Side Trail Story
Dalton Jones lifted his face from the arena floor, sandy loam sticking to his skin, his nose and mouth filled with the acrid taste of urine mixed into earthiness of the soil. The sound of the crowd’s excitement was overwhelming as he slowly raised himself to his hands and knees.
“C’mon, Jones, we gotta move!”
He felt strong hands grip his upper arm to pull him erect and drag him back towards the chutes. “I lost my hat,” he replied, still not aware of the seriousness of the situation.
The man in tattered clothing, his face masked with outlandish grease paint, prodded the cowboy away from the activity elsewhere in the arena. “Don’t worry, we’ll get it for you. You just get yourself over the fence.”
The waiting arms of other cowboys reached out and grasped Dalton’s, pulling him up and over the portable fence’s metal bars of the arena walls. “Get’em to the Doc!” commanded the man who had helped pick him up. Once over the fence, Dalton jumped the last few feet to the ground unassisted, shaking off the helping hands of the other cowboys.
“Lemme go, I’ll be all right,” he commanded as he walked away brushing the loose dirt from the front of his shirt.
As they watched him walk away, one cowboy asked of the other, “He gonna be okay?”
The second man reached through the bars of the fence for a dusty black Stetson, then snorted his reply, “Sure, he just has his bell rung a bit.
Dalton turned back, hesitant to face the ribbing of the other riders, but as he did he was hit square in the chest with the hat as it had been tossed in his direction.
“Here’s your hat—and don’t forget to check in with the Doc!”
Dalton looked down at the hat which bounced off his body, picking it up, he waved a salute to the others before positioning it on his head and turning for the staging area behind the loading chutes.
# # #
“Yeah, you’ll be all right.” The medic hired to travel with the rodeo lowered his penlight from assaulting Dalton’s pupils. “Good thing you landed flat instead of on your head, you could’ve done some real damage.”
“Oh, I’m all right, Doc, I just let Old Tower slip too far to the left without me compensation’, that’s all.”
“You’re lucky, Dalton, not just because of the way you landed, but because the bullfighters were there Johnny-on-the-spot to distract the bull away from you. You didn’t get up none too quick there, remember?”
“You’re not going to hold me back from the next ride are you, Doc?”
“Naw, just had the wind knocked out of you. Now git out of here, I need that exam table for really hurt people.”
Dalton jumped down from the table and put on his hat. “Not that I don’t like talkin’ to you, Doc, but here’s to not seeing you again for a while.” Laughing as he walked out of the medical area, he missed seeing the next man coming in the door and came up just short of bumping into him. “Watch where you goin’ there, old man.”
The rodeo clown, or bullfighter, ever quick to avoid collisions jumped aside just as the young cowboy passed him through the door. Wordlessly, he tipped his hat, and with a slight bow, mimed giving preferential way to the younger man. When the cowboy was well out of sight, he turned back to the medic and smiled.
“Why did you let that young buck get the best of you, Mick?” the medical man asked as the man dressed in worn coveralls, shortened to below the knee, and tattered flannel shirt obliged himself to sit on the recently occupied exam table.
“Oh, Wayne, he don’t mean nothing by it. You know all them cowboys have to learn to respect the traditions of the rodeo.”
Wayne, the medic, turned to a small cabinet and withdrew a pint-sized bottle. Grabbing two paper cups, he turned to the new patient and offered him one, promptly filling it with a shot of whiskey. He poured one for himself and sat down with a sigh. “Well, Mick, you’d know all about traditions. I’ve known you what—goin’ on thirty years now?”
“That or more,” he filled his mouth, swallowed fast and gasped, “oh, that’s good going down.”
Wayne did the same, but a grimace was his reaction. “I only keep the best, for medicinal purposes you understand.”
Both men laughed and promptly finished the dregs before crushing the cups and tossing them in the trash. They sat in silence for a few minutes before the medic added to his previous point. “Seriously, Mick, you must be pushin’ sixty or thereabouts. Don’t you think it’s time you retired before you really got hurt? I noticed a limp when you came in.”
Mick scoffed, “Retire to what, it ain’t like I know how to do anything else… besides, I’d miss the bulls.”
