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The Cowboy’s Lariat

Cowboy , originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

You could say I have a thing for cowboys.

Real cowboys, that is…not their urban impostors.

And it’s not that I dig them in a watched-too-many-spaghetti-Westerns, groupie-following, junior-highschool-girl-crush kind of way. It’s more like a sweetly held hushed awe for their vanishing form of life and their vital skill sets. For the miles and miles they log horseback in hard saddles. And for their intimate knowledge of the range. Sadly enough, real cow punches are a dying breed.

But wannabe cowboys are everywhere, and they’re pretty darned easy to spot. As hard as they try, these urban pretenders will never be confused with their real life counterparts on the range. That’s because their Stetsons are far too expensive and flashy of trim, their belts are hand-tooled by hired artisans, and their snakeskin boots wouldn’t last the eight seconds (or less) of a rough stock competition.

Not that I begrudge the wannabees. I met my fair share of wannabe cowpokes on the flagstone patio dance floors of Santa Fe, New Mexico. And, to give them their due, most of these fellas were courtly of manner, could execute a decent two-step, a sweetheart wrap, and a few handy spins and twists. They’d learned to dance and could avoid stepping on my toes. But most were a little overly permapressed to pass for a bronc buster. Occasionally, however, the real enchilada would saunter in. This, of course, was a cause for real celebration.

One gentleman especially stands out in my mind. When he hit the dance hall an almost hallowed reverence would fall over the place like stardust. That’s because he was the genuine article. A. sported a handlebar mustache, a pair of scuffed boots, well-worn Wranglers and a sweat-doused bandana wrapped tightly around his neck. And he took off his hat before asking a lady to dance, which would have left a wannabe feeling virtually naked. There was no posturing with A. He knew he was a cowboy and didn’t need an oversized, thousand dollar brushed-suede Stetson to prove it. The thing that impressed me most about A. (on the few occasions when I danced with him) was that he actually smelled like a cowboy. Smelled of adobe dirt and potent sweat and didn’t bother to hide it. The other thing that endeared me to A. was that he knew how to dance like a cowboy. That is to say, unpretentiously. His two-step was straight up with a strong and decisive lead, but also about as utilitarian as his roping saddle. He didn’t throw his partners around in a lot of back-snapping twists or turns that would later require a chiropractic adjustment. His moves weren’t slick and he wasn’t out to impress. His was a gentlemanly, though understated style. In other words: pure cowboy.

Cowboys weren’t on my mind eight years ago when I moved east. I supposed I had taken them as much for granted as the miles of brown prairies I drove through en route home. But when it finally hit me that I had seen the last of the metaphorical Home on The Range, nostalgia hit hard.

A few weeks after settling down in Massachusetts, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my Arab mare. She was being transported by a Colorado-based equine shipping outfit, and was coming east with a posse of other equine travelers. When the huge rig pulled into the grounds of my new boarding stable, I heard her unmistakable whinny, which was both loud and nervous. I couldn’t blame her for being a bundle of nerves: she was the last passenger aboard and eager to make her exit. The gentleman who casually slipped out from behind the wheel of the semi unsettled me, mostly because he vaguely reminded me of someone. And then it struck me: though he didn’t look the least like him, his deportment and gait were eerily similar to A’s. He was calm and steady and unhurried, and I knew immediately that I was in the presence of a seasoned horseman. A real cowboy. He pulled out a clipboard and had me sign for my precious cargo on the dotted line. Then he walked without haste onto the trailer, snapped a lead line onto my horse’s halter, and calmly walked her down the ramp, oblivious to her high-strung prancing and nostrils flared with fear.

He didn’t hand me the lead line as I had expected, but instead looked at me evenly and inquired politely: “How ‘bout if I just walk her into the stall for you ma’am? She’s some worked up and a wee bit nervous.” I quickly nodded my assent, grateful for the kind gesture.

Once my horse was safely in her stall and munching away happily on hay, the cowboy’s business was done. He tipped his hat, wished me well, and pulled himself back up into his rig and drove away without haste, just as he had arrived. I watched him for a long time with a bereft feeling, as if I’d just lost my best friend. I knew it would be a good long time before another cowboy walked into my life with unhurried, bowlegged ease.

And although the truth of that thought has borne out, memory has a way of gently transporting us back through the years of experiences and the odd happenstances we may have forgotten. Like memory, cowboys have a way of turning up in unexpected places.

The other day I pulled my heavy woolen hat over my earphones and scrolled my ipod down to a favorite series of New Mexico dance band tunes. This playlist was a live album, cut after I’d left the state. One of the musicians, M, suddenly announced a surprise guest star named R.T. who was going to sit in on a song with him.

