"Ol' Jesse Stahl ride any bangtail ever foaled," the old
"Jesse black?" asked Charles, his grandson.
"As coal," chuckled Grandpappy, "and hard. Hard.
Yessir, Jesse 'bout the hardest ever they was, 'ceptin' maybe
Jackson Sundown. Jackson ride too. And Bill Pickett.
Yakima Canutt. They ride, boy. Ain' no riders like 'em today."
"All them dudes brothers?"
"Colored," answered Grandpappy. "Colored mens."
"Damn," exclaimed Charles, "I never see them in no
"One time me and Jesse, we at Pendleton and he
clownin'. Come time for saddle broncs, and he cain't find his
boots, so he wear these floppy ol' shoes he clown in. They so
big he cain't fit 'em in the stirrups, so he tell the boys to jam
them devils in for him. This white buckaroo, he say, 'But
what if you gets bucked off`? You be killed.' Ol' Jesse he look
dead at the boy and he say, 'I ain' gon' get bucked off.' He
right. He work that horse till it ready to drop. I ridin' pickup, but he cain't take his feets outta them stirrups, so we
have to cut the saddle loose to get him off. Jesse he look at
that white boy and he grin: 'What I say?' he ask him. Me
and Jesse, we cut some rusty capers together," the old man
continued, his red-rimmed eyes drifting, floating on his face
for a long moment. "Ol' Jesse," he sighed.
"Stop it, Pappy!" snapped his daughter. "Them old
days don't put no grits on the table. Leave the boy be. Don't
give him no crazy ideas."
The old man said nothing more. He tightened within
himself for he was hot, damned hot, but he resolved not to
fight in front of his grandson. The boy had seen enough of
that. Later, when Charles had gone out, Grandpappy cornered Joletha: "Looky here, girl," he growled, "don' you
never talk to me like that again in front of the boy or I go up
longside yo' head. I means it! Don' you want that boy to
grow up straight?"
His daughter rolled her eyes. "Oh, Pappy . . ."
"I means it! I really means it! You a good momma,
baby, but you don' know what it like for a boy to grow. That
boy goin' find him some way to be a man, and I reckon what
I gives him a damn sight better'n what the street give him."
Joletha ran a hand through her hair. "l don't know,"
she shook her head. "Those stories of yours like fairy tales.
We scufflin' to eat, and you carry on 'bout cowboys 'n' Indians.
"Nawsuh!" Grandpappy wouldn't give. "Nawsuh. Ain'
no play actin' 'bout it. I tell Charles 'bout workin' cattle and
'bout rodeoin'. Tha's all."
Joletha hushed him. "Pappy, don' you see it all the
same for Charles? He no closer to bein' a cowboy than bein'
a Indian. You gotta see. Them ol' days over. They be over."
She was right, of course, and he knew it. Oh, there
were still ranches, but they were few and growing fewer. In
fact, Grandpappy himself had been too late for the open
range and long cattle drives, and that had finally led him to
spend nearly thirty years on the rodeo circuit. When he
grew too stove up to compete any longer, he had repaired to
Wes Cooley's ranch at Glenville, and he'd still be riding
there if Wes hadn't died, leaving the spread to his citified
nephew who turned it into a summer home development.
The nephew had asked Grandpappy to stay on as "a touch of
the old West," but he didn't intend to be anyone's buffoon.
So he'd moved in with Joletha. He knew he could have
found a cabin near Glenville and remained his own man,
but there was the boyhis grandsongrowing up without a
And Charles did listen to him, especially since the
night Lonnie, the boy's main man, had been blown away on
the street. Lonnie's death had deepened Charles. He spent
much more time within himself. But he also spent even
more time with his grandfather, and the old man gave what
he sensed the boy needed, answering his questions, telling
him tales, teaching him practical skills. He even managed
to scratch a few dollars together so that he and the boy
could travel by bus to Golden Gate Park and rent mounts.
He noted with pride that Charles was a natural, sitting the
horse as though born in a saddle.
