"Hey Rich? Ya see that new bull they brought in yesterday?" The young man's face was a sun-darkened brown. Worry lines created deep furrows undeserving of a man his age. He leaned apprehensively on the red-piped corral and listened.
Rich nodded."He's awful big. You riden' 'em?" The young man fiddled with the brim of his hat.
Rich nodded again, his dark brown eyes flashing. He tipped his hat to the youth and walked off. His gait was bold, absent a strut of bravado or a slouch of broken spirit.
The young man remained by the corral gate, mouth agape . Nearby, the cattle were munching hay. The audience had begun its low rumble of conversation. His pulse quieted. Behind the distant sandstone cliffs, the sun was setting. But, the brilliant colors that the youth was accustomed to seeing over the flats of his home in Ohio were hidden by the stony walls at the horizon. All that remained of dusk was a dark blue sky above the open arena and a chill to the late August night.
Rich entered the small tack room and was welcomed with hoots and hollers from his teammates. He simply nodded.
Outside, the rodeo clowns were finishing their make-up and taping broken ankles or wrists. Bulls were hell on the joints. Sammy, the head clown was now reclining with the youth on the red corral, surveying the audience, and smiling at the newbies who were relieving their stomachs of the weight of food and nervousness.
"Sammy? You ever get scared?" The young man asked. He quickly removed his hat to scratch his dusty blond hair and avoid eye-contact. Fear meant shame and shame meant screwing up in this business.
"Heck, junior. All the time."
The youth looked at Sammy, surprised by his honesty. Sammy's face was contorted by his make-up. He grinned a huge, eerie smile, and surveyed the young man with the eyes of an old woman, painted with blue eyelids.
Sammy's real lips smiled. "You like the accent there? I've been working on it. Even using 'junior.' You like?"
The youth laughed.
Sammy was from the Bronx. His full name was Samuel Weinstein. "Don't worry, everyone gets nervous. At least you keep your lunch down!"
Sammy doubled over and pretended to wretch. A pale young man, barely eighteen, walked by and ducked behind a stall after he saw Sammy's display. The youth laughed heartily, thanked the clown with a handshake, and headed towards the run-ins. He liked to look over his bronco before riding it.
A blast of fanfare and country music echoed inside the arena. Parents in Wrangler jeans and children in Lariat boots took their seats on the bleachers, beer, peanuts, and lassos in hand. The horses shifted nervously, responding to the sudden energy in the air. Many kicked at the gates of their small run-ins. The people's hearts beat in time to the trumpet sounds as the announcer began.
Inside t he tack room, Rich was left alone. His other teammates usually left in pairs or in groups to check their ropes and talk a few more moments with each other, knowing it might be their last. No one had died in the business for a few years, but every show there was at least an injury or two. Just last week, Torrence had lost his hand. In June, Sid had his shoulder completely shattered and dislocated. The youth had seen both accidents while Rich had been waiting in the tack room.
Rich tightened his boots and strained to hear the announcer. The thick Western accent of the man made his voice unintelligible, and the open-air acoustics made all sound distorted. But, years of understanding the garbled speech made it all clear. Rich would ride third, before the young man he had seen by the red corral. The riding of the Brahma bull was a new attraction, and Rich the first to do it.
A knock on the door told Rich to make his big entrance. He straightened his shirt, adjusted his prize buckle, stepped out quietly, and strode into the spotlighted arena. The audience, accustomed to the pageantry of the rodeo, responded to his spotlight entrance with a howl of excitement and a rumble of applause. Rich's face did not break with the customary smile and blush. Those expressions were left to the younger riders, and the appeal of fame made their white teeth show themselves. But behind the smile they were uneasy. Rich's lips remained together, and his gaze was focused not on the girls in the stands, but on an unseen object deep within himself.
The young man entered the arena next, greeted by the same uproarious welcome. He had calmed his nerves by the red corral and by his talk to Sammy. His pulse had returned to normal as he'd stroked the soft, roan hair of his bronco. For a moment, the youth had imagined that the bronco was his own pleasure horse, and the horse's labored breathing had calmed at his easy touch. He had left the run-in as the last light was swallowed up by the starry sky and spotlight glare.
