WEDNESDAY NIGHT ROPING
Late Wednesday afternoon at the bank I was still telling myself I was not going to the roping. Being a stooge for Rawlins was not something I wanted to do. But if it meant finding out who killed Sammy, I needed to overcome my objections. Even on the way home I was still telling myself I wasn’t going. But then I got a phone call. Judy said, “Laura and I are going over to the roping tonight. Will I get to see you there? We haven’t had much time to see each other since coming back from Custer.”
Well, what are you going to say? No? Not hardly. The first thing I did at home was to check Dan over. He was moving smoothly and not showing any sign of stiffness. I told Dan, “Okay big guy, if you are ready for an easy night’s ride, so am I.” Biscuit was ready to object to her buddy Dan leaving her alone until I gave her some more sugar cubes. She got her sugar and I got a quick sandwich before heading out.
The roping arena was a short ride from the house if I cut through the neighbor’s pasture. The shortcut saved me a mile of heavy vehicle traffic. In order to keep the shortcut open for me I made a bargain with the neighbor when he put in the fence this past summer. I would help with the labor if he let me put in a gate on my end and allowed me to cut across his pasture. He agreed. I would have helped him anyway. He was a transplant from metro Chicago and didn’t have a clue on fencing. If I hadn’t helped him I would have had to look at his crooked poorly done effort next door to me for years. He actually did me a favor.
It was another beautiful fall evening. The crisp dry air was punctuated with geese honking as they went by overhead. Their vocal melody saying, “Winter is coming. Prepare.” I was listening. I had hoped to start on my house before fall so it could be dried in before the winter snows. At the rate Monty was going, I would be lucky to start construction by next spring. The house may not be ready for Christmas a year from now. I consciously made myself calm down. The evening was too beautiful to have it ruined mulling over my architect.
On the way over I pulled out my phone and sent a text to Frank letting him know I was headed to the roping. I also let him know Laurie was going to be there. It was up to him if he showed up. Frank had been out of sight since I saw him at the bank on Monday. I missed his easy going care free attitude and his comments on some of the snooty behavior of Pilgrims. Pilgrims to us were brainless tourists. I didn’t get any response from Frank.
This ride was not the usual melding of myself with Dan. My leg was still painful and it was a distraction. I was taking it slow on myself and Dan. Even though he was moving smoothly I was afraid of pushing him before he was completely healed up. For that reason I was not going to do any runs tonight.
It looked like a good turnout for a Wednesday night roping. The parking lot was almost full of pickups and horse trailers. Horses of every color were in motion around the arena. Just like athletes, horses need to have their muscles loosened up before an event. A little warm up saved a lot of pulled muscles. The horses sensed the coming event from previous outings. Most of them were prancing sideways and throwing their heads in a release of nervous energy.
A gathering for a roping has all the ingredients of a tail gate party. Many of the participants were people you knew from years of coming to ropings all over the area. They were people from similar backgrounds of ranching and farming. It was easy to visit with almost everyone. Talk about cattle prices, wheat yield, the amount of rain, horses, or anything else agriculture related and you were on something of interest to the other person. Because there was so much common experience everyone looked forward to the event.
Tonight was special as it was deep into fall and the outdoor roping events were drawing to a close. The warm sunshine and great fall weather had everyone in a good mood. No one had to rush home to put up hay or help a cow with calving. The fruits of the summer labor were at hand but the weather still allowed time to enjoy.
Spearfish ropings were generally well attended because riders could double up their trip with a stop to pick up groceries while in town. The rural area north and west of Spearfish didn’t have a better shopping district for a hundred miles. There were coolers with dry ice in half the pickups in the parking lot keeping the purchases of the afternoon cold until people drove home.
Trotting up to the roping arena I spotted Judy right off. I made my way over, smiling the whole way. I dodged horses, riders and spectators on my way to the fence. Judy and Laurie were both getting ready to try their hands at breakaway roping.
Breakaway roping eliminates throwing and tying the calf. A calf is released from a box with the horse and rider giving chase. Once the rider throws a rope loop around the calf’s neck, the rider slides the horse to a stop and plays out the rest of the rope. When the rope hits the end of its length, the rope is pulled tight breaking a string tied to the saddle horn. The rope usually has a small white flag at the end that makes the moment the rope breaks away more easily seen by the timer. Fastest time wins.
Judy was next up. She backed her horse into the starting box. Judy’s face took on a look of determination as she positioned the horse in just the right spot. Her horse jumped and side stepped anticipating the coming run. As she and the horse both settled in, her face changed. The frown of concentration changed to a smile. She just flat out enjoyed roping.
