They Walk Among Us, Chapter Seven: Corral West

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The Corral West store in Sheridan proved to be a hoot and a half. Jack Hill had decided to swing by Jiffy Lube, get the oil changed in his Subaru–it had been nearly 7,000 miles since the last change–so we got there first.

It wasn’t so much that a big black dude and his stacked black chick walked into a western clothing store in a mostly white Wyoming cowboy town. Rather, it was me telling the sales clerks,

“It’s time for me to cowboy back up. I’ll be starting from the top down.”

Yeah, right. They all thought it. You could see it in their eyes, their body language. There were four people on duty this morning, all of them watching me out of the corners of their eyes. I even had to gently remind one guy to pay attention when he was helping Tania try on boots. I knew what I was doing. She did not.

When it comes to Stetsons, I don’t like the actual Stetson brand all that much. Give me a Resistol any old day. Thought I was going to strike out for a while on that, but a clerk named Millie finally dug one out of the back that did the trick. Size 7 1/2 (hey, I ain’t no pinhead), 4 XXXX beaver, four inch brim.

On me, a 3 1/2 brim looks ridiculous, like a real hat mated with a city slicker’s fedora and had an ugly baby. Jack, he looks good in a 3 1/2…but I’ve got something like three inches and forty pounds on him.

A couple of the clerks, sneaking glances at that new black Resistol on my head, got kind of a funny look on their faces. From the neck up, they were suddenly seeing cowboy.

“Honey,” Tania asked, “what about these?”

Oops. “Hey, dude,” I told the guy who’d been supposedly helping her, “why don’t you show her some actual footgear, eh? Not this Chinese made crap.”

“Everything’s made elsewhere these days,” he retorted, sounding kind of whiny about it.

I took off my Resistol, pointed to the “Made in Texas, USA” printing on the sweatband.

“Well, except for–”

“Show the lady some Frye’s, Mark,” a familiar voice advised. Jack Hill, just arrived.

“Jack! Long time no see!” Mark the whiner lit up like a Christmas tree. The whiner was, I now realized, the manager Jack had told us about.

What I didn’t know was that our fearless leader had overheard a bit of our conversation, didn’t much care for his friend Mark’s attitude toward the two well-tanned customers preparing to spend a small fortune in his store, and had decided on the spot to do something about it. Hill had told us he’d been fighting racial prejudice since he was ten years old, back before the Civil War. Apparently, 150 years or so hadn’t mellowed him much on that score.

Mark the manager suddenly looked uneasy. “You, uh, know these folks, Jack?”

“I should know my own son and his wife,” he replied as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

You shoulda seen the jaws drop on them store people. Literally. It was all I could do to keep from falling on the floor laughing. Either that, or adding fuel to the fire by throwing my arms around the old man and tearfully blurting out something like, “Father! You came!”

Notice, now, he never said I was his son. He just said he oughta know his son.

Sometimes with Jack Hill, you really need to pay attention.

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Poor Tania. She did lose it, had to cover her mouth with both hands, turn her laughter into a sort of spastic coughing fit to cover the hilarity that had her body actually shaking.

The service got really, really good after that. A lesser man might have been insulted or offended, done the Rev. Jeremiah Wright sort of thing, yelled out “God damn Corral West!” or something equally stupid. But I’m not like that. Growing up as the only black athlete in the middle of white Mormon Idaho cowboys and small town types, I’d gotten a more rounded education than I’d realized.

I just thought the whole thing was too funny for words, and so did my Hartford-raised sweetheart.

Besides, Jack called it. Tania found a pair of Veronica Short harness boots by Frye, dove gray, that suited her form and figure to a T–and yes, even fit her feet properly. Not a riding boot, but suitable for just about anything else.

Jack Hill, western fashion consultant.

We didn’t get out of there till nearly 9:30, burning daylight, so we hit the freeway immediately, powering toward the pass that would take us into Montana. Our new home state, at least for a while.

Jack gave us a holla on the CB, Channel 22. “The Corral West bunch had themselves quite a paradigm shift, seeing you come back out as a cowboy, eh?”

“Big 10-4,” I replied.

“Happened kind of the same way to me once. Same store, the day Mark the manager and I first met. I’d been out of cowboy togs for a few years. Started the same way you did, hat first, on down to the boots. None of the others were working there then, but Mark had his amazement showing when he finally realized there really was a cowboy hidden inside my old street clothes.”

Tania grabbed the mike. “Bet it wasn’t as wild as today. What with Tree being your black-as-the-bottom-of-a-coal-mine son and all.”

The Protector’s laughter was infectious. “Not near as wild. I do believe they thought Bill Pickett had done reincarnated right there in front of ’em.”

My honey looked at me. “Who’s Bill Pickett?”

“Black cowboy, back when black cowboys still got billed as Negro more often than not. One of the best ever, of any color. Invented the sport of bulldogging.”

There was a pause, then she asked, “What’s bulldogging?”

