Dusty — a story

I don’t know why they still let him work. He was 62, far too old for a rodeo clown, but he needed the pay. This was all he’d done since he was 18, way before Manny Rodriguez took over Dusty Trails Rodeo. Sometimes I felt like he owned this place more than Manny did, just because he’d been here so long. “Connor,” he used to say to me, “Connor, my boy, the dust of this rodeo is in my veins by now, and my soul is probably caked with cowpies.”

If for nothing else, I loved him for the fact that he called me by my name. Because I helped out in the stables, mostly shoveling manure, the other guys always just called me Pooper. Even Charlie and Sam, the other stable hands whose responsibilities sometimes included scooping up, too. It was probably because I was so much younger. Mom and I joined Dusty Trails when I was only five, and at twelve I was old enough to make a little money helping out. So with my twelve to Charlie’s seventeen and Sam’s twenty, well, you can imagine the kick they got out of my nickname.

They never called me that around Mom, though. She was too pretty, most of the guys wanted to impress her, and those who didn’t at least made sure to be polite. So when Mom was nearby, I went from being Pooper to being Boy, or Stableboy. Manny never much talked to me, but when he gave us instructions he always called me “Annie’s boy,” and I didn’t mind that so much. Looking back, I think Mom was really the main draw to Dusty Trails. The riders — Evan, Hal, Jim, Andy, and Curtis — they didn’t even get their last names printed. But Mom’s name was at the top of the flier, “Annie McGibbons” in big fancy letters; maybe because she was the opening act, or maybe because it got more attention. She was young, pretty, and a fantastic trick rider. I felt so proud of her when I heard the hoots and whistles of the audience, when she would stand up on Lady Pegasus with the reins in one hand, waving with the other. The green sequined outfit set off her red Scottish hair and I thought there was nothing more beautiful in all the world.

He was a talented rodeo clown, I’ll give him that. His age could not fully erase the skill with which he dodged the horns and hooves. I imagine when he was younger he would have looked like a dancer, so smoothly did he still maneuver at 62. And he was never scared. Never. He had the greatest respect for the bulls, especially Devil’s Breath. “Connor, that bull is mean as a junkyard dog, and smart as a scholar, he is. Them others, oh, they’re nasty in their own right. Whipster gets those horns goin’ like crazy, you never know where Crash is gonna go, and Mr. Bones got his name by breakin’ ’em. But Devil’s Breath, that’s a worthy opponent there. That one can think.”

While he called me by my name, I just called him Dusty. Matter of fact, we all did. He’d been there longer than any of us, longer than any two put together, most likely, and he just took the name of the place like he embodied it or something. Well, not the whole name of the place, just the first part — so he wasn’t Dusty Trails, he was Dusty Wallace. I don’t even know what his real first name was. I don’t think he really used it anymore. To all of us he was just dusty by nature, Dusty by name.

He would tell me stories, when we had time, stories about working the rodeo years and years ago. There was one bull he used to liken to Devil’s Breath, from about 20 years ago. That was Cantankerous, the biggest bull Dusty’d ever seen. “I nearly lost my trouser-seat to ol’ Tank more times than I’d like to recall,” he’d say. He told me how things had changed, the remodeling of the Rodeo when he was in his forties and what it looked like before. The stands were wood then, painted blue. They were metal now, silvery and loud to walk on, and in the summer you could barely sit without burning your bottom. He would sit on a barrel in the stables with a flask of whiskey while I shoveled out the stalls: he talked to me while I worked my way from Crazy Horse, to Widdowmaker, to Munroe, to Hellion and Spastic — all the broncos — and then finally Mom’s mare, Lady Pegasus. She told me once that she named her Pegasus because when she rides her, with the speed and the wind in her hair, she says it’s just like they’re flying.