“He’s a real cowboy, by golly, from Cimarron New Mexico,” M. said jovially.

As soon as I heard the name and the mystery man’s voice, a broad grin spread across my face. He was a real cowboy, all right, and what was more: I knew him.

Several years ago my friend K and I lit out from Santa Fe for a redneck adventure. We took a road trip to Cimarron, where we would indulge in watching a rodeo and dance the night away to the cowboy R.T’s band. K. happened to be dating his bass player, who moonlighted in a variety of dance bands.

It was a hot and dusty day in Cimarron, with little breeze to quench the thick air. I was dressed in a shorts and flip-flops, while K. had donned a skimpy baby doll dress. We parked the Toyota amidst several gargantuan doolies and soon found K’s boyfriend, J, and his guitar-playing friend S. These two fifty-something men had a good bird’s eye view of the rodeo activities from atop a tin roof barn and beckoned us to come on up. “Coming up” involved climbing a rickety ladder of Jack and The Beanstock proportions (in my flip flops, no less) and parking my bottom on the afore-mentioned hotter-than-hell sloped tin roof. K and I cursed and clawed our way up, both feeling utterly ill-equipped for travel to the rustic balcony of rodeo land.

Once on the roof, we saw the strange apparatus that had been rigged up for the band. It looked as though the singing cowboys would be crooning on an old hay wagon that had been crudely transformed into a stage. The wagon-stage was on wheels, and therefore had been pushed flush up against the barn. Tarps had been thrown over its open sides, evidently to protect it from the blistering heat of the day. J and S had pulled one of the tarps onto the roof to protect their seats from heat blisters, and the same was precariously and none too securely held in place by baling twine, which (as baling twine is prone to do) was already fraying badly and looking unequal to the task of anchoring the tarp down to either side of the roof.

Our brief enjoyment of watching the rodeo from atop our lofty perch was soon rudely interrupted by a sudden hot and ugly blast of wind that took us roof squatters unawares, and which immediately gave the unruly and insecure tarp a few ideas of its own. I ran screaming and scuttling across the roof, idiotically oblivious of the searing blisters that were beginning to break out on my newly naked feet, as I tried in vain to grab an edge of the rebellious tarp. Just as J yelled: “watch out!” another 40-knot gale hit us sideways. The next thing I remember, K and I were blanketed beneath a heap of tarp that had risen up over us like a tidal wave hell bent on annihilation. Although K and I somehow managed to extricate ourselves from its sweltering stranglehold,  it took all four of us a considerable amount of strength and balance to wrestle it back into quasi- submission. Both of my flip-flops were by now long gone, and I was beginning to hallucinate from a combination of dehydration and the early throes of (what would later prove to be) the mother of all sunburns. “What in God’s name,” I wondered, “are we doing up here?”

I know what you’re thinking: if you want a cowboy hero to show up, rent a bad Western. Nobody is going to pay much attention to a flip-flop clad damsel-in-distress with a bad sunburn. (Probably not even in reel life.) But somehow or other, hallucinations and miracles often have similar senses of humor. And clothing. The one who arrived on that cat-hot tin roof in Cimarron was wearing chaps, spurs with rowels, and carrying (I kid you not) a lariat.

He walked up the ladder in his steel-toed boots and strode across the tin slope like a vacationing acrobat out for a Sunday stroll. And what’s more, with nothing whatsoever to hang onto, he proceeded to uncoil that lariat and throw it up into the air. It unfurled with a whistling noise before noiselessly descending downwards, like a trained snake undulating in time to its charmer’s flute. Whereupon it landed in a neat loop around one of the errant edges of tarp and abruptly tightened around it in a death lock. The slack end of the rope neatly braced itself back along the long side of the sloped roof, to become mysteriously anchored below deck on the wagon stage.

“Looks like y’all were in a bit of a pickle,” the cowboy ventured in typical (understated) cowboy style.

“You must be R.T.,” I said, stating the obvious.

“Yes ma’am,” he said, offering me a strong hand. “I just thought you ladies might be more comfortable below, where it ain’t so hot and windy.”

And with that, he helped us down the ladder. J and S. sheepishly brought up the rear.

“He had a lariat,” J said weakly, by way of explanation.

“He had a lariat,” K and I agreed.

But it was more than that. Cowboys carry themselves with a kind of quiet authority born of necessity. They don’t lose their cool, and they know when to show up.

(And they know when to ride off into the sunset too.)

True: you could rent a movie…but chances are it wouldn’t be as much fun.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.