O R T A L I T Y F L A T S , N E B.
By Steve Frederick
first time I saw Mortality Flats from the air it brought to
mind a burnt-out cook fire, its tarry rooftops a scatter of
cold embers. Born to pioneer stock, we natives grew up
sun-burned, frost-bit, forever hacking prairie dust, the
longstanding joke being that it ain't so much that the wind
blows as Belle Springs High School sucks.
The herd thins out pretty
quick after each graduation, leaving a long couple of years
till the brutal birthday binge that marks your first official
social call to the Silver Buckle Lounge. Nobody knew that
better than Cody Ray Baker and I. We were banished from
"Bed-Springs" a couple of years back after clowning
our way through commencement, but still lacked a good year
from swaggering together into the Buck.
Weekdays, we lazed outside Dar
Trammel’s Wagon Hub hardware store, spitting Skoal, trying
our best to look tough among hard-bitten neighbors who took
sport in telling us the last time we'd crapped our britches.
We’d pull our hats down low over our eyes and Cody’d twirl
a rope, looking to lasso the boot of some passing girl. The
best I could do was flop one on the ground ahead of them and
hope they’d step into it; most times they'd crow-hop aside
and shoot me a crusty glare. But Cody’s timing was such that
he could catch a leg just as it lifted free of the dust — a
skill that put more than one buckle bunny into the shotgun
seat of his Ranger.
Weekends we earned our silver,
rodeoing our way from Fort Rob to Broken Bow for two summers
in a row. I was the header, and Cody the heeler. Once in
awhile he’d rope with some rancher willing to pay side money
for his shot at a buckle, but most times we’d partner up,
stringing together enough hundred-dollar go-rounds to start
off our Friday nights with a pickup full of gas, a cooler full
of beer and a half-pint under the seat.
It all went to hell the day
Cynthia Buckner came home from college. She’d been shy in
high school, all rusty curls, braces and wire-rims, but
afterward she wore her family’s ownership of the Rocking A
Ranch like a tiara – at least until she flunked out of
Colorado State. By the time she came rolling up to the Wagon
Hub that same afternoon, everyone in town had heard about it.
If it weren’t for her mama’s
Explorer, I’d have never recognized her. She wore
tight-fitting Levi’s and plaid flannel cinched at the waist,
and when she walked past us I could make out a horny toad
tattooed on the small of her back. When she came strutting
back out the door a couple of minutes later, packing a box of
fencing staples and a sack of chicken feed, Cody dropped a
loop around her ankle and hauled her up short. You might have
thought she’d have expected it, growing up around town and
all, but even through her wrap-around ski shades I could sense
she was in a foul humor.
Cody grinned like an army
mule. Cool as could be, Cynthia set her cargo on the ground
and bent down to free up her leg, giving us both a good long
look at the fit of those jeans. She was grinning herself as
she reeled him in with that rope, but when he came within
range she buried the toe of her Justins into the inseam of his
Wranglers. His eyes came bugging out and he dropped to the
ground bent double, blowing snot from both nostrils. Before I
could step in, she’d strung up his ankles and was headed for
the hitch on that Explorer. If he hadn’t slipped free, she’d
have drug him to a ravel halfway back to her daddy’s ranch.
They got married seven weeks
after the Rocking A branding, her college math convincing her
that she'd passed up a period. Cody bought me a hat after I
agreed to be his best man and keep my mouth shut. Cynthia
introduced me to Clarice, who looked fine in poufy lavender
and lace and has proved to be well worth every weekend I’ve
spent in Fort Collins. I do my riding these days on a
four-wheel ATV, slicing thumbs on Rocking A fence, counting
calves, moving steers through the sale barn.
Though Cody and I didn’t
quite get it at the time, those whitewashed "I do’s"
put our glory to pasture, and the rest of it too, save for the
odd wink in church, a tipped hat across the auction ring or
those rustled outlaw evenings when the prairie wind ceases to
blow and we rendezvous on the bluffs above town, sharing a
bottle-bottom view of the stars, Jim Beam passed
window-to-window, pickups aimed in opposite directions.
© 2000 Steve Frederick