EAST MEETS WEST
“Honestly, people not only play this for fun, they can make a living at it.” Scott Lancer’s voice quickened with excitement as the spoke about the sport he only saw one time.
Johnny hefted the broom in his hand and eyed it skeptically, trying to see in his mind what his brother was trying to explain. Four other cowboys, also holding brooms, just looked perplexed.
“That’s the best I can explain it without actually showing you. Trust me, it’s exciting to watch.”
“Don’t these New Yorker people have real jobs?” Grumbled Jose, the youngest of the assembled hands.
"Yes,” Scott said patiently, “They do. This is what some of them do to have fun. To relax.”
Frank stroked his mustache as he held his broom at arm’s length like a live snake. “Brooms is women’s work,” he said slowly. “’Taint fun as far as I kin see.”
Scott sighed and rolled his eyes. “We aren’t sweeping, Frank, that’s what I’m trying to tell ya. It’s a game.”
“We use the broom to hit a ball . . . through a . . . goal? On horseback?” Johnny repeated, his face brightening as the idea formed in his mind.
"Yes!” Scott said happily. “It’s called polo!”
Frank considered his broom again. “Sounds sorta . . . prissy.”
“No, no, it’s not,” Scott said excitedly. “It takes a lot of concentration to hit the ball and control the horse at the same time. Only the best horsemen can play.”
“Well, Frank,” Johnny quipped as he strode over to Barranca and grabbed the reins. “I guess that lets you out!” He mounted easily and swung the broom experimentally. Barranca’s ear cocked toward the stick but the horse didn’t flinch.
“Put yer money where yer mouth is, Johnny,” Frank barked in response as he grabbed his pinto’s reins. “I kin out-polo you anyday.”
“You’re on!” Johnny grinned wildly and his eyes sparkled. “Jose, Cip, you’re with me. That OK with you, Boston ?”
Scott’s smile equaled that of his brother’s. “Sounds fair, brother! Come on, boys!”
Teresa had been watching with amusement from the front of the hacienda. She’d heard Scott mention polo before, but never imagined he could talk these rough men into trying it. The way Scott had described the New York Polo Club players was a far cry from this . . . mob.
“Teresa! Bring the ball over here to the open space!” Scott waved at the five men as they milled and swung and made their way to the playing field. “Our goal is those trees over there.” Scott pointed to his left. “Johnny, your team’s goal is that bunch of rocks.” He pointed in the opposite direction. “We have to hit the ball past those goals to make points.”
“How many points wins the game?” Miguel asked as his horse spooked sideways from the unfamiliar broom.
“Five?” Scott asked.
“How ‘bout seven?” Johnny replied. “Lucky seven!”
Scott nodded. “Seven it is!”
“Seven won’t be your lucky number today, Johnny,” Frank whooped as he kicked his horse into a lope. The pinto had a sideways crick in his body away from the swinging broom as he loped off with Scott and Miguel right behind. Johnny’s team followed to the other end of the open field.
Teresa followed on foot and tossed the oddly fashioned ball into the center of the field. They had taken an old blanket, rolled in into a ball form and then tightly wrapped it with rope; she was not entirely sure how long it would last being beaten with brooms. Then Teresa made for the closest fence and perched on the top rail to watch the show - and she knew there would be a show. Grinning, the girl was glad Murdoch wasn’t here to stop what he’d call ‘a bunch of nonsense.’
“What’s goin’ on?” Jelly’s voice had a tentative edge to it, not sure if he wanted to be involved with whatever this was. It looked exactly like something the big boss wouldn’t like. The wary ranch hand leaned on the fence next to Teresa and watched the cowboys whooping and swinging their brooms.
“It’s a game, Jelly. Something Scott saw back east. It’s called polo.”
“A game?” Miguel and Jose’s horses collided as they both skittered sideways away from their respective brooms. “What’s the point? To scare the horses to death?”
The young woman’s laugh was as light as the breeze as she pointed to the object in the center of the field. “No! They have to hit that ball past their team markers, there and there.” She indicated the rocks and trees. “Each team wants to score, but the other team tries to steal the ball and score, too.”
Jelly blinked in confusion for a second then snorted in disgust. “I knew them fancy easterners were an odd bunch.”
Teresa laughed again, and then the observers watched at the teams separated to their prospective sides with the ball sitting on the ground between them.
“Teresa! Yell 'go'!” Scott bellowed, his horse dancing nervously.
She waited until all the horses were still for a second, and then hollered, “GO!”
The teams charged at each other in a dusty brawl, horses tangling in a confused mass. Teresa and Jelly could see brooms flailing wildly between the horses’ legs for a few moments before the makeshift ball broke free of the throng from between a bay’s legs with Johnny in hot pursuit
“GO JOHNNY!” Teresa screamed and clapped.
Barranca’s ears were flat against his head in concentration as Johnny leaned forward, broom high and his eye on the ball. Scott reined away from the crowd and was on his brother’s heels in a flash. The others streamed behind, jockeying for position. Frank’s pinto refused to stay with the bunch and curved away from his rider’s swinging broom while the cowboy sawed on the reins.
Johnny took a swing at the ball and sent it flying toward the boulders. Scott’s horse tossed his head at the motion, and then surged forward bravely. Johnny was poised for another strike, broom high, but Scott slammed his horse into Barranca and the pair swerved off the ball’s path and thundered past. Johnny and Scott reined their horses into a wide arc as one as they circled back around.
Cipriano and Miguel were neck and neck coming up to the ball, brooms raised high in their right hands. Miguel was in the better position, but Cip’s sorrel showed more confidence with his ears set deeply back. A half dozen strides before the ball, Cip set his mount strongly into his opponent’s side. Miguel’s bay yielded at the pressure, giving Cipriano a clear shot. He swung and connected solidly - the ball flew ahead.
