Thursday, September 8, 2011





The tall man in the black-leather chaps smacked himself in the forehead with the callused palm of his right hand. He did it again with his left hand. Again with the right. Again with the left. He shook his shoulders left and right, stamped his boots into the dust, and breathed sharply, making whooshing sounds through his mouth. Stall walking was the same for every rodeo cowboy; a time alone in the midst of activity, a time to center your "try" before taking your wrap.

The noise of the crowded arena behind him had become one monotonous background roar, and the rich, heavy sweat smells of animal stock settled around him with the comfort of an old overcoat.

Sharp words cut into his concentration.

"Keegan's up, Calico!"

Closing his eyes, "Calico" Jack Walker heard the chunk of the chute gate opening, and the rising screams of the audience drowning out the noise of a passing jet. In his mind he watched a ton and a half of Brahma bull buck and twist Bill Keegan into a living bruise, his imagination so intense he could almost feel the pain.

The eight-second horn sounded and applause exploded. Here we go! Calico said to himself. He didn't bother to listen to the announcer's metallic voice spilling enthusiastically from the P.A. system.

Jazzbo Brenner poked Calico in the ribs with an elongated finger. "Great ride. It was a great ride. You're going to have to go some to beat him, Calico," he said, emphasizing a point already abundantly clear. "You ready?"

Calico opened his eyes and looked at Jazzbo's greasepaint-smeared face and bright, baggy clothing. You wouldn't believe to look at the animated rodeo clown that he was the most reserved of the rebel cops on the morning watch. "Yeah, I'm ready. You just be ready when Number 98 decides to have me for lunch."

"I've never let you down before."

Calico smiled at his friend and headed for the bucking chute. Why in the hell was he still playing cowboy at fifty plus years old, he wondered silently. It was obvious there would always be some young turk, like Keegan, trying to bring down the old guard. Somehow, though, it went against everything inside him to give up without a fight.

The International Police Rodeo Association held five rodeos a year around the country with one more in Canada. Calico had made all of them since the inception of the association, but this one, held just outside Los Angeles in Burbank, was the largest and the most important. For the past three years running he'd snatched up the all-round cowboy honors given for the best performance in the three riding events: saddle bronc, bareback, and bull.

Calico had been falling off stock ever since he was five years old, when his father sat him on a donkey backward and jumped him over a picket fence. Later he'd followed the professional "suicide circuit" until the Marines felt it was time to teach him how to be a man and sent him off to Korea.

He caught the tail end of the "police action" there. It was enough. He'd served under Lewis "Chesty" Puller at the frozen Chosan reservoir. Twenty thousand Marines surrounded on all sides by North Koreans. Puller had told them to go out and kick ass, and they did. All the way home. More scared of Puller than of any enemy.

When he got back stateside, he'd hired on with the police force in Los Angeles. It was a stopover until he had enough of a poke saved to head down the rodeo trail again. Somehow that set of circumstances never seemed to arrive. Police work infected him, and working the street became as much of an addiction as the rodeo. When the International Police Rodeo Association came into existence, though, Calico became a charter member. It gave him a chance to return to an old lover without having to leave his current mistress.

The first time he had captured the all-round title it had been nothing more than staying the distance on all his stock. The following year the competition had been a bit tougher, the young turks on the rise, and the previous year he had been lucky to win. This year he felt he'd be lucky just to walk away.

Keegan had taken second in the saddle-bronc competition, Calico third. In bareback the positions had been reversed, and now it was all down to the bull riding. Keegan's ride had been well executed, his animal performing better than expected. As a result the two judges scored him high with a combined total of 188. It was going to take a hell of a ride to beat it.

Under a rain-threatening sky the whitewashed boards of the bucking chute creaked and bulged from the inside as Number 98 declared his presence. Calico looked at the bull through the cracks in the boards, seeing him for what he was: a rogue man-hater.

He'd sweated the bull after drawing its number from an old coffee can, and learned he couldn't have a better mount for what he needed to do. Number 98 had never been ridden for the full eight before, so there was no doubting the bull's performance. The responsibility for a high score rested on the rider.

"Fit?" asked Ray Perkins from the side of the chute where he was ready to help cinch up the bucking rigging.

"Sure. No problem," Calico replied tensely. "Eight seconds ain't any longer than eternity, is it?"

