The Cowboy Tango
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 guys 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 man was missing his left arm. Mr. Otterbausch looked away from the man with one arm and told him the job was already filled. He was planning to scale back on beef-raising and go more toward 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 resembled a petrified log in both body and spirit. 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 forty thousand 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 condo building at 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 most of the cattle and bought two dozen new horses, a breeding stallion 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 under way 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 the highway. His first impulse when he saw she was only 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?”
“And you ride good?”
He dropped a saddle and bridle in her arms and showed her a short-legged twist of a buckskin, a bitch mare who had recently not only thrown Mr. Otterbausch but kicked him for good measure, leaving a boomerang-shaped bruise on his thigh. When Sammy pulled the cinch tight, the mare flattened her ears and lunged around, her square teeth biting the air until Sammy popped her on the cheek. The mare squealed and pointed her nose at the sky, then stood still. Sammy climbed up. The mare dropped her head and crow-hopped off to the right. Sammy tugged the reins up once and drove with her seat and sent 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 minute,” Mr. Otterbausch said. He went and threw some tack on Sleepy Jean, 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 toward a horizon of dovetailing hills. The buckskin cow-kicked once and then rocketed off with Sammy sitting up as straight as a flagpole. 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 farther back on her hip than most women, giving her ride some roll and swagger. It was a prickly, gusty day and the buckskin was really moving, but Sammy 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.
“How old are you?”
She hesitated, and he guessed she was deciding whether or not to lie. “Sixteen.”
This seemed close enough to the truth. “You’re not some kind of runaway are you? You should tell me so I can decide if I want the trouble.”
“No one’s coming to look for me.”
“Where’re your folks?”
“What do they do there?”
“They won’t have the cops after me for kidnapping?” Trying to set her at ease, Mr. Otterbausch chuckled. The girl did not smile.
“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 far side 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 fantasy 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 stallion had “gone out fucking” one Sunday in breeding season. When she ran into Mr. Otterbausch, she never talked about anything beyond solid concerns 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?”
“Where are they?”
“Don’t know. Got to check on Big Bob’s abscess. Night, boss.”
Ten years passed this way. Sammy stayed skinny but muscled up some. 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 some away every year. Out on a ride he found a hot spring bubbling beside a creek, 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 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, as when anyone said the distant, magnificent mountains were like a postcard.
Since the beginning, Sammy’d 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 aspens that flanked the trail where it opened out into a clearing. Mr. Otterbausch guessed that Sammy got on better with horses than people, and he figured she gave them a proper goodbye. When the wranglers saw Sammy come walking back down from the hills, they knew to keep out of her way for a while. She left each carcass alone until it was picked clean enough, and then she went back and nailed up the skull on one of the pines around the clearing if it hadn’t been dragged away somewhere. Not many horses were lucky enough to go to the Pearly Gates. Most of the ones who came in from winter pasture lame and rickety were sold at auction and ended up going down to Mexico in silver trucks with cheese-grater sides, bound for dog food. But worthy horses came and went over the years, and their skulls circled the clearing past the Pearly Gates like a council of wise men.
Mr. Otterbausch went up there sometimes to get away. He would sit beneath the long white skulls 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 seemed as profane a blight on the land as oil derricks or Walmarts or fast-food billboards. They strutted around, 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 they loped along, 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 verve. 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 now, not some helpless girl. He was afraid she would leave, afraid she would laugh, 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 when Sammy had been at the ranch for almost ten years, 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 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 actually 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 time. After the lodge fell 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, hush up.” She answered the door in her usual clothes, except she was barefoot. For a moment, he stared at her pale toes, which he’d never seen before. Then he looked beyond her, over her shoulder, saw a rocking chair with a Hudson’s 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, but I’ve got a favor to ask. 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 check, 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.
“It’s getting dark.”
“We’ll be quick.”
“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.”
Copyright © 2022 by Maggie Shipstead. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.