Sow’s Ear: Clear day
by Gwen Petersen
Big Timber, Mont.
It’s dude season, a time when guest ranches and dude ranches play host to pilgrims seeking “the Western experience” which, naturally, absolutely must include horseback riding on nice, calm, tractable steeds.
In my younger years when I was a dude ranch employee, customs were sexist and macho. A male wrangler took guests on trail rides, flirted with the women dudes, told tall tales and participated in the 5 o’clock cocktail hour. A female wrangler washed the dishes, made the beds, cooked the food and served the cocktails at the 5 o’clock cocktail hour.
If there’s a difference between a guest and a dude ranch, it’s probably something having to do with political correctness. A dude is a tenderfoot, is a greenhorn, is a person totally inexperienced in the culture of the rural West. You can see how the word “guest” is a lot kinder.
A guest ranch must have horses or a fishing stream or both. A dude ranch provides horses, but may also run cows as well. A working dude ranch means the guests get to help trail cattle from here to there, maybe gather eggs and perhaps pull faucets on Bessie the Jersey.
Every summer produces a fresh batch of dude stories which provides the employees, the ranchers and the local townsfolk with conversational fodder all winter. Take Sophie, for instance. She was a tiny bird-like woman of 73 who wore false eyelashes and batted them at the men. Sophie never missed cocktail hour as that was the best time for eyelash workout.
But one afternoon, Sophie failed to appear when the dinner gong sounded the supper hour. Concerned, I went to her cabin. I knocked, then entered because I could hear strange gagging sounds issuing from the bathroom.
“Sophie?” I called.
A figure garbed in an electric-blue satin robe appeared in the bathroom doorway. A varmint appeared to be attacking her face, but I realized it was only the chin-strap Sophie wore to keep her wattles firm.
“You alright?” I asked.
Sophie’s hand fluttered, the red-tipped fingernails twinkling like a swarm of ladybugs in flight. The hand patted her throat from which issued turkey-gobbler gurgles and a froth of bubbles that floated free in the air; sunbeams brushed in tiny rainbows. She spun around and zoomed into the bathroom. I followed. This looked serious. I found Sophie bent over the sink rinsing her mouth again and again. Finally, she could speak. Pointing to a flask-shaped shampoo bottle, she whimpered, “I thought it was Scotch!”
There are times on a dude ranch when the guests turn the tables. Paula, a tall, competent and confident woman, had been at the ranch for a couple of weeks. She liked to take early morning walks. This particular morning her stroll took her past the horse corral where the wrangler was attempting to shoe a horse. The horse objected. It wouldn’t stand still, it kept pulling away, it tried to kneel. Paula paused and leaned over the corral rail to watch.
At that moment a hoof came down on the wrangler’s instep.
“You #$%&*!! crowbait, stand still or I’m gonna sell you for &%$#! dogfood! #$%&!!!!
At last the wrangler ran out of breath and descriptive expressions.
In the resulting pocket of silence, Paula asked, “You shoeing that horse or naming it?”
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Hudspeth County, Texas — In the fall of 2019, ranch hands were gathering a bull when they noticed something out of place. One of their employer’s cows was freshly branded, with someone else’s brand.