“Eli! Eli! It’s almost time for your ride! I heard ‘em call your name! And you better listen to Daddy this time! I want y’ t’ win and not get hurt again!” Six-year-old Jaedyn Hale bounced around her older brother in her excitement for his event.
“Jaedyn, quit harpin’ at me now! I know how to ride!”
She set her hands on her hips and challenged him. “How come you keep gettin’ bucked off then! How come you can’t stay on like Daddy does? How come you keep getting hurt?”
At nineteen, Eli wasn’t about to take such talk from a little squirt. “Look, you! Dad’s gotten hurt a few times too! It’s all part of it! I know what I’m doing!”
“You don’t! Not like Daddy!”
Eli poised to argue back, but his father interrupted, gripping his shoulder. “Don’t give her any more fuel, Eli. All right, sure, I’ve been hurt. A time or two, worse than you. But I’ve gotten where I am now by cramming those memories way back in my mind. You’re still dwellin’ on ‘em. I don’t think your heart’s in it like it was.”
“Well, yeah, it is! I been practicin’ every day for the past two months! You’ve seen me!”
“Yeah, I have. Seen you grab for the riggin’ more times than not! Stop dropping your rein hand. Keep the palm up! For this horse you gotta lift your hand two fists above that saddle and lean back. You sit too far forward! Believe you’re the burr in Jaedyn’s pony tails and drive them hips down in the saddle! And don’t forget to mark his shoulders right out of the gate! No mark, no score.”
Yes, yes, he knew he’d be disqualified if he didn’t have his feet high up on the horse’s shoulders out of the gate. Knew he should strive to hold his rein hand high enough to keep his seat. Just seemed like his brain went blank soon’s the gate opened. Sometimes, his legs just didn’t move as quick as the horse did.
This would be his first time back since his last accident. His world went black that day right out of the gate. Crazy Eight had lost no time pitching him headfirst into the rails of the arena two seconds into his ride. The resulting concussion and broken bones had made for a slow recovery. Even now, he experienced some pain in his left leg.
Nevertheless, he was no quitter. No, sir! He’d ride that buckskin stud or die trying! And, so he vowed as he strode off to the pen.
Jaedyn stomped her foot and hollered after him, “You better not die, Eli Jorden Hale! I’ll whup your butt!”
She sounded so much like their mother, he laughed, which lightened his mood some. Truth be told, he was scared. Anything could happen.
Reaching Crazy Eight’s pen just as the last rider’s score was being tallied, he took a moment to tighten his chap straps, shove his fear of another serious accident in some remote corner of his mind. Muster the will to get his head and his heart back into it.
Today, he needed to show the rodeo world, and his family, that he had the same grit and talent his father had.
“86! Nice ride, Todd! Nice ride! Next up, folks, is Levi Hale’s boy, Eli, who’s drawn Crazy Eight for the third time in his short career. Crazy’s been voted most unpredictable bronc a rider can draw. I’ve heard many a cowboy cursin’ him! You just don’t know what he’s gonna do! Levi’s had some qualifying rides on this animal, but there’s few—well, there’s almost no one betting that the son will outride the father today! Levi scored a 92 on Hurricane Hattie earlier. Another tough bronc!
“On deck is Tad Morris from Houston, Texas. Tad’ll be riding that ornery palomino, Sunfisher.”
Climbing up and over the rails of the chute, Eli picked up the rope rein and eased into the saddle, shoved his boots deep into the stirrups, toes turned out. With a squeal and a snort, Crazy Eight half reared, came down, then reared up his full length, his hooves striking the rails of the pen. Eli grabbed the rigging to keep his seat as the chute men struggled to get the buckskin stallion under control.
Ike, one of the chute crew, called out, “Crazy’s in a mood today, Eli! I got fifty bucks sayin’ he dumps you quicker than last time! Better pray he stays away from the rails!”
“We’ll send some daisies to y’ if he don’t! See y’ next year if you got the guts to try again!” A second man tossed at him. “Your daddy’s gonna win this event again, boy! You’re just sittin’ in the shade of his branches!”
The taunts served to chase away those fears of ending up in the hospital again. He passed the frayed end of the rein rope between his pinky and ring fingers and across his palm, his determination burning hotter than ever.
We’ll see about that! I’ll show ‘em what!
About then, Crazy Eight determined to show him what with a high kick that sent some of the crew scrambling away from the chute. Soon as his hooves touched ground, he reared up. This was one bronc who didn’t care a handful of horse hockey about waiting for the spaciousness of the arena to dump his rider. Dump him and dump him quick was his motto!
Yes, when it came to Crazy Eight, most bets were on the horse no matter who the rider was. Even the famous Levi Hale.
Finally, though, the stallion was brought under some control.
Eli grit his teeth. Maybe he would break something today. But with any luck, maybe he would stick to this animal like those dang burrs stuck in little Jaedyn’s hair!
Adjusting his grip on the rope in his left hand one more time, he drew a deep breath. He was as ready as he was ever gonna be.
At his nod, the big gate swung open.
The buckskin exploded out into the arena. Kicking up clouds of choking dust, he unleashed his energy in a furious attempt to dump his rider. He ducked his head, kicking high, twisting his hind quarters left. With the next buck, he twisted right. Eli’s head snapped one way then the other, his bones feeling every-jar, his teeth-rattling in his head.
Should’ve remembered the mouth guard for this.
Too late now.
Still, from the start, it was evident that this outcome could be different. For one thing, no veil of blackness over took him this time. Right out of the gate, Eli nailed Crazy’s shoulders just as his front hooves hit the ground. Leaning further back than he’d had in his previous rides, he settled into the rhythm of kick shoulders, drag back, kick flank.
“Will y’ look at that boy ride! He’s kick for jump like I’ve never seen him do before on any bronc!” crackled over the PA system. “Danged if he ain’t the stamp and that bronc’s a love letter!”
Or that burr tangled snuggly into the long strawberry blond pony tails of a little six-year-old girl.
Suddenly, Crazy thrust his roman nose between his forelegs and stretched his back hooves for the wide blue sky, turning his belly full up to the sun. In fact, so high was his back end and so tucked the front, that the stallion executed a terrifying somersault. The crowd, as one, rose from their seats, gasping in horror, certain they’d be witnessing another serious tragedy. A fear the announcer voiced for them all over the PA.
Eli heard none of it. The ground rushed up at him in a surreal blur in one instant, and in the next, he was right side up, unhurt and still hanging on by the grip of his knees only.
With no loss of momentum, Crazy Eight kept up his fight to unseat this annoyance on his back.
Stunned at his luck, Eli lost focus for a second, dropping his rope hand.
Crazy pitched into a series of mad spins, circling right. He swapped ends and did it all over again. Thrown into the spin, Eli lost his hat and his balance.
Immediately, he lifted his rope hand and shoved more weight into the off stirrup. Drove his hips deep into the saddle again.
With his right arm out behind him, way clear of the rigging, Eli demonstrated that, for this moment anyway, he was in command. A ripple of suspenseful wonder stirred through the grandstand. This time he was riding tough in his best effort to win the judges cherished points, the chance at the big money.
Yet more importantly—
“Folks, can you believe this? I’m still shocked and amazed both horse and rider are upright and unhurt! This lad could prove to be his father’s son yet!”
There it was. His biggest reason to stay with this animal at any cost . . .
“Three seconds, folks! If he gets thrown now, he’s still stayed on longer than anybody else, except his dad!”
Concentrate! Don’t let this fool nag surprise you again!
As if knowing his time was running out, Crazy Eight pitched a high dive, all four hooves leaving the ground. Holding his position with his knees and rein hand, Eli didn’t let up drumming the stallion’s sides, chaps and straps flapping like flags in the wind. Hitting the ground, Crazy kicked out for all he was worth, spun around and dove high again.
“Dang!” cried the announcer, “I think that crazy buckskin’s lookin’ to fly!”
In the grandstands, tense as a wound spring, the crowd once again held its collective breath.
The buzzer, sounding like a million angry bees, penetrated his numbed brain as Crazy Eight touched ground. Eli clung to his seat, reluctant to bail.
A horseman cantered up beside the still raging bronc and grasped the rope. “Eli! Let go now! You did it, Eli! Bail off!”
Let go? Bail off? How does a burr let go of a pony tail?
The announcer chuckled at Eli’s predicament. “Now he’s got the hang of it, he don’t wanna get off! Brilliant ride, Eli! What a show! You’ll follow in your daddy’s boots, after all!”
With some more encouragement from the outrider, Eli kicked free of the stirrups and vaulted off, landing on his feet, dazed but elated. Crazy Eight kept right on bucking and kicking even after the outriders led him out.
The PA went silent several suspenseful moments. Then the microphone boomed with the announcer’s thrilling bulletin. “He’s done it, folks! Eli’s bested his daddy, Levi, by a point and a half! A true branch of a strong tree!” Then, with a smug chuckle, he called out to the crew of chute nine. “Hey Ike! That fifty bucks you and the boys each laid down—ha, ha! See me later!”
Eli picked up his hat, dusted it off against his leg, and waved it at the cheering crowd. Up in the stands his mom and Jaedyn applauded with joyous excitement. Levi, beaming with pride, shot him two thumbs up before hopping the rail to come meet him in the arena, clapping his shoulder and then grabbing him in a bear hug.
Ike hollered to him. “Eli! Mighty fine ride! Mighty fine! I owe you an apology!”
Climbing the rail together to join the rest of the family in the stands, Levi told him, “You did me proud today, Eli! See what you can do when you listen to them that know best? Respect! How’s it feel?”
“Mighty fine, Dad! Mighty fine!”
Little Jaedyn deserted her mother’s side to rush down the steps and throw herself into her brother’s unprepared arms, rewarding him with an ardent embrace and a happy grin.
“Hey, Pipsqueak, you’re gonna send me back over the rails!” He hugged her back.
“I thought you was gonna be dead when Crazy took you over like that, Eli! Was you scared?”
“I didn’t have time to be scared, Jae,” he said pulling her hat low over her eyes.
She pushed it back up, gave him up a look. “I was scared! I was scared I was gonna have t’ whup your butt! You better ride like that all the time now, or I will!”
“You’re gonna keep harpin’ at me no matter what, aren’t y’?”
Jaedyn nodded her head solemnly. “Yup, I am!”
He tugged one of her fat braids, smiling at her. “Guess I can live with that! Let’s get some food, grab my gear, and hit the road for the next one tomorrow! Utah, here we come! I’m feeling pretty lucky right now!”
Off in the distance, Crazy Eight’s high-pitched neigh mocked him.
You won today, cowboy.
Tomorrow . . .?