With all that had been going on, ranging from getting my uncle safely out of Idaho to taking a look at our company town being built in the foothills to a thousand and one phone calls (it seemed) coming in from customers in Montana and franchise owners in both North Dakota and the aforementioned Idaho…I didn’t manage to come up for air for months. My girls eased me through the time crunch as best they could, Sissy and Judi taking on ever more responsibility so that I could focus on putting out brush fires, but it felt like I’d been wrestling alligators for so long that, as they say, I’d entirely forgotten my objective was to drain the swamp.
Thankfully, this changed in mid-July at our quarterly Board meeting. Frankly, the sudden relief was a shock to my system. Order volume had grown so rapidly that the welding shop had been doubled in size and another full dozen welders hired, but we were keeping our quality control up and 98 percent of all orders were being filled within three weeks of receipt. Chuck’s Trucking, too, had expanded, now employing six drivers including Chuck himself. Delivery was not only squared away, but the flashy fleet of Rodeo Iron eighteen wheelers constituted a major advertising force in and of itself.
I was sipping coffee, studying the Montana sales summary, when the anomaly hit me between the eyes. “What’s this?” I asked. “B.J. Hennessey’s customers accounted for a full third of our Montana business during the second quarter? That’s ridiculous; he didn’t even go back to work for the company until the first of May. He can’t have done all this in two freaking months!”
Old Harold the tracker grinned, his eyes twinkling. “Hey, Tree, your uncle is a big man. Maybe size really does matter. Or are you just jealous, you know, that you and Jack Hill together never put up numbers like that?”
It wasn’t unusual for the man to rib me, but I suddenly realized there was something else going on in Jennifer Trace’s ranch kitchen, where we still held our most important meetings. My girls were looking way too innocent. The widow Trace seemed to be trying not to laugh.
“You all know something I don’t,” I said slowly, “don’t you?”
“Who, us?” Little Judi tried to keep a straight face but broke out in giggles, a hand suddenly flying to cover her mouth. Her eyes fairly danced.
“And what, Treemin?” The widow Trace rose to get the coffee pot, just another day at the ranch.
“And are you going to tell me?” I decided I’d best put my game face on and keep it there, but inside I was starting to seethe a little. My own people were keeping secrets from me? That was not nice!
“Nope,” Horace drawled, “but….”
I did the eyebrow cocking thing at him, a perfect copy of my uncle’s signature expression–and they all lost it, laughing like hyenas. I ignored them, gathering my dignity about me, a wildly successful young black cowboy businessman who could not would not lower himself to their level. Jack Hill, I thought, appeared to be the only person in the room–other than me–who’d been kept in the dark. Which made sense, sort of; neither the ancient Protector nor I could be trusted to keep a secret from the other.
“You got a clue where this bunch got into the loco weed?”
Hill shook his head. “Nary a one, Tree. Wayne Bruce might have been tipping me off this morning at breakfast, though. He mentioned that you and I might want to take time out to attend the Butte rodeo tomorrow, and Carolyn West kind of looked at him like he’d let the cat out of the bag.”
“Is that right?” I looked Jennifer square in the eye. “Y’all think it’d be a good idea for me and Jack to toodle on down to Butte?”
“Maybe so,” she replied gravely, and the bunch of them were off again. It was a good thing we’d covered the major bases; this meeting was clearly over.
Well, what the heck. Despite our company name being Rodeo Iron, I hadn’t actually gone to a rodeo in a while. Maybe it was time. Jack and I would take the Pontiac; if the rest of our pack of laughing hyenas felt like going, they could darn well drive themselves.
There’s nothing else quite like a rodeo atmosphere, at least for those connected with the show in some way. Jack and I were down out of the hills, through Helmville Canyon, and up I-90 to the 4B’s café at Deer Lodge in time to have brunch before hitting the final lick to Butte. The Richest Hill on Earth would find its restaurants packed this weekend; we had no desire to fight for our food.
Nearing the city of 34,000 or so–when the rodeo or Evel Knievel Days or some such is not in town–Jack had a suggestion. “We’re running early, Tree. What do you say to driving through town to visit the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine Memorial? It’s just a few miles northeast of Butte proper.”
I shrugged. “Why not? No clue what you’re talking about, of course.” I knew a few things about the town, the famed Berkely Pit and the area’s rough and tumble history, the huge statue on the far ridge known as Our Lady of the Rockies, but nothing about any mining memorial.
“1917,” my partner explained, his voice making it clear he knew a lot more about it than he was telling, “an underground fire killed 168 men. Greatest loss of life in U.S. hard rock mining history.”
“Huh. You were in the area at the time?” I had a hunch.
