I grew up dreaming of being a cowboy. Most of us have that fantasy at one point or another in our lives. My passion grew from watching the rodeo cowboys on TV. I wanted more than anything to be a rodeo cowboy. But being from the city, my chances of living the cowboy way were slim to none. But, like most kids, video games, the mall, and other things came and went in time.
I just turned eighteen in the spring of 2004. Recently graduated, and had no plans for the future. All the schools I applied to sent me back rejections, saying I didn't meet the necessary qualifications. The only education institution that would take me was the local community college, and even then, I didn't have the money to pay for college courses. Fresh out of options, I opted to join the Army out of desperation. I signed on for a three year stint and promised I would return someday to begin my college career. Three years turned into ten years without me ever going to college, but more on that later.
I went through basic training and was shipped off for two years of overseas duty. It's remarkable how I came back alive and in one piece, but I did. After my two years was up, I was assigned to this post out in New Mexico called Fort Union. I arrived at the base, was briefed on where I would be going, and found myself in the payroll department. Not exactly military intelligence or Special Forces work, but I wanted to make the most of it.
Upon my first few months there, I came to understand that the base, in conjuncture with the town, held these weekend-long outdoor events every month. There would be live music from the local bands (mostly country music), a few carnival games, and the rodeo. Civilians and soldiers alike would participate in these events like bull riding, team roping, barrel racing, and so much more. After my first "Fort Union Stampede" as the town called it, I was hooked back into my childhood. And the dreams of wanting to be a cowboy came flooding back like a tidal wave.
I made friends with the military competitors. I began conversing with them about small stuff like where they were from, what they wanted to do after the military, and other stuff like that. Then I brought up the million dollar question: "How do I become a rodeo cowboy?"
My friend Brandon, who soon became my trainer, asked me, "Well, do you know anything about riding, or livestock?"
I answered, "No."
His response was, "Then it's gonna be a slow process." He added a small laugh. Then he said, "If you're serious about this, then you need to submit a request to join up with our unit. And I'll walk you through all that. When, and if, you receive permission, I'll show you everything you need to know."
I did as he said, and within a month, I found myself in his unit: The 103rd Cavalry Division. Brandon soon became my trainer, and he taught me everything I needed to know. He had me training everyday it seemed. But, thanks to that, I became familiar with what to do. If nothing else, I learned how to fall like a seasoned pro.
Soon, it came time for another Fort Union rodeo to take place. He registered my name in the bull riding event with the rest of the guys. I told him I wasn't ready. He said, "What better way to learn than by just doing it?"
I got myself into gear and waited nervously for my turn. My number was called and I made my way into the chute, ready to ride. The cowboys got me situated, pulled my bull rope, and waited for my "go ahead." I nodded. They pulled open the gate, and I made my first ride in the rodeo. I stayed on for 5.6 seconds, according to the timer, but I felt like I was up there for years. It felt great, and I was ready to work harder and prove myself at the next rodeo.
I found myself competing the next few years of my career, and found myself winning by my third year of rodeo. I was being awarded money prizes, trophy buckles and saddles. I was finally living out my dream.
Things changed with the arrival of two new entities. The first being our new base commander, Lt. Col. Anderson Briggs, a widowed officer with thirty years of field and intelligence work. Strict and by the book, he began work on our programs, cutting and reorganizing things where he believed they needed to be. Our rodeo program was cut by eighty-five percent. He slowed our schedule down from one rodeo a month to two rodeos a year, stating our jobs "were to be soldiers, not play Cowboys and Indians." We still trained, but in our off time. I was put back in the payroll department, and could only train during the weeks leading up to the rodeo events.
We may not have liked it, but we couldn't say much. I didn't worry about it, since my time in the military was almost up. I kept telling myself, "Just one more year." Just when the colonel had things the way he wanted them to be, in came in a new transfer: Lt. Collin Masters. A recent graduate from West Point, he came from a wealthy family who had connections. His family made sure he was placed out of harm's way. So he was sent our way.
For the most part, he was an alright guy. The Kind of guy who after a few drinks, would pay for everyone's tab at the end of the night. But he was known for being a bit spoiled. If he didn't get his way, he would put in a few phone calls and whatever, or whoever, he wanted would practically be delivered to him on a silver platter. And, he was put in charge of our unit.
He took a liking to us. He'd tell of how he was a champion equestrian, and how he believed rodeo is a good thing for the folks around here. He even went to the colonel and requested that we hold the rodeos quarterly. At first, Briggs denied his request. But Masters made a phone call to Washington, and Briggs made an announcement that we would be running rodeos quarterly, effective immediately.
