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Not an easy life for Kansas cowgirl

PRATT, Kan. (AP)--Beth Mertens weathered hands held the reins of the horse she was riding.

The morning's work was ahead of her, helping to move semi-loads of cattle from the trailers to the pens outside the Pratt Livestock Auction.

Mertens is just another pen rider. But she stands out amid the men and the muck, her head covered in a pink ball cap, with a long ponytail tied at the back.

Dressed in a uniform of blue jeans, knee-high boots and chinks, which are shorter than chaps but still protect legs from dirt and brush, this 56-year-old woman wears the telltale sign of a life spent in the elements.

But her eyes twinkle as she smiles, insisting she is doing what she loves.

"Were making a living,'' she said, laughing. "But we're not making money.''

"We're broke and happy,'' chimed in her husband, Tim Mertens, who rides the pens alongside his wife.

It's not about the money, she said, it's all about doing what she loves. It's this simple--the cowgirl way is Mertens' way.

Never mind the 12-hour days vaccinating, branding and deworming bucking calves. Retirement isn't in her future. She hopes to be pen riding for a couple of more decades.

"I'm a person who has to stay pretty busy,'' she said.

At their rural home nine miles northwest of Zenith, they have horses and cattle to care for. Then every Thursday for the past 15 years, the couple arrives early at the Pratt Livestock Auction, riding the pens.

"No matter what, you have to be at the sale,'' she said of the job, despite the weather. "You work in the cold, the dust, the rain.''

Young girls intrigued by the mystique of being a cowgirl often don't make it through the winters, Mertens said. It's pretty unglamorous riding a horse in freezing temperatures and 30 mph winds.

The job description calls for understanding cattle and knowing how to handle them, said Jake Lewis, general manager of the Pratt Livestock Auction. While there is a part-time younger woman who helps out, Mertens is the only woman the auction depends on regularly to ride the pens on sale day.

The west has always intrigued Mertens, who briefly attended Colorado College, where she majored in art. From there, she became very involved with the rodeo circuit, barrel racing and bull riding. She supplemented her income working in a western clothing store, among other work. And she also worked as a western clothing model.

But she has always been most comfortable on a horse. So even now, she's happy doing different day jobs that help supplement her income if it means working outdoors.

"I can ride all day and not get tired,'' she said. "Then I go home and just doing little house stuff I get tired. I'm not as cranky or tired after working cattle all day. I feel healthier.''

At one time, Beth and Tim Mertens managed Park Springs Ranch, near Las Vegas, N.M. The private ranch was 13 miles from the highway but situated in such rough terrain that it took 30 minutes to reach the blacktop. The historic ranch was once a settlement, with the remains of three rock houses and cemeteries on the property.

The ruins were a reminder to Mertens of the isolation experienced by the pioneer women who might have lived in one of the houses.

"I loved it,'' she said. "Every day was different.''

Life certainly became hectic during branding season, when Mertens was working with the cowboys but was also responsible for cooking for up to 50 people and keeping the six-bedroom hacienda clean.

Despite the physical exhaustion, ranch work in New Mexico was the "grandest time in my life.''

"She's a hand,' said Larry Jones, Holcomb, part owner of the Ocate Ranch, near Springer, N.M. The Mertens have helped Jones work cattle. "She can handle a horse and the rope as good as any man.''

"I've been in a man's world for so long I understand a lot of things that go on,'' she said. "You learn a lot working outdoors about cattle, nature and the weather. Any animal will tell you more about the weather than a forecaster.''

A single mother, she raised her two children to be strong and independent.

Divorced in 1990, she started at the Pratt auction. And that's where she found love.

She met Tim Mertens riding the pens.

"I wasn't ready to get married again,'' she said laughing. "He sucked me into it.''



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