“Fine, you’ve got a small pension comin’ and in a few years Social Security…”
Mick leaped off the table, “Social Security! Next you’ll be tellin’ me I might as well get a bed at an ol’folks home.”
Wayne held up his hand, but never moved from his seat. “Now settle down, I didn’t mean that, and you know it. I swear, you’re as hot headed as that young buck who you nearly ran over when you came, or should I say, limped in.”
Mick leaned back on the table, most of the fight gone from him as the whiskey settled in. “Yeah, the Jones kid was lucky today. Old Tower was headed right for him if Red and I hadn’t intervened.”
Wayne nodded in silence. He knew his friend well enough to let him talk through whatever situation was bothering him. He’d won many an argument with Mick by saying nary a word.
“That kid’s just too cocky for his own good. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’s a good rider, maybe even with the potential to go all the way to Vegas for the finals.” Mick sighed and shook his head. “He’d win more rodeos if he didn’t try to ride with a chip on his shoulder.”
“Why don’t you teach him then. If I remember right, you were a pretty-fair rider in your day, and I’m sure somewhere under them beat-up old Carharts there’s a championship buckle.”
Mick blushed as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I did do my share of ridin’ when I was younger, but what makes you think the whipper-snapper would listen to an old fool like me?”
Wayne stood and held out his hand. “Because you and I both know the way he’s goin’, he’s gonna get hurt, maybe even break his neck. Look at it this way, makin’ him a better rider is gonna make your job easier in the long run.”
# # #
The next day, Mick found Dalton waiting his turn outside the small, padded enclosure where the rodeo series kept the mechanical bull used for practice. Without his make-up, Mick looked like any other cowboy of an indeterminate age, a few wrinkles around the eyes, a little gray at the temples, maybe a little thick around the beltline; but on his belt was an oval buckle of engraved silver trimmed in 14-carat gold. It was the type of thing little boys with big hats and cowboy boots dream of, a championship bull-riding buckle, over-sized as if to indicate its importance.
Mick leaned on the railing next to the young cowboy. “Working the machine at a steady speed won’t do a rider any good.” He spoke as if someone was listening. “Maybe a few bulls will buck at that speed, but most will change it up, just like their twists and turns. No, if you want to really get the best use of that contraption, it needs to be set on ‘variable’.”
“I didn’t know they had mechanical bulls in your day?” Dalton never turned his head towards Mick, though his answer was meant for the newcomer.
Mick snorted, waiving off the insult. “I’ve ridden my share, but you’re right. When I started, we only trained on live animals.
“My name’s Mick Rogers, by-the-way.” He held out his hand.
Dalton looked at the proffered hand, then to Mick himself, eyeing him up and down, before taking his hand. “Dalton Jones. I don’t recall seeing you here before.”
“Oh, I’ve been in and out of the circuit a few times. Good to meet you, Dalton.”
Mick’s grip was strong for a man his age, but the championship buckle is what caught Dalton’s attention. “You used to ride, I see.”
“Yup, I did my time in the air going from cowhide to arena floor.”
“Well, judging by that buckle, you didn’t spend much time on the floor.”
Mick ran his finger over the top of the gold-rimmed metal. “Oh, this? Yeah, I guess I improved over the years. Ever heard of bulls named Mac Truck, Red Rover, or Battleship?”
“Yeah, Old Tower’s sire is Battleship. Those were some of the best bulls of the last generation. You’re telling me you rode them all?”
The older man rested his arms on the rail as a new rider signaled for the mechanical bull to buck. “One time or another. If you know so much about Old Tower, how come you don’t know how to ride him?”
Dalton’s eyes grew wide and mouth dropped open. He looked like he was about to say something when the cowboy on the mechanical bull misjudged a spin and was thrown off. His landing on the padded surface before them served to ease any tension between the two men.
Mick never flinched as the cowboy hit the mat with a thud.
“You’re telling me, you know how to ride Old Tower and not get bucked off?”
Mick had Dalton’s attention now, sure the younger man was curious to know what he meant. “I know enough about bull riding to probably stay on longer than you, and I have the buckle to prove it.”
