Sunday Stories: “Nevada Mustangs”


Nevada Mustangs
by Eric Erickson

For Arthur Miller, Marilyn, Clark and Monty


We came to Nevada to find ourselves, Gloria and I, along with a woman named Soapy that we collected in Soda Springs. In the years that followed the A-bomb tests and the birth of the interstate highways, I grew a beard and set off from my Midwestern life for California to write. In San Francisco, I met Gloria, an ex-actress that had decided to become a filmmaker. We fell into a brief love affair before she informed me that she had decided to love only women, but she did want me to help her use her father’s money to make a movie, a documentary she planned to title Reno Divorce.

Soapy drove us to Nevada in her rusted Plymouth, regaling us with tales of her own “Reno divorce” five years earlier. “We were young, and we were both cowboys, ‘nuff said.” But she would say much more, about the drunken brawls, the poverty, the long disappearances. As she spoke, Gloria stared at her intently, pursing her lips around a soggy cigarette filter in the corner of her grin. “If you guys really want to see Nevada,” Soapy declared, “then you really got to come with me to the Dayton Rodeo. You’ve never seen nothing like it in Wisconsin, or wherever you’re from.”

“It’s up to her,” I answered. “I’m just the guy holding her bags.”

“Now Carl, what’s a crack like that supposed to mean?” Gloria asked, jerking her head violently to face me in the backseat.

“The rodeo it is,” I proclaimed. I was glad. I had spent the night in Reno six months earlier and had to pawn my father’s watch to make it the rest of the way into California. What I really desired was to see the sky open up in a fiery blue canvas. I wanted to get Gloria away from the nihilists and the fakers of San Francisco for a while. Maybe then she’d see. Maybe then I’d see. I looked at the pavement spooling out in front of us, through the yucca trees and the brambling wheat grass, toward the solemn painting of a forever distant mountain range, framed on each side by my traveling companions: Soapy and her infantile wilderness, and the angular togetherness of Gloria, shining black hair covering exactly half of her face.

The little mining town of Dayton was awash in dusty cowboys, filled with the stench of whiskey and horses, and the din of expletives and boot steps that appeared to be part of an old-west museum. In-between the ten gallon hats and backslaps, a young blonde woman commanded attention every time she bent over to pet a puppy-dog, or turned her sullen face into a beaming smile. As Gloria, Soapy, and I made our way through the crowd of cowboys, Gloria turned her head to give me a smile. “We must look like aliens,” she laughed. “We might as well have antennae coming out of our heads.”

We watched the rodeo in ignorance, watching men ride then fall from horses and bulls. There didn’t seem to be much to know about the sport, riding being preferable to falling. The whole scene might have become boring had the striking blonde not made a spectacle of herself. She was having a near breakdown at the sight of a young cowboy that seemed destined to break his skull every time left the gate. The crowd loved it, cheering louder to drown out the young woman’s shrieking and sobbing. The announcer roared, “We still have some real men in the West!” The fact that her pleas were falling on deaf ears only strengthened her resolve at first, but by the time an angry bull catapulted the young cowboy, she buried her head in her hands.

“This does seem a bit ridiculous,” I remarked in her direction after the event, as cowboys began to filter into the small collection of bars on the main drag. “You two must be very close, you and that cowboy. Is he going to be alright?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean by ‘alright’,” she said politely, still rubbing the remaining tears from her ruddy cheeks. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

Soapy jogged ahead of us and opened the door for her, dipping her floppy hat to her chest as she cleared the way for the young woman. “You can call me Soapy, Miss, and these fine folks are a couple of California filmmakers. Have you ever been in a film?”

“I’m Roslyn. Pleased to meet you.”

“Why don’t you sit and have a drink with us?” Gloria slid in front of Soapy as she gathered three stools together at the end of the bar.

“I have to get back to my friends over there,” Roslyn answered, pointing to a corner booth where the young rodeo hero sat with bandages wrapped around his head, along with a dapper, aging cowboy and a squat, sneering man in a dusty baseball hat.

“I’m sure they won’t mind if we steal you for a few minutes” Gloria concluded. “What are we drinking, whiskey or whiskey?”

We threw back our thick shots and I felt the lights of the room grow sharp, highlighting the thick plumes of smoke rising from the lips of ragged leathery faces. There must have been about two women for every fifteen men, and a growing collection of eyes were focused on the trio standing next to me. I loosened the tweed blazer on my back and stuck my thumbs in my pants pocket to protrude my gut as a gesture of solidarity with these men. “Roslyn,” I asked, “would you do me the pleasure?” I gestured toward the middle of the room where a few couples were scooting around the floor with their hips pressed together.

“Let me just go check on my friends,” she responded and she jogged across the room. The older cowboy sat with a wide grin spreading across his leathered face beneath a peppery mustache. He ran a hand through the thick gray burlap of hair on his forehead as he raised his glass and nodded in our direction. The tinny piano clanged away in desperation as I took her hands and mimicked some of the steps of the other dancers. Roslyn gracefully avoided my torn patent-leather steps as I waited until the tempo of the music to slow down so I could hold her close. I whispered, “You’re quite a dancer. Where did you learn to dance like that?”

