I sat on the top rail of the corral fence and considered one more time what Hutch had said about my mother. From the top rail I could see nearly all the ranch buildings. Everyone but me was in the ranchhouse, having lunch. Nearly hidden in the aspens back by the stream was the cabin I shared with Mother and my little brother Charlie. At the hitching post my horse Mouse was sleeping upright in the noon sun. Beyond the hitching post a dirt road ran past the fenced pastures and out into the open range.
Mother, Charlie, and I had been in Wyoming almost a month. Mother loved the West. She’d taken a six-week pack trip in Jackson Hole when she was 17 and said she’d been waiting ever since until Charlie was old enough to take us both out here. I’d never known Mother to go anywhere without Dad, but this ranch belonged to a classmate of hers from school, and Mother was so crazy about Wyoming I guess she hadn’t wanted to wait any longer. The train trip took three days. All the way out, she talked to us about how sage smelled, and she gave me Struthers Burt’s The Diary of a Dude Wrangler to read. Mother’s classmate Sue and her husband Dan were the first grownups Charlie and I were allowed to call by their first names. Dan and Sue took a few families from back East as guests each summer in order to make the ranch pay. We were the only family there at present.
I wished I wasn’t a dude. I wished Dad had wanted to start life over in Wyoming like Dan, but Mother said there were usually complicated reasons for doing something like that. Sue and Mother were both 39, which was hard to believe, because Sue’s hair had gray streaks all through it and her face was weatherbeaten. Sue’s son, Larry, who was 15 and teased me too much, thought my mother was beautiful. “My Mom could have looked like yours,” he’d said to me a few nights ago, “if she hadn’t had to work so hard out here.”
I saw Charlie walking down to the corral from the ranch-house. He waved his camera at me. Dad had given Charlie a camera for his tenth birthday in May and Mouse and I were his favorite subjects. But Mouse had ears that went out sideways like a sheep’s, unless he was very excited, so whenever Charlie took a picture of us I’d stand by Mouse’s head and prop his ears up and forward with my right hand. I climbed down from the corral fence and went over to the hitching post to fake Mouse’s alert look. I leaned into the warmth of his dusty, fuzzy neck and remembered how Hutch had pulled his hat down over his eyes as he watched my mother walk away from the corral. “That’s my kind of woman,” he’d said under his breath.
What she’d done earlier that morning was help to save a horse’s life. The chestnut gelding had come in off the range with the other horses before breakfast, but sometime during the night he’d gotten into barbed wire and it had torn a hole on the inside of one hip. The blood pulsed out bright red, as fast as water comes out of an open faucet. He stood with his head hanging low by the small stream that cut through the corral and Hutch knelt in the muck and mud beside him and pressed his thumbs up into the wound to halt the bleeding. He kept calling for someone to bring him the arterial clamps from the barn but Charlie and I might as well have been glued to the top rail of the corral fence. Larry was there too, but Larry looked green as if he might faint. The horse swayed on his three good legs. The other animals milled about, curious, and there was blood trickling through the stream as it went under the fence. I don’t know where Mother came from, but suddenly she was kneeling in the mud beside Hutch. “Show me where to put my thumbs, Jim” she said, “and you go get the clamps.” Hutch’s real name was Jim Hutchins, and he was the head wrangler.
By the time the two of them had finished working on the gelding, Mother’s blue jeans were caked in mud and manure and the blood had run over her shirt and down her arms. But her eyes were soft and alive and you could see how happy she was. “Well, thanks, Caroline,” Hutch said. Mother wiped her forehead with her hand and there was a red streak where her fingers had been. “I’m going to clean myself up,” she said lightly. There was a little electric charge of excitement in her. You had the sense she was dancing inside.
I waited until before dinner to tell Charlie what Hutch had said. We were alone in the cabin, and I knocked on the door of Charlie’s room. Charlie and I were very close, and up until a year ago we went in and out of each other’s rooms without thinking. But I was 13, and Charlie couldn’t do that any more. Most of the time I knocked on his door just to be fair. I knew he wouldn’t mind if I came barging in. Charlie looked up to me.
“Hutch said Mother was his kind of woman,” I told him. “He said that right after she left the corral this morning.”
