Rusty Springs may have been a bump in the road, a tiny town in Montana which could be seen in its entirety from one end of it to the other, but in Ferris opinion, it was a perfect example of what a Western town should be: small enough, she thought, to grasp the essence in the palm of her hand and large enough to hold everything one could need if you were fortunate enough to put down roots and truly appreciate its uniqueness.
“This town’s got it all . . . café, general store, grocery, blacksmith, Western clothing store, and, oh, look, a gift and book shop.”
At the end of town, behind the fire station one block away, was the Grange, a place where Westerners met, partied, networked and put on community events. The rustic building was fashioned of weathered dark brown boards. It spread out and had so many additions that it looked as if a mother duck were folding her wings over a flock of rambling ducklings.
Pickups and rattling cars were rolling into the empty lot across the street from the building. As they approached the area, from inside the truck they could see adults getting out of vehicles and heading up to the building to a wide ramp and onto a crowded, long deck. The women wore jeans and jeans jackets or versions of prairie skirts and boots. Ferris felt she’d fit in. Lance’s blue shirt and her black Capri’s would look just right.
They parked and then sauntered up a ramp into the building. They paused in front of two ladies seated behind a long table almost yelling to two big, burly men. The woman nearest Lance shouted to the man with whom she was speaking, “Go on in. Find your spot.”
On top of the stage, four musicians were tuning up a guitar, key board, fiddle and drums, people were taking their places at round tables, either sitting or standing to greet and hug one another, the noisy clatter rising as more people entered.
“You have tickets?” the woman in a paisley black dress behind the table said looking at Lance.
“Any left?” Lance asked, disturbed by her question and by the fact that the place look crowded and was becoming even more so as newcomers pressed through the doors. “Looks like it a big night.”
“You’re in luck,” yelled the second woman who’d just finished talking to someone who’d rushed up to the table. “Morgans can’t make it. Give him their tickets.”
The first woman sorted through a group of tickets on the table and pulled out two. “There’s a table number on these,” she said as she handed them to Lance. “Food will come out after a brief program in a few minutes. Go on now and find your table. Oh, here’s tickets to get your beer or wine. Beverage table’s over there,” she said and pointed through the crowd to a group gathered around another big table.
Conversation was near to impossible, the whoosh of racket increasing by the momentum of the expectant and gathering crowd. Lance maneuvered Ferris over to the beverages. Mashed together by the crowd, they shook their heads and laughed.
Finally, they were handed large plastic glasses of beer and then wended their way to a round table near the stage. A tin bucket of silk daises held a placard with their number written on it.
Four people were seated there, a man in a brown uniform and three women. They were turned and talking to people standing behind them. Lance pulled out two metal chairs. They wiggled onto the cold seats. “Nothing spilled,” said Ferris, setting her glass down and looking directly at Lance with a grin.
“Well done,” said Lance loudly, reveling in the moment, proud to be seen with Ferris.
The drummer began wielding his drumsticks, then quit. A guitar player spoke into the microphone. Like the other members of the band, he wore a solid black tee-shirt and jeans. “Hello out there,” he called several times to get the attention of the audience. “Please stand for our National Anthem.”
Following a jubilant rendition of the anthem, they all sat down. A pitifully thin seventy-year-old woman to the left of Ferris got up. As she did, the hall stilled and the metal chair unfolded behind her and clattered to the floor. A smile froze on her face. In one quick and effortless motion, Lance reached over to unfold and set the chair upright.
She looked at Lance, embarrassed, and then began stiffly walking to the stage.
The drummer executed a dramatic roll on the taut skin of his snare drum. “Please stay seated,” said the musician into the mike as he beckoned the frail lady to join him on the stage.
“It’s beautiful, just beautiful, to hear your conversations filling this old hall,” he continued to the audience. “But before you have some of the best food in Montana, we’re going to hear from a lovely lady who makes this evening possible. Here, she comes, Miss Gloria.”
The people gave their attention to the stage as Miss Gloria moved slowly up to the master of ceremonies who was asking, “Why are we all here?” and passed her the mike.
Her tired eyes stared down at the respectful crowd. She shook her frail head and scolded, “You think it’s to have a good time. Oh, we do have all that but more. We came tonight to make sure folks around here get enough to eat!”
Then she paused and her arm dropped the microphone. She looked as if she forgot what she was going to say until the master of ceremonies picked it up from the floor and placed it back near her lips. “The Rusty Springs Food Bank needs help. If you’re a hunter, we could use a deer or elk in the fall. We have people who volunteer to do the butchering.
“If you’re a housewife, pick up something extra for the Food Bank. At the store when you’re shopping for groceries, don’t forget that there are people who are going without. You may not see them, but folks are hurting.” She paused again, seeming to remember something, maybe her manners, and said, “Well, thank you for coming tonight.”
There was a smattering of applause and then a generous outpouring of appreciation as seventy-year-old Gloria moved slowly off the stage.
