Montana Cowboys

This is a 100% true story of a Sunday in Montana before we moved out there.

Manhattan Cowboys
Copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2000.
Sunday May 10th 1997

(In Montana on my own, doing final negotiations to buy the cafe. I’ve booked a ride at a nearby ranch).

I always smile when I drive through Manhattan, Montana. Three bars, a grain silo and a railway line - a far cry from its namesake to the East. Today, I think I’ll have breakfast there as it’s on the way to the stables. I park by the railroad and, as it is getting hotter by the minute, I take off my cord shirt and put it in the boot. Then I shut the boot. With the key in it. And I have locked the car doors.

It is one of those moments when you just don’t believe it.

There was a pub right behind me called the Broken Arrow so I went in and asked the barmaid if she knew of anyone who could get into a car (Preferably legally!) She directed me to the police station, just a block away.

There was no one at the police station but four cowboys were ambling past so I asked them if they could help.

'You're not from round here, are you?' they say.

They were not exactly sober as they had been on a stag night and hadn’t yet stopped but they were charming and offered to break the car window for me (!) and then took me back into the bar and got the barmaid to phone the policeman for me. They said he could get into cars and he’d come round.

No he wouldn’t. Of all the people I’ve met in Montana, the policeman was the only one who didn’t want to help. He was fairly curt (after all, it was Sunday morning) but he did give me a number of a local man who had a garage and who could get into cars.

'You're not from round here, are you?' he says.

The cowboys were outraged that the policeman wouldn’t come and help and offered to start a fight or a riot so that he’d get called out anyway. I said that was thoughtful but in sorting that out, he probably wouldn’t have time to deal with the car. They said that was probably right, but it was a shame and introduced me to the bridegroom saying (unnecessarily) ‘he’s getting married.’ I didn’t know what to say but for some reason I said, kindly, ‘never mind,’ and everyone thought that was brilliant. If they’d had any money they’d probably have bought me a beer.

They told me how they’d been drinking all night and I told them that in England it wasn’t unknown to put the poor bridegroom on a train to the other end of the country or to tie him, naked, to a lamp post. They thought both of these were excellent ideas. Only two problems. They’d never manage to get the train to stop so they could throw him on (no station in Manhattan) and they don’t have any lamp posts.

I called the guy from the garage and his kid answered and said he was in the shower. I almost said I’d call back but something in me just said out loud ‘this is an emergency, please call him.’ And the kid did. I was very apologetic but he was great and said he’d be round in five minutes. All this time I am sitting at the bar with the guys around me being so sweet and helpful (in a sweet, unhelpful sort of way) and the barmaid dialling the numbers for me on the phone on the wall at the back of the bar and then handing the phone across the counter so it’s at the end of its curly cord and she has to duck underneath it all the time.

I went out and Randy arrived very swiftly with his car-breaking equipment. A load of wedges to get down inside the window seals and coathanger-type things to hook the locks. But he can’t do it, try as he may. He suggests I phone Hertz at the airport and ask if they’ve got a spare key. They might bring it out. I said I doubted the latter and was there a taxi in Manhattan?

‘No,’ he says. ‘But someone might drive you there I would.’ I can hardly believe the people out here. So, I go back into the pub and look up the Hertz number in the phone book and the cowboys talk about getting in through the sunroof. There isn’t one, I say. Well we can make one, they say. As I’m waiting for the man at Hertz to try and work out what to do I watch, aghast, as the barmaid pours a hefty shot of tomato juice into a pint of beer. And then another. ‘Good for hangovers,’ she says when I query this. ‘And those guys have real hangovers.’

‘But they haven’t stopped drinking yet,’ I say.

‘You get the hangover in the morning whether you’ve stopped or not,’ she says with a smile and opens another can of tomato juice.

The Hertz man says, no, they don’t have spare keys and I’ll have to call a locksmith. He gives me a number and I order an orange juice and go out to tell Randy that no, Hertz can’t do anything and that I really appreciate his time and kindness and what do I owe him? And he won’t take a dime. Not a dime. He just smiles at me and touches his cap and wishes me luck and a better day, and gets into the truck to go back and finish mowing his lawn.

I go back into the pub and the cowboys are discussing taking up piracy on the Yellowstone River to get themselves a little extra cash. They ask my opinion and I tell them that I think it’s an excellent idea and that I’ll come and watch them do it when I come and live here in the autumn.

They are thrilled and excited at the idea that I’m coming to live here and, as I dial up the locksmith’s number, Lee, the most charmingly drunk, comes over and shakes my hand for the second time and offers me one of his horses to get to wherever I’m going. I could bring it back tomorrow, he says.

I try to answer him and talk to the locksmith at the same time, just as someone turns up the juke-box so loud that you can hardly hear yourself think, and totally confuse some very pleasant lady who’s never been a locksmith in her life, nor been married to one and can’t for the life of her think why Hertz should have given me her number. She hopes that my day will get better.

And the barmaid dances back and forward under the wire until I accidentally let go of the phone and it shoots back across the counter, missing her by inches as she carries two more beers and ricochets up the wall.

