Howdy, the name’s Jim Bridger and I’ve got me a story to tell. It ain’t no shoot ‘em up western tale, though it does take place in the west. It ain’t no detective yarn, though something is found. And it sure as hell ain’t no love story, though a love blossoms. I reckon I best be gettin’ to it.
I rode the rodeo circuit all my life, started out as a snot-nosed kid handling stock. Then I was given a chance to break horses for the promoter I worked for. And I was pretty damn good at it. So I saved up the fee and entered myself in the bronco event when we set up in Salinas. I came in second and that was all she wrote. With the prize money, I bought myself a pickup truck and started to follow the circuit. I was never the best, but I made out all right. It wasn’t long before I was entering other events. I was particular to bull riding and steer wrestling. Of course, I had to do chute dogging first to prove myself before I could do any steer wrestling.
I broke my fair share of bones, and nowadays when I wake up in the morning, it takes me ’bout an hour to work out all the kinks before I can walk straight up. I never had no social life. It was just movin’ from town to town, mostly sleeping in my truck. I reckon the only thing I was ever close to was my horse, a gray dun that I had named Tex. I had to put him down five years back when he got the colic.
When all the broken bones and the other abuse I had put my body through finally caught up with me and I couldn’t compete no more, I became a rodeo clown. Then even that became too much for my old bones. I was offered a job handling stock, but that was where I started out thirty years earlier. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I hit the road in my twenty-year-old pickup looking for something, although I had no idea what. I was fifty-five-years old, had a hundred and twenty dollars in my pocket and a half a tank of gas in my truck.
I picked up day labor here and there. It kept me fed and gas in my truck, but one Sunday morning, a year after leaving the rodeo, I found myself out of gas, out of money, and out of hope. There was a gnawin’ in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten in a day. I was outside of Blythe, California, just across from the Arizona line.
The truck coasted to a stop and I looked about. The country looked as desolate as my spirits felt. There was only one building that I could see; it looked like a small farmhouse, but then I noticed the sign. It read: KATE ARCHER, VETERINARIAN. With nothing to lose, I decided to go up and ask to trade some work for a meal. It being Sunday and all, I figured no one would be about, but it was my only option.
As I approached the house, my heart sank. It was in disrepair; it looked as though no one had lived in it for a while. Then I saw the corral. There was a single horse in it, a skinny pinto. I knocked on the back door, which was immediately opened by a woman of about fifty.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you on a Sunday mornin’, but I was wonderin’ if you might have some work that needs doing in exchange for a meal?”
She took so long to say something, I thought she was gonna slam the door in my face. But finally she told me to come in, that she was just fixin’ breakfast.
“Ma’am, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather do the work first.”
She smiled and said, “I can tell you’re hungry, and a man can’t work on an empty stomach. God knows there’s plenty that needs doing, so don’t worry, you’ll earn your meal.” Then she stood aside so that I could enter.
While she busied herself at the stove, I sat at the kitchen table and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Kate Archer, and she was a veterinarian as the sign had suggested. We made small talk until the food was ready. Nothing never looked so good. As I shoveled eggs and bacon into my mouth, Kate said that it was good to see a man enjoy her cooking.
The short of it is, Kate told me there were some shingles that needed replacin’ on the roof, and that there were a stack of ’em in the lean-to out back. I thanked her for the grub, found the ladder and shingles and got to work. Four hours later, just as I was finishing up, she called me down to lunch.
While we were eating, she asked, “So, what are your plans?”
“Reckon when I git done with this here fine food, I’ll walk into town and look for work.”
She looked shocked and asked, “You’ll walk to town? Don’t you have a car?”
“I’ve got a truck, but it’s kinda outta gas.”
Then she wanted to know what kind of work I did.
“Whatever needs doin’. ’Ceptin’ I don’t do no doctorin’ of animals, nothing like that.”
She smiled at my little joke and said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of work that needs doing right here. I can’t pay much, but I’ll feed you and you can sleep in the lean-to.”
I didn’t have to think on it long.
I pushed my truck into the yard, put my kit in the lean-to, then went up to the kitchen door and knocked. When she opened it, I said, “All moved in, ma’am. What do you want me to tackle first?”
“First, I want you to call me Kate. Then I want you to get comfortable. That lean-to needs some fixing up if you’re going to live in it. So why don’t you work on that for now. At dinner I’ll give you a list of things to get started on and you can get to them in the morning. It’s Sunday after all, a day of rest.”
That’s how it started. There were always things that needed looking after, both inside the house and out. And somehow, I just never left. But after almost two years, I had the place looking pretty good and a few dollars in my pocket, so I reckoned it was time to move on.
Generally Kate was gone during the day making her rounds. So I was alone out back at the corral replacing a cracked board when Kelly trotted into my life. She was a black mustang . . . not much more than a foal. Of course her name wasn’t Kelly then. She was just a scrawny little filly looking the worse for wear. I gave her water and some oats and put her in the corral, then went about my work.
When Kate got back that night, a troubled look crossed her face. I was rubbing the mustang down in the lean-to and talking to her gently. “Hello,” said Kate. “How did she get here?”
I was startled for I had not heard her drive up, probably because all my attention was on the mustang. But I recovered quickly and answered her question. “I don’t know how she got here. She just came into the yard, trotted right up and nuzzled me. I think it was love at first sight on both our parts.”
“Well, we have a problem. That horse belongs to John Middleton and he’s not a very nice man. It’s likely when he learns she’s here, he’ll swear you stole her and have the law on you.”
I stopped rubbing the mustang and said, “Hang John Middleton! This horse has been mistreated and if I ever meet up with the man, I’ll beat the tar outta him. This horse goes back to him over my dead body.”
Kate sighed and said, “Put her in the corral and come inside. We’ll talk about it.”
As I sat down at the table, a name flashed in my head. KELLY!
Kate made us a drink of bourbon and water and sat down opposite me. “Jim, we’ll talk about the horse in a minute. But first I want to talk about us.” She saw that I was uncomfortable, so she hurried on. “You’ve been making noises over the last few weeks about leaving. I just want to ask you, aren’t you happy here?”
I sipped my whiskey and told her the truth. “Kate, when I showed up at your door, I was a broken man. I didn’t have a dime to my name and my prospects were zero. You fed me and housed me. For two years now, this has been my home. The only home I’ve ever known. I never told you, but I was an orphan. I ran away from the place at seventeen, and in all these years, you are the only person that showed me any kindness.”
I noticed that my glass was empty and stood to pour me another shot. Seeing her glass was still half full, I sat back down and continued. “I can’t stay here. If I do, I won’t have no self-respect. There’s no work here anymore.”
Kate sighed, downed her drink in one gulp, and said, “Make yourself useful. Pour me another one, no water this time.”
When I handed her the drink, she put it down, leaned back in her chair, and stared at me for a long minute. She shook her head before saying, “Now you listen here, Mister Jim Bridger. This place was worthless until you showed up. It’s now worth three times what it was. You work all day and then if I have a night call, you drive me. You have a way with animals. There were many a time if you had not been there to calm a sick and scared horse, I might have been trampled. I figure you earned your way into a partnership. And I dare you to say otherwise!” With that she downed the entire contents of her glass.
I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never seen her like that, I mean angry. She stood up and retrieved the bottle from the counter, saying, “This will save steps because we’re not leaving this table until we work things out.”
There was nothing to say to that neither, so I sat there with my mouth shut. But Kate sure had more to say. “For two years now, every single day we’ve eaten our meals together. We go shopping together. We talk on the porch in the cool of the evening. And not once, Jim Bridger, have you ever made a move on me. What’s wrong with me? You make a girl feel unattractive.”
She was so wrong. I thought her the most beautiful woman in the world, at least to me. There were many a night I lay in my bed and I thought of her. How I wanted to say something to let her know how I felt. But a man with nothing has no right to speak of such things to a woman.
There we sat, across the table from each other, neither one of us speaking. Then Kate got up, came over, and plopped herself right down on my lap. She put her arms around my neck and gave me the longest, deepest kiss I’ve ever had. It took me a few seconds, but then I returned it.
When we broke apart, she said, “Now that we have that settled, go get your things and move them into our bedroom.”
“I will. As soon as you get up off my lap.” She laughed and told me that she might not ever get up.
With her arms still around my neck, I asked her what we were going to do about Kelly. Kate tilted her head sideways and said, “Kelly?”
“The filly out in the corral.”
“Oh yes, her. Middleton is a son-of-a-bitch, but he owes me money. I’ll tell him I’m taking the horse as payment. If he gives me any trouble, I’ll report him for animal cruelty. What is her name again?”
“A nice name.”
That was the day I got me two first-class fillies. A year later, we sold the house, Kate sold her practice, and together with Kelly, we moved to Montana. We bought a small cabin and I built a heated barn for Kelly.
Now when it snows, Kelly is content in her barn. And Kate and I are content in each other’s arms.