Short on Brains. Long on Guts.

Busting broncs and busted cowboys. Photograph: National Cowboy Museum.
Busting broncs and busted cowboys. Photograph: National Cowboy Museum.

 

Carl Smith smelled of sweat and leather, and pain limped along after him closer than a shadow. It never left, just nagged at him like a jealous woman and kept him awake but never away from those damned old horses that wanted to kill him.

For thirty years, Smith had been riding broncs that were never too pleased with his company, wild horses that wanted to lay him down in the dirt, stomp him a time or two, and leave him like a broken rag doll in the good arena earth.

Sometimes he busted the broncs.

Mostly they busted him.

Carl Smith never fought to a draw, and he earned a few dollars and a few bruises and a lot of aches along the way.

The dollars were gone.

The aches weren’t nearly as fickle. They hung in there with him through thick and thin, and the days had gotten as lean as a bar of soap after a hard day’s washing.

Sometimes Carl Smith felt so low he swore he could sit on a cigarette paper and dangle both legs of the side. Of course, he might have trouble with the right leg. It had been broken five times, and he tried not to remember that summer afternoon when he lay sprawled on his back in the dust, dodging hooves and amazed because his spur was pointed toward the sky, and his toes had dug a hole in the dirt. Wasn’t supposed to look like that.

He would have laughed if he hadn’t been so sick. He would have thrown up if he had eaten. But then, the poor hardly ever rode on a full stomach, and Carl Smith was always hungry.

He leaned against the wooden chute gate at the Old-Time Cowboy Reunion Rodeo in Stamford, Texas, peeling off a splinter and sticking it in the corner of his mouth like a toothpick. He stared at the old droopy-eyed buckskin, wondering how much dynamite the old horse still had tucked away in his legs, or if the fuse had already been burnt out.

Carl Smith would know before the sun went down, and he hoped the old bronc was a helluva lot meaner than he looked because a cowboy never earned a cent tying his britches to a cream puff. He might be riding him, but it would damn sure be for nothing.

A fat-bellied cowhand with half-inch whiskers ambled up to his side. “How’re you doin’?” he wanted to know.

“Barely.”

“You gonna ride him?”

“Maybe.”

“I tried it once,” the cowhand said. “That sumbitch swallered his head and proceeded up to where the lights of Jerusalem shone. An’ there we parted company. That damn old horse came down alone.”

Carl Smith grinned. “As long as he’s not a spinner,” he said. “I hate spinners. I hate them dang horses that keeping swappin’ ends.”

The fat-bellied cowhand was silent for a moment, then he asked, “How’s the head, Carl?”

“Jus’ fine since they put the steel plate in it.”

“You oughta quit, you know.”

Carl Smith nodded. “Yeah, but I guess I’ll jus’ keep on bein’ a cowboy ‘til they come an’ packed me away with a shovel.”

He had thought about giving up bronc riding and settling down on his little Bar C Ranch out near Baird. He thought about it a lot when the cold rains and the damp chill of winter crept into his joints and gnawed at the marrow n his bones. He always favored his crooked right leg when he walked. It sometimes hurt to breathe. Four broken ribs were showing him no mercy at all.

And Smith still cussed the old high-withered horse that threw him back in ’49, breaking his breast bone, neck, and tailbone. He had gone to the rodeo to find him a pretty little lady anddance, and he pulled himself up from the dusty arena floor and danced until the band went home. That night he lay alone beside the chuck wagon and looked for sleep, but the pain kept chasing it away.

Morning nudged him, and he couldn’t get up. Hell, he was supposed to ride that afternoon, and he would have ridden, too, if he had ever been able to get to his feet.

A few days later, Carl Smith limped down to the creek and threw his saddle into the muddy water. A few days later, he limped down the creek and fished it back out again.

“What makes a good bronc rider?” I asked him.

“You gotta be short on brains and long on guts,” he said. “Besides that, you gotta be meaner than the horse.”

“Ever afraid of getting hurt?”

“I’m only afraid of missing a payday.”

Carl Smith climbed on the buckskin that afternoon, straightened the corset that held the misplaced pieces of his back together, checked his shoulder brace, and leaned down to make sure another metal brace was fastened secure around his bad leg.

He nodded.

The chute gate opened.

There would be no payday for Carl Smith. The horse screamed and pitched forward, then kicked the lid off, a tight, angry wad of gunpowder getting ready to explode.

Then the buckskin detonated.

Smith clawed frantically for leather, hanging onto the saddle but not the horse. The buckskin hit the ground stiff-legged, and Carl Smith tumbled to the arena dirt, rolling away from the sharp hooves that slashed above him.

The fat-bellied cowhand ran to the fallen rider’s side.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Smith reached up and touched the steel plate in his head, gingerly rubbed the four cracked ribs, shoved his shoulder brace back in place, and examined his crooked right leg.

“How the hell would I know,” the cowboy said as he stood, slapped the dust out of his britches, and limped back toward the bedroll behind the grandstand fence.

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  • Lana L. Higginbotham

    That’s why I like cowboys–they never quit. Life keeps bucking and trampling them, but they always retrieve the saddle and find their bed roll.

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