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ERNEST HAYCOX

THE LAST RODEO

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First published in Collier's, 20 May 1933

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-29
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THE pickup men galloped forward, after the judge's gun, and wedged Smoky Joe between them. Jim Cherburg left Smoky Joe's saddle, vaulted across the rump of the left pickup man's pony and struck the ground with a little springing of muscles. He stood there a moment, waiting for the chugging sensation in his stomach to subside, quiet eyes watching the late afternoon's shadows reach into a high, bright sunlight. Applause washed down the grandstand's slope and the announcer's voice, without color or personality, swelled from the field loudspeakers, announcing the day's end. Cherburg retrieved his hat and turned through the thinning dust to where Buck Merrilies waited on the edge of the field.

"It will do for a ride," said Merrilies.

"Another day, another dollar," drawled Cherburg.

They were the sort that alone survived the grueling drudgery of the game; tall, flat-muscled and heavy-boned men, now gone slack with ease. Jim Cherburg lit a cigarette, impersonally scanning the dissolving crowd. Sweat beaded a broad, tanned brow and he drew in the smoke with a quick relish. The frontal ligaments along his neck tightened against bronzed flesh and went loose.

"Anything about Red?"

Merrilies said taciturnly: "He died ten minutes ago in the hospital."

Cherburg held his partner's glance a moment, then looked down. He dropped his cigarette, ground it beneath a boot. When his head rose again one strong flash of feeling had been covered and his eyes were a little grim. "I guess," he said without inflection, "we might as well amble on."

They swung abreast and walked through the arena's wide arch into a stream of people flowing along the street toward the town's center. Cherburg collided with a slim girl in a green dress and turned aside, murmuring an apology; the girl's sudden attention lifted obliquely across a hat brim's tilted horizon, quick and alert—and then smiling.

"I don't understand," puzzled Merrilies. "He was an old hand, a careful one."

"That steer broke from the chute fast. Red undoubtedly figured he had to cut corners to make any decent time. I saw him reach for the brute's horns. He was taking a chance. When he left the saddle his body began to twist. He must have tripped the steer, for the next thing it was eight hundred pounds of beef somersaultin' on top of him."

Merrilies said, oddly moody: "The time gets faster, the brutes tougher."

They went on, heels clicking the pavement together, big bodies rolling, both staring inscrutably into a world turning pale violet beneath the heavy-branched locusts. Jim Cherburg laid the flat of his big hand gently against the shoulder of a man backing into him. He passed around. "He left a widow in Green River. In his time he had plenty, but it was a free and easy world to Red. Now what's left but a woman waitin' and a pile of fresh dirt a long ways from home? He should've quit last year when he meant to. Ten years is too long for competition. A lot of us ought to quit."

"Quit," grunted Merrilies ironically. "Then what? You've salted your money away. Me, I ain't. It'd be back to ridin' fences or a five-dollar job around flicker-flicker cowboys in Hollywood. After ridin' up where the world's your oyster? Try it!" He stopped beside a poolroom door and he looked thoughtfully at it. "This is your home town, ain't it, kid?"

"Yes. Where you going? Careful."

"No," said Merrilies, dryly grinning. "No liquor."


Jim Cherburg went on alone, thinking of the day's tragedy. There was a lot of hurt in the game, though you took it straight and never let it get you. All the same, it was hell to think of a woman in Green River getting a printed slip of paper that would cut the solid earth from beneath her feet. It only strengthened a belief he had held since his first sight of a rodeo death: as long as he rode in competition he rode alone.

He reached an intersection, plowed into a denser current of tourists, ranchers, reservation Indians and street peddlers. Somebody spoke to him and he answered with the detached courtesy fashioned from so much casual acquaintance. Then another voice, definitely arresting, brought him about. Old Isom Gay stood in the swirl like a rooted tree resisting upheaval. Beside Isom Gay were his daughter Judith and young Dave Blackby, and another man Cherburg did not know. Cherburg beat his way over to them, frankly grinning. Isom Gay pumped his hand and swore cheerfully. Judith, smiling out of straight, gray eyes, said: "Why haven't we seen you earlier in the week?"

