Thursday, April 10, 2008

Twice the Cowboy by James Buchanan

Mariachi music blared from the speakers. The hard brass boomed off metal rafters. It echoed through an arena reeking of days' worth of dust and animals and adrenalin. Tall and thin, with a sharp face, Manuel Santos Fuentes rode into the ring. Midday event goers, hardly enough to fill half the stands, moved the air with sweat-stained programs. Air-conditioning was a joke in the cavernous building. Large, dark eyes were shaded by a broad-brimmed, felt sombrero stitched in silver thread. Thighs sheathed in tight chamois pants gripped the sides of his saddle. Broad, low backed, with a pommel spread the size of a man's hand, it was not the type of saddle Jess was used to seeing. Then again, Manuel was not the type of cowboy Jess was used to seeing.

Last night, Jess had sat at the end of the bar in a dingy little dive near his hotel. He, and just about everyone else, was in town for the El Paso International Livestock Show and Rodeo. It was one of the oldest events on the circuit and drew competitors from both sides of the border. This would be its last year at the old Coliseum. Next year the sponsors were moving it to a new venue. Jess had competed four years running. As he mused over change, a man leaned in, grabbing the bartender's sleeve. "Negra Modelo, por favor."

Negra Modelo, Jess didn't drink it often. The dark beer was malty, almost sweet like chocolate. Not many people outside Mexico drank it. It was always interesting to see who would order such a beer. Jess slid his gaze to focus on a man with café-colored skin and jet black hair. Damn, that was a fine sight. In a different kind of bar the cowboy wouldn't have held back his appreciation. Still, because he was the neighborly sort, Jess turned his bottle towards the man and laughed, "You have good taste." The gold label flashed in the dim light, the words Negra Modelo barely visible.

He was rewarded with a smile that was all bright, white teeth. "Well amigo, so do you." The newcomer slid in between Jess' stool and the wall. Thin and rangy in dark jeans and a plain red western shirt, he could have been any cowboy from anywhere. Jess was dressed almost the same, except his jeans were faded and his shirt green.

Bracing himself on the lip with his elbow, the man introduced himself. "Manuel Santos Fuentes. You are here for the rodeo?" His English was flavored by the rich vowels and rolled r's of Mexico. When his beer came he took a swig. Then his tongue rode the edge of his upper lip, like he was savoring the flavor.

Jess stared. The man was about four inches closer to him than any American would have gotten. Jess tried not to read anything into how close he stood or how Manuel's hip touched his knee. It was a cultural thing, the personal space issue. But still, he'd almost swear by how the charro watched Jess before licking his lip again that he was flirting. God, Manuel had wonderful lips. He wondered what it would be like to kiss them.

Swallowing to hide his thoughts, Jess managed to choke out, "Yep, Jess Graff." He held out his palm and found it wrapped in a soft, strong grip. "I ride broncs ... rough stock mostly."

"Broncos, eh, so do I." Manuel tipped the beer back, watching the contents swirl through the dark glass. "I also compete in el floreo de reata." He smiled again. Then he lifted the bottle for another swig. Just before the neck touched his mouth, Manuel's tongue reached out and traced the opening. Oh, hell yes! Manuel was flirting with him. Real careful, but he was flirting.

Jess had no idea what the reata was; something about rats or rope. What he did know was Manuel was talking about the Charreada, the Mexican rodeo. That was tomorrow, Thursday. Most of the beginning of the week was livestock and horse shows. The really popular events, like bull riding, started Friday and went on all weekend. There were usually concerts and dances those evenings as well.

"Well, you know," Jess pushed his hat back over his brown-blonde curls, "real cowboys ride bulls."

A shout from near the pool table jerked Manuel's attention. A group of men called him over. "My teammates," He waved them off for a moment and turned back to Jess. In a low, sensual purr, "Un charro es un vaquero dos veces." Manuel saw that Jess didn't understand. He leaned in and whispered, "A Mexican cowboy is twice the cowboy."

When Jess snorted his disbelief, Manuel slapped his back, "You come watch me tomorrow. I will show you." With a parting smile, he headed to play pool.

Jess watched him just about all evening.

Now under a tin roof baked by the border sun, Jess watched some more. What a gorgeous thing there was to watch. His program explained that competitors were required to wear traditional vaquero clothing. For Manuel that was all caramel leather ... very tight caramel leather. Silver buttons ran down the seams of his trousers, ending just above the soles of his sharp toed boots. A thick, leather belt held an unloaded, pearl-handled pistol. His muscles flexed under the short-waisted, leather jacket. More silver flashed along the elbow to wrist slit on the bolero's arms. A cinnamon shirt, with a cream silk scarf tied loosely under the collar, set off his skin and smile.