Perkins laughed as Calico pulled a rosin-soaked leather glove from his rear pocket and slipped it on his riding hand. The palm of the hand had a piece of skin the size of a silver dollar missing from the middle, and Calico saw Perkins looking at it with concern.

"Don't go worrying yourself, now, over something nothing can be done about," he told his old squad-car partner. "Tore it in the bareback, but it's gone as numb as a dick full of novocaine."

"Come off it! How are you going to hang on with your hand in that condition?" Perkins asked, using a shoelace to tie the glove in place.

"Guess I don't have much choice, do I? I'm going to use a finger wrap."

"Are you out of your mind? This bull spins toward your riding hand! If you come off on the wrong side you'll get hung up!" Perkins held onto Calico's wrist.

"It's the only chance I've got to ride this bastard."

"You're crazy!"

"Yeah, I know." Calico slipped his hand between the boards and climbed up to the top of the chute, swung his legs across it, and looked down at the most repulsive chunk of animal he ever wanted to see. Number 98 was 1,800 pounds of gristle and meanness, more than a match for an old cop's 200 pounds of aches and pains.

"Okay, hotshot," Perkins said from below him, just don't break up the ambulance crew's poker game."

Calico smiled briefly and lowered himself onto the hurricane deck of the bull's back. Number 98 snorted, giving him a faceful of fetid, steaming breath. Unlike broncs who are happy to just dump their rider and run, Brahma bulls tote a grudge, living for the chance to sink a horn into human flesh.

The flat, rosined braid of the bucking rigging slipped easily over Calico's riding hand, and Perkins pulled the rigging tight, like a man pulling a bucket out of a well, until Calico nodded his head. Taking the free end of the rope, Calico laid it across his palm. Then, instead of just wrapping it behind his hand and across the palm again, he brought the tail of the rope between his third and little fingers first. Ray Perkins shook his head sadly, but Calico ignored him. With the fist of his free hand, he pounded his riding hand shut around the rigging and pulled hard. There was no give in the rope, and the bell attached below the bull's brisket clanked loudly.

The voice from the P.A. system boomed out over the crowded arena. "Next up is IPRA's returning all-round champion, 'Calico' Jack Walker, on Number 98. He's going to have to turn in a tough ride this time out, folks, if he hopes to hang onto his title. Good luck, Calico!"

Hauling himself into shape, Calico dragged his thighs over the loose, wrinkled skin of the bull's hide until they were as close to his riding hand as possible. There was a second of time waiting for Number 98 to square himself, and then Calico nodded go; the fleece-lined strap around the bull's flanks was yanked tight, and the chute burst open.

One one-thousand. Number 98's first leap out of the chute was a spectacular aerial display worthy of the Blue Angels, ending suddenly with straight-leg impact designed to jar every bone of its human cargo. Calico held his shape, body hunched close to his riding hand, free arm grabbing air and balance. He was grinning from ear to ear. The storm engulfed him, leaving nothing between life and the devil except his own skill and determination.

Two one-thousand. With incredible speed and power the Brahma twisted toward Calico's riding hand, throwing its horns over its own withers in an attempt to gore a human leg. Calico reacted immediately. Anticipating the beast's move, he dug a good hold with the blunt spur of his inside foot, and clawed the outside spur high over the bull's shoulder. Number 98 roared in pain and twisted back the other way, trying to gore anything on either side, or smash something with the hard poll on the top of its head.

Three one-thousand. Calico's neck snapped backward, hard, as Number 98 bucked and jerked in a rage, but he still got in several good-scoring licks with his spurs before the bull began twisting again.

Four one-thousand. There was no way to dummy the ride out, Number 98 was like a firecracker with dynamite in both ends. He bucked skyward and sun-fished his belly, rolling it upward on either side toward the sun, like he knew his own reputation as a man-killer was on the line. His head fought left and right, his horns searching viciously for a target in the muscled form astride his back.

Five one-thousand. Vision blurred, head pounding, ears ringing, tailbone jammed halfway up the spinal column, riding hand tearing apart. No chance to change strategy as the bull twisted in instead of out like it had done in the past.

Six one-thousand. Calico's nose started to bleed, pouring red corpuscles down his chin and splattering the chest and arms of his white shirt as Number 98 twisted beneath him.

