A silly little story about cowboys.
All the ranch hands rose with the sun that June morning as the cool scent of night still lingered in the air. The boss’ thirteen year old son, Cody, was at his usual job by the time we finished breakfast and headed down to the pasture to fetch some of the horses. He lit up and gave a little wave as we approached. A smear of dirt ran across his forehead, and it looked like he'd even managed to wipe a little manure on his left cheek, obscuring some of his freckles.
I felt a chuckle rise up in my throat, and I tamped it down. But some of the other cowhands weren't even bothering to hide their laughter. Snorts sounded from behind me, and I heard one of the boys whisper, "Goldang. He's like a lost little girl."
I hsst at the man and grinned back at Cody. "Mornin', kid."
The other hands shuffled past me, heading for the pasture. Some of them still tittered behind their hands like gossiping women, but the sounds faded as they passed the paddock fence and headed for the tack shed. I approached the fence and rested my forearms on the topmost rail. The cattle and horses had been fed by the other group of cowboys who now sat at the breakfast table back at the ranch house, enjoying slightly burnt, steaming coffee, a massive amount of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, and so many beans it seemed like half the world's crops had been harvested and fried up in order to supply the meal.
Cody leaned on his pitchfork, beaming like a baked possum. "Hey, Tuck. Guess what?
"Fairies." The word alone was enough to get me to focus every bit of my attention on the boy, and the look of delight on his face was almost disconcerting.
"What?" Honestly, I didn't know how to react to "fairies." I didn't know much about the things, and I highly doubted they were some of the little critters floating around Kansas.
"Fairies. I was out riding Ranger yesterday and I found an old buffalo wallow. You know how in the olden days, people used to say they were made when the fairies danced there?"
"Yeah, I suppose. But fairies don't exist, Cody."
There was a lull in our conversation as Cody’s father, Pete, rattled past in a beat up pickup, hauling an empty trailer. His forearm rested on the sill of the rolled down window, and he slowed down as he passed us, sticking his head out the window. He raised his eyebrows at me and then lifted his forearm in a sort of unenthusiastic attempt at a “what in heaven’s name are you doing?” But he didn’t say a word before he pulled his head back into the cab like a retreating turtle and sped up again, the trailer bouncing over the uneven dirt.
Cody was frowning and staring after Pete when I turned back to him, but then he seemed to shake it off. He met my eyes again, the wrinkles in his forehead smoothing out as he continued where we’d left off. "The stories had to come from somewhere, dontcha think?"
"Well, maybe. I can't say. I have yet to see a fairy, kid, and I've been around."
"I think they just hide from us. I really think they're real, Tuck."
"You're getting the run on me, aren't you?"
"I'm serious." His face was beyond earnest. His brows were raised slightly and pinched together, and there was a fixed intensity in his hazel eyes.
"So you're telling me that you took a little trip out into the prairie all by yourself, came upon a buffalo wallow, and decided that fairies are real because wallows are real?" It was hard not to be near sarcastic with Cody at this point. It was possible he'd seen or heard something that had convinced him of this nonsense.
"No. But I read a bunch of Native American stories about strange music and weird sights on the prairie. And some Indians tried to catch the fairies. They almost did, too, but the fairies got away."
"Cody, I know you've talked about UFOs before, but I think those always turned out to be something very explainable and realistic. Fairies aren't realistic and you shouldn't believe everything you read or hear. Fairies aren't real. That is all."
The earnestness on his face faded a little into hurt. "I think I might have seen one, though, when I was out there."
He'd said things like this many times, but they had never been quite so fantasy-like before. Last time something of this nature had come up, he thought he'd seen a UFO. It turned out that he’d just see Venus and thought it was weird because it was so much brighter than the stars.
I tried to speak with a gentler tone of voice. "Kid, you just have a very vivid imagination, and that's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Pops says I'm cracked. He says I won't amount to anything if I keep being a delusional lunk-head. One time he said I don't know any more about life than a hog does a sidesaddle. But I do, I really do. It's just that I've seen things other people haven't, and everyone thinks I'm crazy when I tell them about it." His voice had softened, and he was now almost glaring at the ground as he dug the toe of his right cowboy boot into a crumbling piece of manure and then kicked it across the short length of the paddock.
