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The Cowboy Tango


ISSUE:  Fall 2009

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 face 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 tar-blackened 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. “Let’s try you without a fence. Head down the valley.” Mr. Otterbausch pointed Sammy westward toward a horizon of dovetailing hills. The buckskin cow-kicked once and then rocketed off with Sammy sitting up straight as a telephone pole. Her long braid of brown hair thumped against her back. Sleepy Jean was plenty fast but Mr. Otterbausch kept her reined in to stay behind and observe. Sammy rode further back on her hip than most women, giving her ride some roll and swagger. It was a gusty day and the buckskin was really moving, but she didn’t even bother to reach up and tug her hat down the way Mr. Otterbausch did. By the time they got back to the home paddock, both the horses and Mr. Otterbausch were in a lather.

“You want the job?” he asked.

Sammy nodded.

“How old are you?”

She hesitated, and he guessed she was deciding whether or not to lie. “Sixteen.”

This seemed like the truth. “You’re not some kind of runaway are you? You should tell me so I can decide if I want the trouble.”

She was shaking her head. “No one’s coming to look for me. I got a dad, but he said I could go.”

“Where’s your dad?”

“Wyoming.”

“What’s he do?”

“Chickens.”

“He won’t hunt me down for kidnapping?” Trying to set her at ease, Mr. Otterbausch chuckled. The girl did not smile.

“No sir.”

“Just a joke,” Mr. Otterbausch said. “Just joking.”

Sammy lived in the lodge until Mr. Otterbausch had a cottage built for her in a stand of trees off the east porch, on the other side of the lodge from the guest cabins and the bunkhouse. He’d hoped when she was transplanted to another building she would be less on his mind, but no such luck. All day he was mindful that she might be watching him and considered each movement before he made it, choreographing for her eyes a performance of strength while he moved bales of hay or of grace as he rode out on Sleepy Jean in the evening. He tried to stop himself from wringing his hands while he talked to her because an old girlfriend had told him the habit was annoying. Every night his imagination projected flickering films of Sammy Boone onto his bedroom ceiling: Sammy riding, always riding, across fields and hills and exotic deserts, always on beautiful horses, horses that Mr. Otterbausch certainly didn’t own. He liked to imagine what her hair might look like out of its braid, what it would feel like in his fingers. Sometimes he allowed himself to imagine making love to Sammy, but he did so in a state of distracting discomfort. The bottom line was that she was too young, and he wasn’t about to mess around with a girl who had nowhere else to go, even though she had a stillness to her that made her seem older, old even. He told himself he loved her the way he loved the wind and the mountains and the horses, and it would be a crime to damage her spirit. Plus, she showed no interest. She treated Mr. Otterbausch and the wranglers with a detached man-to-man courtesy. Sometimes she could even be coarse. She called the stuck latch on a paddock gate a “cocksucker,” and she told a table of breakfasting dudes that the stallions had gone “a-fucking” one Sunday in breeding season. When she ran into Mr. Otterbausch she never talked about anything beyond the solid world of trees, rocks, water, and animals. If he tried to ask her about herself, she gave the shortest answer possible and then made herself scarce.

“You have any brothers or sisters?”

“Some brothers.”

“Where are they?”

“Don’t know. Got to check on Big Bob’s abscess. Night, boss.”

Ten years passed this way. Sammy stayed skinny except for her shoulders, which muscled up and broadened out. She started to go a little bowlegged, and her forearms turned brown and wiry. The dude business worked out well. Mr. Otterbausch made enough money to keep improving the ranch a bit at a time and also to put away some every year. Out on a ride he found a hot spring bubbling out of a hillside, and he dug the pool out bigger, lined it with rocks, and put in a cedar platform for the dudes to sit on. Dudes, it turned out, loved to sit in hot water, and the sulfurous pond drew enough new business that he added three more cabins and built a rough shelter way out on the property’s north edge for use on overnight treks. The guests called Sammy a tough cookie, which irked Mr. Otterbausch, like when anyone said the distant, magnificent mountains were like a postcard.

Since the beginning, Sammy had the job of taking the best old horses up to a hillside spot called the Pearly Gates when their times came and shooting them in the head. The place was named for two clusters of white-barked aspen trees that flanked the trail where it opened out into a clearing. Mr. Otterbausch guessed that Sammy talked a lot more to horses than to people, and he figured she gave them a proper goodbye. When the wranglers saw Sammy come walking back down out of the hills, they knew to keep out of her way for a while. She left each carcass out until it was picked clean enough, maybe a few months, and then she went back and nailed up the skull on one of the pines around the clearing. Nobody asked what she did with the rest of the bones. Not many horses were lucky enough to go to the Pearly Gates; most of the ones who came in from winter pasture too lame and rickety to be reliable were sold at auction and ended up going down to Mexico in silver trucks with cheese-grater sides. From there they mostly wound up in thirty-pound bags of cheap dog food. But worthy horses came and went over the years, and their skulls circled the clearing on Parachute Hill like a council of wise men. Mr. Otterbausch went up there sometimes to get away. He would sit for a while beneath the long white faces and look up through the aspens’ trembling leaves at a patch of sky. The dudes paid the bills, and he knew they had as much right as anyone else to enjoy this country, but some days they were as much a blight on the land as oil derricks or Wal-Marts or neon billboards. They strutted around as purposeful and aimless as pigeons, staring at the mountains and the sky and the trees, trying to stuff it all into their cameras. Wherever he was, Uncle Dex must have been royally pissed off.

Usually Sammy rode out alone when she wasn’t with the dudes, but Mr. Otterbausch was happiest when he could make up some excuse for the two of them to ride together. Around dusk, after the dudes and the horses had been fed, he would seek her out to check on this or that bit of trail or retrieve a few steers that he had purposely let loose the night before. Those evenings, when the sky was amethyst and Sleepy Jean’s mane blew over his hands as he loped along behind Sammy, it seemed that his longing and the moment when day tipped over into night were made out of the same stuff, aching and purple. While they hunted around for lost steers, he talked to her, telling her all his stories, and she listened without complaint or much comment, though sometimes she would ask “Then what?” and he would talk on with new flair. He worried that she would fall in love with a dude or with one of the wranglers, but she never seemed tempted.

He wanted to believe it was self-restraint that kept him from falling on his knees and begging her to love him, to marry him, at least to sleep with him, but, during the rare moments when he told himself he must, if he did not want to spend the rest of his life in agony, confess his feelings, he knew the truth was that he was afraid. She was a full-grown woman, not some helpless girl. He was afraid she would leave, afraid she would laugh at him, afraid he would not be able to survive all alone out on the blinding salt flats of her rejection. He might have gone on that way until he was old and gray, but then Mr. Otterbausch called the girlfriend he kept in Bozeman by Sammy’s name one too many times. “God damn it!” she shouted, standing naked beside her bed while Mr. Otterbausch cowered beneath the sheets. “You have called me Sammy for the last fucking time, Glen Otterbausch! My name is LuAnn! Remember me?” She grabbed her breasts with both hands and shook them at him. “LuAnn!”

He drove home, tail between his legs, and took a bottle of whiskey out on the front porch. The sun was dropping toward the hilltops where he had first ridden with Sammy, and he sat and looked at it. He didn’t like whiskey, but it seemed to fit the occasion and was all he could scrounge from the two guys who happened to be in the bunkhouse when he stopped by. The dudes came in for dinner and then were herded off to campfire. After the lodge felt quiet and the sky was fading from blue to purple, Mr. Otterbausch went over to Sammy’s cottage and knocked on the door. Her dog, Dirt, barked once and fell silent when she said, from somewhere, “Dirt, you hush up.” She answered the door in her usual clothes, except she was barefoot. After he realized he was staring at her pale toes, he looked up and stared over her shoulder. A rocking chair with a Hudson Bay blanket on it. A skillet on the stove. He caught the smell of fried eggs. Dirt sniffed around his boots. The dog had simply appeared one day, walking up the dirt road like Sammy had, and she had acted like she’d been expecting him all along. Because Dirt was shaped and bristled like a brown bottlebrush, the joke with the wranglers was that Mr. Otterbausch had turned one of his old mustaches into a dog for Sammy.

“Boss?” she said. One hand was up behind her head. She was holding back her hair.

“Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to ask a favor. Mrs. Mullinax—you know her? the lady from Chicago?—says she left her camera up on the lookout rock. I said I’d ride up and look for it, and I was wondering if you’d come along. Two eyes better than one, and all. Or I guess it’s four eyes. Better than two.” He laughed.

“All the guys are busy?”

“It’s campfire night, and C. J. and Wayne went to town.” Still she hesitated, he hoped not because she sensed his nervousness or smelled whiskey on him. “I thought you could take Hotrod. Give him some exercise.”

“He don’t get enough exercise with all that fucking he does?” But she shut the door on his face, and when she came back out her hair was in its braid and she had on her corduroy jacket with a wooly collar. “Dirt, you stay,” she said.

Mr. Otterbausch was drunker than he thought and had to hop around with his foot in the rawhide stirrup before he could pull himself up in the saddle. As soon as he did, Sleepy Jean spread her back legs and lifted her tail to squirt some pee for Hotrod, who flipped his upper lip up over his nostrils and let the scent bounce around his cavernous sinuses.

“Slut,” Sammy said to Sleepy Jean, reining Hotrod away from her.

On the lookout rock, with the valley dark below them and the stars coming out to one-up the small twinkling lights of the lodge and outbuildings, Mr. Otterbausch waited for the perfect moment, the moment when Sammy was standing with her hands on her hips and saying disgustedly, “I don’t see any damn camera,” and he swooped in and got her by the braid and kissed her hard on the mouth. She hauled back like she was going to punch him, but she remembered not to punch her boss right when he remembered to let go of her braid— soon enough but a little late. He fell to pieces with apologies and dropped down on his knees to beg her to forget the whole thing, but then he figured as long as he was down there he might as well go whole hog.

“Sammy, I’d like to give you the ranch.”

“What?”

“The ranch. I’d like it to be yours as well as mine.”

“What for?”

