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Betsy Byars (b. 1928) is an award-winning American author of more than fifty children’s and young adult titles, including The Summer of the Swans (1970), which earned her the Newbery Medal. She has also received a National Book Award for The Night Swimmers (1980) and an Edgar Award for Wanted . . . Mud Blossom (1991). Byars began writing in college and submitted stories to magazines while raising four children. Her first novel, Clementine, was published in 1962, and in the decades since, she became one of America’s best-loved authors for young readers, with popular series including Bingo Brown and the Blossom Family stories. Byars and her husband, Ed, are both licensed aircraft pilots and live above their own private hangar on an airstrip in Seneca, South Carolina.
Best in the Business
We stood at the railroad station and looked across the tracks at each other. He was a boy in a dark suit with his hair combed down flat. He was holding a Mad magazine. I was a man in dusty boots and dusty pants with a scar down the side of my face that no amount of dust could hide.
I said, "Charles?"
He said, "Uncle Coot? Is that you?"
He tried to grin. "Well, it's me too."
We kept standing there, and then I stepped over to his side of the tracks. Charles was looking up at me, and for a second I could see the Texas sky mirrored in his eyeglasses, the big white clouds. He cleared his throat and said, "I guess you heard I was coming." He started rolling and unrolling his magazine. "Or you wouldn't be here."
"I got your mom's telegram this morning."
"Well, she'll probably send for me in a few weeks or something," he said. "I won't be here forever." He made a tight roll of the Mad magazine and held it in his fist.
"Well, sure," I said. "She'll send for you." We stood there a minute more, and then I said, "We might as well stop standing around and get in the truck." We both tried to pick up his suitcase at the same time. Then I got it and carried it over to the truck and we got in.
We drove out of Marfa and neither of us said anything for a mile or two. My truck's old and makes a lot of noise, but it seemed quiet this morning. Once I cleared my throat, and he snapped his head around and asked, "Did you say something?"
"I was just clearing my throat."
"Oh, I thought you said something."
"No." I probably would have said something if I could have thought of anything to say, but I couldn't. We rode on for a few more miles. I was looking straight ahead at the road. He was looking out the window at the mountains. We passed a peak called Devil's Back.
I said, "I reckon this is different from back East where you were in school."
"Yes." We drove another mile or two, and then he said suddenly, "I've seen you in the movies."
I said, "What?" because he had spoken real quiet.
He turned his head toward me. "I've seen you in the movies."
There was another silence, and then he said, "I especially remember you in a movie called Desert Flame."
"Well, that's over now," I said. Up until this spring I had been in California doing stunts for western movies. I had been doing stunts—or gags, as we call them—the biggest part of my life, and I can tell you that the stunts you see in the movies are real and they are dangerous. There are tricks, of course—fences and barn doors made of soft balsa wood to break easily, ground that's been dug up and softened, rubber hose stirrups—but most of the horse stunts you see are not faked, and stunt horses have to be special animals.
Charles said, "You were riding a white horse."
I said, "Yeah." Then I added again, "But that's over now." I wanted the conversation to end.
"Did the white horse belong to you?"
"What was his name?"
"Cotton." I tried to make a period of the word. There's a phrase stunt men have about horses—"the best in the business"—and that suited Cotton. In a stunt horse temperament is the important thing, not looks, and I had found Cotton on his way to the slaughterhouse because of a badly wounded leg. There was something about the horse that I liked, and I had taken him and started training him. First I let him fall in a sawdust pit so he would get used to it; then I got him to fall when he was walking, then trotting, and finally to fall in a full gallop, a beautiful fall you've probably seen in a dozen movies.
Maybe you remember the movie Desert Flame that Charles was talking about and the scene where the white stallion falls in the desert. That was me and Cotton. I rode Cotton right to the top of a dune, reared him, pretended to take a shot in the shoulder, fell backwards, and me and him rolled head over hoof all the way down that dune without bruising either one of us. Stunt men still talk about that fall sometimes.
"Do you still have that horse?" Charles asked. "I'd like to see him."
"No, I don't have him any more."
I didn't answer.
"What happened?" he asked again.
I said, "Nothing," and began to drive a little faster.
What happened was something I couldn't talk about. That spring Cotton and I had been taking a fall for a movie called Bright Glory. The fall wasn't anything special, just a battle scene, and we were to come toward the camera in a full gallop and drop just before we got there. It wasn't anything unusual. Cotton and I had taken that same fall dozens of times with neither of us the worse for it. But this one fall my timing was off. It wasn't off more than a second, but we went down—not in the soft drop area, but beyond it—and crashed into the camera. I got up but Cotton didn't. His front legs were broken.