“I thought that horse was going to keel over dead,” said Charlie. “And Larry looked as if he was going to puke.” Charlie was concentrating on trying to light the kerosene lamp on his bureau. Charlie was afraid of fire. Mother had taken him to see Bambi when he was five and the forest fire at the end of the movie had given him nightmares for months. Charlie wouldn’t strike matches, though you could tell he wanted to. He practiced each evening on the lamp.
“Nothing’s going to happen, Charlie,” I said. “Just strike it.”
“I can’t,” said Charlie. Charlie looks a lot like Mother around the eyes. He looks a lot like Mother, period, which I don’t think is fair since he’s a boy. I look more like Dad. It’s funny how those things get reversed.
I took the matches from him, lit the kerosene lamp and turned the wick up high. The flame leapt around inside the glass and Charlie backed away a little. I looked at the two of us reflected in the mirror above the bureau. Our faces were gold in the lamplight. I had knotted a red polka dot bandana around my throat. I hadn’t worn a bandana before. I thought it made me look dramatically older.
After Mother saved the gelding’s life, she was different. She stopped napping, for one thing. At home Mother always napped after lunch. She’d lie down on the top of her bed under an afghan, read a few pages of a novel, and drift off to sleep. Now, after lunch, she wanted to teach me and Charlie how to play poker. Larry asked to join us, but Mother didn’t let him because he thought poker was boring if there weren’t wild cards.
“Wild cards,” said Mother softly, shuffling the thumbed and dirty deck Dan had lent her, “are absolutely out. They destroy the odds. If one-eyed jacks are wild, how can you judge the value of a king-high pair?”
“Where’d you learn to play poker?” I asked her.
“The cowboys taught me when I was 17,” she said. I glanced over at the chaps hanging on a nail by the door. Mother had bought a pair of bat-wing leather chaps that first summer she was in Wyoming, and her favorite cowboys had carved their initials into the wide belt. I called them chaps at first but she said, “No, Jenny, shaps; it’s from the Mexican word “chaparreras.” The chaps fastened low on her hips with a large indian silver buckle.
Mother was very good at poker. At least she always won the penny-ante, nickel-limit games we played on the porch of our cabin in the slow hour after lunch when the ranch drew its breath so quietly you could hear the cicadas hum in the grass. She could shuffle and deal like lightning. I was clumsier. Often when I dealt the cards, one would flip face up and we’d have to start over.
“Oh, mom,” Charlie protested. “It was only a seven of hearts.”
“This isn’t a child’s game, Charlie.” She swept in the dealt cards, reshuffled, and handed the pack to me once again. “And when you pick up your hand this time, Jenny, chest your cards.”
We played cold hands, five-card stud, five-card draw, seven-card stud high/low. Charlie liked seven-card stud high/ low because he could bet so many times, but Mother said five-card draw was the game to master. “That’s where bluffing comes in,” she told us. Bluffing, she said, was like putting in golf. It was where fortunes were won or lost. “I’m a very good bluffer,” she warned us, unnecessarily. She cleaned me and Charlie out almost every afternoon, whether she had the good cards or not. “You have to hide what you’re thinking. I can read your face like a flash, Jenny.”
“Why do you take our money?” Charlie asked. “We could play for matches.” He had a stockpile of matches in his sock drawer.
“You have to judge the risks,” Mother said. “In poker the stakes are high.” She lit a cigarette. She turned her head to the side and blew the smoke away from us. After every few puffs she stuck out the tip of her tongue and pinched off the tiny flecks of tobacco.
“Hutch rolls his own cigarettes,” I said.
“They go out on him a lot,” said Charlie. “And the shape is lumpy.”
“I can roll my own, too,” said Mother. No doubt the cowboys had taught her how to do that when she was 17.
You might think Mother and I were getting alone especially well, given my sudden interest in her as a femme fatale, but the truth was I was happier when she wasn’t around. There were times those first weeks when I thought I might suffocate with happiness. The way the mountains rose up from the floor of the desert made me feel as if the entire Morman Tabernacle Choir was inside me, singing. I’d never been in such limitless space before. I tried to breathe it in, and my chest felt tight with the amount of air and how sharp it was. Larry had stopped teasing me. Hutch said one day that Larry was sweet on me and what was I going to do about it? I said “Nothing” in a sulky tone of voice, because Larry wasn’t very interesting. He wasn’t at all a Son of The West. He didn’t have the leanness of Hutch, nor his chiseled features. He looked like a studious boy from back East, which was where he went to school nine months of the year. It was hard to think of Larry as being from Wyoming. He had no mystique.
