Midnight

by Jim Kjelgaard

The greatest bucking bronc of them all was in his stall, waiting for the man whose life dream was to break him. But a man can change his mind-and dream-in five seconds.

I.

I loved that horse, worshiped every black hair on his shining untamable body. Nobody except Clay Allison, the greatest bronc man who ever rode a pitching horse, had sat on his back for more than five seconds. And I think I loved that black horse, Midnight, almost as much as I did Clay Allison.

I was fifteen, a full-fledged rider on the J-Bar, when I met Clay Allison. I can't explain it, but Clay had something that the rest of us lacked. One day I watched him when he picked out a jug-headed roan, saddled it, and rode it around the breaking corral. Any of us could have ridden that roan, but nobody could have ridden it exactly as Clay did. He was part of the horse, music in motion. When the roan gave up Clay slid off the saddle and walked away, thinking no more about it than if he's just rode in on a pony from the county fair.

"How do you do it?" I gasped.

"I don't know," he said. "I can't tell you how to do it. I guess bronc riding's like everything else-you've either got it or you haven't. And, if you've got it, you might have it all the time or part of the time. I really don't know. But I'm going down to Cheyenne to ride in the rodeo; I can take you along If you want to go."

I had been ready for an hour when Clay picked me up in his old rattletrap car. "What's the good of riding in rodeos?" I asked him.

In the darkness I felt, rather than saw, Clay's shrug. "I don't know, Bud. Maybe the money's got something to do with it. If you're lucky you can earn more in a rodeo season than you can in five years as a ranch hand. But I still don't know."

I didn't say any more, and a few hours later we drove into Cheyenne.

II.

I stood beside the chutes that afternoon, waiting for the big event of the day, and finally it came.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the loudspeaker blared, "keep your eyes on Chute Three. In just a few minutes Clay Allison of Rock Falls, Wyoming, will come out of there on Midnight. Midnight has not yet been ridden for more than two seconds, and our own Jim Saunders Is the rider who sat on him that long. Ladies and gentlemen, watch Chute Three."

Midnight came out of there like a tornado--twelve hundred pounds of wild fury. He sunfished, twisted, and whirled. With his head between his legs he crow-hopped, and the audience went wild. There was something great and free and glorious in the horse that would not be tamed and the rider who would not be unseated.

Nobody should have been able to sit in that saddle for more than the horse's first jump. But Clay sat there goading Midnight with his spurs the while he scorned to grab the saddle with his free hand. I know now that, if I live to be a hundred, I'm never going to see anything like that again.

Then Midnight went straight up, twisted to the right and to the left, and came down with his front legs stiff. That jolted Clay Allison and shook him in his seat. Midnight got his head down and again went straight up. His hind legs flew out and his neck snapped. He pitched again, and I saw Clay spill out of the saddle, to lie motionless in the arena. Then I heard the announcer's excited voice:

"Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed a wonderful ride, a magnificent ride! Clay Allison rode Midnight for six seconds straight! Ladies and gen…"

Midnight stopped bucking and stood quietly while the pick-up man grasped his bridle. I watched him being led out of the arena and I looked back at Clay Allison.

It wasn't until I went to the hospital to visit him that I learned he had died almost instantly with a broken neck.

III.

I just couldn't forget the picture I'd seen that afternoon; a horse that recognized no rules that men tried to impose upon him, and a man who had tried to change the horse's mind. I think I knew, from the minute I saw Clay Allison pitched off Midnight's back, that someday I myself must have a try at the black horse which had never been ridden.

About a year later, I drew my wages at the J-Bar, spent three quarters of it for a saddle, and lit out for Deadwood.

While traveling, I thought about just one horse, Midnight. In the course of a year Midnight had made the rodeo circuit, and Clay Allison's record of six seconds on his back still stood. Nobody else had even tied Jim Saunders two seconds.

It was night when I swung off the truck that had carried me the last sixty miles and made my way to the rodeo grounds. Entering in the next day's bronc riding was only a formality, and I drew a horse named Rocket. That was a keen disappointment--I had wanted Midnight. But a rider from Idaho drew him.

Rocket was a good little horse. But, except that he was sharper and trickier, he wasn't much different from the broncs we'd had beck on the J-Bar. I sat in the saddle while he pitched. The whistle blew and the pick-up man took me off. I forgot Rocket then and all the other broncs, because I wanted to see Midnight come out. Even before he came, you could sense that he was coming. A hush fell over the crowd. It was as though they sensed that something great was before them! There was a concerted gasp when Midnight came out of the chute and bucked the rider off in less than half a second.

Two days later I drew him. I thought I knew all his tricks. But I had barely seated myself in the saddle when he gave a little hop and banged me against the bars, and they hauled me out of there with a broken leg.

IV.

I caught up with Midnight nine times in the next two years. In nine tries I didn't even come close to riding that horse. I rode the others, and took a hand in the rest of the rodeo events, and earned enough money to pay my own way and even save a little. But I didn't give two snaps of the fingers for all of it.

It was still Midnight, the great and wonderful horse that no man had ever subdued. Every time I picked myself out of the dust, it was with the knowledge that I just had to have another crack at him.

I was in Omaha when I heard that Midnight was at Madison Square Garden, and I caught the next train east.

That afternoon I walked up to Midnight's stall and peered in. He was there, big and black and shiny as ever. When I drew my horse, I knew, even without looking at the slip, that I had Midnight. It seemed as though things just had to break for me. I was wound up like a clock.

But just before the bronc riding that night I was suddenly calm. I don't know why, I just was. I didn't see the people or hear the loudspeaker, or notice the light. I was thinking of Clay Allison. Bronc riding is just one of those things, he had said. Some people have it part of the time and some all of the time. That night I knew I had it.

When I climbed over the chute to get on Midnight I was certain that this was my day. Never before had I felt this way, and I knew that I never would again. Midnight moved nervously when I settled into the saddle. The gate swung open.

I was first aware of the crowd when Midnight pitched through the gate, and then I was not aware of them as a crowd. Rather I felt the hush, the tenseness, that gripped thousands of people who knew they were In the presence of greatness. Then Midnight and I were alone.

It probably sounds fatuous to say that, with twelve hundred pounds of maddened horse under me, I felt as though I was riding on a cloud. But I did feel that way. I was master. I was certain that tonight I could ride that black hurricane for as long as I wished. Like audible ticks of a clock, my brain marked the seconds off, 'One-two-three-four…"

It was at the count of five that I flung myself out of the saddle and rolled in the dust. Now I was fully aware of the announcer's voice,
"Bud Everett off Midnight. Time, five seconds." But I didn't care.

I lay in the dust watching Midnight, still untamed and still unbowed, plunging across the arena. But those brief seconds I had sat in his saddle had finally taught me just why I loved him. And I knew that not for all the prize money any rodeo could offer would I be the one to take away the wonderful and precious gift that was his.