I'm off to France for a couple of weeks. I've ticked off a long list of chores here at my desk, put two big projects to bed and am braced to return in July as a born-again sci-fi writer. While I'm gone, here's the first of a couple of extracts from a work that's been in progress several years. It was 2006, I think, when I went out to Utah and Nevada to have a look at the veteran rodeo circuit. I've been planning ever since to go back and gather enough material for a full-length book. Here's a portion of what I circulated through my agent - unsuccessfully - about six years ago.
‘Hey Lil!’ the owner of the Sage Brush Motel bellowed through to the back. ‘Guy in room 23. Wants to know how to git to the’ – there was a significant and quite unnecessary pause – ‘to the who-o-orehouse.’
A young couple unloading baggage and children from a people-carrier parked across the courtyard looked up as the word echoed around the office, out through the partly opened window and lost itself in the huge expanse of sagebrush that rolled away towards the snow-capped mountains.
‘Lil should know,’ the owner told me. ‘She’s bin around this town longer than me.’
‘It ain’t far,’ the old lady said as she shuffled through from the office, the smoke from a cigarette curling up into her lank grey hair. ‘Why, when ma brothers was your age they used to walk there. Right across the tracks.’ She pointed in the direction of the abandoned railroad depot. ‘Nowadays they drive, of course. Just follow the dirt road and you’ll see her, all lit up like a Christmas tree.’ As she spoke she’d been studying me, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine what she was thinking: fifty-five years old, balding, slight paunch coming on, travelling alone. It didn’t look good.
I was about to explain to her that I was from England, that I was writing a book, that I was just doing the neighbourly thing and accepting an invitation to join some guys I’d met for a Saturday night beer. But as she sniffed and turned back to the office, shaking her head, I could see she’d made her mind up. I was just one more horny old bastard from prim, Mormon Utah who had decided it was time to satisfy his curiosity about these bordellos across the Nevada state line.
As a last resort I called after her, ‘I’m with the rodeo.’ But I didn’t think she’d heard me – not until I was closing the door behind me and putting on my baseball cap. That’s when I heard her answer from out the back. ‘So where’s your stetson, mister?’
The motto of the National Senior Pro Rodeo Circuit says it all. The old cowboys – and gals - who travel from the chilly Great Basin in March to the torrid western plains in high summer, then move on up to Wyoming and Montana before doubling back south for the finals in Nevada just before Thanksgiving, probably do have their best years behind them. But there ain’t no way they’re ready to hang up their boots and saddles. “No Rocking-Chairs” it says it their promotional literature. And on their website. It’s probably engraved on the odd tombstone as well.
I’d first heard of this travelling show when I was in Chadron, up in the Nebraska Panhandle. It was the time of the annual spring round-up, when the cattle were brought in from the range to be branded and doctored, the bullocks castrated, and here was a place where they still tried to do it the old-fashioned way, with men on horse-back. I’d been out all morning watching the cowboys at work, and now I was in the Olde Main Street Inne, ordering a hearty breakfast. My companion at the table was a brand inspector and, as the proprietor pointed out to me, he was a real cowboy. ‘Can’t you tell by the way he takes his hat off when he sits down to eat?’
He was the real thing okay: a creak of leather as he eased himself into his seat, and a hand-shake I could still feel two days later. When he told me he reckoned I’d enjoy a plate of prairie oysters I assured him I would. I wasn’t going to argue with a man who stood six feet eight inches tall. And when the order arrived I dug in enthusiastically, remarking that they were more like meatballs than any bivalve mollusc I’d ever tasted.
‘Meat… balls,’ he said, making two distinct words of it, then pausing to reflect. ‘I guess you could say that.’ And then as I shoveled another one into my mouth he chuckled. ‘Yeah, you’d be about right - them being bullocks testicles an’ all.’
Later we got talking about where I came from, and I told him about my life-long fascination with the Wild West, my boyhood wish to be a cowboy, and what a pity it was that the old ways were dying out. ‘Al,’ he said, ‘if you wanna meet a bunch of guys who practise traditional ranching skills for the sheer joy of it, why, you need to hook up with the veterans’ rodeo. Buncha old farts, they travel the western states roping steers and busting their bones jest for the hell of it.’