Judy nodded her head to the man in charge of the spring loaded gate. He popped the release and the calf shot out into the arena racing to get away from Judy and her horse. Judy swung her loop in an easy circle as she charged after the calf. At the right time she let the rope sail. It landed around the calf’s neck and Judy jerked back on the reins sliding her horse, Johnny Cash, to a stop. The calf pulled the rope to reveal the flag at the end. I looked at the electric time to check her score.
The world record time is 1.48 seconds, an unbelievable blink of an eye. Judy wasn’t quite that fast at 4.2 seconds. But it was good enough for second place so far. Just four little seconds and her evening was over. Hours of time spent with the rope, the horse, and practice runs at home went into those four seconds. That is not to mention possibly years of becoming a partner with your horse and miles of conditioning rides. Four seconds or less and most of us here were addicted to the rush of competition.
Judy recovered her rope and went out the gate on the far side of the arena. She turned to watch Laurie and Buttercup. The posted best time tonight was 3.1 seconds and Laurie had beaten that time several times in the past. Laurie gave her nod and the calf made a beeline away from the chute in a perfectly straight line just like you want. Buttercup broke the barrier in exactly the split second allowed. It looked like the makings for a great run. Her rope sailed out and missed the calf.
As the calf ran on, I looked back at Laurie. Her face said it all – “I never miss”. Buttercup had automatically slid to a stop on her own. Laurie shook her head in disbelief and wound up her rope and headed out of the arena. As I waited for Judy to swing back around to visit with me, my eyes lazily swept the people around the fence. Back from the fence by the edge of a horse trailer a tall red headed carrot was watching. So Frank had come to the roping to watch Laurie. As Laurie rounded the end of the arena, Frank stepped out moving to meet her. Before Frank got there, Laurie was intercepted by Art Kennedy. Art is not into roping and I wondered what he was doing here. Laurie’s smile for Art was warm and welcoming. I turned back to see how Frank would react to the scene in front of him. He was not in sight. I finally spotted him getting into his pickup out by the road. So much for trying to get those two back together tonight.
As I was bemoaning the Laurie and Frank relationship and watching Frank drive off, Dan was bumped by another horse. Turning around I saw the smiling face of Judy. “Hey there cowboy. Looking for some company?”
My attention immediately left Frank so I could enjoy some Judy time. “Yes I am looking for some company - yours.” We sat there smiling at each other until we both got embarrassed. “It’s nice to see you. We haven’t had much together time lately.” Before Judy could respond, I nodded at Laurie and Art. “Those two look pretty chummy. Did Art show up to see Laurie or is there some other reason he is here?”
Judy followed my gaze and said, “I would imagine he is here to watch his daughter. She is the one with the best time so far.” Her voice changed to include some spite and jealousy. “Of course if my folks paid fifty thousand for my horse, I might post some pretty fast times myself.”
I was used to hearing some large numbers paid on rodeo stock but fifty thousand for a roping horse was top dollar. “Art paid that much? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Yes he did. Since then his daughter has been setting some ridiculous times. I can’t stand her.” Judy was rightfully put out. She was a previous National High School Rodeo champ in breakaway roping. She had done it with a horse raised on her folk’s ranch and a lot of hard work. To get beat by someone throwing money at the competition, was hard to swallow.
As I watched, I saw something upsetting happen. My son Thomas walked up and slapped Art on the back and gave him a big smiling hello. I didn’t even know Thomas knew Art let alone was friendly with him. As they were visiting a beautiful young blond slid her horse to a stop beside them and jumped down. She gave Art a peck on the cheek and then proceeded to wrap her arms around TT and give him an enthusiastic welcome. I gasped, “What the hell?”
Judy gave me a surprised look and said, “You sound surprised.” Judy’s voice was quiet and hesitant as she continued, “That’s Art’s daughter, Brenda.” She could tell by my jaw dropping down that this was a revelation to me. “TT and Brenda have been an item since this summer.”
I sat silent soaking up the news. My son had been dating someone for months and I didn’t have a clue. Not only was he dating someone but she was the daughter of Art Kennedy who was suspected of drug trafficking by Rawlins and who was trying to break up Frank’s marriage. I turned to Judy and growled, “No shit? I mean you aren’t kidding me are you?” The last was said with a little hope in my mind.
“No, I am not kidding you, Mitch. Your son is dating Art’s daughter and has been for some time. Haven’t you noticed her before? She has been around whenever we see TT out and about.”
“Well now that you mention it, she does look familiar. But I have never paid too much attention to Thomas’ girlfriends. They come and go so quickly that it has been hard to keep their names straight.” I felt some anger combined with shame. Not knowing your only child has a steady lady means you aren’t a very involved parent and that your son doesn’t consider you as a main part of his life. And the comment was probably right on both counts.