"Didn't get into town till this morning," he explained, reaching for Dave Blackby's fist. Blackby—and Cherburg's ceaseless attention got this instantly—showed a definite constraint. The man was nearly as tall as Cherburg, a flat and supple-bodied chap who had a fine record as a university athlete behind him and the beginnings of a wheat-milling business in town. Meanwhile the stranger was looking on politely. Isom Gay spoke up.

"This is Richey Knight, visitin' us from the East. You expressed a desire, Richey, to meet a real buckaroo. Well, here's Jim Cherburg, probably the best rider in the game today. His ranch is next ours, over in the valley, but that's only a hide-out for him in winter. Summertime he's on the long rodeo circle, from Fort Worth to Calgary."

"You seem," Knight said with the direct curiosity of the well-bred, "young for it."

Judith Gay cut in, lightly provocative: "But he's ancient. His record goes clear back to when he turned eighteen. Before that he and I used to ride the hills, roping out poor old cows. I knew him when, Mr. Knight."

Isom Gay watched his daughter indulgently. Dave Blackby's manner showed greater self-isolation. "It seems like a lot of punishment," pondered Knight.

Judith slanted a searching, speculative glance at Cher-burg. "There's always another year of it. He's made of unbreakable material."

"You've lost tallow," announced Isom Gay critically. "He always comes home lean and hungry," interposed Judith. "Season over now, Jim?"

Cherburg studied the color of the girl's eyes a measurable interval. "Two more shows," he told her, then drawled at Isom Gay: "Your daughter's grown up."

"It's a kind of vaudeville circuit, then?" said Knight.

Isom Gay opened and closed his mouth and stared at Knight with faint irritation. But Cherburg's reply was suavely quiet: "Yes, I guess that's about it."

"Ain't gone to see your ranch yet?" asked Isom Gay. "Johnny Pipal's driving me out tomorrow, if there's time."

"A fine foreman—and he's making money for you."

"What," broke in Knight, "happened to that Conroy who had the accident today?"

"He died in the hospital a little while ago," said Cher-burg gently.

"So that's what happens to them," Knight mused, quite regretful.

"That's what happens to them," repeated Judith Gay, and tipped her yellow head till Cherburg saw the old resentment in her eyes—as he had seen it long ago when his first fall had brought a cry from her. The rodeo band was parading toward the intersection, making a vast racket. Cherburg wished suddenly to be away.

"I shall see you all later," he told them, and turned into the crowd. But not before Judith's eyes had reached him with a swift, definite message. He had known her so long that he understood it; she had known him so long that she knew he did. Half a block on he went into the telegraph office.


Coming out of the dining room that evening, he saw her waiting in a lobby corner. She had on a long orchid evening dress, with a scarf thrown loosely about slim, military shoulders; and she came toward him with a free and graceful striding that stopped him in his tracks. A faint swagger was there, a memory of that reckless, boyish Judith from the earlier years. Her smile, for him alone, held the mobile corners of her lips momentarily quiet.

"You're dancing with Dave tonight?" he asked.

"Not for an hour. That's your hour, Jim."

Not looking at her, he said: "We can walk."

Her quick, free laughter was a flash of silver across darkness. "We always quarreled best in motion, didn't we?"

He opened the door and they went along the hotel wall, northward to the quieter side of town. At the next corner they turned down a long, dim street beside which a creek, trapped by concrete walls, made a minor melody in the gathered dusk. "You put all that in the past, I observe."

"Is there any present for us, Jim? I hadn't known it."

"There's this."

"One hour out of a summer's night—such as it is—such as it may mean."

An auto screamed around the corner, skewered them with its lights and passed on. Somebody whooped. Somebody else said: "That's Jim Cherburg. You know—Cherburg."

Judith's murmur was touched with amused mockery. "The king is discovered flirting with the peasant girl." She turned, her face a softened oval in the warm shadows. "You are thinner than usual. Hard season?"

"A steady grind."