“Not precisely, but I knew three of the men who died. One of them saved my life once. That was before, when he was alive, of course.”
“Ah. Yeah. Let’s go see the memorial.”
We did, and while Jack’s load seemed lightened by the visit, I left with a much deeper, more somber heart than I’d been carrying on arrival.
The rodeo changed all that, right from the beginning. We’d paid at the gate, parked the Pontiac, and wandered past the concession stands before looking for seats. Brunch or no brunch, you can’t go to the rodeo without a hot dog or two, a bag of heavily salted popcorn, and enough Coke to wash it all down. The girl dishing up the hot dogs was a flirty cutie; that helped. But right next to the hot dog stand, between that and a beer outlet doing box office business, there was a flashy booth that had nothing whatsoever to do with food. RODEO IRON , the banner said, and I recognized my uncle’s work.
How he’d pulled it off, I had no clue; such a prize position in concession row could not have come cheap, and there hadn’t been any items in his listed expenses that could account for this. I’d learn later that he’d paid for everything out of his own pocket, figuring to make it up with increased sales commissions, but for the moment I was utterly flabbergasted.
The two young folks staffing the booth, a cowboy and a cowgirl who were obviously ranch raised and rodeo bred, handled themselves with professional skill. They recognized me, too. “You’re the owner, Treemin Jackson!” The girl, a blue eyed blonde whose name tag identified her as Cyndi, lit right up, sticking her hand out across the counter for me to shake. I shook it, a bit shaken myself. I’d never have believed I was dumb enough to underestimate my giant uncle B. J., but–not for the first time–I’d done it.
Every business out there claims to be looking for sales people with initiative. I was willing to bet they seldom found employees with initiative like this.
It occurred to me that Cyndi and B.J. might have a thing going, too, but then I mentally slapped myself for the thought. Big Jude Hennessey didn’t mind them young, necessarily, but this one was way under the bar, nineteen at the most. Not that I’ve ever been a great judge of ladies’ ages.
Her cowboy sales partner, helping her hand out Rodeo Iron brochures and key chain tokens, had a name tag, too. I shook his hand, but Jack Hill had to inform me later that the young man’s name was George.
“Wanna bet?” I asked Jack as we found places in the bleachers and parked ourselves, digging into the popcorn and hot dogs immediately. I’d picked up that habit early on, combining franks and popcorn in the same mouthful. Mm-mm!
“Bet what?” Jack mumbled around a fistful of popcorn. He didn’t have my mix-em-up habit.
“That we ain’t seen the whole story yet? Horace and Jennifer and the girls were almighty full of themselves for just a sales booth to be all of it.”
“Sucker bet. Here we go, cowboy. Grand Entry’s getting ready to go.”
Sucker bet indeed. B. J. was in the Grand Entry. Now, just in case you don’t know a bronc from a bull when it comes to rodeo, the Grand Entry works like this: Any cowboy or cowgirl who’s entered in the rodeo and owns a horse, be it for barrel racing or calf roping or bulldogging (steer wrestling) or whatever, that individual darn well better get in line to join the Grand Entry. It’s a flashy kickoff for the show, the horse owning contestants are expected to participate, and if they don’t, they’ll flat-out hear about it from their peers. Everybody wants the rodeo to be a success, the stock contractor generally has his own people leading the charge, and every mount counts.
The patterns are different, depending on the rodeo, some fancier than others, but the nation’s colors always ride up front, Old Glory making her presence known. Often the state flag, too, and sometimes others–but a rodeo without the banner proclaiming the home of the brave and the land of the free would not be a rodeo at all.
I said B. J. was in the Grand Entry, but he wasn’t just in it. He was the lead cowboy, six feet eight inches and 300 pounds of rock hard African American rider astride a magnificent jet black Fresian stallion that had to stand a full 17 hands high at the withers. There is nothing so magnificent under saddle as the Fresian, built like a light draft horse, used in medieval times by knights in armor as mounts powerful enough to carry their weight. I’d first come to know the breed from the movie Ladyhawke in which Rutger Hauer rode a Fresian war horse exactly like this one.
A big black cowboy on a big black horse, carrying the bright and bold red, white, and blue colors of the United States of America. It was not a sight anyone at the rodeo would soon forget. People would talk, B.J. would be mobbed after every performance, Rodeo Iron sales would effortlessly skyrocket.
“Whoa,” I said.
“Looks like,” Jack observed as we stood with the rest of the audience, staring in rapt fascination, “your uncle must have been doing a bit more than shagging Miss Hardesty Collins during his time in Idaho.”
“Ya think?” B. J. had never been closer to a horse than watching them in the movies before leaving Connecticut. Hardesty, before turning on him, must have encouraged him to learn to ride like he’d been born in the saddle. Which he did, decked out in a black hat, sky blue western shirt, and turquoise chaps over his jeans, finishing with what looked like thousand dollar custom tooled boots. His silver belt buckle flashed with the best of them, too, though I was pretty certain the legend on it would say Rodeo Iron rather than Champion Bull Rider.
I sort of blanked out, not even remembering the national anthem. The first bareback riders were exiting the chutes before I could think again. “How,” I asked Jack rhetorically, “did he pack all that into so little time? Even counting from Day One with Collins, he’s had less than a year to get this good.”
“Motivation? I don’t know, Tree. He sure enough did it, though.”
“Wonder how he talked the stock contractor into letting him carry the flag?
Jack chuckled. “That’s easy. Would you turn down a spectacle like him on that Fresian stud? What I’m curious about is, where’d he get the horse? Last time I checked, a critter like that would go for, on average, $18,000 or so.”
“That’s the average?”
“More or less. You’ll find a rare one down around $10,000 or $12,000, more at $20,000 or above.”
I shook my head. “I do believe B.J. Hennessey has found his stride.”
As it turned out, I didn’t yet know the half of it. Jack and I kicked back, prepared to enjoy the rest of the rodeo. I never did pay a lot of attention until the saddle bronc riding, so the earlier events fogged right on by me without a lot of notice, but during a pause while the saddle bronc riders were snugging cinches and deciding where they wanted to hold their buck reins, the announcer dropped a bombshell.
“We want to thank our sponsors,” he said, “including Greany’s Western Clothing in Deer Lodge….” He reeled off a host of others, businesses who’d contributed to the pot of money available to the day’s winners, down to four places. “And one new sponsor this year, Rodeo Iron.”
My jaw dropped.
Continuing, he explained that the Rodeo Iron contribution was done a little differently. “Rodeo Iron’s contribution was not simply assigned to a particular event, nor to the general fund. Instead, right now, B. J. Hennessey has in his hands a hat.” At that moment, my uncle dropped from the back fence into the arena, striding quickly to a position in front of both the chute gates and the announcer’s stand. The hat in his hands was his own. “In the hat,” the announcer continued, “are seven slips of paper, each one labeled with the name of one of the seven major rodeo events being contested here today. Only now–only now, mind you!–will the contestants discover which event will immediately become two thousand dollars richer. To draw the winning slip, our Butte Rodeo Queen, Lila MacKenzie!”
The Grand Entry gate swung open far enough to admit the galloping quarter horse and its rider. Few men minded the sight; there’s not much prettier to watch than a skilled cowgirl leaning forward in the saddle with her mount on a dead run. Lila brought the powerfully muscled sorrel to a sliding stop a few feet from my uncle, vaulting from the saddle like a calf roper, then turning to sweep off her hat in an elaborate bow to the audience.
And the crowd went wild.
It went wild a second time when she drew the slip labeled Barrel Racing. Every rodeo enthusiast knew the women had perennially come up on the short end of the stick when it came to purse size, but not today. Today’s Champion Barrel Racer would take home more money than the winner of any other event except the Bull Riding.
“B.J.,” Jack Hill remarked conversationally, “appears to be a born salesman.”
“Or something,” I muttered. Frankly, I was stunned. I loved the man, but I’d never known he had it in him. Where was the city man I’d known all my life?
He still wasn’t done; the best, believe it or not, was yet to come. At this year’s Butte rodeo, there were two clown acts. One, stocky Burt Condon, a ten year pro I’d met once through Jennifer Trace, had already done his shtick. It wasn’t great, mostly old saws with punch lines referring to things like the sun on the beach instead of using the actual cuss word. Jack told me, and I believed, that tired joke to be as old as rodeo itself. But Burt was not there primarily to entertain; he was there to save the lives of bull riders later on, and he was one of the best in the world at that.
The second clown act turned out to be performed by…yeah, B.J. Hennessey himself. Why, I asked myself, am I not surprised? I was getting jaded; nothing he did could surprise me any more. Could it?
B.J.’s act was simple. He paced the arena, addressing the audience while he told a story through a handheld wireless mike, sometimes lifting his hat to scratch his head in wonderment as the tale unfolded.
“Once knew a fellow by the name of Skeeter,” he began, “lived down by Drummond, in a cabin on a ranch. Twenty-one years old, Skeeter was, when one day he and his Dad and the rancher all jumped in a Jeep and drove up Rattler Gulch, into the mountains. The rancher had a herd of horses up there, and summer range for his cattle, but they didn’t end up having a rodeo with those. Instead, they had a rodeo–sort of–with a bear. They startled a young black bear, not a cub, but not an old boar, either. A long yearling, maybe, 200 pounds of teenager bear.
