The four cowboys were standing on the street corner. It was a little after midnight, I was working my way past them just off the curbing. Picking up the beer and pop can remnants of the street dance our youth group's sponsoring organization puts on every year, during fair week.
I had noticed the cowboys about a half hour earlier. Striding down the sidewalk, side by side, each in their cowboy hats. Passing our popcorn and soda tables, as they entered the drinking, dancing crowd. On the prowl.
I understand now how lecherous males got the nickname "wolves". You don't show up at a three and a half hour street dance only 20 minutes before it's all over if you want to dance. These four men were here to hunt. Hunting some action at the end of the dance.
And I hear them now, calling out in their too loud voices, making sure the woman in the intersection heard them, as they called her "Hooters."
That woman was my wife. Doing the same as I, wandering the street, under their gaze, bending over to pick up trash.
The night had started out great. Well, maybe not great, but good. We lost one helper and his mother, who supposedly was going to ramrod this function this year, before the music even started because his nose wouldn't stop bleeding. (They came back late in the dance... complete with a self-inflating balloon inserted up his right nostril, installed at the emergency room. And stayed just long enough to show off the cool Borg equipment, and to thank the two of us for always being there, for being so dependable.)
But early in the dance, I spied a rancher friend of mine, tall and slim in his western hat, bent way over dancing with his young daughter. Jitterbugging on the sidewalk like they were the only people on the planet. One of those wondrous moments to see in life, and me with no camera.
Later, as things settled and we finally got popcorn production in excess of popcorn demand, I retrieved the camera and wasted a bunch of electrons getting horribly blurred shots of several hundred people having a good time.
Everything from old country to modern pop. But mostly western, since it was rodeo night. Quite a few of the glowing necklaces in the crowd. Two on the wife.
Another piece of magic that night was the children watching the machine pop its popcorn. At least a half a dozen entranced faces, at one time or another.
Caught a young woman, her face just drawing out to show the angles of adulthood, also staring for several minutes at that rotating tray.
But here it was, all over. Only a couple dozen folks left, the two cops on duty gently herding them off the streets.
And the four bored cowboys deciding to have their fun with the lone woman, out there working while everyone else was having a good time.
She gave no sign of having heard the "Hooters" comments hurled at her, but I knew.
But she was just as tired as I, just as eager to get home. And kept on picking up other folks' discards. As she bent down to retrieve a can by the corner, the loudest cowboy made his move. In two long steps he was beside her, his face bent down close.
"Hey Hooters, ya wanta give me a ride?"
I was there before I knew it. Have no idea what happened to the trash can that had been in my left hand. But my right hand was on his shoulder, and I jerked him upright.
Hey, she doesn't need to hear that.
Even as I was doing it, the back part of my brain was saying, "You know, this probably constitutes assault."
He spun around, surprised, but faster than I expected. My right arm knocked his cowboy hat off. As I replaced the hat on his head, I repeated it.
She doesn't need to hear that.
In no time he was in my face, his hat brim nearly touching my cap bill. Shouting about who the hell do I think I am. I stood my ground. I've been yelled at just like this by Con Murphy. This drunken cowboy is a poodle puppy compared to Con.
But all the while, I'm thinking "I'm about to have my first street brawl."
And worrying about his three pals, all just to my right and behind me, out of sight. He's got backup. I don't.
But I was wrong.
In no time, the wife is threatening his right flank.
"That's my husband," she says in her command voice. "Do I need to get the police?"
And just on cue, one cop shows up behind her back. And maneuvers himself between me and the cowboy, sending us each to our own corner.
I understand some of the procedures and training cops have for defusing domestic violence. I've had the technique used on me once before, and knew what was going on at the time. Knew it this time, too.
Just as grateful this time.
Cop impartially asks what's going on. I quote the cowboy's harassment of my wife, verbatim. He sees the uniform, the trash can. And suddenly realizes I'm quite sober.
Without a word, I am dismissed, as he and his partner begin corralling the four cowboys, herding them west towards their truck. We resume our trash collection, working north.
Even after unloading the garbage, and washing our hands, and delivering to his home the only member of our group who stayed for trash duty, I can feel the adrenalin. Tension in every muscle I try to move.
That fight or flight instinct is strong. I try to imagine eldest son feeling this way, 24/7, perhaps for years. I can't, really.
But on the interstate drive home, the wife's hand comes across and finds mine.
"You charged right in without even thinking, didn't you?" she asks with pride.
Complete with decoration.
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