"Listen, Jim. You always had ambition. No man ever fought harder to get what he wanted. Here you are at twenty-eight with a ranch the rodeo game has bought you, with a riding record they say will not be beaten for years. What is there now to keep you with it? When is the end?"

"It's—it's hard to quit," he said, slowly.

Her hand moved palely through the dark; her voice flattened. "So I was right. There is always another year."

"It isn't the money now," he added quickly.

"I know."

They crossed a park block to a building flooded with light. "I want to see what I've drawn for tomorrow," he told her. They went up a queasy flight of stairs into a hall full of smoke and confusion. It was strictly a riding crowd gathered here for its own amusement, its own hour of let-down after a hard day. There was a dice game going and a little stud was being played. Talk boiled up in endless pattern while solid and fluid and bronzed figures moved restlessly around. Merrilies came out of a small side office, silent laughter in his careless eyes. It meant something.

"You're ridin' Feather Bed," he told Cherburg.

"Who got Midnight?"

Merrilies's grin played into his broad lips. "Me," he said, as if it were a joke on him. He looked at Judith Gay, adding: "What are you so blamed selfish for?"

"Why should I be generous?" retorted Cherburg, and introduced Merrilies to the girl. Merrilies bowed. He had fine manners and his speech held that silken effortlessness which was a complete expression of his gallant self. Over in a corner Troy Watts leaned against a wall and chuckled at something Hilton Ring was telling him. Tomorrow Watts and Ring—and all of them—would be fighting in the arena for the winning time, but tonight they were at ease. Cherburg lit a cigarette, suddenly relaxed by a feeling of comfort, a feeling of belonging to this scene. It was a part of the game; it was a part of his life.

Merrilies was saying, half amused, half serious: "Jim and I hit this business together ten years ago. We were wild then. We're ancient now. We've seen 'em come and we've seen 'em go. Old ones die, new ones ride along—and here we still are, a couple of relics that can't quit. It gets in your blood."

"What big teeth you have, parson," jeered Cherburg, and escorted Judith down the stairs. They idled through the park block, strolling in time, the silence riding on. Judith's slippers made a tapping rhythm; the scent of her hair was one more call from the past. His thoughts kept working onward, demanding expression, and because this was so the transitory ease of the evening went away.

"There is always some horse a man can't stay on. There is always some youngster better than you are. Just say I'm near the top after ten years of trying. It's a hard place to be, Judith. If I'm leaner in the flanks that is why."

"The king," said Judith, "must live up to his crown. Nothing else matters—to a king."

"Put it this way: The higher a man goes the more is expected of him, the fewer mistakes he dares make, the better ride he must put on."

"It is an old story." Her voice changed and she seemed to slide away from him. "You work to possess something. Then it possesses you. I won't ask you to come in and dance with me."

"I lead a monk's life," he drawled. "It has been a long time since I played, which is another penalty for being at the top of the pile."

She spoke with a swiftness and an energy: "There are more penalties than that, Jim, though you may not realize it now." Then they were at the hotel again and Dave Blackby was coming forward to claim her, agreeable yet unsmiling. His eyes searched her face. "If you'd rather stay longer with Jim, we can let the dance wait a while."

Judith took his arm. "I know better than to interfere with a buckaroo's sleep." It wasn't malicious; it was wistful. Her glance touched Cherburg as she turned and she said: "Good luck for tomorrow." A party of men, mostly strangers, surrounded him, and he got only a brief glance of her sturdy shoulders swinging through the crowd. But, abruptly old and tired, he observed Dave Blackby look down at her in a way that was as clear as a pronouncement. As soon as he could he broke away and went to his room.

He scrubbed up, undressed and snapped out the light. He tried to sleep and found his mind too clear and too rebellious for it. Twice today he had been asked a question he seldom had cared to ask himself. What kept him on? There was nothing now in the game he needed and no future but a harder and harder fight to keep the reputation that was a shining mark for all the world to shoot at. The ending was inevitable as fate. He knew that. What kept him on?

Well, he knew. He was at the top of the heap and it was hard to quit. It was a feeling of power you couldn't surrender. It was the pride a man had before his fellows.


