Archive for July, 2012

Bullriding and History

I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t enjoy a rodeo. But I do. A couple of weeks ago, during Holbrook’s Wild West Days, a bull riding competition was held. While Jeff listened to a concert at the same time, I sneaked off to watch the bull riding. The competitors were primarily Navajo and primarily young (maybe there isn’t such a thing as an old bull-rider). When I climbed into the stands as an older white woman, I was definitely in the minority. But I don’t mind that after living in Papua New Guinea and also on Guam. I’m used to being the minority group and comfortable with that status.
Anyway, the bull riding competition got underway and my back ached for the riders, who are twisted and tossed every which way. This is one event where I never feel sorry for the animal involved–it has the upper hand (hoof?).
Eventually, we worked our way up to the senior high-aged riders, who were excellent. I cheered along with the rest of the crowd when one young man stayed on the back of the bucking bull til the buzzer. Once he knew the ride was finished, he flung himself victoriously off the bull’s broad back. He began walking to the fence, while the bull ran toward the exit gate. But the bull changed his mind and  turned around. Back he came toward his rider, quickly and quietly.
The crowd began to shout “Watch out! He’s coming back!” But the young rider didn’t hear the crowd or didn’t understand its words, and in a moment, the bull had him on the ground, tearing at him with his horns. The crowd went pin-drop silent until another rider distracted the bull and called him off. The young competitor tried to get up, but he wasn’t able to do so. The announcer called for the medic, who was sitting in an ambulance outside the ring.
I don’t want to speculate on the reason that the medic took her time about coming out of the ambulance and moving into the ring to help the young rider. To be honest, I doubt if it happened because of prejudice or sleepiness or indolence. I think she just felt a little uncertain, but whatever the reason, she took her time. When she finally got from the ambulance to the ring fence, she didn’t seem overly anxious to get inside. I imagine she was being cautious and wanted to be certain that the bull had been lured out–I can relate to that caution. The announcer, whose voice could be clearly heard all over the fairgrounds, encouraged her to hurry. “We need medical assistance over here–STAT!” But still the attendant moved slowly.
What happened next will remain in my memory for a long time, not because it was violent or even particularly extreme, but because it revealed a deeper scar than those caused by the horns of an enraged bull. One tall, lanky Navajo cowboy seated to my left stood up and called out loudly, “What’s the matter with you? Get out there and help that kid!”
The stands erupted around me with the shouts of the people, all directed at the ambulance attendant, but all, I suspect, also related to much older injustices. The crowd saw an injured, vulnerable Navajo child being slighted by someone who should be helping him. Someone white. And many remembered insults and injuries of the past added their fuel to the crowd’s fire.
It didn’t last long. Motivated by the crowd’s rage, the attendant ran the last distance to the boy’s side and within moments, he was on his feet again, bruised but not seriously hurt. In fact, his time won the event. Everyone sat peaceably down again, and it was over.
We’re a calm, dispassionate group here in Holbrook for the most part. There are lots of languages spoken in this area and lots of people of different hues, colors, and histories speak them. People try to get along, to do their best by their neighbors. Overt anger doesn’t surface often here.  But the bull riding incident reminded me that to some extent, we are all still hostage to history and the inequities of the past. I’ll remember it a long, long time.

Digging up the Old West

My literary agent, Joyce Hart, recently suggested that I consider setting aside the contemporary novel I’d been working on, at least temporarily, in order to get going on the next one, which is historical in nature. Trends happen in publishing as in most fields, and right now, few publishers are interested in contemporary novels or women’s fiction. Since what Joyce doesn’t know about publishing is not worth knowing, and what I know about publishing is minimal, I happily took her advice and plunged into Old West research with enthusiasm.

I decided to set my historical novel in Navajo County, AZ (yes, that’s where I live) because of the available resources here and their proximity. I didn’t expect Holbrook to yield too much in the way of exciting history, but it turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Holbrook’s past involves cattle ranching, Mormon pioneers, one of the most famous ranges wars in the Old West, outlaws aplenty, and  a curiously monikered place called the “Bucket of Blood Saloon.” In fact, when Jeff and I went for our walk this morning, we followed Bucket of Blood street to its conclusion. Alas, the old saloon burned along with most of the businesses in Holbrook in 1888.

My research introduced me to our one-time Sheriff, Commodore Perry Owens, who settled the aforementioned range war decisively in a famous shoot-out in the yard of what is now the Senior Citizens’ Center of Holbrook. Seriously–the house is still part of the complex. I met Robert “Red” McNeil, a most literary outlaw who left polite notes and poetry–no, really, he did!–for the lawmen who tried to chase him down. Sometimes he sent a copy of his verses to the local papers, which were happy to publish them. McNeil enjoyed twisting the tail of Commodore Perry Owens, who had publically declared his intention of shooting the versifying bandit. Owens once had the chance, when he accidentally stayed overnight at the same cattle camp where McNeil had bedded down, but he didn’t know McNeil was in residence, no one told him, and for obvious reasons, the outlaw didn’t introduce himself. Relations with the local Navajo nation and the not-quite-so-local Apaches were far from exemplary in those days. Livestock changed hands with shocking regularity, and without the benefit of bills of sale. And certainly each group, the settlers and the tribe, committed atrocities against one another frequently. One visitor to early Holbrook commented that it was not a “safe place for women or churches.”

My main character is a school-teacher who arrived in Holbrook in 1885 from Los Angeles (then quite a small town) to bring education and a certain amount of civility to the violent little community. She will face a series of difficulties in the book, of course, since this is fiction and fiction requires them. But by the end of the book, she will have taught for more than a year, gotten married and become stepmother to four children, and helped the family keep their ranch safe from the predations of a greedy neighbor. Somewhere along the way, she’s going to have to meet Commodore Perry Owens or perhaps receive a poem from Red McNeil.

How could I resist?