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Continued from The Soldier

Half an hour later the young soldier returned, seriously concentrating on not spilling the two sloshing cups of hot coffee. She freed him of one cup and thanked him.

“Where ya headed?” he asked.

She sighed, partly exasperated by his persistence and partly proud of her destination. “Oh, I’m going to Sheridan, Wyoming. I’ll be spending the summer cowpunching.” Each word clearly enunciated, with the slightest emphasis on the last word. She read the hint of a smile that played over his soft lips as admiration for her worthy mission. “And what about you? Where are you going?”

“I’m head’n home to Moorcroft. At’s not far from Sherid’n,” he pointed out, knowing instinctively that the tiny town of Moorcroft would mean nothing to her. “I get a two-week furlough to visit with ma famly. Then I ship out fer Africa. That’ll be pretty different, I reckon.”

“Hmm. Ya.” She really didn’t know what to say. She remembered reading something about the hottest American fighting occurring in the African theater. She was certain that she knew better than he what horrors he would soon encounter. His uniform brought visions of cousin Herman to mind. It had been so long since any news had come from Germany. Was it possible that he, too, wore a uniform? Was it possible that one day he might come rifle-to-rifle with this naive young American?

Yry tried to redirect her thoughts. “What’s Moorcroft like?” she asked.

“There’s not much there,” he admitted. “Lots a cattle, lots a sagebrush, an lots a dust. But ma folks got a spread there. I can’t wait to taste ma’s bread and some fresh, sweet cream butter. Lord, that crap they feed us at mess is miserable.”

The miles slipped by. When dinner was announced the two shuffled down the narrow, rocking aisle to the dining car where they shared a white-linened table. After dinner Yry excused herself to visit the observation car. The afternoon sun scalded deep shadows into the landscape. The young soldier accompanied her to the observation car. She stifled a sigh.

The train was traveling through his big back yard now. He directed her attention to herds of antelope and the occasional coyote or fox hopping through the dry sage. Occasional farms and ranches blurred by.

“My dad won’t have no Herefords on his place.” he said, nodding toward a herd of brown and white cattle that huddled in the corner of a fence near the tracks.

“Why is that?”

“Well they got all that white skin round their eyes an … uh… their udders. They’re prone to getting’ sun scald and then ya got all kinds a problems. They get sore eyes an can’t nurse their babies. It’s a horrible nuisance.”

“So what kind of cattle does your father raise?”

“Angus. They’re the best. They’re strong an healthy an fatten up real nice an you don’t have to do any dehornin’ or anything like at.”

“Well, why then, would anyone mess around with the Herefords?” she inquired.

“Some folks think Herefords winter over better and some say they’re easier to handle. Pound fer pound they’re near bout the same.”

“Hmm. That’s interesting. But what about those over there? They look awful scrawny.” She was pointing to a string of Guernseys that were ambling nose to tail toward a large well-lit barn.

He lifted an eyebrow and explained that those weren’t for eating, those were for milking.

“Oh I know that,” she retorted, “but they still look pretty scrawny.” The little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth again.

“Oh look,” he crooned.

“What, where?”

“Oh shucks, ya missed im. It was a jackalope.”

“A WHAT?”

“A jackalope. Haven’t ya ever seen one? When a jack rabbit and a antelope, …er, get together, they produce a jackalope.”

“Nooo! “You’re pulling my leg.”

“Soldier’s honor…really. They’re kinda rare, but they’re real neat. They look like a real tall, leggy jack rabbit with horns on they’re heads.”

Later, he pointed to some rounded hills that rolled by and explained that the lateral ledges decorating the side of the hill had been made by a side-hill gouger. He launched into a serious description of a critter a little larger than a skunk whose legs are longer on one side than the other. The poor critter has no choice but to keep going round and round the mountain…hence the name, side-hill gouger. He waited expectantly for her shocked reaction.

She briefly considered the young man and decided that the story was so well told and his enthusiasm was so great that he deserved the expected response so she gratified him with a marvelous look of astonishment. Emboldened, he grew animated as he filled the time with stories about wild Indians and warned her to be very careful around the evil redskins. After all, they had absolutely no respect for the delicacy of such a fine lady as she…and they were still prone to hacking off a prized scalp to adorn their belts now and then!

The more she humored him the more avidly he’d launch into the next story. She decided he was in competition with Louis L’Amour. She had peered through the darkening windows till there was nothing left but imagination. In the dark, she was a captive audience. The soldier spoke about his family and his boyhood on the family ranch. As they drew closer to his home, he described nearby Devil’s Tower and related the legend about some little Indian girls who encountered a bear while playing. They ran away as fast as they could, but the bear got closer and closer so they leaped onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The rock began to grow, lifting them to the sky. The angry bear clawed at the stone but couldn’t get the little girls who reached the sky and became stars. The soldier’s company helped pass the time and his teasing was good experience for her as she’d soon find herself the object of a great deal more joviality

Continued