The Stubborn Man
You are the stubbornest man I’ve ever seen.” Leroy sat across the breakfast table from his father, eyes narrowed. “A mule ain’t got nothin’ on you.”
“I’m no stubborner than you are.” His father glared at him, holding a sealed box of breakfast cereal.
“Yes, you are. You’re the stubbornest man I’ve seen–– and the stupidest.”
“Watch what you say, boy.”
“I’m not a boy. I’m twenty-four years old. I can say what I want, an’ you can’t whup me anymore.”
“I only whupped you once.”
“You would have whupped me more if my grandpa hadn’t come for me.”
Leroy Sr. was silent. He was busy trying to open the sealed plastic wrapping around the corn flakes. “Ow!” he cried, grabbing the gnarled knuckle of one hand with the other.
“That’s why I said you were stupid. You’re fifty-eight years old, pop. Your hair’s all white. You’ve got arthritis everywhere. You can’t even open a cereal box. Give me that.” Leroy leaned over, took the box, and tore open the tough plastic bag around the flakes. “Here.”
“I’m sorry that I whupped you, son.” Leroy Sr. looked at his boy, his mouth a little compressed, eyes earnest. “I’ve said that before, but I want you to know I really mean it.”
“You whupped me good enough for my grandfather to feel it way down in New Mexico. That was a whupping.”
“It was. I’m sorry, and I paid for it. Because of what I did, your grandpa took you away and I didn’t see you for fourteen years. I never had a chance against that tribal law, you bein’ an enrolled member and all. I am sorry. You know how I was then …”
Leroy certainly did. His father had been a quiet man when Leroy was little, a huge and not very gentle giant. When his mama was alive, he worked every daylight hour on the ranch. Then he came in and sat in the sitting room after dinner, whittling. Leroy remembered those days; his dad’s tightly curled hair was almost black. His dark brown hands moved in little gouges, the sharp blade glinting in the firelight. His dad carved little birds and animals that he gave to Leroy.
His father had always been quiet. Taciturn: quiet with an edge to it, but kind at the beginning. He never hit Leroy then. Might yell at him, but never hit him.
Then mama got sick. No one’s healing could fix her. Not the white man’s medicine, not his grandfather’s power, and not his own.
Leroy was a healer in a long line of healers. His powers had shown themselves before he was four. He knitted a kitten’s broken leg. From then on, everything around him flourished. His family never got sick. Their livestock was always healthy. Their ranch got more than enough water and so did the surrounding spreads. He cured neighbors and friends and laid hands on everything.
Healing was as much part of him as the blood in his veins. The power came through his mother. His mama could heal anything. If he was a healer, she was a queen of healers. She deserved to be great; healing was in her blood, too.
Her papa was the greatest Native American shaman alive, maybe the greatest ever born. He could heal broken bones, fix broken hearts, and see into the future. And fix the future, sometimes.
After mama died, his pop got quieter, and meaner. At night, he drank from a bottle that sat where his whittling knife had been. All he had to say to Leroy was, “If your grandpa’s healin’ is so good, why’d your mama die?” It came down to that.
“I was mad, then, Leroy. And sorrowful. An’ I was drinking. That’s why I hit you.”
“And now you’ve gone soft in the head,” Leroy said quietly.
“Bullfighting at that rodeo is plain stupid.”
The older man poured cereal into his bowl. “In my whole life, no one’s ever given me a party. Nobody has given me a trophy and patted me on the back and handed out cake and ice cream. Nobody’s said ‘You did a good job, much obliged, Leroy.’”
Young Leroy ground his teeth at the sound of his father’s voice.
“I’ve worked all my life on this ranch. I’m a good rancher, but I’m a great bullfighter.”
Scenes from dozens of rodeos flashed through the younger man’s mind. His mama had held him in her arms at rodeos all over the country. His dad lured bucking bulls away from fallen riders. He ran and jumped and leaped, and the bulls couldn’t get him. He was so agile and athletic that Leroy had gasped in amazement, even as a tot. The one thing his father never used to distract a raging bull was the barrel. Leroy Sr. couldn’t fit in one. Before age started chopping him down, he was as tall as his son: 6’8”.
“You are better than anyone, pop. Or you were. But now …”
His father’s eyes rested on a misty spot over the kitchen door. Leroy had seen him look there time and again. Remembering his mother. Remembering the glories of rodeo. Remembering his life before ranching caught up with his body and shrank him.
