I Want To Be A Cowgirl

“We can’t move! Are you crazy?” I yell at my parents.

Mom raises one eyebrow, ready to lecture me about being disrespectful. Instead, she turns back to the chilaquiles in the frying pan. The crispy corn tortillas with eggs, queso fresco, and chile verde is my favorite breakfast. Usually, Mom doesn’t make them in August because that much cooking makes the whole trailer hot. This must be an exception to deliver the news.

Dad clears his throat and leans forward across the table from me.

I sit back and slouch on the bench; I can’t even look at him. “Why now? I’m about to start high school. What about junior rodeo? I am in first place overall right now and could win the senior all-around cowgirl saddle in December. How can you do this to me?” My voice gets louder with each sentence.

“Becky,” Dad says in a warning tone, “this new job pays more and my new boss is building us a brand new place to live. That saves us money. And we need to save money.”

Mom walks over to us and puts one hand on Dad’s shoulder, looking down at me. “Your father won’t have to listen to a mean boss anymore. And neither will I.” She smiles and rests the other hand on her belly.

I look at her, confused. Sure, she can’t work where she does now from so far away but surely the other town has a Mexican restaurant. “You also have a new job? Did you already enroll me in classes without asking me, too?”

“No, Becky.” Dad puts a hand on my arm, and I pull away. “Your mother finally gets to focus on selling her salsa, sauces, and preserves.”

“I get to be my own boss,” Mom almost squeals with delight.

“And what do I get? Some lame school where I don’t know anyone in a place I’ve never heard of?” More anger rises from my empty stomach, so I stand and say louder, “Mom, how can you leave Tia Marta? How can I not go to school with Marissa? That was the plan.”

“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

“Becky,” Dad says calmly. “This is what’s best for our whole family.”

Mom turns back to the stove, but not before I see her tears.

“What’s best for me is to stay here. How am I going to college without rodeo scholarships, huh? Did either of you think of that?”

Mom turns off the stove and removes her apron. “I need to go lie down.” She walks out and closes the bedroom door gently behind her.

Dad stands up, looks down at me, and in a serious voice says, “Do not upset your mother right now.”

I lower my volume to match his, as angry as he now seems to be. “What does she have to be upset about? She’s getting what she’s always wanted.”

“She doesn’t want to be away from her sister.” He pauses and clears his throat. “When she has this next baby.”

“Baby?!” I say louder than anything else. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I wish I had my boots on so I could stomp out the back door for the company of my four-legged friends. Instead I huff off to my bedroom and slam the door. Dad won’t yell at me now because that might upset my pregnant mother. But I’ll get a lecture later.

Turning on 95.1, I let The Judds play louder than I’m supposed to; I’m already in trouble. Mumbling hateful comments under my breath, I change out of my pajamas. If I had a phone in my room, I could call Marissa. She’d know what to do.

“Eat some breakfast, Becky,” Dad says through my door in a tired voice.

I go into the laundry room for my boots. “I’m not hungry,” I lie, my stomach loudly expecting something.

The sun is barely touching the backyard, and the moisture makes the grass slippery under my boots. I put on white, cotton gloves so my hands won’t get more calluses. Walking around, I swing my rope above my head, warming up my arm. Our yard isn’t very big, but after three laps I’m tired. Our wooden fence is tired too; it can no longer hold itself up. On one side, it leans so low, I can see Señora Marquez rocking on her back porch. She waves, either shooing a fly or saying good morning, I’m not sure which. So I wave back to be polite. Who’ll take her to church if we move?

Mom watches from her bedroom window; I can feel her. Not ready to be wrong about my hunger, I stand on the bales of hay stacked behind the heeling dummy. It was painted brown a long time ago and Dad actually put a frayed rope tail so it looks like the skeleton of a steer’s butt. Its rusty pole legs dangle lifeless until I kick them; their squeaky rhythm breaks the morning’s silence. Mom closes the curtain. She hates when I practice roping and defy her orders.

Above my head, the rope floats around one, two, three times before I release with the tip of my rope aimed for the left hock—which is like the calf’s elbow on its hind leg. Usually I just rope the dummy around the horns, practicing for calf breakaway, which Mom agreed to let me do when I explained how no one loses a finger because there is no dally involved; the end of the rope is already tied to my saddle horn.