It took something out of me. Cotton and I had been together for twelve years, and when I knew he was going to have to be shot—I knew it right when I scrambled to my feet in the dust and he didn't—well, I decided then that I wanted to go back home to Texas. The land called me. I wanted to look at the mountains again, to ride through the valleys, to have that bright blinding sky over me. I wanted to be by myself.
The whole thing came back to me as Charles was talking—the accident, the blood from my cheek falling on Cotton's white neck, the pistol shot. I reached up and rubbed the scar on my cheek.
Charles was still talking a mile a minute. "And I remember you jumping across a cliff in Thunder in Oklahoma. Remember? You almost didn't make it, and you and the horse just hung there practically on the side of the cliff for a moment."
"I stayed to see that part of the movie five times and it got better and better. Everybody in the audience held their breath, and some little kids down in front screamed. Was the horse Cotton?"
"I told everybody that was my uncle up there on the screen—the lady selling popcorn, the man on the aisle, everybody. I don't think half of them believed me. It was the greatest thing I ever saw."
"It wasn't that great, Charles. The cliff wasn't as high as it looked—they had the camera set at an angle so that it looked higher and"—I hesitated—"and I had a horse that made me look good."
"You looked great," he said. "The boys at my school wouldn't believe you were my uncle it was so great. They ought to put your name up there with John Wayne's so people would know."
He looked at me and his face was shining almost as bright as his glasses. I had never been that great in my life. And at that moment, with the accident still taking up most of my mind, with that one split-second mistake haunting me, the last thing I wanted to hear was how great I was.
"Look, it was just a gag," I said. I was starting to sweat. There was an edge to my voice, but Charles didn't notice.
He said, "And I remember one other time—anyway I thought this was you and I always wanted to ask about it. There was this movie called Son of something and—"
"I don't remember all of them," I said.
"But this was such a great stunt you'd have to remember. Oh, yeah, it was Son of Thunderfoot, and this Indian came riding down a steep hill, and halfway down the hill the horse slipped and—"
"It wasn't me."
"It looked like you and it was a white horse."
"Well, it must have been someone else. There are a lot of stunt men and a lot of white horses. Be quiet so I can drive."
He was still looking at me, squinting through his glasses as if he was looking at a too-bright light. Then he nodded. He turned and started staring out the window. We drove the rest of the way in silence.CHAPTER 2
The Guy Who Never Got Hurt
There was a cloud of dust behind us as we stopped at the ranch. "Here we are," I said, "Casa Mia." I reached over and opened his door for him. Beyond, the buildings looked old and dusty in the bright sunlight.
Charles didn't say anything. He got out of the truck and went into the house with his suitcase. In about five minutes he came out in a pair of blue jeans so new the stiffness was still in them.
I was at the corral saddling up Clay. I wanted to get off by myself for a while, because just talking about Cotton had brought back my loss. Charles spotted me and came over.
He stuck his hands down into his jeans pockets kind of casual-like, and then he pulled out a little square of paper that said his pants had been inspected by Number 28. He crumpled the paper and looked at me.
I said, "Listen, Charles, I got to go off for an hour or two and—"
He said, "I'd like to learn how to ride a horse now." His eyeglasses looked like they had been bought a couple of sizes too big so he could grow into them.
I said, "Well, sure, Charles, you can learn to ride if you want, but if you're going to be here for a few weeks there'll be plenty of time."
"I've seen it done a thousand times," he said.
"Yeah, but seeing it done isn't doing it. Look, why don't you finish reading your magazine or something for a couple of hours. You can unpack. I've got to—"
"I've read four complete books on horsemanship, including the Encyclopedia of Horses, both volumes. Have you ever read that?"
"Well, no, but—"
"I even memorized the ten rules of good horsemanship. One: A good horseman controls the horse with his hands, legs, and the weight of his body. Those are called the aids, Uncle Coot."
"The most important aid is the legs. You use them to teach the horse to move. If you press the horse with your left leg, the horse moves to the left. If you press the horse ..."
By this time I could see that nothing was going to satisfy him but getting up on a horse and trying out those aids. I gave up on getting off by myself for the moment. "I'll saddle Stump for you," I said.
He stopped talking and blinked his eyes. "Stump? That's a funny name for a horse."
"Not this horse."
I started into the barn and he followed. "Why, Uncle Coot?"
"You know what a stump does, don't you?"
"Same with this horse."
Old Stump was a twenty-year-old horse that was known far and wide for not moving. That horse could outstand a tree. He used to be in the movies every now and then when a studio call would come for a horse that would stand without moving—like when a cowboy had to leap off a saloon roof or a balcony onto a horse, because for a gag like that you have to have a horse that won't move. A stunt man can get crippled if he lands on a western saddle just a few inches out of position—and Stump wouldn't move an inch. He would stand for hours with his head down, looking at something on the ground, and you could saddle him and spur him and holler yourself hoarse, and he would still stand there contemplating the ground.