Anyway, apart from the animals, Dusty’s favorite topic was his wife, Clarice. She used to be a trick rider like Mom, until a horrible accident when her horse tripped and she was thrown. The horse was okay. Clarice wasn’t. But while Dusty related this tragic occurrence to me, he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, he would talk about what an amazing rider she was, and how lovely. “My Clarice, now, she was your typical blonde, blue-eyed beauty. Why she ended up with me, I haven’t a clue!” He’d laugh at that part, smoothing a hand over his wrinkled old face. “The men came to see her ride, sure as they come to see your ma nowadays, but I never got jealous. She’d wave to the whole crown, but she’d always find my face and blow a kiss to me and no one else. So what’d I have to get jealous about, eh?” I wondered if he got less careful after she died, took more chances with the bulls and danced a little closer. But I never had the nerve to ask him. He did most of the talking, and I was a good listener, and that was the way it was with us.

I first noted that something was wrong with he called Devil’s Breath “Tank.” It was after the show one day, and I was brushing down Lady while he sat with his whiskey, traces of face paint still visible at the corners of his mouth and in the creases of his forehead. “He was sly today, he was. Ol’ bugger done near tore the seat outta my pants and took my behind with it! O-ho, but I’m too smart for ol’ Tank, that monster, too smart for him.” Dusty chuckled and took a swig from his flask. “Tank?” I asked, resting my hand on Lady’s rump as I turned to face him. “Dusty, Cantankerous has been gone for years.” He waved my words away with a careless swing of his hand. “It don’t matter what they call him, he’s the meanest bull around. But I ain’t scared of him, Connor, my boy, he don’t scare me at all. We two are dancin’ partners is all. Jist dancin’ partners.”

A few days later, while we were watching Mom practice her routine, he turned to me with a smile and said, “She sure rides beautiful, don’t she, Connor?” I had to agree, even in her jeans and t-shirt, that she did in fact ride beautifully. But then he added, “She gets the crowd a-whistlin’, does my Clarice. Hootin’ and hollerin’, but she always blows a kiss to me and no one else.” I looked at his face and there was something about his eyes, something that made it seem as though a shade had been pulled across them. He wasn’t seeing my mother. He was back in a younger time, when life was sweeter to him. So I just nodded, not knowing what else I could do.

It was less than a week after those strange misperceptions, or whatever one might call them. I handed him his floppy wide-brimmed hat as he readied himself for the show, and he chucked my chin, grinning. “Clarice promised to take me to dinner when I’m done today. A nice place, she said, Connor, with real cloth napkins and wine glasses.” His excitement and anticipation were so thick on him that I couldn’t help but smile back, and I said, “I bet you’ll have a great time, Dusty.” I grasped his hand a moment, then let go. “Now go gettem!”

Devil’s Breath was let out of the pen with Andy on his back, gripping the rop for dear life as the bull bucked and spun. When he was thrown, moments later, Dusty raced out in his colorful array to taunt and tease until Andy had gotten to safety. Every eye present that day was riveted on Dusty and Devil’s Breath as they moved in an almost synchronous performance. A duck, a dodge, a feint, run to the left, then the right. “That’s a worthy opponent there. That one can think.” His words drifted through my mind just before I saw those horns twist unexpectedly, too fast for 62 years to avoid. Dusty had danced too close this time.

I think he knew he was dancing with death that day. And I think that, somehow, he wanted it to end that way. Doing what he knew, what he loved. And being done in by that which he had called “a worthy opponent,” for whom he had the utmost respect. I knew even then, that he would never have let Whipster get that close, or Crash or Mr. Bones. They simply weren’t good enough. Devil’s Breath was his partner, a friend and enemy in one. Besides, Dusty was scheduled for a date with his lovely Clarice, and he wouldn’t have missed that for the world.

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I’m an editor/writer/coach with a focus on inspiring, empowering, and healing content. I love tea, travel, long hippie skirts, and diving deep into the Self.

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J Haley Phillips

J Haley Phillips

I’m an editor/writer/coach with a focus on inspiring, empowering, and healing content. I love tea, travel, long hippie skirts, and diving deep into the Self.