But today, I focus on what I’d rather be doing: heeling. Team roping is another way to earn money. I’m flustered and release too low. Like a wide open mouth, the loop floats through the air to swallow the fake hind legs. When I pull tight, only one leg is captured—a five second penalty. Not going to win like that. After a few more warm-up loops, I successfully snag both legs. Victorious. If only my mom would let me do it for real. Heelers rarely lose fingers when they dally the rope around the saddle horn at the end.

About ten more minutes and many more successful catches later, Dad walks out to the edge of the porch. “Your breakfast is cold. And I have to go to work. I know you’re pissed off, Becky, but don’t take it out on your mother. You can deal with me when I get home.” He turns and walks towards his truck.

Standing there with my rope in one hand and both fists at my hips, I don’t say anything but glare at his back and wait until he is out of the driveway before I sit on the bale of hay and cry. I can’t remember when I last cried this way. He betrayed me. After all these years, I’d always thought he was on my side.

Mom never is. How can she have another kid when we never have enough money?

“You’re probably glad I won’t be able to do this anymore!” Knowing she can hear me, I’m not sure what kind of sin I’ve committed by yelling at a pregnant woman. Swinging my rope around for emphasis, I whack myself upside the head. “Son of a—,” I catch myself before the last word slips out loudly and mutter it under my breath repeatedly until I untangle myself.

Going in the tack room to sulk, I hit the old saddle with my rope, the thwack not as satisfying as I’d hoped. Inhaling dusty, sour leather usually calms me down, but today I’m too upset. I kick over an empty metal bucket, and it clatters across the cement floor, scaring my old German Shepherd, Princess. I wander out to comfort her by telling her how rotten my parents are making me move to a town that probably doesn’t even have Junior Rodeo.

*     *     *

I was five the first time Daddy took me to watch. Older kids rode fast horses and chased real calves, trying to catch them around the neck. Kids my age had to stand on two bales of hay and aim for the plastic head stuck in another bale a few feet away.

For months, I imitated the boys and girls I saw that day. The rope was too big and heavy for me at first; I got all tangled up, a few rope burns. Momma tried to get me interested in something less dangerous. But I wanted to rope. The whooshes above my head sounded like I was about to take flight. And even though my mom refused to let me compete that year, I kept practicing.

When I was six, Daddy convinced her to let me enter two events, dummy roping and goat tying. When she wasn’t looking, he also signed me up for calf riding.

A lot of people saw me get bucked off, but I didn’t care. It hurt a little, but I wanted to get back on, determined to stay on for the six seconds.

“Robert, are you insane?” Momma yelled at Daddy, startling my grin away.

Daddy laughed. “She’s okay, hon’. Look.” He lifted my left arm, then my right.

Following his cue, I wiggled each leg like I was doing the hokey pokey. “I’m okay, Momma, see.” I dusted off my cowboy hat before putting it back on my head. “That was fun. Can I do it again?”

“Later,” Daddy said.

“No!” Momma yelled louder at the same time. “Look at her clothes, covered in manure. Her hair, coming undone. Her face, all dirty. This is too dangerous for a six-year-old girl.” She started to re-braid my loosened trensa, pulling hard as she wrapped the liga to fasten the end.

Daddy said nothing. People in the stands watched us, probably embarrassed for him.

Momma continued more quietly, “I was fine with the goat tying and roping the plastic cow head. The worst thing is a sprained ankle or a nasty burn. But this.” She grinded her teeth and spoke each word slowly, “She could break her neck.” She took my hand and started to drag me away, leaving Daddy standing near the pile of poop.

I waited for Daddy to stop us. But he didn’t.

So I stopped myself. Momma tugged; I tugged back.

“I don’t want to ride the calf,” I said.

For a moment she looked relieved.

“I want to ride those bucking broncos bareback.”

She let go of my hand.

Daddy walked closer to us but still said nothing, so I continued.

“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

I looked up at Daddy. He looked scared. But his mouth tried to smile at me.

“I wanna be a real cowgirl.” I flicked my braid back and folded my arms across my chest.

Daddy cleared his throat. “Becky, if your mom thinks it’s too dangerous—”

“I think it’s too dangerous?!” She moved towards Daddy like I wasn’t there anymore. “It is too dangerous. You have to support me on this, Robert. She’s only six years old.”

“I’m almost seven,” I mumbled, but they were too busy yelling at each other to hear me.

“She’s a little girl. She doesn’t know what she wants. It’s our job to keep her safe.”

