McQueen goddamned the hell out of it all as he picked up his hat and walked out of the arena. A piss-ass month had just turned to full-blown dogshit in a day. He hadn’t had a decent ride since Austin.
Sagebrush had just put him on the ground in six. In the three years he had been with the circuit he had been ridden only once. It was Mickey Barnes that made the unlucky ride, for even though he stayed on the full eight, his hand got hung up and he couldn’t get loose. The bull trampled him so bad half the flesh was torn off his right thigh.
McQueen saw it often. It was half the reason he got into bullriding in the first place, the other half being the money. Being the most dangerous event in the rodeo, it had its advantages.
He finally got his chance and he blew it. He knew it could be another year or more before he drew Sagebrush again, and he wasn’t getting any younger. McQueen wasn’t old by anyone’s standards, only twenty-seven. But the years of constantly being bucked and thrown had begun to take their toll. He might not last another year if he kept it up.
Every time he thought about quitting, his thoughts drifted back to his old man. From the first time McQueen picked up a cinch rope in the seventh grade, his old man told him he would fail, that he would always fail. Three world championships and an endorsement deal later the old man still had no use for him.
“Damn it.” McQueen punched in the crown of his hat.
“Ain’t the hat’s fault, Kid,” Cody said. Cody Herschfelder was a young rider from Kansas who had grown up with the circuit. He was just getting started, but already had moved up to the top ten cowboys list. Most everyone figured him for the year’s champion in the bull-riding and the calf-roping.
“It’s like the sayin’ goes,” Cody began. “‘Never was a horse that couldn’t be rode. Never was a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.’ Just one more notch for ol’ Sagebrush.”
“Beat it, Cody. I ain’t in no mood for a pep talk,” McQueen said.
“Can’t win ‘em all, I always say. You know it reminds me of something my old grand--”
“I said light a shuck, Cody.”
McQueen peeled off his shirt and stared down at the dinner plate size bruise where Sagebrush kicked him. He wrapped his abdomen with bandages, using every ounce of willpower not to wince. The pain was more than most could bear, but he had to prove the old man wrong.
He tossed his chaps and spurs into his duffel and grabbed a spare shirt before chunking the bag over to the passenger side. He slid it on. The pain seemed to be dying down, or maybe he was just getting used to it.
McQueen hit Alamogordo just before nightfall. He got a twenty-dollar room and a five-dollar bottle of rum. He figured he could sleep late and start around nine the next morning.
As he got the last of his gear out of the cab he noticed the dust covered black Charger parked across from him. It had dual exhaust, CB antenna, and South Carolina plates that expired over thirty years ago.
Standing in the door of the room in front of the Dodge, a man stared back at McQueen. He was tall, long hair, dressed in black, smoking a cigar, a choker around his neck. He had his own half-empty bottle of the same rum.
“Evenin’.” McQueen tipped his hat. The gentleman dropped his cigar, crushed it with his square-toed boot and slid back inside the room, closing the door behind him.
Inside the motel room the old double bed squeaked loudly as McQueen sat down. He thumbed open the bottle, flicked the top at the TV and took a pull, then another. He heard noise from the room next door, the usual sounds.
McQueen’s thoughts drifted back to the ride. He had expected Sagebrush to be bad. He was the biggest, meanest bull on the circuit, dark red with white splotches. The bull blew out of the chute so fast it caught McQueen by surprise and he was thrown before the ride had even started. It was his worst ride ever.
Originally, it had all been a cakewalk. McQueen came out of the Memphis high school rodeo and went straight into the pros. All the real money was in bull-riding, always had been. But his real passion had been calf-roping and bulldogging, the ones he and Sandy did.
Then he remembered. Sandy was in Rio Verde. He left her to stay with Walter Danvers after she hurt her leg. She would still be there. Rio Verde was right on the way to Scottsdale and he could stop in and see her. That made him feel better.
The feeling didn’t last long. He went back to thinking of Sagebrush. He wondered if the old man had heard the news. He probably didn’t. But if he did, it would just suit him right down to the bone. McQueen had to do something. He had to get back on top.
