A COWBOY'S LAST CHANCE

A COWBOY'S LAST CHANCE

From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

A Cowboy’s Last Chance

Joe Wimberly sat on a tree stump and stared at his house. It sits on a skinny road that meanders out of Cool, Texas, population 238, a flat, dusty place without so much as a drugstore or a gas station.

“It ain’t exactly the Ponderosa,” Joe once told his wife, Paula, as he swept his arm toward the three acres or so of scrub grass that went with the little house. “But it’s our ranch.”

Joe wore a cowboy hat and sported a bushy black mustache that matched his eyes, as dark as Texas oil. He was missing a tooth, right on the fifty-yard line. But his jaw was square and strong. And he stood taller than his five-foot-five-inch frame.

Earlier that day, Joe received a call from the banker, who wanted money. The charge cards were full, the payments were late, the checking account was overdrawn. Joe didn’t have a nickel to his name, except for the house. And he swore he would never let that go.

Being a cowboy was all Joe Wimberly knew. He had learned to ride a horse by the time he was four. At seven, he was herding cattle with his father. At thirteen, he was climbing onto the back of a steer.

When Joe turned eighteen, he set out for a world where the Old West still lives, the last untamed range for the true American cowboy—the rodeo. Soon, anybody who knew rodeo came to know the name of Joe Wimberly. There were days when he walked around with one thousand dollars in his pocket. Other times he could not afford to eat. But there was never a day when he wanted to trade his chaps for a job with a boss looking over his shoulder.

It scared Paula to watch Joe on a bull. Still, she knew being a cowboy put the sparkle in his eyes, and she never wanted to see that fade. So whenever he headed out the door, she kissed him good-bye, crossed her fingers and said a prayer.

Joe was gone to the rodeo about two hundred days a year. He was one thousand miles away on the night Paula gave birth to a daughter, Casey. They had no insurance. “How we gonna pay for things, Joe?” Paula’s voice cracked across the telephone wires.

“I’m gonna win,” Joe told her. “And I’m gonna keep winning.”

He was as good as his word. With the grace of a gymnast and the nerve of a bank robber, Joe dazzled crowds at little county fairs and big city stadiums throughout the West. In the 1980s he qualified five times to compete in the National Finals Rodeo. In his best year, Joe won more than eighty thousand in prize money.

However, with travel expenses and entry fees ranging from twenty-five dollars to more than three hundred dollars, times were never easy, especially after the birth of another daughter, Sami. But bills got paid, and when Paula took a job in a pharmacy, they saved enough for a down payment on their house.

Joe could already envision a place for a horse corral on what was now the Wimberly Ranch. He poured a cement slab near the back door, then took a tree twig and carved the names of the Wimberly clan in the cement. Shortly after, Paula gave birth to a son, McKennon.

Even when he was hurt, Joe seldom missed a rodeo. Once, his wrist got caught in the rope, and he dangled on the side of the bull as it kicked him and knocked him unconscious. He was taken away on a stretcher, blood running down his face.

He came back from that injury and many others. But by now weeks had passed since he’d brought home a paycheck. Maybe I’m just no t trying hard enough, Joe thought. The bills were all way past due.

Mesquite, on the outskirts of Dallas, is the site of one of the best-known rodeos in America. One day a Dodge Truck executive called rodeo owner Neal Gay with a promotion idea. If Gay would pick the meanest, wildest bull he could find, Dodge would put up a five-thousand-dollar prize for any cowboy who could ride it for eight seconds. The pot would grow by five hundred dollars every time the bull shucked a rider. The bull would be named after a new truck, Dodge Dakota.

Gay liked the idea. He contacted Lester Meier, a rodeo producer who owned a nightmarish black bull that weighed 1,700 pounds and had a single horn crawling ominously down the side of its white face.

“You got your Dodge Dakota,” Meier told Gay.

Of the thirty bull riders who competed at Mesquite every weekend, only one, assigned randomly by a computer, got a crack at Dodge Dakota. Week after week, the beast sent cowboys hurtling, even a former world champion. But Joe Wimberly was never chosen.

Joe was carrying a fifty-pound feed sack toward the horse pen at his ranch when he heard the screen door slam. Paula hurried over. “The rodeo called, Joe,” she said. “You drew Dodge Dakota for Friday night.”

Joe dropped the feed sack. “You’re kiddin’ me.”

“No, Joe, I ain’t kiddin’.” The pot had grown to $9,500.

Joe started riding the bull in his mind. Stay loose, he told himself. This is just another bull. But Joe knew Dakota was a vicious outlaw.

