It is not uncommon for cowboys to loan out their horses for a cut of the prize money. But for Laurie to let someone use Buttercup, which might mean Laurie would lose, was uncommon. Brenda settled in on Buttercup with a smug smile on her face. I think she had been coveting Laurie’s horse for some time. As Brenda and Buttercup entered the staging area, Laurie and Judy leaned on the arena fence down in front.
None of the other riders had come close to Laurie’s earlier time and Brenda was the last one up. This was a savvy crowd who understood Brenda was the one person who might beat Laurie. As they announced Brenda over the public address system the crowd quieted down to watch the action. Buttercup backed into the launch area like she had this program down. Watching Brenda’s face, you could see the focus – she was ready.
Brenda gave a nod of her head and the calf leaped out of the gate pulling the gate string with it. Buttercup lunged forward before Brenda dug into her ribs. Brenda was already twirling a nice loop with the rope before Buttercup cleared the gate accelerating after the calf.
It was a dream calf – one in a thousand. It ran fast and clean in a straight line away from the chute. The stars were aligning for a miracle run. All that had to happen was for Brenda to drop the loop cleanly over the calf’s head. It is so easy to say and so hard to do. The hand needed to hold the loop firmly but not too tightly. The arm had to stay bent while rotating the hand just so and then snap forward at the precise split second when thousands of practice throws had told the mind it was the right time. The calf had to continue in a straight line at the same speed. The speed of the rope had to be not too fast and not too slow. The rope loop needed to be big enough to easily fit over the calf’s head but not so big the calf could step through it before the loop was jerked tight. Buttercup needed to keep pace with the calf and not force it to one side or the other. And when the loop was at the exact spot below the calf’s head, Brenda needed to pop the rope to take up the slack.
Any deviation at any point in the run by the calf, Buttercup or Brenda would cause less than a perfect run. A stumble by the calf, a stumble by Buttercup would throw off the timing. The calf veering to the left or right would avoid the rope. A slight hesitation of Brenda’s arm and the sequence of events would be out of sync. If the cinch on the saddle was not tight enough, and Brenda shifted on the horse’s back it would throw off the rhythm. The months and years of practice, the afternoons in the rain and sun, the hours and days of attending riding clinics, the miles and miles of road traveled to attend events, the veterinary bills, the cost of the horse, the expense of the pickup and trailer to haul the horse, the nights of rubbing down the horse’s legs after a hard practice, would all be for something less than first place.
But tonight all of those millions of things came together. The loop dropped perfectly and Brenda and Buttercup pulled up to let the rope pull out and break the string tied to the saddle horn. All of it happening in a perfect stream of choreography like a line of Rockettes high kicking together. Tonight was the kind of run that competitors dream about. Tonight the stars were aligned.
Buttercup danced forward after Brenda released her from the slide. The crowd turned to the arena display to check the time. The display flashed a winning time. There were no flags of penalties and the winner of the vent, collected her rope at the end of the arena and pranced Buttercup around the fence to the exit while tipping her hat to the crowd.
Looking down at Laurie, I expected her to show disappointment at coming in second. But her face was lit up with excitement as Judy hugged her and they both bounced up and down in celebration. Laurie’s horse won and that was a joy for her. Laurie was taking pleasure in Buttercup beating the crowd of competitors. It was a triumph of training for Laurie. Buttercup with a new unknown rider, had beaten all comers. It was a stamp of approval for Laurie’s devoted months of training with her horse. It was a validation of her training techniques and her horse knowledge.
After the celebration with Laurie, Judy was looking up into the stands. She finally spotted me and spontaneously started to come up the stands to be with me. After a couple of quick steps, she halted apparently remembering my reason for staying apart. Instead she stopped and gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up signal. I of course gave her a huge smile back. But then I swept the crowd through a three hundred sixty degree circle trying to spot any Kennedy group spying on us.
This was wearing thin on me, having to check my back side all the time. Once again I wondered where the hell Rawlins was and what he was doing. The absence of any deputies was puzzling. That reminded me to look back to the Kennedy trailer parked near the edge of the field.
There was no one near the trailer, neither Kennedy nor others. It was a peaceful and pleasant scene sitting off to the side by itself. The twilight sun was tinting the trailer with a reddish hue. The prairie in the background was heavy with the fall tints and colors. The orange and rust colors appeared deeper and sharper due to the angle of the sun. It was hard to think that whatever was in the trailer may be the cause of my aggravation and fear.
The announcement that the final event of the night, bull riding, was next brought my attention back to the arena. I wasn’t sure where my son was in the lineup so I would have to pay attention if I was going to see his ride. And like all parents everywhere, I wanted to see my son in whatever he was doing. Quite frankly, it is not hard to watch bull riding. It holds a fascination for almost everyone. A two hundred pound man trying to dominate a tough bull hide packed with two thousand pounds of dynamite.
I always wondered how the rodeo standard of staying on a bull’s back was set at eight seconds. Why wasn’t it seven or ten? Why eight? But it did work out about right. About half of the bull rides ended up disqualified for not staying on the bull’s back for the required time. Another few would be disqualified for using two hands. A small percentage would stay the full eight seconds and they would be scored by three judges, half the points for the rider, but half the points for the bull. Draw an easy bull and you may stay on but not score well because the bull was not a strong enough ride. Draw a rank bull and you may not stay on for eight seconds. Most cowboys wanted to take on the rankest bull to increase their odds of a great score. The highest score was a total of one hundred, fifty for the rider and fifty for the bull.
TT was not the first bull rider up. Part of me was hoping he would be one of the first riders. My hopes were not high for his first ride. I wanted to see him walk out the other side. As Robert Frost, the poet, said, “The way out is always through.” If he was going to ride a damn bull, he needed to do it and get it done. Besides, my nerves were going to be a wreck until I saw TT walk out of the arena whole and sound.
The first rider managed to stay on for eight seconds but got hung up in his rigging as he tried to bail off the bull’s back. After the rider was flung horizontal as the bull spun trying to get rid of him, his rigging let loose and he flew through the air and bounced as he hit the dirt. The clowns did their job and took the bull’s attention while others dragged the dazed cowboy out of the arena. Seeing the first rider hurt did not settle my nerves.
The second and third riders did not make the required eight seconds. But they did manage to get free of their bull without serious damage. The fourth rider announced was Thomas Tobin. My anxiety factor went up about one hundred notches. When they announced his bull draw it got worse. Tornado was one of the rankest bulls in the Kennedy rodeo stock. He was living up to his reputation as he crashed the welded pipe chute trying to raise up and jump out of the pen. TT in his flashy clothing was easy to pick out as he jumped back on the walkway with the rodeo staff to get out of the bulls way. The rodeo staff were holding TT back until Tornado settled back into the chute.
As TT climbed on the bull’s back, one rodeo staffer leaned in and held his arm in front of TT to keep him from being head slammed into the front chute wall. Having been dumb enough to have tried bull riding myself a few times, I knew the butterflies that were bound to be firing through TT’s stomach. A sane person does not climb on the back of a two thousand pound bull without having an adrenaline rush of fear.
TT went to work adjusting his bull rope. The last part of the adjustment is to wrap the rope around your hand, in effect tying yourself to the bull’s back. I never got past the insanity of this commitment to the ride. As TT finished his wrap, Tornado racked violently in the chute already determined to get at this person daring to violate his space. He finally settled down and TT gave a nod of his cowboy hat to the rodeo staff to open the chute and let the monster out.
The gate on the chute swung open and the huge bull with the small human on his back exploded. TT had the first lunge dialed in and kept himself centered with his free hand high in the air for balance and show. Tornado twirled left, opposite of his usual routine. TT had obviously been watching tapes of Tornado from previous rodeos and had planned on a right hand spin. Tornado caught TT off guard and had TT hanging from his left side. How TT managed to stay on with the forward lunge and buck that Tornado did next is beyond me. But TT was stronger than most bull riders because of his hours in the weight room and his natural balance helped keep his seat if a little off center. But then Tornado did TT a favor and spun left putting TT right back in the center of the bull’s back. It was beginning to look like TT might have a chance to last the eight seconds.
