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The Truth About Cowboys

The Truth About Cowboys

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by Margot Early

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Erin MacKenzie considers herself a candidate for the Dumped by Cowboys Hall of Fame. Especially since she was stood up by rodeo cowboy Abe Cockburn, the father of her baby daughter, Maeve.

And then there's another cowboy—Erin's own father, rancher Kip Kay, whom she's never even met. Who's never acknowledged her.



Erin MacKenzie considers herself a candidate for the Dumped by Cowboys Hall of Fame. Especially since she was stood up by rodeo cowboy Abe Cockburn, the father of her baby daughter, Maeve.

And then there's another cowboy—Erin's own father, rancher Kip Kay, whom she's never even met. Who's never acknowledged her. Erin makes a risky choice: she goes to Colorado to tell Abe about his daughter. And to tell Kip about his.

She goes to Colorado to find the truth about cowboys…and about fathers.

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Reno, Nevada

No Cowboys, vowed Erin Mackenzie.

But the bullfighter clown, the greasepaint matador of the rodeo, had already helped himself to the vacant seat beside her. The clown's face was painted like a dog's, with a black splotch around one eye, and his baggy Wrangler cutoffs brushed the legs of her own not-atall-baggy jeans as he gazed at her with a look of spellbound adoration. His thick-lashed green-gray eyes were made for pantomime—and unmeant seduction. Erin studied his suntanned knees and the stripes on his athletic socks and the dust on his cleats. Bandannas—red, yellow, orange and shocking pink—dangled from his baggies, fanning out to touch her, too.

Over the public-address system, the announcer said, "Found you a girlfriend, Abe?"

The rodeo clown jerked his chin up and down. Backing from Erin just a little, he shyly offered her some invisible flowers.

Erin took them.

The eye contact was long and awkward.

As though overcome by his feelings, he sprang to his feet and darted away. Seconds later, he settled beside a Nashville-haired blonde in the next section and regarded her hopefully.

"Now, Abe…" said the announcer.

Erin steadied her breath. Just part of his act. But when he back-flipped over one fence and vaulted over another into the night-lit arena, she admired his agility, the way he moved. Earlier, he'd made her laugh with the antics of his Australian shepherd and with a bareback act on a chestnut gelding. Few of his jokes were new; she'd heard them at rodeos before, but he had that rare gift. He was funny.

And according to the program, he hailed from Alta, Colorado.

Erin couldn't ignore that. Couldn't forget it.

His patchwork shirt and suspenders with sunflowers on them transfixed her as he wandered toward the barrel in the center of the arena. When he peered inside, the barrelman, another clown, popped up like a jack-in-the-box and shouted at him. The bullfighter ran away and the crowd laughed. But the mood changed as the man at the microphone promised, "Folks, you are about to see some of the rankest bulls on the rodeo circuit…"

Bull riding. Erin sat up, watching the chutes. The Reno Rodeo was a huge event, with a $175,000 purse. It was unlikely she would run into Abe the Babe—her bullfighter clown—again.

"No cowboys," she whispered into her beer.

Erin was a candidate for the Dumped by Cowboys Hall of Fame. Sometimes she thought her life was a case study in rejection by bull riders and ropers in too-tight Wranglers, with rodeo belt buckles the size of dinner plates and small closed minds. Erin had a broad educated mind. She prided herself on clear thinking, on commitment to all things rational.

So what was she doing at the rodeo?

Partaking of an ancient rite, she told herself, a rite as old as the domestication of animals. Hadn't Theseus ridden into the city of Athens astride a bull? Weren't bulls always considered symbols of virility and cattle a measure of wealth? Wasn't Erin herself descended from people who raised cows, from cowboys?

Nothing, not even an almost completed doctorate in History of the American West from the University of Nevada at Reno, not even her own history of cowboys, could destroy her childhood dreams of snagging a rodeo champion like Ty Murray. She imagined growing old with a millionaire Gold Buckle winner who would never walk right again. He'd raise Herefords; she'd grow prize-winning vegetables for the county fair.

A bullfighter clown would do just as well. A bullfighter from Alta.

As the first bull, a brindle monster as big as a car, plunged out of the chute, bucking and spinning and raising plumes of dust, the clown in the patchwork shirt and his partner danced just out of hoof's range, ready to help the cowboy.

When the bull jettisoned his cargo, Abe withdrew a red bandanna from one oversize pocket. With a mime's grace and a matador's speed and skill, he flourished the handkerchief like a cape. The bull swung its head away from the fallen rider. While the cowboy scrambled over the fence like startled wildlife, the clown crouched on all fours and pawed the ground.

