Elizabeth Arnold


“Two hearts in the darkness, sing a blue lullaby, beat the drum slowly,

for a cowboy’s last ride.”

-Tom Russell

Myles didn’t want Todd to ride in the rodeo that night. The two, brothers from Louisiana born barely a year apart, spoke in easy drawls and called girls things like darlin’ and sweetheart. They had boyish charm and looks resembling Brad Pitt circa “A River Runs Through It” and Tom Cruise circa “Risky Business”—a fact not lost on the faction of middle-aged women visiting the guest ranch where we all worked for the summer. Myles and Todd went to school together, moved out west together, worked together as wranglers, then partied and picked up girls together at night and, like most brothers so close, fought often. After finding out Todd had entered the bull riding in the Jackson rodeo Myles hid the truck keys and Todd’s bull riding chaps. See, they weren’t actually Todd’s chaps. They belonged to Myles who’d ridden bulls in the rodeo several times the previous summer. He never got hurt and never said why he quit or why he’d hidden the keys and chaps.

Todd found the chaps buried under a pile of saddles in a dark corner of the tack room and someone else offered him a ride.

We all sat in the locals section to save a few bucks. Most of the ranch guests—rodeo first-timers—sat in the grandstand with guests from the valley’s other ranches. The sun set in shades of purple over the sage hills and full grandstand. Calves cried, dogs barked, horses stamped and blew air through rubbery lips while cowboys whistled at girls then spit in the dust. The whole night felt alive.

No one thought Myles would come. Halfway through the calf roping he showed up and asked where Todd was, someone pointed toward the chutes. He cursed, turned, and trotted down the bleachers, the metals steps pinging and singing behind him. Bull riding was the last event of the night, saddle bronc up next, just before it.

Behind the chutes a few cowboys sat in bronc saddles scattered around the wood-plank floors. Arms jerked and flailed mimicking motions of the coming eight seconds. Many traveled hundreds of miles to compete for a chance at qualifying to ride on one of the bigger circuits. Dark-faced men, expressions hidden under hat-brims, waited for their draws in the short-go. Spur rowels spun; hats were pulled down tighter on sweaty heads, hot palms rubbed against dirt-stained denim thighs, sighs and snuff cans passed around the circles of men ready to dance with the rough-stock.


Metal clanged, released—a coarse and wild bay thing, mane black as river silt flowed down both sides of his neck forelock almost to his nose and frying pan feet too angry to touch ground. He bucked as if he was the first horse to ever buck in a rhythm that rolled through his body like a whip unfurled and snapped.

Almost once around the arena when the cowboy began to slide right. The horse circled toward us, so close to the rail I could hear his hot grunts, could see the freckled face stuck in a grimace trying to right himself, digging spur into flesh and angling his body toward the center of the horse’s back. It didn’t work. In front of the chutes he started to slide—fast—leg past mane, knee past shoulder, head past flank.

Everything gave but his hand, hung up in his rig. The horse bucked, the cowboy flailed, thousands of worried hands covered mouths.

Usually these things turn out okay. Usually the cowboy’s freed somehow after a tense second, the rope gives or the pick-up men swoop in.

I saw his head hit ground, hand still caught, saw the flash of hoof against skull, the body gone limp.

And then silence. The pick-up men did swoop in, the arm was freed, and the horse chased through the open gate—all in silence. Men jumped down from gates and fence rails, ran toward the heap of man, still not moving. Thank god the grandstand couldn’t see the blood. Just us in the locals’ seats and the men behind the chutes watched the puddle grow to a pool in the sand and I think it was supposed to happen like that.

Medics ran in with bags and a white and red striped body-board, straps flying. A woman began CPR. Plaid and pinstriped bodies huddled around her to block the view.

The microphone spit to life and the announcer began an authoritative spiel about how folks were seeing the tough side of rodeo, the side all cowboys understand when they sign on to ride. The mic picked up a rustle of papers in the booth and the announcer gave the man’s name, said he’d traveled up from Big Piney—a real contender for the professional circuits. More papers rustled, let’s all say a prayer for him folks, and his young wife who’s with us in the stands.

It started taking too long. A low whisper rumbled up from the grandstand. The announcer returned and asked men to remove cover while he prayed aloud. Dear Father we approach you humbly this evenin’ and ask your hand be placed on the body of this young cowboy…

After ten minutes the rodeo queen who’d sung the Star-Spangled Banner not an hour before began singing Amazing Grace. I think even the animals were quiet, but I couldn’t say for sure. The sun sank deeper into purple, the mic crackled and the girl’s voice lilted over the words how sweet the sound when a siren interrupted her song. Men ran to open the far gates and the ambulance drove straight in. They worked on him for what seemed like ten minutes more, too long. When they loaded him up no one rushed.

It took three trips and six buckets to remove the bloody sand.

Todd rode his bull for a full two and a half seconds. He slid off when the bull began spinning and ran for the fence. I don’t think any of us breathed for a full two and a half seconds.

On rodeo nights everyone met up afterward at Cutty’s for Whiskey Wednesday. I’m not sure why, but we all went. The bar was loud and crowded and people had started to dance. Night shone through the windows. When Myles paid for his drink and pointed to the deck outside, we all followed. He wouldn’t naturally take charge but we all did what he said. Outside he leaned against the rail and a few of us pulled benches down from picnic tables, a few shivered against the growing cold. Bodies seemed barely recognizable in the blackness and I realized the deck probably wasn’t meant for seating at that hour.

No one spoke, everyone waited for anyone else to say something and make it mean something. Legs crossed and arms crossed. Myles took a sip and turned toward the railing. I thought he might hurl. He turned back around, looking at no one and said, “Shit, I can’t drink this.” He set the drink on the table as he left. Todd got up without a word and followed him. The rest of us, six, maybe seven of us, we probably stayed to finish our drinks. What else could we do but sit and search for the curves of faces covered by the night?



Elizabeth Arnold lives and writes from a working farm in Central Pennsylvania. Her work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Whitefish Review, and has been  anthologized in Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in our National Parks. Her essays have been nominated for a pushcart prize and listed as notable in The Best American
Essays. She holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop.