The Cowboy and Miss Austen
“You’re my Darcy,” Susan said. “My Captain Wentworth.” Her mane of black hair fell over her eyes as she dipped her head.
“Darcy? Wentworth?” I didn’t know those fellows, nor did I care to, not if they were boyfriends of Susan’s and potential rivals of mine.
Besides, I couldn’t concentrate on her words, thinking about how her hair had tickled my cheeks when we were alone in her room. We’d been goofing off, wrestling around and such, and I’d let her pin me to the floor. The tone of our rough-housing had changed from that point on.
Now all I wanted was to tilt her head back until her face opened to me—blue eyes widening, cheeks blushing. At first, she’d been just another city-slicker, pale from too many days spent inside, and I’d treated her as such, leading her and her family on trail rides at the Syringa Creek Dude Ranch.
That was before she’d invited me to her room, and her white skin shifted to a thing of beauty. Against my darkness, she’d seemed fragile, needing my protection in a world of sun, mountains, and towering trees. Over her two days at the ranch, the sight of her paleness became as welcome as the season’s first snowfall, when I switched out my appaloosa, Rocky, for skis and snowmobiles.
And now, in a few minutes, Susan would be gone.
She flicked her hair out of her face and looked up at me. “Jane Austen?” She stepped closer and ran a finger along the smooth inside of my arm, tracing a blue vein.
I swallowed a groan and adjusted my cowboy hat just for something to do.
“You do know who Jane Austen is, right?” Susan smiled at her younger sister Isabella as she walked up to us. Isabella looked away but I caught her smirk.
“Don’t know this Jane,” I said, fiddling with my belt buckle, trying to hide the heat flaming my cheeks.
Susan put her hand over her mouth but a giggle escaped around her fingers. “Oh, Hank. We had some fun, didn’t we?”
“Come on, we gotta go.” Isabella grabbed Susan’s arm and dragged her toward the waiting Land Rover.
I stammered some unintelligible nonsense. With Susan’s family so close, I couldn’t tell her what lay in my heart. Even if we’d been alone, I don’t think I could have strung the sentences together. I didn’t understand it myself.
Susan, without another glance in my direction, followed Isabella and then they were gone. Their SUV bounced down the rutted dirt road and disappeared beneath the shadow of Jasper Mountain.
I stood there clutching my hat like a dumb-shit cowpoke. I hadn’t said goodbye, hadn’t gotten her away from her family, hadn’t explained my feelings, nothing.
I wanted to saddle Rocky and gallop after her like the hero in a Western flick. But I didn’t feel like a hero. What had that all been about anyway? Darcy? Wentworth? Austen? The giggling and looks between Susan and Isabella made me fretful.
Pa cleared his throat—in my misery, I’d forgotten about him and Ma. “Back to work,” he said. “We’ve got a group coming in a few hours, and you’re scheduled to lead a ride this afternoon.” Pa’s sandy mustache twitched as he held back a smile. “And your guy claims he’s experienced with horses.”
I sighed. The most troublesome guests were usually the ones who said they could ride.
Pa sauntered to the barn. About halfway there, he did a little jig, his face raised to the sun. I wished I had a little of Pa’s joy inside me; his heart open for everybody to see.
“It won’t be so bad,” Ma said.
“I don’t mind. I’m used to those city slickers.”
“That’s not what I meant. Susan will be back in a few weeks.”
My spirits brightened a bit. I’d almost forgotten that Susan’s family had only been at the ranch for a trial run, checking it out before they returned for a family reunion.
I shuffled my boots in the dirt and tried to come up with a response. “Um, I don’t know what you’re talk—.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Well, I guess…”
“No need to explain.” Ma put a finger over my lips. “I was eighteen once too, you know.” She hurried after Pa. Her skirt swung around her boots, and gardening gloves threatened to slip from her jean jacket.
Instead of following Ma and Pa to the barn, where I had plenty of work waiting, I veered away from them, as if my legs had been lassoed, and headed to a cluster of cabins sitting in a grove of aspens. A stillness settled over the area like I was entering St. Michael’s Church in Willow Bend, the closest town to the ranch.
I stepped inside the cabin where Susan had stayed. Although the room had been cleaned, I could still smell her—a mixture of lilacs and watermelon from the gloss she was always smearing on her lips. My eyes rested on the bedspread tightly drawn over the bed. I almost ached thinking about the things we had done there. Yet, it hurt even more to think of the things we hadn’t done.
The memories tuckered me out and I plopped down on the bed. My boots kicked something beneath it. Kneeling, I lifted the bedspread and pulled out two books, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Old-fashioned-looking ladies, wearing bonnets, decorated the covers. The author’s name ran below the titles in fancy cursive: Jane Austen.
I almost smacked myself in the head. No wonder Susan and Isabella had laughed at me. Sure, I’d heard of Jane Austen; although, I couldn’t name anything she’d written. My head had been so full of Susan and wanting to kiss her that I hadn’t been thinking straight. Darcy and Wentworth were probably characters in Austen’s books. I’d been jealous of men who lived only on paper.
From somewhere nearby came Ma’s voice. “Hank, where are you?”
I grabbed the two paperbacks and hurried to the barn.
“What kind of horse do you call this?” William asked.
“Lettie’s a quarter horse.” I nodded at the sway-backed bay he rode. I wasn’t in the mood for chitchat but most guests liked to pass the time in conversation. I never understood it, what with everything nature was trying to tell us.
“Quarter horse?” William echoed. He lifted his cowboy hat and set it carefully on his gelled hairdo. He wore the cowboy costume—silver belt buckle, wranglers. I’d talked him out of the chaps and spurs, telling him he’d get too warm and we’d save the spurs for another day. I hoped he’d forget about them altogether.
“They’re a good all-around cowboy horse—fast and maneuverable around cattle,” I added. Even though we didn’t have cattle on the ranch, I’d discovered guests liked that kind of talk.
“I’m mostly familiar with thoroughbreds, you know, from race tracks. The CEO of my company, Kent, says they’re the finest horse around. He says other horses are nags in comparison.”
“Hmmm,” I said, which shut him up. The quiet worked its way around us until all I heard were birds trilling and critters rustling.
We rode along a trail snaking the south side of Jasper Mountain. The ranch’s land stretched around us, but we’d soon dip into the River of No Return Wilderness and stop at Wolf Lake, our turn-around point.
Rocky yanked at tall grasses. He should have known better—I’d worked those bad manners out of him—but on these lazy rides he got as bored as I did.
William started yammering again, saying Kent does this and Kent does that, like the man was God or something. I stopped listening and sprinkled in a few “hmmm” and “sure,” which seemed to satisfy him as he continued gabbing.
I fixed my mind on Susan—the curve of her hips, the lacey bra I’d glimpsed.
As we followed the last switchback down to Wolf Lake, I grew aware of a buzzing sound tickling at the back of my brain.
“Bees!” William yelled.
A chubby bumblebee hovered near my right leg. “Stay calm,” I said. “If we get jittery then the bees and horses will react.”
Instead of heeding my advice, William screeched.
I clicked my tongue against my teeth, soothing Rocky.
“Relax, William,” I said in an even voice. “Take a deep seat. Talk to Lettie, let her know you’re there. We’ll be away from these pesky insects soon enough.”
When William didn’t reply, I turned around in my saddle. He gripped the reins in one hand and swatted with the other. He pulled so tight on Lettie that she backed up, her eyes wild.
A bee landed on the tip of William’s nose and he dropped the reins, somehow managing to kick Lettie as he batted at his face. She sprang forward and ran down the slope to the lake.
Rocky and I hurried after them. The bees disappeared the closer we got to Wolf Lake.
Lettie bucked as she neared the water. William flew off her and landed face first in the lake. Lettie, galloping up a slope, vanished around a boulder. I’d probably find her back at the ranch later, nibbling on hay.
For now, though, I had to deal with William. I jumped off Rocky and left the reins dangling, knowing my horse wouldn’t run off like Lettie, who I suspected was getting a little senile.
William limped to the shore, his cowboy duds soaked. “My ankle, my ankle,” he wailed. “I think it’s broken.” He plopped onto a rock and ripped off his right boot.
“Let’s take a look.” I knew next to nothing about doctoring, but I’d learned over time that the best approach with guests was to pretend you knew what you were doing.
He stuck out his foot, still covered in a soggy sock.
“Can you move it?” I asked.
He rotated it slowly. “Ah, well, maybe it isn’t broken, just really sore,” he said, embarrassment leaking into his voice. “And where the hell did the stupid horse go?”
“She’s probably on her way back to the ranch,” I said. “She’s like a homing pigeon.”
“What are we going to do? Ride double?” He shivered as he spoke. Even though it was mid-June, pools of snow hovered in the deep woods and capped the peaks.
“Maybe,” I said. “But first let’s get you out of those wet clothes.” I pulled a sweat suit from my saddle bags. William hobbled behind a ponderosa pine and changed.
Rocky didn’t take kindly to folks riding double on him, particularly someone with William’s girth. I’d have to lead Rocky part of the time, so there was no way we’d make it back to the ranch before dark. Knowing we’d have to spend the night, I started gathering wood.
“What are you doing?” William asked.
As I worked on a fire, I explained the situation to him.
“I don’t like this,” he said. “Kent says there are cougars and grizzlies out here.”
“Cougars, yes. Grizzlies, unlikely. Besides, I’ve got my rifle and we’ll keep the fire going. Anyway, I’ve never seen a cougar.” The last bit was a lie. “And I’ve got my fly rod so I’ll fry us up some fish for supper. You’ll see. It’ll be an adventure.”
He frowned but nodded.
The fire didn’t want to light. As I scrounged through my saddlebags looking for something to help it along, my hand hit against the two Jane Austen books. I’d forgotten I’d thrown them in, thinking that having them along brought Susan a little closer. I yanked a couple pages from the back of the books. They didn’t look important to the story, just some advertising about the publisher. Besides, what did it matter? I didn’t intend on reading them. Sure, I’d enjoyed the occasional Louis L’Amour, but I’d been more of a math and science guy in school.
