She was sullen during the drive back to Delta Junction and apologetic about introducing Glen to Sophie. “Now I know this could this could inconvenience ya, seeing as how it’s another soul to worry about, and if you say you can’t think of no place where she’d fit in, nobody will be blaming you. Jobs been limited and living from day to day be limited.”
“Why Etta, I’m surprised at you,” said Sophie. “You know I’ve never turned anyone away that was looking for work, least of all a woman. With all the manly aching for a good cook and house keeper, I think Glen will find a place for herself pretty quickly. You don’t worry your head none about her.”
Etta Mae didn’t say anything about this right away, but a few days later, while the crew was being hired to begin construction, she took Sophie privately aside. “See this is what I’m getting at,” she said. “Here’s all these single men for her highness, Miss Glen, to choose from; all of them able and willing, but she don’t even give them the time of day. She been fallowing my Jim around like he was a long lost cousin. What kind of woman is it that goes after them that are taken?”
“Well, I’ve seen men do exactly the same thing with women who were spoken for. How do you think their men find a solution?”
“Why, they fight! That’s what I need to do. I need to teach that foreign, fancy California woman a thing or two.”
As though to follow through with her words, Etta Mae stepped down from the porch where she had been watching the proceedings in the yard, but Sophie held her back. “That will only make you look bad. You won’t have solved anything. In order to make Trapper Jim quit thinking about that other girl, you’ve got to bring his attention back to you.”
“How would I do that?” Asked Etta. “Look how she makes herself, all posturing and fluttering her eyes. It’s a scandal for a decent woman.”
“It isn’t a scandal if you’re doing it for your own man.”
“Hmm.” Etta watched the busy hauling, gathering and assignment of tools and material going on in Sophie’s yard, the last place you could travel by road before meeting the maze of trail leading to individual homesteads until the dinner hour approached and she followed Sophie into the house. As they began serving up plates, Etta decided to try some of Glen’s antics, turning her head to one side as she talked to Trapper Jim, and bending stiff legged to serve him so her waist line was somewhat lower than her behind. Trapper Jim was surprised. “What’s the matter, Etta? Did you throw your back out? Put a warm rag and some mentholatum on it tonight and you’ll start feeling better.”
This was not the attention she had desired. When the men had trooped back out to wrap up the rest of the work day, Etta again sought Sophie’s advice. Sophie thought about it all of five minutes. “You have that new dress you bought last spring, and haven’t once worn it. How about I give you a new hair style and some make-up? Then you go on home ahead of Jim, put that pretty dress on and wait for him.”
This sounded a little extreme to Etta, but she was getting desperate. She allowed Sophie to wash her hair, trim it, crimp it and fashion it into a complexity of swirls, swoops and cascading curls. She sat patiently through the eye liner, mascara, shadow, powder, rouge and lipstick liberally applied to her face. When she appraised the results, she agreed this wasn’t quite like any Etta Mae ever seen before, but she wondered privately if this could be Etta Mae at all. The woman staring back slightly disappointed her. She imagined the end results would make her look exactly like one of the glossy models presented in the hair dressing magazines, yet she couldn’t say this strange person resembled any of them. This strange person didn’t resemble anyone, and Etta Mae spent some time acquainting herself with the features. “Well,” she finally said. “I suppose I have a larger mouth than I ever realized, and it’s very… red.”
She started to remove the lipstick with a tissue, but Sophie’s hand restrained her. “You look beautiful,” Sophie assured her. “Now, you go on home and wait for Jim. I’ll let him know you went on without him. Put on that new dress and splash on a bit of that rose water I gave you. Believe me, it will make a huge difference in the way he looks at you.”
Etta Mae went home, not at all sure of the new face Sophie had given her, but willing to give it a try. She put on the new dress, which really did look very nice on her. It catered to her height and long waist, dropping away from her hips in loose folds. She set a fresh bouquet of flowers in the middle of the table and she waited. The hour began to grow late.
