Hot, dry, dusty, and wonderful! It was everything Sage Blackthorn had hoped the Pendleton Round-Up would be. The dusty air crackled with excitement. Folks milled and greeted one another on the bleachers below, aromas of horse manure, cigarette smoke, leather, and carnival food drifted up to Sage and her brother Ross as they huddled, heads together like conspirators, eating hotdogs and drinking Coca-Cola. Horses whinnied and steers lowed in the distance, and Hank Williams played on the public address system during the brief time out between events.
Already, the two had seen the Indian village, eaten cotton candy, and watched the parade into the arena, complete with a color guard of local sheriff’s deputies, Indians in their traditional ceremonial dress, the rodeo queen and her court, and rodeo queens from other rodeos, each queen and her court resplendent in their satin, sequined, and fringed costumes. The kids had seen bareback riding and calf roping. Sage had wanted to cry, she felt so sorry for the terrified animals, but she’d held back as best she could. If she ruined the day with tears, she might not be able to come next time.
Tiny and red-haired Sage, ten, and taller, blond-haired Ross, thirteen, whispered and giggled and poked each other in the ribs. Sage was too excited to sit still and acted more like six than ten. Mom’s new boyfriend, Grant, had just won the saddle bronc riding event. Flushed from his big win, he’d taken a break from the celebrating to check on the kids and bring them treats while their mother did the work she loved best—competing in the women’s barrel racing event. Grant’s gesture wasn’t lost on Ross. “He’s a good one,” he said after Grant left them with their food. “Mom should hang on to him.”
Most of Mom’s boyfriends—and there had been a few—were nowhere near as nice as Grant. When he was eleven, Ross had suffered a broken arm when one boyfriend threw him across a room. Ross never could keep his mouth under control, and he’d made the guy mad. Granny, who was on the premises at the time, had grabbed the shotgun from her office and told the guy to leave. Then she and Mom had one of their huge fights—on the way to the emergency room. “Grown-ups can be pretty screwed up,” Ross had told Sage after that scary event. Being three years younger, Sage looked to him for advice. He was handsome and smart and clever, and he didn’t miss much. She felt safe when they were together, like now, just hanging out.
“Grant likes kids,” Ross told her. “You can tell.” Sage nodded and shoulder bumped her brother. They each took another bite of hotdog.
Sage looked at the program. The barrel racing event was next, and Mom was favored to win. She had come in second the year before, “But this is the year I’m gonna win,” she’d told them. “We can move out and get our own place in town. Then I’ll have some privacy and you’ll be closer to all your friends.”
They had lived with Granny ever since Sage could remember, at Blackthorn Hot Springs a few miles east of Stevenson, Washington, above the Columbia River. It was a nice enough place, except when Mom and Granny argued. And that seemed to be happening a lot more lately. Mom was gone too much during the summer when school was out, and Granny hadn’t signed on to raise more kids. Mom didn’t help enough around the resort, plus keeping a horse just plain cost too much.
“Blah blah-dy blah,” Mom had said behind Granny’s back.
Ross jabbed Sage with his elbow, bringing her back to the now. Her eyes roamed the grandstand filled with people eating, drinking, and talking. Most of them, including Sage and Ross, wore cowboy hats. Below, in the dirt, rodeo workers measured distances and set up barrels in the familiar cloverleaf pattern, helped by the ever-present rodeo clowns. “Didn’t Mom say she was third on the roster this year?” Ross asked.
Sage nodded. “Yeah, I think so. How much money will she get if she wins?”
Her brother took a judicious sip of his Coke. “I don’t know, but Mom says it’s a lot. Enough so we can rent a house and live close to school.”
“What about Sonny?” Sonny was Mom’s quarter horse gelding, nine years old and a great competitor.
“Sonny’ll stay out on the property. Mom can visit him every day, and practice after she helps Granny with the resort. But she said we need our own place.”
Ross took another sip of Coke. “Yeah, she is. But I think she means well. She feels responsible. She just rubs Mom the wrong way sometimes.”
How did he know this stuff? Sage wondered. He was just so smart. “Maybe everything will feel better if we don’t live there,” she said. She took her last bite of hotdog and wiped her hands on her napkin. She could see Grant coming up the bleachers toward them. Down below, the workers had finished their task.
Grant scooted in next to Sage on the bleachers and handed each of the kids a PayDay candy bar. “Barrel racing next, you two. When your mom comes out, we’re going to make more noise than anybody in the place.” He gave them his huge trademark grin, settled against the backrest, and sipped beer from a plastic cup.
Ross squirmed in his seat, barely able to control his excitement. “We’re going to be rich!” He said it loudly and people turned to look at him.
Grant reached over and tousled his hair. “Settle down, cowboy. She’s gotta win first.”
“She’ll win, she’ll win, she’ll win!” Sage practically squealed the words, and more people turned around.
“No more sugar for you,” Grant said.
Sage stood up and twirled around. “It’s your fault!”
Grant took her arm and gently sat her down. Sage liked the way he acted like a dad—or how she thought a dad should act. “Pay attention, now,” Grant told them. “We don’t want to miss anything.”
Sage looked down to the arena where the clowns turned cartwheels in the dust. Their padded bellies shifted to their chests when they were upside down. Sage pointed at them. “Why are they down there?” she asked Grant.
“Didn’t your mom tell you?”
Sage shook her head.
