It don’t matter how I came to be known as the Dragon Rodeo Queen. And I guess it don’t matter how many gold buckles I got displayed on the walls of my room in the boarding house, neither—there’s twenty-three, in case your heart’s set on countin’—long as it’s clear who’s apt to win should the urge strike you to issue a challenge. What does matter is that I, Matilda Lane, finally convinced them to let me tackle the Purple Rage.
Purple Rage, he’s legend. Purple Rage’s spilled all the best riders except me, and that’s only because those rodeo officials wouldn’t let me try due to my “delicate feminine nature.”
Ha. They’re afraid my delicate feminine nature’s gonna whip the men, and good.
There ain’t nothing delicate about a woman who can beat Colson Hicks in the arena. I told them that, too. Reminded them how I stayed on Red Honey for a full half second longer than Colson ever managed. First championship he lost in three years, but not the last.
Weren’t I the one who bested that snarling Emerald Lady in Houston?
Ain’t I won more championships than any man on the circuit?
I wouldn’a cared, only it’s a matter of pride. And I ain’t getting no younger. Fact is, I’m set to retire soon, find a nice place to cool my heels for a stretch. What a thrill, if I were to retire after conquering a beast like that. Plus, they double the prize money for Purple Rage. The last winner needed it for his medical bills, or so I hear.
Folks think I’m crazy for riding rodeo, and could be they’re right. But once you’re set up on that rough hide, wings flapping against your thighs and fire shooting outta the fella’s maw like he’s hoping for a barbecue lunch—well, it’s pure thrill.
It weren’t til Colson himself put in a word that they changed their minds about me riding Purple Rage. And it weren’t even so much a word as it were a challenge. “Let her try,” he said, his eyebrow quirked up like he’d caught a fishhook to the forehead.
They shouldn’a needed the second-best dragon rider on the circuit to speak for the first best, but never you mind about Colson Hicks. I got what I wanted, and now I’m set to face Purple Rage.
They got the name right, that’s for certain. Now I’m finally up close, I wonder how I can stay on his back even before they let him loose. He’s beating his wings against the sides of the chute, angry at being constrained, his whole body shuddering. He’s a right beautiful dragon, as beautiful as he’s fierce, purple scales gleaming, the spikes in his tail catching the sun like amethysts. He’s got feathered plumes archin’ from his brows like a showgirl that paints her face with mascara, and they give his eyes a human look. If I’m being honest, it don’t quite sit right how human he looks.
Purple Rage’s a smart bastard. Most dragons will attack when you’re down, that’s a fact; the rodeo’s got jesters to distract the beasts till you’ve cleared the arena. But when Purple Rage splays his riders in the dirt, he bats them jesters clean outta the way. While the crowd’s still collecting and paying out on bets behind their protective barrier, Purple Rage goes after the rider direct. He maimed a man in Borger. I seen it happen.
“No shame in changin’ your mind, Matilda, if you want to,” Colson Hicks says, swaggering up beside me as I contemplate Purple Rage. He’s set to go next, then me.
I spit in the dirt. “Not a chance. However long you stay seated on that dragon, I’ll double it.”
“Care to make it interesting?”
As a rule I try not to gamble given how my ma lost all our funds in a game of poker before she took off for good. Usually I’d say this ain’t a gamble at all; usually I’d say it’s a sure thing. But I’m looking at Purple Rage there in his chute, and all of a sudden I’m not so certain. He’s taller than Miss Kinney’s boarding house, and that’s a full four floors. His head alone’s the size of a train car. Already there’s ribbons of smoke snaking out of his nose, like he knows what’s comin’ and he ain’t pleased about it.
“What’s the bet?” I ask.
“Your buckles against mine, to whoever places higher.”
Colson’s got twenty-two buckles to my twenty-three, which means if he wins, we’ll be even. Cheating him outta that opportunity ought to be good enough for me. But I sure could use those extra chunks of solid gold. I could set myself up nice without sellin’ my own, maybe even find Ma and entice her home.
I stall by sliding my tube of burn cream from my pocket. I take my time with it, squeezing a good dollop of the stuff onto my palm and then rubbing it into my knuckles till all the white’s smoothed into my skin. Lots of riders use it for good luck, I suppose. I’m using it because I got singed last week by a curmudgeon called Yellow Wing.
