Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Cowboy Tango

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Cowboy Tango

Article excerpt

WHEN MR. GLEN OTTERBAUSCH hired Sammy Boone she was sixteen and so skinny that the whole of her beanpole body fit neatly inside the circle of shade cast by her hat. For three weeks he'd had an ad in the Bozeman paper for a wrangler, but only two men had shown up. One smelled like he'd swum across a whiskey river before his truck fishtailed to a dusty stop outside the lodge, and the other was missing his left arm. Mr. Otterbausch looked away from the man with one arm and told him that the job was already filled. He was planning to get away from beef-raising and go more towards the tourist trade, even though he'd promised his Uncle Dex, as Dex breathed his last wheezes, that he would do no such thing. Every summer during his childhood Mr. Otterbausch's schoolteacher parents had sent him to stay with Uncle Dex, a man who, in both body and spirit, resembled a petrified log. He had a lace of knurled bark and knotholes for eyes and a mouth sealed up tight around a burned-down Marlboro. He spoke rarely; his voice rasped up through the dark tubes of his craw only to issue a command or to mock his nervous, skinny nephew for being nervous and skinny. He liked to creep up on young Glen and clang the dinner bell in his ear, showing yellow crocodile teeth when the boy jumped and twisted into the air. So Dex's bequest of all 40,000 acres to Mr. Otterbausch, announced when a faint breeze was still rattling through the doldrums of his tarblackened lungs, was a deathbed confession that Dex loved no one, had no one to give his ranch to except a disliked nephew whose one point of redemption was his ability to sit a horse.

It was true that Mr. Otterbausch rode well, and because he liked to ride more than anything else, he quit his job managing a ski resort, loaded his gray mare Sleepy Jean into a trailer, and drove up to pay his last respects. By the time the first rain came and drilled Dex's ashes into the hard earth, Mr. Otterbausch had sold off half the cattle and bought two dozen new horses, three breeding stallions among them. He bought saddles and bridles, built a new barn with a double -size stall for Sleepy Jean, expanded the lodge and put in a bigger kitchen. When construction was underway on ten guest cabins and a new bunkhouse, he fired the worst of the old wranglers and placed his ad. Sammy showed up two days after the man with one arm. She must have hitched out to the ranch because when he caught sight of her she was just a white dot walking up the dirt road from I-191. His first impulse when he saw that she was just a kid was to send her away, but he was sympathetic toward the too -skinny. Moreover, he thought the dudes who would be paying his future bills might be intrigued by a girl wrangler in a way they would not have been by a man with a pinned-up sleeve who tied knots with his teeth. Mr. Otterbausch maintained a shiny and very bristly mustache, and his fingers stole up to tug at it.

"Can you shoot?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said.

"How are you with a rope?"

"All right."

"Can you ride?"

"Yup."

"Let's see then."

He dropped a saddle and bridle in her arms and showed her a short-legged twist of a buckskin, a bitch mare who had nearly thrown Mr. Otterbausch. He had gotten off and kicked her once right on the ass. The buckskin kicked back, leaving him with a boomerang-shaped bruise on his right thigh. When Sammy pulled the cinch tight, the mare flattened her ears and lunged around, her square teeth biting the air until they met Sammy's hard-swung fist. The mare squealed and pointed her nose at the sky, but then she stood still. Sammy climbed up. The mare dropped her head and crowhopped off to the right. Sammy jerked the reins up, but not meanly, and kicked the mare through the gate into the home paddock. In five minutes, she had her going around like a show pony.

"Hang on there a sec," Mr. Otterbausch said. He went and threw some tack on Sleepy Jean. He climbed up, rode her back to the paddock, and pulled open the gate for Sammy. …

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