Erin leaned forward.

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Abe," said the announcer.

The bull charged. Grasping its horns, the bullfighter vaulted over the animal's muscular bulk—a feat depicted on a wall painting in Crete dated 2000 B.C. Abe landed on his feet, and the bull spun to meet him.

"Abe, you've made him mad now. You just leave that bull alone."

The clown was done for. The brindle beast chased him, its lowered head committed to the seat of those baggies. Abe the Babe stood to get freight-trained by two thousand pounds of Brahma bull.

As the crowd salivated, the bullfighter swung toward the bull's shoulder, running in a small circle, forcing the bull to turn, too. Breathing deeply, Erin inhaled the rodeo smells—dust and manure and animals, beer and popcorn and hot dogs—all mingling in the dry hot Reno night. It was the modern equivalent of an evening at the Roman Coliseum.

Outmaneuvered, the bull grew bored with his quarry. Spotting the open gate and other animals, he lifted his head and trotted out of the arena, and Abe made a production of dusting off the seat of his pants and twisting around to blow on them, as though they were too hot.

"No cowboys," Erin repeated into her beer.

No cowboy from Alta.

Just hours later, she changed her mind. On the grounds that he was a thread to her history, she'd brought him home. Granted, she would never follow the thread to its end, see where it led. But she could wrap herself in this bit of it for the night and try to stay warm.

In his sun-faded red Dodge pickup, he'd followed her to Reno's north side, to the neighborhood of houses all the same. The neighborhood that, for Erin and her mother, represented Success. Triumph over poverty. Security.

The glass patio doors were open. The swamp cooler was broken, and the ninety-degree night was as stubborn as it was rare. Outside, in the compact grass-and-concrete yard, the bullfighter's Australian shepherd sniffed at Erin's mother's cocker spaniel, Taffy. Then, the two dogs wagged tails and sniffed some more and trotted together along the board-and-batten fence.

The cowboy on the plaid sofa gaped at the shoe-box yard as though he couldn't conceive of such closed-in spaces. His greasepaint was gone and she saw now that his skin was a smooth light golden brown, his lips flushed and sensuous. He had the hard square jaw Erin associated with descendants of those who had settled the West. Too-long Wranglers were stacked over his boots, and his white straw hat shone clean and white, not stepped-on, rolled-in-manure, end-of-the-season battered.

He was so cute. The cropped dirt brown hair reminded her of a World War II pilot—or the Marlboro man. So far, she'd learned he was twenty-seven and an Aries. She was a Taurus, just turned twenty-five last month; her belated birthday present to herself was a cowboy and a national-finals chance to break her own rodeo record in Getting Left.

Erin prepared for another hit of Jack Daniel's. Sloppy pouring had left shot-glass rings on the metal-legged kitchen table where she and her mother had sat so many mornings, eating Cap'n Crunch or Shredded Wheat. Now Erin and Abe were passing the bottle.

As a motto, No cowboys had lost its effect. Erin had been thinking of the bullfighter from Alta, Colorado, when she came home and showered and dressed after the rodeo. She'd stepped out to the rodeo dance in red Wranglers, a blue-and-red fringed Western shirt and tricolored hand-tooled cowboy boots, looking like the child of the West she'd never quite managed to become, no matter how hard she'd begged her mother for a horse of her own.

Lessons, six weeks each summer, were all they'd been able to afford. They happened only if Erin got straight A's.

Erin had never gotten anything else—except in that life course entitled Resisting Cowboys.

She studied the bullfighter, Abe Cockburn—pronounced Coburn, he'd said, same as Bruce Cockburn, the musician.

What was he thinking?

That second, Abe's thoughts were only whiskey-deep. Reliving the eight-day rodeo, subtracting the money he'd lost in travel expenses and hotel bills from what he'd earned bullfighting. Between performances he worked for Guy Loren, the stock contractor. He'd never get rich this way. But he'd always get by.

A photo above the T.V. showed a girl in a prom dress, probably this woman in high school. How did she stand living here, with just a patch of brown grass for a yard? The two-story house was identical to every other house on the street and on the next street and the next. Long and narrow with vertical cedar siding, it seemed flimsy enough to blow down in a good wind.