Seven one-thousand. The bull bucked, threw his belly up, hit the ground straight-legged, and spun toward Calico's riding hand. To compensate, Calico pushed out desperately with his riding hand. He was so, so close. Unwillingly his riding arm was fatally straightened, leaving no elasticity between himself and Number 98, who had the taste of victory in his mouth.

Eight . . . Calico lost his shape and started to slide, spurs clawing for any kind of purchase. His grip opened involuntarily, and the bucking rigging began to slip across his palm. No way! No way! Calico screamed internally, and then the rigging caught between his entwined fingers . . . one-thousand.

The time horn sung out like the coming of angels, but the Brahma didn't care. He bucked and twisted again as the burden on its back tried to jump clear. There was no grace in the dismount. Calico bounced off on the wrong side of the bull, nearest his riding hand, and found his fingers still trapped in the rigging strap. Like a rag doll in heat, he slammed into the bull's side and caught the flat of a horn across his ribs for the effort. There was no air in his lungs, and he was only vaguely aware of Jazzbo Brenner throwing himself with suicidal abandon on Number 98's back and pulling his riding hand loose. Free of the rigging, Calico dropped to the pulverized ground and instinctively rolled away from the Brahma's slashing hooves.

Jazzbo and Ed Martin, the other rodeo clown, drew the enraged bull away from its human quarry, and an army of helping hands dragged Calico from the arena.

"I got the ride ... He never touched me!" Calico told the confusion around him.

"You're crazy as a loon! You're an idiot! Why did you have to hang on?" Ray Perkins yelled at him.

"I got the ride, damnit! I got the ride!" Calico screamed back.

There was more confusion, more pain, especially in his ribs, as Calico was loaded on a stretcher and hustled to the first-aid room. The portable X-ray machine was wheeled in and radiation took a couple of steps closer to sterilizing the world. The doctor came, went, returned, and went again. Calico found himself pushed, poked, and bounced worse than a repeat ride on Number 98. Finally there was the bliss of silence and aloneness. He closed his eyes and gave over to the pain.

He didn't know how long he'd kept his eyes closed, but when he opened them there was a woman sitting beside him holding his hand in her lap. Her blond hair was thick and lustrous, cut in the page-boy style currently back in vogue. It framed a heart-shaped face with cool blue eyes and a Cupid's bow mouth. Her body was slipped into skintight jeans and a frilly blouse which emphasized the slimness of her hips and the swell of her large breasts.

Calico took one look at her and snapped his eyes closed again. "Oh, crap! I've died and gone to Hell!" He pulled his hand back.

"It's nice to see you too, Walker!" Her voice still carried the same whine which had grated on Calico for the entire ten years of their marriage.

"Marsha, don't you know ex-wives are supposed to leave their ex-husbands alone? That's why they call them ex-wives."

"When will you grow up and realize you're going to kill yourself if you keep playing these stupid, childish games?" Marsha's cheeks were filled with color, and her voice had risen quickly to a shriek. It made Calico smile.

"I became a policeman so I wouldn't have to grow up," he replied, and was suddenly aware again of the pain in his ribs. "What does the doctor say this time?" he asked.

Marsha stood up from beside the first-aid cot and straightened her designer jeans over her eel-skin boots. "Nothing serious, he claims. Half a dozen bruised ribs, couple of hairline cracks. There may be more but you'll have to wait for the swelling to go down before anyone can tell for sure. You were lucky, again."

Calico nodded his head and groaned. Lucky, right. "Have they announced the all-round champion yet?"

"Calico! You piss me off so much I can't stand it! You're laying there, all busted up inside, and all you're worried about is some stupid rodeo championship!"

"I love it when you talk dirty, Marsha. How come you never did that when we were married?"

"God, you're a bastard. I hate you." Marsha had her voice under control again, and just stood glaring at Walker.

He grinned. "So that's why you divorced me. I thought it was because I left the toilet seat up or something."

"Ooooh!" Color rushed back to her cheeks, and Marsha looked around for something to throw. Anticipating her, Calico sprung off the cot to grab her. He didn't make it, the pain in his ribs driving him flat again.

"Calico!" Marsha knelt down over him, anger replaced by concern.

"I'm all right, woman. I'm all right." He coughed and pushed himself gingerly to a sitting position. "Just what are you doing here anyway?"

"I came with Sal Fazio."

"Oh, come on! Not Sergeant Sally. Haven't you realized yet he only takes you out because he thinks it gets to me?"