Miguel wasn’t about to let that happen again, and he slammed his bay into the sorrel’s side, pushing them out of position for a follow up strike. Meanwhile, Johnny and Barranca charged in from an angle with Scott and his mount tight in his flank. Jose and Frank were coming in from another angle; Frank’s pinto a length behind and clearly worried about the flailing brooms - the horse’s eyes showed white and it tossed its head in protest.
“Old Spots ain’t takin’ to this too well, is he?” Jelly commented, pointing at the pinto.
Teresa, smiling broadly, laughed in agreement. “Frank does have his hands full,” she said, watching closely. Scott was right, she thought, this is exciting!
It was clear that Jose would reach the target first, barely ahead of Johnny and Barranca. Seeing this, Johnny changed tactics and concentrated on keeping Scott away from the ball to give his teammate a clear shooting space. Jose spurred his sorrel, which dropped its head in response and thundered ahead.
Frank saw he wasn’t going to beat the sorrel, so he, too changed tactics and stretched his broom forward. Jose’s arm was cocked, ready to strike, when Frank poked the bristled end of his broom into the sorrel’s rump.
The sorrel instantly tucked his tail and jerked his head up in surprise, nearly unseating Jose. The frightened horse slid to a dusty stop and reared as Frank darted by, laughing. Frank wasn’t able to bring the broom around for a hit and didn’t notice the alarmed pinto eyeing the ball. He laugh came to an abrupt halt as the pinto took a flying leap over the obstacle. Blue sky was clearly seen between Frank’s rump and the saddle as the horse sailed through the air.
“WHOA!!” Frank bellowed, dropping his broom in mid leap to grab the saddle.
Johnny, seeing an opening, switched gears yet again and Barranca’s feet danced in flying lead change as the palomino sharply turned to the ball between Jose's bucking sorrel and the terrified, stampeding pinto. Scott followed like a shadow a half length behind. Cipriano and Miguel had split and circled back around in opposite directions, and were now coming up behind the Lancer boys in a duel of horseflesh.
Firmly seated with eyes locked on the ball, Johnny coolly cocked his arm for the strike. He was taken completely off guard when the broom didn’t fall; Scott had leaned over his mount’s rippling shoulder and locked his broom onto Johnny’s, preventing the swing. The pair galloped by the ball as one.
“Hey!” Jelly pointed. “Ain’t that cheatin’?”
“I don’t think so!” Teresa laughed, clapping her hands and clearly entertained.
Cipriano and Miguel were neck and neck heading to the ball, which now looked a bit worse for wear. A last minute push by the bigger, stronger bay gave Miguel a last second advantage. He wildly swiped at the ball and managed a solid thump which sent the ball closer to the boulders, but the broom went flying from his grip.
“Miguel’s scoring for the wrong side,” Teresa giggled.
The ball came to a deflated stop just short of the goal, but Miguel’s broom managed to land squarely between the boulders, flushing a brace of quail into the air. The explosion of wings made both Miguel’s and Frank’s horses shy sharply to the side and charge away in fright. Both men worked to circle their mounts around to the goal.
Meanwhile, Scott and Johnny had circled around and were battling for position on the ball. Barranca held the lead, but Johnny was unable to unlock his broom from Scott’s. Finally, less than a half-dozen strides from the unraveling target, he simply dropped his broom and leaned over, his heel hooked on the cantle, and snatched the package from the ground with his hand.
“HEY!” Scott yelled, waving his broom as Johnny threw the decrepit ball over the rocks. By now the rope wrapping had unraveled and trailed behind the blanket making a comet-like apparition. The blanked opened and fluttered over the rocks.
Meanwhile, Miguel and Cip’s panicked animals bolted away from the whole scene and were soon on the pinto's heels. Jose's sorrel’d had enough. Just settled from his bucking stint, it whirled in fright away from the blanket and followed the departing herd with Jose fighting to recover his seat from the spin.
Scott and Johnny reined to a stop, their horses puffing hard. Johnny’s brilliant smile could be seen across the field by Teresa and Jelly, even through the settling dust. The yelling of the four other cowboys receded with the departure of their four stampeding horses.
“Guess that was a seven point goal, huh Boston ?” Johnny laughed gustily.
“That’s not how you play!” Scott sputtered. He calmed down when he realized the game had, in essence, come to a halt. He brought his horse next to Barranca and pulled him to a stop. “I guess cow ponies aren’t meant for polo,” he sighed as he leaned down and patted his horse’s sweaty shoulder. When he glanced up at the departing herd, a low laugh began to escape his lips. Soon he was laughing as heartily as his brother.
Johnny wiped his eyes. “Ya know, Murdoch really shouldn’t know about all this,” he sputtered as he tried to control his laughter.
“I think you’re right about that one, brother.” Scott tapped his horse into a walk toward Teresa and Jelly. He could see that Teresa was laughing hard at Jelly, who looked at the disappearing horses and scratched his head. “I don’t think Lancer’s quite ready for polo.”
Johnny slapped his brother’s shoulder. “No, you got that backward, Boston . Polo ain’t quite ready for us Lancers.”
Scott thought briefly about the skilled cowboys and their equally skilled cow ponies. Johnny was right; the Lancer crew was very good at what they did, and no eastern polo player or pony could even come close to doing what was done here on a daily basis. “I think you may be right on that point, too.” He glanced at his brother with a sparkle in his eye. “But that was cheatin’, you know, so we tied, zero to zero.”
“I don’t think so!”
The brothers argued good naturedly all the way to the barn to await their teammates' return.