He began to sense he’d made a wrong turn, but he was too drunk and panicked to do anything but press on. He looked up at her dark shape and said, “Well, I’d like to marry you. We could run the ranch together. It’d be yours too. Wouldn’t you like that?”

She kicked a rock that went rattling down into the darkening valley. “You think you can bribe me with the ranch? Do I look like a ranch whore to you?”

He sat back onto his butt. “Of course not.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Don’t want what?”

“The ranch.”

He felt a hopeless burst of hope. “But you do want . . . the rest?”

She waited for a minute before she answered, and he felt so nervous he thought he might faint. But she said, “No.”

“You’re sure? You’re not being stubborn? I didn’t mean it like a bribe. I swear, Sammy. I meant that I’d give you anything.” Behind them, Sleepy Jean, tied to a tree, squealed at Hotrod, who was tied to another. Mr. Otterbausch tried to stand up but sat back down. He found he was wringing his hands together.

Hotrod whuffed at Sleepy Jean and pulled and pranced at his tree. Sleepy Jean squealed again, lifting her tail. Sammy took a step back from Mr. Otterbausch. “I just don’t love you,” she said. “I wish I did, but I don’t. It’s one of those things. I’ve thought about it. I’ve tried to get myself to, even, because you’re the most decent man I know and you’d treat me good, but I’d feel like a liar.”

“I don’t mind,” said Mr. Otterbausch, raising his voice over Sleepy Jean’s.

Sammy whirled around on the mare. “God damn slut horse, stop your yelling!” She stepped close to Hotrod and, as she was pulling his cinch tight, she said, without turning around, “I’m real sorry.” She untied the stallion, punched his neck when he made a lunge for Sleepy Jean, climbed on and rode away. Mr. Otterbausch sat and watched the crescent moon rise. He felt woozy, exhausted, tremulous, like a survivor of a terrible collision. He did not know whether he was more afraid of Sammy leaving the ranch or her staying. Eventually he rode down and finished the whiskey and avoided Sammy pretty well for three months, after which time everything went back to normal and stayed that way. More years went by. He loved her and tried to conceal that he loved her; she pretended that she did not notice he loved her.

Harrison Greene went out to his uncle’s ranch once he was very certain his marriage was over. He was a man of great patience, a birdwatcher and a fly-fisherman, and the ink on the divorce papers had to dry for a whole year for him to be certain that he was really divorced, even though by then Marjorie had already been living with Gary-the-Architect for eight months. So he gave up the lease on his sad bachelor apartment, sold most of his possessions, and drove west with his horse Digger in a trailer behind his truck, Illinois unrolling in his side-mirrors. Harrison made his living from larger-than-life paintings of animals and birds. They were perfect down to the last follicle. His life, lived slowly, had eventually bored Marjorie beyond her tolerance, which is why he was surprised that she chose to shack up with Gary of all people, a man who sat in a cantilevered house and made silent, minute movements with his pencil while, across town, Harrison made silent, minute movements with his pencil.

“I think she’s really gone,” he said to his uncle on the phone.

“Well, yeah, you think? Ha ha ha.” Uncle Glen said. Harrison remembered why he had never particularly cared for Uncle Glen. The man was annoying.

“She’s moved in with this architect,” Harrison continued. “I don’t know. Anyway, I was thinking, if you’ll have me, it might do me good to come out to your place for a while. I’d pay, of course.”

“No need for that. No need at all. Do you still paint?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you can make a few paintings for the lodge. You still have that horse?”

“I thought I’d bring him along.”

“He’s a beauty. If you wanted, you could just pay me with that horse. Ha ha ha.”

“Ha ha ha,” said Harrison.

“All right. Call when you’re coming.”

The first thing Harrison saw when he drove up the road was a woman riding an ugly appaloosa. Her braid and the shape of her waist gave her away as a woman, but she rode like a man, back on her hip. When the appaloosa let go a series of bucks, dolphining up and down along the fence, she whipped him back and forth across the shoulders with the reins and sent him streaking off at a gallop. As she passed, she tipped her hat to Harrison.

“Who’s that girl?” he asked his uncle after he had settled Digger in the barn.

“What girl?”

“The one on the appy out there.”

“Most people don’t spot her as a girl right away.”

“There’s the braid.”

“Don’t go telling Sammy she rides like a girl. Ha ha ha.”

“She doesn’t, that’s the thing.”

“You don’t remember Sammy?”

“I’ve never seen her before.”

“Sure you have. She’s been here fifteen years. Guess you didn’t notice her when you had Marjorie with you.”

“I don’t see why I wouldn’t have.”

Uncle Glen took him by the arm and turned him away toward the lodge. “You’re in here. Next to my room.”

Harrison had never seen a girl ride so well. Right away he started tagging along on rides, bringing up the rear in a gaggle of dudes but never losing sight of her hat and her braid beneath it. At first she paid him no notice, but he waited and after a couple weeks he knew she must have at least gotten used to him because when he rode off to investigate a birdsong, she would whistle for him up the trail so he could find his way back. Once she dropped back beside him to say Digger was the best-looking horse she’d ever seen, and when he offered to let her ride him she said, “Yeah? For serious?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“The Otter hogs all the good ones.”

