Scootie woke to a bald eagle outside his window, perched in a cottonwood tree. He watched for ten minutes, until the creature spread its impossibly wide wings and coasted away.
The next morning, he would drive the rental back to Denver, Jorie would drive Juliana to Jackson Hole, and they would all turn back into bronze statues, frozen in their roles. It wouldn’t be so easy anymore to see this as a normal way of living, because he had just received a week-long picture that said otherwise. On the day after the bike trip, Scootie fell ill from an undercooked elk burger – which might seem funny except for the terrible spells of vomiting, the loss of control over his own body, the fear that it would never stop. There through it all was Juliana, taking each and every pain as one of her own, and smiling the next morning, when he awoke to find himself recovered.
The illness had forced out a trip to Devil’s Tower and a day of snowmobiling in the Bighorns, but they still had a day to spend in Sheridan. On the way there, they stopped at a sheep ranch.
Anne and Neil Gelhaus were the final, childless remnants of a centuries-old sheepraising clan. When the cattle rancher next door offered to boy them out, they decided to retire and move to town.
They parked in a pasture and reported to the lambing shed for their bidding numbers. Then they mixed in with the locals, inspecting the thousands of items piled on six flatbeds parked along the drive. After an hour of this poking and prodding, a pickup truck with a P.A. rolled up and the auctioneer unloosed his drawling cadence through a megaphone.
“Silvah dollah! Start me with a silvah dollah on this item what the heck is that anyway, Hal? Hal says it’s a holding cage and we’ll believe ‘im. There! a dollah dollah dollah can I get two... two! Let’s take it to four, four, do I hear four! the gentleman with the hoo-mungous belt buckle over there. No ho ‘bout a five, little fivah, pitcher of Abe, five measly smackeroos... five!”
Scootie was too entranced by the rhythms to bid on anything. Juliana saw that familiar audio look and whispered a joke to Jorie, but Jorie was distracted, as well, because Jorie meant business. A serious collector of frontier relics, she got a pair of rusty spurs for 72 bucks, then lost an old saddle to an antique merchant for 210. One had to be careful in these parts. Locals had been known to produce their own “antiques” by burying cowboy items in the ground for a few years. But Jorie had an artist’s eye for detail.
Scootie took his first bid on the third truckload – a new-looking braided bullwhip that had caught his eye earlier. It was a lengthy bout – somebody on the other side of the truck kept raising him two bucks. He finally dropped out at 31, realizing the whip was no longer a bargain. Five minutes later, he was approached by Juliana, smacking the whip-handle against her palm.
“Christ, Scootie! Didn’t you realize who you were bidding against?”
Scootie laughed. “I had no idea.”
She draped the whip around his neck. “I bought it for you.”
“You... what? Well why didn’t you just let me win the bidding?”
“Because,” she smiled. “I wanted to win.”
After a week at the ranch, the 13,000 residents of Sheridan seemed like a metropolis. They slipped downhill past the usual strip-mall invaders, then rolled along Main Street to the old downtown. Scootie noted a neon sign flashing ESPRESSO, and a theater marquee advertising Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by the Billings Repertory Theater.
They consumed a lunch of inexpensive steak sandwiches at the Honeybee Diner (served by a former Miss Wyoming), then took off to King’s Saddlery, where they stared at racks of spurs, bits, bridles and other things they had no use for. At Maxfield’s Slightly Used Goods, the women shuffled through racks of clothing until Juliana dug up a butterscotch Patsy Cline leather jacket with shoulder patches of chocolate brown.
Next they headed to Bighorn Mercantile, where Scootie tried on two dozen hundred-dollar hats recommended by various rodeo and country/western stars. He settled on a stylish Clint Black Stetson, paired with a hat band of porcupine quills and blue-black feathers picked out by Juliana.
“Boy, I don’t know,” he said, eyeing himself in the mirror. “I wouldn’t mind the cost, but where the hell am I gonna wear this stuff?”
Juliana pulled him to an adjacent aisle and whispered, “You only have to wear it one place, as far as I’m concerned, and I will most definitely make it work your while. Besides, I’m buying.”
“You can’t. You already bought me the whip.”
“The whip is not necessarily for your benefit. Come on, sweetcakes, let me spend my husband’s money.”
Scootie acceded, although the ever-presence of Scott Kross’s money – not to mention that ubiquitous BankNet logo – was beginning to wear on him. Throw in a cowboy shirt, split down the middle between blood red and smoke blue, a teardrop bolo of silver and mother-of-pearl, and the square-toed boots he had brought with him, and Scootie was beginning to look like the genuine article. It didn’t hurt that he was already tall and lanky, and as he sidled along Main Street he could feel his legs beginning to bow.