I drink my orange juice and ask her for the phone book again. She says, really nicely, that she’ll get it in a minute, but the waitress hasn’t turned up and she’s got to take some orders for lunch.

The guys start talking to me about horses and what I was planning to do today so I tell them and they say that I shouldn’t ride up at Gallatin River Ranch right now as it’s rattlesnake season. I say that it doesn’t really look as if I’m going to ride there anyway, thanks all the same, and realise that I had better call the Ranch to cancel. Thank God local calls in America are free.

One of the guys actually turns out to be the owner of the 320 Ranch (another place where you can get great riding). He’s called not Mark but Marce or something similar and he’s really pretty sober and he says he’s sorry that they’re not riding there yet, and yes, Willie is a great wrangler, and he hopes to see us there in the autumn.

Then the barmaid brings me a portable phone with a big smile and I consider recommending her for a sainthood. There are three locksmiths in Bozeman (at least 20 minutes away) and they all say they can open car doors. I pick the one I like best and dial the number. As it rings, someone turns up the juke box again so I go out and talk to him on the pub doorstep. His name is Dave and he says he’ll come immediately. For $60. Pretty much the cost of a three hour range at GRR. Okay. He’s actually quite pleased to come as he was going to have to paint the guttering otherwise. He’ll be here in 20 minutes.

So I call the Gallatin River Ranch and tell them what’s happened and cancel the riding and Ron, who was there yesterday afternoon, says to come in anyway when I’ve got into the car and maybe they can take me out later, so I say thanks, and okay.

It’s time for another orange juice and a spirited discussion with the guys about why I won’t have a beer. I order a cheeseburger which arrives swiftly and is delicious. Their plans for piracy are beginning to form nicely. I tell Marce that the 320 is a good place and the others chorus ‘he thinks it’s shit’ and he goes all pink.

‘If you’re the boss, it’s probably your job to think it’s shit,’ I say and everyone drinks to that. Lee tells them that I’m a rare kind of woman.

I choose my moment, when they are all fiercely debating who’s boat they’re going to steal to start their career of piracy (Joe’s is nicely painted but it won’t deal with the rapids and Chris’s is a wreck. Perhaps they’ll steal the cop’s. It would serve him right) and slip outside to wait for the locksmith.

He’s kind and tells me I haven’t done anything that anyone else doesn’t do and gets out all his coathangers and starts work. 'It won’t take long,' he says. 'You're not from round here, are you?'ay.

Three quarters of an hour later, I ask him if he’s got any optimism left, and he says ‘enough,’ and I really admire him for that. We have a brief discussion on how inconvenient it is that they make cars so burglar-proof nowadays and I go for a walk.

A lovely old mixed-breed dog comes up to me and starts licking my hand and his owner, who is sitting at the edge of the green area by the railroad greets me and we start talking. She owns a gallery here and is considering what flowers to hang outside it. ‘What do you think?’ she says and I say ‘bright pink and bright yellow’ and she says Wow! That was just what she thought too.

'You're not from round here, are you?' she says. She’s from Nebraska originally and says the winters here are better than there and that the cold is good dry cold and it simply isn’t a problem and I’m not to worry about it. She also loves the idea of an English teashop. Really loves it.

‘You mean somewhere we could take our kids in nice clothes where they’d learn proper games and good manners?’ she says. ‘Somewhere we can go and feel special and have a good time on a Sunday afternoon. Oh that sounds great. I can’t wait to tell all my friends. When are you opening?’

I walk on and think to myself about the riding, because it’s now past one o’clock and I really have to accept one hundred per cent that I am not going riding. I may never get back into the car.

As I stand still for a moment, I am suddenly engulfed by people who are pouring out of a tiny church. They are all filled with sunshine and the joys of life - and they carry me along with them, chattering as if I were a part of their group. Of course, as soon as I can manage to get a word in edgways, I stick out like a sore thumb.

'You're not from round here, are you?' they say.

I explain (again) and say that I've got a problem with the car.

'A problem?' says their leader, a black lady who could could fill a tent in all directions and who surges with every movement. Her good-natured face lights up. 'Well, we'll just pray the situation up Honey! Don't you worry about a thing!'

And so, I am surged back to the car, where Dave is still trying hard. He looks up and nodds to the 20-odd people gathering around him. 'Morning folks,' he says and gets on with the job.

The congregation leader bursts into a song of praise with all the others following her. One verse of power roars into the air and, at the end, to the sound of the rest of the congregation humming (I kid you not) she instructs the Lord on what he has to do to aid this plucky little traveller from so far away. Open wide that door! Open the way forwards! Release her from her bondage! We know you can Lord, we know you will Lord! Open that door.


The door is opened. Not as wide as my mouth however, my jaw has pretty much hit the floor.

Dave is thrilled, the congregation is thrilled; I’m thrilled and we open up the trunk and there is the key, just lying there. Not in my shirt pocket, but just lying there.

Dave and I say goodbye (and he forgets to check the rental document, which he’s meant to do to make sure that I’m not a car thief) and he drives off wishing me a wonderful day, and I shake hands with every one of the congregation before going back into the pub to tell them that all is well.

They give me a round of applause and the cowboys all shake my hand and make me promise to come and be honorary female on their pirate ship when I come back.


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