The Silence of Lightning
Marie S. Crosswell © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The three of them sit sprawled in a booth: Smith, Cooper, and Christa. Their table’s littered with beer bottles and the shucked off metal caps. Smith’s got a cooler on the floor alongside his seat because this is his bar and he can do whatever the hell he wants. He opens each beer with the bottle opener on his key ring. His cousins got a pretty good buzz going on, the two of them pink-faced and smiling, leaning into each other. Smith is mellowed out, not drunk. He doesn’t watch the saloon or Georgeanne filling in for him at the bar, just nurses his drink and considers his cousins.
“There is no way in hell I’m riding fifteen hundred miles on the back of a motorcycle,” says Christa.
“Why not?” Cooper whines. “Labor Day weekend, it’ll be beautiful. We won’t see weather that good in between here and Austin until next spring, which is almost a year from now.”
“I wouldn’t go in the spring either. I’m not traveling that far on a bike. Period.”
“You don’t even have to worry about the bike. I’m the one handling it. All you have to do is hold on and enjoy the scenery.”
“I wouldn’t be enjoying anything, Cooper! I’d be terrified the whole way. What’s fun about that?”
“I wouldn’t even go fast!” Cooper says. “I’ll cap it at five above the speed limit; I promise.”
“Eighty miles an hour on a motorcycle is still enough to kill you!”
“Okay, first of all, it would be seventy half the time, and second of all, why don’t you trust me? I’m not some reckless yahoo looking to cheat death taking a corner too fast, and even if I was, I would never gamble with your life.”
Christa gives her sister an indulgent smile. “It’s not about you. It’s about all the things you can’t control. My fear included.”
Cooper sighs in defeat and blinks at Smith sitting across from her. “Will you go with me?”
Smith pauses. “Might follow in the truck.”
Cooper rolls her eyes. “Forget it. I’ll go on my own.”
“You’re not making that trip alone, Cooper,” says Christa, sipping on her beer.
“Well, I wouldn’t have to if you’d come with me.”
Cooper’s been restoring a 1966 Triumph Bonneville T120TT all year, tinkering with it in her spare time at the garage where she’s an auto mechanic. She reckons she’ll be finished with it by the time September rolls around, and she’s been pestering her sister about a long road trip to Texas.
Christa ignores Cooper’s pouting and gives Smith a pointed look. “You coming to the rodeo with us?”
“No, ma’am,” he replies and draws on his beer. He’s sitting in the interior corner on his side of the booth, and he’s got his left arm stretched out along the top of the seatback behind him. He might be hiding a little, from the rest of the room.
“Smith. Come on.”
“Every year, you two go out there, and every year, I don’t. I figure that’ll never change.”
“Why can’t you just suspend your boycott for one night and spend some time with us?”
“I’m spending time with you right now. I’ll follow you anywhere, except the damn rodeo. Why don’t you skip the rodeo and do something else with me? We could take the motorcycle course at the DMV and get licensed.”
Christa makes a face at him. “Very funny.”
“Well, we’re going tomorrow night, with or without you,” Cooper says to Smith. “And I’m betting whoever places first in bronc and bull riding won’t come anywhere near your records, like I always do. Then I’ll be proven right like I always am. At least half a dozen people will recognize me and Chris as your family, ask us how you’re doing, and then recount some memory of your glory days we’ve both heard about a thousand times. We’ll smile and nod and agree you were the best in the West, shake hands, and go home.”
“Clearly, I’m not missing anything,” says Smith, his face shaded under the brim of his cowboy hat.
“If you hate the rodeo so much, why did you decide to live in Cody?” Christa asks. “You could’ve gone back to Rawlins or Cheyenne. Left Wyoming altogether.”
“Cody ain’t a bad place to live.” Smith flicks his eyes past his cousin and gives the saloon a once-over. “You two are here.”
“We’re here because of you,” says Cooper.
Smith glances at her but doesn’t respond, draining his beer bottle instead.
“Where’s Smith Rose?” somebody calls out, loud enough for the whole room to hear.