The steer broke fast from the chute—a tawny mass of wildness bolting across the white starting line. Cherburg's pony exploded into pursuit, knowing exactly what was expected of him. Dust raveled up from the steer's churning feet, his body faded down the field. Bent low, Cher-burg let his reins hang over the pommel; he slipped down as the pony drew abreast the steer and he reached out and got a secure grip on the wide, bobbing horns. Instantly he kicked clear of the stirrups, the pony veering off. Cherburg's legs swooped in a pendulum swing and bit the ground ahead; and a series of long, hard shocks ran up his bones and jolted his vitals. But his feet remained forward, braking the steer's speed, and finally stopping the run altogether.

Buried in the thickness of the rising yellow dust he advanced his right arm under the steer's right horn and surged his strength into a wringing pull. Sudden sweat cracked through his skin; and it was like an old pattern, so often repeated that he had no need of thinking. His steady twisting met elastic resistance as the neck of the beast slowly gave and slowly stiffened. Cold energy played through him at the thought of the seconds passing. He walked his lower body under the steer's head. He bounced his weight upward, gathered a momentum and heaved down.

The steer, its neck twisted into the horizontal plane, teetered and capsized on its side, echoing like a soaked drum, muzzle half cushioned on Cherburg's lap. Cher-burg shot his free arm into the air. That was it. The judges closed in and a field man sat on the steer's neck while Cherburg pulled himself free and walked stiffly away. Getting on his horse he rode out of the arena with the loud-speakers' barking noise following: "Time for Cherburg, 17.2 seconds. That's all the bulldogging. Buckers coming out!"

His legs felt slightly numb from the jamming and a little finger of uneasiness went searching through his stomach. Out in the stable area he found Buck Merrilies idly casting loops around two pegs stuck in the corners of a haybale. Merrilies's eyes came up, crowded with a tense, rain-blue brightness. It was, Cherburg knew, an old signal of battle. He went on, stabled his pony, and came back. A gust of cheering rolled over the grandstand's rear wall.

"The dumb brutes know when they've killed a man," grunted Merrilies. "They feel it."

"You'll ride that horse?"

They returned to the arena. The buckers were being saddled and the loud-speakers fed their hollow articulations into a tightening silence: "Merrilies on Midnight. Watch out!" Merrilies slanted a look at Cherburg, the old grin breaking long and thin across the reckless face. He said: "And the condemned ate a hearty breakfast," and strode for Midnight, high legs straddling the air.

He got to the horse and swung quickly into the leather. The field hands slipped the blind, unsnapped the snubbing rope. Midnight pivoted on all four feet, leaped high into the air, for that fractional second as rigid as carved marble. He came down with a wrench that threw Merrilies far over and he rose again, shuddering.

Cherburg, staring into that smolder of dust, swore under his breath. Merrilies was loose. Merrilies was off Midnight, spread in the air like a swimmer. He struck hard, rolled over and, still rolling, fought himself to his knees and to his feet, at once striking blindly across the field. Midnight plunged off, still bucking.

Cherburg cut rapidly over his partner's path. "Watch it, kid." But Merrilies stared at him without recognition, fury shaking him, and hurried by. The loud-speakers carried a monumental indifference across the arena: "Cherburg on Feather Bed."

The field hands were ready for him and he rose to the saddle. Feather Bed stood still, wasting no energy.

"All right," he said. The field hands whipped away the blind and the snubbing rope and faded. Feather Bed took two waltzing paces and dropped his canny head.

Cherburg went off the earth in one great lunge; and at that instant the tightness left him and the old exultance returned. Feather Bed crashed down, not solidly but two legs at a time, the second shock twisting Cherburg from buttocks to neck. Feather Bed pivoted and shrewdly broke up the attack. He fell into little fiddling plunges, he went storming about, and he rose on his hind feet.

Cherburg scratched automatically, seeing the ground vanish behind dust. Then a hammer seemed to beat into his neck and the wings of his chaps cracked like rifle bullets. Feather Bed's big barrel swelled and he took to the sky again, not straightforwardly but at an angling leap; and as he came down he lifted his back quarters in one mighty kick. Cherburg weathered it. He said: "That's it," out loud, and the ride was done.

