The 54th Rider

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2004

By Veronica Engler, Illustrated by Mary Rachel Thompson

Sandra looks out into the crowd. Her face is firm, her lips set in a straight line. This is it—the moment she’s been waiting for for nearly ten years. She pulls her hat brim down over her eyes and pulls on her gloves, worn from the hard labor back when she helped her father on the ranch. She pats the pockets on her old jeans and straightens her favorite blue shirt. Then she turns and walks to the pen where the bulls are kept.

She climbs on the bull—with help from the rodeo clowns—and begins to tighten the rope around her hand. She looks up and as she does so, sees her brother-in-law, Roger, wave at her from the crowd. She doesn’t smile, just nods, and lets her mind wander to the day this all began.

*          *          *

It had been a splendid day; the sun was up and shining down on the red dust that carpeted the ranch and everything on it. She had risen early, wanting to get her chores done so she could have some time to herself.

Sandra had breathed in the deep smell of desert, soaking in the lovely hues of the place everyone called wasteland. Her home had never been that to her—it wasn’t the middle of nowhere at all. On the contrary, it was right smack in the middle of Mother Nature and all her other children. Sandra knew she’d never leave—Arizona was much too beautiful to ever leave behind.

the 54th rider farm house horse red hair child

Sandra knew shed never leave—Arizona was much too beautiful to ever leave behind

Sandra talked to the horses as she shoveled out their beds of hay and stocked their trough with oats. Her favorite was an amber mare brought in from the wild a few years ago. She had taken to Sandra and Sandra had eventually given her a name—Dawn.

“An’ how you doin’, Ms. Dawn?” Sandra had asked, giving her a loving pet on the nose. Dawn whinnied in reply.

“Yes, I reckoned you’d say that,” Sandra replied, looking out the window of the barn. “It sure is a lovely day.”

Sandra had been twelve then, just barely blooming into a young lady. She loved flowers and kittens, horses and little children, too. But there was one thing in her life she lived for—bull riding.

Technically, it wasn’t bull riding yet—Sandra had barely been a year at riding calves. But someday she would graduate to bulls—if her sister didn’t stop her first.

Sandra had just finished her chores and was taking out her favorite calf—Little Yellow Jacket—when her father and Roger appeared at the corral. Sandra didn’t mind them—they often came out to the corral to talk about something or another.

Sandra seated herself on Little Yellow Jacket and bent down to whisper to him. “Give me your worst, Little Jacket; I’ve ridden you every time.” With that, she gave his hindquarters a jab with her spurs and they set off in a whirlwind of dust and kicks.

Sandra held her hand high, trying her best to stay on. Most calves went into a wave motion when spurred, so that all the rider had to do to stay on was to move with them. Little Yellow Jacket was different—he’d twist and jump, curving his body into impossible angles and jerking to the sides when Sandra least expected it.

Somewhere in all the melee, Sandra heard Roger say to her father, “Whoa! She’s good! You teach her?”

She heard her father reply, “No, she did that all by herself. She is awfully good, isn’t she?”

Sandra could hear her sister, Diane, her elder by ten years, yell from the house, “Oh, you boys! Don’t encourage her!”

Diane had been the girly-girl, the one who loved cooking and wanted to stay inside all day. Sandra had never been like that—she had always loved the smell of the wind in the evening and the color of the Arizonan dust on her black boots.

After awhile, Sandra was finally bucked from Little Yellow Jacket’s back. She got up slowly as her dad led the calf away. She dusted the red from her pants and turned to go back to the house. On the way there, Roger stopped her.

“You’re good,” he said.

“So you say,” she answered. She was tired and her throat was aching for a glass of water.

“Would you like to go to the Championships one day?” he asked.

“Yeah, one day.” She turned to go back inside when Roger called out to her.

“You could, you know!”

She slowly pivoted on her heel. “What are you saying? That I could go to the Championships?”

He smiled, a bit gap-toothed, his face sweating beneath his rusty orange hair. “That’s what I said.”

“But no woman has ever made it to the Championships.”

“How would you like to be the first?” Sandra was silent for a moment. “You really think I could?”

Roger’s smiled widened. “Sure do.”

“How? I don’t even have a trainer.”

“Sure you do.”

Sandra looked around, as though expecting to see a trainer magically appear from behind the crates stacked against the stables. “Where?”

