Toomey 1

TILL MORNING Brad reined-in his Buckskin mare, backed her up to the arena fence and dropped her reins taking a half-wrap around his saddle horn. A seasoned stock horse, Babe, knew she was being given a momentary reprieve and immediately set about locking one hind leg while cocking the other to unweight her right hip and Brad’s weight off her back. A ten minute break is all Brad figured he and Babe could expect while the rodeo crew moved fresh livestock up from the back lot herding them down alleyways where they too had no choice but to wait. Team Penning listed on the docket next and several horse and riders walked the arena circumference at a relaxed pace cueing-up and chatting easy with each other. Among them, Chelsea Morgan sat on a flashy Leopard Appaloosa gelding, proud-cut and testosterone high. She came today to compete in one last event before heading-out to the nationals in Oklahoma City. As lead rider along with her two brothers, she anticipated a fun day back in her hometown. They were already qualified for the nationals and did not have to worry about qualifying their time today. They just needed to relax and look forward to seeing old friends and family this weekend. Brad watched on as he reached into his shirt breast pocket for one of a dozen wood matches he always carried with him. Leaning forward in the saddle and reaching round he struck the sulfur-tipped wood stick off his back pocket seam, the one place left on his faded jeans still rough enough to strike a light. With a deep inhale, he took a long drag on his first cigarette of the day. Babe exhaled her own sigh of relaxation. Working the rodeo seemed easy after the ranch work she was accustomed to. An easy three days hiatus from the year round, steady day-in and day-out, moving of livestock, riding fence lines, roping, castrating, branding, vaccinating… taking care of everybody and everything but yourself. A flash of red plaid was all Brad noticed out of his left periphery but Babe picked up on the movement at the other end of the arena a split second sooner, up-righting herself instantly almost dumping Brad. A Brahma bull, herded into the chute area, head butted an alleyway fence

Toomey 2

that was white painted over old dry rot, busting two top rails and jumping what was left. The bull shook his head, snorted and headed straight for the riders coming round the end of the arena. Babe got right on it dropping her haunches in a full gallop hard and fast across the sand turf to cut sharp with a sliding stop setting Brad up between the Brahma and the riders. Chelsea spurred her horse into action asking for a role-back over his haunches to also cut in front of the bull and turn him back towards Brad. Fast change-of-leads, cutting back and forth, dancing their horses in tandem, together they turned the bull easing him back down the arena and out the livestock entry gate. “Let’s give those two a hand folks.” The rodeo announcer’s voice squawked over the grandstand loudspeaker. “Brad Chevron and Chelsea Morgan, two of our own hometown riders here today with the Comstock Rodeo. Thank you Brad. Thank you Chelsea…” The announcer went on in his sing song voice playing to the crowd. Brad and Chelsea just turned their horses and went on about their business. All in a day’s work. Nothing more, nothing less. “What I need right now is a shot of whiskey something hotter than this day to take away the sense of heat and drama.” Brad said aloud to no one but himself when he and Babe got back to the fence. Another cigarette was all he had. He took a deep reflective draw and blew out the white smoke and lifting his head to the hot-white canvas sky just as a Red-tailed Hawk lifted off the cross arm of a parking lot yard light. Brad’s mere presence of observation unsteadied the hawk and she readied herself for flight. Leaning forward, dropping her chest shifting her center of gravity; she merely had to spread her wings to full span to take advantage of one of the many afternoon thermal heat waves rising off the tarmac below. Brad lifted with her. Just two days ago he ran into Jim Baker at the town’s only feed store. “I badly need help this week.” Jim said. “My catch rider got laid up this last week leaving me shorthanded.” An old childhood friend, military buddy and owner of the Comstock Rodeo Livestock, Jim built-up a rodeo livestock contractor supplying both horses and cattle off a ranch he worked with his father

