The Last Cowgirl
At the end of the school year after Dad got all his grades turned in, on a sunny spring Saturday, he called upon the entire family for a day of “working the herd.” Apparently Annie translated that to mean “going to the beach.” She donned culottes and sandals and filled a bag with suntan lotion and books. I expected Mom to put up a protest, pointing out—as she did every time Dad tried to get her to ride out and check the cows with him—that she was doing her part to support this TV western by working at Dugway. Instead, she simply walked outside looking like a freshly painted Easter egg in lavender pedal pushers and a matching polka-dot top, looked up at the blue sky, and said, “you picked a lovely day to burn a few hides, George” then tossed a lawn chair into the bed of the pickup.
That first year at the ranch, I remained stuck somewhere between Ganoa and Clayton, an awkward fusion of cow pasture and rose garden, and it showed in my clothing choices: a sundress pulled on over a pair of jeans or cotton shorts with a long-sleeved snap-button western shirt. That particular day, I emerged from my bedroom in the latter, and was promptly sent back by Dad to trade the shorts for jeans, but Mom took pity on me and snuck the shorts into her bag.
We showed up at the Nelson Ranch at 7 a.m. with two saddled horses and our new lazy S branding iron. Bev had already unloaded two horses and a load of firewood from her truck and trailer and downed two cups of coffee. Merv kept saying it sure would be fine to have the extra help, but every one of us Sinfields knew that Merv, Bev, and Stumpy could vaccinate, brand, waddle, dehorn, tag, and castrate with about a quarter of the hoopla we produced that day. Dad, Heber, Merv, Bev, Stumpy and I were to ride out and gather the cattle. Alma and Holly were assigned to make a pot of sloppy joes and all the fixings, and Annie and Mom were given fire duty. Somehow in the progression of our ranching life, I had been identified as a cow-puncher, and everyone had gotten it into their heads that I should spend a great deal of time on the back of a horse. In the year since we had moved to Clayton, Merv conjured up more duties for me that required horseback riding than I thought possible—checking irrigation ditches, checking on pregnant cows, checking on fences, checking to see if that damn bull had crossed the cattle guard again at the end of his property, riding up on the ridge to make a count of his herd. Sometimes he’d send me out with Stumpy, but lots of times he’d put me on his old mare, Goldie, and send me out alone. He said we made a good pair—Goldie and me—and I guess we did. She was easy and calm and didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t. She knew when it was time to turn toward home, and she’d pick her way through sage and cedars to arrive at the corrals a few minutes before sunset. Sometimes I accomplished what Merv sent me out to do and sometimes I didn’t. He never yelled or swore at me, never even looked disappointed, just said, “oh, we’ll get it next time” as he met me at the corrals, lifted the saddle and blanket off Goldie in one swoop, and handed me a brush to wipe her down.
Sometimes I’d talk Mom into going along and we’d amble into the mountains, her behind me with her breasts tight against my back so she could wrap her arms around me and hang onto the saddle horn. Once we’d gone far enough for her to relax a little, she’d let go and comb her fingers through my hair, pulling it into a pony tail, twisting it, getting the snarls out, and releasing it again. “I don’t know anything about handling a horse, Dickie,” she’d tell me. “You’re in charge.”
Close to seven months had passed since she’d gone to work at Dugway, and she’d been whistling and humming around the house for the last six of them, thumbing through fashion magazines, trying new hair styles, and acting as if this were exactly the life she had envisioned for herself. As soon as the snow began to melt, she’d sing my name when she walked into the house after work, take me by the hand, and we’d walk as far into the mountains as we could get before darkness fell. She’d tell me the names of plants just beginning to come to life, dropping to her knees to sniff an early blossom or plunge her hands into a cold stream, giggling with joy.
“Don’t you miss your rose bushes, Mama?” I’d ask.
She’d smile at me.“Do you miss Ganoa, Dickie?”
“Well, I miss the ladies I used to play canasta with.”
“No, I miss other things. But . . .”
“But what, Mama?”
“But nothing,” she’d say gently tugging on my ponytail. “Come-on, I’ll race you home.”