Bringing my hot little wannabe cowgirl up to date on western culture and history was going to take a while.

We didn’t stop again until three growling bellies and a couple of gas tanks running on fumes made the truck stop at Park City, Montana–west of Billings–look super extra good.

Turned out my honey had been pondering Hill’s long life for many a highway mile. While our hamburger steaks were cooking, she stared at our benefactor for a time–which he calmly ignored. Finally, she asked, “You willing to spill a few more beans, Jack?”

“Any time.” He sipped his coffee, waiting, letting her find the words.

“Women.”

“Yeah?”

“Bed partners.”

“Is there a question in there somewhere?” He grinned at her.

“Well…yeah. First question: Are you still a horny old goat, or did that go out the window along the way somewhere?”

I almost spewed my coffee, but Jack never turned a hair. He rubbed one palm with the thumb of the other hand before answering. A habit, I thought, not a sore hand. “Sweetheart,” he finally admitted, “you could call me Billy Goat Lust and not be far wrong.”

“Thought so,” she muttered, and then, “Back in Hartford, that first day, you said to the HR’s, she’s with me. I still don’t know what you meant by that.”

His eyebrows rose. “That’s been bugging you all this time? Tania, that’s just what came out of my mouth. Used it once, way back when, long story. Didn’t mean anything except the obvious, that I was figuring to stand in the way of them having their way with you.”

Another thing I was getting figured out about my girl. When she got her worry bone jammed about something, no way could she let it go. I’d just about forgotten about that first day altogether. I mean sure, with me having an eidetic memory, I could always review the smackdown Jack Hill had given the bangers, but I didn’t dwell on the incident.

Tania, obviously, was a dweller.

Woman thing, maybe.

Then she surprised me right down to the bone. “Thought you had designs on me, old man. Wanted it to be you jumping my bones, not them.”

Subtle, she’s not.

But Jack was her match. Guess you don’t survive multiple centuries without learning how to handle yourself, even vis-à-vis quick-tongued females. “Wouldn’t throw you out of bed for eating crackers, Tania. But with six heavily armed Hood Rats facing me, I was mostly concerned with staying alive for the next few seconds.”

“Huh.”

The food arrived, which didn’t even slow her down. Reckon she figured the waittress had seen it all, wouldn’t turn a hair. “So, how do you handle it?”

“Handle what?” Hill was popping the side of the ketchup bottle. The man liked a little meat with his ketchup.

“You outlive them all, but you do get yourself a woman–say a young woman–every now and then, right?”

“Or a young man. As long as they’re willing to acknowledge me as the boss in bed, I ain’t all that particular.”

That shut her up. My beloved likes to think of herself as open minded, and for the most part, she truly is…but her early churchgoing years had marked her more deeply than she knew. We’d talked about bisexuality and bisexuals, dominance and submission and all that. She claimed other people’s business was their business…but she’d never actually known a real person who admitted he was one of the perverted few.

We were all now eating our dinners politely and very, very quietly. Judging from the obvious shock my lady was suffering, I wasn’t at all sure I should ever tell her about the homosexual bull I’d seen on the ranch one year. Big money wasted, not a calf to show for it.

Then I happened to catch Jack’s eye. He was twinkling at me big time, clearly amused. Which made me wonder. Had he been serious? Or not? He’d told us he didn’t live alone, that his household included two women and one man who’d helped him care for his most recent wife until that lady had passed after a lengthy illness. Carina had been gone for more than eleven years now, but the three caretakers had no other place to go and had stayed on with Hill.

Which begged the question: Was he doing all three of ’em?

Not that it mattered to me, you understand, I truly do not care one whit who does who–or for that matter, who does what–as long as it ain’t happening in my personal space. Heck, there were a few animals on the ranch in Idaho who knew me a lttle too well when I was growing up, if you know what I mean. Read a study once that said a full two thirds of all rural-raised boys got around to humping a critter or three before they left the farm.

According to that study, I’m as normal as they come. So to speak.

And we were in Montana, where men are men and sheep are nervous and Brokeback Mountain was a hit movie.

But.

But, Tania clearly lacked my cosmopolitan view of such things. She didn’t have my ranch upbringing, my degree in philosophy or, for that matter, my years of bouncing around as a minor wannabe criminal, all broadening experiences.

Would she think to ask the question? I had no idea. I did hope that when we got to Jack’s place and met these people, one of the girls at least looked like his obvious bedmate. And that the other gal, plus the guy, looked like a separate couple. And that the guy wasn’t a complete flamer.

Crap, I thought, I’m losing it. Here I’m not even married to this woman yet, still in our stark raving lust phase, and she’s got me worrying about how she’s going to maybe react to something in the future. It’s dominating my entire thought process. So…does that make me a total wimp or just a guy in a relationship with a chick?

I didn’t know the answer, but I did know one thing. I was not going to mention my suspicions to Tania.

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