A blood-red sun is setting on the horizon, distant but familiar, dull but glowing, like the bloodshot eye of a wounded Titan. Layers of pasty-blue, thin, translucent clouds drape the blood-eye image, as if they themselves were the misty, cloudlike shimmerings of heat rising from the sunbaked pavement, cooled by a late-summer rain. I stand transfixed by the red orb’s terrible beauty, framed in a border of scrubby trees and mesquite bushes, still damp from the week of heavy rains that have mercifully soaked the parched ground that had come to look strangely like the surface of distant Mars: Deep canal-like channels showed through the thinning grass, imitating the look of cooling lava. The grass has been grateful, miraculously transforming itself from clumps of brown death to a wide expanse of green life in the space of a few days.
Drought had followed a wet, gloriously green spring, as if Providence were reminding us of the transitory nature of terrestrial life, but now the rains have come again. And the temperature has hovered well below 100 degrees for more than a week, a harbinger of the almost imperceptible Texas fall.
Gradually, the moon rises, and the faint clouds dissipate into the encroaching darkness. The moon’s dark continents float in a sea of milky ocean, the glow from the surrounding towns’ lights throwing a splash of purple into the inky night that encircles the moon, accentuating the sky’s transformation.
The blare of the loudspeakers brings me back to the here and now: It’s almost time for the bull riders to test their mettle, the event we have all been waiting for, especially the kids. It is fair season in Texas.
Earlier, we were visiting the exhibits, the little ones petting prize-winning livestock and runners-up now fated to the pen or the butcher’s knife, when my kids spotted a pair of cowboys at the BBQ stand. Do they ride bulls? The kids want to know, so the reluctant, grinning trio meekly shuffles over to the two men, one tall and broad-shouldered (he looked like a steer wrestler to me), the other short and wiry (more like the build of a bull rider), both sunburned and dressed in the uniform of the rodeo cowboy: battered Stetson, yoked shirt, leather belt set off by a buckle the size of a TV screen (perhaps a trophy from a past victory), and jeans tucked into Western boots. The tall man smiles but says nothing, nodding to his partner to answer. No, he says, no bulls, not anymore—too beat up for that. But the two are part of a three-man team that competes later in the wild-horse race, a mad scramble to saddle a very unwilling horse and race to the finish line ahead of a competing team. It was not to be a lucky night for our cowboys: The horse won the contest of strength and will, our wiry friend taking a beating against the fence in a vain attempt to mount the beast as his competitor raced to the finish line. The bulls won, too, that night: None of the cowboys made the eight-second ride. My son was disappointed. My two girls, though, were excited to meet Miss Rodeo Texas, a pretty young lady with a friendly smile, decked out in a suit of lights that would have put Porter Wagoner to shame. My boy tugged at my shirttail, telling me he wanted some chaps.
After the rodeo, we see our wiry friend, still grinning, limping on a game leg and sipping a can of beer. The tall man approaches, and the two undefeated cowboys amble off into the dark. Maybe next time.
Across the fairgrounds, Charlie Robison of Bandera, Texas, belts out one of his bluesy, hard-edged tunes about misspent lives, work in the oil patch, booze, crime, and bad women. His gritty music reminds me of Johnny Cash serenading the cons of Folsom Prison or of the tragic wailing of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. But Charlie has a sense of humor, too. Even his sad songs are funny at times, and his lampoon of the old tear-in-my-beer standbys of country music (“You’re not the best, but you’re the best that I can do . . . ”), altered to include an hilarious, PG-13 jab at Bill Clinton, is a
real crowd-pleaser. Charlie brushes back his tousled mane and keeps on, a music man singing uncompromising songs about real life, living on his family’s old South Texas ranch. In his way, he seems as heroic as the cowboy with the game leg.
Two weeks later, the kids and I are back for more, this time standing on the Hamilton, Texas, town square, facing the courthouse, awaiting a parade. The rains washed out the first night of the Hamilton County (“The Dove Capital of the World”) Dove Festival, Fair, and Rodeo, but the county has turned out in force on Labor Day weekend for the big parade: The sun is back, as if it had been teasing us, shrouding itself in the sheath of a gray-black storm front, now glaring and melting the thin clouds like butter in a skillet. We swelter and smile. The Hamilton Bulldog band is followed by a mounted troop of cavalry (“The Horse Detachment of the 1st Cavalry Division”) from Fort Hood, the stern young men’s deadpan faces turning to broad smiles as they unsheathe their saddle guns and fire a volley into the pale-blue sky. Though solid and substantial, they have an air about them of ghost riders, shadows from the past flickering across our collective sight path and then disappearing, like the white-bearded man in gray from the Hamilton County Sons of Confederate Veterans who flits through the crowd, preaching rebellion and Southern heritage.
We are passing through the antique car show (the maroon ’57 Chevy was a
real peach) when the accident happens: One of the riders in the parade has been seriously injured, his horse slipping
and falling, the loud, clear voice of
the parade’s loudspeaker momentarily drowned out by the wail of the ambulance’s sirens. We pray for his safety, wipe the sweat from our brows, and wonder if the rains will come back.
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