Toomey 3

near Havre, Montana. Both Jim and Brad were Montana bred, high-plains backcountry boys when they both went off to boot camp together; both from ranching families, running away from home to broaden their perspectives the only way they knew how. Not to make men out of themselves, they were already that from helping run large ranch operations. Brad mustered out of the service as soon as he could. Military life was not for him and his father had just passed away leaving him the responsibility of seeing to it not only his mother was taken care of but the rest of the family that depended on the ranch for their livelihood. Jim stayed longer, losing half his right leg to a land mine. He opted to take the offer of a VA college education. Taking his ranching skills and a business degree he combined them into a profitable rodeo livestock supply company. Riding was no longer an option for him but his business skills far exceeded and made-up for a lifestyle lost but a career still closely connected to the love of animals gained. “A week off from that sagebrush-laden piece of land you call a ranch will do you good” Jim harassed in camaraderie as he laid his arm across Brad’s shoulders taking him into his confidence. “I stand to lose several contacts if I don’t show some real horsemanship out there this weekend.” Leaning back for an answer Jim continued. “What do you say?” Brad more than heard his friend. A week away from the three hundred-thousand acres of dust and dirt, cows and cow ponies, haying and feeding, worry about the weather, work from dawn to dusk to come in at night just long enough to sleep if you came in at all. Brad more than heard; he felt the relief and took the offer. A well-deserved, well heeded reprieve. All day long the bracing heat of the rodeo grounds would rise in wave after wave of throat chocking dust. With each stubbed off longhorn cow out of the chute another cloud of dust would rise the length and breadth of the old dilapidated white-washed rodeo arena. Horse trailers and pickups of every make and model overflowed the back parking lot of the Blue Moon Saloon even going so far as to parallel park on the grass medium on each leg of the four-corners county highway. There was no escape from the heat, the dust, the crowd, the noise.

Toomey 4

Afternoon doldrums set in long before the sun dial was clocked to go down. People in the grandstands started to filter indoors to the shade of the hotel restaurant. Rodeo participants finished with their runs hosed off, watered, bedded and fed their horses. They too headed for the anticipated cool of the bar. Parking lot gravel crunched beneath Brad’s boots as he made his way to the back entrance of the Blue Moon Saloon where every weekend its back-lot became of menagerie of men, horses, cows and women. Old folks came to reminisce of times gone by when they too had the audacity to sit a bull, turn a barrel or maneuverer their horses at race-track speed. But tonight they danced. Young and old, made no difference. Booger Red and His Country Boys band were just tuning up and would start to play any minute even as the afternoon sun still dispensed its heat. The long day, short nights of summer didn’t stop the music. Brad and Jim bellied up to the bar and began their usual reminiscent drinking when Brad for the second time today saw a flash of red out of his left periphery. But it wasn’t the bright red of the cowboy shirt worn by the gal riding the spotted Appy that afternoon. It was red cowgirl boots stomping and twiling all over the dance floor to Red’s boot scootin’ boogie. When the music stopped the red boots didn’t, they keep on moving from one cowboy to another never missing a beat. Chelsea shed her sweated out red shirt but not its color, her red boots were made for dancing and she intended to work the room cutting men out of the lineup at the bar as easy as she cut cows out of the herd that afternoon. She meant to enjoy herself after a season of road travel and hard work, not looking for anyone special just someone to dance with and never the same man twice, else he might get ideas. An evening of fun. Nothing more, nothing less. “Hey there!” Chelsea said as she went down the lineup of cowboys deciding who she hadn’t danced with yet. “Aren’t you the cowboy I helped out today moving that loose Brahma out of the arena.”

Toomey 5

“Yes ma’am, I am.” Brad replied as he pulled himself up from the bar. “That was some team work we did. You’re good. Ever think about competitive Team Penning?” Chelsea went on. “My two brothers want to leave me this year, right after the nationals. I’m needing to replace them. They refuse to travel with me anymore. Say they want to go home, work the ranch, finish school… settle down.” “Well that’s not such a bad idea.” Brad said thinking he should do the same… be home that is looking after the ranch. Instead he thought to offer to buy this gal a drink, a beer… something. “Can I get you a beer?” “No thanks, I don’t drink.” Chelsea said. “But thank you.” “How about a coke then or something?” Brad said to keep the conversation going. “Thank you but no. I don’t… how about we dance. I haven’t danced with you yet and I make it my policy that every cowboy in the bar has to dance with me at least once.” “Miss I don’t dance” Brad drawled, tonguing his chew of tobacco deeper into the side of his cheek. “That’s okay.” Chelsea said. “I can lead, you just need to follow.” “I bet you do.” Brad threw his head back with a hearty laugh. “But no miss, I really don’t dance. I have no rhythm for it, two left feet and all”. Chelsea squinted and looked straight back at him. She had seen this cowboy sit a fast moving stock horse all day long without missing a queue, never letting his horse down by sitting unbalanced in the saddle. She had seen plenty of sloppy riding cowboys on the circuit but he was not one of them. Oh, he had rhythm all right. He just didn’t know it yet. “You do, I watched you today sit a saddle better than any rodeo cowboy on the circuit” “Yes miss but those are my horse’s feet moving on the ground not mine” Brad smiled back as he leaned in closer to assure she could hear his reply over the band’s twangy music