On branding day, I climbed on Goldie as usual as she stood with her head low, eyes drooping, barely flinching as she registered the weight of my body with only a slight bob of her head. Since Bev had brought two horses, we wound up with an extra. Holly strode forward declaring that she knew nothing of making sloppy joes and that Alma could take care of things in the kitchen. Holly’d be put to better use rounding up cattle. Alma, who had a soft spot for Holly, confirmed this fact.
“This little horse hasn’t been ridden for awhile,” Bev said. “I don’t feel comfortable putting him under you, Holly.”
“Well, I’m sure I can handle him.”
Her fearlessness captivated me but did little to convince Bev.
“Stumpy, why don’t you take this horse a mine. Dickie, you take Ol’ Yeller there,” Bev said, pointing to the tall, muscular buckskin Stumpy had just dismounted, “and Holly, you take Goldie. She’s so damn gentle a two-month old baby could stay on her.”
Holly was none too pleased with the comparison to a baby and I was none too pleased to get off Goldie and straddle Stumpy’s prancing, high-headed horse, but we all moved as directed. Merv winked at me.
“Ol’ Yeller will settle down soon as we get moving,” he said quietly. “He’s just anxious to get to work.”
Although Holly had only been on a horse a few times in her life, she rode with the same intensity she exhibited for every other activity. She yanked up the reins, pulled Goldie’s head around to the right, clicked her tongue, and dug her heels into the mare’s sides. Goldie popped her head up and put her ears back. Holly pulled her feet out of the stirrups so she could get plenty of motion into her kicks and started whapping both legs against Goldie’s sides.
“If you and that horse are gonna fight over who’s the boss, Holly, I’m putting my money on the mare,” Bev said. “Put your feet back in the stirrups and give her her head. She knows how to bring cows in.”
Holly glowered at Bev but acquiesced when Goldie started backing up instead of going forward. Merv paired us off to gather cows so we’d make a clean sweep around three pastures—Dad with Heber, me with Stumpy, and Holly with Bev. Merv was on gates. But as we started out, it became apparent Holly intended to ride with me and Stumpy.
“Bev’s gonna need some help bringing cows in from that lower pasture,” Stumpy said and took off at a gallop to catch up with Bev.
“Hey wait!” I called after him. “We don’t even know where we’re supposed to go!”
“Well,” Holly said, “where’s he going?”
“We’re supposed to be paired up.”
“But I want to ride with you and Stumpy; I want to ride with my best friend.”
A minute later Stumpy came back and pulled his horse up next to mine. “Bev says for you to go with her,” he growled. “Holly can ride with me.” Holly smiled sweetly again and I fell back to turn off and join up with Bev, who sat on her motionless horse, both forearms folded over the saddle horn.
“Give him a nudge, Dickie,” she hollered. “We’ve got a lot to get done today.” I kicked Ol’ Yeller into a run. He felt different than Goldie, choppy and hard. I grabbed hold of the saddle horn. “You look good up there, girl,” Bev lied when I reached her.
I was impressed with Bev Christensen to the point of speechlessness. She occupied her tan, muscular body as if she had never stood in front of a mirror examining herself as I had seen my mother do—lifting her breasts, drawing the loose skin on her belly around to her sides, and pulling her face toward her ears. She seemed oblivious of her situation, as if she had set out to run a ranch the size of the Bar C by herself. She exhibited no fear of the world around her. I couldn’t imagine a tear ever rolling down Bev Christensen’s perfectly carved face. My mother was a fretter, but when Bev said “ain’t no use frettin about it” no matter what “it” was, you got the feeling she was probably right.
“So how do you like it out here in Clayton, Dickie?” she asked. I shrugged. “Been getting along okay?” I shrugged again. “Well, this is gonna be a long ride out to the south pasture if I’m the only one talking.” She paused. “Course folks around here think I have plenty to say—usually too much—but I’d just as soon have someone responding on the other side. Less, a course, I’m talking to ol’ Darrell Summers. Then I’d just as soon he’d shut up and listen for a change.”
She smiled at me. I wanted to please her, wanted her to like me, wanted some words to come out of my mouth but none did.
“Damn, Dickie, you do make it hard.”