About then, TT saw me. His arm dropped from around Brenda and he gave me a sheepish smile. I let TT come to me, mainly because I didn’t want to go and say hello to Art. He conveniently left Brenda behind. I said, “I didn’t know you were interested in roping. Have you picked up a new interest?”
TT tried to play it light. “Hi, Judy.” He did a very general hand motion over his shoulder. “I’m just kind of hanging out with the group. How are you? I heard you got banged up a little over the weekend.”
Good try at diversion. “Yeah, Dan and I got smacked by a buffalo. I probably felt about the same on Sunday as you do after a football game. I’m sorry about your loss last Saturday in Dickinson. The stats said you had a good game individually.” TT was a running back for Black Hills State University just like I had been, only he was good unlike his father. “I will be at the home game on Saturday for absolute sure.”
TT took that as an opportunity to make an exit. “Okay, Dad, I’ll see you after the game. I’m going to get back to the group. See you, Judy.”
Judy looked at me in exasperation. “You sure learned a lot from that discussion.”
“I did learn something. Even though he was caught so to speak red handed, he still didn’t admit to having a steady girlfriend. I wonder if he knows how it is sitting with Art, Frank and Laurie.” I watched as TT tried to nonchalantly re-join Brenda and Art.
Judy watched me track TT without interrupting. After he left she said, “So do I get to use your extra ticket for the game on Saturday?”
I was a little surprised at her asking. “Who else would I give it to? I just assumed you would go with me. So I will at least get to see you on Saturday, right?”
Judy smile and said, “I hope we get to visit before then. But, yes I’ll be at the game.”
We sat and visited some. Judy knew more about who was roping and how they were doing then I did. While I have a hard time keeping track of myself, Judy paid attention to all the contestants. Not only that, she knew everyone. I grew up in the area but I didn’t know near as many people as she did. Sitting with her was an education. During our conversation, a more mature version of Brenda stalked up and inserted herself between Art and Laurie. I nodded in that direction and said, “Who is the new blond butting in with Art.”
Judy gave me a look of disbelief. “That, Mitch, would be Missus Kennedy. Better known as Bunny to her friends.”
I shook my head a little to clear it. “Art is married? I thought he got divorced years ago.”
Judy said with some sarcasm, “Where do you think Brenda came from, the Tooth Fairy? Besides, the ranch is in Bunny’s name. She says she inherited it from her folks. If Art wants to keep running his business, he needs Bunny’s ranch. Apparently Art and Bunny patched things up a while back.”
It wasn’t long before Laurie came over to collect Judy. On Laurie’s ride in our direction I watched the Kennedys. Art was devouring Laurie with his eyes and Bunny was throwing daggers with hers. Laurie was very cool to me. I suppose since I was a friend of Frank’s I was taboo or something. Laurie told Judy, “We should get going. I don’t want Buttercup to cool down too much before I ice her legs and put her away for the night.”
Judy gave me a shrug and said, “See you later, Mitch. Laurie is probably right. Johnny Cash could use a rub down too.” I let it slide, not wanting to cause an issue with Judy’s guest. But I sure wish she had a little more time for me. The sooner Laurie and Frank got back together or Laurie moved out of Judy’s house, the better with me.
The Wednesday night roping was still in full swing as I turned back to watch the crowd. I was curious to see if there was something shady going on. But how do you tell. Unfortunately, in one sense, I have always been an alcohol drinker and not into alternate recreation. So I had no clue what to watch for. I finally took the tact of slowly riding Dan around the edges of the parking area. Someone on a horse was inconspicuous. Half the people there were on horses. Horses were being walked, trotted and galloped everywhere as ropers wanted their horses warmed up when it was time to rope.
In the farthest corner in the area of least traffic was a pickup and trailer with signs that said Kennedy Rodeo Stock. I needed to take a swing past the outfit. The night was now dark enough that the lights were on in the arena. This far corner was heavy with shadows. I slowed Dan to a crawl and moved to the other side of the trailer. I was surprised that there was another trailer hidden on the far side.
At first I didn’t think anyone was near either trailer. But then I saw some dark shadows moving between the two trailers. With the poor light it was hard to tell what they were doing. It appeared they were moving things from one trailer to another. I spun Dan and went away from the activity. I walked him around the parking lot like I was warming him up while waiting to see if the people by the Kennedy trailer would leave.
After a fifteen minute wait I thought I saw Pinky walking towards the arena fence where Art was standing. Circling back to the far corner, I tried to look inconspicuous as Dan moved between the two trailers. Mostly I felt like a damn fool. My playing detective was like a marching band trying to sneak up on someone. But I was going to try anyway. I leaned from my saddle to peer inside the Kennedy trailer. It was dark inside but I thought I saw something and leaned even further out of my saddle and held onto the side of the trailer as I put my eye right up to the opening between the slats. I heard a noise behind me and before I could turn around the lights went out.