Tom was eight and I was six when we saw our first rodeo. We drove to Saskatoon in our Ford truck and fought to sit next to Dad. It was a great journey for Tom and me, like a trip to Alaska—almost.
I don’t remember much of the day, except the ride and the barrel man (a barrel man dresses like a clown and distracts the bulls when the cowboys fall off).
Well, a bull had thrown some cowboy and the barrel man was twisting and dancing, pulling the big bull away from the guy on the ground. Then the bull turned fast, unexpected. The barrel man twisted again, sprinted, then dove into a barrel headfirst just as the bull knocked it across the arena floor.
I could feel the ground shake, even in the stands. There was silence. And then the clown stuck his head out of the barrel and blew the bull a raspberry. We laughed about that all the way home.
The next day the rodeo came to our backyard. “The Bull Rider and the Barrel Man” game was Tom’s idea; and Leonard, our German shepherd, was as good a bull as we could have hoped for. Whoever played the bull rider would lie helpless on the ground as Leonard tried to bite his ears. Meanwhile, the barrel man hopped back and forth trying to distract the “bull.”
Finally, Leonard would take off after the barrel man and the two would race around our old, plastic garbage can until the “bull” got too close. Then the barrel man could dive in.
Tom and I took turns. Leonard could catch me, but not Tom. He was too quick. He was a great barrel man.
Tom even dressed for the part. He would paint his face and wear cutoff jeans and an ugly Hawaiian shirt with big red ferns plastered all over it. He looked like a real barrel man.
The years passed. Tom turned 14, and I was almost 12. Over those years my brother never lost his love of the game. We would play “Bull Rider and the Barrel Man” all summer, along with the rest of our summertime activities. Some nights we’d play well past dark, when the yellow glow of the porch light made us all look bigger than we really were.
“Getting late,” Tom said one summer evening, a Saturday. Leonard was asleep at our feet and dusk was approaching quickly. Behind us our shadows faded all the way to the house.
“You’re getting slower,” I said. “I mean, he almost got you that time.”
“Ahhhh,” Tom said, smiling. “I saved your life at least a dozen times today.” The red mud we have in Saskatchewan caked Tom’s face. It looked like barn paint had spilled and dried on him and his clown clothes.
“Church tomorrow,” I said. Tom nodded.
We looked out onto the prairie and didn’t say anything for a while. The wheat fields stretched unbroken to the start of the dark blue sky and I daydreamed. I thought about the prairie, how it could have been a lonely place if I didn’t have a brother like Tom.
“One day I’m gonna be in the rodeo,” said Tom. “Be a real barrel man.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
Tom shifted from one leg to the other, then back again. He started rocking. He was always moving.
“We should ride over to the creek tomorrow,” Tom said. “And fish and stuff.” It was a strange thing to say. We never did anything like that on Sunday.
“Sure,” I said, though I really wasn’t too sure.
Tom brought his hand down on the side of his jeans, making a loud slap. “Ha, ha, ha!” he laughed. “Maybe we can go early and catch us a tasty catfish.”
“Yeah,” I laughed.
Then I waited for Tom to say something else, but he didn’t. I didn’t know what Tom was thinking. Mom and Dad wouldn’t like the idea of us taking off, missing church, breaking the Sabbath. I hoped he’d forget the whole thing by morning.
Tom’s voice woke me the next morning. I looked over and Mom was feeling his forehead while he moaned and made a series of pitiful faces.
“Stomachache,” he growled.
“I’ll stay home with you,” said Mom.
“No, that’s okay.” He quickly added, “I don’t want you to miss church, Mom.”
She felt Tom’s forehead again and shook her head. “No fever. I’ll get you some cereal.” She left for the kitchen and Tom leaned close to me.
“Tell her you need to stay home too,” he whispered.
“I don’t want to lie,” I said, as Tom rolled his eyes. “I don’t mind going to church. We can ride over to the creek tomorrow.”
“Don’t be a baby.” Tom was getting mad. “Tell her you’ve got the same thing or, um, or I’ll never talk to you again.”
