From The Longhorn Affair
Setup: Downtown Saloma on the Fourth of July
On the morning of July the Fourth, Henry learned that participating in a parade involved getting started early. The horses and cattle had to be fed, trailers hitched, and the chuck wagon loaded on the equipment trailer. Josh and Matthew were there, and with their help, the loading was done in short order. Once everything was ready to drive out, everyone went inside to eat and put on parade clothes.
Henry was relieved his new white shirt had a cowboy yoke, a snap front, and no sequins, and his new chaps were fringe free. Everyone, even Cooper, had matching bright yellow neckerchiefs. He knotted his neckerchief around his neck and asked, “Couldn’t you girls couldn’t find something that would stand out more? This is not the rhinestone image I signed up for.”
Emma said, “Don’t worry, cowboy, you don’t need to impress anyone. You’ve got your date for the rodeo.”
Loading the horses and cattle had been left for last. Henry was surprised there was no problem loading the cattle. Alex led Slick, into the trailer, and the other five filed right on. Like Alex said, those guys had done this.
The Pradera caravan headed out the front gate with Alex and the cattle in the lead. Josh rode in the truck with his dad. Henry and Emma and Cooper followed him with the horse trailer, and Angie and Matthew brought up the rear with the wagon on its flatbed. Henry wasn’t about to mention he had never driven a truck pulling a horse trailer, but how hard could it be? Slow takeoffs, gentle stops. Piece of cake.
The Pradera convoy got to the staging area for the parade without mishap, for which Henry was grateful. The cattle were left on the trailer, while the seven horses (five for riders and two for the wagon) were unloaded and tied outside the trailer, with buckets of water and hay nets.
Angie’s cousin, Diana, found them as Henry and Alex backed the wagon off the equipment trailer. Her two small daughters wore long calico dresses and wide brimmed sunbonnets. Henry thought they looked like perfect little settlers. Angie put them up in the wagon, out from underfoot, and waved as Diana left to join the rest of Angie’s family on the parade route.
Emma had never hitched the wagon, so she was glad Angie was an old hand. While Emma and Angie were buckling straps, Emma said, “Next year, your little one can ride with you up in the wagon. I can picture her in a little pioneer bonnet.”
Angie didn’t smile. “If there is a parade for us next year.” Henry was close enough to hear her. He caught Emma’s eye, and Emma shrugged and went back to buckling harness. Soon the team was ready. The horses were saddled, and the longhorns were unloaded. The Pradera crew mounted up.
Suddenly, Slick let out a bellow and lunged forward startling the rest of the small herd. The riders moved their horses to contain the cattle, and Alex shouted, “Angie, get in the wagon out of the way of the wheels. You’re safer up there if those horses get restless.” Once the steers settled, Alex jumped off and went up to Slick, whose eyes were still showing white. He rubbed the steer’s face and said, “What’s going on big guy? Did you get stung?” He kept talking with a rhythmic beat, not much caring what he said, and Slick gradually relaxed. He walked around the steer’s big body looking for anything that might have caused a problem, but he couldn’t find a thing.
While Alex soothed Slick, Henry watched Malcolm Whitecliff come around the trailer. “Hello. I see you’re driving your herd this year.”
Emma’s tone was cool. “Well, the Pradera has ridden in this parade for eighty years, since it started. No reason not to ride this year. What are you doing back here Mr. Whitecliff? I would have thought you would be out on the parade route all set up to watch.” “Oh, just looking around for folks I know. I wanted to see the floats up close.”
“Right,” Emma said. “Well, enjoy the parade.” She turned away looking over the crowd to see if the lineup was starting.
Alex swung up to his saddle. By standing in his stirrups, he could see the parade martial getting the floats lined up. Alex said, “We’re towards the end, so it will be a few minutes. Might as well relax.” Slick chose that moment to bellow loudly again, swing his long horns around, and kick backward, his large foot hitting the side of the trailer with a loud bang. Alex, a little worried now, swung down again to check him out and again found nothing.
Emma jerked her head up when she heard the crash. She saw Malcolm striding away. “Harvard,” she said, “look over there. Is Mr. Whitecliff carrying something?”
Henry stood in his stirrups searching. “There he is. What did you see, Emma?” “I’ve lost sight of him, so I’m not sure. Maybe a cane or an umbrella? But why? He doesn’t use a cane, and the only reason he would need an umbrella today is sun protection.”
Angie stood in the wagon trying to spot Malcolm. She said, “Come to think of it, he would be the type to bring an umbrella.” Emma smiled at that. Henry said, “I think I know what he’s carrying. I think Slick got stuck with a cattle prod. I could run and catch him, and we could settle the question.” Henry started to dismount, but Alex spoke up, “Hey guys, parade’s moving. Let’s get these steers in line,” so Henry put aside the cattle prod idea.
He watched, intrigued, as the local floats went past the starting line. Several ladies in long old-timey dresses stood on a float whose banner proclaimed “Sisters In American History”. The Saloma County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse led by Sheriff Bell followed the Sisters. Then came a gold convertible with the name of a local car dealership on the side. Following that was a green golf cart pulling a small trailer with someone in a cow costume waving a flag. That one had Henry baffled. Ambling after the golf cart was a group of 6 riders mounted on longhorn steers followed by a four-wheeled wagon being pulled by two longhorns. Henry made a mental note to check out what the market for riding steers might be.
The Pradera Steers were behind the high school band and cheerleaders. The band marched in red T-shirts with “Saloma Wildcats” printed in white letters. Cheerleaders wearing white satin tops and shorts with gold and red fringe, and waving gold and red pompoms followed the band. Henry thought there were worse places to be than following a bunch of cheerleaders wearing satin shorts. Henry nodded at Emma, and they urged their horses forward with Slick between them. Cooper sat on the saddle in front of Emma. The other five steers followed in line behind Slick, their big horns swinging as they walked. Josh and Matthew rode left and right flank, and Alex rode drag. Angie followed in the chuck wagon with ‘La Pradera’ painted in large red letters on the canvas top. Henry was surprised by how normal it felt to be riding a horse down Main Street. Brown Man seemed to like all the goings-on too. He looked from side to side and occasionally nickered at the crowd. Henry figured it was a bonus that folks who saw him and Emma riding together would think of them as a couple. He could tell Emma had thought of that too, but maybe not as a bonus. She held her chin high and looked away whenever their eyes met.
The parade was loud. The high school band was belting out the Saloma Fight Song. The fire engine, with four pretty girls on each side, was wailing its siren. The VFW float was blasting the Star Spangled Banner, and behind the Pradera chuck wagon were the fifty motorcycles from the Patriot Heritage Motorcycle Club each carrying an American flag. Their engines were so loud it was hard to hear anything above the thrum.
To Henry’s relief, the steers ambled on down the street oblivious to the noise and commotion, American heritage on the hoof, and the crowd loved them. Suddenly Slick, who had been walking calmly between Henry and Emma, looked off to the side, let out a bellow and began trotting forward heading straight for the ranks of pom-pom waving cheerleaders. Henry was caught off guard, but he was quick to move his horse forward to cut the steer off. Slick was not deterred. He trotted up onto the sidewalk scattering parade watchers right and left.
Henry jumped off Brown Man, tossed the reins to Emma and ran after the steer. Slick stopped when he got to the door of a store. He looked around and bellowed plaintively. Henry walked up to him talking softly the way he had seen Alex do. He began stroking Slick’s wide face while he wondered what or whom he had seen. Heaving a sigh of relief that those long horns hadn’t come in contact with any glass storefronts, Henry put his arm around the steer’s nose, and urged him back towards the street, saying, “Excuse us. Make way please.” Henry thought he saw Malcolm, but he couldn’t be sure.
A little boy came up to Henry and said, “Can I pet your cow mister?”
Henry smiled as he reached down and lifted him up to Slick’s face. Slick was enjoying the attention and blinked his big brown eyes. The little boy’s father said, “Hi, I’m Jason McDermott. Are you going to have this guy around for the kids to pet later?” Henry thought Jason might be in an alternate universe, since Slick had cut quite a swath through the parade watchers, but he replied, “Yeah, we’ll have him at the rodeo. Come see us.” The Pradera steers along with Emma on Junior Miss and leading Brown had followed the parade down the street, so Henry swung up on Slick, saying a silent prayer the rodeo wouldn’t start early right there on main street. He quickly found out steers have very bony backs. Folks hooted and hollered as Slick trotted down the street trying to catch up with his little herd while Henry tried hard not to bounce. Just like that, he and Slick became local celebrities.
Henry decided it was easier to stay on Slick for the rest of the parade. A Texas Don Quixote, he thought. Thoroughly enjoying himself, He waved at the crowd. The steers walked along moving their heads from side to side waving with their horns. Henry recognized some of the adults’ faces. Someone called out “Hey, Henry!” and Henry called back and waved. Cooper, looking jaunty in his yellow neckerchief with his front feet braced on the horn of Emma’s saddle, joined in, yipping at the crowd.
Henry watched people showing off their businesses, their fire department, their emergency response team, their kids in the band, and he felt an unexpected connection. Even the banker last Monday had been more than a nameplate tacked to a door in a long line of identical doors. Unlike the loan agents with whom Henry had previously dealt, Mr. Goldman was a real person who could be either helped or hurt by what Henry was proposing, and the ranch itself had become so much more than numbers on a spreadsheet showing projected profits or losses.
Henry’s stomach growled, when he noticed a local restaurant’s float in front of the band. He hoped he could persuade Emma to eat before they took the stock back to the ranch. He was pretty sure Cooper would agree.