Sometimes in the early morning I woke up to the sound of the bells on the lead horses as they came in from the open range. Hutch left at five-thirty each morning to wrangle them in before breakfast. I’d lie in bed under a pile of blankets in the cool gray first light and think of how it would be to ride out with him when the shadows cast on the trails still came from the stars and the moon. I knew it was hard riding, at a constant trot, and Mouse had a trot that sent my backbone up into my teeth, but I thought he might let me come along. I asked Mother what she thought my chances were.
“Oh, Jenny,” she said, “I’ve wanted to go wrangling too. Maybe we could go together. I’ll see what Jim says.” It was late afternoon and Mother was towelling her hair dry after a shower. We washed our hair every day because of the dust. She was in her underwear, and I saw she had the same weird sunburn pattern I did, darkly tanned on her face and forearms, smooth white skin everywhere else.
When Mother changed for dinner at the ranch she wore clean jeans and sweaters like me, but at home when she and Dad went out she was silky and shimmered and smelled of Chanel No. 5. I remember once when I was eight or nine, she came in to say good night to us, dressed for a ball. She wore a green chiffon evening gown. Charlie and I were reading comics on our stomachs on the floor. The first thing I saw was Mother’s feet in gold slippers and these little waves of green chiffon kissing her ankles. She leaned down to say good night and I saw the swell of her breasts above the strapless bodice. When I was eight I thought Mother had huge breasts. But she didn’t. It was her legs she was vain about. I was almost as tall as she now, and when she said she’d ask Hutch if she could come wrangling, I felt a lump in my throat as if I’d swallowed wrong. I wanted to tell her to go back where she belonged, which was at the door of our house waiting for me to come home from school, or on her bed in the afternoons napping because she had nothing much to do.
“Go by yourself if you want to so much,” I said. My voice was rude, but Mother acted as if she hadn’t noticed.
“Come on, Jenny. We’ll have fun.”
“You go,” I grumbled. “I’ve changed my mind anyway. I like to sleep late.” Mother put on a fresh shirt. It was a Western shirt with snaps instead of buttons. She played with the snaps at her throat. “Go alone,” I repeated.
Mother turned away from me. “I can’t,” she said. She reminded me of Charlie trying to light the kerosene lamp.
That night I asked Hutch if I could go wrangling with him the next morning. He said yes. It was the best hour and a half of my life. When I was younger, I used to play a game with Charlie whenever we went on long drives in the car with our parents. We’d spot horses and dogs out the window and yell “Zit” for horses and “Zat” for dogs. You got two points for a dog and five points for each horse. 100 points won the game, but the drives didn’t usually last that long, so we decided you could win the game immediately if you were the first to see two stallions fighting on the edge of a cliff. Wrangling the horses in at daybreak with Hutch was impossibly wonderful, like winning the game because you saw the stallions. At the very end, he made me gallop on ahead and open the corral gate. I swung the gate open just seconds before the whole herd thundered through. Hutch dismounted, and we shut the gate together. He rolled himself a cigarette. Hutch smoked his cigarettes right down to the butt. I sometimes wondered why his moustache didn’t smoulder. The air was cold on my cheeks but we’d ridden so hard I could feel the sweat as it dried on the back of my neck.
“That was terrific.” I said.
Hutch put his hand on my shoulder. “You did real good, Jenny—your mother teach you how to ride?”
I was feeling so fine I didn’t mind he’d brought Mother into the conversation. I thought of her sleeping, or maybe lying awake with the sound of the bells in her thoughts. “She saw to it we had riding lessons,” I said. “She’s teaching us poker, now, though. Charlie and me and Mom, we play almost every afternoon.”