Harrison had a lot to say about Uncle Glen. How he laughed at his own jokes, which weren’t even jokes but just things he said. How he had a habit of saying something to your back as you turned to leave a room. How he was so jumpy that Marjorie called him human itching powder. How he longed to rip that preposterous mustache from the man’s face. But he said, “I’d think he’d want you to ride them.”

She looked alarmed. “Why?”

“Because you’re one of the best riders I’ve ever seen.”

She seemed relieved. She shrugged. “The Otter rides good, too. They’re his horses. Marty, sit up there,” she shouted at a dude in a bolo tie who was drooping back in the saddle. “I’ll tie that stupid-ass bolo of yours to the horn if you don’t.” The dude looked back over his shoulder, wounded, and she trotted up to the front of the line.

Harrison found with the passing days that Sammy was staking a larger and larger claim on his thoughts. He rode with her as much as he could, and, in the evenings when he went out in the paddocks or the hills with his sketchbook, he found himself only half concentrating because he was listening for her footsteps behind him. She often came out and watched him draw, sitting behind him in the grass. Sometimes he sent her out on Digger, and it was a glorious sight. He made sketch after sketch, and afterwards she always said “That was all right” and rested a hand flat on the horse’s neck, leaving a print in his sweat. At night in his bed with Uncle Glen’s snores coming through the wall, Harrison filled imaginary canvases with Sammy and Digger done in big, loose brushstrokes, more active and alive than his usual Audubon-gets-huge stuff. Having something other than Marjorie to think about was welcome. There was nothing in Sammy to remind him of Marjorie. Marjorie was beautiful. She had delicate wrists and shoulders, and her veins showed through her skin like the roots of baby flowers. Sammy was strong and awkward with weathered skin and a braid too long for a woman her age. Marjorie was busy and jumpy, a jingler of change and a tapper of toes, which made it pretty rich that she called Uncle Glen hyper. She had never sat all the way back in a chair in her life, and she undercooked everything out of sheer impatience. Sammy, on the other hand, might have been reincarnated from a boulder. Marjorie would laugh and laugh and laugh, and her laughter was like birdsong. Sammy’s laugh was the sound of air being let out of a tire.

The only problem was Uncle Glen, who, it became clear, was nursing a crush on Sammy. God only knew how long that had been going on. Long enough that his feelings, which Sammy clearly did not return, seemed to have coagulated into some notion of ownership on the old guy’s part. He was always popping up wherever they were, making strange non-jokes that only he laughed at, rubbing his paws together and staring at Sammy. When he could, he’d ask Harrison to do him a favor and ride out to check the fenceline while Sammy took dudes in the opposite direction, or he’d send Harrison into town to buy a bag of bran mash and a bucket when Sammy was due back in from a ride. After Sammy started riding Digger, Uncle Glen complained suddenly of an arthritic hip and turned the choicest horses over to Sammy. He’d watch her ride from the porch with a glass of something clear sweating on the arm of his chair.

Sammy must have known that the boss had a thing for her. If she felt anything for him, it stood to reason that they would have gotten together years ago. Maybe they had. Maybe Sammy broke it off but Uncle Glen was still carrying a torch. Anything was possible. Harrison examined Sammy for traces of an attachment to Uncle Glen—it would be unsporting of him to interfere with a long and fraught lead-up to love—but he could detect only polite kindness in her treatment of him. Once, from the window of Digger’s stall, he had watched Sammy as she stood with her arms folded on the home paddock fence looking at the horses. Uncle Glen came up beside her and folded his arms on the fence too. Their hats bobbled as they talked, and Sammy pointed down the valley. Uncle Glen looked, but at the side of her face instead of where she was pointing. Then Glen scooched a few inches closer to Sammy and then a few more, until their sleeves were touching. After a moment, Sammy inched down the rail, away from the insistent brush of Glen’s plaid shirt. But Glen closed the gap, and Sammy retreated, and, like two halves of one caterpillar, they made their way down the fence, about four feet in the twenty minutes Harrison watched. Their hats kept bobbling the whole time, and he supposed they weren’t even aware of their awkward tango.

Harrison found his uncle in the ranch office, sitting at his desk paying bills. “I’d like to take Sammy into town tonight,” he announced. “To go dancing.”

Uncle Glen ran a finger through the condensation on a glass that sat on his blotter. “Sammy would rather die than go dancing. If you knew her, you’d know that.”

“There’s no harm in asking,” Harrison said. “If she’d rather, we can just sit in a bar.”

“Go ahead and ask then. But be careful she doesn’t kick you in the teeth. Ha ha ha.”

Harrison pursed his lips and turned away, but his uncle said, “She’s a dead end. Better men than you have tried. No luck for any.”

“What men?”

“Just some guys here and there.”

“What do you mean ‘better’?”

“Nothing, just she doesn’t seem to want all that.”

“All what?”

“A man. A family. Responsibilities to other people. All I’m saying is she’s had other offers, and she’s turned them all down.”

Harrison brought a sketch of the dog Dirt to Sammy’s door. Dirt was ancient and blind now, running low on teeth, and Harrison drew him like that, floppy-lipped and old.