“Now, this bear took off running up through the timber, but he weren’t alone. Skeeter had jumped out of that Jeep and gotten hold of that poor bear’s stubby little tail! The bear was booking it, dragging Skeeter along like a sail behind him, the feller’s feet only hitting the ground every ten feet or so, the older men bellowing like a pair of herd bulls, LET GO OF THE DANG BEAR!
“But wait! That ain’t even the punch line! While he’s being dragged along, one hand holding that bear’s stub tail, Skeeter’s got a .22 caliber pistol in the other hand, trying to shoot the bear!”
He paused for a moment, letting that sink in, the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing and shaking their heads and going, Oh, no!
“Now, just in case any of you are unfamiliar with firearms–which I realize in a rodeo audience is unlikely, but think about it–a .22 is a fine weapon for many things, but not for shooting a bear in the bottom while you’re tied to his tail, am I right? Thankfully, God really does have mercy on fools sometimes, and that gun misfired every time he pulled the trigger. He did NOT sting the bear, and the bear did NOT turn around and tear old Skeeter to pieces.
“But wait! That ain’t the punch line, either! I always wondered, what happened to that poor bear when he got home to his bear family? Eh? Eh? ‘Cause he was a teenager bear, and we all know parents don’t always believe teenagers when they come home with weird stories–am I right! So here’s poor Boo-Boo, back in the woods, trying to convince his parents this really happened. And Barney rolls his eyes, looks at Mrs. Bear, and says, Betty, you think Boo-Boo here has been into the huckleberry juice again? Then he turns to his son and says, let me smell your breath! Uh-oh! Shrooms! Our boy’s got toadstool breath. GO TO YOUR DEN! YOU’RE HIBERNATING WITHOUT SUPPER! WE’LL SEE YOU IN APRIL!”
With that, B.J. doffed his hat to the crowd, then turned and walked back to climb toward the fence. The applause was thunderous.
I could not believe it. This was definitely not the uncle I knew. But where could they get a body double for a six foot eight, three hundred pound black man in Butte, Montana?
He even worked the bulls, right along with Burt Condon. There was no question that Condon was the lead dog, but B.J. Hennessey certainly did not disgrace himself, either. For most of the bulls, Burt did the work while my uncle hung back a little so as not to get in the way, but once he helped out in a key situation. A big Charbray bull, a Charolais-Brahma cross, bucked off his rider and turned back to hit the cowboy in the chest, knocking him out cold before he even hit the ground. Condon streaked across in front of the bull, throwing the unconscious man out of the animal’s way like a sack of feed. The clown would have paid the price then, except that B.J. jumped in, grabbed the bull by one horn, and redirected the irritated animal’s attention. The bull pushed B.J. back toward the fence, but the big man somehow kept his feet, shoved the horned head to one side, and made a leap that carried him halfway over the planking.
White men may not be able to jump, but that black man could definitely get some air under him.
When it was all over, Jack and I held our places while the rest of the stands emptied out. Frankly, I didn’t think I could move. The rest of the Trace Ranch contingent, Jennifer and Harold and Sissy and Judi, filed out past us, giving us little finger waves or, in Harold’s case, a brief nod. We’d need to get moving soon; B.J. would be out back of the chutes, loading his Fresian stud into a horse trailer and stowing the rest of his gear. I needed to talk to that man, though I hadn’t the foggiest notion what to say. How do you address a relative you thought you knew who suddenly turns out to be some kind of comic book cowboy hero? At least I wasn’t miffed that he and the others had kept his endeavors secret; that was, when all was said and done, the best kind of joke, a surprise party to end all surprise parties.
It was Jack Hill who finally pulled me out of my daze. “Won’t be hard to locate B.J., Tree.”
“See over there? No, more to the left.”
I started laughing. My sizeable African American uncle and his even larger black Fresian stallion were easy enough to spot even at this distance, but it was the bevy of women clustered around the man and his horse that made it all clear. Well into his forties, B.J. Hennessey had staked his claim to stardom. Everywhere the rodeo went, everywhere he performed as he had done, there would be his groupies.
“Talk about fish in the sea.” I sputtered, wiping my eyes. My formerly urban uncle had totally reinvented himself. Without ever once competing in rodeo as such, he’d become both a sales superstar and a rodeo superstar at forty-seven years of age, with cowgirls and town ladies climbing over him like ants on a picnic blanket. “Hugh Hefner,” I remarked, “eat your heart out.”
If Rodeo Iron didn’t get hit with a paternity suit before B.J. got tired of the game, we were in the chips.