“Leroy, they said they would give me a big party and a trophy if I came. I’ve been scarin’ off bulls for forty years. After your mother died, rodeo was the best part of my life. I made people laugh.” He smiled, his smile about as far off as his eyes when they were set in that spot. “I’m a stubborn old goat, Leroy. I know that. But those folks at the Thompson & Mack Center want to do me up proud. That’s why I want to go. One last rodeo. I want you to go with me.”
Leroy’s shoulders dropped. He fiddled with his cereal bowl. “You know what weekend it is.”
“Yes, I do. It’s the first day of your grandpa’s Meeting. And it’s the last Meeting. He won’t be givin’ those retreats any more. But son, you could drive to the rodeo with me, go to my party, and then take a plane down to New Mexico …”
Leroy dropped his spoon, and then choked. He sputtered, finally hitting himself in the chest with his fist. “There’s nothin’ I’d rather not do than get on an airplane. I’d rather bungee-jump off the gorge with those crazy rich people.”
“Well, son. Doesn’t Grandfather talk about growing and doing new things?”
“No. He says that the Great One will bring the lessons we need to us. He didn’t say anything about going out and buying an airplane ticket.”
“Leroy, this sounds like one of those Great One things calling you.”
“Like hell, Dad. Besides, what would I buy the ticket with? Every penny we’ve got is tied up for the next fifty years.”
That sly grin that appeared on his father’s face now and again was there. “Well, son, I’m going to bullfight at a rodeo. I don’ know anyone as good a bulldogger as you. You’re a calf roper, too. The best. You rope and steer wrestle around the ranch when you need to, but son, you’re better than the best of them on the circuit.”
“I don’t want to bulldog or rope calves, either.”
“They said the purses for the championships at the Golden Olden Days Rodeo will be about $2,000 a class. Enter those two classes and win––and you will win––you’ll have $4,000, enough for a ticket and what you need to finish that cabin.”
Leroy sat up straight. A warm glow spread through him. But he slumped. “I’d like to finish the cabin with my winnings, but I don’t have a ropin’ horse or a bulldoggin’ horse. I couldn’t practice if I wanted to. There’s three feet of snow outside. An’ the horse trailer’s got a busted axle.”
“I can just see the fancy stove you could buy with that money. Kitchen sink, too. Maybe a dishwasher …”
“I can’t do it, pop. I don’t have a horse. You need a horse to rodeo.” That grin on his father’s face made him crazy. “And you can’t fight bulls. You’re fifty-eight years old an’ you got arthritis all over. You can’t run no more. You look like a wrinkled-up old man.”
The grin went away, replaced by a look of such yearning that Leroy melted. “Son, I’ve never won a trophy, I’ve never had anyone give a speech about me. I’ve never given one to say how much rodeo means to me. I want this so much. Won’t you help me?”
“I want you to heal me. Just enough to get through the rodeo.” Longing, yearning. And the sadness that comes at the end of a life spent working and loving a ranch reached out and touched young Leroy. His father hadn’t allowed him to heal him since his mama died.
“OK. I’ll do it. But you know how my healing is these days.”
“Yeah. About as reliable as a one-footed hen. That’s why I want you to come along: for touch ups.”
“Shall we finish up what we were doin’?” Leroy Sr. said after breakfast. He already had been grinning, but the size of the grin he was wearing when he stood up might have torn the top of his head off.
Leroy Jr. moved toward the parlor and the Christmas tree with its chipped, thirty-year old ornaments and a couple of presents under it, but his father beckoned him to the porch.
“See what I got for you back here. I think you’ll like it.”
His father opened the door to the screened room and pulled Leroy out. “What do you think of that?”
Leroy stalked toward the equipment, cautious, the way he’d approach a mountain lion. A big metal box with vents sat there. He didn’t know what it was. Then a water heater––he recognized that––a washer and dryer. Mounds of doorknobs. Sinks. A tub. And the cabinets for a whole kitchen and the bathrooms, too.
“How do you like what your pop got for you? They’re almost new. Those crazy rich people over the hill ‘r’ remodeling their whole house. Pretty much tearin’ it down and building it back three times the size. I asked ‘em if I could take the discards on account of you building your cabin. They said, ‘Sure,’ as you can see. That big box is a heat pump. You can have air conditionin’ and heat. They even brought all of it over here. We may be able to get more stuff, too.”
Leroy was flabbergasted. “You finished the whole inside for me.”
“Well, yeah. I could see how hard you were working. You weren’t gonna get that thing done in a month of Christmases. Now it will just take you maybe a week’s worth.”
His father had never done anything so nice for him in his life.
Dad, I’ll go to that rodeo with you and see that you get through it in one piece. That’s a promise.”