And so I drove south a long, long way, through parts of Colorado, clear across Wyoming and down through Utah. Some days later, in a one-horse town called Panguitch, close to the Nevada line, I met up with the convoy of trucks, trailers and horse-boxes and spent a week or so trying to melt into the background, sitting in the dusty arena day after day watching the events, returning to my tent in the little campground in town at night to write up my notes. But in the end their curiosity overcame my reticence and I started to get to know one or two of the guys. I needed to. By this time I’d decided to travel on to Nevada with them.
The sun had gone down when I got in the car and bumpety-bumped my way over the wooden boards that crossed the railroad tracks. My lights picked out clumps of silvery sagebrush that bordered the road as it wound its way between outcrops of yellow rock and into the desert. Lil had said it wasn’t far, but I couldn’t see a single light now. For a moment I wondered whether I might have got it wrong. Maybe I was lost. I half hoped I was, because in truth I would have happily slunk back to my room and watched the baseball instead. But suddenly, there through a clump of dark, shrubby cedars was a row of pick-ups, and above them the rectangular white sign, bordered with red fairy lights.
Through These Doors Have Cum The Best In The West For 130 Years
As I parked the car and headed towards the entrance I was suddenly aware of my alone-ness. This was the kind of place you wanted to arrive at with a carload of mates in party mood, where you wanted to burst through the doors in a vortex of your own noise and laughter with the benefit of a couple of beers inside you. You wouldn’t want to arrive as I did, alone, uncertain, stone cold sober, and everything so damned quiet you could hear your own heartbeat. Apart from the guys from Wyoming I still only knew a dozen or so of the cowboys, one or two of the wives.
I walked into a dimly lit entrance-hall, its red and purple walls decorated with reproductions of old western photographs: cowboys posing with dance-hall girls; dance-hall girls posing with businessmen; the same girls in their corsets pouting at the camera. Ahead of me the sign said Patrons Lounge. I pushed the door open and stepped through.
I’d expected some dark and sleazy place with half-undressed girls draped across chintzy couches and a mascara’d madam frowning from a booth at the bottom of the stairs as a drunken punter stumbled his way up. Instead it was any old western bar on a Saturday night: guys in boots and hats squeezing their way through the crowd with a tray full of beers, the juke-box playing a country tune about a faithless wife, the tables piled high with empty bottles, cowboys and their gals sitting around them, laughing and talking. And, yes, there were a few of ‘the girls’ in their black and red see-through undies and high heels, leaning provocatively over the tables or sitting on laps, running their fingers through some feller’s hair or coming up behind his buddy to squeeze his head between their their improbably large breasts. In fact, they seemed to be everywhere. But the guys I’d come to see, the guys who’d insisted I show up, who’d told me that this was all good clean fun and Donna was a regular sponsor of the rodeo in Wells, Nevada – well, I couldn’t see them at all.
‘Don’t you think about touching that!’ As I turned around to see what was happening there was a dull ‘whump!’ as a large fist came down on a pile of twenty-dollar bills and a girl in a black negligee snatched her hand back towards her startled face. ‘Hey, I jest wanted to feel it,’ she giggled, but Wade, the stock contractor, was not amused. ‘This is pay-night for my pick-up men,’ he said, quietly, glowering at her from beneath the greasy brim of his hat. ‘And my clowns, and my stock-handlers. That’s their wages you’re messing with, lady.’ It was prize-money too, for the winners of that third day’s rodeoing. But if you narrowed your eyes you could almost imagine that this was Dodge City, Abilene, Ogallala or any other cowtown from the 1870s when the cattle-drovers came in from the range, thirsty, dirty and horny as hell, with a month’s back-pay and twenty-four hours in which to spend it.
I squeezed my way to the bar. Donny the retired stuntman was there in his long black Doc Holliday coat, the hat with the silver dollars around the brim, a girl on his knee. She wore three items of clothing, and was bursting out of all of them. ‘Oh,’ she said, as she heard me greet him. ‘You must be that English guy I heard about. Lemme buy you a drink, honey.’