“Lordy, girl, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for. It’d likely do a girl like you well to strike those two words from her vocabulary for awhile. Some folks need to learn those words; other folks need to forget em.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I mumbled.
“Well, folks round here might be right, maybe I do talk too much. There ain’t nothing wrong with a little silence from time to time.”
We rode in silence until Bev started whistling a tune. Ol Yeller strode with a purpose and I loosened into the saddle. Without being aware of it, I softly began to sing the words to the tune Bev whistled.
“Come and sit by my side if you love me . . . do not hasten to bid me adieu . . .”
Bev’s face broke into a grin and she joined me. “Just remember the Red River Valley . . . and the cowboy who loved you so true.” We stumbled through as many verses as we could then both threw our heads back and sang the chorus big and loud one more time. “. . .just remember the Red River Valleeeey . . . and the cowboy who loved you so truuuue.”
“Why, Dickie Sinfield! You don’t have aspirations of being a country western singer, do you?”
“No, Annie says I have the worst singing voice she’s ever heard and that even in church I should be singing as quietly as I can so as not to draw attention to myself.”
“Well, big sisters are good to have—and I think Annie’s a good one—but here’s a little piece of news for you: they ain’t always right.”
“You think I have a good singing voice?”
“I think it don’t matter. I think you should sing at the top of your lungs whenever the desire rises to the surface.”
“I could never do that.”
“You just did. And you did a damn fine job of it.”
“Yeah, but that’s out here where nobody can hear me.”
“That’s the beauty a being out here, Dickie. Ain’t you figured that out yet?”
“Lordy, don’t start shrugging on me again, girl, or we’ll have to sing another song. We don’t want to spook them cows and send them stampeding into the mountains.”
I shook my head.
“I’m kidding, Dickie. How about we play a game?”
I eyed her suspiciously. “What kind of game?”
“I don’t know how to play.”
“Well, I really don’t either, but here’s how you play according to Bev Christensen: We take turns asking each other questions. Anything at all, nothing is too personal, nothing is off limits and we have to answer honestly. Game?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Okay. I’ll start. Who’s your best friend?”
“Gosh, Bev, that’s easy. You already know the answer to that. It’s Holly.”
“Why is Holly your best friend?”
“Because she is! She’s always been my best friend since before kindergarten. Isn’t it my turn to ask you a question?”
“Right. Forgot. Shoot.”
“You ever been in love since your husband died?”
“Whoa, girl, you shoot from the hip, don’t you? Don’t waste any time with those mealy, pussy-footed questions. You go straight for the jugular.”
“There’s that word again! No need to be sorry. I like your style, Dickie Sinfield. I can respect a girl who knows how to be direct. Well, I’m not quite sure how to answer that. Love is a difficult thing. Lots of different ways to love someone, you know.”
“You don’t have to answer.”
“Yes I do. I’m the one that wanted to play this game, you see, that means I have to play by my own rules, which means I have to answer your question. So here goes. The answer is yes. I have, in fact, been in love since my husband died.”
“How long ago did he die? Who were you in love with?”
“Whoa, hold on there. I do believe it’s my turn to ask a question now.”
“Let’s see. Okay. I have one. “When you gonna cut your Dad some slack and stop being mad at him for moving you out to Clayton?” I wasn’t sure how to answer or if she even really wanted an answer. “Remember the rules,” she said. “You have to answer.
“But, we were fine in Ganoa! We had a good house with a lawn and a driveway! I don’t know why we had to move out here to this place!”
“Dickie, I can’t claim to really know your Dad, but I do understand a man who needs some earth to walk on, and this basin offers that and then some. You have the Oquirrh Mountains standing guard here in front a you, the Sheeprocks nudging up on your left, the Stansburys snuggling in on your right, and the Onaquis watching your back. Dickie, your dad coulda done a whole lot worse by you kids than moving you out here to live nestled in these mountains where you can sing at the top a your lungs and there ain’t no one to tell you otherwise.”
I looked glumly straight ahead as we rode toward a herd of Hereford cattle.
“I don’t mean to upset you, Dickie. I just have a hunch you might come to sort of like this place if you give it half a chance. At the very least, do me a favor, will you?”
“Get to know this place a little. In fact, that’s a good project for you this summer. Get out of your house, get on a horse and get into the Stansburys and the Onaquis—even out to the Sheeprocks south a my land. Let the place get inside you a little. If you do that and still don’t like it, then fine, when you’re old enough I’ll help you pack your boxes myself and we’ll move you back into Ganoa or even all the way into Salt Lake City. Deal?”
“What if I get lost again?”
“Take Goldie or one a my horses. Every one a mine or Merv’s horses can find their way out of those mountains and back to the barn in a blinding blizzard.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to go up into the mountains alone. In school they taught us we should always let our parents know exactly where we are and not stray too far from our own yards—ever since Austin Rigby got lost and they found his body in the ditch.”
“First off, Austin Rigby was 3 years old and somebody shoulda been watching that boy. Secondly, folks have a tendency to overreact and pass foolish rules every time something like that happens. Third, those rules are for townfolk, Dickie. They don’t apply to us. It’s that simple.”
“But Mom worries about me.”
“That she does. Tell you what. You spend some time over at my place this summer, you can ride and explore from there. That way your mama don’t have to wonder where you’ve gone. Better yet, take Stumpy out with you. He can show you some things and some places that are hiding up in those mountains that none of us old folks have discovered. Ain’t no way you’ll get lost then.”
“I don’t want to go with Stumpy.”
Bev laughed. “I guess a girl your age needs another girl for a best friend, but Lordy, I do question your judgment on that one. Okay, leave Stumpy home. Might be good for you to spend some time alone anyway. Deal?”
“I guess so. Is it my turn to ask a question now?”
“Who were you in love with?”
“Sorry, girl, time to work. I’m gonna circle round and pick up that cow and calf over there. You just keep riding right up this fence line and pick up everything as you go.” Before I could protest, Bev turned off and was gone. I rode toward the cattle worried that I would make a mistake and scatter them in all directions, but I soon realized Ol’ Yeller and the cows knew exactly what was going on. I was simply along for the ride.
“Lordy, that’s a lot a smoke for a little brandin fire.” Bev said, as we met up again and pushed about 40 head toward Merv’s corrals. “Hope your Mama and sister haven’t burned Merv’s barn down.” I knew Bev was joking so I tried to look calm, but I’d never seen Mom or Annie build a fire before in my life. Neither of them showed a bit of apprehension this morning as we rode out, though, both prancing around in their colorful spring wardrobes as if they were going to a ladies luncheon.
From a ways out we could see Mom spread out in a lounge chair just outside the corrals, sandals kicked into the dirt, pedal pushers rolled up above her knees, blouse flapping open in the breeze to reveal a white, lacy bra. Alma sat upright beside her in an aluminum and vinyl lawn chair wearing a floppy straw hat, a checkered red and white blouse and jeans cut off just below her knees—“the most fitting outfit I could find for the occasion” she had pronounced. Annie circled the fire, alternately poking it with a long stick and stooping to shoo flies off her calves.
“Looks like your Mama’s got the right idea,” Bev said smiling. “Don’t she look like she belongs in some glossy edition of Better Homes and Gardens.”
Not really, I thought. I had never seen half-dressed women in any magazine. As we rode up, Mom scrambled to button herself up.
“Don’t disturb yourself for our sake, Ruth,” Bev said glancing over her shoulder. “Looks like the guys are gonna be another five minutes or so.” Bev eyed the diminished wood pile. “Annie, I think you’ve got enough wood on there. You just as well stick those irons along the fence into that nice fire you got going.”
The morning sun beat down on my jeans and booted feet, and my stomach clutched when I got a whiff of Sea & Ski Suntan Lotion. Last year this kind of day would have found Holly and me skipping over the lawn sprinkler while Mom basked on the sidelines blindly rubbing Sea & Ski on her body without removing the soaked cotton balls covering her eyes.
Mom and Alma walked over to greet us as Bev and I pushed the cattle into the holding pen. Mom put her hands around my waist and slid me off Ol’ Yeller with a low grunt.
