Its just breaking dawn here at Johnson Farms, and Im sitting outside on the barn porch with Lazarus, the little kitty that the Lord and Becca Jan brought back from the dead. Were splittin a blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee. He takes his with cream. Between small bites, hes making biscuits on my belt buckle. Beccas bustlin in the house, the horses are pacing and snorting
they know we will be leaving soon. Its time for Abilene.
Each July we make our annual trek 400 miles west to that fair city to compete in the Original Coors Team Roping Finals where long time producer, Digger Howard, Kim, Lisa and all the rest try to keep some 14,000 ropers in line. Every thirty seconds a steer is released and runs headlong down the arena with top hands, grandpas, moms, and sometimes seven year olds swinging their loops in hot pursuit. Its a time for not only cowboys but families as well. We rope, sell books in the exhibit hall, and enjoy old friends and endless tailgate parties under the awning of the horse trailer in the cool of the evening. Its a special time and a special place for me because Abilene is the place where a dream came true.
Like most cowboys, with the years gaining speed, I found myself roping less and less. Busy with making a living, (what I thought was living) I let my love of roping slip away. I missed the people, the sounds, sights and smell of rodeo, and most of all, I remembered the horses. I missed the horses so. But luck, good fortune and/or Providence caused Miss Becca to come into my life, and she encouraged me to begin again. Im too old, I protested.
Hmmph! she snorted. Your rope doesnt know how old you are.
And so because it seemed like too much fun to resist, I began again.
With the purchase of a roping dummy and new ropes, soon I was in the back yard scorching burgers on the grill in between scorching the dummy horns with practice loops. It was great fun, made me feel young again, and then to my surprise, a friend happened by with a most special gift.
As he unloaded the big good looking paint from the trailer, I couldnt believe my eyes or ears when he said, Hes thirteen, and not as fast as he once was. He has a problem with his foot, hes navicular, but if you only rope a few each day, hell be fine. Im moving, and its important to me that he has a good home. He will be a good teacher for you. I want you and Rebecca to have him.
Looking at the big fine gelding, it occurred to me that I too had lost a little speed, and my feet hurt sometimes . Like him, I would probably be able to only rope a few each day, and Old Paint seemed to be a perfect fit. And I wondered if maybe two old timers could team up to have just one more day in the sun.
You know what the greatest gift in the world is? In my mind, its that each and every morning, the Universe gives us a brand new opportunity to begin again. We can start over every day. And Old Paint and I began again.
At first, I had high hopes. Figured it was just a matter of time til I was catching them all. Naturally, it didnt work out quite that way. My body just didnt respond like it once did, and the steers seemed to have little interest in cooperating. And the competition was unbelievable. Old men and young kids, grown women and little girls all threw their rope like Lash Larue cracked his whip back in 1951. And me and Old Paint limped along, him loping easy and me floppin a wet lifeless noodle that rarely hit cows in the butt, and even if I did, they could hardly feel it.
Because of sheer deep love for the sport, I kept on, and then as it so often does, help began to arrive. The Smith boys, Mark, Jake and Clay said, Come to our house, well help you. After missing nine in a row one night, saddle maker Dale Martin appeared out of nowhere at my trailer,
Come by my house tomorrow, and Ill show you some things, he said.
I did and he did. He gave me a four-hour lesson I will never forget.
Johnny Smith, great tripper from Arkansas, taught me many things about horsemanship, and Bronc was always there with his one liners, Get to the spot, get to the perfect position before you throw your rope, he would say. And on one occasion after I got to the spot and missed, I said, Well, I got to the spot, and still missed, so what now?
Just cause you get to the spot, doesnt mean you have to throw it, he barked. When you get there, wait
rate, focus your crosshairs.
And I did. Listening to all those fine teachers, (if only I had done that when I was young) I felt the improvement coming. That was when the dream began to whisper. Just a whisper at first, like all dreams, but then stronger and stronger.
I want to win some money, I said to Rebecca.
She looked at me. We were drinking coffee at the breakfast table after sausage and wonderfully scrambled farm fresh eggs.
Its something thats been pulling at me, I continued. I know Im getting on, but wouldnt it be something if I could win at my age in this new century. Just one dollar, anything. Man, that would be something.
I said looking out the window at the now three rope horses grazing in the pasture. That would be victory.