When he left the field he found Buck Merrilies smoking on a hay bale, serene again.

"A ride?"

"A ride," said Cherburg. They were through for the day and they went into the street and walked downtown, heels clicking sharply on the paving.

"Well," reflected Merrilies, "I'm out of it now. And you're in, as usual. It'll be you and Watts and Hilton Ring for a finish tomorrow." He let the silence drag a moment. Afterward his talk ran into a shaded thoughtfulness. "Kid, I've often wondered what Sonora looked like. Maybe I better go see."

"It was Midnight?"

Merrilies snapped his cigarette away. "I can't ride that horse. Not today or any day. And when I get to feelin' that way about a horse it's time to wind up the clock. One of you three will get him. He's a killer, Jim. The same sort of a brute that killed Sam Flagg in Tucson four years ago."

They parted at the hotel corner. Cherburg went up to his room. He got under a shower. When he had dressed, he went down the elevator. Judith Gay waited in a corner.

"I'm running off from a dinner," she said. "Is it your desire to feed me?"

He made a gesture of consent with his big, bronzed hands—as an Indian would have made it—and took her across the dining room to his table. Seated, he said: "Why, Judith?"

"Does there have to be a reason for everything? Jim, you do look tired."

"Tomorrow's the last of it."

"Until next week. After that, until next year."

"How do you know?"

Her manner changed. The warmth went away. She was retreating—he felt it keenly. "Kings," she murmured, "don't quit. They die."


There was little to be said, little that had not been said somewhere along the years of their companionship. The mood of silence held them, as so frequently, and they ate through the meal with that feeling lying between. Kelly, of a Portland paper, stopped by. "We'll want a new picture of you. At the field at ten in the morning?" He smiled at Judith and went away. Judith bent forward. "So you sent a thousand dollars of your money to Mrs. Red Conroy of Green River."

"Who told you that?" challenged Cherburg.

Judith's smile was very gentle. "The king has his traditions to keep—and the king has no secrets."

He stirred his coffee, a pair of heavy lines thickening across his forehead. "A married man has got no place in this game. I saw my first rodeo death six years ago and I knew then I had no right to drag a girl into it. Not as long as I rode. Mrs. Red is a widow—that's her reward."

"Why explain? Don't you suppose I know you? Here comes your friend."

Merrilies threaded his way between the tables, came to them and halted. The storm signals of deviltry were in his eye corners and he was drunk—though Cherburg alone saw it. Merrilies bowed to Judith, stared at Cher-burg. "Kid," he said, "the bad news is all yours. You got Midnight."

"That horse?" breathed Judith.

"As clearly as I can recall," reflected Merrilies, "it was three or four horses. But I wouldn't be sure, now." He bowed and stalked away.

Judith Gay laid her interlocked fingers before her, looked at them and raised an odd, bright glance to Cher-burg. "Swan song, Jim."

"A little more clearly, Judith."

"Well, this is the end of this. I remember the beginning of it very well—me sitting on a rock so long ago, watching you bulldog that white-faced steer. I was your audience then. Now you've got a bigger one and you'll not miss my withdrawal. This week I am twenty-five. It has been nice. Later I may cry about that." She got up abruptly, looking away; and her voice was hurried; "I think Dave's waiting."

Blackby was in the lobby. He nodded at Cherburg, but it was brief recognition, for his serious eyes searched Judith Gay's face. Some older woman came along to draw Judith away, and Blackby transferred his attention back to Cherburg. Something stirred him and made him bitter. "You've had a swell time going up in the world, Cher-burg," he said with a curtness barely inside civility. "A lot of people have stood by and watched you climb. But maybe some of these people get weary of just standing and watching. Ever think of that?"

He faced about. Judith came along and took his arm and he drew her toward the door. Judith's smile, fixed and brilliant, touched Cherburg. He heard her say: "So long." It wasn't very strong.


The buckers were ready and the crowd's silence went keying up toward suspense. Troy Watts ambled toward Cherburg, his square, white teeth dazzling against a brown skin. "Bite his ears off, Jim," he called, and wheeled away. Cherburg walked toward Midnight and stopped, waiting.

