Ben’s Last Rodeo – from a much longer work. . .
Ben sat in the dark on the top rail on one of the holding pens. The pen held calves that would be used in the calf-roping contest that would begin shortly. The calves huddled in one dark corner, jumping at the slightest sound. Ben ignored them as he stared off into the distance, ignoring, too, the sounds from the arena area as the Monahans rodeo began.
It would be a while before they got around to the bronco busting that was Ben’s event. He rolled a cigarette with the unconscious skill of years of practice, his thick, callused fingers deftly twisting the paper and tobacco. Striking a match against the rough wood of the fence, he lit the cigarette and flicked the match towards the calves who gave a little start and then nervously settled back down.
Ben was old for a rodeo cowboy and sometimes felt it. He’d been following the circuit for 21 years. Once he had been third in the National All-Arounds. It was as close as he had come to the big time, but despite the scrapes, bruises, broken bones, and scattered dreams, the life had been good to him or so it seemed to him. After all, how else could he have lived for these 21 years living every little boy’s dream. The hard side of the dream didn’t matter. It had been a good life, but the years do add up and he knew he couldn’t keep on living his life eight seconds at a time. Tonight was his last rodeo…
A couple of years ago he had met a widow who worked at the bank in Odessa. They had become friends and then dated a little. Her husband had died five years earlier, she’s been left with two fine boys, now in their teens, a small ranch of 460 acres, and little in the way of insurance money.
The boys were of an age they needed a father. As Ann pointed out a few weeks ago, she was also of an age that she still needed a man. There was no doubt she wanted the man to be Ben, but there was the problem of the rodeo. She couldn’t see how he could keep on acting like some wild, crazy kid riding wild horses and likely as not to be killed any time. And what kind of an example was that for the boys she’d added.
Ben knew the day would come when he’d be too old to compete any longer or get too hurt. After all every bruise hurt a little more than the last time and took longer to heal. Those new kids were taking over the rodeos. All of them seemed to have degrees from Sul Ross of Tarleton State where they actually studied rodeoing in college! It wasn’t a sport with them, it was a business. They had little airplanes and business managers, drove Porsche cars and seemed to be made of rubber over steel, the way they bounced off the ground no matter how hard they were thrown. It was getting harder and harder to finish in the money.
Just the other night, Ann told him he had to give up the rodeo. She wasn’t going to wait until he killed himself or became a cripple. If he a future with her, then he would have to quit acting like a little boy. He could work in Odessa or run cattle at her ranch she’d said. No more rodeo or no more Ann.
He knew she was right. It was time to quit but it would not be easy. This was all he had ever done. Running cattle would be okay but that would be tough on the mesquite covered, dry land on her ranch. And work in Odessa? At what? He’s never had a real job in his life. Rodeoing didn’t prepare a man for much. There just wasn’t much call these days for cowboys. He supposed he could get a job on an oil rig as a roughneck. He’d find something. It was time to change his life. Time to grow up. Ann was something special and so were those two boys.
The crowd noise from the arena rose and fell as they cheered the cowgirls during the barrel race. Next would be calf-roping and then it would be time for him to make another try at riding a bronco. He got down from the fence, scaring the calves again, and headed back to his truck to get his rigging and prepare for the ride.
He was the second rider and had drawn a tough little roan called Buckeye. A few weeks earlier he had seen the horse in the Ft Worth Stock Show and the horse had given his rider a decent ride. Buckeye liked to jerk his head low and spin hard to the left. If you were prepared for the spin he could be ridden. He was a money horse. He gave a good flashy ride that scored well with the judges.
Ben passed the time watching the events and talking a little to an old friend everyone called Dandy. Dandy’s face was covered with black and white grease paint. He wore a bright red shirt with coveralls that were at least three sizes too big. He had a dark, rounded derby hat pulled low on his head. On his feet were the best running shoes money could buy. Dandy was a clown and in his day had been one of the best. But, he, like Ben, had seen better days.
When he was in his prime, Dandy had put on one of the best shows of any bull fighter. He’d been a favorite, not only of the crowd, but also of the cowboys.
The purpose of a bull fighter is to protect the cowboys from the bull. This means forgetting about his own skin when someone is in trouble. When a cowboy hits the ground or gets hung up in the rigging, he knows the bull fighter will be there to get him away from the bull. He’ll do it by jumping right into the middle of the bull or by offering his own body as a target. Anyone with the rodeo will tell you there is no more dangerous job.
In addition, to this main duty, he is also part of the entertainment, hence the clown garb. When the bull riders are out of danger, the bull fighters will put on a show with the bulls, teasing them to charge, or getting into a rubber barrel which another clown will roll at the bull. Some even develop regular little shows with series of activities to entertain the crowd, but not many really have the ability to be both a bull fighter and a true clown. Dandy was one of the absolute best at both of these. His bravery had been tested time and time again and never found wanting. He had been chosen time and again by the bull riders as the top bull fighter and picked to work the largest rodeos and championships all across the country. But besides being recognized for his courage, he was a natural clown. Dandy was always small, standing about five and half feet tall in cowboy boots with two inch heels. He had large jug-shaped ears, a long fleshy nose, and over-sized eyes that always looked sad. His normal walk was an awkward lope that caused his head to bob up and down. In the arena, he would exaggerate his walk and gave the impression of slowness and age. It added to the excitement when he would play the bulls. It was hard to imagine that in reality he was an exceptional athlete with amazing speed and coordination. That became evident when he would leap onto the back of a bull to help free a rider whose had was tangled in the rigging. Or when he would jump in to slap the bull on his nose with his derby hat to get the bull to charge him instead of the rider he had bucked to the ground. There was nothing awkward about his movements then.
A few years earlier Dandy had found a little mongrel dog in the parking lot at a rodeo in Utah. His fur was matted and he was half-starved. Dandy had taken him in and they became fast friends. A few weeks later, a friend of his had been at Dandy’s trailer braiding a rope. The dog attacked the end of the rope biting into the end and would not let go. They had pulled the dog all around and even lifted him off the ground, but all he did was snarl and angrily shake his head from side to side. Finally, they had swung him around in a circle but he still would not let go. It was not until Dandy actually grabbed him around the body that he opened his jaws. Before long Dandy had him trained to grab a rope and swing around. He was training him to be part of his show in the rodeo. Ben had been working with a young bull which he had trained to throw him up in the air with his head. Dandy would squat on the ground in front of the bull and paw the earth like he was about to charge. The bull would lower his head and paw the earth in return. All at once Dandy would charge the bull and just as he got close would leap into the air with one foot coming down on the bull’s head. As soon as he touched the bull would jerk his head upward throwing Dandy high into the air to land about ten feet behind the bull. Just as Ben started to paw the ground the pup ran out and grabbed the bull by the tail. He snarled and growled like a little tiger as the bull whipped his tail from side to side trying to sling the dog off. The bull panicked and started running around the arena. It took nearly ten minutes for them to corral the bull and then let Dandy get close enough to grab the dog to make him let go. In a few weeks, it became part of their show and was one of the biggest crowd pleasers. When the bull threw Dandy over his back, the dog would run out and grab the bull by the tail. He would hold on for dear life as the bull ran itself in circles trying to get the dog off. After a couple of circles the bull would stop and Dandy would quickly run in and grab the dog. The crowd would go wild.
Everything went well for about three months, then in Fargo, N.D., the bull sent Dandy a little higher than usual. When he came down, he landed flat on his back knocking the air from his body and leaving him unable to move. The dog grabbed the bull’s tail, who made a couple of circles. Dandy was trying to get up but was only able to roll over onto his side. Red Akins, another clown, had come to his side to help.
“Get the dog!” Dandy gasped.
Red got up and ran at the bull who had stopped circling and was now swishing his tail back and forth. Suddenly the dog lost his grip and went flying across from the tail straight into Red who was so startled he fell to the ground. Suddenly the bull turned and charged Dandy who had raised to one knee. The bull caught him just under the shoulder and tossed him about fifteen feet into the air. Dandy landed about ten feet away flat on his face. He knew he had to get up, but still couldn’t move. He turned his head to see the bull with his head down, his ears flatten out, as he charged him again. Red was behind the bull and was just jumping to his feet, but there was no way he was going to get there in time. Dandy grabbed a handful of dirt, threw it at the charging bull and screamed “Get back, %$#^!!” He knew the bull was going to hit him again and he was not going to be able to avoid the horns. Suddenly, the bull jerked his head up and gave a loud bellow. He turned and began to kick trying to free the dog which had run up and grabbed him by the testicles. The bull kept bellowing and snorting as he twisted back and forth, bucking and kicking trying to free the sharp teeth from his tender sack. But the little dog hung on, still growling and shaking his head from side to side. As the dog bit down harder, the bull suddenly jumped into the air and fell to the ground. As he did much of his weight came down on his rump grinding the dog into the dirt. There was a sharp whelp and then silence. The bull quickly stood, shook himself and then ran for the open exit gate. In the dirt behind him lay the still body of the dog.
Dandy dropped much his clown act after that. He was still one of the best bull fighters but the heart had seemed to have left him. He did his job but without the showmanship his attraction to the big rodeos began to decrease until finally he was back to the small towns.
Ben and Dandy talked a little and then Dandy went out to the arena to get ready for the bull riding which would start after the saddle broncs.
Ben smoked another cigarette and watched the first couple of riders as neither lasted the eight seconds. Then it was his turn.
As been sat on Buckeye in the chute, he couldn’t keep his mind off his new life outside the rodeo. What was he going to do? What would happen now that he had to grow up and leave the cowboy life behind? It was so easy when all he was worried about was how to get to the next rodeo and hope he could finish in the money. Now, he would soon be married with two growing boys, bills, and live in one place.
He pounded his glove with his free hand as he tried to get a tighter grip on his heavily rosined rope. Buckeye stirred beneath him.
His last ride. Eight more seconds. And then the unknown waited. He looked at the cowboy holding to the gate waiting for the word. Quickly, he checked for the last time all the familiar things as he had hundreds of times before. He checked his grip again, pulled his hat tighter on his head. With his free fist he pounded the rigging in his right hand raising a yellowish cloud of rosin. He pulled his shoulders back as he raised his spurs to the bronco’s shoulders, nodded, and said “Outside!”