Toomey 6

catching just a whiff of perfume mixed with the smell of musk that never leaves a person’s body who’s spent time with horse and leather. “How about we try a slow dance where I can shuffle my feet and not look so dammed inept” Brad continued. “I don’t slow dance.” Chelsea said. “I make it a rule to never dance slow; not in a bar, not with cowboys on the circuit and not with a stranger.” Quite frankly she simply did not slow dance—ever. Never had and did not intend to start now. The closeness of it unnerved her. “I’m sorry.” Brad said leaning back, placing his elbows to each side of his chest on the bar behind him with his beer still in-hand at his side. He could only watch as Chelsea turned and walked away in that pair of red cowgirl boots that looked hotter than the shot-of-whiskey he just ordered to take away the heat of the day. “Damm shame.” Jim leaned in to shout over the music. “That is a real looker and a honey of a gal. I’ve watched her all season on the circuit. One savvy horse women you got there”. “I’ve got nothing.” Brad said. “I don’t dance Jim, you know that. Hell we grew up together you know what a country bumpkin I am.” “Can’t feel sorry for you there.” Jim said. “Me with what’s left of a gimp leg busted up shoulder and all. Hell, I really can’t dance anymore.” “War is obsolete” Brad said repeating a quote he read recently by the Dalai Lama. “Get over it Jim.” He turned back to the bar and hunkered over his beer. “War is obsolete” he said again more softly into his beer, mad at himself not Jim for letting the red boots get away. But Brad got tired of hearing about the war. He left it just as soon as he could. No regrets, no guilt, certainly no shame. He fought his war, and fought it hard, and came away in-tack. “Luck”, he always said, “pure luck”. Shrapnel was his badge of honor, still had it in his chest just inches away from severing a main arterial vein the doc told him. No, the open range, the largeness of

Toomey 7

the night sky, the low moaning of cows down for the night, the smell of the night air as he drifted off to sleep, arms around his foot weary dog with toes smelling of popcorn. “Popcorn toes” Brad liked to say. “I can smell your popcorn toes” as he petted her and tucked her into his body, drifting off, all being right with the world. Nothing more, nothing less. Turning back to the dance floor Brad watched for several more dances while those red boots twisted and turned to the music; flinging one cowboy around the dance floor after another. During intermission he strolled over to Booger Red, his old high school friend, they shook hands and commiserated over a beer, laughing amongst themselves. Setting the world right. After intermission, Red and his band opened with a well-known two-step; always a sure piece of music for getting everybody, young and old, out on the dance floor again. Miss red boots was no exception. At the end of the piece Red changed his method of transition and stopped all together. The dance floor came to a halt. Brad took his cue and strolled across the dance floor like a cattle dog cutting out a sick cow. Slow and easy—deliberate. Touching his index finger to the brim of his Stetson, Brad apologized for the intrusion but gave no leeway for allowing either Chelsea or her dance partner time to waylay his cutting-in. He motioned with the nod of his head to Red, as adept as any seasoned bidder at a New York Sotheby’s art auction. Red motioned right back just as smooth and sophisticated; turning to his band, taping his toe, counting “a one, a two, a one-two-three” and the band started in, real easy like, with a slow waltz, the Tennessee Waltz, his favorite as he said over the microphone. “This is for a special friend of mine in need of a hand tonight.” “We’re going to take it slow now, dance a little dance that I know.” Brad said. Stiff with surprise, Chelsea for once remained speechless allowing Brad to place her left hand on his right shoulder, he took her right hand in his and began a slow shuffle round the dance floor.