“Safety? That’s what you’re worried about?” He grabbed my arm and pulled up my sleeve to reveal a different kind of burn scar. “Hot oil and sharp knives aren’t dangerous? Becky helped you in the kitchen and that wasn’t dangerous? Dancers like Marissa sprain muscles and tear ligaments. Waiting by the highway for the school bus is dangerous, too.” Daddy’s voice kept getting louder. Momma seemed to be listening. Maybe she would give in. He lowered his voice and touched her arm. “You can’t protect her from everything.”

Then Momma’s eyes opened their widest so all the white around them showed; I thought they were going to pop out like on the cartoons. She looked down at me and moved so close to Daddy’s face I could see his moustache moving as she talked. “It’s not the same thing, Robert!” Her piercing shriek was so loud I covered my ears.

Other people were watching us instead of the next contestant.

Momma’s gestures at Daddy got bigger. “No one gets paralyzed from slicing a finger or scalding an arm!” That made everyone around us stop moving and look. Momma shouted in my face, “Is that what you want?” and stomped out of the arena without me.

*     *     *

“Becky,” Mom interrupts my memory. She stands in the doorway dressed for work. “I packed you lunch so you don’t eat all Fiona’s food.”

I feel victorious; the least she can do is take me out to ride my horse. Peeking inside the bag, I see Mom put carrots for Pearl, too. I mumble thank you but she might not have heard it. We sit without talking all the way to the stables; only the corrido playing softly on the radio hacks into the silence.

When she stops the car, she looks at her watch. Probably wanting to continue the earlier conversation, but knowing she can’t be late for work. “I’ll pick you up when I get off, okay.” She pats my arm.

In response, I jump out, slamming the car door and running towards the stable. Musty alfalfa fills my nostrils and makes me sneeze. My tears rise to the surface. “Pearl!” I yell.

My horse hears me, nickers in response, and leans her head over the stall door. She nuzzles me, snorting and sniffing in search of her snack.

“You know me so well, girl.”

She nods after I break off a piece of carrot and let her lip it off my palm.

Reaching under her forelock to scratch between her eyes, dirty hair sticks under my nails.

I’m so annoyed with my parents that I want to kick something. But it would be Fiona’s something, and it isn’t Fiona’s fault. She’s been a friend of Dad’s family forever and lets me keep Pearl here free in exchange for shoveling manure out of the other stalls and keeping an eye on water troughs; when she goes out of town occasionally, I also feed her chickens and whatever dogs and rabbits she has rescued or any stray cats that pass by her back porch. Why can’t she be my parent? She wouldn’t make me move away from my friends and junior rodeo.

While I maneuver Pearl’s halter into position, I tell her. “Guess what?” Trying not to cry, I share, “We’re moving.” I gather grooming equipment from the nearby tack shed. “Can you believe this crap?”

While I pick her hooves, I continue, “Dad got this new job with a new house. Mom will finally do her salsa business full-time. We get nada.” I’m upset all over again telling her.

Pearl stomps her right front hoof impatiently.

“What can we do?

The only thing that will take my mind off this horrible moving news is riding. Since the poles are still up from my last practice, I speed through them after a short warm up. The line of six tall obstacles is our favorite event, one we usually win. Victory is crucial if we are going to get that all-around cowgirl saddle this season. Only three more rodeos until the finals in December and Janelle Barnes has almost as many points as I do. I cannot let her beat me. When I saw her last June that was all she talked about—kicking my ass.

When we finish pole bending practice, I carry them, two at a time, back to the storage shed and start plotting response to my parents’ news. “I could stop doing school work,” I tell Pearl. But I tried really hard in summer school to make up two eighth grade classes that I didn’t pass so they would let me move on to ninth grade with my cousin, Marissa. I can’t risk being held back again. “But bad grades could also hurt our chances at a college rodeo scholarship,” I tell Pearl. And without a scholarship, my parents cannot afford veterinarian school.

After I set up the barrel racing pattern—three 50-gallon drums 100 feet apart in a triangle—I tighten Pearl’s cinch so I don’t slip sideways on the sharp turns.

Most competitors take the right first, then two lefts before a straight shot home. Not us. Pearl’s strengths lean in the opposite direction. The first time I tried to contradict her instinct, I regretted it. She balked. I ended up with a saddle horn in my crotch and a mouthful of mane. It isn’t like cloverleaf patterns in nature inspire one direction or another; it’s as rare as the occasional lefty scissors in that box at school. But when my partner has her mind set on something, there isn’t much I can do to change it. She’s a lot like me.