When the sun began to lower into the fleeting fits of darkness that marked summer’s end, she began to fidget. Her practicality told her he would be using every bit of daylight possible to get their cattle moved, but her anxieties began whispering different messages. She began to wonder how wise it was to leave Trapper Jim with Glen. “The hussy,” she thought bitterly. “I’ll bet she’s wrappin’ herself all over him and the big lug is doin’ nothin’ but drinking Jack Daniels and enjoying it. I should have belted her good while I had the chance.”
Her meditations prompted her to rummage for her own stashed bottle. While she fortified herself, she glanced over at Noser, who had stationed himself quizzically by the cabin door. “Why even Noser don’t know what to think of me,” she mused. “How can he when I don’t even know what to think of myself?”
She brought out a round, portable mirror and set it up so she could study her face critically. “This won’t do,” she decided. “This won’t do at all. This ain’t Etta Mae. If I have to doll myself up like a catalog girl, what’s the point of it all? What point does all that fancy white wash have to do with anything?” Taking a jar of cold cream, she began wiping the make up from her face. When she had finished, she took down the pins that held her hair into place and began brushing it out. “This is who I be,” she said firmly to Noser. “If it ain’t good enough. If it needs to be painted over and curled like a poodle, well then maybe…” She didn’t finish her sentence as she thought about the consequences of where maybe could lead. Noser pattered up and licked her hand. “It’s just gotta be good enough,” she added firmly. He rested his head in her lap.
Etta had already gone to bed by the time Trapper Jim came home. Her dress had long since been hung in the closet, and her hair bound in a single braid to keep it out of her face while she slept. She moved a little when she heard him open the door, and sat up when lantern light spilled into the room. “Your late,” she said, maintaining elaborate neutrality in her voice.
“You’re starting the barn tomorrow?” Etta Mae forgot her misgivings in her excitement. “I reckon it will take a week to get it finished. I reckon you won’t be going over to Sophie’s for awhile.”
“I’m supposing you’re right. There ain’t no more time for dilly – dallying. Winter will be moving in soon.” He sat on the edge of the bed and groaned as he removed his boots. “Did your back get any better?”
“I believe it just needed some rest. I feel fine now.”
“Good thing then.” He patted her legs, warm and still under the blankets. “You’ll be needing to practice with your new cow pony. We move them cattle in next week.”
He blew out the lantern and settled in next to her, but Etta remained awake. Her eyes strayed to the window where the sun was just beginning to reappear after four polite hours of darkness. She was about to become a rancher! When enough daylight appeared to see clearly, she tip toed to the entry door and peered out into the yard. Sure enough, long stacks of freshly cut planks piled up on cribs, while rolls of barbed wire stood propped nearby. She could almost see the completed barn and the fenced in cattle. She spread her arms and walked barefoot down from the steps and into the cool, sweet smelling grass. She twirled around among the stacks of lumber, inhaling the fresh scent. “Etta Mae!” Called Trapper Jim from the cabin. “Have you lost your mind? You’ll catch pneumonia running around like that.”
“I’m a rancher!” She laughed. “I’m a rancher!”
Etta Mae spent the next few days acquainting herself with her new cow ponies and her mule. She began learning each one’s temperament and preferred treatment. She had a favorite; a young gelding named Bob, with two white socks and uneven splatters of white over a chestnut coat. Bob was a little skittish. When you placed your hand on his back side, his skin twitched, the hairs ruffling up and down under your palm, while the muscles in his back legs jumped. If you didn’t bring him a treat, he turned around and nipped at you before you were able to mount. But he had a mouth so soft, a piece of twine would serve as a bit. He responded perfectly and completely from the subtle communications of his rider.
