Long Hard Ride (Rough Riders #1)(9) by Lorelei James

The rodeo announcer’s voice boomed from the loudspeakers. “Next up in saddle bronc riding is Colby McKay, the Wyoming cowboy from Sundance. Colby is currently ranked eighth in saddle bronc riding competition in the Mountain and Plains Circuit, with 8,712 cumulative points. He’s also in the number two position this week in the All-Around standings. Ooh, and looky here, rodeo fans, Colby’s draw today is the three-year-old named Elway, a bronc from the Sutliff Rodeo Stock Company out of Livingston, Colorado.”

Channing focused the binoculars on the chutes across the arena. The gatekeeper waited in front of the metal gate, rope in hand, watching for Colby’s signal. From this distance the only thing she could see was the top of Colby’s brown cowboy hat. Then his free arm flew up, the gate opened and out he came, holding on for dear life as Elway tried like hell to buck him off.

But Colby was beautiful, sheer poetry in motion as he dipped and glided with every hop and bounce of the horse. His feet spurring, the red metallic fringe on his chaps fluttering. His counter movements were synchronized, almost as if he sensed what direction Elway planned to go before the horse himself even knew.

Colby stayed on the full eight seconds. He untied his hand and launched himself onto the pickup man’s horse, just as smooth as if he’d done it a million times.

Not a million, but thousands, and that probably wasn’t much of an exaggeration. The crowd applauded. Colby waved his hat in acknowledgment as he sauntered back to the holding pens, squinting at the scoreboard, studying his ride on the big screen.

Channing held her breath and waited for the score—half for the horse’s performance, half for the rider’s. Finally a red 78 flashed to another smattering of applause and the next rider was announced.

The score put Colby in second place. As he was the sixth rider out of twenty, there was a good chance he’d get knocked down even farther in the standings. With this being a one-day rodeo, he had no chance to return tomorrow for a second go-round and the short go directly after that. Only the top five finished in the money.

She knew he wouldn’t dwell on his performance. Unlike the other competitors, he wasn’t finished with his events. He still had to compete in tie-down roping and bull riding. Trevor and Edgard both competed in tie-down roping but not bull riding.

Although bull riding tended to be the most exciting part of rodeo, it was also the most dangerous. And she remembered that like lots of other older competitors, Colby hadn’t embraced the facemask equipment so many of the younger riders used. He wore the protective vest that would shield him from getting gored by the bull’s horns, but he refused to put his face in a cage.

Why hadn’t the potential dangers bothered her when she watched Jared ride?

She dug out her notebook and jotted down her observations as she waited through the other events, bareback riding, steer wrestling—also known as bulldogging—and the event Trevor and Edgard were entered in, team roping.

Trevor was the header, which meant he was out of the gate first, and his job was to rope the steer either around the horns or around the neck.

While Edgard’s job was to catch the steer’s feet in his rope. If they were successful and caught the steer properly, then they had to face each other on their respective horses and the steer had to stay on the ground for the judge’s call.

Team roping was tricky. If the horse took off before the steer broke the barrier, then they received no score. Not to mention the difficulties in the speed of the various steers and the ability to hook both horns and feet—without missing.

Channing leaned forward when she saw Trevor and Edgard in the holding pens, working their ropes, circling the area on their individual quarter horses. Finally, it was their turn.

The rodeo announcer said, “Next up, Edgard Mancuso and Trevor Glanzer. Trevor is currently twelfth in the standings, down from his high point of third last month. These guys have had a run of bad luck lately.

Let’s hope this steer from Martinson Brothers out of Rapid City gives them an opportunity to win some money. Both these cowboys are the real deal folks. Edgard’s family owns a large cattle operation in his native Brazil, and everyone recognizes the name Glanzer. