"The Tale of the Wrangler" by Kevin Matheny, Jr.

          Ronald Johnson was a very important person. You could tell by the way his office window looked out across the concrete jungle of a parking lot filled with cars, as opposed to the more sightly view of the palm trees that sprung up all over the verdant campus. His office, situated seven doors down from the Athletic Director’s, was always filled with the smell of bound leather and the sound of the words, “I knew you would come around.” It seemed that every day, at least one person was “coming around,” although anyone who ever walked by his office and happened to hear some of the important conversation he was having on the phone never could tell you what it meant. Ronald was in the middle of today’s “coming around” conversation when his secretary, Michelle, walked in. She had on her concerned face, which looked like she either ate questionable hot wings from the sketchy chicken joint just across campus or her dog had just revealed to her his suicidal thoughts via a note spelled out in dog chow. Either way, Ronald was seconds away from delivering his classic line, so he gave her the classic one finger raised gesture, that always meant, “I’m one second from closing the deal.”


          Things had just gotten interesting for the Wrangler. His friend wasn’t just missing. He was taken.

          Early the next morning the Wrangler was back in Ronald’s office. A large whiteboard had been brought in, along with a laser pointer and some Irish coffee. They meant business. On the board, Ronald had carefully written the amount of money needed, $500,000, with ten sporadically drawn ovals circling the sum. Ronald was re-reading the ransom note for the 200th time this morning, still wondering why the demanded amount of money was so low.

          “He’s a vital part of the community. I just don’t get it. He’s worth way more than that. I even hired a guy off Craigslist for way above market value just to keep him company. No offense to you, Wrangler, you do a fine job. But seriously, $13 an hour to babysit?”

          “Sir, I’m choosing to ignore your snide comments because I am extremely sensitive to these lights right now and I’m in no mood to hit an old man, but we need to get back to the task at hand. We need a game plan.”

          “Well, I say we just hand over the money and get him back. I’ve got plenty of it. I mean half our payroll goes to doppelgangers of our star basketball players that take tests for them. If I just cut their salary in half, and bribe some of the teachers instead with weekend getaways at my athlete retreat center in Hawaii, we’ll have enough to get him back and then some. Easy transaction.”

          “It’s not about the money, sir. It’s about sending a message.”

          “Well, fine. What do you think we should do?”

          The Wrangler took a deep breath and tried to fight through the pounding in his head. But his usually reliable brilliance was nowhere to be seen. He decided they would just wing it.

          “You know what, sir? Just follow me and do as I say. And you might want to take those whiskers off. You look ridiculous.”

          Ronald blushed as he pawed at his face, removing the vestiges of an interesting night. “Oh, well, I, uh, I met up with Marge after all. And, well, uh, she’s a wild one she is.”

          The Wrangler finished his cup of Irish coffee, nodded as if to say “I’m so sorry you are the way that you are,” and turned to Ronald before he exited. “Be there at 11.” It was game time.

          The music from inside the bustling house could be heard three blocks away. Young partygoers dressed in next to nothing were filing into the backyard of the aging two-story home in order to be let in to the party. Lights of various vibrant colors were flashing through the drapes in the windows. A group of four shirtless guys were in the front of the house whistling at anything that walked by in the hopes of attracting something over.

          “We’re going to a frat party?” Ronald was still trying to process what the Wrangler had told him.

          “Sir, I told you this four times already. Yes, we’re going to a frat party. Did you wear your Hawaiian shirt? We need to blend in.” Ronald pulled off his jacket to reveal an outfit more suited for a college preparatory institution than a college party. His navy sweater vest and pink polka-dot bowtie made the Wrangler want to take long, full swigs of something strong to forget the image. The Wrangler put much more thought into his disguise. He was sporting a very trendy red and white Hawaiian shirt, and though it had buttons he decided he could fit in better by ignoring that feature of the shirt, leaving his shirt open so his chiseled body was exposed to the elements. He had on shorts that were just a slightly too short to be comfortable and blue boating shoes to complete the ensemble.

          Sighing at Ronald’s lack of effort, the Wrangler turned his attention towards the house. “Well then, let’s just hope this works.” He handed Ronald a plastic handle of cheap vodka.

          “What’s this for?”

          “We’re guys,” the Wrangler explained. “We need a little leverage to get into parties like this.”

          As expected, there was a young member of the frat outside the entrance to the party, checking the sex of each individual who was trying to get in. Many men with heads hung low were sent away from the door, most likely to head back to a lonely dorm room. After watching two hopeful freshman get rejected, the Wrangler and Ronald stepped up. The doorman took one look and shook his head.

          “Sorry bros. We just got our dicks to chicks ratio just right and we’re not tryin’ to mess that up right now. You’re gonna have to find another party. Maybe one with dudes and ladies closer to your…advanced age.”

          Ronald, indignant at this cold reception, launched into a dignified response. “Listen here, young man. We are quite capable of keeping up with you little chumps in every aspect of socializing. And we will not accept your rejection from this establishment. Do you have any idea who I am?”