“She any good?” Hutch asked. We walked up to the ranchhouse. The sun had risen above the ridges and canyons behind the ranch and streaks of it darted like wildfire across the tips of the grasses. Already it was warm enough for me to take off my wool jacket. “She’s very good,” I said. “We play for money, and she wins all the time.” Hutch chuckled. “We’ll have to get up a game, then.” he said, “I’ll speak to Dan about it.”
They set the game for the next Saturday night. Dan invited two other ranchers, and Hutch asked a few cowboys over from Jackson. Charlie and I were allowed to watch since we promised to keep our mouths shut. Sue cooked up vats of popcorn. I went down to the ranchhouse early to help her set up. Sue was a comfortable person to be around. She taught school in Jackson during the winter, and she treated me with the friendly interest teachers always take in good pupils.
Sue and I stood by the enormous cast iron stove, stirring the pans of exploding corn. Sue’s face was red with the heat. Dan put six packs of beer in a bucket full of ice. Larry set out the three decks of cards on the round wooden table in the living room.
“Are you going to play?” I asked Larry.
“Only if the one-eyed jacks are wild.”
“That’s poker for kids,” I said. “I bet that’s how you play at school.”
“We are kids, Jenny,” Larry said.
Mother was the only woman invited. When she walked in to the living room I almost laughed because she had dressed to look fragile in a white silk blouse and full pleated Indian cotton skirt. She smiled and shook her head imperceptibly to tell me not to give her away. I was proud of the way she looked gentle and delicate when I knew she was going to play tough, like a man. Hutch came in and tipped his hat to her. She shook hands with the other ranchers and the cowboys from Jackson. Hutch offered her one of his cigarettes and she smoothed it between her fingers a while, spreading out the tobacco rolled inside. I watched how she lifted up her throat a little as she drew in the smoke and a few seconds later I saw her tongue flick across her lips.
Hutch grinned at me. “Jenny,” he said, “What’re you wearing that bandanny for? Cut your throat?” I whipped off the bandana and stuffed it in my back jeans pocket.
“You don’t have to take it off just because he said that,” Larry hissed in my ear.
Charlie called from the porch, “Jenny, Larry, come out here quick. There’s shooting stars, zillions of them.”
I ran out to the porch. The milky way marched across the August night like the star-spangled banner unfurling. I’d maybe seen one shooting star in my life before, but that night they careened towards the earth every few seconds. We tried to count but there were too many. Sue came out on the porch with us. “It’s a meteor shower,” she said quietly. She put her arm around me because I was trembling. Someone had put on the record player in the living room. Ezio Pinza was singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” “I’m not cold,” I said. “I’m perfectly happy. If I was to die tonight it’d be all right.”
When we went back in, the game had begun. We watched for a while, but then Larry invited Charlie into his room to see the new flies he’d tied for trout fishing, and I lay down on the sofa and looked into the fire Dan had built. Mother was holding her own. I looked into the flames and the whole world disappeared except for the sounds of the cards being shuffled, the murmur of voices, and the memory of stars hurtling through the sky. Sue went to bed around eleven. Charlie came out of Larry’s room and fell asleep on the rug in front of the fire, like a puppy. Larry got whiskey for the cowboys. There was a haze of blue smoke above the table. Dan lost his stake and quit. A little later the two ranchers stood up, cashed in their chips, and left. Mother, Hutch, and the cowboys from Jackson took a break.
I offered everyone more popcorn. “I can’t eat that junk,” Hutch said. “I have a trick stomach. It’s always going back on me.”
“So does Mother’s,” I said. “She throws up at any little thing.” Mother frowned. Hutch leaned against the chimney. “If you want to compare stomachs, Caroline, I’ll put mine up against yours anytime.” I jumped and Mother sent him one of those freezing looks she turns on me when I get out of line. Hutch smiled. Suddenly I wanted Mother to beat him at poker. I wasn’t sleepy any longer, and when the card playing resumed I paced around in back of the players. They didn’t like it much, me looking into their hands, but I was quiet and they stopped paying attention to me after a while. Mother and Hutch were even. She’d win a pot, then he would. Or he’d fold before risking much. Or she would. I’d never seen Mother keep so still. When she dealt the cards, only her wrists moved.
“Last hand,” said one of the cowboys. He and his friends were hanging onto the edges of the game. Hutch and Mother had most of the chips between them. It was five-card draw. I stood behind Mother. She had two pairs and an odd club. She bid on that round as if she had three of a kind already, and when it was her turn to draw she said “one,” going for the full house. She didn’t get it. Her pairs were queens and tens, which wasn’t spectacular. I slipped around behind Hutch who held three nines. Mother bet a mess of chips and Hutch raised her. The cowboys folded. I stood behind Mother again, knowing Hutch had her beat. She saw him and raised the ante again. He did the same. There was a three-limit raise to each hand. Mother never flicked an eyelash. She pushed all her chips into the center. I drew in my breath. It made a little hissing sound.
Hutch looked across at me and stroked one end of his moustache with two fingers. “Jenny, gal,” he said very softly, “growed men have been shot for less.” He borrowed some chips from the bank, added them to his own and called her.
Mother got really angry. “For God’s sake, Jenny. Take Charlie and go home, will you. You spoiled the evening for me.”
I felt tears sting in my eyes. I hadn’t meant to make a sound.
“Just go home, Jenny.” Mother rubbed the back of her neck. “Larry’ll walk you and Charlie back to the cabin. I’ll be along in a few minutes.” I looked at Hutch. Save me, I told him silently. Walk me home.
Larry nudged Charlie awake and stood up. “Come on, you two.”
“You stay where you are,” I said. “Charlie and I can get home fine by ourselves.”
“Don’t turn down good offers, darlin’ ” said Hutch. “You can never tell about bears.”
“Bears,” I said scornfully. My heart was racing. “Who’re you kidding? Walk her home, why don’t you,” I jerked my head at Mother, “if you’re so concerned about bears.”
I grabbed Charlie by the hand and left the ranchhouse. We looked up at the sky, but the stars stood still.
“Did Mother win?” Charlie asked.
“No,” I said. “She tried to bluff and lost.” When we got back to the cabin I waited until Charlie had undressed and crawled into bed. Then I went out on the porch. I sat down on one of the chairs and tilted it back against the wall of the cabin. I felt old. I sat there in the dark of the porch, waiting.
The moon and stars were so bright you could see them coming from quite a distance down the path. They walked side by side, not touching. About 50 feet from the porch, they stopped. He put his hand on her shoulder, the way he had with me when we’d shut the gate on the horses.
I thought the kiss would be no different from the kisses I’d seen in the moviesu I thought I’d watch and cough or something right in the middle of the clinch. But Mother went into him like she had no bones of her own and he put his hands in her hair and then ran them up inside the back of her jacket. I remembered she was wearing a white silk shirt. I had to look away. It wasn’t like in the movies. It wasn’t something to be watched. After a while I looked up again. Hutch wasn’t there any longer. Mother stood in the path in the moonlight with one hand on her lips. Then she walked up to the cabin and onto the porch. It looked more like swimming than walking.
“Hello, Mother,” I said, when she reached the top step.
“Jenny.” She put her hand on the railing. “What’re you doing out here?”
“Bears,” I said, and my voice was really hard. “Oh sure.”
“You should be in bed, Jenny.”
“So should you.”
“Jenny,” she said again.
“That’s my name.”
“Please,” she said.
It was very dark on the porch. Mother had to go past me to get into the cabin, and I knew she didn’t want to do that. I tipped back again against the wall and felt hot and cold. We’d woken Charlie up. His room was right by the front door. “Who’s out there?” he called, “Jenny, Mom?”
Neither one of us moved. We could hear Charlie stumbling around in his room. Then a light blossomed in the doorway. Charlie came to the door in the red gold warmth of the kerosene lamp. His hair was standing straight up and his pajama top was on backwards.
“Oh gosh, I did it. I struck the match. Nothing happened, Jen, just like you said.” He swung the lamp back and forth and the light went from my face to hers.
Mother used the interruption to scoot past me. “Charlie, that’s wonderful.” She took the lamp from him, set it on the table and hugged him hard. “You’re freezing, go back to bed.”
I thumped the back of the chair against the wall once or twice more. Mother’s face, caught for that instant in the sweep of light from Charlie’s lamp, had been unprotected. But I was her daughter. I didn’t have to understand.