He blinked away drunken visions. Hotel rooms. The arena after the kids had gotten autographs and everyone had left—the trampled earth and the empty stands littered with beer cups and popcorn boxes. He imagined his truck on the road, hauling Buy Back in the trailer. Martha always rode in the cab, where Abe could sing Ian Tyson songs to her and she could put her head and paws in his lap while he drove.

The woman—Erin—took another drink. At the rodeo, he hadn't been able to decide if she was pretty or not, and he still couldn't. Her eyes were such a dark brown they seemed to make holes in her white skin, and her light reddish brown hair looked home-cut. The haircut suited her.

Her clothes did not.

He asked, "What do you do here?"

"I'm in grad school at UNR, and I work at the Museum of the American West. Also, I'm a valet." Parking cars at the hotel casinos was the best deal going for students, and Erin took pride in her work. Besides earning large tips, she'd discovered she had a way with small children abandoned in the parking lot by parents who were inside gambling. Like them, Erin understood abandonment. As they and she knew, it was often simply a case of being totally forgotten.

For days.

Or maybe for decades.

Now the cowboy would ask what she studied. "You like rodeos?" he said.

"Of course."

When Abe had first spotted her, at the refreshment stand, she was rooting through a cracked and stained leather purse with dog-shredded fringe, hunting loose change. Seeing her, he'd felt like he'd walked into a post, and he'd been sure he'd never see her again. The rodeo was too big. But her seat was in the fourth row-accessible during the performance. He'd felt nervous, flirting with her. Only the greasepaint made it easy.

They'd met again at the rodeo party at the White Horse Hotel and Casino. Their eyes had caught—or rather, he had seen her staring at him, as though trying to figure out if she'd seen him before. He'd taken the bar stool next to hers and yawped at her just like he had at the rodeo, pretending he was still in his clown face. She'd recognized him then. And said, Please go away. I don't like you.

Soon they were two-stepping on a floor growing slick with spilled beer to country rock belted out by a band called the Spittoons.

Abe wished he wasn't leaving in the morning.

"Did you say you live with your mom?" he asked.

Erin nodded, thinking she was crazy to invite a stranger, any stranger, into her home this way. It wasn't safe. But Erin made a career of living dangerously. Hunting down gamblers in the casino to tell them when toddlers were hungry or needed their diapers changed. Frequenting rodeos, stock shows and the kind of cowboy bars famous for table-turning brawls, where people fell asleep in their drinks and no one had heard of line dancing. As a result, she had friends in low places and was often up to her ears in tears. This new friend had asked about her mother. "She's a croupier."

A blackjack dealer. Abe squinted at the croupier's daughter. Feeling romantic and wanting to be romantic, for her, he asked, "Who are you?"

Was he really curious? Erin thought so. As though he cared about her for more than this night. As though, even when he moved on in the morning, he would be thinking about her. As though he might be the one who stayed on—or came back. He would fall for her like Vince Gill for the "Oh Girl" girl. She'd be never alone anymore.

"What do you mean?"

He shrugged, a boyish half-embarrassed gesture, the kind of possibly false shyness she'd learned to distrust.

"I don't know. You seem different."

As his whiskey-glazed eyes searched hers, Erin decided this clown had used these lines before. "Who are you, Abe?"

She meant it to be ironic. It didn't work. Abe Cockburn's layers of manhood and cowboy pride were the real McCoy. Erin wondered who he was beneath them and knew she'd never know.

It made him fascinating.

He got up and drew out another chair at the dinette, to sit closer to her.

Erin offered the bottle, but he said, "I'm fine." Then, "Can I kiss you?"

It was inevitable. Why did she do this self-destructive thing?

Erin knew exactly why. She'd passed psychology, after all. "You could talk me into that."

Into feeling his fingers push back her hair. It was a soft kiss.

Afterward, he peered down at his chest. Slowly, he fished an imaginary object from his pocket—a key ring. Finding the key he wanted, he fit it into a lock in his chest, over the left front of his black-and-white-and-green Western shirt, and opened a door Erin could almost see. Removing an object, he blew some dust off it and held it up to his ear to check if it was still ticking.

Then he handed her his heart.

Erin received the imaginary heart, held it. Boy, I bet this thing has been around. She set the heart aside, on the table, and picked up the whiskey bottle.

He winced and sank in his chair, dying of rejection. An instant later, he tried to snatch back his heart, but Erin grabbed it from under his hand, and he caught her fingers and their eyes met.

She followed him upstairs to the bedroom he guessed was hers, maybe because of the posters of bull rider Lane Frost and rodeo-cowboy-turned-singer Chris LeDoux on the walls.

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