“It looks like him,” Sammy said when she saw it. “Ugly bastard.” She held the paper carefully, balanced on her fingertips.

“It’s your night off, isn’t it? Let’s go get some drinks.”

She glanced up at him, her hand creeping over her shoulder to her braid. “Fine,” she said. She shut the door in his face and came out again in five minutes. She looked like she always did, but he smelled something that was neither dust nor horse and might have been perfume. They found two barstools at Jeb’s Antlers. She ordered whiskey, and Harrison followed suit. They sat and watched a few couples dancing the two-step to a band that played in jeans and boots on a shadowy stage in the corner.

“I’ve never been here,” she said.

“All these years? There wasn’t anyone you’d let take you out?”

She snorted.

“Uncle Glen would have been up for it.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Look at him. He’s your guard dog, sniffing around you, growling at people like me.”

She shook her head. “The Otter’s got better things to do. He’s a good boss.”

“Some people say that I’m too slow about things. But old Glen’s been biding his time for, what, twenty years?”

“Fifteen,” she said. She caught herself and scowled.

“You’d think he’d get it together to try something on you.”

“You know what,” she said, looking him in the face, “I owe the Otter real big, and he could have tried harder to make me pay him back, but he didn’t, and now I owe him some more.”

“Are you off men in general or just the ones around here? You’d be doing me a favor to say.”

Her hand went up to her braid. “I guess just the ones round here.”

“Why did you say you owe the Otter?”

“He helped me out when I was young and didn’t have any place to go.”

“Why didn’t you have anywhere to go?”

“You know. Sad story.” She examined her whiskey. “What about you? You got a sad story?”

She had never asked him anything personal before. He knew it was unfair, but he felt intruded upon. “I guess,” he said. “Not the saddest in the world. My wife left me for an architect. That’s why I came out here. She said I was too deliberate. No, she said I was boring.”

“Sounds like a bitch,” Sammy said.

“The situation or my wife?”

“Both.” She lifted her glass at the bartender.

“Not that things were perfect,” Harrison said. His drink was only half gone, but the bartender, without asking, topped it off. “She moved in with the architect, Gary. God knows she can’t stand to be alone. She acts like only unlovable people are alone.” He thought for a moment about what he had said and then nodded in agreement with himself. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s right.”

Sammy watched the people on the dance floor. He wondered if she was listening, but she said, “Seems to me some people are alone because it’s easiest. That don’t seem so different from finding an architect because that’s easiest.” She sipped. The whiskey was cheap and went down like a buzzsaw, but Harrison wouldn’t have guessed it to look at her. She didn’t grimace at all.

“What’s your sad story?” he asked. He had been playing with a matchbook, but he dropped it and touched her wrist lightly with his fingers, only for a second. He felt the way he did sitting on a barely broken horse—one wrong move and she would bolt.

“There was this architect,” she said, staring him down. “Broke my heart. Lives in Chicago. Name of Gary.”

It took him a second to realize she was joking. He felt off-balance, something he did not relish. “Very funny,” he said.

She smiled into her glass, pleased with herself. He pushed his uncertainty away and tried again. “Your turn,” he said. “Sad story. Lay it on me.”

She hunched a little and pulled her braid over her shoulder so she could hold its end. “Not too much to tell. A mean dad, mean brothers, mean boyfriend who I ran off with, and then he left me in Canada. My daddy would’ve killed me if I’d come home. The Otter gave me a job. That’s it.”

“That’s not it. There’s more.”

“That’s it as far as you’re concerned right now. No offense.”

“Oh, none taken,” he said. He emptied his glass and clunked it on the bar. “Well, I think there’s only one thing to do, and that is to dance.” He stood up and held out his hand.

“I don’t dance.”

“Sure you do.” He took her hand.

“I don’t know how,” she said, yanking it back.

“Sammy, come and dance.” He dragged her off her barstool, and when they were on the dance floor he put one arm around her waist and held her against him so tightly that only the tips of her boots grazed the floor.

“I wish I had a skirt,” she whispered.

They drove back in silence, weaving a slow, drunken serpentine over the empty road. In her cabin he had their clothes off while old Dirt was still thumping his tail and rolling his milky eyes around. She said, “It’s been so long I might as well be a virgin.” She did not cry out but she clutched his hair so tightly that he did.

In the lodge, staring at his barren bedroom ceiling, Mr. Otterbausch listened to the emptiness of his nephew’s room. He had heard the truck drive up and their footsteps on the gravel. Now there was nothing but the coyotes yipping in the hills. Mr. Otterbausch, alone in his bed, joined in the silent chorus of the unloved.