          The Wrangler stepped quickly between the two to deescalate the situation. “Ronald, he doesn’t have a clue who you are. But he does know what this is.” The Wrangler extended two unopened handles of vodka to the doorman. The young man’s eyes lit up with that excitement that only comes from children on Christmas morning after Santa has come and 19-year-old frat stars who receive free alcohol. Distracted in his ecstasy, the less than effective bouncer didn’t notice the Wrangler and Ronald slip into the house.

          Once they were on the inside, the volume of the music revealed itself in full force. Ronald and the Wrangler couldn’t hear a word the other said.

          “Let’s find the Don,” screamed the Wrangler. But Ronald had no idea what he really said.

          “Yeah, I’d ride the blonde,” he replied.

          All of Ronald’s attention was focused on the three dancing blondes before him. And that’s not to say the Wrangler wasn’t easily as distracted. His eyes were soon fixed on the vast collection of whiskey sitting on the counter before him. He was three shots deep in a matter of minutes when the sight of orange caught his attention. Next to an unopened bottle of bourbon he had yet to pilfer, were the stray curly peels and leafy tops of a large amount of carrot remains. Emerging from behind the buzzing thoughts of the pleasant burning sensation of another downed shot of the elixir of the gods was the realization that he was here to accomplish a task. Ronald was not as lucky. He was sucked into the vortex created by the numerous gyrating bodies of young women on the impromptu dance floor before the Wrangler could pull him out. Looks like we’ve lost a man on this mission. I’m a lone wolf once again. He set his coordinates for the basement and made his way into the depths of the house.

          After descending down some questionable stairs, a half dozen of which were secured to rotting wood by nothing but duct tape, the Wrangler found himself in a cavernous, poorly lit space that reeked of stale beer, urine, and rotting plants. His eyes swept the room as they adjusted to the musty darkness of the basement, but he could only make out the shadows of shelving and the occasional moldy couch.

          “Do you have the money?”

          The Wrangler turned with a start towards the voice that came from somewhere behind him. A single light bulb was turned on, revealing a muscular man with a Zoro-like mask and a pencil thin mustache. He wore a green hat with a yellow band. A creepy grin was stuck to his face and his lips barely moved as he spoke.
          “Well?”

          “Who are you?”

          “I’m the Don, of course. The Don of San Francisco.”

          “Oh, you’re the arts and crafts guy. Nice lookin’ note. Look, I just want my friend back. Where is he?”

          “Oh he’s here. And I’ll give him to you. Once I have my money.”

          The Wrangler was not fond of the way this transaction was going. He tried to think back to how these exchanges usually went down in the movies.

          “Well I think I need to at least see him alive before I hand over the money.”

          “Very well.”

          The Don snapped his fingers and two rather muscular frat bros emerged from the darkness dragging a slumped brown mass behind them. The mass looked heavily sedated, probably the work of horse tranquilizers, and his mane of black hair was disheveled. Though he maintained his muscular physique, there was a certain leanness to his body that comes from food deprivation. His blue eyes were fluttering in the drowsy, swirled spell of the drugs coursing through his system.
         
          “Bucky!” The Wrangler rushed forward to greet his dear friend, but was held back by the Don.
      
          “When I have my money, then you can have your horse back.”
    
          The Wrangler struggled against the strong arms of the Don, before conceding that he would get no further. Now was the time to hand over the money, the only problem was he didn’t have the money. The bills were still securely strapped to Ronald’s body, and he was otherwise occupied, and the Wrangler didn’t have time to waste. He would have to find another form of currency.
“We can wire you the money. You have my word you’ll get it. Just give me Bucky.”
But the Don only scoffed. “I know where you come from. What institution you work for. Your word means nothing to me. Your kind is weak and inferior. Both mentally and physically. You lie and cheat to get what you want. I won’t be made a fool by you!”

          This speech had struck a chord with the Wrangler, who had always strived to be an honest and hard working individual. To be lumped in with those who were lazy and undeserving of success was the worst offense he could ever suffer. In a fit of divine inspiration, The Wrangler suggested the only thing he knew to work in these situations.

          “Well, Don, let’s have a drink then. Yeah, we’ll settle this like men used to in the Wild West. I challenge you to a drinking contest!”

          Every movement in the room ceased, even the rat scurrying through a hole in the wall. The two henchmen nearly dropped Bucky in their surprise. The Wrangler had just made a personal attack on the Don’s manhood. The Don moved his eyes from the head of the Wrangler to his shoes, sizing him up and taking notes on his opponent, before giving a curt nod of consent.

          “What are your terms, Wrangler.”

          “Flip cup. 5 cups. No beer. We use whiskey. First one to finish all their drinks and flip their cups wins. If I win, I get Bucky back. If I lose, you get your money and you can keep Bucky and…do whatever strange things you had planned for him.”

          “Fine.”