“You’re getting too big for me to lift anymore, Dickie,” she said brushing my hair away from my forehead. “When did that happen? How was your ride? Stumpy’s horse behave himself?”
“Yep, it was fine.”
“Can I get you some lemonade, Bev?” Alma asked.
“Love some, thanks.”
“Mama, can I go put some shorts on?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Bev stole Alma’s seat, and when I walked out of the house Bev had her right hand resting on Mom’s forearm and they both had their heads thrown back, laughing loudly. I’d never witnessed two such oppositely beautiful creatures, and I couldn’t comfortably place them both within my limited definition of “woman.” I’d always wanted to be just like my mother until I met Bev. Now I wanted to be just like both of them, but I couldn’t fathom how that might work out.
Stumpy and Holly brought more cows in—Holly looking exuberant; Stumpy, glum. White lather glistened between Goldie’s hind legs and on top of her withers; her eyes bulged wildly. Holly placed the reins in my outstretched hand as if she were handing Goldie off to a stable boy.
“What happened?” I exclaimed.
“We had a great ride!” she said grinning. “Didn’t we Stumpy?”
“But . . .” I could feel the tears brimming in my eyes.
“Looks like you two had a helluva ride,” Bev said running her hands over the gelding she had put Stumpy on. “He’s got quite a lather going for a short ride over to George’s pasture. What the hell happened, Stump?”
“Cows got spooked,” Stumpy said somberly.
“What spooked them?” I demanded. Stumpy shook his head and led the gelding to the shed. I looked to Bev for an answer; she watched Holly fling a log on the fire.
“I get an uneasy feeling about that little girl,” Bev said shaking her head.
“We need to do what we can for her, Bev,” Mom said. “She doesn’t really have a family, you know.”
Bev nodded still watching Holly. “Trouble is I believe she wants this one.”
“Well, we’ll give her what we can,” Mom said.
Bev turned and brushed a speck of dirt from Mom’s cheek. “You do have a streak a goodness runnin through you, Ruth. Dickie, take Goldie over to the shed and brush her down. You know what to do.”
“She gonna be okay?”
“Don’t she look okay?” Bev said turning back to watch Holly.
“Goldie will be fine, Dickie,” Mom said.
“Oh lordy yes,” Bev said squeezing my shoulder. “Don’t fret yourself over that.”
Bev put Holly in charge of tending the fire and making sure the irons stayed hot, but it didn’t take Holly long to figure out that Bev had given her the hottest, most miserable job. She soon abandoned the fire for a perch on top of the four-pole fence where she could watch the festivities in a cool breeze with a glass of lemonade.
Stumpy rode into the holding pen on Merv’s horse and cut a cow out from the rest like he was slicing off a pat of butter with a warm knife. Merv ran her up the narrow alley into the squeeze chute, but in his excitement, Heber pulled the head gate closed just a second before she stuck her nose through and she backed down the alley the same time she lifted her tail.
“Goddamn you old girl!” Merv shouted, scrambling up the fence to get out of her way but not before a stream of runny green shit splattered onto his jeans just above his knees. Bev and Stumpy busted out laughing, but Heber looked like he wanted to cry.
“Goddammit, Heber, you’re going to have to watch what you’re doing,” Dad shouted. He was standing next to Bev, both of them holding clipboards.
“Oh, that’s bound to happen,” Bev said through peels of laughter. “She’s a smart old cow—been through that chute too damn many times. Besides, the longest Merv’s ever gone without gettin covered in cow shit is only about five cows, ain’t it, Stump?”
“Six,” Stumpy said. “Last year. Year before that it was two.”
“Ever think that might be because you two take the easy jobs?” Merv said cleaning himself off with a work glove.
“That better not be my glove you’re using,” Bev said. Merv grinned and slapped the glove on a fence post. “You old son-of-a-bitch.”
“Let’s try that again, Heber,” Merv said dropping back into the alley behind the cow.
Annie and I had been put in charge of delivering whatever tool Merv called for—syringe, dehorner, irons, or eartags. The first cow didn’t need anything but vaccination, so Annie was refilling the syringe and humming the tune to Runaround Sue when Stumpy dragged a small calf out of the corral by a rope around its neck and two dallies around the saddle horn. Merv put one hand on the taut rope about three feet in front of Stumpy’s horse, followed it to the end where the calf fought and bawled for its mother, picked it up by a front leg and a flank, and laid it neatly on the ground with a whomp, knocking the breath out of both the calf and Annie, at which point, Annie vanished.