As we warm up, trotting and loping in figure eights, I try to figure out a way to not move. Pearl snorts, summoning me back to this moment, this place. “I know, Pearl, you love barrel racing.” We need to make our turns as precise as possible. She nods her head a few times then tries to shake off the bridle. It’s a sign she wants to run. With no one to time us, I care less about speed and more about the angle of her shoulder in relation to the top rim of each barrel. The closer we get without knocking it down, the faster our time.

Once Pearl and I are both overheated, we wander out to the nearby trail. It doesn’t relax me like usual. August in Runnelton is hot, so Pearl is pretty lathered up after all that practice. The eucalyptus trees are still, and I swear I can see the air hovering above the homes nearby. We turn around after 15 minutes, overwhelmed by the stench of somebody’s open garbage cans.

As I remove her saddle and bridle, my long, brown braid gets in the way, I flick it back and it reaches around the other side to poke me in the eye. “Seriously?” I’m sick of this thing.

The space between Pearl’s front legs is still warm, so before I can give her any water I walk her around more, kicking at the dusty ground.  “What if I cut my hair?” Stopping suddenly in front of Pearl, she almost steps on my boots. “Pearl, you know how much my dad loves long hair.” I grab the end of my trensa and look around for some accidental place I could get it stuck so they’d have to cut me loose. “What are they gonna do? Glue it back on?” Pearl shakes her head like she’s as disgusted with them as I am. Some of her snot gets on the shoulder of my pale blue shirt; good thing it’s an old one. I tie her to the rail and remove her built-up grime, currying and brushing her coat, checking each hoof for stray rocks. “It’s so unfair. Marissa and I are supposed to graduate together.” When she’s cool enough, I lead her across the dirt path to the empty stall and release her from the confines of her halter. After I throw a flake of alfalfa into her feeder, I complete a few of my basic chores.

Afterwards, I feel even more outraged. While I wait for Mom to pick me up, I sit in the shade of the barn and wipe down Pearl’s sweaty bridle. “And what about Fiona?” I say to Pearl. “She’ll be all alone out here without us.” She ignores me as she chomps her first mouthful.

Reaching over the stall door, I rub behind her ears while she eats. “Maybe I won’t talk to them anymore.”

Pearl wanders away for a sip of water, having lost all interest in my drama.

“Who are you not gonna talk to anymore?”

I turn around to face Clay Campbell. I hate Clay Campbell.

When I don’t answer, he continues, “Sorry, Becky. I didn’t mean to scare you.” The lopsided grin on his lightly-freckled face tells the opposite truth.

“You’re an idiot, Clay!” Gathering my composure, I shove his shoulder. “Jerk.”

“Whoa!” He fakes a few stumbling steps backwards. “Don’t damage my ropin’ arm.” Now he’s using his pretend cowboy voice. “You know I need that if I’m gonna beat your friend, Eric, next weekend.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I ask, stomping away without an answer.

Clay picks up his rope from a nearby fence post and follows a little bit behind me. “C’mon Becks, don’t be mad at me.”

“Don’t call me that!” I say too loudly. I try to take longer steps but at 5’5″, I have half the stride he does.

He answers me, “My old rope horse, Gunner, is gonna stay here while we build a new barn. Only have room for my new one, Easy Money.”

I stop and turn around. “You’ll have to talk to Fiona. And she’s not here today.” If Fiona was here, she’d help me figure out what to do about the move.

Clay winks at me, still trying on the country accent. “My dad already talked to her. I came by to check it out. Looks like we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of each other.”

“Or not. If you pay enough, we’ll take care of Gunner without you.”

“But I don’t want to neglect the old guy; he won a lot for me.”

As I continue walking away, he can’t see my smirk. Gunner was a winner until last season when Pearl and I beat them in Calf Breakaway; Clay was sure that first place belt buckle would be his. Instead it’s holding up my pants now. I rub it and turn around to glare at him.

He’s standing there swinging his rope above his head with his tight Wranglers and fancy, snake-skin boots. In spite of the victory at my waist, I’m self-conscious. My own boots are scuffed suede hand-me-downs and this particular pair of jeans has been patched several times. I look down; at least they aren’t high-waters. Now I have to worry about seeing him every time I want to ride; I don’t have enough decent clothes. Why do I care what he thinks? When I look up, he’s still standing there. “You’re an idiot,” I repeat, not able to think of anything better to say before I turn around, walking as fast as I can. Maybe he won’t really come around much since he’s got a new horse at home.

I can’t wait until Eric gets back from Wyoming so I can tell him about this. Eric Wilson has been my best friend since elementary school, and now that we are going to high school, I hope that doesn’t change. He was acting weird before he left with his cousin, Eli, to work on their uncle’s ranch for the summer. People used to think Eric and Eli were twins. Their African-American fathers both married Filipina women, so they have skin the same shade of dark goldish-brown. I’ve always envied it; I’m pale like my Irish dad instead of brown like my Mexican mom. When Eli started high school two years before Eric and me, he grew six inches in three years. Now Eric looks wider, more muscular, but is barely one inch taller than I am.

Behind me, I hear the whoosh of Clay’s rope and thwap as it hits the dirt next to me.

I whirl around, pick it up, and jerk it hard to throw him off balance. He still has that stupid sideways smile and chews his gum in exaggerated bites.

“You look like a cow!” I shout at him. My mom honks twice out by the road, so I hurry away from him. She hates to wait. “And you missed,” I say, triumphant that his failed attempt means me beating him in calf breakaway was not a fluke.

He jogs up next to me, his rope tucked safely under his arm. “I was trying to heel you.”

I walk faster. “What? Why?”

He moves in front of me and turns around to face me, walking backwards.

I want to push him and then stomp over him.

“They added team roping to junior rodeo.” He pushes his baseball cap up a little and for the first time I notice his eyes are the same color as his jeans. I stop.

“I thought maybe we could team rope together.” He keeps looking at me in a way that makes my stomach feel funny.

Mom honks again. More insistently. I shove past him. “No way. Pearl’s the only partner I need.” I run up the gravel drive out to the highway where Mom has pulled over to wait for me.

Clay keeps walking behind me but the sound of his rope cutting the air gets further away. Him asking means he knows I’m good, and he doesn’t want me to team up with anyone else. Eric and Eli will definitely team up together. They’ll beat Clay easily, no matter who his partner is. If I’m going to keep up with Janelle in all-around cowgirl saddle points, I’m going to have to find a partner other than Clay. Then I remember, my mom won’t let me team rope.

As I climb into her old Buick, Clay’s dad pulls up behind us in a brand-new truck.

Quien es?” Mom asks, always curious about boys I talk to. Usually she wants me to avoid them, but this time her voice insinuates that there is more than riding between us. “Does he go to your school?” Coming straight from work, burnt tortilla still lingers on her skin.

“Clay?” I gesture towards the shiny vehicle. “He lives in a different part of town.”

She looks in the vanity mirror on her sun visor to check her eye makeup. Her hair is coming out of its bun, so she smooths it down. She still has on her red apron stained with dark grease spots. “Es chulo, no?”

“Gross. He’s not cute.”

Mom sighs. “Anything is better than the boys you and Marissa were talking to after church.” Her true motivation: she hates when Marissa and I hang out with wanna-be gangsters who live in Marissa’s apartment building. “Does this Clay go to church?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Clay gets closer and Mom reaches across me to roll the window down further. “Stop, Mom!”

He hollers something, but I roll the window all the way up in spite of the heat and refuse to respond.

“Don’t be rude!” Mom scolds.

“I don’t like that guy, Mom. At all. He’s arrogant, and he’s only good because his dad pays a lot of money to make him that way. When I beat him last year, it was awesome.”

“Ay, Becky. You shouldn’t be like that.”

“Like what?”

Mom doesn’t answer. She repeats, “like that,” and waves her hand over me like she’s performing some kind of magic trick.

If she had a wand or fairy dust, she would make me care more about my appearance. It bothered my mom when I refused to have a quinceañera last year, so she’s helping Tia Marta with Marissa’s. Not that we could afford the kind of party they are planning. It also irritates Mom that I don’t knit or cook or play piano or want to be a dancer like Marissa.

All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a cowgirl.

Tisha Reichle Tisha Marie Reichle is a Chicana feminist and former Rodeo Queen. Currently, she spends her weekdays engaging high school students with socially conscious literature. On weekends, she writes. Her stories for young people have appeared in 34th Parallel, Inlandia Journal, and The Acentos Review. For the past 25 years, she has lived in Los Angeles and earned an MFA at Antioch University. She is a member of AWP, Women Who Submit, SCBWI, and a weekly critique group. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Tucson Literary Festival Fiction Award. She is the new fiction editor at Border Senses.