Victory only comes after many failures, she said, using one of the lines her fourth-graders constantly hear.
So, in the year 2000, I found myself in the Abilene arena. It was eight oclock in the morning. I had been up since 5:00 A.M. and in plenty of time to have Old Paint saddled and ready for my run at 8:04.
Looking across to the area where the heelers were gathered, I saw my partner who had been selected for me by the computer.
A man older than me sat astride a big buckskin. He had on a rainbow colored shirt buttoned at the collar and a baseball cap. Oh, brother, I thought. Another one of these businessmen who rope once a month. My hopes fell as I realized that once again this would most likely not be the day for my dream to come true. Then it struck me. Someone had probably said to him, Hey Johnny! Guess what your partner does for a living? HE WRITES CHILDRENS BOOKS! SOME PARTNER!
Realizing that Johnny was probably more disappointed than me, I made a resolve to do the best I could, and when my name was called, I had that treasured feeling of the small flock of butterflies lifting off the floor of my stomach. Paint, calm as always, eased into the box and stood ready. I nodded. The steer exploded and so did Paint.
Two jumps and Paint delivered me to the spot, and with two more swings to focus the crosshairs, I let my loop fly. Not exactly Lash Larue, but not bad, I thought as I watched the big circle fall smoothly over the horns.
Paint felt the weight of the steer and began a smooth turn to the left, and then
he almost fell down.
I turned to look back at my partner, and there sat Mr. Johnny grinning at me with a tight dally, and the steers two hind feet neatly tucked in his heel loop. Johnson and Watkins with a time of 8.1 now leading the round, the announcers voiced crackled. I couldnt believe it.
Bronc and Rebecca had promised to have coffee ready in the trailer, but now with a second steer to catch, the coffee would have to wait. I hoped against hope that the second steer would be as good as the first one, but no such luck. When he came in the chute, it was apparent the animal suffered from severe emotional problems. (Being a former psychologist, Im able to diagnose such ailments.) Crazy and wild, he almost leapt straight up and out before I called for him. And when I did, all hope seemed lost.
From zero to sixty in three seconds, Paint and I were outmatched. But the old horse gave it everything he had. At the end of the arena, with the steer only a few feet from the exit gate, I threw with desperation. Til this day, I still cant believe it, but somehow the loop settled perfectly on his head. Now however, I had real problems. Holding on to the end of my rope, there was no room left for the dally. Then, the strangest thing
In that huge coliseum, with all those people, I heard a voice.
Dont give up! It was Mr. Johnny. He wasnt yelling, he said it calmly, and I still wonder how I heard him so clearly. His words gave me strength, and I kicked Old Paint, who was already headed toward the steer, until there was just enough slack to wrap around the horn. Then with the steer flopping around like a big striper in Texhoma, I thought, Not many heelers could handle this. Not many headers have a heeler like Mr. Johnny Watkins. Mr. Rainbow Shirt scooped him up and just like that, we had two down. One more to go.
While I was happy to be in the final round, chances of winning any money were remote indeed. Because of that psychotic second steer, our combined times had us in last place for the money round. Since there were twelve teams in that final round, and only the first three teams would be paid at days end, I was certain the dream would not come today. But, I said to Mr. Johnny sitting beside me on his big buckskin, we came close.
You never know, smiled Mr. Johnny. Dont give up.
Then we sat there and watched all eleven teams miss.
My partner seemed to take this unbelievable good fortune in stride.
All you have to do is catch, Michael, he said, as he turned to ride into the heel box. I caught him. Johnny caught him. We won.
In a daze, I rode Paint to the trailer. He clipped-clopped along on the parking lot pavement, shaking his regal head. He had been here before.
I dismounted and walked in the trailer. Becca was cooking bacon, the coffee was going and it all smelled wonderful. Bronc was at the table eating. Hey cowboy, he said. How did we do?
Becca looked up and stared for a moment, How did you do, dear?
I will always remember that moment standing there looking at two people I love who had helped me so much. I turned to look outside at another friend, an old paint horse, like me past his prime, and one who had helped me just as much.
Michael? said Becca, her eyes widening, the smile breaking over her face. How did you do?
Victory, dear, I said. Victory.
See all Michaels books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com and read Michaels featured review of Cowboys and Angels in The Western Horseman Magazines July 2003 issue.