Sammy was sorry the Otter was angry, but there was not much to be done about it. He was working her like a dog, sending her out with the dudes, sending her out again as soon as she got back. She knew the method: when the stallions got bad she’d gallop them down to jelly-legs to get their minds off the mares. But it was no good. She’d never be too tired to go to bed with Harrison Greene. “That was all right,” she said to him every time, resting her hand on his stomach. This business of being happy was something so long forgotten that she’d forgotten she’d forgotten. She was happy enough on a horse, but that was over as soon as her boots hit the ground. She hadn’t been happy with a man since before Davey started being a bastard, which was a while before he drove off while she was in a truck stop bathroom outside Edmonton. Truth be told, in the six months or so before Harrison had shown up, she’d started to think that maybe she should get it over with and marry the Otter. The Otter had been nice to her for half her life. She owed him, and she didn’t want to leave the ranch. When she was younger, she’d still thought she’d leave eventually. She’d thought she wouldn’t mind being alone forever. She’d thought lots of things. Then the years piled up and she got set in her ways, and the Otter was one of her ways. Sometimes, usually on their dusk rides, she wondered, for the millionth time, if she could prod her affection for him into something more. But Harrison came along and reminded her that people couldn’t help who they loved.

Sammy had never had to share her cabin with anyone, but Harrison was so slow and still and quiet she didn’t mind him. It was like having a new piece of furniture that painted pictures. He taught her how to fly-fish when they could get away from the Otter and take Harrison’s truck down to the river. “One-two,” he said, standing behind her and moving her arm back and forth so the fly stitched the river to the sky. He cooked for her and planted a vegetable garden behind her cabin. It was only when she asked him questions that he seemed to freeze up and get irritated. Then he’d either go off somewhere or he’d kiss her and squeeze her to change the subject. So she stopped asking him things.

The summer passed, and in November, after the last of the dudes had gone and the first snow had come and then the second and the third, Harrison took Sammy by the hand and told her he had to go away to visit some people.

“Like who?”

“Like my mother for one. And Marjorie for another. We have some things to settle. Small things. I have to take care of some business too. My agent’s been riding me.” He grabbed her braid and tickled her nose with its tip.

She brushed his hand away. “Are you coming back?”

“I plan to, yeah.” But he was freezing up. His eyes were darting.

“You plan to?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Don’t do me any favors.”

“I’m being honest. I plan to come back.”

“You mean that?” Stop pushing, she told herself. Let it be.

“I do, but nothing’s ever for certain.”

“Only that I’ll be sitting here in the snow with the Otter, waiting. Feeling like an ass.”

“What happened to stoic Sammy?” He pulled her to him and kissed her cheek, then held her at arm’s length, by her shoulders. “You stay here where you belong. Take good care of Digger.”

She pushed him away. “Here’s your stoic Sammy. Have a good fucking trip, Harrison.” She tipped her hat and walked off.

He left that day. For a while he called every day, but she wasn’t any good on the phone. She wanted to ask him when he was coming back, but she wouldn’t. He called less and less. She had never minded winter much, but then she had never been cooped up with an angry Otter before. Most of the other wranglers were off on winter jobs in Arizona or Texas. Just slow-minded Big Georgie was left in the bunkhouse, probably settling in for a long talk with his balls. What made things worse was that, back before Harrison left, Sammy and the Otter had gone out after a wound-up steer, and Sammy hadn’t been paying close attention and let the steer go careening at the Otter. Sleepy Jean took a funny step getting out of the way and tweaked a foreleg. Walking back to the lodge (they had left the steer to its fate but of course it decided to turn docile and followed with its nose in Sleepy Jean’s tail) the Otter said, “You’re getting sloppy, and we both know why, and I’m embarrassed for you.”

Sammy was riding, and the Otter was walking next to Sleepy Jean. The dents in the top of his hat looked like an angry face. “That horse is too old for cutting work and you know it,” she said.

“I hired you because I thought you’d be tough like a man, not get all moony-eyed the second someone pays you some attention.”

“I had some attention before. Someone tried to give me a whole ranch once.”

That shut him up, and until Harrison left he mostly glowered at her from afar, leaning like a Halloween decoration against the porch posts and blowing clouds of vapor into the cold air. Usually in winter the Otter was a nuisance but not a menace. He’d show up at her door with Chinese Checkers or some other game with lots of small pieces that inevitably ended up in the floorboards when the Otter nervously overturned the whole thing. This year, though, once they were alone, he started picking fights with her, bounding at her through the snow like a pissed-off ferret, wanting to give her shit about the water troughs or some feed he said she’d forgotten to order. His window stayed lit into the early morning, probably because he was up drinking, and she never saw him on a horse.

“You smell like roadkill raccoon,” she told him in the tack room.

“Ha!” he said opening his mouth and eyes wide and grabbing for her. She pushed him off, walked away.

He spent most of his time in Sleepy Jean’s stall, wrapped up in an Indian blanket, reading a book. The horse didn’t look good. She was an old girl to begin with, but her bum leg had made her crooked everywhere. Swaying around her stall, she looked like she was thinking, “Oh, lordy, my back. Oh, my aching knee.” Her skin was as thin and fragile over her bones as rolled-out pie dough. Sammy brought her an apple, and the horse was working on it with her yellow teeth when the Otter’s voice came from a dark corner of the stall. “Heard from your boyfriend?”

He knew she hadn’t. The phone was in the lodge. “We don’t do well on the phone,” she said.

“Now that’s dedication.”

“More like a challenge,” Sammy said, holding her palm through the bars of the stall window for Jean to lick.

“A challenge?” The Otter leaned into the light.