That's the kind of power Masters held. And, per Master's request, for the rest of my duty, the men of our unit didn't have to wear uniforms. We got to wear cowboy garb: the cowboy hats, shirts, jeans, and boots. He even had western shirts that had our name, U.S. Army, and unit patches sewn on them, one for each day of the week. We had a new instant liking to our new unit commander.
The time for the 2014 Fort Union Finals Rodeo came. After winning the year before, I had a good feeling this would be my year as well. We all got ready for the first day of competitions. I was the last one called that day. I got up and made my ride. I completed the 8 seconds, and received a score of eighty-six, putting me in first place. Then the announcers came back on the system saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, there is one final entry we forgot to call. Coming in to chute number thirteen, from Miami, Florida, riding Death Race, is number fifty-one, Lt. Collin Masters."
From what I was told, Masters had paid off the officials and the arena hands to let him ride. He got himself situated, the cowboys got him ready, pulled his bull rope, and waited for him to give the "go ahead." He nodded, they pulled open the gate, and that bull came blowing out of there. Masters lost his seating, and found himself caught in the bull rope and being flung around like a rag doll. It took the bullfighters, and most of the arena hands to get him loose.
When they finally got him free, he was flung into the gates, landed head first and crumpled to the ground, not moving at all. He was rushed to the base hospital, but died on the way there. He was found to have his neck snapped in two. We had a burial ceremony for him outside of town. His relatives were to be phoned but Briggs wanted to enjoy the moment of not having him around.
The last day of the Finals Rodeo, I was already in first place. I had one more ride to go. As I was getting ready, huge clouds came billowing in from the East. The sky grew dark, and a huge gust of wind blew through the arena. People were starting to make their way out of the stands when thunder clashed and lightning flashed. I made my way to the arena to have a look at what was going on, when a huge bolt of lightning hit the center of the arena.
From there, the ground opened up and out came a figure. Dressed in tattered cowboy clothes and gear, with its neck snapped and head hanging to the side, it pointed to me. "Lt. Masters," I thought. Even the Grim Reaper wouldn't prevent him from getting what he wanted. And he wanted me. He pointed to me and said in an unearthly tone, "One... Last... Ride...”
He turned to the chutes. A ball of fire erupted from them. And what looked like two zombie bulls (cliché, I know. But that's the best description I can give) stood ready in the chutes. All around the arena were skeleton cowboys, wearing the tattered western clothes, boots and hats, skeleton bullfighters, and everyone else in the stands, frozen in fear. I tried turning around and running the other way, but a bolt of lightning blocked my path. I tried another route, but the same thing happened. Lt. Masters wouldn't let me leave until I competed against him.
I made my way to the chute he pointed to. I stepped inside and watched as the skeleton cowboys situated me, pulled my bull rope for me, and all stared at me, ready for me to give the "go ahead." I nodded, the gate busted open and that bull blew out of the chute. I kept up for every buck, boost, and spin that bull threw at me. I held on for dear life until I heard the buzzer. I jumped off and watched as bull and bullfighters were lit up in a ball of fire and swallowed by the earth. The announcement came on that I was given a score of eighty-four. It was Collin's turn.
The skeleton cowboys escorted me to the side where I could watch. He stepped in the chute, got situated, and gave the nod. The gate busted open. And he made his ride. The buzzer sounded. He jumped off. And the same scene of bull and bullfighters being engulfed in flames and swallowed by the earth came on.
The announcement came on that he earned the score of eighty-three. The skeleton cowboys flooded the arena, looking like they were gonna tear me limb from limb. But Masters raised his hand and they stopped. "He made the better ride," I heard him say. "He deserves the win." He stuck out his hand and said, "To the better man." I shook it, finding a surprisingly strong grip. He, along with the other skeletons returned to the earth, and the sky cleared up.
Nothing that happened was recorded for any purpose. The story Lt. Col. Briggs gave was that I won the Finals Rodeo. I got to keep the saddle and buckle, but the money prize was to be donated to the Justin Boots Crisis Fund for injured and deceased cowboys. I received my honorable discharge and a healthy pension from the military. Masters' corpse was exhumed and sent back to his folks in Florida. I lost contact with my friends but I still remember them fondly.
I don't rodeo anymore. Competitive bull riding against vengeful spirits is a one way ticket to retirement. I keep to the stands these days. If my future children ever want to be cowboys, I might help them, but not before encouraging them to find another way. Doctor, lawyer, dentist, police officer, firefighter; I’ll even encourage them to be janitors or garbage collectors before letting them be cowboys.