Dustin watched the cowboys swagger around the yard telling each other tall tales and playing with their guns and lariats. Sunday was different from the rest of the week. The other six days, everyone worked hard. The cowboys were rarely anywhere near the yard any other day; they were out fixing fences, breaking horses, keeping cattle in line, and doing all of the other exciting things Dustin wished he could do.
But he was only eight. His mother said he was too small and that he was going to get hurt. She kept him home with her doing all kinds of boring things like feeding chickens and carding wool. She even made him go to school. Several of the ranch hands had told Dustin that they had never been to school, not once. That sounded fine to Dustin; he’d be happy if he never had to read another book ever again.
Tommy suddenly let out a yell that everyone could hear across the yard. “You can’t mean you’re gonna ride Thunder?!” He stared slack-jawed at Joe.
Fred, the ranch foreman, let out a sharp whistle and stalked over to poke Joe in the chest. “Don’t you let me catch you fooling around with Thunder. That bull ain’t no toy. He’d sooner kill you than look at you.”
Joe looked abashed. “I was only funning. You know me.”
Larry, the newest hand, eyed Fred insolently. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of that bull,” he drawled. Dustin wasn’t sure he liked Larry. He was always angry and sullen with icy blue eyes that gleamed with a loathing for his life.
Fred didn’t rise to Larry’s bait. “If you ain’t scared, you’re a bigger fool than I pegged you for, boy. That bull’s meaner and bigger than most of ‘em I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen a sight more than you have. You mark my words, that bull’s trouble. I told Mr. Hopper not to buy him. He ain’t natural.”
The ranch hands all stared at Thunder for a few moments.
Dustin Hopper looked out toward Thunder’s pen too. Almost as if he knew the men were discussing him, he was staring down the yard. He was what Dustin’s daddy called a Brahma bull – huge and with massive horns that looked like they could tip the whole animal forward. Yet Thunder carried them regally, as if they were a crown sitting upon his cruelly glowering brow.
Larry laughed scornfully and bragged, “If anybody’s gonna ride that bull, it’s gonna be me!”
Fred looked at Larry with disdain. “If you try it and don’t die, you’re fired. If you die, your boots and pistol are mine. Either way, I win.”
Larry spit on the ground, although not so close that Fred would take offense, and stalked off. A few of the hands exchanged glances and tiny smirks, glad that Larry had been taken down a few pegs.
Fred cleared his throat after a moment. “Like I said, I better not catch nobody messing with that bull. Don’t even try it. Mr. Hopper and I are gonna try and gentle him some before studding time, but y’all need to realize he’s dangerous.”
“Yes, sir,” some of the hands said. Others nodded. Fred could be very easygoing most of the time, but he commanded respect.
The hands dispersed after that. Some of them went to town to spend some of their pay on drinks or dinner; others went to the bunkhouse to wash their laundry or play cards. Dustin stayed in the yard and stared at Thunder, the bull that even his hero Fred was afraid of.
That night, there was a terrible storm. The rain beat on the house in torrents and the wind howled like the demons of Hell had been loosed. Lightning cracked the sky and lit up the night as brilliantly as the sun for minutes at a time. Then the thunder roared like an angry lion.
Dustin huddled under his blankets and dreamed in fits and starts that the noises from the storm were the Brahma bull outside tearing down the house, trying to gore him with those evil horns. As much as he wanted to be a brave cowboy, he found himself running to his parents’ room to have his mother comfort him against her warm breast with her calmly beating heart.
In the morning, the storm had blown over, but the ranch had suffered severe losses. Fences were destroyed, the barn was damaged, all of the chickens were dead, and quite a few head of cattle were missing, Thunder among them. Mr. Hopper got on his horse and rode out with the hands to fix the fences and try to round up the strays.
Dustin fiddled around with his breakfast for longer than he should have. “Mama, do I have to go to school today?” he whined. “What if the school got blown away in the storm?”
“We should at least go and see,” she answered calmly, but sternly. “Now get your books. It’s past time we were leaving.”
