In its day, the extended cab GMC was surely a breathtaking beauty to behold: two-tone black over silver; dripping with chrome; all-leather customized interior with every button and bell possible when it came off the line in 1992.
Now, it looked like something off the front lines of Iraq. The mangled front bumper dangled precariously beneath the front, attached with a web of rusty baling wire. The rear bumper was gone completely, and the body was so dimpled by a decade of hailstorms, Hooter doubted if there could be a flat spot left on it.
The only thing new looking was a white bumper sticker affixed in the center of the banged-up tailgate. The bright red letters announced: “Will Rope for BEER.” But someone had put a big black X through BEER and scrawled to the side of it, “ANYTHING.”
If Hooter had any doubts before, the bumper sticker sealed the fact this had to be Slick Randolph's rig. Back in the day, Hooter had seen Slick at least once a week, all across the Southwest. Hooter was contracting some stock then, getting his rope wet for the sheer joy of it, while Slick was on the verge of being team roping's next big thing. He could head or heel with equal speed and accuracy. The horse or the stock never seemed to matter much; some how or another Slick seemed to always find his mark fast enough that if his partners were even average, they'd be in the money.
What added to Slick's quickly growing legend was the fact that he never seemed to take any of it too seriously. At the big shows when others were finding their stock and comparing notes on what anyone knew about them, Slick was in the stands playing pitch. As others surveyed the arena conditions, accounted for the weather and selected from a storehouse of ropes accordingly, Slick just grabbed whatever was handy. The results were always the same.
All that was back before sponsorships in rodeo were more common than poor service. But, Slick already had corporate backing. First was a new rope maker that came and went quicker than lightening in a dry sky. Then it was a string of Texas car dealerships. Last thing Hooter heard a certain soft drink manufacturer in Dublin was negotiating the rights to sponsor a name they believed would one day be even more recognizable than that of the Camarillos.
Actually, that was the last anybody knew about anything related to Slick Randolph. There was only the often recounted tale about the string of 10 shows over the Fourth of July weekend in 1993, at which Slick missed everything he aimed at; never even came close.
Then Slick simply disappeared. From time to time, a rumor would crop up that he'd been seen at this arena or that one, either back up to his old wizardry, or all used up and haunted. That's all they were, though, just rumors, until now.
The Beginning of the End
Hooter, who was harder to shock than a retired school teacher, yet he was plumb amazed when he finally found Slick out behind the dusty pens. Slick was even scrawnier than he used to be, but the shaggy hair leaking beneath his hat, and the week's worth of stubble on his face had taken on a noticeable shade of gray.
There he was, sweat pouring off of him, swinging a tight, flat loop, too much speed and too little spoke, desperately trying to catch the roping dummy about six feet in front of him. One try after another either bounced silently off the hay bale the dummy was mounted on, or died quietly on the ground behind, in front of or too either side. About every fifth try it bounced in a knot off the plastic horns with an empty clacking sound.
For the first time in his life, Hooter understood what folks meant when they talked about watching a tragic wreck: horrified by seeing the unspeakable, as if in slow motion, but unable to avert their eyes. He felt like some sort of peeping Tom; didn't know whether to slink away or come striding in like he'd just shown up.
“Howdy Slick,” shouted Hooter, stepping from the shadows, hand out and a big grin on his face.
There was no response.
“Heya Slick” Hooter tried again. Still nothing.
Slick was like a malfunctioning machine set on automatic, just going through the motions, repeating the same mistakes again and again, no thinking, no feeling.
Hooter waited until Slick threw one more tired, inept loop, ducked in, got him in a playful headlock and shouted, “Well, Slick, you old horn dog, it would seem rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Slick sputtered and struggled away from the headlock like a cat showered with cold water. When he pulled away, he stared for daylong seconds before a glimmer started to flicker in his eyes.
“It's me, Hooter, you old rascal, how you been?”
“I'll be jiggered,” Slick, finally managed. He wrapped Hooter up in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground. “What's it been, six or seven months? Man, where you been hiding? What're you doin' here?”
When Slick set him down Hooter noticed his thumbs were gone, and judging by the scars, they'd found there way in between Slick's dallies year's ago.
Six or seven months? Hooter was wondering how he ought to play it.
“Me? Pal of mine was wondering about buying this place, wanted me to look it over. Whatch'a been up to, Slick?”
“Same ol', same ol',” grinned Slick, weighing the rope in his hand. “I don't know if you heard or not, but a couple of weeks back I hit the mother of all slumps, just trying to do a little fine-tuning on the down-low.” Then he winked big.
It was worse than Hooter thought.
“Yeah, Slick, I heard about your run of bad luck, what do you reckon caused it?”
“No telling,” said Slick with a hearty sigh. “It don't matter, though. Even Babe Ruth had an off day. I'll be back on track in no time.”
“No time is exactly right,” thought Hooter. Better than 10 years ago Slick hit the roping skids and Hooter could tell he earnestly believed it was just a few weeks back.
Slick looked around to make sure Hooter and he were the only ones at the abandoned arena. “Actually, Hooter, I am a little bit worried, believe it or not. I think I lost it.”
“It?” wondered Hooter.
“You'll think it's silly,” said Slick, turning back toward the dummy.
“Ain't nothing silly, Slick, just undiscussed.”
Slick glanced over his shoulder again. “It. My mojo. I don't know if you ever knew it or not but your wife gave it to me a couple of years ago. How is she, anyway?”
Hooter was struggling to remember. Not the fact that his ex-wife, for about as many years as Slick had been missing in action, had concocted a voodoo potion for Slick—undoubtedly charging him for it—but he was trying to guess what she may have given him to carry in his pocket as his own personal mojo.
“She's just fine,” said Hooter. “Can't say as I ever did know about it. When did she give it to you.”
Deciding to Believe
“I remember exactly,” said Slick, sparkling like a diamonds on top of a feed sack. “It was at the show in Las Cruces, not long after I met you. Man, after that, I was in a zone.”
“You sure it was this mojo. What I mean, you were roping pretty good when I first ran into you.”
“Pretty good, but never like after,” said Slick. “Besides, it was the first mojo that got me to roping as good as I was then.”
Hooter sat down on a rickety grain box. “Well sir, you've gone and stumped me. First you tell me you lost your mojo is why you can't hit the side of a barn with a caterpillar tractor in low gear. Then you tell me you had a mojo before the one you lost. I'm loster than a small ball in tall weeds, Slick. Care to elaborate?”
“Well, when I was in junior high, I wanted to rope steers worse than anything in the world. I went to a couple of schools, tagged along with my uncle all the time. He said I was a natural, but I couldn't catch anything. Then one day, we was at a show in Louisiana. I missed again. That night, Uncle Willy took me to see an old voodoo woman. She laid a flattened copper penny in my hand and asked me if I believed I could catch more than the common cold. I said I could, I just needed some luck. She said, ‘This mojo here has done give it to you.' And, it did. When I found out Sherry was from Louisiana, I told her the story, said it had never let me down, but I was needing to get faster. The next time I saw here she laid this red polished rock in my hand, called it a mercury rock. Asked me if I thought I could catch faster than I ever had in my life. I said, yeah, with some extra luck. She said that mercury rock gave me the extra luck I needed to be faster. Ever since those shows over the fourth, though, I haven't been able to find that rock or the penny. I know I left ‘em in my bag, but they're gone. I can't catch nothin.'”
Hooter had an idea. “Wait right here, and don't worry.”
When he came back carrying what appeared to be an empty leather pouch (one of Pocket Geronimo's old medicine bags), Slick was busily attacking the roping dummy with miss after miss. Hooter held up the bag.
“Sherry told me the next time I saw you to give you this, not the bag, but what's inside.”
Slick looked like a kid wishing for Santa Claus, wanting to believe but afraid to.
“She told me that mercury rock was like magic with training wheels, that she had to start you out on that, but by the time I saw you again, you'd be ready for this.” He opened up the bag.
Slick peered in. “I don't see anything.”
Hooter grinned. “Put your roping hand inside and close your eyes.”
Slick did so and began frantically searching every nook and cranny of the bag, desperate for an answer.
“Keep those eyes closed,” said Hooter. “Can you feel that?”
Slick didn't say anything. He wanted to feel something, but couldn't so far.
“Think hard,” said Hooter. “At first you'd swear there wasn't anything in there, but it's just light and fast. Sherry says it's the mist from a hummingbird's wings, mixed in with the spit from a cheetah. She said besides making you even faster than you were before, once this stuff is on you, it's on you for life. So, like it or not, for the rest of your life you're going to be really good with a rope and fast.”
“Really?!” Slick yelped.
“Yep, judging by my watch, your just about done. Now, squeeze your fist tight, to seal it forever.” He watched the clenching motion inside the bag. “Now take your hand out and immediately grab your rope.”
Slick did as he was told. Tentatively at first, he built an easy loop with lots of body. Effortlessly, he danced the loop over the horns of the dummy, then jerked his slack with such ferocity he jerked the bale over backwards.
“Seems like just yesterday, doesn't it,” said Hooter.
“Nope,” said Slick with a million-watt smile. “Seems just like tomorrow.”