‘That’s real generous of you, Charlene,’ Donny said, flashing his pearly white teeth.
‘No, that’s real generous of you, Donny,’ she said, reaching out to dip her hand into his coat pocket and pull out a hundred-dollar bill.
She leaned across the bar to order a round. She was broad-shouldered, busty, square-jawed, tanned, her arched eyebrows pierced by silver rings, her wrists covered with bangles, her nails long, pink and curved. She wouldn’t see forty again, but then neither would any of the cowboys in that room. The thought that skittered across my mind was that she looked more like a drag-artist than a good-time girl.
As she passed me a beer I felt warm breath on my ear. I turned round to see a Thai girl, slimmer than Charlene and pretty enough, but with a frown on her forehead and a mechanical edge to her voice as she asked me, ‘What can I get you, sweetheart?’
I raised my bottle. ‘I’m fine thanks,’ I said, aware that I had enjoyed the sensation of her cool finger running down the nape of my neck. She slipped away. She wasn’t going to waste her time with me. It was going to be a long night for all the girls, by the look of it. The cowboys were making it plain that they were here for the beer and the barbecue. Hell, half of them had their wives with them. And soon enough the girls started to drift towards the other side of the room, clustering round an overweight truck-driver and a couple of lean ranch-hands who’d slipped in, looking perplexed to see the place so crowded.
‘Hey, you made it, ya Limey sonofagun!’ From somewhere behind a sea of bobbing stetsons I could make out Rik and Ty and some of the other boys from Wyoming at a corner table, raising their bottles in my direction. ‘Al, come on over and grab yourself a drink. Hey, fellas, he made it!’
I downed what was left in my bottle and made my way across to where they sat, grinning, red-cheeked, their moustaches glistening with beer, their hats pushed back to expose pale range-rider foreheads.
‘What did you think?’ I asked as I sat myself down and opened a fresh bottle ‘That I wouldn’t show?’
‘Well, last we saw of you you were heading towards to Christian Corner,’ Ty said. ‘I know you’re making friends over there, keeping yer options open. I mean, you mighta had somethin’ planned that you didn’t wanna tell us about. Some God-fearin’ woman mebbe.’
‘I told you guys, I’m not interested.’
Rik leaned forward, pushing his glasses back on the bridge of nose. ‘Ty, you don’ suppose this guy’s one of those – one of those Brokeback Mountain cowboys we bin hearing about, do ya?’
‘Listen,’ Ty said. ‘He told us he’s courting a gal back home. And I reckon it’s only neighbourly of us to believe him, don’t you? So you keep your dirty little thoughts to yourself, ya hear?’
‘Tell me about the movie,’ I said.
Rik emptied his bottle, cracked another couple open and shoved one towards me. He had about eight more lined up on the table. God knows who was paying. ‘Jest help yourself,’ he said. ‘Now what movie was that, Al?`
‘You ain’t seen it?’
‘No. Meant to, but haven’t.’
‘Well I seen it, Al.’
‘And I gotta tell ya I was disappointed. I mean, shee-it, it’s like every other damned western movie I ever seen.’
‘I thought it was supposed to be different,’ I said. ‘A whole new angle on the cowboy theme.’
‘He’s right,’ Ty said. ‘I seen it too. It ain’t no different from the rest of `em.’
‘Yep, I watched it and it was the same old story.’ Rik leaned back in his chair and grinned. ‘Lotta action, and then the bad guys get it in the end.’
‘C’mon,’ Ty said, ‘It’s time to go eat. Else we might git crushed in the stampede.’ He was right. There was already a concerted move towards the door that led to the patio area and the smell of frying meat. But as I followed him I stumbled into Dale and his wife Karla. Someone had put another coin in the juke-box and they were dancing to a Hank Williams number. By the time he’d told me how he’d got his calf-roping all wrong and slipped down the rankings to second place overall and by golly he hoped the Good Lord would smile on him tomorrow `cos he aimed to win that silver buckle this year, I’d lost Ty and Rik and found myself swept away in the owner’s guided tour group.