Toomey 8

Booger Red played on I was waltzing, Brad took a tentative step to his left with my darling, a step to his right to the Tennessee Waltz, a step back to the left, right, left, when an old friend… Brad held his head to the left; Chelsea held hers right, shoulder to shoulder—stiff at ramrods. Brad taking a step forward, Chelsea following with her own step back, Brad bent at the waist, Chelsea a back-bend away. Brad felt the pulse of Chelsea in his uneven stride as they cut a corner of the dance floor all to themselves, stepping in tandem—a foot of daylight between. Painfully aware people were watching Brad felt exposed like a cow in a squeeze chute. He left off his dance concentration for a moment, inhaling and exhaling a deep sigh, giving-in… a reprieve, lifting his head along with his hat brim just long enough to look over the top and past Chelsea’s head realizing this wasn’t’ working he was only making a fool of himself. Chelsea took only a flash of a moment to decipher her intentions… to run or to stay. She made the decision of her life, doing a flying lead change and cutting in tight, right-in underneath that hat brim that had never been lifted before. Nothing left to speculate. Brad could swear he heard Chelsea give a low sweet nicker like he knew his mare would give when he went to fetch her in the morning. Round and round the dance floor they sashayed, slow and easy, tucking Chelsea in again to his presence of mind. No distance between them now. Booger Red played the Tennessee Waltz three times over before switching to another but at its end; Chelsea took that cowboy in-hand with Leadline precession, across the barroom floor and out the swinging saloon doors, crosswise over the hotel hardwood floor and up those stairs till morning.

Toomey 9

After sitting his horse all day, Brad felt as bent out of shape as some of the old farm truck and trailers with their dented sides, rusting hubcaps pulling stock trailers that had seen many a better day. The first beer cleared his throat and took much of the days dust away. The second quenched his thirst. The dark interior of the bar gave way to a cool easy comfort but years of sweat still lingered in the leather hat band of his Stetson. No escaping a cowboy’s remnants. for the next round of events.

Ranching made men out of young boys early. Don’t know where I am any more. . Dam war not only took away my love for riding in the saddle but my ability to get-up and love at all.” Jim said. Jim’s voice drifted off talking more to himself not wanting others around to hear, not wanting to give away his masculine pride, to keep up his pretenses of war hero and all. Agitation or maybe it was frustration? He didn’t like hearing others bitch when he had every right to complain and then some.

Jim could see Brad’s drifting off and added. “Just three days. Three days in town. Like old times, on leave from the service. It will be fun.” “It could be fun, a good change of pace.” Brad replied. Wondering now how he could afford to be away. How could he not? He hadn’t taken time for himself in over two years. He was the main man. The man everyone, family and hired hands alike depended on to bring the profit home. Take the time-off, lose the loneliness.

Toomey 10 Last Chapter Till Morning Man has to take dog to vet to be put down, wife stays dutifully in the car as if she in secondary when he returns he shows his greatest love for her. He leaves her waiting in the car. She waits in the car like the dutiful wife she was. She brought along the readers digest to read while waiting All these years together she knew when to stay and let him be, let him take the lead as she cooked and cleaned and ran the household He paid her no mind as he walked away totally lost in himself and what he was about to do This was there time there last time to be together let them have their time alone to say good bye He leaned in closed to the vet table smelling of the ruff of her neck the sagebrush the long ago trail rides herding and heading cattle in from the range He knew her so well after moving to town after retiring from the ranch and leaving the operations to his sons he took her with him to town he could even tell you the weight of her poop as is the custom to pick up in town One last hug he rolled her over to her side held her in his arm as she playfully for the last time pawed at him with her popcorn toes he took a deep whiff of her popcorn toes as the vet inject his death serum Returning to the car he sat for a long while. She knew when to reach out and when not to when it was safe to interfere and when it wasn’t When he turned to her he had the look of a man lost in misery lost in himself He took her hands in his and brought them to his face the same familiar perfume waifed up to him of remembrance of the first time he had smelled the mix of musk and perfume. The musk no longer was present the ranch life long past but the perfume was still there He fingered the ring on her left hand the same ring of long ago only worn down now to the thinnest of a band the inscription long worn and lost but not the sentiment “popcorn toes and belly laughs for eternity”

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful