Gerald W. Haslam
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RIDER


"Ol' Jesse Stahl ride any bangtail ever foaled," the old man wheezed.

"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 movies."

"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 boy—his grandson—growing up without a father.

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 reader—he 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 he—a stove-up old man—he 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 died—Joletha just a baby—it 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 bulls.

"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 feat—ripping off a pig's horse—Momma 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 outcome.

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 like one."

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 rodeo.

"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 Flat snaky."

"Knock your eye out?"

"Clean out."

"Damn!" exclaimed Charles.

"Double damn. But I ride that rank Screwtail a month later at Flagstaff," Grandpappy chuckled. "He a bad bull though."

"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 Charles.

"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 enough money."

"Money?"

"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 said.

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."

"Yessir."

"Name'?"

"Charles . . . Charlie Howard," he quickly improvised, and the red-faced man looked up at him, searched him it seemed.

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, "good luck."

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 stopped chewing.

"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 been sipping.

"No thanks."

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 acknowledged sheepishly.

"Alright. We all gotta start, bro'. Who you been ridin' with?"

"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 friendly greetings.

"Shit, bro', they's all kinda good cowboys come from big cities. What you enter?"

"Bull riding."

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 mean'?"

"I can't."

"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 drawn—young and small by rodeo standards, but awesome to him—he 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 light applause.

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, willya?"

"Shore thang," replied a stringy woman, and off she scurried.

"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? Hah!"

"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?"

"Naw."

"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 that taste."

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.


Voices of a Place is available in paper and E-book from:
Devil Mountain Books, P.O.Box 4115, Walnut Creek, CA 94596. or Amazon.com.