Dustin knew not to argue anymore when Mama got that look, so he dragged his boots on and got his books and heavy lunch pail. He peeked under the cloth covering the pail. She had packed chocolate cake!
Fred had harnessed Mrs. Hopper’s mare to the little surrey, but he asked Dustin to check the tack after him. Fred always left something done incorrectly on purpose so Dustin could “fix” it. Today, the cinch was loose. Dustin tightened it and Fred asked why that was important. After Dustin explained, Fred nodded and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“He’s growing up just fine,” Fred said to Mrs. Hopper as he handed her into the carriage.
She smiled at Dustin approvingly and thanked Fred for the compliment. Then she shook the reins and the mare took off at a fast pace. Mrs. Hopper was every bit a lady, but she did love a good run! Dustin had to hold onto his hat; his wasn’t pinned down the way his mother’s was. They whizzed along down the drive, waving at a few of the hands they passed working on the fences that the storm had taken out.
Aside from the damage, the day was glorious; you would never know that a terrible storm had passed through. The ground smelled fresh and damp. The sun gleamed down, golden and benevolent, like a king at a feast where the wine was liberally flowing. Beyond the fences, a green carpet of grass stretched out across the prairie spotted with tiny white and pink flowers and an occasional prairie dog popped his brown nose out of the vastness to watch them pass by.
Just as they were passing through the creaky gate to turn right onto the main road, a terrible bellow sounded from the left. Dustin and his mother saw in shock that Thunder had become alarmed by their approach and was charging straight at the surrey!
His eyes were narrowed and glaring red beams of rage straight at them. Mrs. Hopper’s face was white with fear and the mare’s grey coat was frothing with it. The lithe horse sprang forward, yanking the surrey ahead suddenly, but Thunder simply changed course along with her. Dustin and his mother were jolted violently, which proved too much for Mrs. Hopper. She toppled into the back of the surrey with a shriek that got the attention of the ranch hands. Several of them leapt onto their horses, but they were too far away to be of much help.
Dustin knew it, too. He and his mother were going to die.
He had to do something, but what? The bull was getting closer and closer. The mare was trying, but she couldn’t outrun Thunder. His hooves pounded nearer with every second.
Dustin spared a glance behind him. His father and the ranch hands were riding hard, but they were still many yards away, trying unsuccessfully to distract Thunder from the surrey – shouting, waving their hats, shooting their pistols in the air….
Pistols! Dustin suddenly remembered the gun under the seat of the surrey. He fumbled for the latch that held the rifle in place and flipped it open after a couple of tries. He pulled the rifle out and aimed it at Thunder, knowing that it was always kept loaded and ready for use.
This was nothing like shooting at targets or tin cans like he was used to. Staring the raging bull in the eyes was terrifying. Dustin almost lost his nerve.
But then he heard his mother “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” she prayed tearfully.
Dustin had to save her. It was up to him. No one else could get there in time.
With the bull just a few feet away, Dustin squared the butt of the rifle on his shoulder, aimed straight for the furious left eye and squeezed the trigger.
The shot was deafening in his ear. The blue-grey smoke choked him and singed his nostrils.
Thunder jumped sideways, staggered the last few feet, and bumped the surrey hard as he went down. The panicked mare kept right on running, so Dusty grabbed the flopping reins and hauled back on them hard. The mare skidded to a stop and stood trembling, her sides heaving.
“Mama, are you all right?” Dustin asked, peering over the back of the seat.
She was lying at a strange angle and couldn’t right herself from where she was wedged between the seats, but she said she was all right.
Dustin talked to the mare soothingly for a few moments, as he turned the surrey around gently and guided it back toward the great dark hulk of Thunder lying on the ground. He arrived at the corpse soon after his father and the hands did.
Mr. Hopper whisked Dustin off the seat and set him on the ground while he helped his wife. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered as he pulled them both into a big bear hug. Mrs. Hopper echoed him tearfully.
Fred clapped the boy on the shoulder so hard that Dustin was nearly knocked down. “What a shot!” he exclaimed in admiration. All the other hands clamored in agreement and even Larry looked impressed.
“Aw,” Joe teased, “I never even got to ride him!”