Snow at Apache Flats is similar to common sense at EPA. It doesn't happen often, so when it does folks usually take notice.
In this case, just after the first of the year, Apache Flats got pounded with close to a foot of the white stuff. That was more in one shot than has been received in the last 10 years, combined. It stayed cold for a few days, too, so the very first snow some of the local grade-schoolers ever saw hung around.
“I told you somebody up there likes us,” said Hooter, peering out of his shop door and giggling like a kid with a new worm. “For the first time in like forever this year's ski-buckin' contest is gonna finally be long on the ski side.”
“That won't matter much if you don't get back over here and help me with this,” mumbled Izzy Franklin, grumpily. “There's only a few hours left. I still don't know how you could've tore this up so bad.”
“I told you I figured I ought to give it a test run, and it's a good thing, too, broke that front runner plumb off,” said Hooter, eying the alien looking craft that Izzy was welding on.
Izzy set the torch down, looming larger than a bear's shadow at straight-up noon. “Hooter, a horse is gonna be pullin' this thing, not your Chevy 454. And another thing, how much you weigh? You must have had better than 500 lb. on here when you crashed it,” grumbled Izzy. “That's just stupid. I told you last year it was the last time I was gonna help you. Should've listened to myself.”
Unruffled as usual, Hooter stroked one of the other runners gently. “Man, I tell you, Izzy, this thing was flying like a rocket strapped to a lightening bolt. There's no telling how far I can go this year.”
Idle Hands and Whatnot
For the uninitiated, the contraption in question is called simply a War Horse, and lots of other things, depending on where it takes you. It's essential to the ski-bucking competition, an annual event in Rio Rojo County, which is completely unique to them as far as they know. Think of it as a cross between ski jumping, cowboy polo and Armageddon.
Here's how it works: Teams consist of a hazer and a ski-bucker. The hazer starts out behind a score line about 50 yards from the ski-bucker, who is mounted up on the War Horse. The War Horse is basically a 5X5 square base made out of any material you want to use, mounted on top of at least four and no more than six wheels or runners. Bolted on top of this base is for all practical purposes a padded saddle horse that stands about 4 feet high (at least that's what the official rule book says). Supposed pals help set the ski-bucker down on the War Horse, using a bull rope of the ski-bucker's choosing. Finally, a steer roping dummy is mounted to the front of the war horse.
So, as soon as the hazer crosses the score line, the flag drops and time begins. Most ski-buckers pick headers for partners because their role in the affair is to race down, head the War Horse head-on, turn off and start logging the War Horse as hard and fast as they can toward what is termed in the sport, a Buckle Buster—basically a rickety ramp starting from ground level and going up to about 6 feet high over a length of about 10 feet and named for reasons that will soon become apparent—a whole lot like the floor of a loading chute. Come to think of it…
Anyway, if things work right, the hazer turns the corner just so, pulling the War Horse on to the Buckle Buster, building as much steam as possible. And the next part is what really separates the champs from the wannabes. Just as the War Horse hits the end of the ramp, the hazer drops the dally and gets out of the way. The ski-bucker, assuming he or she is still along for the ride, is then judged based on how far he flies and for style points. Time between the flag dropping and the ski-bucker coming to a standstill—sometimes simultaneous—is only used to break a tie.
Like all other pursuits in life of questionable repute, ski-bucking in Rio Rojo County has become more a rite of passage than a sport. Some of the young men look forward to the day their folks will let them haze for the first time, let alone set down on the War Horse, while others dread the day. Some of the old-timers can't wait for the day their giddy-up is too far gone to give it one last go, while others do all they can to hold that day at bay.
Hooter was the youngest ski-buck champ in history at the tender age of 16. He'd won it a few times since, with his cousin Charlie always providing the hazing chores. And Hooter never cared where he finished in the contest just as long as it was in front of The Fink brothers, long-time thorns in Hooter's side ever since they were in grade school together.