It was as if I’d crashed a hen party, the only man amongst a dozen or more wives who pressed through the cramped bedrooms with their tassled cushions, fringed throws and subdued lamplight, then into the orange and pink plush of the Fantasy Room where the drawers were all opened and a variety of marital aids distributed for inspection. I listened as Geoff the owner, an accountant by trade, explained the sound business basis of the whole enterprise, the legally required medical inspections, the wholesomeness of a business which celebrated those twin American rights of individual freedom and unfettered opportunity.
‘You mean life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ one of the gals called out.
‘You got it in one, lady.’
I left the wives to their questions about hours and rates and how many men the girls could handle in a night, and joined the queue for chile beans and ribs, loaded up my plate and found a seat next to Dale and Karla.
‘Sometimes,’ Dale said, sucking the juice off a bone, ‘sometimes I just thank the Good Lord for leading me into all this.’
‘Ya mean spending your Saturday night in a house of ill repute?’ Karla asked.
‘Honey, didn’t the Good Lord himself dine with whores and tax-gatherers?’ He turned to me. ‘Besides, it’d be downright unmannerly to old Geoff to turn down his offer of a free meal. Y’know,’ he said, turning to me, ‘I always say rodeoing saved my life. I got into this in the early sixties when my Dad struck a deal with me. He’d let me carry on performing – this was local circuits, y’understand – if I agreed to go to college. See, we were dairy farmers, and nobody in the family had ever done that before. Always stayed home to mind the place. So I did what he said. And of course by that time Uncle Sam was just sucking all the young men up like crazy for the war in Vietnam.’
‘But not colleges kids.’
‘Right. Not college kids.’
‘But what about afterwards?’
Karla put her arm around him. ‘Oh,’ she said, `he has me to thank for that. I agreed to marry him. Dang foolest thing I ever did, but…’
‘And my Dad had always encouraged me,’ Dale continued. ‘See, he could never leave the dairy. But he knew I wanted something different.` He leaned forward and clasped his hands. He had a thumb missing, just a patch of taut, pinkish skin where it ought to be. ‘D’you know, when I was a boy we had an old tractor in a barn. Dad had taken the engine out, and the tyres. It was just standing there like a skeleton, but it had a seat and it had a steering wheel, and I had my imagination. Used to climb up there and grab that wheel and dream that I was driving all across America. Hours at a time I used to sit there, reeling off names of places I’d heard about and promising myself that one day I’d see `em all. Never imagined my dreams’d come true.’
‘But if you wish hard enough….’ Karla said.
‘That’s right, honey. I was riding at a little old county show one time and the contracter came up to me. Said, “Son, you’ve been blessed by God.” Told me, “you’re athletic, you know your livestock, and you’ve got timing.” And he offered me work as a clown – y’know, distracting the bulls, wisecracking to the crowd - and Dad said yeah, go ahead. Been doing it ever since.’
‘We brought our kids on the road with us,’ Karla said. ‘And boy, it taught them to look out for themselves. Cooking over a camp fire, washing themselves in a lake.’
I’d finished my food by now, but I sat there and let Dale roll. He loved to talk – about his family farm, his kids, his life on the road as a pro rider and now as a senior: calf-roper, team-roper and part-time clown, occasional teacher of rodeo skills, his desire to win that world championship at this year’s finals. But although I heard much of what he said I wasn’t really taking it in. I was too busy feeling good, with three or fours beers inside me and a plate of ribs and beans. Here I was, out in cowboy country, eating in a whorehouse for God’s sake, surrounded by welcoming, handsome, self-possessed cattlefolk who lived the very life I’d spent half my life reading about.
Dale was out of his chair, putting his hat on. ‘Well’ he said, ‘Karla and me gotta go check on the horses, get some shut-eye. Early start tomorrow. I’m taking the Cowboy Gathering – and you’d be welcome to join us to worship the Good Lord.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘yes. I’ll see how I’m fixed.’ I wondered what he’d say if he knew I didn’t do religion. ‘But anyway,’ I said, ‘it’s been good talking to you.’
Dale reached out his hand, the one without the thumb. ‘It’s been an honour, my friend. An honour.’