Back in 75 I was on a telephone crew running new poles and cable from Rapid City up through Sturgis and through Belle Fourche and over on to Hulett and down past Devil’s Tower and terminating at Moorcroft. Our foreman had mapped out the work and set the schedule. It was late June and the weather grew hot during the day and cool at night, typical of that northern clime. We were pulling ten to twelve hour days, six days a week. Our week would start setting poles and then stringing cable and finally splicing the lengths together. Just sun up to sun down work and hit the showers. Of course we ate at the local cafes along the way. Most were just holes in the wall and generally a bust. Bad food and bad coffee had us heading for the package stores for cases of beer to wash that bad taste out. Lordy, we did drink some beer. Most of it the old piss poor stand bys. Craft beers had yet to appear on the horizon. One had to go to Boston or San Francisco to find decent beer and we were about as far from those cities as a polar bear from a cactus.
Sturgis hadn’t become the new symbol for middle class and rich Harley riders where everyone was trying to be a bad ass and lucky if some gang member didn’t take umbrance. By the first week in July we had moved on towards Belle Fourche leaving it the sleepy little place it once was. At least there was one good cafe and two decent bars. John, our foreman, knew how to handle men and generally kept us on the straight path. If a man got drunk once, he’d dock your pay. If a man got drunk twice he’d take you out behind the shed. and if a man got drunk three times, it was down the road walking back to Rapid City. John had to get the work done on time and we were making good wages with the overtime. Company paid for the motel rooms and two meals each day, breakfast and dinner. We did without lunch, didn’t have time to go get it. There were a dozen of us to ride herd on and John did it well. I had no complaints.
Belle Fourche became our next center of operations since there were no motels until Devil’s Tower and those were full of tourists. Once we progressed to that point then we would switch our motel rooms to Moorcroft. Let me tell you, Belle Fourche has a history and these people are proud of it. Teddy Roosevelt and cattle barons and what not. That’s all gone except the local rodeo come July 1st. Those people love there rodeo, seems everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Never seen so many little green road apples. The second night we were there we ate at one dinner, a cafe and bar really, and the food was good. John even allowed us to have a couple of beers with our meal. The days had been hot and we were ahead of schedule so I guess he was feeling a little grateful. That’s the way of a good crew, work hard and give the boss some extra and he gives you some extra. So anyway, me and Curly and Dave and John were at one table and talking a little between ourselves when the waitress came up and asked what we wanted. John said, “Steak and beer for the boys and make the steak medium rare. We don’t want to hear that cow moo.”
She fluttered a little and gave us a giggle like a school girl. “You boys are new in town, aren’t you? Going to the rodeo tomorrow? I used to be a barrel rider when I was a young girl. Pretty good, once won me a first place ribbon.”
“No, we got to put in a full day’s work tomorrow. Will the rodeo still be going on Sunday? Might like to take it in, maybe see some bull riding.” John was sincere in his asking.
“Why yes, they do the top eight bull riding contestants and the top eight bronco busting contestants on Sunday. Usually start off with the barrel racing competition in the morning. Mighty exciting to watch those young girls.”
“Well the boys and I will be there Sunday. Should be a fine day of relaxation.” John turned back to the table and started to discuss tomorrows work.
“By the way, I’m Janie. I’ll get your beers out now and put your order in. Nice to have you here.” With that she hurried away and placed our orders and brought back four bottles of beer. Then she turned to other customers. The cafe was busy, guess it must be the rodeo crowd. Everything was big hats and boots galore, I swear I never seen so many cowboys save a John Wayne movie. Of course no one was packing a six shooter on their hips. The food came and Janie hovered over us, making sure we had what we needed. Then about an hour later it was time to leave all the merriment. Five in the morning comes early enough, no use hurrying it along. John paid the check and left a nice tip. Then he hustled the other guys out the door and into the trucks.
The next evening we went to the same cafe and ordered up another meal. John wasn’t quite so generous, pot roast was good enough and coffee was the drink of preference. John figured that since tomorrow was our day off we could drink on our own time and sleep in if we wanted. After the meal I stayed at the table and ordered my first beer of the evening. Frank from the other table came over and joined me. “Think I’ll have a couple before I head off for bed, need a good night’s sleep after today.”
“Yeah, that fall you took was a little rough. Tried to step off the pole too soon, didn’t you.” Frank looked a little sheepish at my comment. “Happened to me last year. Damn near broke my leg. God, body belt got twisted up and dumped me on my head. I felt like a rookie.” Frank grinned at the thought. About then Janie came back and took our order. A minute later she was back with the two bottles.
“Say Janie, you going to be at the rodeo tomorrow?” I was casually asking just to make a little conversation. I mean, she’s a female and all I’ve got to look at all week long is the likes of Frank and Dave and whoever. It’s just conversation, something to take my mind off work for the night.
“Why sure am. The girls from the Lazy D look like they just might take it all this year. I’ve been watching them from time to time. Their father is my boy friend’s brother. That’s Jake, the father, that is. Rod’s my boy friend. He’s out in California doing the big rodeos this summer.”
A couple of beers and time to turn in. Get some extra sleep and let the old body take its ease for the day. Breakfast came late, closer to nine as most of us staggered to the cafe. John had left orders with the manager to mark the bill and he would be by later to pay it. Eggs over easy and bacon and sausage with hash browns. Glenn might of had too much of a good time as he found his sunny side up glaring at him in disgust. But a few cups of coffee usually work their magic and out we went into the bright sun. Blue skies warned that it might be a scorcher. We headed up the road where the stadium was and paid for our tickets. Judging by the sun and the shade we opted for that part of the stadium where the shade would be come afternoon. Janie was right, the women’s event were in the morning. Barrel riding, calf roping, and the usual small fry stuff like sheep bulldogging and pony riding went on. It was fun to watch the parents and family rooting for their kids and siblings. I guess being a cowboy or cowgirl is fun at that age. Made me feel old at thirty one.
Of course the afternoon brought all the big events, the finals for the rodeo. I guess that since I didn’t grow up on a ranch I just can’t understand the thrill of pain and those kids took a lot of pain. At least no one got hurt and there were some electrifying rides. One young man got his hand caught and looked to be jumping up and down as the bull bounced around the arena. I bet he’s sore tomorrow. Then they had a grand parade with all the riders trotting around on their horses with flags and big hats. Well, time to head for the cafe and some supper. We finally met up with John and the other guys and found our way into the cafe. True to form Janie was waiting for us.
Did you all see the rodeo? Wasn’t it grand? I told you those girls from the Lazy D were going to win. My, my, they were really good. Talk of them going to the state competition.” She took our orders and came back with the coffee. Tomorrow was a work day and we would need a good nights sleep. There were a couple of places where we would have to set the poles all by hand. That would put us behind by half a day. Janie reappeared with the food and fresh coffee. “Say, you boys want to hear something? Just got a letter from Rod, my boyfriend. Says he’s coming back in October if he can. I’ll be going with him then. Some day soon I’ll be going with him.”
I was about to say something when John nudged me. “Don’t say anything.” Then when she was out of earshot John said. “Her boyfriend died ten years ago, so don’t say anything about him. She’s a good woman but one of the people I was talking with said she has never accepted her boyfriend’s death. So just agree with her and don’t say anything.” I watched Janie for a while. She was a little different tonight, a bit more animated than the previous nights. I figured it must have been the rodeo.
Monday night she wasn’t there. We thought it was her day off. But the new waitress said Janie hadn’t come to work that day. The cafe was a little sad that night. And the next couple of nights. I saw the local newspaper and then I knew.