"Did you ever stop to think maybe I only go out with him because I know it gets to you?"

"Yeah, well ..." Calico paused to rub his ribs tenderly. "That still doesn't explain why you're dithering over me here. You told me once you'd had enough of that when we were married."

"I did and I'm not here for a booster dose. I came to give you this." Marsha picked up a voluminous carry-all bag from beside the cot and extracted a legal-size buff envelope. She dropped it in Calico's lap.

"What's this?"

"It's a subpoena. I'm taking you back to court. I want my share of your pension."

"What! You can't do that, Marsha. I bought you out of my pension when we got divorced eight years ago. You got a cash settlement. That's all you get." Calico's color was up now, and it was Marsha's turn to smile. She did it sweetly, like a cat twisting a barbecue stick into a canary.

"Sal says I can get more. He says there's been new legislation and if I take you back to court I can get half your pension for the ten years we lived together."

"And just where did Sweet Sally get his information?"

"Don't call him that! He's just passed his bar exam and was at a lawyer's business luncheon."

"A regular Conan the Rotarian, huh? Come on, Marsha, we don't need to do this. If you're hurting for spare change, I'll keep sending you the child-support money you'll lose when Ren turns eighteen next week."

"I just want what's mine, Calico. I don't need any handouts from you."

"Oh, right." Calico stood up in exasperation. "You just want half of the pension it took me thirty years to earn, and which I paid a huge chunk of change to buy you out of. Is that what you mean by getting what's yours?"

"I earned ten years' worth of that pension as much as you did!" Marsha angrily shoved her face toward Calico's, the four-inch heels on her boots making up only part of the size difference. "I put up with all the crap you and your partners pulled, like that time you and Wild John got drunk after work and you had him call me and tell me you were dead!"

Calico couldn't help but laugh at the memory.

"You bastard!" Marsha swung a closed fist and struck Calico on the arm. He backed away, fending her off while still laughing. "We'd only been married two months! I almost killed myself before you came home, I loved you that much!" Marsha struck out at him again, tears running down her face.

"And there was that time, when I was pregnant with Ren, and you and Wild John raced to Tijuana and back in the police car during morning watch. Had your pictures taken with the little Mexican man and his moth-eaten donkey. It was a stupid thing to do. You jeopardize your whole career, our life together, for what? A few laughs, a reputation? You never stopped doing those things. You and the rest of your Peter Pan buddies!" She hit him again and again in the arms until he grabbed her hands and forced them down.

"Okay. Okay." His ribs felt like they were being torn apart. "You're right, I've done some crazy things, but I don't regret one of them. And don't ever try to make out you didn't know what you were getting into. You loved the wildness. It was why you married me."

"People change, Calico."

"Only if they want to. I never have."

"No, you never have." Marsha had calmed down somewhat, but she still pulled her hands forcefully out of Calico's grip before turning away to pick up her purse again. She took out a pack of Kools and a lighter.

"I'll see you in court." She followed the statement up with a puff of smoke, a turned back, and a scuffling of high-heeled boots.

"Do you know how much your ass wiggles when you stalk around in those boots?" Calico called after her before she got out the tent exit.

"Drop dead!"

"Then you'd never get my pension."

"Screw you!" came the final note from outside.

Calico grunted and sat back on the cot, throwing the subpoena on the floor. The doctor came back in looking harried and disgruntled. He produced yards and yards of ace bandage and began wrapping it around Calico's torso.

"Ace bandages, the universal cure-all, huh, Doc?" Calico asked. "I understand you can get them in prescription strength now for acne and nose colds." He winced as the diminutive doctor pulled the bandages tight and then handed him a slip of paper.

"Here's a prescription for pain killers. You'll need them by morning." The doctor's bedside manner was terse to say the least.

"I've got to go to work in the morning. Eleven o'clock tonight, actually."

"There's no way you're going to be up to that. You'll be lucky if you can get up to go to the bathroom by tomorrow."

"Doc, I haven't taken a sick day off work since I got on the force, that'll be thirty years next Sunday, and I ain't about to take one now because of a few bruised ribs."

You're crazy if . . ."

"Why does everybody keep telling me that?" Calico interrupted. "It's my body, I know what it can take."

The doctor shook his head and moved out of the tent without further comment. Cowboys and cops, there was no arguing with them. Calico followed the silent exit with his eyes and saw a familiar figure standing by the tent flap.

