by Robert Mangeot
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Caleb shook me awake at sunrise. Didn’t matter the kid knew I’d be on a three-alarm hangover till noon. Didn’t matter it was already hot enough out that the good hens of Crump might lay omelets. It was rodeo day, Caleb’s first one, and there he was in his Wranglers and plaid shirt, a five-gallon hat away from junior cowboy.
He pulled at my arm. “Daddy, we’re gonna be late.”
I reminded the kid how he should ease up on the voice level and sudden movement on such mornings. I wasn’t a lick mad about it, though. Hell, everybody got antsy before their first rodeo. I tossed over onto my side. “We got twelve hours to go four counties. We won’t miss nothing, I promise.”
A father’s vow didn’t earn me any shuteye so much as force Caleb to change tack. He stood there staring daggers at me. “He has your eyes,” Angie said last time I brought him down to Aliceville for visiting day. “Quick. Smart.”
High praise, from her; made a man proud to hear it. Put a man on edge to have those eyes boring into his spine, so that was that for sleep. I dressed in matching Western wear and bought us steak and eggs at the Batter Hut. I ate his steak and he ate my eggs, then we took the scenic route through the river valley and north up the Trace.
“Pop quiz,” I said when we hit the Williamson County line. “What’s Rule Number One about rodeos?”
“And why’s that?”
“Bull could jump the fence and tear hell out of somebody.”
I tried on a Ward Cleaver face; wouldn’t hang straight. “That’s watchful. But it ain’t Rule Number One.”
Caleb grinned. “Because all those people there, we might get separated.”
“Never separated,” I told my little man. “Never ever.”
A big crowd took on semi-consciousness, shifted like a cat’s tail. At a rodeo the music would blare, the lights would flash and the mind would rush, its confidence pumped too high. In a crowd nobody was ever as sheltered as they guessed.
My previous trip to the Tri-Star Rodeo was a few years gone now, me and Angie driving over on a spur-of-the-moment thing. The Tri-Star people put on the whole works, bareback riding and steer wrestling and all that. The riders rode and the ropers roped for a packed house of Junior League ladies and banker types, folks with Italian purses and crisp bandanas perched over their button-downs. Fat wallets bought most everyone a damn fine time – if you kept mind of the rules.
Caleb got going on about barrel races and eating his first rodeo hot dog, extra mustard, and how maybe there’d be country music stars there. He wanted to sign up for mutton busting, where the kids rode sheep for the crowd, but I had to nix that, big and duded-up as he was. Some memories weren’t best played for cameras.
Come late afternoon we fell in with the SUVs and import sedans rolling neat and clean into the Ag Center lot. I parked near as I could to an exit, what with the 4-H parents waving us cars into orderly rows. The kid and I fist-bumped, donned our various-gallon hats and sidled for the arena.
Inside the air was laced with straw and animals and popcorn. I kept Caleb up on the mezzanine, where he could get the feel of a rodeo. Down on the main floor a trick rider danced his horse for the banker types who had bothered to sit. When the announcer wasn’t whipping up applause, the loudspeaker cranked up with pop country hits, no old-time gold at all. Around us the moneyed set, old and new, glad-handed like they’d cured the common cold. Lines for this and that wove across the mezzanine, folks waiting for Cokes or to meet the VIPs or get a picture with the clowns. Booths hawked cowboy gear by the wagonload. Real cowboys milled through the scene, the riders and ropers, and fake ones, the town police in plaid get-up. I picked them out by their grim demeanor and good posture.
Caleb lingered over his first official rodeo dog. In time he settled from agog to merely awed and we drifted into the thick of the crowd. I let him take lead around the mezzanine. Turned out he liked the booths that sold craft jewelry. Man, did he pepper the bolo tie dealers and folk artists with questions – “what’s that for?” or “what’s that made from?” – and of course they showered him with the ooh-and-ah treatment. Nobody gave old dad much more than a how’d-ja-do, let alone a second glance at my browsing.
Suited me fine.
A spin around the booths meant no small amount of close-quarters work, bumping just so through everybody. The kid got too far ahead sometimes, nearly breaking ranks, and once he nudged a banker type too hard. Almost had to apologize. Like I said, everybody got the jitters at their first rodeo.
After dark the announcer started revving up the place over a big-name rider due for his turn in the chute. That sent most of the mezzanine folks trundling for their seats. Caleb and I, we made our way to the exits. The kid was too full-up on smiles to complain over leaving.
Once, earlier that year, Caleb had asked me how come his momma was doing a stretch down in Aliceville. “Rule Number One,” was how I’d answered. “Not knowing when to cash in.” Tonight my pockets held as much craft jewelry and billfolds as a person ought to risk taking. Best I could tell, Caleb had a smaller version of the same problem.
Back in Crump we splurged on pot roast at the Cracker Barrel. I said, “So how was the rodeo?”
My boy flashed me his very first lifted wallet. Somehow I knew not so far to the south his momma would still be awake and bursting with pride.
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