If I take this bet and lose, it’ll be like I never played the dragon rodeo at all. Worse yet, I won’t have the means to retire or the means to prove my ranking, should these rodeo “officials” turn forgetful. Wouldn’t put it past them. And dragon rodeo’s the only bread and butter I know how to make.
“You don’t have to,” Colson says, smiling that insolent bandit-smile of his. He’s nothing but the spoiled son of a dragon rancher. Got nothing better to do than chase thrills. He spent more on that wide-brimmed hat he’s wearing than I spent on my jeans and vest combined. He don’t buy no general store burn cream; he gets hurt, he sees the doctor direct.
“I figure it might be unfair to take that bet, seeing as I’ll win it sure thing,” I say, tucking the tube into my pocket.
“Shouldn’a asked,” Colson says. “Oughta known you ain’t got the stomach.”
I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but pride’s a tricky thing. I spit again. “You’re on.”
Colson smacks me on the shoulder. “Good woman,” he says. I want to smack him somewhere else, but I don’t.
When they call his name, Colson strolls over to the mounting platform like he’s walking into a saloon. He starts up the ladder, steady and confident, his regulation spurs sending glints of light skipping over the crowd of handlers and attendants. They’re all gazing at him as if he’s some kind of dragon rodeo god. I don’t let it rankle no more, though. I’m used to it. Besides, they’ll see their mistake soon as I get my turn.
The rules of dragon rodeo are simple. You stay on the bucking lizard as long as you can and hope you last longer than the other guy. You can hang on with both hands or brace yourself against the hide, but there ain’t no hand holds, no ropes, no tools allowed.
As it happens, my status as Rodeo Queen comes partly thanks to my skill at the hands-free ride. That’s a whole other division, and it ain’t for the weak of heart. Not for the weak of knees, either, seeing as how you’re only allowed to hold on with your legs. You can be sure none of Colson Hicks’s buckles come from hands-free. No one stays seated long, but I stayed the longest.
They set the harness around Colson’s arms, and the mechanical crane contraption cranks him out to the center of Purple Rage’s back. Soon as Colson touches them scales, Purple Rage’s jostling and snorting puffs of flame out his nostrils, but he can’t go nowhere because he’s held tight in the chute. Colson shrugs off the harness, the crane draws away, and they raise the gate.
Purple Rage is in the arena before you can blink, stomping so hard that the bleachers shake. He swings his tail through a cloud of kicked-up dust, and the movement snaps his whole spine back and forth. I’m afraid it’ll take more than wiggling to unseat Colson, and Purple Rage must think so, too. An animal his size ought to lumber, but when Purple Rage changes direction, he moves like he’s no bigger than a ferret. He hardly slows as he twists his body into a circle, curling his long neck around to try and pluck Colson off. If he does, he’ll clamp those cactus-sized teeth straight through Colson’s guts. Colson dodges, shifting his balance so far I expect him to slide right off the other side. Purple Rage snaps, then grunts in frustration as his jaws catch only air.
Colson hangs on. I never seen him try this position before. His arms form a V-shape from his shoulders in toward his groin as he steadies himself. Most of us prefer a wide stance to help with balance. In fact, I can’t think of a time I’ve seen another rider compete this way.
It may be a strange position, but it’s working. Ten seconds, twenty, and then the announcer says Colson’s beaten the Purple Rage record of thirty seconds. Right when I’m starting to wonder what kind of a fool bet I got myself into, Purple Rage rears onto his hind legs and extends his wings as far as they’ll go. He can’t fly, not with the stabilizers clamped on them, but Colson can’t hang on when he’s held vertical, neither. He slides down Purple Rage’s tail and lands face-first in the dust, then scrambles out the way as Purple Rage’s foot lands dangerously close to his skull.
When the copper panels on the mechanical scoreboard click into place, it’s a mind-boggling thirty-three second event for Colson. He’s broke all Purple Rage’s records. He’s broke all his own records, too. And damn it, he’s broke mine.
Colson’s panting like a coyote when he steps over to me, sweat dripping off his face, but he’s grinning as though he’s already won our bet. “If you wanna pay up now and save yourself the humiliation, you just go ahead,” he says.
I ignore him, and he laughs. It’s not long before they got Purple Rage in his chute, looking for all the world like he’s set to maul the next person that comes near him. He’s stomping and pounding against the gate, and all at once I’m thinking I don’t want to proceed. And it’s not even that I’m scared Purple Rage might do me in. We all got our time, and if this is mine, I reckon I’m ready to face that.
