether driving or flying--both of which she had always done with sangfroid.
In the time it took her to fondly recall the sight of her small but imposing great-aunt blasting down a dirt road leaving a plume of dust behind her, Mags was wearing a shawl of snow. Since she wasn't wearing gloves, she rubbed her cold hands together and climbed back into the Camaro. She might be flat broke but damned if she was going to rent something that didn't possess some style. And power.
Closing the door, she reached over to rub the dachshund's russet head. "Buddybud, home. I hope."
"I'd like to eat."
Mags smiled as she heard what sounded like a muffled bark. Then the tears came.
"Oh, Momma. Everything will be all right." Baxter stepped over the center console to lick her tears.
She hugged him. "Damn if I'll let anyone see me cry. Just you." She took a deep breath. "You're the only one who loves me. Well, maybe Aunt Jeep does, too. In her fashion."
She popped the transmission into drive. GM products, while possessing virtues, often had an off-center feel to the steering wheel, a numbness, slowness to respond. The silver Camaro surprised her; its steering wasn't as crisp as a Porsche's, but it was much improved from prior models. She took pleasure in it. Just like her great-aunt, if it had an engine in it, Mags liked it. These days she needed a dash of pleasure.
"Damn, I can barely see the road," she said peering over the wheel. "Everything's different here, Baxter. Everything. You blink and the weather changes. We're in the high desert, but we're in it together."
Poking along at twenty miles an hour she finally reached the old, white rambling ranch house. Its first section had been built in 1880, a long time ago in these parts.
Cutting the motor, she sat for a moment, took another deep breath, then brightened. "Hey, I'm not doing great, but at least I'm doing better than my lying, cokehead of a sister."
With that, she jumped out and popped the trunk. Hoisting one bag onto her shoulders, she dragged the other up the steps to the wraparound porch. Returning, she shut the trunk lid and opened the passenger door.
"At your service."
Baxter nimbly negotiated the distance to the ground as snowflakes dotted his wiry fur.
Mags opened the front door, which was never locked, threw in the biggest bag, then set down the other. "Aunt Jeep!"
"In the kitchen," answered a resonant, deep alto voice.
"Who goes there?" King growled as he hurtled himself out of the kitchen to draw up short in front of Mags, whom he knew--although not well--from her infrequent visits.
But what was this low-to-the-ground lowlife with a trimmed Vandyke?
Faced with the shepherd mix, Baxter stood his ground, saying nothing.
Jeep Reed strode out of the kitchen, her slight limp apparent but in no way impeding her progress. "King, he's your new best friend."
"That?" The much bigger dog was incredulous. With a handsome black face with brown points and a regal bearing, he had no patience for what he thought of as inferior breeds. "I've seen snakes higher off the ground than that."
Baxter curled back his upper lip. "And I can strike just as fast, you ill-bred lout."
"All right, boys. Get along or I'll get out the bull whip." Aunt Jeep wagged her finger at the two dogs as she walked toward her beautiful, thirty-two-year-old great-niece. "Mags, sweetheart, welcome home."
Mags held the lean, fierce old woman close. "I won't be a burden, Aunt Jeep. I swear to you, I won't."
"I know you won't because I intend to work your ass off. Sweat and manual labor should help work free those toxins from Wall Street. I'll fill you in on the details of my latest dream once you've settled in. It's a big dream." She stepped back. "Hang your coat up. You know where. Want help with those?"
"Oh, no. I can manage."
As Mags hung her coat on the peg next to the front door, Aunt Jeep gave her the once-over. "I'm surprised. You didn't turn to fat sitting on your nether regions all day."
"An hour in the gym every day. Five-thirty a.m. Otherwise, I'd be fat as a tick. Walking Baxter every morning and every evening helps."
Jeep's warm brown eyes cast down at the little intrepid fellow. "You and I are going to be friends, Baxter. Did you hear that?"
The little gentleman responded, "I like you already."
"You look like you always do." Mags complimented her aunt.
"When you're older than dirt, nothing much changes."
"I think Momma would look like you do now had she lived." Mags smiled.
Jeep laughed. "Honey, your mother was one of the great beauties of her generation. She outshone all those Hollywood starlets vying for your father's attention. If she had made it to eighty-five, she'd have looked better than I did at thirty."
Mags slipped her arm around her much shorter aunt's still small waist as they walked toward the kitchen, heavenly smells drawing them down the center hall.
"You always underestimate your looks, Momma used to say that." Mags swallowed hard. "Aunt Jeep, I'm so grateful to you for taking me in and I'm so glad Mom and Dad aren't here to see--me."
"Oh, shut up, Mags. First off, I love you. The moment Glynnis and John were killed on that awful Memorial Day in 1992, you and your sister became mine. Not only did I wish it, that was your mother's will. Don't fret about that mess on Wall Street. Most of us hit the skids once or twice in our lives and you know something, I feel sorry for those who haven't. Think about your parents; your father wasn't always on the top rung of the Hollywood ladder. He and your mom had plenty of highs and lows, but they loved every minute. What you learn, how you adapt, how you change inside, well, it may be a hard lesson but if you embrace it, you're far better off than when you started. Weaklings ask for an easy life, Mags." She turned toward her great-niece. "Failure is feedback for success."
Mags bent down to kiss the silken cheek. "Then fasten your seatbelt, Aunt Jeepers, I'm heading for one helluva success."
Copyright © 2010 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.