But now the young man felt his feet tightening in his boots as they sunk slightly into the sand floor of the arena. The announcer's voice boomed with more advertisements and introductions and the arena lights washed the darkness to a black that made the youth feel isolated by the glare. The crowd cheered, and a resounding approval settled over the men much like the dust that settles after a bronco has pounded the sand, unseating his rider in a mere three seconds. The other riders were softly coated by the reassuring dust, letting it cling to their denim-shirted and leather-chapped egos, only to knock it off later in the name of modesty.
The dust entered the young man's throat as he tried to settle his nerves again with an open-mouthed deep breath. It caused his crystal-blue eyes to water. He coughed lightly at first, feeling his stomach tighten with each breath. The youth then coughed loudly as his irritated eyes teared up. The announcements had ended, and the crowd was finishing its rambunctious cheering and liberal sprinklings of clapping approval. But the youth was hiding his red eyes and dry lips below his tipped Stetson.
A final fanfare blew and Rich glanced at the young man's nervous stance and sick expression. Rich did not feel compassion or sympathy. Nor did he feel any need to console the youth. A western breeze carried the audiences' echoing sounds above the men as they filed out, taking their places by the run-ins to check tack. The young man walked stiffly from the arena. He attempted to hide his obvious fear and not kick up any more dust.
At the entrance of the arena, where the two piped fences met, the youth pathetically straightened his shirt and hat, trying to slow his descent into embarrassment. Rich slid his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and removed a flimsy card. As he passed the youth and his visible display of fear, Rich passed the worn card into the young man's sweaty palm and patted him on the back as his father had done each time he'd been thrown from a horse.
“Could you hold this for me, Bobby? Don’t need it when I ride.”
The youth, so concerned with his appearance, focused on the card as if it had magically appeared, not realizing he had also received a pat on the back. When he did, Rich was already several yards away. The arena lights created shadows that hid Rich's smile. He watched Rich stroll easily to his run-in and climb the piped corral fence.
The dampness of the youth's sweaty palm drew his attention back to the card, which was curling in the wetness. It was a simple prayer card with a watercolor representation of a saint on the front. The card fit easily in his palm and the plastic coating was long ago worn off by use.
The young man was confused, but comforted by the gift. As he flipped it over to read the back, the crowd exploded with applause. The first rider was now being carried atop a bucking bronco into the spotlights. Pasted over the prayers were many overlapping slips of yellowed paper, attached to one another with scotch tape. As the young man shifted to get more light on the words, the crowd applauded again, this time to send off the rider who had been thrown and was now limping back towards the entrance.
Each slip of paper was in the same type and only a few words of the Our Father had succeeded in not being covered. Around the prayer, in simple black letters were classic oriental sayings from Chinese Buffet fortune cookies: Each thousand-mile journey begins with a first step. A visitor will bring you fortune. The river of life will always flow to the sea of enlightenment.
Cheers rolled again in the distance, and another rider picked himself up from the dust, walking painfully from the sanded arena. The young man fingered the fraying paper edges and chuckled deeply, letting his final tear drop and his throat clear. He slipped the card in his back pocket and walked to the fence at Rich's run-in. Rich was already mounted, his left hand holding the ropes, his right adjusting his hat.
The youth could see only Rich's wide back and the hindquarters of the hugely powerful bull. The crowd hushed in common anticipation, a thick moment of vicarious fear.
High above the arena, every star was shining intensely on the deep velvet sky, but the spotlights faded their glory to a mere colloquial attraction. Rich raised his right hand and lightly touched his forehead, stomach, left shoulder, and right shoulder, then strongly slapped each of his cheeks. The youth smiled, his white teeth showing.
Just as Rich's hand reached his side again, the run-in gate opened. The bull's hooves pounded the sand as the youth turned to mount the bronco he was about to ride.