Merv fell upon the calf and tied three of its legs together with lightening speed. As instructed, Heber held the calf with a knee on its neck while the mother cow paced inside the holding pen, moaning, wild-eyed. When Merv called for the Lazy S branding iron, I panicked, and with shaking legs, delivered up the dehorner.
“Good enough,” he said.
Placing the top of the dehorner on the tip of the calf’s head next to the ear, Merv pulled the handles apart to snap the cutting edges together, scooping out a chunk, then did the same on the other side.
“I think we got it all the way to bud,” he said as he handed the dehorner back to me. “Hand me that small iron.”
I heard him but couldn’t find the wherewithal to turn away from the fine stream of blood spurting out of both sides of the calf’s head. Bev handed her clipboard off to Dad and pulled a red hot straight iron out of the fire, touching it to the place where the blood sprayed, stopping it immediately. Bev then handed him a full syringe, which he passed back to me after emptying the contents into the calf’s neck. I managed to lift my hand and take it. When Merv pressed the Lazy S branding iron into the soft red hair, the calf blew snot into the dust under its nostrils and let out a long, tortured, resigned cry. His mother met his bawl with one of her own, the most haunting, despairing sound I’d ever heard.
With the smell of burning hair and skin in my nostrils, I bent forward to study my toes and regain my equilibrium. I straightened up in time to see Merv fish a pocketknife out of his jeans, loosen the piggin string around the calf’s legs, reach between the two back legs and make a cut faster than my brain could register the action. A thin jet of blood sprayed my bare calves as a small bloody nugget, then another, popped out from between Merv’s fingers and landed near my left sneaker. I looked at him alarmed, sure something had gone horribly wrong. He looked up at me with his usual calm smile and pulled a plastic squeeze bottle of blood stopper from my limp hand, although I had no idea I’d been holding it.
“Let ‘er up, Heber,” Merv said slapping Heber on the back. “Good job.” Heber grinned and preened. The calf struggled to its feet, Merv opened the gate, and the calf staggered back to its mother. I looked around for my own mother. She lay back in her lawn chair flipping through a McCall’s magazine. Alma sat next to her sipping lemonade. They were both swirling in a haze of heat. I dropped back down to study my toes, the whir of Stumpy’s swinging rope in the air around me.
“Why don’t you cut one a our cows out of there, Stump, and give those branding irons a minute to heat back up,” Merv said eyeing me. Bev squeezed my shoulders from behind, gently taking the dehorner and syringe from my hands. Then with one hand on my neck, she got me turned around and walking.
“How you doing, Dickie?” I didn’t answer. “Why don’t you go see if your Mom’s doing all right.”
I looked at Mom, then up at Holly who surveyed the scene from her throne atop the fence. Bev and Merv both watched me, a half amused and half worried look on their faces. I’m not sure which part of that look got to me, but I silently vowed to stay at my post.
When the sun got high, Mom and Alma set up folding tables under the trees for lunch.
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
“That’s a fine spread.”
“Hard work sure works up an appetite.”
“My breakfast has pretty much wore off.”
“I feel like I ain’t et fer days.”
“Heber, watch your grammar; I’ll have some of that potato salad, Alma.”
“There’s plenty to go around; lots more in the kitchen.”
“Dickie, aren’t you going to eat something?”
When we resumed work, all had shifted positions inside the corral except me. Heber roped calves and cut cattle out of the herd, which he handled not quite as competently as Stumpy, but well enough to elicit nods of approval from Bev and Merv and eventually from Dad. I watched him sit fully centered in the saddle through every abrupt movement of Merv’s cutting horse. Something had changed in him since we moved to the ranch. His face seemed to hold some sort of secret. Stumpy wore that same look—the men they would become already showing behind their transparent boy faces. With Stumpy, the look unnerved me, made me feel like a stupid kid. But when I saw it in Heber while he worked cattle it comforted me. That’s the moment I figured Heber would be all right in our family.