Cooper and Christa peer over their shoulders at the young man standing a few paces from the door, bright-eyed and ruddy in his tan cowboy hat. He searches the saloon with his eyes before landing on the bartender, who lifts her chin toward the cousins’ booth. The young man turns toward the booth and stares until he recognizes Smith’s face in the shadows of his seat corner, then beelines for the booth with the keen enthusiasm of a puppy dog. He takes off his hat and clutches it in both hands, staring at Smith as if Cooper and Christa aren’t there.
“Mr. Rose?” he says.
“Yeah,” says Smith. “That’s me.”
The young man smiles. “I’ve wanted to meet you since I was ten years old, and now I don’t know what to say.”
He worries the brim of his hat in his hands and gawks like Smith is a big-name celebrity. The tips of his ears are pink.
“What’s your name, kid?” Smith says to him, nonplussed.
“M-Michael Grant, sir.”
“You’re not a local, are you, Mr. Grant?”
“No, sir. I’m from Sheridan. I’m here to compete in the Nite Rodeo. It’s my first year in Cody, and when I heard you were living here, I had to find you. I used to watch you compete on TV. Nationals and all. My family took me to see you live one time when I was a kid. I haven’t ever seen any bronc rider as good as you, sir. It’s an honor to meet you. A real honor.”
Smith nods and says, “I appreciate that. If you’re old enough to drink, go to the bar and order what you want on the house. Hell, if you’re not, you could anyway. Pretty sure Georgeanne won’t card you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Michael says, still clutching his hat in both hands. He’s browned from spending the summer outside, darkened freckles dusting his face.
Smith drinks from his water glass, waiting for the young man to leave him alone, but Michael lingers, obviously wanting to say more. Cooper and Christa peer at him, and Smith waits for them to pick up the polite small talk on his behalf.
“Sir,” Michael starts, rubbing both thumbs against the brim of his hat. “I was wondering—well, I wanted to ask if you would come out and watch my rounds. I’ll be steer wrestling and bull riding the next few nights. It’d mean a lot to me if you came and maybe told me what you think.”
Smith regards the kid and considers saying yes. He can feel his cousins staring at him from across the table. “Look,” he says. “I understand this means something to you, and I know why you’re asking. But I don’t go to rodeos anymore. Haven’t been to a single one since I retired. I’m not turning you down personally. I just won’t set foot on rodeo grounds, no matter where they are. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it is what it is.”
The kid does his best not to let his face fall as he nods. “No, I understand. It’s all right. I just wanted to ask you while I had the chance, but it’s no big deal. What I really wanted was to meet you, and now I have. So, I guess I’ll go and get that drink.”
He puts his hat back on and finally looks at Christa and Cooper, nodding at them in acknowledgment. He looks back at Smith, pauses, then steps forward and holds out his hand.
Smith shakes with him. “Good luck out there,” he says.
“Thank you, sir,” says the kid. He turns and starts heading for the bar, but halfway there, Cooper raises her voice at him.
“Grant,” she says.
He stops and faces her.
“How’d you like to see Smith ride that bull?”
She nods at the opposite side of the room where the saloon’s mechanical bull stands in the middle of thick, blue tumbling mats. The kid follows her line of sight.
Smith starts to protest, but the kid’s eyes light up.
Christa stands up on her seat, still holding her beer. “Who wants to see Smith ride the bull?” she yells.
The saloon roars.
Cooper grins at her cousin over the table.
Smith gives her a surly look, then slides out of the booth in resignation and stalks across the saloon floor.
The mechanical bull wasn’t Smith’s idea. His cousins convinced him a saloon in Cody, “Rodeo Capital of the World,” should have a mechanical bull. At least two other bars in town have one, and what would people think if Smith Rose didn’t have a bull in his? But he’s never ridden it himself, on account of a decision he made right after he retired—a decision about never getting on the back of a bucking animal again, never having anything to do with the sport again.
Smith swings onto the bull with the smoothness of someone who’s mounted these things a hundred times since he was twelve years old and full of rodeo dreams. The saloon goes quiet, except for the country music playing on the sound system. He glances at Big Bob, who’s manning the operator box, and nods.
The mechanical bull starts to bob back and forth like a seesaw, slow enough that Smith doesn’t have to make any real effort to stay on it. He could fall asleep if the machine kept this pace, buzzed on a six-pack and feeling like he’s home again for the first time in five years. But pretty soon, the bull starts bucking a little faster, swiveling around in a half circle. It’s not like the real thing, not even close, but all the same instincts and training committed to his muscle memory kick in, keeping him on the machine past second marks anybody without rodeo experience wouldn’t make.
