She closed her eyes against the dust blowing up the canyon. Windy swirls of sand and dusty debris bit against her skin through the flimsy shirt she’d thrown on at dawn when her uncle yelled into her half-awakeness. “Time to get moving. The cows ain’t waiting’ for you to get prettied up.” Her horse shimmied a bit under her as he navigated the rocky trail.
End of summer…back to school, back to the city and her family in another week. What a wild time she’d had learning to ride horses, getting up early to help with the chickens and other chores. Her muscles ached for weeks and her butt…well she still didn’t think she’d toughened up enough to call herself a cowgirl.
As the canyon opened and sandy soil replaced the rock-strewn wash they’d just ridden through, Sandie rubbed her eyes clear and took in the bluffs far in the distance. The herd grazed on sparse patches of grass, some looking up as the cowboys and city girl spread out to encircle the cattle. This was her first and last cattle drive.
She followed her cousin Wally, a year younger and as cowboy as they come. He was put in charge of her initiation and taught her in his teasing, sarcastic way, how to saddle and bridle Pete. Wally thought it was pretty funny as he watched Sandie’s misadventures through the rough and tumble (major on the tumble) first weeks.
One of the yearlings ran in the wrong direction, so Sandie started after it. Pete tore out faster than she expected making her hold tightly to the saddle horn as she leaned into the gallop, butt bouncing too much for comfort. Uncle Kirk shouted after her in his gruff voice to come back. Sandie felt her face flush. She was trying to help. “Don’t chase her and run her down. She’ll come back on her own to join the herd. You’ll tire her out too early and we have a long ride ahead.”
The summer rolled back in her memory as she turned to rejoin the others, moving the herd to open ground and the journey home to the ranch pastures.
Grandpa took her to town whenever he did the grocery run. The two day round trip on dusty graveled roads was probably her favorite part of the summer. They talked some, but the open window air conditioning made the drive pretty noisy. She loved the smell of the summer heat and the animal smells that she was sure her city friends would pinch their noises at.
Miles City was a real western town, boots and hats on most of the men and a lot of the women. It was nothing like Tacoma. Her grandpa took her straight off to the western shop to buy her jeans, shirts, boots, a hat and belt when Sandie first arrived by train. He smiled as she emerged looking like she fit right in. She smiled remembering how proud he looked.
It was the rodeo in Billings that she loved most. Her older cousin George was team roping. She loved to watch as the cowboys worked together to rope and tie up three legs of the calf. She did feel a little sorry for the calves. But they ran off happily when the rope was released, so she got over it. Best of all, though, was the storytelling, the joking and the cribbage games with Uncle Lee and Grandpa and the others back where they set up their little camp. They were right in the middle of all the other campers who were competing in some event. Old friends stopped by to talk about the rodeo and life back at the ranch. There was a lot of spitting between stories. It was pretty gross.
Sandie stood in her saddle and rubbed her sore bottom. They had another four or five hours to go. She snacked on some jerky as the summer sun baked the dust into her skin. It didn’t help to try to wipe it away. Her hat sheltered her eyes a bit, but she felt the dryness of the air in her eyes and sweat plastered her hair against her forehead under the hat band. The cows seemed to herd themselves, she thought. All she had to do was ride along beside them.
The one time she put on a dress that whole summer was for the dance at the grange. She was sure her grandpa was hoping she’d fall in love with a cowboy and return to Montana someday. That’s the only reason she could imagine that Tom asked her to go with him to the dance. He barely knew her. He was pretty handsome, though. She remembered sitting shyly up against the truck door on the long ride to the grange hall. It was out in the middle of nowhere. But, it seemed like the whole country came for the party.
It was kind of a disaster. Tom was a lot older and Sandie had never dated. He tried to get her to learn the two-step, but she kept stepping on his toes and felt uncomfortable in his arms. He finally asked someone else and left her sitting alone at the table. When the evening ended, he was kind, but eager to leave her at the gate. She was glad the evening was over.
Late in the day as the sun’s halo left everything golden and sort of glowing, the last gate was opened and the cattle seemed to know they were almost home. They hurried through the opening, pushing and bawling as if in fear they’d be left behind. Sandie closed and fastened the gate as the others shouted their hee-yas and swung their coiled ropes to keep the herd moving toward the home pasture closer to the ranch house and barn. The grass here was greener and more plentiful. The cattle began to find their dinner spots as cowboys swung down from their saddles at the gate before leading their horses to the barn and hay and a good brush down.
Sandie sat on Pete for a bit watching the cows, watching the cowboys, knowing she would soon be on the train for home. It was her first and last round up, her first and last summer on the ranch. She didn’t know that at the time. She did know she loved being related to this family and sat for awhile in her saddle on her horse Pete remembering the summer.