“Thank you, Miss Gloria,” said the guitar player. A few chairs moved and scrapped the wood floor. “Wait up,” he said, “We’ll go to the buffet by table number. So those three tables down front,” and he pointed to the ones nearest the stage, “have the lowest numbers so you folks can line up first. There’s plenty, so please wait for me to announce the next set to go.”
Ferris and Lance got up and made their way to the buffet. Curious eyes followed them. Lance noticed the young woman at their table was walking in front of them. He thought that the lanky girl’s tush deserved an eight, maybe a nine, for its shape and beauty.
Animated conversations began again in the hall. A casual, ‘Hello,’ was all that anyone in the food line could manage to say to another. Ferris and Lance piled their plates with roast beef,
onions baked in butter, scalloped potatoes, garden green salads, sides and deserts of every kind.
When they returned to their table, Ferris said to Miss Gloria who was cautiously lowering herself into the recalcitrant chair, “I’m pleased to know you, Miss Gloria. I’m from out-of-town and would like to make a donation to your Food Bank.”
The man in the brown uniform and a woman with red hair were also taking their places. “Miss Gloria,” he said to Lance before being seated, “Keeps us in line.” He took Lance’s extended hand and introduced himself as Anthony Castellano, sheriff of the county.
Lance said, “Do you have Miss Gloria on the payroll?”
“She probably could be,” Castellano laughed. “However, between the two of us, Miss Gloria and I can handle most any situation. Tonight should be no problem. Everyone’s here for a good time.”
“Ferris and I are having fun,” said Lance who had sat down and began introducing Ferris to the other three at the table. “I’m working at the Olivers. Good people, the Olivers. And, this is my good friend, Ferris, who has come from Nevada for a little visit.”
Ferris put in, as she was accustomed to doing when folks seemed confused, “My name’s Ferris; rhymes with Paris.”
The sheriff said, putting he put his arm around the woman on his left, the one with long red hair who was seated next to Lance, “Last summer this lovely lady, whose name is Leigh Wiodonski, rented my cabin on the mountain above the Olivers. She certainly did find them to be good folks.”
Leigh laughed, “I was a city girl then. They helped me adjust to life in the mountains. I had such a great time in Montana that I’ve come back to make Rusty Springs home.”
“Oh,” said the woman seated on the other side of Miss Gloria, who was leaning over to speak to Lance. “I’m Stormy Smith. Joy Ann Oliver’s told me about you. I’ve been dying to meet the new cowboy in town. Will your friend be staying long?”
Lance’s eyes flickered a moment and didn’t answer Stormy’s question. He said, “Pleased to meet all of you,” in a pleasant but loud enough voice to over-ride the man on the stage who was trying to herd the next group to the overflowing buffet.
Ferris whispered into Lance’s left ear, “That’s one pretty cowgirl in heat.” She, too, had noticed Stormy when they were going to the buffet table and had admired the way the girl decked herself in a white-ruffled shirt under a red leather vest and red-print prairie skirt. The woman had frizzed up her long, brown hair into curls, which Ferris thought would have been better if left straight. Stormy’s eye shadow was too blue and too bold and all wrong for eyes that were Hershey brown in color.
“Simple is always best,” thought Ferris. “Stormy has beautiful hair and eyes but she’s done them the worst possible way.”
Lance, an old-hand about women, thought Stormy could take a few lessons from Ferris about being more discreet when meeting a man. Her wide eyes and excited speech patterns would rarely attract a man. If a woman outwardly showed she was ‘needy,’ she would not be much of a challenge. Leigh, he figured, would be more interesting, but not if she were connected to the sheriff; and she most certainly was the way her eyes spoke softly when she looked at him.
He wanted to talk to the sheriff in private. Tell him he’d been up to his cabin. Ask him what had run off his red-haired woman?
The pace of the people racing to the buffet table increased. The racket of boots clattering across the old wooden floor made conversation almost impossible until everyone was seated again.
Stormy was impatient for the noise to die down. She just had to find how long Ferris would be in town.
Miss Gloria was picking at the food on her plate when Ferris, who was sitting next to her, asked, “Miss Gloria how long have you been involved with the Food Bank?”
“My mother started it in the Great Depression. I helped her. I think the economy is almost worse now. Single women with children have the biggest need. Two single women, who’ve been coming every week to the Food Bank for years, asked me if they could buy one ticket, instead of two, and come as a couple which would be cheaper.”
“But, you told them no, didn’t you?” Ferris felt sad that the women were missing the good food and music. She thought they’d had a clever idea.
“Yes, I did. They’d spend anything extra on cigarettes and booze. Fact is, the Tree of Sharing people over in Great Falls, no longer give gift coupons to seniors. When they did, most of those old folks would cash them in and go out and buy beer.”
“You are a very strong woman, Miss Gloria,” said Ferris.
“I’m going for another round,” said Lance who stood up. “Need anything?” he asked Ferris. “I’ll come, too,” she said, “The baked onions are wonderful.”
Stormy who’d been listening yelled across the table, “Ask Mona Miller. She cooked up most of this. She’ll give you the recipe.”