According to those who had studied Dakota, the bull started every ride the same way. It blew out of the chute, took one jump, kicked over its head, stepped backward and spun to the left, all in about two seconds. After that, it was anybody’s guess.

That Friday, Joe paced behind the chutes. He looked up in the stands and saw his family. When the spotlight flashed on him, he pulled himself over the rails and settled on the broad, humped back of Dodge Dakota. He wrapped the rope around his right hand; the other end was twisted around the belly of the beast.

Lord, I’m comin’ to you like a friend, Joe pleaded silently. You know how much I need this ride. Beads of sweat grew on his forehead.

The gate swung open. Dakota bolted, and Joe’s thighs squeezed tight. The beast bucked hard, lifting Joe into the air, then slammed down. The bull bellowed and twisted to its left. Foam spewed from its snout. The cowboy thumped back on his seat, the rope burning his hand. He shot in the air, his head snapping backward, hat flying off, but he hung on. The stands thundered—six thousand fans on their feet, screaming, shrieking, stomping. The clock flashed five seconds, six seconds . . .

Dakota groaned in a voice from hell and bucked violently, four hoofs in the air. Suddenly the bull ran alone.

Crashing flat on his back, Joe looked up to see the belly of the bull and its slamming hoofs. He scrambled away as the clowns chased Dakota back to its pen. Joe searched for Paula in the stands and slowly mouthed the words, “I am sorry.”

Later that summer, Joe was again paired with Dodge Dakota. In an instant this time, the bull slammed him and his dreams to dirt.

Now Joe was scrambling for money. He shod horses. He entered jackpot bull-riding contests, organized a rodeo school. But none of this put much of a dent in his debts. He was finally forced to place an ad in the house-for-sale section of the newspaper. “It’s only boards and paint and siding,” he told a tearful Paula. “If we stay together as a family, it doesn’t matter where we are.”

Joe paid another humiliating visit to the banker. “Can’t I have just a little more time?” the cowboy pleaded.

“You’ve had time, Joe,” the banker said flatly.

One Friday in September, Joe was riding at Mesquite. With all his troubles at home, Joe hadn’t been thinking much about bulls. The purse for Dodge Dakota had grown to seventeen thousand dollars.

They had stopped announcing ahead of time which cowboy would ride Dakota. Now they drew the name during intermission. Suddenly a rodeo official called out, “Hey, Joe Wimberly, you got Dakota.”

Neal Gay came by. “Third time’s the charm,” the rodeo owner said with a wink.

As Paula watched from the stands, her heart began to pound. Twice before, she had seen Joe’s hopes soar as high as the stars, and then sink to the depths.

Joe climbed up to the bucking chutes. The season was almost over. Twenty-four times a cowboy had boarded Dodge Dakota, and twenty-four times the bull had won. The pot was big enough to save his house, to pay the bills, even to have a little extra.

The cowboy pulled himself over the rails and straddled the bull that stomped inside its chute. The rope was wrapped around his hand as tight as a noose. One of his favorite phrases came to mind: “If you ain’t got no choice, be brave.”

The gate swung open, and the clock started counting the eight most important seconds of Joe Wimberly’s life. The huge black beast bellowed. Nearly a ton of muscle and bone thundered by. Dakota’s head snapped violently. Its eyes flashed fire. Dust rose from its kicking hoofs. And the clock ticked—two seconds . . . three . . . four . . .

Joe bounced on the bull’s hard back, straining for balance. Then another punishing buck. He dangled at the edge, fighting gravity. Six seconds . . . seven seconds . . .

Joe crashed to the dirt as the horn sounded. A sudden hush swept over the arena. The fans stared down at the rodeo boss, who was staring at the timekeeper, who was staring at the clock.

An excited official raised his arms in the air, the sign of a touchdown. Joe had made it by two-hundredths of a second.

The cowboy dropped to his knees. “Thank you, Jesus!”

Joe cried.

Paula fell sobbing into the arms of a spectator. The two girls sprinted down the stairs of the grandstands, while McKennon screamed, “Daddy did it! Daddy did it!”

From his knees, Joe looked up and met Paula’s eyes as she ran toward him. The roar of the crowd swept down on the arena floor, where the Wimberly family squeezed together in a ten-armed hug, their tears spilling on the dust.

It was past 2 A.M. when they got home. Joe went to the telephone and dialed the banker. “Who’s this!” came a groggy mumble.

“Why, this here is Joe Wimberly,” he said, “and I was just calling to say I got a check for you.”

Dirk Johnson

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