Mom came back in with Tom’s breakfast.
“You’d better get yourself something,” she said to me. I didn’t say anything. I just sat frozen in my bed, looking at my feet.
Tom spoke up. “I don’t think he feels good either.”
“Your stomach hurts too?” Mom asked. I looked at her and saw the concern on her face. I wasn’t looking at Tom, but I felt his eyes on me. I didn’t want to make Tom mad at me, but I didn’t want to lie. And though I’d never thought about it before, I didn’t really want to miss church.
“Nah, I’m okay. I think I can go.”
Tom wouldn’t talk to me when we left, but as I walked by our room he mouthed the word “Baby.”
Tom didn’t say anything to me for three days. He left early in the morning and stayed at a friend’s house until dark. At supper, he wouldn’t look up from his food or talk to anyone. I’d never seen Tom that quiet. Usually he was a comic, full of life and words.
After breakfast and chores Thursday I climbed into our private den above the barn. Earlier that summer Tom and I had painted the walls with some leftover yellow paint and made our own furniture out of the paint cans and some broken fence boards. In the rafters there were a dozen sparrow nests. Dad said we could clean out the nests, but we left them alone. It was their room first. And they were part of what made it a great room.
Outside the wind was blowing across the endless brown prairie. It was whining through the cracks in the walls, stirring dust bowls on the floor. I was alone, and I felt that loneliness swelling in me. I choked on a sob and shook my head.
“No blubbering,” I whispered, and picked up our half-finished U.S.S. Lexington model from the table. Tom and I hadn’t gotten around to putting in the bridge yet.
“That’s mine,” said Tom. I spun around. Tom stood in the doorway.
“It’s mine too,” I said.
Tom slumped down on one of our paint-can chairs. “Ah, you can have it.”
I put the model down and looked up at the sparrows. “Ain’t you going out today?” I asked. Tom didn’t answer. “We could go to the creek if you want.”
“Nah,” he said.
I looked at him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “Ever since Sunday you act like I gave you a wormy apple.”
Tom couldn’t help smiling; it was, after all, one of his funny lines. “Weirdo,” he said. Then he put his mean face back on. “Why’d you weasel out of skipping church?”
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t feel good about it.”
“Nobody has a right to plan something then weasel out,” Tom said.
“Yeah, I guess I did do that. I should’ve told you before that I didn’t want to skip church.”
Tom nodded. “I don’t know. I guess I understand. I mean, I sort of missed it. Priesthood and even Sunday School. I probably shouldn’t have gotten mad at you for going.”
Leonard started barking in the driveway and I looked out. “The bull wants to play,” I said.
“The Bull Rider and the Barrel Man,” Tom said. “That’s what church is like.”
“Going to church. It’s like when I play Barrel Man. I have the barrel to jump into if the bull is gonna get me. I know it’s dumb, but going to church is kind of like that. Every week you go to church, you get protection. You do something you know is right, and then you feel good. If you don’t do it, you feel bad and take it out on everyone else. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think so. If you don’t jump into the barrel you get mad at your brother.”
Tom laughed. “Right.” He got up and started to pace back and forth in front of me. “Sorry I’ve been a jerk to you,” he said.
“Forget it. You getting happier yet?”
He grinned. “Yeah. I’m feeling better now.”
He made a few more turns up and down the den floor, pacing faster and faster each time. Finally he said, “You look like you could use a bull ride, Shorty.” And then he grabbed me in a head lock and we spun around. The old Tom was back. He pushed me aside and bounded down the steps three at a time. I could hear his “Ha, ha, ha” from the yard, and I ran to the window. He was in the driveway, flipping Leonard’s ears. Then they took off, chasing in a complete circle around the barn.
They made a pass below me, still running hard. Leonard was barking, and Tom was laughing his usual, annoying laugh. “Ha, ha, ha, let’s go, bull rider!”
Beyond the noise and excitement below, beyond the driveway and the fence line, I looked to the wheat fields that seemed to stretch forever. I thought about the prairie, and how it could be a lonely place if I didn’t have a brother like Tom.