Infrequently along his riding years he had come to some such moment as this, a bad horse saddled and the high point of the show at his command for the space of a few brief seconds while the thought of battle moved like smoke and fire through him. All that the game meant was crowded in this small point of time; and the demand of pride was strongly on him.

He got the field hands' signal, ducked in beside Midnight and lightly reached leather. Nor did he waste time, knowing the horse beneath would not endure it. His free arm lifted and he said: "All right," gently. It was all in a pattern, something so long done that it belonged to his blood and not to his brain.

The field hands loosed Midnight and started to fade, but it wasn't quickly enough done. Midnight, gone mad, sprang to his hind quarters whistling, and laid the fore part of his body across the nearest hand's pony, fighting it backward. The field hand lashed at Midnight's nose with the snubbing rope, and Cherburg, realizing the quality of his ride lay endangered in this snarl, slashed his spurs into Midnight's hide. The bucker whistled again, bit at the other pony and lunged to the sky.

There was nothing like this in Cherburg's memory, nothing to equal the savagery of attack. This small Midnight was willing to tear his own vitals out from the insensate urge to destroy. He went up, a grunting, malevolent mass against the sun, and he came terrifically down. The impact to Cherburg was like the shattering of bone. It mauled his spine and surged against his reason; it trembled the fragile sense of balance aloof in his head. Then Midnight rushed again, whipped his body and dropped stiff-legged, snapping Cherburg's neck with a dangerous violence.

Cherburg saw opalescent flakes float across his vision. A rank taste of blood reached his palate and the smell of it was in his nostrils. Midnight's mane whipped flat from a straining twist; he heaved himself off the ground, descended in screaming jolts. All the day dimmed for Cherburg then. His teeth were grinding together, with flesh between, and a ball of fire burned hotter and hotter in his stomach. Racked and lonely on this crucifying seat he heard a dim report streak through the roar of his ears, and into the edges of his vision appeared the pickup men, blurred and distant. The pleasure he felt then was bitter beyond the bounds of reason. It was a ride. He said that to himself the moment before a cowled, woolly blackness fell about his head...

He smelled ether and heard the murmuring of voices. But there was no dust and no arena noise; and when he opened his eyes the corners of a white-walled room moved out of mist and became definite. His own bronzed hands were lying atop sheets and on one of them slim, small fingers rested. Judith was beside the bed. Behind Judith stood Merrilies, with no visible expression, and a doctor. Disappointment sliced through Cherburg.

"I thought," he said, laboring to get the words expelled, "I made that ride."

Merrilies's drawl was ironic, hiding a tremendous emotion: "It was a ride. It's in the books as a ride. You fell after the gun."

"Fell?" said Cherburg. He moved a leg and got the bite of a binding force about his stomach. It hardened him; he spoke sharply to the doctor: "What's the matter with me?"

"Nothing, in a few months. But you're through with the tough ones, Jim. This is your last rodeo. I put your liver approximately back where it belonged."

Judith's gray eyes were narrowed against tears. "The king is dead, Jim."

Cherburg's lids came together. The long silence was here, but somewhere a familiar sound flowed dimly—of a rodeo crowd tramping down the streets. They had, he thought, their ride, and this was the last of the ten-year trail. One more man gone and room for a newer one at the top. He opened his eyes, looking at Judith.

"No more time for Cherburg," he said. "No more time for that rider."

"Jim, I'm sorry!"

But he was already looking back on another time and on another man, coolly and critically. "No, the thing's complete. I can hang up my saddle, knowing there's nothing left undone, nothing to call me back. The trail ends here. The game gave me a great deal—and now that bill is settled." He stopped, stared more somberly at the girl. "I wish it had come sooner. I have lost what I really wanted."

Judith's answer was swift: "Why am I here, then?" And her supple hands moved gracefully before him, making that sign of consent as the Indians would have made it.

Merrilies's voice was like the off-key pitch of some reed instrument: "Well, they claim the grass grows sweet down there in Sonora."


THE END