The day the livestock arrived, Trapper Jim and Etta Mae held a big party on their homestead. Card tables had been dragged in from every house that had one to spare. A couple of fiddlers took up residence on the porch steps. As long as they remained fortified with baked beans, smoked salmon and beer, they were happy to fiddle, all staple items that appeared in pot luck abundance. The chickens that had been brought in a few days earlier, fluttered about their new coop in self-appointed guard duty. The cowboys impressed the viewers with their herding skills, cutting the five buffalo from the other cattle so they could be admired in their solitary splendor. They were magnificent creatures, a full head and a half taller than their domestic cousins, with huge rolling shoulders and massive horns. They stamped their feet, lowered their heads and looked disapprovingly at the riders, who, having received the crowd’s applause, wheeled the ponies back toward the barn.
Etta Mae was having a fine time until she noticed Glen. Dressed once again in a western blouse and a pair of tight jeans, she was following Trapper Jim around, asking questions. “There,” whispered Etta furiously to Sophie. “That’s what I’m tellin’ ya. She done turned into a blooming puppy. Don’t never leave his heels. I got an itchin’ to get into a real scrap with her.”
Sophie watched. Glen and Trapper Jim were strolling back from the buffalo show. From the serious intent of the trapper’s step, his primary interest was on the lavishly spread food table. Glen kept smiling up at him and trying to match his stride with short, quick steps. At one point, she stumbled in her boots. Reaching up, she grasped his arm to steady herself, and continued doing so until they reached the picnic. “That’s it!” Said Etta. “I’m going to belt her.”
“No,” said Sophie. “Let me handle this.”
Etta Mae looked skeptical. “I don’t know, Miss Sophie. You never was much of the fighting kind. I’m not saying you couldn’t hurt her up a little, but I’m not so sure but she might mess you up a bit as well. I should prob’ly fight my own battles.”
Sophie turned to face Etta severely. “There won’t be any scrapping. What do you suppose Jim sees in her, Etta?”
“Oh, lots of things, I’m thinking. She sure is pretty and she has a fancy way of talking. Bet she could quote the whole Declaration of Independence without peeking more than once or twice. All that yeller hair and all them little sideways glances. Well, sure. He’s getting plenty an eye full and seein’ a lot.”
“So it seems. And what do you suppose he sees in you?”
“I’m a strong enough woman, that’s what. Living around Jim ain’t no Sunday in the park, you know. You’ve gotta be ready to wrestle a grizzly bear at sunrise and have dinner on the table by noon around ole Trapper Jim. That’s what he be seeing.”
“Well, then. Now we have it.” Sophie smiled pleasantly as she approached Trapper Jim and Glen, who had released her hold but was comparing the appetizers on her plate with his. “Is everybody having a good time.”
“Oh yes,” said Glen. “Are these really caribou ribs? They have such an odd flavor… but I’m sure I can get used to them.”
“You get used to a lot of things around here,” agreed Sophie. “Out here, there’s no running water, no electricity. In the winter, people like Etta and Jim chop ice from the river for water. They split their own firewood. They wash their clothes in buckets because they can’t get into town. It’s a hard life and takes a lot of getting used to.”
“I’d like to try it sometime,” said Glen. “You have a lovely house, Sophie, and it’s really convenient where it’s located, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live out in the wild. This all looks like paradise to me.”
Etta Mae moved restlessly, but Sophie’s hand locked over her wrist. “It does, doesn’t it? It’s a cattle ranch, though, and that requires a lot of work. They’re going to need one or two hands this winter to help them out. Have you ever been on a horse?”
“Of course I have,” said Glen, tossing her hair. When I was a teenager, I used to go to the stables pretty often to ride with some friends. There’s nothing to it.”
“And these horses; were they cow ponies?”
“Is there a difference? A horse is a horse, it’s all a matter of size.”
Sophie nodded agreement, then brightened. “Say, I have an idea! Why don’t you go out to the barn with Etta and show her how you can ride? They are going to need an extra hand or two this winter with all the chores. If you know enough about handling ponies, maybe they’ll take you on.”