The buckskin horse high-stepped to the center of the ring. It was a dance more than a walk. Jet mane and tail had been brushed to the texture of raw silk. The gelding's hooves shone like polished ebony. Ramrod straight in the saddle, Manuel controlled his mount with his knees; reins dangled unnoticed in his left hand. His right held the coils of a rat-tail rope. The beast tossed its head, knowing how beautiful they were together. Mexican Rodeo counted style above all else.

Manuel tossed his lariat into the air. It spun, ribbon like, over his head. Flicks of his wrist and the rope undulated around his body. Flowing like water, the lasso was the only thing that moved. Even his horse was a statue. Rawhide arabesques, corollas and calyxes danced about him to the rhythm of the mariachis. Circles of rope imprisoned man and mount within waves. Falling, rising, he painted pictures with the lariat; first in the sky, then to either side and about his mount's hooves.

And then the horse began to dance.

In and out of the rope it pranced. Weaving side to side, spinning back and around, they moved in perfect tempo to the music. Man and mount utterly melded in movement. Nothing wasted. Complete joining of rhythm and soul. With a flourish Manuel swept his wide sombrero off and down. At the shift of his weight the buckskin knelt to one knee. After his intricate finish, the charro returned his lasso to his saddle. The crowd roared as they rose and cantered back. Another nine competitors followed, weaving more flowers with thin hard ropes.

Jess didn't see any of them.

Other events followed. Solo and team roping trials ate up the day. The point seemed to be to not look at the target. Competitors anticipated where the animal would move and shot for that. And they did it with flair; leaping in and out of their ropes before taking down the animal. As good as Manuel was, Jess wondered why he didn't compete.

The stands filled as they progressed into bulldogging. A small bull bolted out of an open chute with a charro in hot pursuit. The man leaned an impossible distance out of his saddle. Grabbing the bull's tail, he pulled it around his own thigh, tripping the animal. It flipped onto its back, landing between two limed lines. All of it was interesting. None of it was as interesting as thoughts of getting Manuel out of those tight pants.

Jess was down in the concession area when they announced El Paso de la Muerte, the pass of death. From the program he knew this was bronco busting; Manuel's event. He tore back up into the stands in time to see a guy carried out. Mexican or American, rodeo was a hazardous sport.

The horse the man had been riding was turned out and another driven into the ring. She was a thick-necked, dun mustang. There was a rope across her chest but no rig or bucking strap. Charreadas used wild horses, and the point was to actually break them. This was no timed event.

Three charros were whistling and calling, riding back and forth across the arena. Manuel tore out of the chute astride an unsaddled bay. The mare bolted. When he came alongside the mustang, Manuel drew up his knees. They paced each other, the charros in hot pursuit.

Manuel sprang.

Landing hard on her back, Manuel latched both hands on the rope. Her legs locked. Skidding to a stop, for heartbeats she stood and shivered. Then she reared. Braying, the mare slammed back to the ground. Manuel held tight.

Shit, Jess squirmed, if those legs could hang on a horse like that...

She bucked and twisted in the air. The three mounted charros chased them. Writhing, twisting, spinning, the mare fought Manuel. Jess' heart rose for the fight. The men drove her fury with screams. They whipped her with lariats. She kicked at them. She lunged under Manuel. She slammed him sideways into the wall.

Jess sucked in his breath with the pain he knew Manuel felt. Come on, come on! He willed Manuel to hang tight. Wild and desperate the mare bounded across the arena. Spinning, wheeling, she tried to toss her rider. Manuel clung to her back. On and on and on it went. Man and beast locked in battle.

Finally the mare was done. She stood, head dropped between splayed front legs. Manuel jumped from her back and limped out of the ring. Jess was already heading out and around to the competitors' staging area. After a few strange looks and misunderstood directions, Jess located Manuel. Maybe the charro could help him with his Spanish ... something useful like I'm gonna ride you hard and put you away wet.

Jess found Manuel surrounded by four men. All were dressed in variations of the traditional costume. None looked as good as Manuel. Those leather pants were just sinful on him. Leaning against a horse-trailer, his face was tight, holding in the pain. He argued in Spanish with another, older charro. When he saw Jess a smile brightened his eyes.