          After years of arduous labor lifting many glasses full of liquor to his lips, the Wrangler was confident. And his familiarity with drinking did not limit itself to just swallowing the alcohol. In his younger years, the Wrangler was a four-time Beer Olympics Gold Medalist, two in Beer Pong, one in Rage Cage, and one in Flip Cup. Though his skills may have deteriorated in his absence from the games, his ability to consume mass quantities of alcohol had matured like a fine barrel of single malt whiskey. He was ready for the main event.

          Ten cups, five on each side, were lined up along the edges of the table that had been brought in for this ultimate game of flip cup. Each cup was filled with a shot of the finest whiskey in the West, single malt and aged to perfection. The game was simple: drink the alcohol, place the empty cup right side up on the edge, flip it with one finger so it rests upside down, and move on to the next cup. The first to finish all five cups is the crowned the victor. With the game set, and the players at the ready, the race began. The Wrangler washed down the first two shots with ease, and flipped his cups with grace. But the Don kept pace and had downed the third shot a second before the Wrangler. A slight feeling of panic swept over the Wrangler and this caused him to misfire on his flip. He took two tries to finally get the cup in the correct downward position. He would need a serious comeback at this point. The fourth shot tasted less like water than the Wrangler had hoped. He hammered it down, yet it wanted to come back up, like nails on an old deck, waiting to trip up an unsuspecting victim. But the Wrangler powered on, like a true champion at his craft, and swiftly flipped his cup with a single flick of his skilled fingers. All that remained was the final shot. The Don had slowed down, as if toying with Wrangler, wanting to give him a false sense of a comeback, waiting for him to catch up. The Wrangler took his opportunity, bringing the cup violently to his lips and tossing the amber liquid straight to the back of his throat, making sure each drop was accounted for as he wrestled it down his esophagus. Slamming the empty cup down on the edge of the table, he prepared for the final flip. He glanced quickly to the opposite side where the Don’s cup was already rotating in the air, hovering for a second at the apex of its flight, before tumbling back towards the table. The Wrangler, with his expert eye, could tell the spin was not right; the cup would not land upside down. His window had been opened. He had one shot to get his cup to cooperate like it had done so many years before when he won the gold medal. He placed his finger under the cup, finding the outer ridge, feeling the slight pressure of the hollow plastic. With a quick flick of the wrist he sent the half closed cylinder into the air, not too high, but with enough rotations to ensure it would land correctly. He could count the rotations as they occurred, end over end the cup went through the air, until it finally came down to meet the table, in perfect position, upside down. Just a half second later, the Don’s cup landed in the same position. The Wrangler had done it. He had won Bucky back.

          Of course getting Bucky back couldn’t be that easy, so as the Wrangler was celebrating with his giant bronco friend, the Don pulled out his ace in the hole. A pistol, hidden in his waistband, and whipped out with the quickness and dexterity of a veteran gunslinger.

          “It won’t be that easy, Wrangler. I need my money, or the bronco gets it.”

          Now, it must be remembered that Ronald Johnson was an important person. And he chose this perfect moment to show just how important he was. As the Don was seconds away from blasting Bucky and then the Wrangler, an explosive bang from the basement door demanded his attention. A chorus of giggles from drunk college girls cascaded down the stairs, followed by the bumbling body of Ronald, who had fallen victim to one of the steps held by duct tape and was making a graceful dive towards the floor of the basement. This earned him sympathy from the girls above. They rushed down the stairs after him, but not before the Don, startled by this unexpected commotion, fired twice in Ronald’s direction, one bullet finding his arm, instantly causing his shirt to become soiled with crimson. The sound of gunfire sent Bucky into a horse-like craze as he crashed into the table and bucked the cups across the room, legs flailing wildly and arms swinging randomly. The Wrangler, capitalizing on the mayhem that was transpiring all around him, dove straight for the Don, hoping to knock him off balance. But in his increasingly inebriated state, he miscalculated his leap and ended up colliding head on with the Don, knocking them both out cold.

          It was the familiar smell of carrots and apples that caused the Wrangler to come out of his deep rest. His eyes fluttered open and were instantly greeted by the sight of Bucky’s giant head with his giant, nearly-menacing grin. He had a massive headache and his shoulder was stiff, but he was alive.

          “Bucky, where are we?”

          Bucky, in his way of talking without ever saying a word, spread his muscular arms wide as if to say, “Look around.” With much effort, the Wrangler began to see his surroundings and realized he was back in the sanctuary of his own home. They had done it. Bucky had been rescued.

          “Where’s Ronald?”

          Bucky pointed to his arm, then waved his hand above his head to signal a siren, and the Wrangler understood that after being shot in the arm, he was taken to the hospital. But not before, as Bucky continued to explain, he received five different numbers from girls he had been dancing with all night. It turned out the old man could socialize with the young ones.

          Though Bucky had been brought back home relatively unharmed, a nasty rivalry had formed between the Don of San Francisco and Bucky the Bronco. That’s why every year the Broncos and the Dons face off in various athletic competitions, to show who is superior in athletic endeavors. And more often than not, the Broncos prevail, just as the Wrangler prevailed in that epic game of flip cup for Bucky’s freedom.