He needed to see Blaylock.
William Blaylock ran stock for the circuit. He held a lot of water with them too. McQueen figured to get him to pull a string or two and make sure he got Sagebrush in the next draw. He had heard of things like that happening from time to time, but didn’t know how much truth there was to it. If he could sit down with Blaylock, explain the situation to him, he might just get a second chance on Sagebrush. It was a shot in the dark, but he had to take it.
McQueen’s pants felt damp all of a sudden. He looked down. He had set the bottle down beside him on the bed, and while he was thinking it tipped over and the last few swallows poured out, soaking part of the bed and the underside of his leg.
“Great,” McQueen said.
McQueen rolled to a stop at the intersection and lit a cigarette as he waited for the light. He drifted off in his thoughts about Saturday. If he could get up with Blaylock he felt sure he could work something out.
The more he thought about it, the better he started to like the idea. Also the more he thought about it, the more oblivious he was to the road. He never saw the stocky, goateed young man approaching the driver’s side window.
“1955 Chevy half ton, four on the floor, six speed tranny,” the guy said with a hungry smile crawling across his face.
“Yeah, great, glad you like it, now beat it, will you guy? You’re in the middle of the road.”
“All right, Blondie, get out of the truck,” the punk said. He had the barrel of a S&W .38 Special pointed dead center.
McQueen sighed. This was Alamogordo, not New Orleans. This was just what he needed. He had two days to make it to Scottsdale, try to find Blaylock before the draw and get him to play ball. Being bogged down in a police station in some penny-ante town filling out papers and going through mug shots was not on the agenda. Not to mention there were things in the truck he couldn’t bear to part with, one in particular.
McQueen put the vehicle in park and opened the door and stepped out.
“That’s right, Blondie, just easy does it.”
McQueen smiled, jerked the pistol away from his hand, slammed the kid three times with the door of the truck and he was on the ground nursing a broken nose.
“You done yet?” McQueen asked.
The kid’s eyes flared. He jumped up and started in for another hit, stopped halfway through and tried to run. McQueen hooked his right foot and caught the punk’s ankle, sending him face down into the pavement.
“I reckon now you’re done,” McQueen said. He looked around at the three people watching him from across the street. He wanted to just get back in the cab and ride out, but the witnesses would make that tricky.
McQueen grabbed a rawhide thong from his duffel and tied the guy’s hands behind his back. Then he picked him up and threw him over his shoulder and tossed him in the truckbed.
“You know what you are, you stinking pig? You’re the son of a thousand fathers all bastards like you.”
McQueen ignored the kid and picked up his pistol. He stared at the tiny pistol, frowning. “Snub-nose piece of crap. Damn, I hate these. Not worth the steel they’re made of,” McQueen said.
“Yeah, what do you know about guns, you blonde pig?”
“Believe me, I know,” McQueen said.
McQueen handed the man over to a uniform outside the station. The cop replaced McQueen’s rawhide thong with a pair of handcuffs and shoved him inside. The officer instructed McQueen to follow him.
The lady at the desk was all business. She handed Jim a clipboard with forms to be filled out in triplicate. Then he could have a seat and wait with the other gentleman.
“What do I need to wait for? Can’t I just fill out the forms and go?” McQueen asked.
“Bond agent is due here in a few minutes already. Fella you brung in is a bail-jumper. There’ll be reward money. Maybe not much, sometimes five hundred, sometimes more, all depends on what they did,” she said.
“Reward? How ‘bout that. Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t kill the dumb bastard then, huh?”
The lady at the desk gave him a half-hearted smile and didn’t even look up from her paperwork.
“Course, that woulda been too easy,” McQueen said.
“Would it?” came a chill voice from behind him.
McQueen turned to face the other gentleman the lady referred to. He sat easy in the chair, his head against the wall and his right leg propped on the other.
McQueen studied the man thoroughly. Sitting down, it was hard to gauge his size, but he looked to be around six and a half feet tall. He had long black wavy hair, a neat trimmed mustache and tuft of beard just beneath his bottom lip.
