It’s rodeo time on Terul – bronc riding, yertl tripping, dragon team roping, korth barrel racing, and dragon riding. (And if you thought bullriding was dangerous, just take a look at dragon riding at Kerluk.) These are the events at the very first rodeo on planet Terul since the revival of the Intergalactic Rodeo Association. And Buck Johnson, Skeeter Evans, and Snort Jones are entered – using, of course, Buck’s money to pay their entry fees.
Buck’s nearly broke again after paying his and Snort’s and Skeeters’ entry fees. So, in order to get off Terul and find an easier life, they’ll have to cowboy up and win some money. Still, if they hit a good lick, they can finally get off this sorry planet. But as every rodeo cowboy knows, a lot can go wrong before the final buzzer sounds and the last flag drops. It ain’t over till the secretary signs the checks.
* * *
Inhabiting an almost circular orbit around its two suns and having a nearly vertical axis with respect to that orbit, Terul has basically only one season. What the inhabitants of Terul are privileged to enjoy is an unrelenting year-long procession, year after year, of four hundred and fifteen days, each twenty-six hours long, of oppressive heat coupled with lip-cracking aridity—except for a brief few days once every two or three years. And during that short respite is when it rains on Terul.
But this is all from the human perspective. Native Terullians think their climate with its paucity of seasons is just dandy. But then they are all at least a little reptilian, so it would, of course, suit them.
That few days of rain had just ended. So, now, the humidity was oppressively high, and everywhere you turned, you had to wade through reddish-yellow slop. Not the best arena conditions for a rodeo—the very first rodeo on Terul.
Buck Johnson was determined not to let it get him down. He was backing Snort Jones in the bronc riding and both Snort and Skeeter Evans in the dragon team roping. And Buck himself was entered in the dragon team roping and the dragon riding. They would then pool their winnings and get the hell off Terul. All three of them, but especially Skeeter, longed for ready and frequent access to some liquid refreshment stronger than warm, brackish water, as well as for an easier life.
The rodeo at Kerluk—one of only two places on Terul with enough metal huts huddled together to be called a town—was scheduled to begin the next day. It would be the first performance of the first major rodeo since the Intergalactic Rodeo Association had been revived. Contestants and spectators had already started trickling in. The area behind the arena, behind the holding pens constructed of portable laser panels, was beginning to fill with multi-hued sky trucks, food-vendors’ kiosks, and insta-construct shelters of various sizes where various kinds of illegal entertainment could be had. Beyond these, where the ground was relatively boulder free and the mud wasn’t quite so deep, a few intergalactic ships were moored, one of them having flown in stock from Earth.
Buck had already paid his and Skeeter’s and Snort’s entry fees. All they had to do now was cowboy up when their time came, collect their winnings, and then ride on out. Buck had no doubts about Skeeter’s and Snort’s ability, but he was a little worried about keeping them sober and in top rodeo shape for the next few days. He’d spent just about every Terul credit he had on their fees and tack.
So Buck emerged from his sky truck burdened with a large bundle, but walking lightly with a spring in his step through the red glop. He walked right up to Snort and grinned. Then, after finding a relatively dry spot, he deposited what looked like a very slightly used Hamley bronc saddle on the ground at Snort’s feet, afterward dropping a halter and hack rein on top of it. “There ya go, buckaroo.”
“What the—where—Buck, how in the hell did you get your hands on one of these antiques?” Snort’s amazement was palpable as he gazed at this unexpected gift.
“Yeah, Buck, how did ya?” Skeeter Evans, whose astonishment nearly equaled Snort’s, put in unbidden.
“Well . . . you know Quincy Poindexter—that mossy ol’ bastard can get his hands on just about anything. Anyway, I told you boys I’d get you outfitted for this ro-day-o, didn’t I?” Snort ran a hand lovingly over the saddle’s swells and along the cantle. “And I got a little somethin’ for you, Skeet. Got it from Quince, too. Come on.” Buck turned on his heel and headed back toward his decrepit sky truck. Skeeter fell in behind him while Snort gathered up his new bronc saddle and tried to keep up.
Arriving at the aged vehicle, Buck walked up to the open cargo hatch and motioned Skeeter in. He pointed at a saddle rack holding a used but obviously serviceable korth roping saddle. (Korths—scaly-legged, three-toed beasts that look something like a cross between a horse and an ox—are the preferred mount in this part of the universe. They aren’t all that intelligent or agile, but they are fast on a straightaway, hardy enough to thrive on desolate planets like Terul, and sure enough strong.) “Lookee there, Skeet, that one’s yours.”
Skeeter caressed the saddle with his eyes and then his hand. “Damn, Buck, I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t need to say anything. Just make damn sure you’re in the money so you can pay me back.”
With these preliminaries out of the way, the three of them carefully picked their way over to the sky truck that had just exited the stock contractor’s ship and was backing up to the loading chute. On drawing near, they heard snorts and squeals and the resounding clang of hooves striking metal walls. And a strange misty look stole over Buck’s face.
Then the sky truck’s loading gate fell open. Then a heaving, kicking, whinnying mass of horses—genuine bucking horses from Earth—spilled out. A grizzled old hand pushed the horses up the alleyway and switched on the laser gate to the holding pen. He touched a forefinger to his hat brim as he passed them on his way back to the sky truck. Skeeter and Snort nodded in acknowledgement, but Buck seemed to be elsewhere.
As if pulled by some invisible and implacable force he was resisting slightly, Buck walked slowly to the side of the pen where the horses were milling around and nipping at one another. A big bay gelding, at least fourteen-hundred pounds with a prominent Bar One brand on his left hip, trotted to the laser fence and stuck his head over. Buck cupped the bay’s nose in his left hand and stroked his neck with his right. The horse endured this for a little while and then tried to bite a chunk out of Buck’s shoulder. But Buck just kept stroking and murmuring soothing sounds: “Whoa there . . . easy, big boy . . . take it easy, big un.”
Snort spat and said, “I b’lieve that big bastard likes ya, Buck.” Buck didn’t say anything. The faraway misty look was now more noticeable and a single tear slid out of the corner of one eye. When Skeeter saw it, he opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, Snort elbowed him in the ribs. Skeeter grunted and turned away with a fatuous grin splitting his face.
Also available as an audio book here.
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