He leans on a lunch counter until it becomes a fence rail. Somewhere beyond the napkin containers and sugar jars there is the sweet green Okanagan Valley. One day when it is too soon for him to quit he may sure enough go home and stay, and the rodeos will not have their big, frowzy broncs ridden quite so brilliantly as Kenny McLean rides them.
There are only 10 seconds a day or night—between the time the horse makes his first jump and the time the pickup buzzer sounds—when this dark-eyed bronc rider has to drift back mentally from his small ranch in British Columbia. Last week eight of those intervals occurred during six days of riding in the sports arena beneath the smog of Los Angeles where the world cowboy championships were decided in the National Finals Rodeo.
The moment the first bucking chute was slung open, no one was more in the spotlight than Kenny McLean, who at 23 became a world champion saddle bronc rider. No one could have looked like he cared less.
A year ago McLean was Rookie of the Year on the vast rodeo circuit and fourth in saddle bronc money, with some $14,000. For a young man whose family had a ranch of only 150 acres with just 30 head of cattle and horses, there could be little doubt about the immediate future. He would go win some more money and that would make everything better at home. The rest of the time Kenny McLean only wants to look at the fruit valley and the mountains and trees around it, to hunt the bear, deer, elk and cougar he has been hunting all his life, to fish for the trout in the lakes, and not to face the loneliness of a rodeo bronc rider.
"Man don't have much to do on the circuit," he says quietly. "It's not a good life at all. What I want to do is ranch. And rodeo every now and then in Canada, maybe. If I was a roper, it would be better. I'd have a horse to feed and exercise. I try to sleep late. It helps.
"I don't think a man knows exactly what he does on a buckin' horse," added McLean. "You got to watch his head, and kind of be able to feel him, too. But a man don't have much time." He has, in fact, exactly those 10 seconds to prove his mastery of the art—and it is a very subtle art indeed. It embraces skills that only the judges in the arena can see and perhaps only the fiercest animals themselves can wholly appreciate. The cowboy must have infinite balance to survive the swerves, ducks and spins of certain broncs. He must have the rhythm to stay in complete control and, with his legs, move the rowels of his spurs smoothly and constantly from the horse's neck back through the ribs. All the while the bronc rider is hopeful that he has drawn a gallant old beast that will try to bounce him off the sky so that the judges will give the ride a higher point total.
To win at Los Angeles, McLean had to beat two other Canadian cowboys, a smooth rider named Winston Bruce and Marty Wood, a wild man with vicious spurs. After a season the three were still so close together in prize money that any one of them could have come out of Los Angeles with the highest dollar total for the season and thus have been named champion.
During the first three days of the rodeo all three made bristling rides. Then, on the fourth night, a gray gelding appropriately named Shake 'em Down twisted and flopped thunderously onto his side, with McLean's left leg pinned beneath him. But Kenny was still in the saddle, holding with the one hand. He was uninjured and was quickly back for a reride.
The reride was good, and from that moment on Kenny McLean took charge of the rodeo. Late the next night he finally clinched the world championship. He won it watching Marty Wood trying to push a giant palomino too far. When Marty came down, Kenny McLean became the champion. The last night, as a final flourish, he made a superb ride on Big John, a huge bay that the cowboys had just voted Bucking Horse of the Year. "That boy McLean," said Casey Tibbs, six-time saddle bronc champion, now retired, "rides a buckin' horse like it oughta be rode."