After a 10-day hospital stay in which he played gin rummy with Marvin (a friend shuttled the cards across the hall), Johnston went home. Two days later he painted the house. A month after that he was out of the brace, and 80 days after the crash, despite strenuous argument from doctors, he began riding again, at the Southwestern Exposition Livestock Show and Rodeo in Fort Worth, last Jan. 23. "Proactive insanity," says Dan Benson, a UC Davis orthopedic surgeon. "It takes four or five months for fractured vertebrae to heal."
"I thought he was crazy," Marvin Garrett says, "and he is."
"The doctors said to stay as active as possible," Jane says. "They should have chosen their words more carefully."
On a horse named Doc Holliday, Johnston stayed on eight seconds, and his 75 was the best score of the night. Since then he has only gotten better. Last month he won the Coors Showdown in Phoenix and took fourth at the Grand National, the rodeo he never made it to last year. Mark Garrett has also qualified for the NFR. Bothwell and Marvin Garrett haven't but are riding again. Marvin believes that a higher power was at work during the crash: that when their plane hit the last tree head-on, 12 feet up, it found two branches outstretched like arms that tried to catch it. "I think they were put there for that reason," Marvin says.
Johnston still flies in small planes—top cowboys enter as many as three rodeos per day and have little choice but to fly—but he has one lingering concern. He had no medical insurance last year (in Australia, a national health plan makes such insurance unnecessary) and amassed $200,000 in medical bills. Neither a sponsor, which Johnston has yet to land, nor the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, which helped Johnston while he was sidelined, will pay his debt. Johnston is still considering whether to bring a product liability suit against Cessna.
The National Transportation Safety Board has released only its preliminary findings on the accident, and everyone from Johnston to Morris's son, Cody, also a pilot, is eager to see the final report. Was the fuel gauge faulty? How could the plane have ignited so quickly if it was out of gas?
"I thank God for as far as I've gotten this year," says Johnston, whose supporters at the NFR will include his parents, in-laws and two younger brothers, all from Australia, as well as Jane and the kids. "That I'm still alive, as healthy as I was before the crash and still able to do my dream. Other than that I don't really like to think about it."