BE 90 OR COWBOY POKER?

By John Thomas Tuft

Little Slim slapped his gloves against his palms while he paced behind the chutes of the Abilene Fairgrounds, his lungs playing badminton with his heart at the thought of going back into the ring. A mere three feet to his left, behind a battered chute gate, he heard the snorting and stomping of his ride, Whiskey Rebellion, three-quarter tons of muscle mass and twitchy nerves. The bull had a reputation for being mean as a one-eyed snake and the progenitor of many a two jump chump. Little Slim knew the bull’s reputation as being definitely not a duck spinner and every guy that rode him swore it was the longest eight second whistle of their lives. Mostly because none had ever lasted that long. Yet. Little Slim had his own doubts, only heightened by the loud thump that made him jump back and right into the side of a pretty Palamino pony hard enough to jangle his spurs and startle horse and rider alike.

“Whoa there, Cowboy!” said a voice from on high. Slim looked up through the cloud of dust. “You some kind of dink?” laughed a vision of grace and beauty. Little Slim straightened up and looked over pony and rider. “What are you, some kinda can chaser?” Which earned him a snort of disgust as she wheeled the horse around so quickly he had to jump out of the way. “That’s ‘Miss Ellie Can Chaser’ to you! Queen of the barrel racers, I’ll have you know.” She settled Buttermilk with a pat on the neck. “What’s your poison? You here to show you’re a Be 90 roughie in the rodeo, or are you one of them fools who play cowboy poker?” Slim snorted in derision, dusting off his chaps. “I’m a roughie. By blood. Like my daddy before me.” He jerked his thumb over his right shoulder in the direction of Whiskey Rebellion. “He’s my next ride.”

Miss Ellie smiled and Little Slim saw the clouds part and the sun burst forth. “Didn’t figure you, really, as a rodeowreck, seated in the middle of the arena with other idiots, playing cards while they let the bull loose. Last man sittin’ wins. Yeah, kiss my butt and call me Madonna!” Little Slim couldn’t help but smile at that. “It’s my first ride since…since…” Slim stumbled on the words. Ellie waited. Little Slim took a deep breath, appreciating her stillness. “Well, since my daddy passed. That’s all I’m sayin’” Miss Ellie knew better than to ask if he was scared. She nodded, “It ain’t your first rodeo.” Slim couldn’t help but laugh. She nodded toward the penned bull. “I hear he’s rank, a real arm jerker. Be careful, ya’ hear?” Slim stirred the dust with the toe of one boot. “I just wanna do Daddy proud.” Ellie paused. “When you holler ‘Let ‘r rip tater chip’ just mark out and hang on. You’ll Be 90, I know you will!”

Little Slim looked into Miss Ellie’s eyes and shrugged to cover the feeling of warmth that went all through him. “Well, I gotta turn and burn,” exclaimed Ellie with a flip of her hair. “Say a prayer,” Slim said. She looked over her shoulder at him and winked. “Roughie, if the bullfighters say ‘git to the fence,’” she kicked Buttermilk in the sides as the horse lunged forward, “git out of the dirt and git your butt to the fence!” And she was gone…oh, all right…in a cloud of dust. A few minutes later Little Slim gingerly lowered himself onto the massive back of Whiskey Rebellion, cinched the rope raised one arm and hollered, “Let ‘r rip tater chip!” As the gate swung open he marked out, putting his spurs into the bull’s neck so he’d get those first points when he came out flapping and flopping, wiggling and waving.

As the world caterwauled around him, Slim hung on. At 7.55 seconds with 82 points, it happened. Whiskey Rebellion jumped, lunged and twisted in one last effort. Little Slim hit the ground hard. So close. So, so close to being the first to master the ornery bull. “I wanted to Be 90 for you, Daddy. Awesome, not stupid,” was his fleeting thought before the lights went out. He couldn’t hear the bullfighters screaming at him, “Get to the fence! Get to the fence!” as they struggled to corral the fierce bull who outweighed the three of them combined by over a thousand pounds. And he never heard the pounding hooves of the Palamino pony as the rider with hair streaming behind her in the wind, spurred it into the arena, breaking all the rules, and skidded to a stop beside his prostrate body.

No, when Little Slim came to, he was lying on fresh straw in the barn. Every bone in his body ached. Buttermilk was chewing contentedly on one side of him. On the other side, Ellie knelt with a cloth dipped in cool water. “That was stupid,” he muttered. “No, you were awesome,” said Ellie. “You’re daddy’d be real proud.” Slim studied the ceiling. “Did you say a prayer?” Ellie smiled and took his hand. “Cowboy, I am the prayer.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.