“Well right here!”

Sandra almost giggled. “A funny-looking man like you being my trainer?”

“Yes,” Roger nodded. “I don’t think Diane ever told you this—I think she might be embarrassed by it, don’t know why—but I used to be a bull rider.”

Sandra cocked her head. “Really?”

“Yes, I almost made it to the Championships, but,” he shook his head, “I got out on the qualification rides. I got paired up with a really old bull—I reckon he had been all ridden-out years before.”

“Ah.” Sandra scuffed the dirt with the heel of her boot. She understood. Riders were not only judged on their ability to ride, but also by how healthy and hard-bucking their bull was.

“Could we start tomorrow then?”

“What?” Roger looked slightly bewildered.

“Tomorrow. Could we start training tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Roger and Sandra walked into the house together, discussing her new training that would begin the next morning.

*          *          *

That was how she had gotten here today.

Sandra tightens the rope that connects her hand to the bull’s back and looks up into the pink faces of the crowd. They’re booing and whispering among themselves. Sandra can’t blame them. After all, how did a skinny, freckle-faced, frizzy-haired woman of twenty-two ever make it past the preliminary qualifications anyway? And the bull she is riding doesn’t help.

Sandra brings her free hand down to pat the snorting bull, its once-cinnamon hair now graying and coarse. This bull has not been ridden successfully for nearly seven years. Out of the 53 tries to ride the bull for eight seconds, not one cowboy has managed it.

Sandra tenses her body, ready for the pen to open as the announcer blares, “Now, Sandra Allison riding Widow Maker!”

The pen opens and instantly Sandra is thrown into a hurricane of jerks and twists, her body wrenching and slamming into the bull’s back. She keeps one hand held high, just as Roger taught her, because if her free hand touches the bull all her training and work will go to waste as the announcers declare it a no-ride.

the 54th rider rodeo bull riding

“Wow, Sandra Allison riding Widow Maker!”

She tries to concentrate on keeping herself on the bull’s back as it twists itself into a complete circle, and a thought vaguely flickers across her mind of the day she first came to Las Vegas. It seems kind of ironic to compare a bull to a city, but that’s what Las Vegas was like. So full of colors and lights, all blaring and fighting each other for your eye’s attention . . .

Widow Maker suddenly bucks into a wave, a classic cattle move Sandra does not expect. Her head slams into Widow Maker’s shoulder blades and she begins to slide off. Her head is pounding, but she knows she must stay on. With a mighty show of strength she throws her body weight to the side, letting herself slide back into position.

Quite suddenly, the bell rings out, jogging her out of her concentration. Sandra straightens as best as she can while trying to stay on Widow Maker. Now comes the hard part. She lets go, forcing herself off to Widow Maker’s right side. But something is wrong. Her hand is stuck, tied onto the bull’s back with coarse rope. Sandra knows this is a common thing to happen, but all the same, that does not make it any less dangerous.

Sandra tries desperately to free her hand, twisting and pulling at it until her palm starts to bleed. She is being pulled alongside the bull now, and every so often an ill-aimed kick flogs her. She has almost gotten her hand free when Widow Maker makes a sudden turn, throwing Sandra in front of his forelegs.

Sandra’s cry is lost in the gasp of the crowd as Widow Maker’s left hoof strikes into Sandra’s ribs. The force of its blow rolls Sandra onto her back, only to be kicked again by the bull’s back legs. She doesn’t cry this time, merely groans as Widow Maker’s hooves plow into her and he snorts and paws the ground.

Her hand is free now and as she rolls from under Widow Maker’s hooves the rodeo clowns jump in front of Widow Maker to distract him and chase him back into his pen. Sandra lies there a moment, then, thinking Widow Maker might come back for her, she crawls over to the side and slowly stands up. She leans against the wall as one of the rodeo clowns brings her hat. She nods gratefully and puts on the hat, tugging the brim of it down to hide her eyes. The rodeo clown helps her as they walk back to the gates. The crowd, which has been silent except for a few scattered gasps, suddenly erupts into cheers as Sandra looks back and smiles, winking at her brother-in-law in the third row.

the 54th rider veronica engler

Veronica Engler, 15
Gilbert, Arizona

the 54th rider mary rachel thompson

Mary Rachel Thompson, 11
Washington, North Carolina

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