“Harrison thinks everyone is as patient as he is.”

“Bet you really miss him, ha ha ha. Bet you wish you weren’t here with me.”

Sammy flared up, tired of the sight of his sallow drunk’s face and said, “Yeah, and what about it?”

He smiled at her, showing teeth. The rest of him was going to hell, but his mustache was still as sharp and shiny as a sea urchin. “Patience is a virtue,” he said.

Indeed Harrison’s leaving seemed to have been the starting pistol for a relay race of misfortune and bad feelings. There was the ugliness with the Otter, and then the wolves got hungry and came down and got a steer right out of the home paddock, and then Sammy hurt Big Georgie’s feelings by laughing when he said he wanted to learn to ride so he could ride Digger someday, and poor old Dirt kicked the bucket in the second week of December, paws-up right next to his dinner bowl. Sammy cried because the ground was too hard for her to get a shovel in, and she had to put him in the deep freeze. Harrison’s drawing of Dirt was too much for her, and she took it down from above the fireplace. Everything was so grim that when the knock came at her door on the first sunny day they’d had in a while, she opened it thinking that the devil himself might be on the other side. It was the Otter.

“There’s a big snow coming,” he said.

“Yeah?” She waited for him to say something about how the snow would probably delay Harrison, ha ha ha.

“It might last a week.” He ran a hand over his face, pushing all the broken pieces around. “Jeannie’s not doing well. Four more months of winter, at least four. She won’t get better in the cold. I thought about trailering her over to Doc Luddy’s, but the roads are bad, and she wouldn’t like standing in the trailer that long.” He blinked his red eyes at her. “She’s old anyway.”

“She’s a good old girl,” Sammy said cautiously. The Otter was talking to her like he had in the days before Harrison. Back when he loved her, was how she thought of it, though she knew he must still love her or else he wouldn’t be so miserable. The winter was harsh; his horse was dying, and his love was scummed over with booze and jealousy.

“So,” the Otter said, mustache quivering, “I need you to take her up to the Pearly Gates before the big snow. I think she can walk it now. I’d hate to wait and then have to have her hauled away. She should be up there.”

Sammy nodded. “Dirt died. I put him in the deep freeze.”

He looked past her into the cabin as though for Dirt, and then he said, “Poor old guy.”

The walk to the Pearly Gates was slow. Sammy picked the best route she could, but still Jean ended up skating on ice and bogged up to her shoulder in snow a few times. The horse walked on a slow three beat, bobbing her head. “Well, Jeannie,” Sammy said “Thank you for all your good work at the ranch and for taking care of the Otter and all. He’s always liked you best, even though he had better looking horses. Not that you’re ugly, you’re just kind of rough, you know? But you’re a good cutter, and you were damn fast. I don’t know what the Otter would have done without you. He’s going to feel pretty lonely now, especially because of me. I wish you could stick around to keep him company.”

Sammy never liked shooting horses. When it was over and Jeannie’s knees had given out, first the back and then the front, and she had fallen down in the snow like someone who was just so tired, Sammy sat with her back against Jeannie’s, looking up at the circle of skulls crowned with little snowdrifts. The sky through the trees was a hard winter blue, and she could feel the warmth draining out of the horse. She thought about the Otter down in the lodge, and she asked someone, maybe the skulls, to send Harrison back soon.

She found the Otter in the game room with his glass and his bottle, sitting beneath a huge portrait of Sleepy Jean that Harrison had finished before he left. Jean looked old and tired in the painting. A cue leaned against the billiard table and the balls were out on the green felt. Sammy switched on a lamp.

“Leave it.”

“Okay.” She came closer and stood leaning against the table.

“Don’t say how she was a good old girl and how everything has to die because I damn well know.”

Sammy said nothing.

“And don’t go stapling her skull to some tree or turning her rib into a scepter or whatever it is that you do. Fucking nonsense. I don’t know why you had to make that place all mystical or whatever it is. You can leave Jeannie be. You’ve done enough.”

“I haven’t made it anything. It’s where I go shoot horses when you tell me to, and if you want to give the shooting job to someone else, or if you want it, you go right ahead. I thought I’d check on you, but I see you’re fine. Goodnight.”

“He’s not coming back,” he said as she turned away. “Lover boy’s gone back to his wife but is too big a coward to tell you.”

Sammy reached across the table and rolled the billiard balls around, clacking them into each other. “He wouldn’t have left Digger.”

“But he’d leave you? You’re admitting that? He’d leave you but not the horse.”

“Aw, shut up. There’s no way in hell he’d leave Digger. Fuck all else.”

“Sammy, Sammy. He left the horse for you. As payment. Just like he left those for me, for services rendered, ha ha ha.” He pointed at a stack of three canvases turned to the wall. She crossed the room slowly, aware of her boots compressing the carpet and the sound of the Otter’s breathing, his ratter eyes following her. The first painting was of Digger, the second was of her riding Digger, and the third was of her alone, asleep. “To be clear,” the Otter said, “he left them for me, not for you.”

She reached down and touched her own closed eyes. She could feel the texture of the canvas through the paint. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?” He was leaning forward, gripping his glass.