“Chicago,” she answered with a grin.

“I didn’t know they danced like this in Chicago. This must be quite a scene for you, huh?”

“I’m not sure yet. Just when I get used to something, it changes. I’ve gotten so when I get up in the morning, I have to look in the mirror just to remember who I am.” Her eyes turned sullen again. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders as though we had known each other for years, as though she depended upon me for support. Outside the sun was suspended above the distant range and purple hues dripped down across the horizon. “I almost feel like you have to keep moving in a place like this, otherwise you’ll get stuck and never be able to find your way out.”

She leaned back and gave me a puzzled look. “I can’t tell if you’re for real or not.” Just then, the old cowboy tapped me on the shoulder forcefully, but politely. He flashed me an even wider smile as he slid his arms around Roslyn’s waste.

“Pardon me, boy, I thought I might show you a few tricks I’ve learned.” His staggering steps corralled themselves into a coherent two-step as he danced Roslyn up and down the dance floor. I awkwardly made my way back to Gloria and Soapy.

“Good going, Casanova,” Soapy roared, “you’re officially a cowboy now!”

“She’s brilliant,” Gloria remarked, “she would be perfect for the film, just perfect.”

Across the room, the old cowboy led Roslyn back to the corner booth. She turned and waved us over as a chagrinned look swept over the three men. I carried a tray of drinks over to the table with my companions in tow. Gloria sat and leaned forward with her head on her fist as though she were a scientist examining specimen. “So, what do you all do, you know, for a living?”

The trio of men roared. “What’s a living?” the squat man in the baseball cap queried. “Sounds like you’re talking about wages, right?”

“Well, surely there’s no real need for cowboys anymore,” Gloria insisted, “Would you consider this more of a hobby, or a way of life.”

Uncomfortable, Roslyn shifted in her seat. “I think that we’re all just looking for a place to belong.”

“Oh, I know where I belong,” said the old cowboy. “The world can do what it will, and I can’t change it, but it can’t change me, neither.” He shifted back in his seat and kicked a large boot up against the table. “Where you folks from, anyhow, California? Isn’t that supposed to be the new frontier?” His buddies chuckled and toasted the last of their drinks.

“I don’t know, I still think California is like the end of the world, the last hiding place,” I nervously interjected. “It seems like everybody in Nevada is either on their way to the end of the world, or on their way back.”

“Wow, that’s deep,” Gloria chided. Laughing, her hand slapped Soapy’s knee and then landed there for good. The old cowboy slung an arm around Roslyn and the entire group seemed to look as contented as a group of industrialists savoring their last big conquest. I looked at Roslyn and imagined taking her back to Chicago to meet her family and settle down in Elmwood Park or Downers Grove in a nice split-level house.

“What are you looking at, Carl,” Gloria remarked. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a woman like that, anyway.”

“A woman like what?” Roslyn asked. The entire group, including myself, laughed again and the young cowboy stumbled back toward the bar to get refills.

“So you’re makin’ some kinda film?” the old cowboy started in. “If you wanna see some real cowboy work, you should come with us tomorrow. We’re going to do some mustangin’”

“Mustanging?” Gloria responded. “What’s that?”

“Why, you oughtta know about Nevada mustangs. Why, there’s mustang blood pulling all the plows in the west, and there’s still hundreds, maybe thousands of ‘em up in those hills.”

“Do you tame them? Or, do you break them? Is that what it’s called?” I asked.

“No, we sell ‘em, of course,” the squat man answered, “They send ‘em to California and other places and turn ‘em into dog food. But, let me tell you, it sure beats wages any day.”

“Wild horses. Fascinating,” Gloria remarked. She glanced at Roslyn who was looking uneasy in her chair. The old cowboy squeezed her shoulder a little tighter. Moonlight began to cast a glow on the white gravel outside. I thought about how far it might be to the interstate. I thought about the cold comfort of its outstretched veins flowing mindlessly in every direction in the country. I pictured myself on the embankment, hitching a ride in either direction, back to California and the end of the world, or back to Minnesota and the old world that didn’t exist anymore. Just then, the old cowboy noticed a face in the crowd.

“Gaylord?” he shouted. “Rosemary? Is that you?” He staggered out of the saloon and onto the sidewalk. “Look everybody! My kids come to see me. They come to see their old pops. Where’d you go, Gaylord? You was just here a second ago. Where’d you go, Gaylord?” The old cowboy fell to his knees as tears began to stream down his face. Roslyn ran to his side and held him in her arms.

“Oh, take me home, Gay. Take me home,” she repeated.

He stood up and brushed the dirt from his denims. Roslyn handed him his cowboy hat and threw his arm over her shoulder. She looked so large, so strong, hoisting that old cowboy up like that, like she was carrying the weight of a thousand broken men. As the pair made their way down the block, however, they began to shrink, getting smaller and smaller until they became little more than tiny slivers of moonlight on the horizon.


Eric Erickson is a native of Denver, Colorado and a professor of English at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs. He has published fiction in Curbside Splendor, Cigale Literary Magazine, and Down in the Dirt Magazine, among others. He is currently working on finishing his first novel. 

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