The bucking quickens, the bull rotates a full circle and a half. If he had to guess, he’d say Big Bob has the speed dial on six.
His cousins are hooting and hollering, their voices clear amongst the others.
“You ride that son of a bitch, Smith!” Cooper yells.
“Hold on, baby, hold on!” Christa says.
Smith grips the handle where the bull’s right shoulder blade would be if it were a live animal, his left arm held out parallel to the floor for balance. He grips the machine tight between his legs, knees digging into the sides, but he’s loose from the waist up, leaning with the bull. He follows the jerking like going with a current, his body an extension of the machine.
Some old twangy tune’s playing on the fancy jukebox that cost Smith about three grand. The Flying Burrito Brothers.
The bull’s bucking as hard as it can, as hard as the real thing could, swirling him fast enough to blur the saloon. But he’s not dizzy. His heart’s beating faster than it has since the last time he was on a live animal, his body flooded with adrenaline, and something rushes up his chest and through his throat from his gut, something like a river breaking through a dam. A smile. A smile he’s too proud to let loose.
The mechanical bull finally throws him, and he lies sprawled on his back in one corner of the mat, blinking up at the ceiling as the whole saloon screams and beats the tabletops.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Big Bob says into his microphone. “The new record holder for longest ride on the Bad Moon bull, one minute and forty-eight seconds. Our very own Smith Rose!”
Smith ducks his head at the applause and cheering, standing alongside the bull with his back toward his cousins in their booth. He used to do this on his feet in arenas, under the white lights, listening to the people in the stands. He’d pause as the handlers got a hold of the bull or the bronc and led it out. Those days and nights smelled like dirt, livestock, and animal shit. Here, it’s just booze.
When Smith turns and looks up, the first thing he sees is a ghost of rodeos past.
A Black man stands with his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans, staring at Smith as if they’re the only two people in the room. He’s tall in his heeled cowboy boots but not as tall as Smith. He’s wearing a shirt tucked into his jeans. A large, oval-shaped, silver belt buckle gleams at his waist, but despite the size, it isn’t flashy. The man’s hips are slightly canted to the right, and his dark eyes smolder. He doesn’t appear any different than the last time Smith saw him, six years ago. Not any older and just as handsome.
Smith makes his way across the mat, stepping back onto solid floor next to the man. Standing face to face with him, Smith feels an uneasiness he knows is irrational; nobody could guess his history with this guy by seeing them together now. But he still wants to take his visitor outside.
“Looks like you still got it,” the man says.
“What are you doing here?” says Smith, his voice low and his hands on his hips.
“Working, up in Montana.”
“What are you doing in my saloon, in Wyoming?”
The man gives Smith a silent look. “Why don’t you buy me a drink?” he says, then lopes over to the bar and takes a seat.
Smith glances at his cousins, who are watching him with curiosity from their booth. He goes behind the bar and relieves his stand-in bartender, trying his best not to give the visitor attention everybody else can see. He rolls his sleeves up to his elbows to show off his strong forearms.
“I think I’ll start with a beer,” his visitor says.
Smith reaches into the cooler underneath the bar and pulls out a Miller High Life. He pops off the bottle cap and slides the beer across the bar.
The visitor smiles. “All this time and you still know what I like.”
Smith doesn’t reply. He didn’t know he remembered what John Henry drank until just now.
“How’d you find me?” Smith asks, bracing his hands against the edge of the bar top. He keeps his voice low.
“It’s no big secret you live here,” says John Henry, tipping the beer bottle against his lips. “People still talk about you in the circuit. Montana guys know you’re here. Wyoming riders too. Some of them are from your county.”
Smith doesn’t reply. He never tried keeping himself and his whereabouts a secret, but he also never expected someone like John Henry Walker to track him down.
“I gotta say, Rose, when I pictured your retirement, it didn’t look like this,” John Henry says.
“Oh, yeah?” says Smith, feeling defensive. “What did it look like, then?”
John Henry shrugs. “I thought you’d have a wife and a couple babies by now. A little piece of land. A ranch, I guess.”