Soon the fire was crackling. After setting up camp, which didn’t require much more than unraveling two sleeping bags and pulling out the snacks Ma had prepared—cheese, crackers, dried fruit, brownies, and a flask of wine—I called Pa on the satellite phone and explained what’d happened.
As the sun lowered in the sky, covering the forest with dusky shadows, I unfurled my line over Wolf Lake. William dipped his ankle in the water to bring down the swelling. Later, we munched on fried grayling, and William worked on emptying the flask of wine.
As we crawled into our sleeping bags, I caught William smiling up at Jasper Mountain. He stopped yammering and silence grew between us.
“What now?” he asked just when I was starting to enjoy the music of the night. “How do we pass the time?”
I didn’t have any cards nor did I fancy any more talking. Then I remembered the books. “You like to read?”
“Sometimes.” He sounded doubtful.
I grabbed the paperbacks from where I’d left them next to a rock and gave him Persuasion, along with a headlamp. I took Pride and Prejudice for myself.
He studied the paperback. “Jane Austen? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Adjusting the headlamp on my forehead, I moved closer to the fire and read the first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
It seemed like a funny opening, but with nothing else to do, I pushed on, not wanting to give William another opportunity to open his trap. The first twenty pages were rough going. Soon, though, with the sky darkening and stars popping out everywhere, I got used to Miss Austen’s old-fashioned language. I chuckled and William laughed too. After a while, his breathing slowed and his snores joined with the yips of coyotes.
I read into the morning and imagined Susan holding the book and laughing at the same places. Some of the romantic bits were too much for me, yet I felt a kinship with the story—William was my Mr. Collins.
The sky lightened and a rosy glow replaced the stars. As William stretched and yawned, I eyed Persuasion. Was that where I’d meet Captain Wentworth?
Susan stepped out of her parent’s Land Rover, and I could barely hold myself back. We’d been given a second chance, just like Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Susan and I now spoke the same language.
A guy crawled out of the car behind Susan. He stood real close to her, kind of proprietary, and murmured something into her ear. She laughed, shaking her head back and forth, making her black hair dance. Her eyes crinkled and she blushed.
What was going on? Who was this fellow?
Pa cleared his throat. “Welcome.”
As everyone turned their attention to him, I hurried to Susan’s side.
“We need to talk,” I whispered, taking her arm.
She pulled her arm out of my grasp.
Touching the guy, still hovering next to her, she said, “George, I have to speak with this cowboy. He gave me riding lessons last time we were here.”
I gulped. That was one way to put it.
Her words spurred me on, making me think George was just some family friend. She followed me to where I stopped beneath an aspen. Its golden leaves sighed in the breeze. I wanted to pull her close and kiss the place where her pulse throbbed in her neck.
She tapped her shoe. “Well?”
I’d rehearsed in my mind what I was going to say so I plunged ahead. I focused on my boots and clutched my hat in front of me. “Susan, you’re my Elizabeth Bennet. My Anne Elliot.”
“Who? What?” she said. “Come on, get to the point.”
Her irritated tone made me look up. She crossed her arms and furrowed her brow.
“You know. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion?”
She glanced back at the group.
“Jane Austen?” I blundered on. I should have known, though, from her reaction to cut her loose and move on. “I found your books in the cabin after you left. I read them and now I know why you called me Darc—.”
She laughed so loud, she clapped her hand over her mouth. “I was kidding when I said those things. I was just having a little fun with you. He’s my boyfriend.” She pointed to George.
My heart felt like Rocky had stepped on it. I didn’t think I’d recover. I almost staggered away, not caring that I had a busy week ahead of me leading rides and kissing up to city slickers.
“Well, I’ll give you the books back,” I babbled.
She stared at me with a smirk, like I’d proven myself to be the dumb-shit cowpoke she’d expected all along.
“Keep them.” She walked away. Over her shoulder, she called back, “Jane Austen is stupid anyway. I only read those books because I had to for a class, and I mostly skimmed them.”
I swear my mouth dropped open. Miss Austen stupid? It seemed as if a snow bank had melted revealing a pile of stinky cow pies beneath it. White and pure at first, then a revolting thing once uncovered.
What a fool I’d been, but it bothered me less than it would have a few weeks ago. At least, Susan had introduced me to Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. I pulled Persuasion out of my back pocket. Eventually, I’d meet my own Elizabeth or Anne, but in the meantime, I had a book to finish.
Erin Fanning is the author “Cloud Warrior” (Saddleback, 2018), “Blood Stitches” (Kensington, 2015), “The Curse of Blackhawk Bay” (Sam’s Dot, 2008) and “Mountain Biking Michigan” (Globe Pequot, 2002), as well as numerous short stories, essays, and articles. When not writing or reading, she can be found skiing, snowshoeing, biking or kayaking, depending upon the season. Please visit erinfanning.com to learn more about her writing and background.