Stumpy helped me with the fire and tools and Dad took over the branding, dehorning, castrating, and vaccinations. Mom and Alma leaned against the fence, peering into the corral between the third and fourth pole.
“Looks like he’s been at that his whole life,” Alma said as she watched her brother use the pocket knife Merv offered him to expertly cut a waddle on the right side of a calf’s nose before castrating him with the same efficiency. “Seeing George bent over that calf would no doubt bring tears to my father’s eyes. He’d likely be crying pride out of one eye and disappointment out of the other, but maybe George was meant for this life after all, Ruth.”
Mom didn’t respond, just turned her back on the arena and shooed Holly out of her lounge chair.
“This will be the last one for today,” Bev said running a cow into the squeeze chute as the sun dropped behind Stookey Benchmark, the highest point in the Onaquis. “We’ll start earlier tomorrow.”
I sat on the sole piece of unburned firewood halfway between the hot coals and the chute, leaning against a fence post, feet straight out in front of me like I was in a recliner. My position held high odds of attracting a directive from Dad that I should “move out of the goddamn way,” but I was just tired and frazzled enough to risk it. Dad dropped the slats in the squeeze chute and Stumpy stepped forward with the Lazy S branding iron, red as the sunset at my back. At that point, the sizzle and stench of burning hair and hide barely registered on my brain. Dad handed the iron back to Stumpy. I watched Stumpy take two steps back, watched his left boot come down on the dehorner, watched the dehorner roll under his foot, watched him twist around to catch himself, and watched the branding iron, still hot and sticky with burned cow hide, come down cleanly on the inside of my left calf, which was crossed over my right.
I screamed. Stumpy fell into the dirt. Dad swore. Merv and Heber froze. Bev called Mom’s name then picked me up in her arms like she was lifting a puppy. She carried me into Nelson’s farmhouse where she laid me on the bed then rushed to the kitchen. Mom saw the brand on my leg—almost a full S but with the outside edges missing—bubbling up in a rosy lavender on my white skin going nearly from knee to ankle and started to sob. Alma pushed her way through the crowd forming at the door, picked a few red cow hairs out of the wound, and pronounced, “hell, that looks pretty clean, Ruth, she’ll be fine. Merv, get me a bowl of warm soapy water, a bowl of cold water and some baking soda, if you have any.”
Merv came in with two bowls, a wash cloth floating in one, ice cubes in the other, and a box marked Arm & Hammer. Mom sat at the top of the bed, my head against her left breast, pulling the hair back away from my eyes as if the wound were on my forehead. Everyone else gathered around the bed as Alma cleaned the burn then dipped the cloth in ice water and placed it over the brand.
“Not much more to be done than that,” Alma said. “We’ll let it soak awhile with the cold cloth then put some baking soda on it.”
Bev came into the room and stood behind Stumpy, her hands on his shoulders. “I boiled some water,” she said.
“What for, Bev?” Alma asked.
“I don’t know,” Bev said surprised. “I thought you always need boiled water when somebody gets hurt.” Then she started laughing and two pink spots appeared on her tan cheeks. That might be the only time in my life I ever saw Bev Christensen flustered.
Stumpy ducked around Bev and went out the back door. She started to follow but Merv stopped her. “I’ll talk to him,” he said. “I’m sure he feels like hell about this.”
“Oh hell, Merv,” Dad said. “It wouldn’t have happened if Dickie hadn’t been sitting exactly where she shouldn’t have been and it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t left the damn dehorner in the dirt and it wouldn’t have happened if she had some pants on instead of those goddamn shorts! Tell Stumpy he doesn’t have a thing to feel bad about.”
“Well, accidents happen,” Merv said. “She did a hell of a job out there today.” He winked and squeezed my toe as he left the room. “You’re a natural at this.”
Everyone else drifted out except Mom, Alma and Holly.
“Well, does it hurt much?” Holly asked.
I nodded my head. “It hurts a lot.”
“Well, looks like Stumpy’s put his brand on you,” she said.
Mom and Alma both chuckled, but Holly wasn’t even smiling.