But it was obvious the shifting off center and back had loosened TT’s bull rope. As Tornado gave a huge buck with his heels high in the air and his nose almost digging into the arena dirt, TT’s seat lost all traction. When the bull jolted back to earth, TT was forced to crumple his style and put both hands against the brahma bull’s hump to keep from being slammed head first into the bull’s horns at the top of his head. Tornado sensed his rider was loose and gave another tremendous buck.
Then, whether by design or by chance, TT flew forward along Tornado’s shoulder. But there he stayed with his feet barely touching the ground, hung up by his hand caught in the bull rope. This was a perilous spot for any bull rider, to be hanging from the bull rope near the horns. My heart that had been racing, suddenly felt like it stopped beating as it tried to climb my throat.
Tornado made another gigantic lunge and as TT’s full weight started to lift off the ground his hand slid free of the bull rope. TT was caught slightly suspended in air as the bull’s rear end spun into him. TT went sprawling, tumbling backwards end over end in the rodeo dirt. TT caught his balance as the momentum slowed and put his feet down and started back pedaling and wind mailing his arms to keep his balance. He finally slowed and ended standing upright. But his innate showmanship about did him in.
TT turned to the crowd and pulled his hat off and bowed to the crowd. What he had failed to check was the other participant. Tornado was ignoring the efforts of the clowns to distract him and was coming back around to find TT. The bull was now charging and picked up speed. My relief at TT’s safety and my enjoyment of his showing off was short lived. The crowd started screaming to warn TT of the approaching bull behind him.
As Tornado lowered his head to slam TT from the back, TT must have sensed something behind him. The skills that made him such a good football running back kicked in. TT pushed off to his right with his legs trying to throw his body out of harm’s way. But the loose soil of the arena slid under his feet and he only made a small move instead of the big move he planned on.
Tornado was moving too fast to adjust but still managed to hook a horn tip under TT’s chap belt. The horn caught momentarily and then slipped free as Tornado went speeding by. TT was spun around and went rolling in the dirt. When he landed, his feet were already scrambling, kicking dirt like a cartoon character digging a hole in an attempt to gain traction. Tornado made his corner and came back not having the traction problem caused by the smooth soles of cowboy boots. TT’s boots finally got traction and he sprinted to the arena fence. A bull is fast but TT was fast too and had a head start. Just as Tornado lowered his head once again to deliver a head butt, TT vaulted to the top of the fence.
Tornado slammed into the fence shaking the entire length, but thankfully TT’s leg was not between the bull and the fence. I released my breath which I had unconsciously been holding. My son had survived the gauntlet and was safe. I realized how tense I was looking down at my hands. My knuckles gripping the top rail were white. It was a relief to move my hands and shake them to get blood back in circulation. But that didn’t stop them from shaking. As a matter of fact, my whole body was shaking. I took several deep breaths to try to calm myself. Looking around the crowd, most everyone was sitting down except one thinner older man. My Dad was looking up at me from where he was sitting with Mom. Once he caught my eye, he drew his hand across his forehead pretending to wipe away the cold sweat. Now I knew what I had put my parents through when I had tried my hand at bull riding.
Looking back toward TT, I saw he was being congratulated on surviving by Brenda Kennedy. They were hugging each other and ended up with a long kiss. This public display of emotion was something TT had never done with his previous girlfriends. The more I saw them together, the more worried I was about a possible permanent alignment with the Kennedy clan. Thinking of the Kennedys, my mind snapped back to the trailer. The sun had set and the lights from the arena did not cast to the far side of the field. But there was definite activity in the shadows. Several flashes of light preceded the boom of a large caliber handgun being fired.