Dalton placed his hand on his hip as he turned to face Mick. “If you’re so good, why aren’t you riding now?”
Mick’s smile was thin-lipped and sly. “Too old, body’s been hurt too often.”
“But you just said you could ride and not get bucked off.”
Mick turned away and spit. “Yup, doesn’t mean I’d be the better for it.”
Dalton turned to the fence. “What are you doing here, then with your talk about staying on longer than me?”
“If you let me, I’m here to coach you on becoming a better rider. Maybe even a champion.”
“But why me, why now?”
Mick turned to give his full attention to the younger man. “I’ve been watching you, son, and I see potential and think it’s being wasted the way you currently ride.
“Plus,” Mick lowered his head and kicked the dirt, “I don’t want to see you get hurt before you reach that potential.”
# # #
Rodeo events are scheduled in advance, and the cattle travel along with the horses and temporary fencing. They arrive at one town, spend the day setting up, two days for the events themselves, then take it all down to be someplace else within twenty-four hours to set it all up again. Livestock are used on a rotating basis, but only after a veterinarian’s “okay.” A bull, steer, or horse could be pulled from competition if he lacked the spirit, or was injured, and couldn’t compete. The pairing of rider to animal was made by drawing lots and to draw the same animal for consecutive rides was rare.
Each rider got the chance to compete on the first day of the event. Like the animals, they too, had to be physically fit to ride. Those who completed their eight-second ride, or scored the highest depending on the event, could compete in the finals the next day. Dalton Jones did not make it to the second day of competition as often as he would’ve liked, but he did have the potential Mick Rogers recognized.
At first it was difficult to get the younger man to listen. Mick grew frustrated with Dalton’s, I’ll do it myself attitude. “Son, if you don’t want me to coach you, just say so. I can go help some other cowboy!”
Dalton picked himself off the cushioned floor surrounding the mechanized practice bull. “I’m doing what you say, but you’re not teaching me anything I don’t already know.” He stumbled over to the side of the corral, his chaps flapping like bird wings as he tried not to trip on the soft leather.
“Come out here, I’m gonna try something different.” Mick frowned as his eyes squinted. “Now, Dalton, do you know how to dance?”
“Do I what?”
“Dance, you know with a woman, hold her tight while you move her across the floor and such.”
Dalton’s jaw dropped as he began to cough, which developed into laughter as he steadied himself on the corral with one hand, the other wrapped around his stomach. When he was done, he cleared his throat and looked back to see Mick’s still serious expression. “Are you saying you want me to learn how to dance?”
“In a way, think about it. When you waltz with a woman, how does she know which direction you want her to go?” Mick’s elbows were at his waist has he held out his hands, palms up.
“You look like you want me to dance with you.”
Mick dropped his hands. “Don’t be silly, I want you to imagine what it’s like when you waltz with a woman.” He moved to stand alongside Dalton and held hands up again. “Now, you do this too. Imagine there is a woman standing before you waiting to dance.”
Dalton looked over both shoulders to see if he and Mick were alone. “Okay, yeah. Like this right?” He held his left hand up high while extending his right, then he took measured steps while balancing on the balls of his boots. His upper body chopped up and down with every count. “One-two-three. One-two-three.”
Mick shook his head as he watched Dalton’s feeble attempt to dance with an invisible partner. “What are you doing?”
“I’m dancing. You asked if I knew how to dance, but I don’t see how this is gonna make me a better rider?” Dalton stopped moving, but still had his hands in a ready position.
“Get over here, you look silly dancing with the air.”
The younger man put his hand down and moved to face his coach.
“Now, how is a girl supposed to know which way to go if all your attention is on countin’ with your feet?”
“Well, geez, Mick, I don’t want to be trippin’ on anything.” Dalton placed his hands on his hips. “How do you want me to dance?”
“I want you to do it with the same confidence you use when you ride a bull.”
Mick ticked off the end of his fingertips as he spoke. “When you ride a bull, are you scared? No. You have confidence from beginning to end you will finish the ride…”
“But I don’t always, Mick, that’s why we’re here…”
“… hear me out—same applies to when you hold a woman close to dance. You have confidence when you begin the dance, you’ll end it as well, with the in-between as smooth as possible.”
Dalton looked down and turned his head away. “Oh, Mick, I don’t see what dancing has to do with bull riding.”
“What would make a dance go bad?” Mick put his hand down as he moved to stand in front of Dalton. “Tell me?”
“Well, Mick, I don’t know. I guess it might be steppin’ on the gal’s feet.”
“Precisely—and the way to prevent stepping on her feet is to give a proper signal to let her know which way to move.”
Dalton titled his head, eyebrows furrowed. “Signals, like telling her which way to go?”
Mick faced Dalton as he rested his right hand around his left ribcage. “The girl follows your lead because she recognizes the pressure of your hand on her back.”
“I’m not a girl, Mick!”
“I know, silly, just hear me out. You’re dancing in place, but when you want her to go to your left, you gently apply pressure pushing her towards your left. See, feel this, just barely enough for her to know to move in that direction.”
“Yeah?” Dalton nodded as he looked down at the other man’s hand on his ribs.
“Yeah, and if you want her to go to the right, ease off on the pressure, but don’t let go completely. Here, see if you can feel the difference?” Mick’s fingers never left the other man’s back while his palm moved off the fabric of Dalton’s shirt.
“I think I see it—and to go forward you pull her forward toward you, but how do you go back?”
Mick demonstrated the forward motion pulling Dalton slightly toward him, but then lifted his fingers off his back while keeping his palm on his side. When he took a step forward, Dalton’s face lit up as he understood the signal on his side.
When Mick lifted his left hand slightly, Dalton took it in his right, and together they moved through several rotations of the waltz. When another cowboy walked by the dancing men, he smiled, shook his head, and walked on by.
Dalton stopped and put down his hands. “Okay, now I can dance, but what’s it got to do with bull riding?”
“When you ride, it’s the bull that’s leading the eight-second dance.”
“Yeah, try it this way.” Mick stroked his chin. “Have you ever heard of the Laws of Physics?”
“Oh, geez, Mick, first you’re talking about dancing—now’s it physics. Make up your mind!”
“Hear me out. One of the laws of physics is when a body moves it wants to stay moving.”
“Uh, yeah, I’ve heard of that, I think, but…”
“Well, it’s why you fall off. The bull moves in one direction, which sends your body in that direction, then he shifts in another direction, but you don’t! Your body stays moving, but without at bull underneath, boom you hit the arena floor.” Mick held his left hand out palm up while he waved his right hand over the top. Then he dropped it onto the open palm with the sound of a smack!
“Oh, Mick!” Dalton swung his head and body away but turned back with his hands on his hips. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“Well, not on some of the younger bulls, but older, experienced ones like Old Tower—yeah, it is.”
Dalton’s shoulders drooped as his hands dropped. “What do I need to fix it?”
Mick put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You need to remember, when riding the bull, you’re the gal. It’s up to you to look, feel is more like it, for when the bull wants to change directions—and he’s gonna change direction because if he doesn’t he’ll fall over from the momentum.”
Dalton looked at Mick’s hand, still on his shoulder, then up at his face and sighed. “Well, I guess I did have something to learn.”
# # #
Come the next rodeo, when Mick arrived at the medic’s station for his medicinal paper cup, Wayne wanted to hear all about his time with Dalton. “Do you think you managed to get through to the young buck?” He asked before finishing his whiskey with a grimace.
“Made it through to the next round with a high score, so yeah, I think I did.” Mick sipped from his paper cup, savoring the burn of the whiskey on his tongue before he swallowed. “Yup, if he just remembers to feel what the bull is telling him, he’ll stay on, for sure.”
“Good, ‘cause the way he was goin’, he was on the way to a career ending ride.” Wayne crumpled his cup holding tight to the wrinkled paper. “Does Dalton know you were in the ring with him today?”
Mick had raised his cup to his mouth but stopped before he took a sip. “You mean does he know I’m a bullfighter?”
“I wasn’t going to put it that way, but—yeah, does he know how you make a living?”
Mick finished his drink and tossed the cup. “You know darn well, Dalton doesn’t like rodeo clowns. Let’s just say the subject never came up.”
