Tentatively fingering the purple bump on his forehead and positioning the fruit cake on the coffee shop counter in such a way that he was certain to put his elbow in it, Jerry Jeff Walker ordered his first hot meal in five days, a bowl of Love Field soup. The author of “Mr. Bojangles” had flown from a performance in Atlanta to see the last day of the National Finals rodeo in Oklahoma City.
It had been necessary to get out of Oklahoma City fast. Jerry Jeff and his traveling companion, composer-musician Gary P. Nunn, had escaped with their lives, two guitars, and one Irish fruit cake molded in the shape of the state of Texas. Except for a slice in the cellophane packaging where a bull rider had pinned it to the wall with his frog sticker, the fruit cake was undamaged. It was about the only thing that was. There had been two sets of parties the night before, a Cowboy Hall of Fame banquet honoring (among others) a rank Brahma bull named Tornado who in 200 times out of the chute had never been ridden, and of course the assorted victory parties in the hotel. When Jerry Jeff staggered out of his hotel room that morning clutching his guitar and his fruit cake, he tipped the maid five dollars and advised her to abandon her broom and mop and find a plow. The room gave every indication that Tornado and several of his younger brothers who had also never been ridden had dropped by for cocktails; Jerry Jeff himself was a pitifully-wasted, semi-demented figure in a soiled beaver hat, sheeplined coat, Charlie Dunn boots, and whiskers too short to qualify as a beard and too long to be what you would call unkempt. In cowboy talk, he looked like he had been rode hard and put up wet.
The fruit cake had caused considerable uneasiness on the part of the bomb patrol at the Oklahoma City airport, and Jerry Jeff hadn’t facilitated matters by pulling a yellow plastic watergun from his pocket and shooting himself in the mouth with tequila. Now, in the Dallas airport coffee shop, waiting to change planes for the final leg home to Austin, the fruit cake caused more comment.
“If that thing had legs I’d shoot it,” said Dixie, the counter waitress.
“That happens to be the Larry Mahan Memorial Fruitcake presented annually to the craziest cowboy at the National Finals,” Jerry Jeff told Dixie as she served his soup.
“That’s a real prize, honey,” Dixie said. “What are you gonna do with it?”
“I’m gonna have it made into a belt buckle,” he said.
He wasn’t lying: The fruitcake truly was a gift from Larry Mahan, the world’s best all-around cowboy. For the worst part of an hour the night before Jerry Jeff also had in his possession another trophy, Larry Mahan’s bull riding rope which he intended to place in his private museum along with Bobby Orr’s hockey stick. But it had been necessary to use the rope in effecting his incredible escape, and now his only memento of those lost desperate hours was the fruit cake—and of course the purple knot on his forehead, and a bruised back and some unexplained sharp pains in the area of his rib cage.
He couldn’t remember how it started, or even how it ended except the part about waiting at the hotel elevator which took forever to arrive. All the while, he was being pummeled by bull riders who, fortunately, are almost uniformly five-foot-eight, and besides, that being the night after the final go-round of the National Finals, were uniformly drunk as Tooter’s goat.
“I can’t say I was impressed,” Jerry Jeff told Dixie. “I got beat up worse than that by a motorcycle gang in New Orleans last New Year’s Eve.”
“And you can’t remember how it happened?” asked Gary Nunn. “The last I saw of you before you came back and wrecked the room was when you and Mahan went upstairs to get the rope.”
“The rope,” Jerry Jeff said.
“His bull riding rope. You wanted it for your museum.”
“Yes, the rope, I remember now, we went to Mahan’s room for the rope. Then I stopped by Bobby Steiner’s room wearing the rope around my neck, which was probably a mistake and explains these rope burns on my neck and wrists. That’s right, the beds were made and there were these bull riders and their wives sitting around. Yes, it’s coming back now: Bobby Steiner either wanted me to sing ‘Charlie Dunn’ or didn’t want me to sing ‘Charlie Dunn,’ and I either sang it or didn’t sing it, I don’t remember which, but whichever, it was wrong.”
“Who’s Charlie Dunn?” Dixie asked.
“He works for Buck Steiner…Bobby Steiner’s grandpa. At the Capitol Saddle Shop in Austin,” Gary Nunn told her. “Jerry Jeff wrote a song about him.”
“Now it’s coming back,” Jerry Jeff said. “I was struggling to make the elevator, cowboys all around me, pushing, shoving, elbowing, calling me things I can’t repeat. And how long the elevator took. And then…I’m not sure… I think I threw the rope at them like maybe it was Wonder Woman’s lasso.”
“Honey,” Dixie said, “singing ‘em a little song, that’s no reason to punch you up like that. Is there something you haven’t told us?”
Jerry Jeff closed one eye and attempted to focus the other one on the fruit cake under his elbow. A voice of long ago washed in his ear. A lonely and sad-eyed picker passed among the pecans and blue-eyed candy; red faces got redder. “I think I sang them our new song called ‘Black Hole’ about the universe and all this density that sucks the juice out of light and…”
“Did you sing the line about pubic hair?” Gary Nunn asked.
“I’ll bet I did.”
“That was your mistake, honey,” Dixie said. “Cowboys may cuss a lot but there’s one thing a cowboy won’t stand for, that’s somebody cussing in front of his wife.”
Jerry Jeff rubbed ice on his forehead. It proved one thing: rodeo cowboys