Jim noticed the man’s skin color was a bit odd. It was too dark to call it a tan, not dark enough to be black, the wrong shade for Mexican and the height and facial hair told him it wasn’t Navajo, Piute, or Apache, the tribes local to the area. Must be a breed, Jim figured.
“Is it so easy to kill a man?” the guy asked. He leaned up, his gray eyes staring at McQueen.
McQueen swallowed and stood silent for a moment. It finally struck him this was the same man he'd seen last night at the motel.
“Well I was just kidding around. I never could kill anybody anyway.”
“Might have to one day,” the man said and leaned back against the wall closing his eyes.
Jim swallowed again. He eased back over to the desk and looked away from the tall man. There was something about this man that he couldn’t figure, something he had felt last night and now even more, something not real.
“Psst,” he whispered to the lady at the desk. “What’s the story on this guy?”
“Bank Detective,” she said. “Brought in a suitcase of cash that got boosted off an armored truck here last week. Just waiting on Sheriff Johnson to sign it in. Never seen him before today, though. Wouldn’t care to ever see him again either. Something wrong about him.”
“He got a name?”
“Calls hisself Callaway.”
Jim walked over and had a seat on the other side of the room, trying hard to ignore the other man. His thoughts drifted back to the reward. Maybe his luck wasn’t running so sour after all. If this bond agent would show up pretty quick he could still make Scottsdale by nightfall.
“Mornin’, Linda,” the burly man said as he entered the door with a sack in one hand. “Brought you some brittle.”
“Well, I appreciate it, Buck. That there’s the gentleman I phoned you about.”
“Not too bad.”
“Name’s Jim McQueen.”
“Buck Morgan. Glad to know you, McQueen.”
“So, you know that guy?” McQueen asked.
“Never met him before, though he did seem familiar somehow. But anyway. How ‘bout you, young fella? Stopped the rat from carjacking you with a .38 to your head. Got balls, I’ll say that. I could use a man like you. Any good with a gun?”
“Not bad.” McQueen grinned. “But I already got a job.”
“Sure? Pays good money.”
“Not as good as first prize bullriding at the Grand National, I’m sure.”
“Oh, I see. Rodeo man, are you? Well you ever change your mind, you give me a holler, hear?” He handed Jim a card.
“Yeah, sure. Now what about this reward?” McQueen asked palming the card and shoving it in his shirt pocket.
“Thousand on the nose, and you earned it, let me tell you. Take a check? I'm clean out of cash.”
“Sure I’ll take a check.”
The Danvers’ place was a four hundred acre spread just outside of Rio Verde. It was dry and dusty, as the desert tends to be, but with proper irrigation managed to have a few decent pastures for grazing.
That’s exactly where Sandy was. She stood out in the south pasture nibbling on some of the short grass. She looked as graceful as she had ever been. Her gold-brown hair glistened in the sunlight.
“Tkk tkk tkk,” McQueen called out.
Sandy whinnied when she saw him. She trotted over to the fence. Her foot seemed to be fine, though he had no intention of putting her to a real test. She had earned her easy life of grazing all day, though the flies probably didn’t please her much.
“Hey, girl,” McQueen said as he put his hand out for her to sniff. She nestled her head against his. “Yeah, you missed me didn’t you?”
When they were together, Sandy was the star of the arena. She was the best roping horse he had ever seen. She seemed to be able to sense the calf’s next move. Always the calf was no match for her speed, which sometimes would be cause for dismay. If the calf was slower than usual, Sandy would have outrun it before Jim could even get the rope ready.
“Expected you’d be by here today,” Megan said. Megan Danvers was a gorgeous brunette who used to be a hell of a good barrel racer. She and Jim were good friends while she was with the circuit, though she always took second place to Sandy.
“She’s glad to see you,” Megan said.
“Where’s Walt?” Jim asked.
“Be along any time now. Said he wants to talk to you. I think he’s got a notion that you’ll go into business with him. I told him it was a slim chance.”
“Yep,” was all Jim had to say.