"Hey, Ren. How you doing, boy?" Calico threw the doctor's prescription on the tent floor next to the subpoena, and waved his son inside.

"Better 'n you by the looks of it," Ren Walker answered his father. "Berserko come by and give you a bad time?" He was as tall as his father, but graced with his mother's slimness. His fine brown hair was cut short, and businesslike glasses protected his washed-out blue eyes. Like his father, his face wasn't model handsome, but instead was made up of lines and angles, giving it a rugged appearance. Most women liked it.

"How many times I got to tell you not to call your mother that?" Calico reached for his shirt on the back of the cot and struggled to put it on. Ren didn't offer to help. He knew better.

"I've lived with her for eighteen years. That's seven more than you did. I think I've got a handle on what she's really like," Ren retorted sharply.

"It still don’t make it right, you calling her names. She never let you want for anything."

"Let me tell you something, Pop. Most kids get all broken up inside when their parents get divorced. After ten years of seeing how Mom treated you, I couldn't have been happier when you two split."

"She loves you, Ren."

"Only when it suits her."

The two men were silent as Calico did up his shirt buttons and stood up to tuck it in.

"Anyway," Ren said eventually, "I've got another surprise for you." He handed his father a sheaf of papers.

"This is my day for surprises. What is it this time?"

"It's the charter license for King Harbor."

"You mean we got it?" Calico's face lit up with a huge grin.

"Yeah, we did. I found a boat too."

"No kidding. Where?"

"Newport Beach. It's an Egg Harbor. A forty-six footer, high bow and low stern, supercharged Caterpillar twin diesels, and forward fly bridge. Draws three feet. Everything we've been looking for." Excitement danced behind Ren's glasses as he spoke.

"How much?"

"With full instrumentation, a hundred and ten thousand. You got to come down and have a look at it. It's beautiful."

"You got it. How about tomorrow after I get off work? About ten o'clock okay?" Affectionately, Calico reached out and grasped his son's arm. "Ren, are you sure this is what you want to do? Helping your old man get started in the charter fishing business ain't exactly riding in the fast lane. And what about your writing and the job with that fancy newspaper?"

"Pop"— Ren turned serious—"I can't wait for you to retire next week and get into something new. I've been planning it for as long as you have. It will finally give me the chance to catch up on all those years when you weren't there. I'm doing this for me, not you. I can still write, and the newspaper will always be there. I need to get some college behind me before they take me seriously anyway, and I can do that while we're working together."

The two men smiled at each other and then Calico's expression changed.

"Hey, who won the all-round?"

Ren laughed. "Was there ever any doubt? Number 98's a beaten bull. You scored 191. Beat that young upstart, Keegan, all to death."

Calico smiled again. "Well, then. Let me get out of here and pick up my prize money. I need the cab fare home."

As they walked out of the tent, they both saw Sal Fazio entering one of the portable toilets. Calico looked at Ren who grinned mischievously back at him.

"No, we couldn't do a thing like that, could we?" Calico asked his son, both working on the same wavelength.

"No. It just wouldn't be right," Ren responded. Both men, though, had turned away from the rodeo arena and were sneaking up on the occupied convenience.

Giggling like naughty school boys, they silently slipped a discarded length of rope around the cubical and tied it securely with a couple of half hitches. They laughed louder.

"What's going on out there?" asked Fazio from inside. "Is that you, Walker? I'll have your ass if you do something stupid!"

Calico and Ren had tears of laughter flowing down their faces as they pushed the toilet over onto its door. Fazio screamed from inside. "Walker, I'll kill you!"

Around the two men, other cowboys, tired from the day's events, stopped loading their horses and joined in the laughter. The police band in the background was playing "Good-bye, Old Paint" as the sun broke partially through the purple-gray sky. Ren and Calico saluted the now bouncing, overturned convenience as if it contained an admiral gone down with his ship.

Calico snapped off his salute and grabbed the exposed collection bag beneath the toilet and shook it vigorously. "Watch closely, boy. You have to make sure the contents get distributed evenly. It's a fine art, but, if you work hard, you too can become a professional sphincter."

Ren couldn't stop laughing. "Where the hell did you get your mean streak, Pop?" he asked, gasping for breath.

"Mail-order catalog. Came free with a complete collection of Elvis records."


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