“Well, gals. Where to next?”
“The Mint,” said Juliana. “That’s where Jorie met my mom.”
Point me in the gen-a-rool die-rection,” said Scootie, sucking his teeth in a horsemanlike way.
“I thought he was a poet,” said Jorie. “Maybe he’s cowboy poet.”
“Two dogies diverged on a yellah ranch,” Scootie drawled. “And knowin’ I could not rope ‘em both, and stay one cowpoke, long ah stood, and chased one o’ them cusses as fur as I could...”
“So,” Juliana interrupted. “Billy Bob Frost. Y’ever actually been on a horse?”
“‘Course not. Them things scare me.”
The Mint was exactly as advertised: neon sign of a bronc buster in flight, high lacquered walls appointed with more animal heads than the San Diego Zoo, the obligatory jackalope, encased in glass. The young cowboys wore immaculate haircuts and dress hats, leaning at the bar in tight formation, consuming tobacco in both forms. At the far end of the hall a squad of black-leather bikers gathered around the pool table, next to a jukebox with equal parts Steppenwolf and Hank Williams.
Scootie excused himself and headed for the restrooms, marked “Roy” and “Dale.” He emerged a minute later, whistling through his teeth like a native, surfing a wave of roundup recklessness as he spotted Jorie and Juliana at a booth. What he didn’t know was that he had entered the midway just ahead of Carney Lankmann, East Coast purchasing manager for BankNet, Inc., and frequent golf partner of Scott Kross. Carney had spotted his boss’s wife, waved over the crowd in confirmation, and left his rancher friends at the bar to walk over and say hello.
Embedded in his new persona, Scootie failed to notice the look in Juliana’s eyes until he was hovering over her table, mere muscle-fibers away from leaning over for a kiss. Fortunately, the silent signal finally registered, and froze him in place.
Scootie would never again come this close to the cool Western smarts of Marshall Matt Dillon or the silent cunning of Clint Eastwood. Instantly calculating the direction of Juliana’s worried gaze and the manifold possibilities of his newly purchased wardrobe, he leaned over and knocked twice on the tabletop.
“Well now, ladies. I will see you first thing t’marrah at the stables. And I do promise to have Butterscotch all set for ya, Miz Kross, butcha gotta promise me you’ll drop by King’s Saddlery for that new bridle. Butterscotch can be a gen-yoo-wine screamer ‘thout the proper accoo-trah-mawnts, you catch mah meanin’.”
Halfway through this alien monologue, Juliana picked up on the script (Jorie thought it best to play dumb, which at this point was no big stretch). Juliana rose to greet Carney with a smile and a society cheek kiss, then turned to Scootie with a strategically incomplete introduction.
“Carney Lankmann, I’d like you to meet...”
“Weed,” said Scootie, grabbing Carney’s hand with a firm saddlehorn grip. “Richard Weed. Friends call me Rick. You don’ wanna know what my enemies call me.”
“I can just guess,” said Carney, smiling.
“Old family joke,” said Scootie, giving the women an exaggerated wink. “Well, ah’d best be dee-partin’. See you ladies in the mornin’. And remember, King’s Saddlery. Pleasure to meetcha, Carney.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” said Carney, then returned to Juliana. “So Juliana, whatever could it be that’s brought you to Sheridan?”
Juliana watched Scootie making his way through the crowd, turning to smile and tip his hat in her direction. “I came to visit an old friend, Carney. I’d like you to meet Jorie Dunlap.”
It took an hour for Jorie and Juliana to escape Carney’s company without raising suspicions. They entered the back warehouse of King’s to find Scotie in a field of ropes, using a demo lasso to bring down a bale of hay with horns. “Gettin’ purty good at this. ‘Course, the real ones, they tend to move around a bit.”
“Scootie, I’m sorry,” said Juliana. “Were you bored?”
“Not at all. They got a little cowboy museum back here. Whole damn stagecoach from the 1889 state rodeo. Dioramas of famous Indian massacres. Even got a shotgun from Custer’s lieutenant at Little Big Horn.”
He swung his lasso for another toss, but Juliana grabbed his arm. “I think we’d better go home, honey. This has been a bit much for me.”
“You knew the bullet would come, honey. We dodged it.”
Juliana’s voice sank. “I don’t like dodging bullets, Scootie. Let’s go.”
Scootie could see it in Juliana’s frazzled face: a door had opened, a door had closed. She walked to the parking lot, arms crossed, followed by the sculptor and the poet. Jorie recounted the night’s adventure motion by motion, roping each turnabout with her prairie-dust laugh.
Photo by MJV