The Last Ride
by Mike Allison
A Short Story from the 8 Second Stories Collection
Make Your Last One Your Best One
The rumors and speculation had been fairly hushed in the days leading up to the Finals. What had gotten into Jake Bullock? Why wouldn’t he fully participate in the media circus, granting only a handful of interviews and even then, keeping them brief and to the point? Was he injured and not wanting folks to know? Was he ill? Was he planning a big announcement? Every year for the past decade, folks were convinced he would announce his retirement, and yet there he was, competing in the first rodeo of the new year, year in and year out. Ageless. Unceasing. Would this be the year that he’d retire?
As Jake entered the arena of the Thomas and Mack Center where the Finals had been held in early December for many years, the smell made him feel at home. The combination of dirt, beer, livestock, men, metal, and manure, all blended together to make a smell that was unique to the sport of rodeo, the palpable manifestation of a specific time in history brought forth to an appreciative modern day crowd.
Yes, Jake was home once more.
The resolute look on his face as he made his way to the locker room led many to avoid any salutation. He was polite to those who did greet him, but he sought no one out.
Jake proceeded to get dressed for the performance and the introductions that would mark its beginning. Some of his fellow cowboys took notice not just of his demeanor but also of the shirt he put on.
Brian Sheffield, a lanky, sandy haired bull rider from Kansas who had competed in three prior National Finals, and with whom Jake had been friendly over the years, walked up to him and asked the question that was on the mind of everyone in that locker room.
“Jake, are you alright? You don’t seem yourself.”
“I’m fine, Brian. Just trying to stay focused.”
“Why the white shirt? And no sponsor patches. Did you lose all your sponsors or something?”
“Heck no. They understand.”
“I sure wish we did. A lot of these boys look up to you, Jake, including me. If you need help, we’re here for you.”
Jake grinned slightly. “I’m fine. I mean it. What’d you draw?”
Brian seemed a little perplexed but respected Jake enough not to push the issue further.
“K 19 of Kessler’s. You?”
“Never had him, but the book on him says that he usually goes to the right, then turns back left after a couple of rounds. If he goes left first, he usually stays there.”
“I’d heard about the same, Brian. Thanks.”
They shook hands and Brain said, “Good luck.”
“Ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’?” Becker said as Jake climbed over the back of the chute and lowered himself onto X22, his first bull of the Finals. He was last to go in the round by reason of his regular season lead in the standings.
Casey Winston had ridden just prior to Jake and earned a score of eighty-five on a very strong brindle bull owned by Rafter G.
“What do you mean?”
Jake wasn’t wearing the protective vest, which, though not formally required by the sanctioning body, was worn by nearly every professional bull rider in the sport.
Jake grinned and said, “Old School, Beck.”
“More like Stupid School, Jake. Are you nuts? What are you trying to prove?”
“I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody but myself. Are you gonna pull my rope or stand there and nag me?”
“Alright, alright then, tough guy. Try not to get yourself stomped on if you can help it.”
Jake said, “He can’t step on me if I’m on his back.”
Becker pulled the rope tight around the bull’s barrel, just behind the front legs. Jake wrapped the tail of the rope around his riding hand, clenched his fist tight, slid his hips up to his bull rope, positioning his upper body over his hand, and nodded for gate.
As the chute gate swung open, the mind’s eye that Jake had relied on so many times over the years came into focus. His mental mechanism that slowed the ride down in his mind and allowed him to anticipate, read, and react to every move the bull made, kicked into gear.
Like a slow motion movie, the ride seemed to last for minutes, with Jake matching the bull move for move. After eight agonizing seconds, he heard the buzzer. In reality it was extremely loud as to be heard over the roar of the capacity crowd, but in his mind, it seemed very distant. Like a lonely train whistle, a familiar comfort he’d heard a million times before.
Eight rounds of the Finals were in the books, and Jake held a slim lead over Casey Winston for the Finals average as well as the season. Jake had started things off right by winning the first go round, scoring eighty-seven points on X22. Jake had ridden all but one of his bulls to that point. Casey had bucked off just one bull as well, in the Eliminator round in which the bulls were deliberately chosen to be, not just difficult to ride, but patently unfair, dirty tricksters all. Jake had won the Eliminator round and had been one of only two bull riders to earn a score that night. Heading into the ninth go round, the Championship was far from decided and Jake’s lead could evaporate with one misstep. Casey had turned out to be very much up to the challenge of the endurance contest known as the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
For the ninth round, Jake had drawn very well, drawing the prior year’s Bucking Bull of the Year, a very powerful Charlais and Brahma cross bred bull named Peace Out. He was sore and exhausted, just as all the bull riders were, but probably worse than the others, given his age. He knew that if he could ride this bull he could very well win another go round and perhaps clinch the title for the year.
Standing behind the chute as the bulls were being loaded, a serenity welled up in Jake that he’d never experienced before. Becker, standing beside him, noticed it too.
“You alright?” Becker asked.
Jake looked at him, blankly at first, and then with much calm. He nodded and replied softly, “Yeah.” Then he smiled.
When it was his turn to ride, he climbed down onto his bull, starched white shirt tainted only by the contestant number pinned to his back. He felt a relaxation that was unfamiliar to him as Becker pulled his bull rope and he prepared to ride.
Jake slid up on his bull rope and nodded. The chute gate swung open. The mechanism engaged.
The bull exploded from the chute. Jake charged out over the front to meet the motion.
Then the bull belly rolled not once, but twice. Jake felt his groin pop, though the pain from it wouldn’t be felt until the next day.
Peace Out turned to the right, kicking up over his head as he spun, whipping around with more power than Jake had ever felt. He turned loose with his outside foot and spurred the bull as he spun, an act that would earn extra points if he completed his ride. Then the bull turned back to the left, spinning the other direction, this time not only kicking over his head as he spun but also moving backwards as he did, making it exceedingly hard for Jake to stay up on his bull rope. He started spurring with his other foot, in an attempt to keep his hips lined up with the bull’s spin.
And then… the buzzer. That distant train whistle blew. Jake pulled the tail of his bull rope to help free his hand, waited for the bull to kick up in the back end, using that motion to allow him to be catapulted away from the bull, and landed, cat-like, on his feet.
The crowd erupted, raising the roof at the Thomas and Mack Center with a din that rivaled a heavy metal concert.
When the scores from the judges were announced, the crowd grew even louder and got on their feet in recognition of the what they had just witnessed. Ninety-eight points, a National Finals record. One judge had marked his ride a perfect fifty points, and the other a perfect fifty points for the bull.
As the bull exited the arena, Jake paused near the middle of the arena. The crowd’s enthusiasm and appreciation had not weakened. He took off his hat and tipped it to the crowd, turning slowly around 360 degrees to show his respect to everyone in the building. Then, after putting his hat back on and pausing for another brief moment, he did something no one expected. Jake took off his chaps, folded them, and placed them on the ground in front of him. He placed his bull rope on the chaps. He removed his leather glove and placed it there as well. Then he knelt down and quickly removed his spurs, placing them on top of the chaps as well.
The crowd continued their thunderous display of appreciation, as Jake limped slowly to the out gate and left the arena. Becker met him as he exited and asked, “You all done, then?”
Despite the fact that the World Championship was far from decided with one more round to go, Jake nodded and said, “I can’t ride one any better than that. I’m done. That’s the last one.”
— END —
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The Last Ride [An 8 Second Story]