“Here he comes,”
McQueen wasn’t really looking forward to whatever Walt had to say to him. He knew it would be some crap about promoting this or that. He didn’t care for the endorsement racket. He had played that game with a boot company out of Laredo. He hated the boots and decided it wasn’t worth the money to lie. He didn’t like being ordered around by scrawny pencil-necks with slicked-back hair and calculators. All they worried about was the bottom line, not the product, not the people.
“Well, if it isn’t the famous bounty hunter,” Walter said, walking up to the other two. Megan patted the horse on the nose and didn’t look at Walter. He noticed, but ignored it, for the time being.
“Do what?” McQueen asked.
“That bandit you rounded up in New Mexico,” Walter said.
“How do you know about that?”
Megan turned around and looked excited. “It was in every paper from here to Phoenix,” she said. “Hold on, I’ll show you.” She took off into the house like she had seen a snake.
In less than a minute she was back.
McQueen picked up the newspaper and read the tiny blurb with little interest.
“So what was it like?” Megan asked.
She was sitting opposite Jim at the dinner table. Her eyes were bright like they were when she used to ride. Jim wanted to say something about how beautiful she looked, but wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate, her being married and all. Walter sat next to her scooping up peas and carrots without making much noise at all. He had put on some weight since Jim saw him last. His hair was thinning a bit as well.
“What was what like?” Jim asked. He hadn’t eaten much. He was still worried about meeting with Blaylock in the morning.
“Catching the guy, turning him in for the bounty. It must have been really dangerous,” she said.
“Well, it really wasn’t anything big,” McQueen said. “The guy was stupid, anyway. It was kind of sad, actually. I didn’t feel like no hero or nothing.”
“I think we’ve bothered him enough about that, honey,” Walter said. “Besides I’d like to talk to you about something else, Jim, if you’ve got a minute.”
Oh god, here it comes, McQueen thought. He didn’t have a minute either. He wanted to go get a room and go to sleep. He was going to have to be up early to meet with Blaylock and he would have to ride that evening, something he never liked to do when groggy. It just wasn’t safe.
On the porch, McQueen lit a cigarette. He and Walter sat in the two rocking chairs staring out at the empty Arizona horizon. The sun was just going down and the sky had that orange light peeking above the plain. It was a sight McQueen enjoyed.
“I got six hundred acres I’m turning into a nice subdivision. I’d like you to front for me,” Walt came right out and said.
“Figured as much,” Jim said. He wanted to get this over with and go grab some sleep. Now he regretted having come out.
“Well, it’s going to be a sweet deal,” Walt said. “I really need a big name to put on it to make it look good. You know everybody likes a hero, and now you’re the genuine article. Hell with the right publicity I could turn you into the next Buffalo Bill.”
“I don’t want to be Buffalo Bill,” Jim said. “I don’t really like endorsements anyway, you know that, Walt.”
“Well, I think it’s the least you can do. After all, I let you board that damn nag here, don’t I?” Walt said.
“What? No, damn hell no,” McQueen said. Walt had opened the floodgate. “That was your wife wanted to keep that horse here. I admit it was better than putting her down, but you ain’t gonna use that to blackmail me into your little get rich quick scheme. I don’t care for your world, Walt. As a matter of fact I hate it. I hate your politics, your damn country clubs and your damn development projects. I think the land should stay as it is, not be ripped up so a bunch of snob-nosed pussies can move out and not pay city taxes.”
When he finished, McQueen’s nostrils were flaring. He stood up and started to leave. He knew if he didn’t get out of there right then that he would do something he would regret. If Walt tried to press the point it might even lead to fists. Walt was just the kind of weasel to press charges too.
McQueen walked all the way to his truck and was about to leave.
“You don’t goddamn walk away from me when I’m talking to you, cowboy,” Walt said. “Look at you in those tired old boots and faded jeans. I’m talking about a million dollar deal here and all you care about is your eight seconds. You’re a dying breed, McQueen. It’s corporations that run this world now. You can’t fight the future forever. Why don’t you wise up and get with the program?”
“Leave it alone,” Megan said. She stormed over to her husband and looked at him in a way that sent chills up McQueen’s spine. He had always found her more attractive when she was angry, so long as that anger wasn’t aimed at him.
“Walter, you asked him and the man said no,” Megan continued. “Now, you let it go, you hear me?”
“Don’t you tell me what to do, damn it,” Walt said. “I should have known you’d take his side, you whore. God knows you always wanted him anyway.”
McQueen wanted desperately to just leave. He tried not to look at Megan. The last comment from Walt had hit him hard like a blow to the ribs. He knew she still had feelings for him, but there had been nothing for him to do. He was just getting started on the circuit back then. He had no money, no home and no life to offer her. Walt had had a business and seemed a steady man. He had hoped she would forget him.
“I tell you this, McQueen,” Walt continued. “Either you damn well sign on with me, or that whinnying bag of guts will be soap by the end of the week.”
“No you don’t, Walter. That’s my horse and you won’t touch her,” Megan said. She looked like she wanted to hit him.
McQueen had had it. It was all he could do to keep from breaking Walter’s nose. The way he had talked to Megan was a damn shame. His mind raced back to his own father, who had lit into his mother time after time.
Sandy was getting restless in the field. She walked up to the fence, stamped and whinnied loudly. The shouting disturbed to her. She didn’t like the loud noises.
“There she goes again,” Walt said. “I’ll kill that damn mare, I swear I will.”
“No, you won’t,” Megan said.
McQueen finally snapped. Walt pushed him too far and now he was going to show the little man what hard really was.
Jim opened the door to the cab and reached behind the seat. He pulled out a wood case and lifted the lid. He pulled out a long .45 caliber race gun with a diamondback snake on the grips.
“Oh, my god,” Megan.
Walter finally shut up when he saw the gun.
McQueen jammed an extra long clip into the gun, walked over to the fence and emptied every round into his roping horse. The sorrel mare roared and fell to the ground. McQueen walked back to his truck and got inside, shutting the door.
“I guess you won’t be burdened on my account any more, Walt,” McQueen said and cranked the truck.
McQueen grabbed a motel room just a mile from the fairgrounds. He kicked off his boots and turned on the TV. Another six thousand troops sent to the Middle East. Then they were talking about him, that stupid punk in Alamogordo again. He turned it off.
He sat down and rested his head in his hands. He thought about the guy, Ramirez. What drives a man to thieving? He knew the only thing that had kept him out of jail was his old man, though certainly not in the traditional sense.
Jim could still see his face sometimes, though time and hate had twisted it into something less than human. He could still see himself, a spindly six-year-old boy with bruises up and down the backs of his legs.
“You’re nothing and you never will be,” the old man said, his beady eyes staring down at the boy. “Woman shoulda taken a coathanger to you and saved the world a lot of trouble. Worthless piece of shit. And stupid, too. Bottles and Trash, that’s your name. Isn’t it? Isn’t it, boy?” The man slapped him across the face. “Isn’t it?”
McQueen started crying. He had shot his horse. He had become his father. He wanted to die.
McQueen overslept and was almost late the next morning. Blaylock agreed to meet him at a joint called the Rusty Spur, some dinosaur left over from the frontier days. It was old and run down. The food stank and was greasy as hell. McQueen just had coffee. Blaylock seemed to enjoy the runny eggs.
“I want another chance on Sagebrush,” McQueen said bluntly.
“You’re crazy if you do,” Blaylock said.
“I don’t care about the prize money. I just want the bull. I’ve heard you’re the man that can make that happen.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t think you’ll make it. I think he’ll kill you. You look half dead already.”
McQueen thought about what he said. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he had done. He wondered what Megan thought of him now. She would probably leave Walter after what happened last night. He knew her well enough to predict that. She would never forgive him for killing Sandy.
“I’ll take my chances,” McQueen said. He laid a dollar on the table and left.
Blaylock finished his eggs.
Blaylock came through all right. All the other cowboys gave him a great big look of pity when they read that number. Cody said, “Now, that’s just plain bad luck, Jim. What are the odds?”
