“Well if it ain’t the Aussie! Come here and gimmee a hug!”
I am instantly folded into the warm, solid chest; muscled arms engulfing me and a smooch pressed against my forehead. Smells of fresh soap, hay and horses prompting a flood of forgotten sensations. Stepping back, I take in this cowboy who I haven’t seen since I left the States.
Blonde hair, trimmed with a little grey now, peeks out from under his straw Stetson, a little sweat-stained but free of dust in the morning sun. There are more wrinkles around the corners of his eyes than I remember but the wry grin is the same, surrounded by skin tanned from hours in the Montana sun.
His clean twill shirt-sleeves have a knife-edge crease. A silk neck rag tied in a perfect square knot tops his buttoned woollen vest. The leather belt around his waist is hand-crafted and fastened by a large silver and gold belt buckle with a ruby in the corner, aged but polished, one of his rodeo wins from years gone by. On his belt is a work knife, sheathed in a worn but custom-tooled leather case.
The crease down the front of his pressed Wranglers could cut butter. The jeans fall into folds at the bottom where they meet his boots which show a summer of dust and miles in the stirrups but have obviously been cleaned and shined this morning.
“Come on in! The coffee’s on,” he beams as he leads me into the barn.
It, too, smells of hay, horses and leather soap. There isn’t a speck of dust anywhere. Hay and feed are stacked precisely in the corner stall, saddles and bridles hang in military formation on the stands against the opposite wall, and four shiny horse faces happily munching their morning hay look out over the stall doors, curious to see who the newcomer is. On another wall hang a few coiled and wrapped lariats, leatherwork tools and his rain slicker, all in neat lines and ready for use. This place is cleaner than my kitchen! But then Mitch always took immense pride in maintaining the cowboy tradition.
This place is a far cry from the Aussie jackaroos, whose clothing is often an eclectic mix of stained moleskins and torn Drizabones, horses rarely live in barns, and saddles and gear are more often hefted into the back of a ute until the next day.
“How ya been? How’s life Dewn Un-DA?” He does is best but pathetic attempt at mimicking my Aussie accent. We laugh at our standing joke.
He shows me to a hand-hewn pine table. The coffee he hands me smells good but tastes bitter and burnt after Australia’s smooth, milky cappuccinos. I hide a grimace as I swallow my first mouthful and can’t believe I used to drink the stuff, although not as much as him. Mitch doesn’t smoke or drink, but he makes up for the lack of vices in coffee. Gallons of it. Apparently, this hasn’t changed.
Our conversation falls immediately into the soothing rhythm of old friends, as if we spoke yesterday instead of eight years ago. He talks proudly about his current horses, this ranch that he manages, his son who is following in the old ways, his wife who is still as “purdy” as the day he married her. And tears gather at the mention of his daughter. Shayna’s been gone for decades, but his voice still trembles as he talks about his blonde cheerleader who was died in a boating accident.
“But what about you? How ya doin’?” His voice becomes tender and I choke down the sudden lump in my throat. This tough, soft, funny cowboy; such a brotherly friend through my storybook life in Montana and the divorce that made me leave.
“I’m good, Mitch. I’m good. Ross is a wonderful man. You’d love him. He’s a lot like you… minus the cowboy part of course.”
He laughs at that.
“I’m glad. You deserve it. We miss you though. Just ain’t the same without our trouble-makin’ Aussie.”
I talk a little about what I’ve been doing there, the horse I flew to Australia because I couldn’t bear to leave him behind, whether I miss four feet of snow. Nope. I tell him about the beautiful Aussie beaches and how he should come and visit and how I miss Montana so badly some days.
“Do you regret leaving?”, he asks quietly.
I’m back at the airport eight years ago. I had forbidden anyone from coming to see me off because it would be too hard. Mitch came anyway. He drove in at five in the morning because he couldn’t bear the thought of me being alone in my last hours in Montana. I’m not sure if he’ll ever know how grateful I was.
There is a long silence.
“I don’t fit here anymore. But I don’t really fit there either.”
“It is what it is, I guess.”
He reaches across and squeezes my hand for a while.
Suddenly he clears his throat and stands.
“Well let’s saddle up some horses and see if you still know how to ride in a REAL saddle, not one of those half-English stocky things!”
I laugh as I rinse my coffee cup and head after him.
“Aussie cowboys don’t have ROOM for a horn on their saddle, Yank!”