Riding came easily to Travis. His mother said it was a gift to be at such ease with an animal and to move so effortlessly with its rhythms, like a dandelion parachute that rolls in the breeze. Even when he was a baby, she took him riding with her every morning, through the groves of dogwood and redbud that neighbored her father’s ranch. Travis would sit nestled between her legs, his hands wrapped tightly around the horn of the saddle and his toes burrowing into the chestnut coat of his mother’s horse. He especially liked riding with her in the spring, when the trees would shed blossoms red, purple, and white, and his mother’s spirits would be lifted enough to sing to him.
By the time he was 3 he could sit atop a horse by himself, so his mother gifted him her favorite mare, Oklahoma Rose. His grandfather even built Travis a special platform, so he could climb in and out of the saddle unassisted. Travis would ride around the corral for hours at a time, while his mother watched from the porch, laughing and clapping her hands in delight.
For his fifth birthday, Travis’s grandfather took him to Tulsa to see the rodeo. He marveled at the Bronc and Bull riders–the way they kept their balance astride the fury of the bucking animals–and was amazed by the precision of the calf-ropers. Travis knew then and there that he wanted to be a rodeo star. His grandfather bought him a souvenir program to encourage him and the next day, gave Travis his first roping lesson. By the time he was six, he could lasso a fence post from 15 feet away. It didn’t take long before word got around about the boy-cowboy, who could ride and rope better than most men three times his age. Strangers would show up at the ranch at all hours of the day, asking to see Travis ride. His grandfather half-joked that they should sell tickets but Travis’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. In her view, his talents were a blessing to be shared and it wouldn’t be right to charge a fee just to watch him ride a horse and swing a rope.
Travis’s grandfather died that winter. His truck fell on him while he was changing the oil. The jack had slipped on the ice. Travis was only seven years old and didn’t know much about death but it seemed to him his grandfather deserved a better passing than that. His mother said it was a random stupid act and for the first and only time in his life, Travis heard his mother question the existence of god. Four months later, the cancer took his mother and Travis knew she had been right.
Travis met his father for the first time at his mother’s funeral. The only thing Travis knew about him was that he had served in Vietnam and had spent the last few years in California. He had dark wild hair that hung in his eyes and he smelled of tobacco and beer. He stood beside Travis at his mother’s grave and helped him shovel some dirt on her coffin. And when Travis started to cry he told him to “Buck up and be a man.” He drove Travis home after the funeral, where he announced he would be moving in to take care of the boy. Apparently, his parents had never bothered to divorce and with the death of Travis’s grandfather and mother, the ranch belonged to his father.
Travis’s father didn’t have much interest in ranching. He spent most of the time out on the front porch, drinking beer and playing poker with his friends. At night, the whores would come out to the house, with heavy drawls and perfume. His father would send Travis up to his room while he fucked them in the parlor. Travis was thankful his father had the decency not to do it in his mother’s bed, even if he occasionally paid them with pieces of her jewelry or one of her fancy dresses.
His military pension wasn’t enough to support his drinking and gambling, so as the months passed, Travis’s father sold off parcels of land and most of the livestock. He let Travis keep Oklahoma Rose, along with a couple of older horses he couldn’t sell. Travis’s riding was a constant source of amusement to his father. Late at night, when he was liquored up, he would pull Travis out of bed by the hair and drag him out to the porch in his underwear.
“Do some of your horse tricks, boy.”
Travis didn’t dare refuse. The few times he had, his father had whipped him with his belt. So Travis would climb onto the back of Oklahoma Rose and gallop back and forth in front of the porch, amidst the laughter of his father’s drunken friends and prostitutes.
For Travis’s eighth birthday, his father hung a sign at the entrance to the ranch.
Come See The Amazing Cow-Baby! Watch Him Rope and Ride! Only 50 Cents!
“I ain’t no baby,” said Travis.
His father just laughed. In the weeks that followed, Travis found himself riding at all hours of the day, for the entertainment of locals and tourists alike–anyone who was willing to pay the admission fee. His father always made him ride in his underwear.
“It makes you look younger,” he said.
One family from New York was so impressed by Travis, they tipped him five dollars. His father pocketed the money.
“It’s best to let me hold that for you, son.”
Over time, Travis forgot all about being a rodeo star. While he would on occasion, thumb through the souvenir program his grandfather had bought him, it no longer held the magic for him that it once did.
On a cool night in April, Travis’s father, drunk on whiskey and beer, wakes him from a deep sleep with a yank on his arm.
“We got company, boy. Get your ass down there. I got your horse all saddled up for you.”
“I’m tired. I don’t want to ride tonight.”
His father smacks him hard across the face.
“Next time it’ll be my fist.”
Travis hurries downstairs and out to the porch. A man and two women are seated at the picnic table, which is littered with empty beer cans. The man smirks at him.
“I ain’t never seen a cowboy in tighty-whities before.”
The women start to laugh. Travis’s father emerges from the house. He nods toward Oklahoma Rose, who is tied up in the corral.
“Get on it, boy.”
“Please, sir. I’m tired and it’s cold.”
One of the woman interjects.
“At least let him put on some pants, Ernie.”
“Shut your hole, Lorraine. He’s my boy.”
Travis’s father takes a step toward him threateningly.
“You ain’t your mother, you know. You have to work if you want to keep living here.”
“I ain’t riding,” Travis says.
His father stares at him for a long moment before responding.
“We’ll see about that,” he says with an icy stare.
Travis’ father goes into the house, only to return a few minutes later with a rifle in his hand. He brings the gun to his shoulder, setting his sites on Oklahoma Rose. Travis cries out as a single shot is fired. The horse drops quickly, it was a clean kill shot to its head. Travis runs to his horse but it is already dead. It lies there in the dirt, motionless, its eyes wide open.
“I think it’s time to call it a night,” says one of the woman.
“Nobody’s going anywhere,” says Travis’s father, “until the boy does his show.”
He yells to Travis from the porch.
“Go saddle up a horse, son, or I’ll shoot them all, one-by-one.”
Travis nods as he rises to his feet and walks toward the barn.
His father turns to his friends.
“Let’s all have another drink.”
The tension evaporates with a few shots of whiskey and soon the friends are laughing again. It’s as if no one even notices the dead horse lying in the corral. Travis emerges from the barn on an old grey steed, he gallops past the porch, turning himself full circle in the saddle as he rides.
“I ain’t never seen an eight-year old ride like that,” says the man.
The guest begin to cheer as Travis begins to double-back for another pass. His father shouts after him.
“Show them some of your lasso tricks, boy.”
Travis’s father turns to the women.
“He’s a wonder with a rope. Just like his old man,” he says with a wink and a cackle.
Travis reaches for his lariat as he gallops toward the porch. When he gets within ten feet, he throws his rope. It lands on target, dropping over his father’s head and around his neck. Travis yanks the lariat closed, while wrapping the end of the rope around the saddle horn. It happens so quickly and with such precision, that Travis’s father is still laughing as his body is suddenly pulled from the porch, his neck snapping before he hits the ground. The horse keeps running, dragging the body across the dirt. Travis guides the horse toward woods, galloping through the groves of dogwood and redbud that he once rode with his mother.
© gibson grand