Jim McQueen duded up and got ready. He turned toward the arena. The stands were packed. Westerners love a rodeo. Going through the gates toward the chutes, he nodded at Bill Blaylock who was sitting atop a rail waiting for the stock to be ushered in.
The band started to play and there were shouts from the crowd. The parade lined up for the ride around the arena. A cannon fired and it was underway.
The crowd’s anticipation grew as the bulls were ushered into the chutes. Sagebrush was in the lead.
McQueen tugged at his rope working out the nervousness. He had asked for it and here it was. He swallowed and thought back to what Blaylock said.
Jim lowered himself into the chute. Sagebrush snorted and kicked at the railing as he felt the cowboy sit down on him. Jim nearly fell off before the gate opened.
He blew into his glove several times before putting it on. He gripped the cinch-rope and wrapped it around two times. He raised his hand. This was it.
“Watch yourself, now, Jim,” Cody said. “You remember how hard he blows out of there. Just hold on tight and pray to God. Whenever you’re ready.”
McQueen popped his neck.
“All right, boys, let ‘er go!”
The chute flew open. Sagebrush blew out so fast and so hard Jim almost lost in a walk. That bull had read the book and been to school. Whatever there was to know about bucking, he knew.
The two of them were a twisting blur of speed and thunder. McQueen got one glance at the whirling faces of the crowd. Then that bull went to a series of gyrations like nothing he’d ever known.
Sagebrush was a fighter all the way. He was out there with one thing on his mind. He was going to have this skinny blonde cowboy out of the saddle or know the reason why. He swallowed his head and lashed at the sky with his back legs. He churned up dust with all four feet, his body jackknifing with every jump.
McQueen went dizzy and could barely distinguish what was happening. He only knew that he must hold on. With one second left to go, the bull flew up toward the railing. He was going to scrape this rider off. McQueen gasped for breath and the bull missed the rail by inches.
When the buzzer fired, two clowns ran up to peel McQueen off the bull’s back. Horsemen wheeled alongside and snared the maddened bull. Jim McQueen walked slowly across the arena with cheers ringing in his ears. The caller announced the score, 97 points, a new personal record for McQueen.
Three very official-looking gentlemen strolled up to McQueen as he took off his chaps. He looked up and was not pleased with what he saw. Their faces were stone. He felt his heart drop.
“Mr. McQueen it has come to our attention that you may be involved in a conspiracy to influence the draws for the bull riding event. There is to be an investigation and until this is sorted out, all prize monies will be held by the association. You will be asked to attend an inquiry as soon as a date can be set.”
How? How could they know? Blaylock would never have told, not in a thousand years. It didn’t make any sense. No one else knew.
McQueen sat again on the bed of a motel room. It was the end of an era for him. Over a decade of his life was devoted to the rodeo. He set out to prove he was the best and had done it. There was no team to help him along. There was no family to root him on. There was no wife or girlfriend to keep him going when things got tough. There had only been him and he had made it happen.
McQueen stared out the window at the empty parking lot. He thought about the old man. What would he think of all this? He would probably love it, if he even cared at all. He probably didn’t.
McQueen sighed. This scandal would hang over him like a shadow. It would haunt him for years to come. Wherever he went, whatever he would try to do, it would be there.
Still, one thought remained. He rode Sagebrush. He rode the bull no one else could ride. He couldn’t help but smile.
Maybe it was for the best. What more could he do in the rodeo that he had not already done? This was just fate telling him to move on, but to what? What was left for the freckle-face kid from Memphis?
He decided to have a smoke. He stepped outside and pulled at the pack in his front pocket. A yellow business card fell out. He picked it up and read it.
There was a number.
RODEO STAR BAGS BADGUY
Alamogordo, NM. PRCA’s World Champion Bull Rider, Jim McQueen, roped in small time bandit, Alonzo ‘Creek’ Ramirez. Ramirez attempted to carjack McQueen at a stoplight. Ramirez was already set for trial on similar charges and had jumped bond. McQueen received a two hundred dollar reward for the capture, but left town immediately after without comment.