But the high point came the day when Charles
brought home from the library a book about Negro cowboys.
Since the boy was no readerhe had left school in ninth
grade, and only sporadically even glanced at a newspaper
his grandfather, a great believer in learning despite his own
limited formal education, had felt matters were moving in
the best possible direction, especially when Charles opened
the book and showed him on a list of the outstanding rodeo
riders the brief notation that proved hea stove-up old
manhe too had lived: "... from Langston, Oklahoma,
came a bull-rider par excellence, Charlie 'Bo' Howard."
It flooded him with memories, glistened his eyes: the
good old boys, the hombres del Campo, the horses and snaky
bulls and the gals. Mostly it brought back Marlene, Charles's grandmother. Half-Kiowa, she could ride the wind.
When she had diedJoletha just a babyit had killed a
part of him that had never come back to life, and it had
probably made him a tougher rider. He just didn't give a
damn after that. In Mexico he had even ridden fighting
"Who write that book?" he asked. "I never know I be
in no book."
When Charles had shown Joletha, even she softened.
"Your Granpappy a cowboy," she had acknowledged to the
boy, and she had patted her father's back.
Two days later detectives picked Charles up for rustling a horse from the mounted police stable in Golden Gate
Park. While neighborhood young bloods had cackled over
Charles's featripping off a pig's horseMomma had not
been amused. They had no money for a lawyer, and she was
concerned that her son, juvenile or not, would be prosecuted
for felony grand theft, as one city man had warned. Fortunately, the public defender made a deal, pointing out that Charles had really just engaged in a prank, and that he had
made no effort to really steal the animal, but had merely
taken a joy ride. Ninety days' probation was all the juvenile
judge had given the boy. Momma had been relieved at the
But Grandpappy was livid. "You don' never steal nobody's horse, nigger! Never!" The boy grinned, only to feel his
grandfather pop him hard across the mouth. "Don't gi' me
no sass," the old man warned. "They's things a man don't
do, and horse stealin' one of 'em."
Charles could have flattened Grandpappy easily and
he knew it, but he was so stunned by the old man's anger
that it didn't occur to him to strike back. "Yes sir," he said.
"Ain' nobody ride with no horse thief," his grandfather
explained. "Ain' nobody share they grub with no horse
thief. Horse thief no better'n a re-rider. If you be a man, act
The boy had rocked on his heels, undecided whether to
leave this bent old man who hovered before him and return
to the street brothers while he was still a celebrity. "What's
a re-rider?" he'd finally grumbled.
"A re-rider? That what we calls all them boys what
holler for extra tries at the rodeo," the old man explained.
"You know, carryin' on 'bout how they wasn't ready or some
such. Always got excuses. Low, boy, low life folks."
"Uhm," nodded Charles. He began to say something
when his grandfather interrupted him to tell him about the
"If you ready to be man, they's a rodeo up at
Guerneville this weekend. I save a little money so's you can
go and watch some riders work, and I buy you somethin'
too." Grandpappy shuffled to his drawer and returned with
a large shoebox. When he opened it, Charles saw a bright
new pair of cowboy boots. "These workin' boots," Grandpappy explained, "the kind real riders wear. They go with
that sombrero I buy you. Maybe you ready for 'em."
They spent that afternoon talking about bull riding,
the techniques and tricks Grandpappy had learned during
his years in the arena. He told the boy of his failures and his
triumphs. "One time this bull name Screwtail he throw me
then he worry me till he knock this eye out," Grandpappy
said, pointing at his drooping left eye. "Then ol' Manny
Rojas, he put it back in and carry me to the hospital. That
way back in '28 at Clovis, New Mexico. A mean damn bull
"Knock your eye out?"
"Damn!" exclaimed Charles.
"Double damn. But I ride that rank Screwtail a month
later at Flagstaff," Grandpappy chuckled. "He a bad bull
"Damn," the boy repeated.
Saturday Charles caught a ride as far as Cotati with
one of Momma's friends, then hitchhiked to Guerneville. A
Volkswagen with three long-haired young white men picked
him up and they shared a joint with him as they drove. They
dropped him on the road next to the parking lot and small
arena nestled in a wooded canyon. There was no town visible, though cars were streaming into the lot, and large numbers of people wandered up the road from the direction he
had not traveled. The people were an oddly mixed lot, not a'
all the John Wayne-Gary Cooper-Clint Eastwood types he
had expected. Oh, there were plenty of what could be called
cowboys, lean mostly, and white, sipping on beers or pulling
on bottles hidden in paper bags, but there were also large
numbers of hippies smiling and carrying on. Although he
saw a few other black people, he felt suddenly alone, very
alone. He knew no one here, and this wooded canyon was no
Golden Gate Park snuggled in the comfort of his city; this
was the sticks.
"Lookin' for somethin'?"
Charles turned to face a white sheriff, and his belly
swooped. The pig didn't smile. "What?" asked Charles.
"You look like you're lookin' for somethin'," explained
the sheriff. "Late entries sign up at the van over yonder."
The uniformed man pointed toward a mobile home parked
near one wooden grandstand, and Charles saw a short line
of cowboys waiting in front.
"Thanks," he said warily.
"Good luck," winked the sheriff as Charles walked
toward the van, and the boy realized the pig had seen a
rider, not a nigger. Alright, he thought. Alright.
He joined the line, his eyes averted, and he was again
surprised as several of the others waiting greeted him as
though they knew him. Next to him a pimply-faced boy
sporting an enormous black hat nervously fingered several
crumpled bills. "What're you entering?" the kid asked
"Ah . . . novice bull riding." Saying it aloud made it
real. He would indeed do what he had only been considering. There had been no talk at home of him riding, but
within himself he needed to try, to find out who his grandfather really was.
"I'm gonna go in calf-roping and bulldogging, novice,"
the kid told him. "I'd try bull riding, too, but I ain't got
"For the entry fee."
Charles gulped. "How much it cost?"
"For novice events, five bucks per."
Charles had six dollars and change in his pocket. That
left him eating money anyway. He smiled.
"Where you from?" asked the other novice.
Hesitating, Charles answered, "Glenville."
"Glenville? Where's that at?"
Because he didn't know for certain, Charles merely
replied, "South." It seemed to satisfy the black-hatted kid.
After paying his entry fee, the other boy turned
towards Charles and shook his hand. "'Take 'er easy," he
Handing the beefy, red-faced man who registered
entries five dollars, Charles said, "Novice bull ridin'."
The man took his money and began filling out a form.
"You put in some practice ain't you, son?" he asked. "We
don't want any of you boys gettin' hurt."
"Charles . . . Charlie Howard," he quickly improvised,
and the red-faced man looked up at him, searched him it
Then he handed Charles a piece of white cloth with
the number N-27 printed in black on it. "Wear that on your
back," the red-faced man instructed. "There's safety pins in
that box. And Charlie," he said, and the boy looked at him,
After checking the schedule of events posted on the
mobile home's side, Charles wandered to the refreshment
stand, bought a hot dog and coke, then leaned on one end of
the grandstand to eat. Sensing eyes on him from the passing crowd, he was immediately pulled toward that storm of
discomfort that often swept him when he left the certainty
of his neighborhood and found himself in what he considered the white world. Glancing furtively for somewhere else
to eat, he noticed a small blonde girl wearing a fringed cowboy hat approaching him followed by two adults. She stood
directly in front of him so he could not avoid her, and he
"Can I have your autograph?" the little girl asked,
handing him a program. He was stunned, having forgotten
that he'd had his number pinned on by another novice. He
nearly dropped what was left of his hot dog while signing
her program. The parents both smiled at him as they left.
He understood then why people gave him a second
look: he was a rider. Why not? He pushed his straw Stetson back farther on his head and smiled at passersby, feeling
easier. Then he heard a somehow familiar voice: "Say brothah!" He turned to face a small, rugged-looking black man
dressed in expensive western clothes.
"What's happenin'?" Charles ventured, uncertain.