Wayne stood and tossed away his cup. “I hope you know what you’re doin’, because if I were him, I’d think I had been deceived.”
Mick slapped his friend on the shoulder as he headed for the door. “Well, you ain’t.”
# # #
Dalton eased himself down onto the bull’s back. He remembered the faces of the other cowboys when he drew Old Tower’s name. One man gave a slow whistle, while others shook their heads. He had never successfully ridden Old Tower and they knew it. Straddling the bull, he moved himself closer to the bull rope tied around the body behind the forelegs, one gloved hand fit close into the braided hand-hold, the other pounded the rope flat into his grasp.
Old Tower threw himself against the side of the chute, almost pinning the rider’s leg in the process, but Dalton anticipated his attempt to dislodge him as he lifted his knee and raised his booted foot before they were crushed. He remembered this was one of the bull’s intimidation tactics. When his hide touched the side of the chute, the bull relaxed and pulled himself straight, ready to be released.
Dalton could feel powerful muscles through the leather of his chaps. The bull’s broad back provided ample room to straddle, but remembering his lessons from Mick, knew he hadn’t ought to take the relaxed state for granted. Dalton let his eyes flash quickly to those around him. Mick was no where to be seen, but he couldn’t worry about that now.
One of the cowboys tapped him on the shoulder. “You ready?”
Dalton nodded and raised his free hand. The chute swung open, allowing bull and rider into the arena.
They had been parallel to the gate, so Old Tower’s first move was to spin outward, pivoting on his rear legs. Dalton anticipated this move and the next. Planting his front feet, the bull lifted his rear legs free of the enclosure, tipping the rider forward. Dalton leaned back, throwing his feet forward without releasing his knees gripped tightly to the bull’s side. Under Dalton’s thighs, he could feel the changing muscles of the bull, just as had been described.
Once clear of the arena wall, the bull alternated between spinning and bucking in his attempt to lose his rider. Dalton’s free arm swung forward and back as he counter-balanced the motion of the bull. When the bull stopped to change directions in his spin, he could feel the change and compensated with a shift of his own weight, staying astride the beast as the clock ticked down the eight-seconds needed for a qualifying ride.
Together they danced, bull and rider, twisting and turning, up and down, for what seemed like forever until the airhorn screamed breaking the perceived silence in Dalton’s ears. It was only then, did he hear the roar of the crowd, the clapping and cheers, the yells of the cowboys and bullfighters giving instruction on how to dismount without being trampled. Occasionally, a clown would come into his field of view as the bull twisted round.
Old Tower wasn’t slowing down even though the ride was over. He chased the bullfighters, all the while twisting and bucking, with the rider still on his back. It was when the bull turned for a second time past the gate, Dalton let go of the rope and allowed momentum to carry him free of the angry bull. He looked up, as he landed in a crouched position on the arena floor, to see the outstretched arms of cowboys offering to pull him to safety. Dalton scurried to the fence and leapt for the railings. His boot caught a rail, his arms pulled upward by the other riders until his trunk was falling over the fence, his legs following close behind.
He managed to twist himself enough to land on his feet, as he turned back towards the arena, his shoulders were slapped by the hands of other cowboys with “Atta boy,” and “Good ride,” repeated and over again. He expected to hear the announcement of his score, over the cheers of the crowd, but instead, he heard what seemed like a single gasp and then silence.
Someone yelled, “Somebody get the Medic!”
A couple of the cowboys pushed past Dalton on their way behind the staging area. He looked over the rail in time to see bullfighters and cowboys working together to herd Old Tower towards the arena exit gate. Other cowboys ran over to a bullfighter lying on the arena floor while the announcer called for calm, assuring the crowd that medical assistance had been called.
“Do you think he’s hurt bad?” one cowboy asked.
“He’s not moving,” said another.
“Make way for the Medic!” called out another as the arena fencing was detached from one side allowing for it to swing open. Dalton, and others, moved allowing Wayne, the Medic, admittance, bag in hand, and followed by a man carrying an oxygen tank. He watched as they knelt near the prone man dressed as a clown. Holding his breath, he listened along with those around him, the only sound the lowing of the cattle, as they waited for news of the man’s condition.
He watched Wayne’s cursory examination, noticing he said something to the man who entered with him, who nodded and returned to where Dalton and the others waited. “Open the gate for the four-wheeler and stretcher,” he commanded to no one in particular. Some moved out of the way, while others helped to widen the gate. Collective sighs came from some, while others gathered in small groups and began to pray.
The deafening silence was broken when the announcer explained about the history of the bullfighters and the rodeo. Murmured prayers and crying could be heard from the audience. Dalton heard the four-wheeler and moved aside to let it pass, but rather than taking his place back behind the gate, he slowly walked into the arena.
“Hey, you can’t go in there!” one cowboy called out.
“Let’em go, it was his ride after all,” said another.
Dalton, failed to hear either of them, drawn as he was to the stopped vehicle. He watched as Wayne applied a stabilizing collar, and then directed cowboys and bullfighters to gently rolled the man on his side so a board could be inserted between him and the dirt floor. Once secured to the board, they lifted him onto a stretcher, and placed it across the back of the four-wheeler. The vehicle slowly turned around and drove out of the arena. The announcer called for a round of applause as it disappeared behind the fencing.
Sound erupted in the arena, the antithesis of the vacuum only moments before. A ten-minute recess was also announced, at which time they would reveal the score of the previous bull and rider. But, Dalton, never heard his score firsthand.
As he passed the mesmerized cowboy, Wayne said, “You’re gonna want to come with us.”
Dalton shook his head. “This ain’t my fault.”
Wayne put his hand on Dalton’s elbow to direct him out. “Of course not, son. I want you to come because that’s Mick on the stretcher.”
# # #
Mick’s eyelids fluttered, the light over his bed threatening to blind him. Eyes focused, he looked around the arrangement of the hospital room, I-V bag hanging off a staff, blood-pressure machine slowly ticking. Sitting in a chair alongside the bed, was Dalton, evidently asleep, hat tipped over his eyes, hands clasped and resting on his chest.
“Didn’t your mother teach you about not wearing a hat indoors?”
Dalton took his hat off and placed it on the foot of Mick’s bed. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to lie to a friend?”
Mick smiled. “I’ve never lied to a friend.”
“Then what do you call not telling me when we met you were a bullfighter?”
Mick winced as he tried to boost himself up in the bed.
Dalton wrapped his hand around Mick’s wrist. “Easy there, Old Man, the Doc said to take it slow.”
Mick pulled his arm away from Dalton’s grip, but smiling asked, “Who you calling, ‘Old Man’?”
“You—you, stubborn old coot. Now, why’d you never say you were a clown.”
“I said, I never lied to a friend, and when we met, we weren’t yet friends. After that, it just never came up in conversation.” Mick laid his head back against his pillow and started laughing, then with a groan, it quickly became a cough. Once subsided, and he sighed. “So, what’s the damage?”
“Well, after Old Tower clipped you with his horn and sent you flying, he did his best to stomp out all of your innards. I guess you lacerated a few organs and bruised others. The worst of it is the staples running across your front from where they removed your spleen.” Dalton placed his elbow on the bed while resting his chin on his hand. “The nurse told me, looks like you’re wearing railroad tracks.”
Mick’s face scrunched at the description of his injuries. “I guess those would be considered ‘career ending’ injuries?”
“What I heard tell, but most definitely for the rest of the season.”
“Hmph, maybe I’ll think about retiring and opening a bull riding school.”
Dalton laughed as he stood up. “Either that or a dance school. Hey, speaking of dancing, hands off the nurse named Julie. We’ve a date to go dancing when she gets off shift.” Dalton picked up his hat, stood, and extended his hand to his friend.
Mick gave it his best grip, but he knew the other man was holding back. His friend was almost to the door when he asked, “So, you think you’re a dancer now?”
Dalton laughed. “Yup, and a champion bull rider. My score on Old Tower, combined with yesterday’s, won the competition.”
Mick smiled as he settled back into his pillow. “So, should I open a dance or a bull riding academy?”
Dalton placed his hat on his head, adjusting the fit. “Either way, I’ll write you a five-star review.”