We took the saddle out to him—I knew there wasn't any sense calling him over to us—and all the way Charles was quoting things out of the Encyclopedia of Horses. He went on about it so much that by the time we got to Stump I had heard just about all I cared to about horsemanship.
I saddled Stump and gave Charles a boost, and he got in the saddle without too much trouble. Then right away he said, "I think the saddle is set too far back. It's very important for the saddle to be in the right position."
"It's fine," I said. "It just feels that way because—"
He didn't let me finish. He threw his leg over and sat sideways on the saddle, getting ready, I reckon, to jump down. "The Encyclopedia says that the saddle"—he started, but that was as far as he got because right then Stump started to move.
I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been right there because that horse hated to move. To this day I don't know what caused it. You would think that a horse who would stand still when a hundred-and-eighty-pound man landed on his back wouldn't mind a kid sitting sideways on him for a minute or two, but Stump did.
Stump stopped looking at the ground. He tossed his head, jerked around, and took a couple of sidesteps. There's nothing gives a new rider a worse feeling than when his horse starts going sideways.
Charles squealed in a high voice, which wasn't one of anybody's rules of good horsemanship, and held on to the saddle with both hands. He got ready to slide off, only Stump came around real quick, kind of dipped under him, and Charles's leg went over the horse and—I was as surprised as he was—he ended up facing backwards.
I've done some backwards riding myself in rodeos, and I tell you it gives you a funny feeling the first time you try it. Charles squealed again and reached out for something to hold, only there wasn't anything there but Stump's tail. As soon as I saw him grab that, I knew he'd made a mistake.
Stump put his head down then and began to double buck, which is jumping up in the air like a goat, hitting the ground, and leaping again. Charles went with him—right up in the air with his arms and legs leaving the horse. I could see the sky between the horse and the boy, but then every single time Charles came right down on Stump again. It would have been a blessing for him to go ahead and get thrown, only he couldn't seem to do it.
Then Stump started hitting the ground with his legs as stiff as posts and his back legs kicking out behind like a mule's. I ran after him, but before I could get to him, he started going around the corral backwards, twisting and turning. Then he finished by throwing himself down on his side, with Charles's left leg underneath. It worried me for a minute, because a man can break a leg getting jabbed by a stirrup after hitting the ground. That's why stunt men use a rubber hose stirrup on the left side.
I don't know what the Encyclopedia had to say about that situation, but I hollered, "Get off, boy!" and Charles dragged his leg out from under Stump and scrambled out of the way, not hurt at all.
He kept going until he was on the other side of the corral fence. Then he stood there looking at Stump on the ground. After a minute he said, "Is he dead?"
"But he's just lying there."
"He'll get up in a minute. That's the first exercise he's had in fifteen years." The air went out of Charles then, and he looked smaller than ever. I said, "Let's get back to the house."
We started walking, him limping and me walking about the same way because of an old hip injury I got in a movie called Guns of Navaho that never bothers me in the saddle, only when I walk a distance. So we limped along, and I tried to think of something nice to say. Finally I said, "You really stayed on that horse though."
"I thought I never would get thrown."
"Actually I wanted to be thrown." He hung his head and said, "It probably seemed very funny to you."
"No, it didn't seem funny."
"I mean, you being such a great rider and all. I've seen you in the movies and I know."
"Charles, didn't you ever get on a horse before?" I asked, changing the subject.
"Didn't your mom ever—"
"No." We took a few more steps and he said, "Actually I haven't seen much of my mother." His mom, my sister Jean, was the greatest trick rider I ever saw but not much of a mother. She had put Charles in school in the East—I guess more to get him out of the way than anything else—and then a month ago she had broken her shoulder in a rodeo in Phoenix. Money was scarce after that, and so she had sent Charles to me. She had said in her telegram it would be for a couple of months. Charles had said a couple of weeks. Knowing my sister, I was afraid the boy was here to stay.
"Well, that's the way Jean always was," I said finally. "Looks like at least she would have taught you to ride a horse."
He stopped then—we were almost to the steps—and he put one hand on my arm. Behind his dusty eyeglasses his eyes were very bright. He said, "But I'll learn. I'm going to be just like you."
He kept looking at me, and I suddenly realized that all he knew about me he had learned from the movie screen. I was the man who did the impossible. I was the big hero, the guy who could leap cliffs, cross roaring streams, take forty-foot jumps into lakes, and fall a hundred times without hardly getting dusty. I was the guy who never got hurt.
And while I was standing there, trying to think of something to say, something that would show him what I really was, the lady came up and told us about the colt with wings.
Excerpted from The Winged Colt of Casa Mia by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1973 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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