He shows up one morning, all spiffy, with fringed shirt cuffs and a silk bandana knotted ‘round his neck.
“Lookee,” I says to myself. “We got ourselves a dude.” A sudden hush at the corrals tells me the cowboys have seen the newcomer, too. I know his type. Can’t tell the front end of a steer from a water trough.
“I’d like to work on your outfit.” He sticks out his hand.
“Any experience with cattle?” I ask.
“I watched the Ponoka rodeo a few times. I like steak.”
“Hmph,” I grunt. His horse is fine-boned, better suited to pullin’ a kiddy cart. She’s spookin’ at rustlin’ grass.
The boss asks many questions, but I answer every one. I am turned out smartly, too, not like the cowboys lounging near the corrals with their heel-worn boots and sweat-stained hats.
Suddenly, they guffaw loudly, slapping their dusty knees. How exciting it will be, being privy to their tales of derring-do.
I reckon he might be good for somethin’, though my head is painin’ me thinkin’ what that might be. City folk usually wanna taste of rustic life, then they move on, lickety-split.
“How ‘bout checkin’ cows?” I suggest, and give ‘im directions to the back forty. Could be he’ll get lost, and that’ll be the end of that.
Through the east meadow, north along the creek, follow the timberline, the boss tells me. It’s a pretty big spread.
Sally settles into a comfortable stroll, and I enjoy the scenery. I take note of several picturesque spots where I might bring my easel and paints in my spare time.
“Boss, reckon I should check on the dude?” Hector spits out the word with a stream of brown liquid. It splats in the dust.
“Naw, leave ‘im.”
But truth is, sendin’ ‘im out alone has been plaguin’ me like a tick bite.
I find the cows just fine, but they are very unfriendly, glaring at me disdainfully.
“Go on. Eat,” I say, but they just stand there.
A red cow takes a step toward me, then lowers her head and buries her face in the lush grass. Unpredictable beast.
“Where’d he go, ‘zactly?” pesters Hector.
“Does he know how?”
“Hector, even a dude can tell if a cow is upright and breathin’.”
I have become quite warm, and my bandana is limp. My new underwear is itching fiercely. I tie Sally snugly to a nearby bush and drape my sodden bandana over a shrub. It’s a happy convenience that a small pond sparkles in the middle of the pasture.
Just a dip. Enough to rinse off the trail dust. Trail dust!
Three hours and no sign of the greenhorn. I reckon he’s done playin’ cowboy and is lookin’ for a short cut to town.
The pond is cool and I immerse myself. Ah, performing one’s ablutions in the purest water, beneath blue sky, as in days of old.
I linger, until gentle lowing reminds me of my duty.
‘Bout mid-afternoon, I hear thunder, but the sky is clear. The steady roar can mean only one thing. Sure enough, a cloud of dust is rollin’ down the east meadow.
The cows are comin’ home.
I rise up into the warm sunshine, an Adonis ascending from the waves, a wilderness man in his natural element.
Then I see them, black and shiny, clinging to my chest and legs and sucking lustily.
I scream and claw at them with prunish fingers. I scream again, jigging frantically, trying to shake loose the worm-like creatures. From the corner of my eye, I see the cows jerk up their heads, and as one, they wheel and charge for the south end of the field. There’s a good stout fence, so I’m sure they’ll stop.
They plough through the fence like a roaring locomotive, leaving a wake of tangled wire, splintered fenceposts, and trampled grass.
“Stop, stop.” Leeches forgotten, I give chase. “Come back, cows.”
Sally follows them, dragging the bush she’d been tethered to, roots and all.
The cows look vexed, puzzlin’ over how they come to be home so sudden-like. The fool’s horse trots up behind ‘em, saddle twisted and draggin’ under her belly, reins knotted ‘round a bush.
After supper, the greenhorn wanders into the yard, naked as a baby bird, babblin’ about sea serpents and happy trails.
He leaves at dawn, wearin’ faded jeans, a tattered shirt, and a great big shiny grin.
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