Let the Games Begin
The contest this year drew the largest crowd in recent memory, what with the first snow in so long. Even though the temperature hovered in the mid 30's all day, the crystalline playing field beneath a sky so blue it looked like it might shatter made the crowd buzz with extra excitement. It had been years since they'd watched the competitors slide along on the snow—some of the contestants had never competed in it before—rather than bouncing along open ground, shredding prickly pear and kicking up rocks and dust enroute to the Buckle Buster.
By the time a field of 18 teams had wrecked, catapulted and buckle-busted their way to the championship round, the crowd was still there.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” slurred Delmar Jacobs, bellering into a portable bullhorn from the back of a pickup. “We're ready to begin (hiccup) the championship round to the 45th Annual Rio Rojo County Ski-bucking championships. (hiccup) We've been blessed with (hiccup) a spectacular day and a (hiccup) fierce pack of contestants. May the (hiccup) best ski-bucker win.”
Even though most of the crowd had heard Delmar hiccup his way through the announcing chores for years, it still conjured up a wave of giggles. Delmar was an old bull fighter from way back and he'd done his best to live up to that old rodeo standard, Bandy the Rodeo Clown, right down to the cork in the pint bottle.
“(hiccup), But before we start, and by request (hiccup) and tradition, my latest for your listening enjoyment. (hiccup).”
“Oh lord,” said Hooter, elbowing Charlie in the ribs as Delmar began strumming a guitar that had seen better days and lots of them. “How much you want to bet it's about some heartless woman?”
Sure enough. “...When I sober up some more, I hope you're be-lieven' that I'll be leavin' just as soon as I can find the door...," sang Delmar at the top of his lungs.
Finally, after a round of sincere applause and a hefty swig from a paper cup to regain his composure, Delmar called up the first of the two teams that would compete for the championship. It was between Hooter and Charlie and the Fink Brothers. Actually, they were the only two teams that had scored.
“McCormicks! (hiccup) You're up!,” bellowed Delmar.
In the first round, Hooter's War Horse was barely perched on one edge of the Buckle Buster as Charlie pulled him up, but he did have enough speed to go about 10 feet and enough of a hand-hold to stay put.
“Don't lead me as much this time, Charlie,” shouted Hooter from the far end of the playing field. “But don't be scared to give it the gas.”
“Yeah, it takes lots of fuel for a tank like that,” shouted Warren Fink, the brother's hazer.
Charlie just nodded. By the time he crossed the score line he was already a blur, raced to the other end, dropped a perfect loop on Hooter's War Horse, grabbed a dally and they were gone.
“That's it, Charlie! Give it all you got!” shouted Hooter bearing his riding arm into his leg with all his might.
The turn was perfect. Hooter was square in the middle of the ramp and picking up speed. Just as he got to the edge, though, and Charlie dropped his dally, Hooter felt something give way. The saddle horse had been jerked clean from the platform. “Uh Oh!” shouted Hooter, sailing horizontal through the air, still firmly attached to what was left of his ride. The flat trajectory ended with a thud, then about a 15' slide.
Through the snow, Hooter heard Delmar bark, “Clean ride! (hiccup) Judges score it an 82!”
“Clean ride!” yelled Warren Fink. “Half his War Horse is still dangling off the Buckle Buster. That should be a DQ.”
Taking another swig from his cup, Delmar wheezed into the microphone, “I (hiccup) know what the rule book says, sonny. (hiccup) And the rules say the rider has to be attached to his bull rope, not whether or not the bull rope has to be attached to anything. (hiccup) Fink Brothers! You're up! (hiccup!).”
“It don't matter!” yelled Warren to his brother set down on the other end of the field. “We'll still beat ‘em. Larry, you pay attention, you hear?!”
If anything, Warren blazed to the other end faster than Charlie had, and the loop was just as perfect. He took the turn into the Buckle Buster too tight, though, and by the time he looked over his shoulder, brother Larry was already sliding down the side of it, face-first, his bulbous nose collecting splinters every inch of the way.
“Hey, whatya call that War Horse, anyway?” asked Hooter, looking on in amazement. “Because if that's not the Al Gore, always coming in second but claiming to be first, I'll eat my hat and yours, too.”