"Alright, brothah," replied the man, "Alrighty. I'm
Boise Jones." They shook hands. "You new, ain't ya? Wanna
taste?" The man extended a paper bag from which he had
Charles decided immediately that this was not a man
to bullshit, seeing the ridged eyebrows, the askew nose, the
gold teeth, the gnarled hands. "This is my first rodeo," he
"Alright. We all gotta start, bro'. Who you been ridin'
"Well," tempting lies crossed his mind, but Charles
decided to stick with the truth, "I just ride a little in the
city. My people be ranch folks, but I come from San Francisco." As they talked, other experienced-looking cowboys
and gals hailed Boise Jones as they passed: "Hey, Boise!"
"Catch ya for a snort after while, Boise!" "How they
hangin', Boise?" Jones smiled and nodded and called out
"Shit, bro', they's all kinda good cowboys come from
big cities. What you enter?"
Boise Jones removed his hat, wiped his forehead, then
replaced his hat. "Whew! You sure pick a pisser to start
with. Whyn't you switch to somethin' else, just for a start I
"It's your booty, blood, but if you want some help,
count on ol' Boise. First time the worst." The older man
shrugged and smiled. "I gotta make it. Lemme know if you
want help. Sure you don't want a taste?"
"No, man," smiled Charles. "Maybe after."
"Maybe we rub this on your outside after," laughed
Boise Jones as he swaggered off toward two blonde women
in tight jeans who had just smiled as they walked by.
Charles's eyes followed the cocky figure until Jones disappeared, arm in arm with the women, into the crowd.
When he saw the bull he'd drawnyoung and small by
rodeo standards, but awesome to himhe wished he could
disappear into the crowd as Boise had. A thick-shouldered
tan beast, the bull was fully rigged when Charles climbed
to the top of the chute as he'd seen the other three novices
do, and looked down on the back he had to straddle. He froze
there until he heard a voice—"Come on, son, you'll be
alright"—and looked into the eyes of the red-faced man who
had registered him.
The man smiled, and Charles managed to force a
smile, then lowered himself onto the thick back, sensing
power like that which had so astounded him the first time
he had mounted a horse. This time, though, no saddle sat
between him and the animal, so every twitch of the bull's
thick muscles twitched Charles, filling him with the
impression that he sat on moving, liquid metal. He perched
wide and low on the bull, afraid to place much pressure on
it, but the animal seemed to accept him passively. "Tighten
up them knees," advised the red-faced man.
"Not that way or you get your hand caught," barked
Boise Jones, whose brown face hovered suddenly near him,
as Charles wrapped his grip—wearing a glove loaned by one
of the white novices. "Pull that line through there. Yeah,
that's it, now over. You got it, bro'." Charles could not
clearly see the dark mask that instructed him through the
chute rails, but he listened.
Another face popped in front of his, this one painted a
ghostly white with a red nose and blue slash mouth. It wore
a small derby hat perched on top of the orange-wigged head.
"Don't worry, boy, I'll keep this rank bastard off'n you. You
just ride 'im," advised the clown.
"From Glenville, California, on Thunderbolt Two,
Charlie Howard!" the announcer brayed, and there was
Beneath him the bull surged, lifting Charles as an
ocean wave lifts a swimmer, and the boy jerked his legs free.
"You're okay," the gateman assured. "Just gimme the nod
when you're ready."
Slipping back onto the back, he was swept with terror
once more and had to grip himself hard to avoid flinching.
That was all the sign the gateman needed.
In the first bolting instant Charles felt himself burst
from the chute, his arm and grip hand in the lead, his butt
and legs in only momentary contact with the bull. Below
and in front he caught flashings of animal, of fence rails, of
dirt. Holding as tight as he could, he sought desperately to
reconnect his butt and legs, to tighten his knees, but the
force beneath him dodged and swirled so that he couldn't
even breathe, only hold on and try to press himself downward.
Then, after a nauseous swirl, the bull reversed directions, and Charles sensed an electric jolt on his arm and
hand, a release, a weightlessness, ended by broken slashes
of motion, by bumps and shouts, by spreading numbness.
He leaned against the fence when he came to, the
clown patting his back. "You done real good, boy. Real good.
You sure that's your first bull? Rode 'im like a champ. Give
'im all he wanted, by God."
A gate opened, and he was urged out of the arena, only
vaguely aware of the crowd's applause and the announcer's
loud appeal: "Let's give one more hand to young Charlie
Howard from Glenville!"
Boise Jones and the red-faced man helped him to the
bed of a pickup, where he sat, still dizzy, tasting blood and
feeling the cold spot where his lip was split. "Hey, Velma,"
called Boise, "bring me a couple ice cubes for Charlie's lip,
"Shore thang," replied a stringy woman, and off she
"You with us?" asked the red-faced man speaking
directly into Charles's face.
Charles nodded. "Think so . . ." he managed to reply.
"Hell yeah, he with us, ain't ya bro'?" laughed Boise.
Charles tried to smile.
"You may not know it, son," the red-faced man said,
"but you're a bull rider. You damn sure ain't no re-rider. You
carried yourself out there like you been at it for a while, and
I know you ain't. Didn't he do good, Boise?"
"Damn rights! I thought he maybe bullshittin' at first,
Red, but the boy a rider. A nachal. A pure nachal. Where
you learn all that in the city, bro'?"
Charles's head was clearing now, making sense of
what they said. "My granpappy tell me."
"Your granpappy?" asked Red.
"Yeah. Bo Howard my granpappy."
"Bo Howard! Bo Howard your granpappy? Shee—it,
man, no wonder, you got it in your blood!" Boise Jones
poked Red in the ribs. "Was he a rider? Was ol' Bo a rider?
"I seen ol' Bo oncet years ago when I's just startin' out
myself, and he was already a ol' fart then. But ride! That's
gotta be the greatest bull rider ever there was. I haven't
heard of him for years. When did he die?" asked Red.
"Die? Granpappy?" Charles was confused. "He ain't
dead. He stay with me and Momma right now. He wait for
me at home."
"Bo Howard's alive!" exclaimed Red. "Be damned.
Where'd you say you're from? Glenville? I'd sure be proud to
meet your granddad."
Charles averted his eyes. "I stay in San Francisco.
Granpappy he stay there too."
"The city?" laughed Red. "Hell, I'm from the city
myself. Butchertown. Lived there all my life. We're practically neighbors. Listen, son, you got wheels?"
"What the Hell," grinned the ruddy-faced old cowboy,
"lemme run you home whenever we finish here. Maybe I
could meet your granddad: I'd be damned proud to do that."
"I wouldn't mind pickin' up a few pointers from that
ol' man," acknowledged Boise Jones. "Hell no. I might just
drive to the city with you boys my-damn-self."
Still vaguely disoriented, holding ice cubes against his
split lip, Charles grinned sheepishly through the sudden
attention he was attracting, for several other riders had
joined Boise and Red and were patting his back or shaking
his hand. He didn't even notice his name being sounded
over the public address system: he had won novice bull riding and was being paged to collect his award, a belt buckle.
Boise had to send him toward the judges' stand.
"He's gonna be a goodun, Boise," Red grunted, his eyes
following the slim youth who walked away from them
toward the award ceremony. "Yessir, a real goodun, maybe."
Jones nodded. "Yeah, he got it, the. . . what do you
call it. . . the style. He ride that rank little bull like he's
part of it. I never seen a purtier first ride. Stylin'! Ain't this
a bitch: Bo Howard's kin and we tellin' him what to do."
Red nodded. "We're a couple pistols, we are."
"That there kid's the pistol," interjected the clown,
who had just joined them. "He's somethin'."
Charles returned carrying the large boxed buckle, his
gaze still not entirely clear. Boise Jones handed him the
rumpled paper bag and said, "Here go, blood, you earned
Charles blinked and his eyes seemed finally to focus.
He hesitated, then grinned. "Maybe I rub it on my outside,"
he said, and everyone laughed.