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On a humid Friday afternoon in rural southwestern New Jersey, Amos Howard (Stoney) Harris Jr., the 84-year-old grandfather of the Cowtown Rodeo in Piles Grove Township, N.J., sits in his backyard a few miles from the rodeo arena and stares through his one good eye at the severed head of Playboy, the bucking bull.
Playboy's head is tied to the trunk of an ash tree, eight feet off the ground. It has been there for more than 10 years, almost long enough for the flies to have lost interest but not nearly long enough for the sun to have stripped off its brown-and-white hide. It is still clearly Playboy's head, not Playboy's skull. The bull is all dead—but it is not all gone.
The head is grinning. What's left of Playboy is flashing a crazed, snaggle-toothed rodeo grin, as if it were looking up at a cowboy it has just bucked into the air and is deciding whether to gore that cowboy on the way down or wait until he hits the dirt.
The grin pleases Harris, who noticed 50 years ago that while bucking broncos run away from fallen cowboys, bucking bulls try to kill them. Harris has always appreciated moxie, which may explain why he does not have any bucking-bronco heads tied to trees on his property.
"Playboy bucked at Cowtown for five or six years," he says, telling it plainly but not without feeling. "He had the moves. He had the heart. He was the bull that rode [in a truck] across the Brooklyn Bridge at the end of that Barbra Streisand movie, For Pete's Sake. I still see him sometimes on television, riding across that bridge with ol' Barbra."
Harris's tone is respectful. There is no humor in his blue right eye. His left has been glass since 1962, when a colt jerked a rope through his hands and the flailing loose end hit his left eyeball.
"Playboy was a good bucking bull for a long, long time," Harris says, "so when he finally lost his taste for bucking and it came time to kill him, I asked the boys at the slaughterhouse to bring me his head. I tied it to this tree. I'm letting it weather. Might take another 10 years to bleach out. I don't care. I got time. You can't rush these things. I like having his head up there. Gives me something to look at."
He gets out of his chair slowly, using his cane for support. Then he carefully makes his way around the ash tree, with Playboy's head tied to it, and hobbles toward the front of his white clapboard house. He seems embarrassed by the amount of effort this requires.
Harris has two artificial hips, two artificial shoulders and an artificial knee—all of them implanted since he turned 70. "It's not the same as bone and gristle," he says in a dry monotone, cowboy-style, without excessive jaw action. "But it all works pretty good. I guess it's best described as too many miles. I've always been damn fool enough to take on more than one human should."
He passes the moose head mounted at the right of his front door. He keeps a big pile of antlers on the porch, creating the illusion that the moose head is still shedding its rack year after year, and that the rest of the moose is standing in the living room on the other side of the wall.