Headin’ Straight

Zing! The rope barrier springs away and Neal spurs his quarter horse into the arena in pursuit of a scrambling steer, overtaking it as his father hazes the frightened animal closer to him. Moving at a hard gallop, Neal slides far sideways in the saddle and takes hold of the steer, right arm hooking one horn, left hand grasping the other. For a moment his body forms a perilous bridge between the horse and steer. Then his hand-tooled cowboy boots jerk free from the stirrups and tread clouds for an instant before hitting the hoof—softened dirt in a jolting cloud of dust, plowing a double furrow as he brakes against his own momentum and 600 pounds of charging steer. The muscles of his broad shoulders bunch under his western shirt as he turns his momentum, strength, and more than 180 pounds of solid bone and muscle into irresistible torque, levering the wide horns clockwise. The steer resists, teeters, and then crashes helplessly onto its side.

The judge’s flag drops. Time—6.2 seconds. Neal grins up at his father through the dust and applause, then scans the stands for his mother. Ignoring the burning weal that the horns have left on his ribs, he releases the animal, stands up, and stoops to dust off his western-cut jeans.

Neal Gines, 17, from Kamas, Utah, and his father have just won another first place in bulldogging.

Later, as Neal sprawls out, all 6′5″ of him, on the front room floor, he eyes the shelves of trophies that loom on the wall. Over 100 trophies, plaques, and belt buckles glisten in the shaft of sunlight peeking through the curtains. There are trophies for every member of the family: his dad’s chariot racing trophies, Lana’s softball trophy, Marla’s rodeo queen plaque, and Tim’s football “Mr. Hustle” trophy.

Then there are his trophies: his all-state basketball and football trophies, his state farmer trophy, and his belt buckles from rodeo events, and his state steer wrestling saddle. But even though the trophies look impressive, Neal feels that the real value came from achieving them—the work, the sweat.

“The trophies really aren’t that great. Other things are more important—like them,” Neal says proudly as he nods toward the kitchen where his parents’ voices can be heard.

“They spend a lot of time with me and sacrifice a lot for me, which means much more to me than a trophy. In fact, I try to give my belt buckles away, but mom tells me to save some for my kids,” he adds with a grin.

He shies away from talking about his accomplishments, preferring to talk about what he’d still like to achieve. “I still haven’t got the best time I think I can get,” he says in reference to his bulldogging. “Maybe next week.”

In the kitchen, his mother, obviously proud of Neal, relates her feelings:

“He’s a goal setter, and he’ll work until he accomplishes them. Someone once told him, Neal, you’ll never be a basketball player. You’re too slow and clumsy. Well, Neal practiced years to prove that if he wanted to play basketball, he’d play basketball! Last year he made ‘All-state,’ and participated on an all-star team.

“But more important to me than his awards in sports is the type of boy he is. Whenever he’s going to be late, he calls. And after his dates, he comes in and tells us he’s home; then we usually go to the kitchen and talk and munch on cookies.

“I’m secretary at the high school, and when Neal sees me in the halls he puts his arm around me, and teases me about being his girl. I’m more proud of him because he’s active in the Church and wants to go on a mission and has a strong testimony than because he’s a good athlete.”

August 16 is rainy and gray, but just before the rodeo the rain stops; The grounds are filled with Rocky Mountain Rodeo Association members, and everything smells like wet hay and leather. Neal throws his long legs into the saddle and heads for the barrier.

“Come on, Fran, let’s give it our best shot,” he whispers.

The rope barrier springs back and they charge out. Mud flies as Neal leans, grabs, twists, and pins the steer. Time—3.35 seconds! Neal’s fastest time ever! With a big smile he glances toward the stands where his family sits.

The morning is quiet. On his way out of the house to feed the horses, Brother Gines glances at the shelves of trophies and stops. He stands there, silent, silhouetted against the early morning light, looking at Neal’s basketball trophy and remembering the long hours Neal practiced to prove that he wasn’t clumsy. As he stands there, he recollects the times he and Neal have spent together.

“Back when Neal was younger, we milked the neighbor’s cows. It was Neal’s job, but I went anyway, figuring that it was important to be with him. We talked about horses and football and bulldogging and the Church. We grew closer together, understanding each other, becoming best friends.

“When Neal started bulldogging, I became the hazer (the one who guides the steer in a straight line). It’s kind of symbolic, both of us coming out together, with me hazing to keep the steer from running wild so Neal can grab him and throw him to the ground. We work well together, we’ve done it for so long. I can tell if Neal is hurt, how bad it is, whether it is just another scrape to add to his scars, or whether the horns have dug deeper this time. I never say much, but I’m right there.

“One time I’ll never forget is the afternoon we hiked to the top of the mountain looking for deer. When we got to the top, we just sat there, talked, and forgot about the deer. Neal was at that age when he wanted to know things. That was one of the best father-son interviews we’ve ever had.

“As Neal grew older, we didn’t stop doing things together. My wife teases us about being inseparable, but a father likes to know that his son wants to spend time with his old dad,” Brother Gines adds with a smile.

On cool fall nights they work outside together, joking, trying to hurry and get the wood stacked so they can go in and eat. They spend long hours hauling hay; taking trips to the saw mill to gather shavings so the animals can have the “softest beds”; walking quietly through the just-fallen snow, tracking down pheasants; going downtown to get a malt. They are still inseparable, still best friends.

“Need some help feeding the horses, dad?” Neal asks as he walks into the room.

Brother Gines turns to see Neal all dressed, ready to help. “Sure,” he replies.

Together they walk out into the bright morning.

Editor’s note: On August 26, 1980 (while this story was being written) Neal Gines died from injuries inflicted by a lightening bolt while he was working as a telephone linesman. “I’ve always had a testimony of living forever as a family,” said his father. “Neal was prepared. Now we as a family must be prepared. I know that we will be together again.”

[illustrations] Title illustrated by Dennis Millard

[photos] Photos by Eldon K. Linschoten