I didn't know what a buckle bunny was. Tom did. He was eleven, that made him God. We were at the rodeo, done up in cowboy boots, neckerchiefs and hats that were too big. Tom would get to ride a sheep, further proof he was divine.
"Buckle bunnies hump cowboys." Tom told me. We'd discussed what humping was the night before. He'd showed me a few pictures he'd torn from one of his brother's magazines. It looked painful.
“Cowboys do a good ride and the buckle bunnies come right over.” Tom had pushed his hat all the way down, eyes barely showing beneath the rim. He said it made him look tough. I wondered how he could see anything.
“Darrel got one the other night. Mom had to cook them both breakfast and Dad was all proud.” Darrel was the oldest of Tom’s brothers. He practiced roping by having Tom run around the front yard and snagging him with a lariat around the ankles. Sometimes he’d hog tie Tom and leave him out there until Tom’s mother found him.
“She said she was seventeen. Real blonde, not the drugstore kind. Darrel said he checked.” We were leaning against the sheep pen. I had my thumbs in my belt loops just like Tom. “Mom got all mad. She was going to throw them both out, Darrel and the buckle bunny but Dad told her to just shut the hell up and make some eggs.”
We stood awhile, Tom watched sheep, “I bet I get the buckle today, I bet I get it good.” Tom a buckle already. A little pig iron thing that somebody had hammered together in their garage. He’d won it last year, beat out a kid who broke his collar bone after falling head first off his sheep. “Come on.”
Tom led me to the concession stand, corn dog sticks and beer cans punctuated the mud. We stopped by the propane tank that fed the grill. He pointed, “There she is.”
She turned out to be an Indian girl. About twelve, long black braids and a beaded vest. She was selling fry bread with an old lady that was quick with a flyswatter.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“My buckle bunny.”
“Is she really?”
“Is she really a buckle bunny?”
“All the girls here are.” Tom said.
“ My sisters aren’t.” I said.
“How do you know?”
“Dad wouldn’t let them go home with nobody. Last week he chased Kari’s boyfriend around the house with his warclub.”
“Warclub? Your dad aint no Indian.”
“Sometimes.” I said.
“Maybe they just sneak out.”
“Nah uh. Mom would hear.”
“Okay. Maybe they aren’t buckle bunnies. Yet.” He wasn’t paying much attention. He watched the Indian girl’s hands for a long time.
“It’ll be a good buckle.” Tom said and I didn’t know what he meant.
Right before Tom was scheduled to ride, Darrel showed up. He was tall, slim, Marlboro quality. He offered me a pinch of his chew. He always did, every time he saw me. I only took it once, puked for enough hours to convince me once was enough. He still laughed over it.
“When you gonna ride, Andy?” Darrel asked.
“Mom won’t let me.” I said, handing Tom his gloves.
“Shit. Never let no woman tell you what to do.” Darrel said.
“Dad won’t either.” I said and Darrel just nodded. Darrel and Dad had a run in over me being hog tied. Darrel had been practicing and Tom and I had run around until we got roped. Darrel tied us and left us. I came home a few hours later with a sun burn that turned my whole face purple. Dad had walked over to Tom’s place and talked to Darrel. It wasn’t a nice talk. I didn’t get tied up any more and Darrel started calling my Dad Mr. Hines instead of just Barry.
Darrel walked Tom and me over to the chute, where they tied the riders on. Darrel got a big kick out of watching Tom get settled on his sheep.
“You hold on now, don’t let that bugger drag you nowhere.” Darrel laughed, chew in his teeth.
A cowboy asked Tom is he was ready and Tom nodded, his face bright red, brighter than his neckerchief. A voice over a loud speaker blared away, giving Tom’s win record and making a joke about a future bull rider. The cowboy popped the gate and Darrel kicked the sheep hard. Somebody cussed at him and things started happening all at once. The sheep took off crooked, coming out of the chute at an angle, the crowd in the arena started making that ocean sound crowds make and Tom’s free arm caught the gate post.
I watched that arm turn all the way back, bent straight out, sideways, ending up all the way behind Tom as his sheep veered hard. Tom was tied in tight but the force was just too much and he was pulled off because of his hung up arm. I’d never seen an arm bend like that. I’d done something similar to one of my GI Joes, bending a soldier’s plastic arm back until the joint exploded into fine bits. Tom howled.
Suddenly there were cowboys everywhere, guys jumping over the corral wall, men running in through the gate. I got my hat knocked off as they converged on Tom.
The announcers voice, feedback rotten, blew through the arena. A man in a white hat bent over Tom’s limp arm. Tom was bawling, something I’d never seen before, even when Darrel knocked out Tom’s front tooth the day after New Years.
“Don’t worry folks, the Doc is there and Tom Hammond is being looked after. We’ll continue with the sheep riding in a few minutes, why don’t you take the time to visit with the gals at the concession stands? There’s a two for one deal on Tater-Bacon sticks…” The loudspeaker kept on and the Doc put his knee in Tom’s back and pulled real hard. I heard the pop over the announcer’s voice. Tom made a gagging noise.
I didn’t notice Darrel standing next to me. Neither of us had gone over to Tom after his fall.
“He won’t get that buckle now,” I said. “She won’t be his buckle bunny without no buckle.”
“What?” Darrel asked, snapping awake liked he’d been somewhere else.
“His buckle bunny. The Indian girl at the fry bread place.”
“Indian girl?” Darrel said, looking down at me.
The Doc carried Tom over, Tom’s arm tied up against his chest. One boot was off and it was in the hands of a guy with a huge mustache, he looked like he was carrying something fragile.
“You the brother?” Doc asked. Darrel nodded. “Alright then. Pulled ‘er right out of the socket. Sprained him up pretty good. I don’t know but one of his ribs might be busted. You should take him in for an x-ray.” Doc passed Tom to Darrel and it was like they were handing off a puppet dressed in a brush popper shirt. Darrel didn’t say anything and the Doc didn’t stick around long enough to notice. The guy with the mustache handed me Tom’s boot and patted me on the shoulder.
“Your buddy’s pretty tough. He done good.” The guy said, he nodded to Darrel and followed the Doc.
Tom was looking at me from his brother’s arms and I held out his boot.
“Sorry.” I said. Tom took his boot with his uninjured hand and I could see tears through all the mud. “Maybe she’ll be your bunny anyway.” I said.
Tom looked at his brother real fast and back at me, “You told him?”
“He did,” Darrel said. “A god damned Indian.” Darrel started walking, carrying Tom like firewood.
“No, that’s not…” Tom tried but Darrel interrupted.
“We’ll talk about it with the old man.” Darrel called his father that. The old man.
“No, I’m sorry.” Tom said.
“You will be.” Darrel said.
My dad found me outside Tom’s father’s horse trailer. Tom, Darrel and his dad were inside and they were shouting. Dad didn’t say anything but we listened for a long time before he took my hand and we walked toward the concession stands.
“Wanna Tatter-Bacon stick?” He asked.
“No.” I said. I was scared for Tom. Dad stopped walking and he kneeled down in front of me. His beard was still black and brown then.
“Why are they so mad at him. He didn’t mean to get hurt.”
“That’s not why they’re mad.”
Dad looked at me for a while before he scooped me up and pitched me under one arm. He talked as he carried me.
“Some folks are small. Not short like you, “he jiggle me until I giggled, “they’re small in the head, in the heart. Tom’s dad and his brothers are all like that. Small.” Dad plopped me on my feet and we were in front of the fry bread stand. “Some folks don’t know a good thing from their heels of their boots.” The Indian girl was still there and the old woman too. They looked at Dad and smiled. Dad said something in Crow, and the old lady waved her flyswatter at him, smiling. He turned to me, “This is Katy Long Hair and her Grandma, Mary. She’s Robert’s niece.”
Robert was Dad’s friend from when he lived on Crow Agency, back before he married my Mom. Robert would go riding with Dad sometimes and he’d made me a bow out of willow that I could take along when I walked by the river with my folks
“Hi.” Katy said, and handed me a piece of fry bread in a little cardboard boat.
“Hi,” I said and I was glad that Tom didn’t win the buckle. “Do you like cowboys?” I said.
“Are you a cowboy?” She asked.
“Sometimes.” I said
“Then I like ‘em sometimes.” She said and smiled.