“Those clowns are out there to help the cowboys,” he said. “Especially the bull riders. When the bull tosses a guy, sometimes it’ll turn and try to gore the cowboy before he has a chance to get up. The clowns wear rubber barrels with shoulder straps. If a cowboy is on the ground, the clowns the run between the bull and the cowboy to keep him from getting hurt. If the bull turns on the clown, he scrunches up inside the barrel for protection. It’s dangerous work.”
Sage nodded, serious, as she thought about cowboys and long-horned bulls, and the silly looking men brave enough to get between them.
Grant handed a stopwatch to Ross. “Here. Now, you two use the stopwatch for each barrel racer. That way we can track how she does.”
Ross fiddled with the device, and Grant leaned in front of Sage to show him how to reset it. Ross was focused, where a moment ago he’d been all nervous energy. Sage felt settled now too, ready for the first time to watch her mom at work.
Up until now, they’d never attended a rodeo where their mother was competing. Mom liked to travel alone and do the things she enjoyed doing away from her family and what she called “my life as an indentured servant”. Granny was a tight-lipped church-going woman who didn’t approve of the goings-on at rodeos. While Sage wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded delicious and fun. And now they were here to bear witness to their mother’s accomplishments and the “goings-on” first-hand.
The announcer boomed out the name of the first barrel racing competitor. She burst from the chute on her bay quarter horse and raced to the first barrel. But the approach was too fast, and her horse grazed the barrel on the turn. It knocked the second one over. Although she continued around the third barrel, she’d been disqualified. She rode out of the arena to tepid applause.
“Poor Sandy,” said Grant. “She tries so hard.” The kids nodded. Both of them had asked their mom over and over again to tell them the rules. And she had. “Sonny really gets this,” she’d told them. “We’re a team.” Mom and Sonny never had been disqualified.
The second rider did everything by the book. When Ross showed the time to Grant, he shook his head. “I thought she looked a little slow. She’s pretty new, though. She’ll improve.” It was fun having someone tell them what was going on.
And then from the announcer: “Please welcome our third rider, Susan Blackthorn from Stevenson, Washington. Susan recently won this event at both the Caldwell Night Rodeo in Caldwell and the Snake River Stampede over in Nampa, Idaho.” People began cheering as Mom shot out of the gate leaning into Sonny’s neck as if they were one. Sage tensed and sucked in her breath. Her mother straightened a little as she and Sonny leaned into the first turn, made it cleanly, and sprinted to the next barrel.
“Go, Susan, all the way!” Grant yelled. He and the kids jumped to their feet cheering as Mom and Sonny cleared the second barrel and sped to the third. As they rounded the third, a propane tank in the concession area exploded with a force that rocked the stadium. Sonny shied and lost his footing. He and Mom went down hard in a cloud of dust and confusion. The audience uttered a collective groan. Sage screamed and clapped her hands to her mouth, and Grant reached out and caught her before she pitched forward onto the people in front of her.
The audience went silent. Down on the ground in front of them, Sonny and Mom looked very small. Sonny, covering part of Mom, grunted and rolled and struggled to get to his feet, to no avail. Sage screamed again when she saw the broken bone sticking out of his bleeding foreleg. He let out a long whinny that sounded more like a scream as he flailed helplessly on the ground. Mom lay like a rag doll.
Sheriff’s deputies from the rodeo color guard ran onto the field. One drew his gun and shot Sonny in the head before Grant could turn Sage away. “Oh, no,” he groaned. And then, “You kids stay here.”
“No!” Sage screamed. “Sonny! Mom! No!” She grabbed her brother’s arm, crying and screaming.
Her sobbing was the only sound in the stadium. Everything was silent around them as the audience watched in horror. Clinging to Ross, Sage looked up to him. His face had turned the color of ash. Below them, the gory scene played out. Several men attempted to drag Mom from under Sonny while others tried without success to move the dead horse.
Mom lay before them, small and limp. One leg rested behind her at an incongruous angle. “Those dumb shits,” Ross muttered under his breath. He started down the bleacher stairs at a run. Still sobbing, Sage hurried after him. She tripped and nearly fell in her rush to catch up with him.
An ambulance, always on hand for rodeo emergencies, pulled into the arena, its siren bleating. The rodeo clowns in their ridiculous gear scurried toward the mayhem. There was Grant, running up to Mom and Sonny, as a group closed around them.
Ross reached the bottom of the bleacher steps ahead of Sage and vaulted athletically over the fence into the arena. Sage clambered to the top of the fence, dropped onto the ground, jamming her ankles painfully. She ran behind him, trying to catch up. When Ross reached the gathering, a man tried to stop him. Ross slugged him in his ample gut and plowed into the group. Panting, Sage ducked under and between the men. She barely managed, but she kept up.
Ross shoved his way to the center. Sage pushed from behind. “You can’t be here, kid,” a man said. More men closed around them.
“You can’t stop me,” Ross screamed. “She’s my mother!”
And then, all eyes were on him, and Sage, who by now was hanging onto his belt. She saw it all. Sonny, the blood and bone. Mom, her eyes staring at the sky, a trickle of blood running from her open mouth. One of the sheriff’s deputies walked up to them and leaned close so no one else could hear him. He put a hand on Ross’s shoulder. “You can’t do anything to help your mother, son. I’m sorry. She’s dead.”
Twenty feet away, Susan’s white felt cowboy hat with its silver sequin band lay in the dust.