“That I love him and not you.” She let go of the painting and walked out of the room.

The big snow came the next day. Shut in her cabin, she wondered what the Otter’s next move would be. It was ten days before the sky snowed itself out and the roads were passable enough for her to drive into town. She told herself she was getting away. She liked the sound of that, getting away, like she was going to Hawaii or Mexico and not just drinking beer at Jeb’s Antlers and watching people dance the two-step. She ate potato chips in a motel room by herself; she went to the movies; she bought a new coat. By the time she drove back to the ranch, she was in a forgiving mood. Poor old Otter had gotten his heart broken and never had it set right. One of her brothers had had an elbow that healed wrong and looked like he had a lump of cauliflower under the skin. The Otter’s ticker must look like a lava rock by now. She would invite him to play Chinese Checkers. But first thing when she got back, she went out to the barn to check on Digger and found his stall empty.

Big Georgie scratched his head and leaned on the fork he’d been mucking with. “Well, yeah, he’s not there cause Otter put him on the truck.”

“What truck?”

“The auction truck.”

“No,” Sammy said. “Digger. The big, good-looking horse that’s usually in this stall.”

“Yeah, I know.” Georgie nodded and kept on nodding. “The big horse. Arn came and had the truck all loaded up with the kibble horses and then the Otter threw the big horse on there at the last minute. Did he get sick or something? Cause he looked good to me. He’s going to think he’s at the wrong party.”

The Otter would not open the door of his bedroom no matter how hard Sammy pounded and kicked on it.

“I swear you better be swinging from a beam in there! Do you think nobody else ever lost anything? Do you?”

There was only silence from the other side. Every time she thought she heard a rustle or the tinkle of ice, she charged the door with the worst her fists and words could do, but it was solid oak and would not budge.

“Well,” Georgie said when she went back out to the barn and grabbed him by the wooly lapels of his sheepskin jacket, “I reckon they said the auction was tomorrow, and that was yesterday. So,” he said, frowning, “I guess it’s today.”

As Sammy drove, burning up the road to Bozeman, she did two things. First, she prayed, or really begged, for some luck. Just some god damn luck this one time. Second, she reached over and flipped open the glove compartment, feeling for the thick white envelope that she had been checking and rechecking the whole way. She wedged the envelope lengthwise between her thighs and, darting her eyes back and forth between the road and the bills, counted yet again. $6000. All she had. It had to be enough. She needed it to be enough. Who would pay $6000 for a few sacks of dog food besides her? Please, she thought, squeezing the envelope like a rosary, please give me some luck here.

The auction was in a low brown clump of livestock sheds. Sammy had to stop twice at gas stations to ask where to go, and at the second one the driver of a big stock truck said to follow him. In the paddocks she saw a brown patchwork of swaybacked horses with shaggy, shit-crusted coats. In the auction hall, every horse they brought out made her pulse race, but it was two hours before they brought out Digger. The crowd murmured. Tall, handsome Digger didn’t belong with the broken-down nags that the packers’ men were buying for chump change with lazy waves of their numbers. He didn’t belong in this parade of the dead. He lifted his head and showed the whites of his eyes and the insides of his nostrils to the crowd. Veins stood out on his head and neck, ran down his legs like tributaries of a mighty river.

“Well, I don’t know, folks,” said the auctioneer. “Not the usual horse, let’s not start at the usual number. I’m asking five hundred.”

Sammy lifted her number up and held it there in her trembling hand while the bids went up and up. She held hers like a torch.

“Six thousand one hundred,” said the auctioneer. Sammy’s arm wavered. He pointed at her. “I have six thousand one hundred.” He pointed past her. “Do I hear two from you sir?” Someone over Sammy’s shoulder must have nodded, because the auctioneer said, “I have two and I’m looking for three, do I have three?” Her arm stayed up until $6700, buttressed by whatever had held Sleepy Jean on her feet for a few seconds after the spinning piece of lead lodged in her brain. Then that trembling force let go, and her number fell to her knee. “Sold! For six thousand seven hundred and fifty, and, gents, I think that’s both a record high and a bargain. Good for you, sir.”

Sammy sat. The men led Digger off the block and brought on another nag. “I’ll start the bidding at fifty dollars,” said the auctioneer. For the first time, she hoped that Harrison would never return. Then she was seized by the wild thought that he must have been the one who bought Digger. He must have found out and come back. She stood up. No one was standing except her and the man who won. She could not see his face. He was a hat and a pair of hands in the shadows, the number 31 held down at his side. He stepped into the dusty light, and she saw across a sea of hats that it was the Otter. He looked at her with his face twisted around his mustache in an expression of deepest remorse. His sad otter eyes glittered at her, and she felt an answering cry of pity as rough as anything she’d ever felt at the Pearly Gates. Poor Otter with his lava rock heart. Poor Otter who failed at revenge and bought back his heart, rock or not, at the last minute. Even if she’d had a million dollars in her envelope, the Otter would have found a way to outbid her because only the Otter wanted that horse more than she did. She looked at him while the next sad sack horse got pulled out to the block, and he looked at her, and they wondered what was to be done.

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