"Well, if it's that big of a deal to you, you should write this stuff down. I mean, a lot of your stories are downright interesting."
"But that's not what I want. I want people to believe me. I want them to see the same things I do. And today . . . I want to catch a fairy."
"How 'bout this, kid. I'll go out with you to the buffalo wallow and see if I can find us some fairies, all right? I need to ride the fences anyway. It can't be too far out of the way. Is the fairy wallow the one up in the north pasture?"
Cody nodded, and the smile that lit up his face made me feel like I'd made the right decision. It was a fanciful thing to do, really. Riding off into the sunrise to find fairies wasn't my idea of a decent work day, but Cody was a good kid, and I wasn't keen on having him wander off alone. Perhaps this little trip would finally jolt Cody out of his little imaginary world and into the real one. Sure, real world stuff was crap, but it would do the kid good to actually live in reality for a while. I seriously doubted he knew what the real world was like, so focused as he was on the UFO, fairy, fantasy-land he'd invented.
"Finish clearing the crap out of this paddock and the one near the tack shed, and we'll be on our way. I'll let your dad know that you'll be riding the fences with me." At the mention of his father, his face fell a little, but then he nodded and went back to work. It was as though what I'd said had given him an extra bonfire of energy. The vigor with which he went back to scooping manure into the dull green wheelbarrow was astounding. At the rate he was going, he'd be finished within a couple hours.
I was quiet as I walked away. Had I really just offered to find fairies for the son of my boss? I’d really put my job on the line, and even though I’d told Cody I was going to let his dad know what we’d be doing, I didn’t know how good of an idea that was. I was crazier than a run over coyote.
As I approached the hitching posts, I heard Randy, one of the other cowboys, singing a tune. I didn't recognize the song, but the man wasn't making music, he was murdering silence with the sounds being strangled out of his vocal cords. Not even the horses appreciated the atrocious noise. One of them, a lanky bay, snaked out his neck and snapped at the man, but Randy managed to avoid the gelding's teeth. And he kept on singing like a mule with a severe cold.
Jason, the cowboy who’d made the comment about Cody looking like a girl, approached me with a wolfish grin crowding his too small face and scrunching up his eyes, making his mustache look like a fuzzy, dead worm. "What'd the little loon say?"
"Nothing much. I'm riding the fences today with Randy, and the place Cody wants to take a look at is barely out of the way."
"The place he wants to take a look at? You're not serious about this, are you?"
"Yep. Are all the horses tacked and ready to go?"
He grunted, brows drawing together. "Just about. Randy went and got Scout for you. That horse has probably untied himself by now." He glanced in the general direction of the buckskin as if half expecting the animal to be gone.
Scout was still there, gripping the lead rope's clip between his teeth and tossing his head up and down. He'd already managed to loosen the slip-knot holding him to the rail and was well on his way to freeing himself.
The plan for the morning was to brand the two to three month old calves. There were a lot of them - as one would expect on a working cattle ranch - and it was a task that most of the cowboys preferred to do early, before the sun roasted the backs of their necks and the heat and smell of burnt hair and flesh turned their stomachs. About an hour and a half later, around eight-thirty, the boys and I had pushed the cows and their calves into a couple corrals and managed to brand a few dozen calves.
I knew Cody had finished his poop scooping when he appeared at the fence. He'd been watching for several minutes before I noticed him, but when our eyes met, the worried, disgusted look left his face and he perked up, waving. He hated the times of the year when we branded the calves. The sound and smell of the sizzling branding irons and the bawling of the calves didn't sit well with him.
Pete looked up from where he was wrestling a particularly strong, bull calf, and frowned as he saw his son. Then he glanced at me and raised an eyebrow before focusing back on the calf and the branding iron. I supposed that moment was as good a time as any to tell him I was taking his son for a ride along.
"Hey, Pete!" The bawling of the calves mostly masked my words, but Pete looked up with that frown still fixed on his brow.
I moved closer and knelt in the dust of the corral to help wrestle the calf down so Jason could put the Double H brand on the animal's left hip. "Riding the fences with Cody," I gritted.
We released the calf and he scrambled up, bolting off into the herd to find his mother. Pete turned to me and raised both of his eyebrows. "You're taking Cody with you?"
I shrugged a shoulder. As a foreman who’d been working with Pete for ten plus years, I half hoped that Pete couldn’t afford to fire me. "Maybe he should move on from flinging crap."
Pete sighed. "I'd like to believe that scooping horse crap is a job he can do because the smell keeps his mind sharp and intent on the task at hand. But that’s beside the point. I'd planned on checking the fences with you, and the boys have this well in hand. Also, Cody and I need to have a chat."
"A chat? Are you sure you two shouldn't just go alone?"
He snorted, and shifted one of his feet back, spur jangling. "No. Hey, Randy!"
Randy looked up from the hot iron he held in his hands.
"I'm heading out with Tucker, and I’m leaving you in charge."
Randy smiled, nodded, and waved. "Alright! I'm on it like blue bonnet, boss!"
I spotted Jason looking our way and raised a hand, but all he did was scowl in return.
Within the hour we were riding up along the fence of the north pasture, checking for broken fence posts and mangled barbed wire. Pete was on Shooter, a black mare with a white snip, Cody was on Ranger, the bald-faced chestnut, and I was on Scout. The silence was broken only by the soft hoof falls of the horses, the creaking of the leather saddles, the occasional snort, or the swish of a tail. All I could hear from Pete and Cody was Cody yawning incessantly. It was almost unnerving.
Cody looked about ready to faint - if one can look ready to faint while yawning at the same time. He was sweaty and restless, and his eyes kept darting back and forth between me and Pete. I knew we were nearing the buffalo wallow and I wondered if that was making the kid more nervous than he would be otherwise.
I cleared my throat. "Pete. Cody wanted to take a look at that old wallow."
"Another one of his delusions?"
"Well, he thinks he saw something."
At that moment, before Pete could even respond, Cody made an excited little noise and pointed toward the inside of the pasture. Both Pete and I turned, but there was absolutely nothing there except old cow pats and the odd little mushroom patch nestled in some of the moist manure.
"Kid, there's nothing there," I said.
Cody nodded vigorously. "Can't you see it? There are fairies! Hundreds of them. They're talking, but I can't understand what they're saying." His shoulders slumped and his face fell a little as his lips curved down into a slight pout.
Pete looked disgusted and pulled his cowboy hat off his head, just to slap it on his knee. "Son, you couldn't tell a skunk from a house cat. There's nothing out there but cow dung and flies."
Cody was actually shaking with excitement. His hands trembled as he gripped Ranger's reins and the pommel of the saddle and swung off the horse, staggering as his boots hit the ground. Something didn't quite feel right. Aside from the very obvious fact that Cody was seeing things, he also looked queasy.
Pete shoved his hat back on his head and dismounted as well. I followed suit. Pete's voice almost sounded worried as he said, "Cody, are you going to throw-up?"
Cody only spared him a quick glance, and then said, "The fairies vanished." A tiny scowl appeared between his brows, but the nauseated pucker to his lips remained.
"What have you eaten recently?"
"What?" It seemed as though his concentration had slipped - a lot quicker than usual.
"Today or last night. What did you eat?"
He shook his head, still frowning as if trying to remember where he was and what day yesterday had even been. "I ate dinner with everyone else last night.” He paused for a split second and shot me a half guilty, half woozy look. “But this morning I wanted to finish cleaning the paddocks early, so I skipped breakfast and ate one of the sandwiches left in the fridge with Tuck's name on the baggy. I also ate one of his sandwiches before I went riding yesterday."
Here Pete turned to give me a sharp, inquiring look. “What on God’s green earth did you put in those sandwiches, Tucker?”
I was highly disturbed by this turn of events, but at least now I knew where my sandwiches vanished to every so often. As Scout rubbed his face against my shoulder, I whacked him away. He pulled back, leaving a vague trace of dirt and horse dandruff on my grey and black plaid shirt. I twitched the reins as I answered Pete. “Well, I certainly didn’t put anything dangerous in there. It had some beef, cheese, mustard, and some mushrooms.”
Pete’s brown eyes narrowed. "Mushrooms?"
