Back in the mid ‘60s several of us had entered the rodeo at Las Vegas, New Mexico, my hometown. The Las Vegas “Roughriders” arena was a classic big post, plank , & bullwire structure with the bucking chutes along one side and a large, wooden, covered grandstand on the other, reminiscent of its glory in earlier decades when the Roughriders Reunion was one of the big rodeos, but now the home for a just a minor amateur show. We were high school kids and had been travelling some, and this was a good hometown way to fill a week-end card that summer.
A cowboy nobody knew showed up and entered in all three riding events and the bulldogging. To a teenager everybody beyond his late twenties is an old guy, and he was certainly that to us, although I doubt he was yet quite out of his thirties. Even us kids could see a lot of mileage on the man. We found out he had been at the top of the game some years past, winning at a lot of big shows and going down the road with the likes of Guy Weeks and some of the other real toughs of the times.
There are still folks around who would know him, so out of respect I’ll Just call him Jim, for his had been one of those all too common stories of a champion who went hard and won big but diluted his ability on the roughstock with the life-sucking parade of parties, whiskey, and camp-followers, finally falling out of the game into the inevitable ravine beside life’s road. Now, it appeared, he had beaten the bottle, mostly, and was working the small rodeos, hankering to find a comeback within himself.
The broncs were tearing his shirt off and the bulls were hooking him over the arena fence, and every gate that opened was getting him banged up worse; but through it all, Jim was friendly and humorous and, to us high school kids, kind of awesome, having been for a time a real pro, travelling with men we had only read about and seen from afar. We sat on the plank floor behind the chutes between events and, being too young to have accumulated any of our own, laughed and marveled at his stories. He told about the big shows and the wild rides, about the good horses, about the bull that threw him out of the arena onto a car hood, and plenty more; but one particular story sticks in my memory.
He told of a rodeo in an arena much like that one in Las Vegas, chutes along one side and the board-walled grandstand on the other, with box seat sections along the rail filled with small steel chairs. The rodeo was about to begin, and Jim was sitting on the chute over the bareback horse he had drawn, his rigging on the horse’s withers, loosely pulled. As the grand entry snaked its way around the arena, a couple walking into the box directly across from his chute caught his amused notice. She was a woman who could only be described as large in every way and was having to indelicately squeeze past the other spectators and chairs to their reserved seats. Close behind, her apparent husband followed, the exact opposite; much shorter and of such slight build that they looked like an exaggerated husband-wife version of Laurel and Hardy. He was on crutches, wearing a full plaster cast on one leg, adding to the difficult trek to their chairs.
The rodeo started and Jim’s attention had returned to the action as his turn came. Hand deep, glove tucked, he shifted tight against the rigging and called for the gate. Jim said it was a hard bucking high snapping horse that was always tough to cover but could really score. He had tapped off good and was hoeing out a winning ride as they headed straight for the other side of the arena. The horse never veered or slowed until they were at the wall. Then he sucked back so hard that Jim was thrown boots over hat into the box seats. He said chairs were flying and people were scrambling when he heard a scream and saw the great-framed lady bolting over tumbling chairs and plowing her diminutive husband into the wake of destruction as she departed for parts unknown.
The cacophony of stampeding people and crashing chairs waned, and the only sound registering in Jim’s mind was the rodeo announcer’s unintelligible babble from a horn-shaped speaker somewhere. Then he realized only two people were left in the box; himself and the skinny little fellow with his crutches strewn across the floor, out of reach. The crutches weren’t going to matter much, because now the other leg had broken in the wide swath his wife’s hasty retreat. Folks were gathering back around to carry the hapless husband to the ambulance as Jim climbed unnoticed over the rail and hopped to the ground, headed back to the chutes.
Jim and the odd couple had both peered over a fence that day, unfamiliar with the other side, satisfied not to go there, seeking no more than an entertaining glimpse at another life. For a flash of a moment their worlds were blended in a tumbling assault and clattering chairs and, as suddenly, the two worlds were again neatly separated by the fence.
Maybe after that day the little guy had a good story to tell, too, about a flying cowboy and a spectacular injury; but quietly, so as not to stir up the lady of the house.