It was a wicked thing to do. Etta knew it. Anyone who didn’t know the difference between a cow pony and a fancy English rider was in big trouble. As the two women left for the barn, a plan began hatching in Etta Mae’s head. Only two of the animals were still fresh; Etta’s favorite, Bob; and the mule. They stood, tied to a center pole, calmly chewing their cud, while the other two horses had already been rubbed down and placed back in their stalls. “What kind of horse is this?” Asked Glen, looking with wonder at the mule. Etta’s plan grew.
“Why, you see, this is a very unique and special breed of horse. Ain’t many like ‘em. They come from Afrreeka or somewhere close to the Arabians. They call ths special breed Nobalzun.”
Glen was suitably impressed. In all truth, it was an especially handsome mule. It was taller than the close-coupled ponies, with long, rolling muscles. It was an extremely light beige, almost champagne, with a white belly and a white, swirling star on the forehead. It’s tall, upright ears were trimmed a soft golden color. It had a respectable white mane, and long, flowing tail. Etta patted the mule fondly. “Would you like to ride him?” Glen nodded.
Not only was the mule an exceptionally handsome one, he was exceptionally well trained. For all intents and purposes, he was a cow pony, with a cow pony’s sensitivities. He accepted the strange mount with little more than a snort and a head turn, but his ears flicked nervously when she took the reins in both hands. Slapping the reins against his neck, Glen demanded that the mule “giddy-up”. The mule shook its head and pranced in place. She kicked it. The mule began backing up. “Whoa, whoa,” she said, sawing back on the reins. The mule lifted its front feet and pawed at the air. Glen decided she had somehow spooked the animal. “Easy, easy,” she said, patting its neck. Pulling to the side with one of the reins, she sought to turn the animal in the direction where Etta waited fifteen feet ahead, a look on her face that suspiciously appeared to be amusement. The confused animal began turning in circles. Etta allowed this helpless exhibition to go on for several minutes before finally dismounting from her horse and assisting the hapless rider.
“First of all,” explained Etta. “You’ve gotta take both reins in one hand, like this.” She showed Glen how one rain slid between the thumb and forefinger, while the other gathered in the palm. “When you want him to go, just use your knees. When you kick him, he thinks you want him to back up. These animals knows body language. You talk to them with little parts of your body. You don’t saw away at them like puppets on a string.”
Having been taught the fine points of cow pony riding, Glen managed to ride fairly well, despite the mule’s somewhat stiff-legged gait. After pacing the creature around the barn and corral, Glen began gaining confidence. When Etta Mae quickened her steed into a fast trot, so did Glen. While they rode side by side, Etta Mae said, “you know, this pony rides so nicely, I almost want to race him. I’d do it too, except it ain’t fair to a Nobalzun.”
“How do you mean it’s not fair?” Objected Glen. “Are you saying this horse can’t run? I’ll bet he has plenty of speed.”
“I’m sure he does, but he ain’t never gonna give it to you. The Nobalzun don’t run against cow ponies.”
“And why not? Are you afraid the Nobalzun will make the little, short legged horses look bad?”
“Well, no. A horse race don’t make cow ponies look bad because that ain’t what they’re bred for. They’s bred to herd cattle and they don’t know much else, but it take a darn smarter trick of the mind to cut and dodge a fifteen hundred pound steer than it does to run like a banshee outa hell.”
“You’re afraid my horse will win! C’mon Etta. You said yourself you’d like to race. Let’s open them up and see what they’ll do.” While Etta Mae was still hemming and hawing, saying, “well, I don’t know about that…” Glen suddenly clicked her animal into a full gallop, speeding ahead of her.
There was one thing Etta Mae knew that Glen didn’t. A cow pony is neither fully a horse nor fully a pony, but somewhere in the middle; the short, closely coupled legs built for sprints, weaving, sudden stops and endurance, but they had the full brains of horses, and horses never allow a mule to get ahead of them. As soon as the mule spurted ahead, Bob kicked up such a fuss, you’d swear an entire legion of phantom riders were coming up behind him. As the pony approached the mule, it bit at the animal’s hind quarters, then kicked him. The mule reared up in panic, and Bob kicked him again, reminding him of his hierarchy among equine animals. As Bob speeded away, the mule began bucking. He bucked in circles. He bucked with his front legs pawing at the air. He bucked in thundering hops, his hind legs splaying out behind him. Glen fell off; right into a drying mud puddle.
The entire time the two women had been riding, spectators had been casually watching. They snickered a little when it became obvious Glen did not know how to ride her mule, murmured in approval when she got her animal under control, but now drew in their collective breath while Etta Mae, Sophie and Clint rushed over to make sure the rider had no broken bones.
Sophie was the first to reach her. “Are you okay?” She asked, bending over concernedly.
Glenn nodded, struck dumb. “I done told you,” reproached Etta Mae. “You don’t race a Nobalzun against a cow pony.”
Sophie’s eyebrows raised with Etta Mae’s remark, but she didn’t spill her secret. “Well, now. Look at this,” she clucked. “Your nice blouse is near about ruined. We’ll have to get you back to the house so you can shower and change. I’ll bet that fall knocked the breath right out of you.”
“I’m better now,” said Glen, coming to her feet, but looking at her clothing in dismay. Her white blouse, with the intricate, embroidered roses stitched in at the shoulders, was splattered with mud. The seat of her pants was soaked, as were her boots. “It’s a long walk to the house and it will all dry off by the time I get there, so I might as well stay until the party is over.”
With that, she walked stiffly back to the picnic tables, her pride more injured than anything else. Trapper Jim was laughing; not just a simple case of chuckling under his breath or even a polite attempt to smother laughter, but openly and with a great deal of gusto. He slapped his knee. He tugged his beard. Some tears squeezed out the corners of his eyes and ran down his face. “Whatever possessed you to want to race a mule,” he finally gasped.
“A mule?” Asked Glen sharply. “I rode a mule? Etta Mae told me it was a Nobalzun.”
“So it is,” agreed Trapper Jim. “It ain’t neither a donkey or a horse, a man or a woman. It ain’t got no balls at all. Tis a mule.”
“A mule!” It wasn’t the fall that had wounded her pride, but the discovery she had been riding a mule. Glen no longer wished to speak to either Etta Mae or Trapper Jim. She spent the rest of the afternoon among the young, unattached men who had been sending her hopeful glances all day, and left with Clint and Sophie.
That evening, after all the commotion had died down, the clutter cleared, the trappings of tables, chairs and dishes carted away by their owners, and their livestock nestled comfortably in their new beds, Etta Mae and Trapper Jim sat on the porch in their wooden rocking chairs. “Well now,” remarked Etta. “That’s what I call a shin-ding.”
“It certainly was a spectacle,” agreed Trapper Jim. “Whatever possessed that young un to ride a mule.”
“I don’t know,” said Etta Mae. “City folks is strange.”
“They certainly are.” Trapper Jim tapped a little tobacco into his pipe and puffed on it a few minutes. “You know, I’m right glad she finally quit following me around like a lost soul. Don’t get me wrong. Them attentions were flattering, but that woman could talk a mile a minute. I never seen so many loose words pouring out of someone’s throat. Fast talking women always did make me feel a little bit nervous.”
Etta Mae packed her own portion of tobacco into a pipe, took a few puffs and looked at the peaceful scene surrounding her. Mutt Head lay curled next to Trapper Jim’s chair. Noser sprawled out on the steps, his pink puppy tummy bulging. The buffalo grazed a little apart from the cattle, which occasionally mooed anxiously and turned their heads in inquiry. The chickens brooded in their nests, except a lone, black and white rooster with a crown of furious top feathers on his head. The rooster, who went by the peculiar name of Zulu, marched up and down in front of the pen, his keen, beady eyes appraising the trees and their possible lurkers. The sun was just beginning to spread, like a thick red blanket on the horizon. “Me too,” she agreed. “They always make me nervous, too.”