“Someone tell you I don’t have any of those things when they got done telling you where to find my bar?”
John Henry doesn’t quite smile. “No. But are you going to tell me you do?”
Smith clenches his jaw, staring at the other man.
Cooper comes up to the bar, right along John Henry’s left shoulder, and leans forward to give Smith a soft shove. “You all-around champion bastard!” she says, happier than he’s seen her in weeks. “That’s the Smith I know. You’re not even rusty! You been riding the bull in secret?”
“Hell, no,” says Smith.
“Look at that.” She points to the chalkboard where Big Bob’s already written Smith’s name at the top of the bull rider list. “You outlasted the old number one by a minute and a half!”
“You better watch out, Rose,” says John Henry, lifting his beer to his lips. “People are going to want to see you do it again.”
Smith’s face darkens. That’s one reason why he’s refused to ride the bull since he opened the Bad Moon Saloon four years ago.
“I’m sorry. Are you a friend of Smith’s?” Cooper says to John Henry.
“Just someone he used to know in the rodeo. I’m up in Montana for the next few weeks. Got the Yellowstone PRCA in Billings and something smaller in Livingston, a couple other little things. John Henry Walker.”
He reaches over the bar with his right hand to shake hers.
“Nice to meet you. You Rose’s girl?”
“I’m his cousin.”
John Henry smiles like he’s in on a secret and sips his beer.
Christa comes up to the bar and slings her arm around Cooper, standing on drunk-jelly legs and three-inch bootheels. She gazes at Smith with a proud light in her eyes. “I will never ask you to go to the Nite Rodeo with us again. That was better than dragging you to Stampede Park could ever be.”
“Well, at least something good’s coming out of it,” Smith replies.
A young, drunk man charges the bar a couple seats away from Christa and yells as he slaps the bar top. “Goddamn, that was some bull riding!” he tells Smith. “I’m gonna buy you a drink!”
“It’s my saloon. Why don’t you buy yourself a drink?”
“All right!” The man slams his empty beer mug on the bar.
Smith refills it, knowing he should throw the guy out instead, and sends him on his way.
“We’re going home,” Cooper tells him, her arm around her sister’s back.
“You good to drive?” he says.
“I am. This one’ll be asleep in the truck before we hit the first traffic light.”
“I’m not that drunk,” says Christa, but she does look ready to pass out.
“Call me and let me know you got there okay,” Smith says to Cooper.
She nods, tells John Henry to keep Smith out of trouble, and leads her sister out of the saloon.
John Henry gives Smith another one of his looks.
“You almost done with the beer?” Smith asks him.
“Why are you so ornery about me being here?”
Smith pauses. He lowers his voice. “You know why.”
A secret he left behind in his rodeo career, one the residents of Cody can’t even imagine, a secret Smith has done everything in his power to keep buried as he moved on with his life, a secret John Henry knows all about. Smith isn’t worried about the other man letting that secret slip—John Henry has as much reason to keep it as Smith does—but the last thing he needs is people asking questions, following a trail of somebodies that might lead to a guy who saw something once he wasn’t supposed to see, a guy who remembers Smith and John Henry, a guy they never noticed.
John Henry drains his bottle and sets it on the bar as calm as Smith is tense. “We’re just two men having a conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Smith gives the saloon a once-over. Nobody’s watching him. He reaches under the bar for a clean shot glass, puts it in front of him, and fills it with whiskey. A few shots and he’ll be drunk, but he doesn’t see how else he’s going to calm down as long as John Henry’s there.
“Those are some good-looking cousins you got,” John Henry tells him.
Smith glares and points at John Henry with his forefinger. “Don’t you bring them into this.”
John Henry lifts his hands in front of him. “I’m not bringing anyone into anything. Just paying a compliment.”
“I don’t want you talking about them to your Goddamn rodeo buddies. All right?”
“Smith,” John Henry says as patient as he always was. “I didn’t come to make trouble for you. I came to check in on an old friend because I thought you were. My friend. Maybe I remembered wrong.” He gets up from his stool, reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, and leaves a five-dollar bill on the bar. “Thanks for the beer.”
Smith watches him leave. John Henry doesn’t peek back at him. As soon as he’s gone, the knot in Smith’s chest loosens.