Excerpt: The Great Montana Cowboy Auction
Code of the West
The last time Polly McMaster had missed a meeting of the Elmer, Montana town council she had ended up mayor.
It had put the fear of missing meetings into her for two solid years. Some things, however, took precedence over leadership avoidance – and one of them was your nine-year-old son bleeding all over your kitchen floor.
“Look, Ma, I can spit through it,” Jack said, taking a gulp of water and demonstrating how the inch and a half gash in his chin would work as an auxiliary mouth.
Polly, though not squeamish — who could be after four children and fourteen years of being married to a rodeo bullfighter? — still wasn’t overly fond of gross. So she bundled Jack into the pickup and hauled him down to the hospital emergency room in Livingston, deputizing her mother to attend the council meeting in her stead.
She gave Joyce strict orders not to let her be named commissioner of streets or town treasurer or head of anything that required her to wear funny hats or to house livestock..
It was enough to run the council meetings, oversee the snow removal and the Christmas pageant, and house the baker’s dozen out-of-work rabbits who had last been employed as the Elmer Christmas pageant’s livestock on the hoof.
The only job, Polly believed she was suited for was heading the committee to raise funds for the library. She had quite enough on her plate.
Besides being mayor, she was the Elmer postmistress, a part-time college student and single mother of four. That meant helping Jack make a giant flour-and-water relief map of the Amazon jungle, being a chaperone at the school dances at Daisy’s junior high, helping sixteen year old Lizzie rehearse her lines for the school play, and serving as a bad example for nineteen year old Sara who thought she could do a better job than Polly at living a well-ordered life.
Polly quite agreed. Well-ordered was not a word she had ever used to describe her life.
It was past ten when she and Jack got home.
“So how did it go?” She looked hopefully at her mother who was sitting in her arm chair by the fireplace doing her latest project. What she meant was Am I home free?
“Went very well,” Joyce said with a satisfied smile. But she didn’t quite meet her daughter’s eyes, and went straight back to the wall hanging she’d been macraméing the past month.
Polly understood the subtleties of eye contact or lack thereof. She eyed her mother narrowly. “How well?”
Joyce flicked a beaming smile in her direction. “Very well indeed.” But then she looked at her mass of knots again.
“Not the roads committee?”
“Of course not. Artie Gilliam said he’d do that.” Joyce was humming as she tied the knots. She hadn’t looked up except to consult the directions and the picture in the 1970s era magazine she’d found the pattern in. It was supposed to be airy with a sort of fishnet quality to it.
Polly thought it looked like a hair shirt. “So Artie’s heading up the roads committee. Bless his heart.” Artie Gilliam was ninety and he certainly didn’t need to be worrying about Elmer’s transportation future, but she was delighted he was. “So I got the library?”
Joyce stuck her tongue between her teeth and scowled at the hair shirt. “Over, over, under, around. Loop. Loop,” she muttered. Then, “Carol Ferguson’s doing that.”
Carol wasn’t even on the council, so she must have turned up and volunteered. That was good. Unless . . .
“Don’t say I’ve got to do the Christmas pageant again this year!”
“I thought we agreed Celie would volunteer for that. She’s the acting freak – I mean, the entertainment whiz – not me.”
Her sister Celie knew more about actors than anyone alive. She subscribed to every magazine, read every word, watched every gossip show, and saw every movie as soon as it was released, even though she had to go clear to Bozeman to do it.
Well, not every movie. Just those starring hunky handsome men – especially God’s gift to women, Sloan Gallagher.
Sloan Gallagher and his colleagues were her defense against real men – the ones she met every day.
Ever since Matt Williams had jilted her ten years ago, Celie had sworn off three-dimensional men. Silver screen heroes with their two hour staying power, were the only ones she trusted. Her fantasy life was terrific. Her real one was dull as dirt.
Polly figured that, with all her dramatic expertise, Celie might as well put it to work. She’d spent the last week telling Celie what a terrific experience it would be. Privately Polly thought, let her see the nitty-gritty. Let her get stuck with kids with measles and pregnant Marys and stage-frightened ten year olds throwing up on her shoes. Ler her talk some bashful cowboy into being Joseph. Let her tell him to bring his bathrobe to wear on stage, and be told with a grin that not only didn’t he own a bathrobe – he didn’t wear pajamas, either!
Polly had been told exactly that. She’d been chair of the Elmer Christmas pageant five out of the past seven years. Only twice had she been lucky enough to presume upon the ignorance of newcomers.
Now, unless some unsuspecting fool moved in or Celie volunteered, there was no one else but her –and Polly had run out of ideas and cowboys and patience with ten year olds. The only thing she hadn’t run out of was bunnies — somebody’s idea of “incorporating a touch of realism into the pageant” a couple of years back. They were out in the shed behind the house right now. There were thirteen of them at last count. By next Christmas, God knew how many there would be.
Polly could deal with the bunnies. But she wanted Celie to run the pageant.
“Celie let you volunteer her, didn’t she?”
“Mmm? Yes. Yes, she did.”
“Wonderful! “ Polly flopped in the armchair, sighed and stretched her arms over her head. The weight of perpetual responsibility began to lift. She smiled and kicked her feet and wiggled her toes. “I’m off the hook.”
Polly’s feet stopped kicking. “What do you mean, not quite?”
Joyce looked up, blinking over her half-glasses like one of the rabbits. “Oh, nothing much.” She gave a little laugh. “There was just a bit of new business.”
“What new business?”
“It’s about Maddie.”
“Maddie Fletcher? She’s not ill, is she?”
“No. But it’s almost as bad. Ward took out a loan to buy a new bull and fix up the buildings four, five years back. It wasn’t any problem making the payments as long as he was alive, but . . . “ She shrugged sadly.
Polly stared. ”Don’t say they’re foreclosing!”
“Not yet. But they’re expecting payment. It was one of those balloon things. Maddie got behind when Ward was sick and now she can’t catch up. Worse, some Hollywood fellow is interested in buying it and the bank thinks he’s a better bet.“
”They can’t do that!”
“Actually, they can.” Joyce paused. “We, as a community, have to help Maddie out.”
“Of course we do.” Polly swung around and sat up straight. “So how do we help?”
Elmer and environs were home to a fair share of independent-minded folks who took care of themselves and went their own way — and Maddie was among them. But no one ever turned their back on a neighbor and they always took care of their own.
The Fletchers had always been good neighbors – the best. They’d always lent a hand when anyone else was in need. They’d been right there taking care of the kids for Polly after her husband Lew’s accident.
Now Joyce beamed at Polly over the top of the hair shirt. “I knew you’d feel that way. I told ‘em you would.”
The penny dropped. She had been named head of the Save Maddie Fletcher’s Ranch committee.
Well, no problem there. That was a job worth having. And it wouldn’t be difficult, really.
Polly could raise money blind-folded with one hand tied behind her back – as soon as she figured out what would bring in the amount of money required.
“I don’t think a bake sale is going to do it,” she said, her mind whirling through possibilities as she stared into the fire. “It would take an awful lot of cookies and cakes to pay off even the interest on a bank loan.”
“Yes, it would.” Joyce nodded
“And even if I got all the kids to shovel all the snow for the rest of the winter and donate all their proceeds, that wouldn’t do the trick.”
“You’re right,” Joyce said.
“Maybe a benefit dance?” Polly thought out loud.
“Not enough revenue,” her mother said.
Polly blinked, surprised at Joyce’s comment, even though her mother was certainly correct. It must be that economics self taught book she was reading these days — another project when she wasn’t studying Spanish or working on the hair shirt. “Er, right.”
“We need something with broader consumer appeal,” Joyce went on.
“Um, yeah.” Polly stared at her mother. The hair shirt sat unnoticed in Joyce’s lap now. There was a sparkle in her eyes. It was the first sparkle Polly had seen in a long time.
“Nothing we’ve done before will do,” Joyce went on. “We need a large scale effort and a lot of community participation. We need to take it beyond the local market.”
Polly nodded, still a little dazed. “We’re talking thousands of dollars, I gather?”
Polly grimaced. “I’ll give it some thought then.”
“I already have.”
Polly looked up, blinking. “You? I mean, er, wow. And you think your idea will, um . . . generate enough revenue?” She tried to sound economic.
“Oh, yes. And everyone else did, too.”
It was decided, then?
“So what is it?” Polly was having trouble imagining anything that the residents of Elmer and its surrounding ranches could do that would raise thousands of dollars.
“We’re going to have an auction.”
“An auction? You mean everybody contributes white elephants and stuff?”
It was a nice idea, but she didn’t see how it was going to raise a pile of money.
“Not enough revenue?”
“Not enough revenue,” Joyce agreed She finished the knot she was tying and looked up quite pleased. “And it wouldn’t get enough people involved. Besides, it wouldn’t use up our surplus. You should always work from your surplus,” she informed Polly gravely. “I read that in chapter four.”
“Chapter four. Right,” Polly said. “Of course. But I don’t quite see. I mean, what have we got a surplus of . . . besides snow?” Which was piling up outside even as they spoke.
Joyce tied one last knot, looked up and smiled beatifically. “Cowboys.”
“What are we bidding on them for?” Polly wanted to know. “Mending fences and baling hay and working cattle? They do that anyway.”
“Yes, but this is extra,” her mother explained. “They’re donating time, and the money will go to Maddie. And virtually everyone in the valley can donate something cowboy related.”
“Like what?” Polly asked.
“Taggart and Noah are donating bull and bronc riding courses,” her mother said. “And Brenna’s donating one of her cowboy hero paintings. Tuck will donate a series of pen and ink sketches of last year’s rodeo and Charlie Seeks Elk will provide some original cowboy photos. Artie said he’d donate some old cowboy postcards. There’s a ton of cowboy related items. People are still coming up with things.”
Polly thought they might get a few outsiders in for Brenna’s painting. And Charlie Seeks Elk was something of a household name as far as photographers went.
“That might get us something,” she agreed.
“And we’re having a bachelor auction, putting up a few of the single guys on the rodeo circuit so the girls can bid on them.”
“That ought to get us a dollar or two.”
“Lots of women love cowboys,” Joyce said firmly. ”And they will get the run-off from our big ticket item. We’re auctioning off a famous cowboy.”
The only famous cowboys Polly could think of were Roy Rogers, Will Rogers, Gene Autry and Buffalo Bill. She went and poured herself a cup of coffee, then came back and said, “All the famous cowboys are dead.”
“Not all.” Joyce said, beaming. “Not Sloan Gallagher.”
Polly spilled coffee all over her hand. “No,” she said. “Oh no.”
He couldn’t. He absolutely couldn’t!
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said desperately, “Sloan Gallagher’s not coming here!”