No, I don’t want to proceed because Purple Rage is in pain. I can see it. Maybe it’s something about the way those human-like eyes are darting back and forth, or the frenzied way he’s pushin’ at the gate. His whole demeanor feels different than it ever was with the other dragons.
But Colson Hicks is smirking at me, and I got twenty-three buckles—and my livelihood—on the line. Never could resist a challenge, and now he’s got me right where he wants me.
I head to the ladder and begin to climb. I have to keep my focus just to do that, seeing as my palms are slick with sweat. I make it, though. I step up on the platform, pull the harness over my shoulders like I’m putting on a jacket, and for a second I’m airborne as they lift me over to Purple Rage.
At first, I think it’ll be over before it starts, he squirms so much beneath my seat. But after a second I feel steady, and I shrug the harness off my shoulders. I take a second to stroke Purple Rage’s scales. Up close they’re translucent. If you turned the horizon heavenward to see the night sky through a sunset, stars glittering beyond the streaks of pink and purple, that’s what Purple Rage’s scales are like.
I place my palms shoulder-width apart, and that’s when I see them. Six perfectly round holes, breaking up Purple Rage’s scales and leaking blood onto his hide. Colson must have used some kind of cleated handhold to keep him locked to Purple Rage. I can’t prove it. I got nothing but Colson’s strange position as evidence, and those officials ain’t never been apt to side with me. But I know it. Colson cheated, and he hurt Purple Rage.
They’re all looking at me expectantly. There’s nothing I can do, so I show Purple Rage the only kindness I can by making sure I’m not touching his cruel injury. Then, I nod.
The world lurches. Purple Rage gallops into the ring like he can unseat me with unbridled speed. Maybe he can, but mostly I hope he doesn’t remember how he shook Colson off a few minutes back.
If he was angry with Colson, he’s furious with me. He bucks like he’s trying to repeat his previous success, but he can’t quite get there and it’s driving him nuts. I still feel a draft between my seat and his hide, though, as he sends me airborne for a split second before crashing to the ground with a force that jams my teeth together. Turns out he is smart enough to remember how he beat Colson, but the pain’s preventing him from doing it again. And his wounds are still bleeding. I can’t stand it.
The crowd’s a blur of dusty color. The announcements babble together in a wash of sound. Might as well be speaking French, for as much as I can understand them. I got no idea how much time has passed or what I’m risking, but I’m not the queen of the hands-free ride for nothing, am I? I dig into my pocket and slip out my burn cream, holding on to Purple Rage with nothing but my thighs.
Purple Rage twists, and I slip. I right myself with one hand. Then I smear as much of that cream on them bleeding holes as I can. I toss the tube over my shoulder and hold on. The medicine makes his scales slippery, and I don’t even know whether human burn cream will do anything to soothe a cut up dragon.
Purple Rage pauses and arches his head around to look at me. A curl of smoke escapes from his nostril, but he don’t snap. Instead he turns a slow circle, one of them human eyes taking me in like he knows exactly what I done. I still got to brace my palms against his scales to stay up there, but all I can think about is how I hope that burn cream will make him feel better. Even if I lose.
I’m still focused on Purple Rage’s eye when he sweeps his head away and gives his body one last shake. People are roaring, the announcer’s shouting, and finally I’m on the ground like Colson. Only Purple Rage ain’t chasing me outta the ring. He’s letting them handlers take him straight to the chute, calm as a lamb.
The scoreboard clicks into place.
Colson Hicks got a jaw like a fish when I exit the arena. “All the same to you,” I say, “I’ll be taking those buckles now.”
I’ll tell you what I did with those buckles I won from Colson Hicks, and I think you’ll be surprised.
I handed them over to the rodeo folks, all twenty-two, and I told them they could keep my winnings if I could buy Purple Rage off them. They looked at me like I ain’t known sense my whole life, but when I came to collect a week later after getting my property squared away, Purple Rage nuzzled my shoulder and came along after me, meek as a kitten.
I guess you figured out I had to sell my own buckles to buy a ranch. They set us up nice. It’s far enough out of town that we’ve got our privacy most of the time, but close enough we can charge tourists to come and see Purple Rage in all his glory, roaming the fields at a distance, flying where he likes. He knows where the boundaries are.
And sometimes, when I miss the thrill, Purple Rage bends down and lets me on his back. And then he bucks and spins like he’s trying for all the world to throw me off. But I know if I fall, he’ll swing around to catch me.
© 2015 by Kate Sheeran Swed
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