Well, there went my job. Was I seriously going to lose the position I’d held for so long over something as trivial as mushrooms?
“Pete, he must have eaten something else between then and now. I put Portobello mushrooms in that sandwich, and I highly doubt that would cause delusions.”
Cody glanced between the two of us, confusion written all over his face. He still looked nauseated, but a perhaps a little less so than he had a few minutes ago. "Wait, Tuck. I thought Jason made the sandwich for you. I saw him putting mushrooms and stuff in a sandwich, and I thought it was for you because he wrote your name on the bag he put it in."
It was my turn to be confused, but I didn't get the chance to speak before Pete cut in. "What did the mushrooms look like, Cody?"
Cody hesitated, then pointed down toward his feet. There, almost directly between the toes of his dusty boots, was a perfectly round cow pat. But it wasn't the cow pat that made me do a double take. Growing out of the still somewhat moist manure was a little patch of mushrooms. The mushrooms varied between about two and three inches tall. They were a distorted, patchy white-brown and the scrawny stalks were topped with caps that looked like half a hard boiled egg. Pete half squatted, then reached down, picking one of the mushrooms from the clump.
"So Jason put these in Tucker's food? Cody, these are hallucinogenic. It's no wonder you 'saw' fairies." Then, flinging the mushroom down, he ground it into the stubby grass with the heel of his boot and turned to me. "Tucker, you need to deal with Jason. I realize there’s animosity between the two of you for whatever reason, but this is taking too far, and I can’t be there all the time to make sure he’s behaving. Put him in his place. He knows nothing about mushrooms and could have poisoned either you or my son." His face looked like it couldn't decide between anger at what had happened to Cody and relief that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why his son had "seen fairies." His brow kept twitching into a frown, but the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes had relaxed to the point where they were barely visible.
I jerked my head down in a nod, flicking the reins at Scout again. "Got it." I didn’t want explain to Pete that the reason why Jason behaved so poorly toward me was simply because he found it irritating that at forty, a man fifteen years his junior could be a ranch foreman. But that really didn’t matter at that moment because I could feel the stirrings of anger deep in the pit of my stop. Jason had put Cody and me at risk of death by mushroom. His behavior was so immature it was like the man’s family tree was a shrub and he had nothing to live up to. In fact, if his brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough for him to blow his nose. No wonder he’d never gotten a promotion to foreman.
Cody looked entirely bemused. His upset stomach seemed to have settled and he rocked back and forth on his feet impatiently. Ranger was chewing on the shirttails that had come untucked from the boy’s jeans, but he didn’t notice. “Pops, I still think fairies exist. I mean -”
Pete whipped his hat from his head and thwacked Cody on the shoulder with it. “No. We are not going there again. Get your head out of the clouds, son.”
Cody jumped and little a bit startled, but relaxed as Pete offered a slightly awkward smile. “Tuck said I could write all my stuff down, though, Pops.” His nose wrinkled up.
“Fine. Whatever you want, just stop making the hands think that you’re plumb weak north of the ears. Alright?” He slapped his hat back on and tilted it slightly over his eyes to partially block the noon sun.
Cody heaved a sigh, gave a shrug, and turned to Ranger, pulling his shirt out of the animal’s mouth in the process. “Can we go then? I guess the fairies aren’t here anymore. I will find them though, Pops.” He gave a cheeky smile, then put his left foot in the stirrup and swung up.
Pete grunted and shot me an almost halfhearted glare as he mounted Shooter. “Really, would you stop encouraging him, Tucker?”
I shrugged. “I like our little talks, Pete.” Scout sidled away from me as I put my foot in the stirrup, and I bumped the reins, ignoring the sidelong look he gave me as he stopped fidgeting with his feet and decided to fling his head up and down. Rolling my eyes, I swung my leg over the cantle and settled in, slipping my booted foot into the right stirrup.
“Well, the day’s barely half over and I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot,” Pete commented as he led the way along the fence again.
Cody kept on glancing back at the wallow as we rode, and I wondered how convinced he was that the mushrooms had been to blame for the sights he’d seen. Either way, Jason would have a lot to answer for when we got back. But at least it looked like I’d be keeping my job - mushrooms or no mushrooms.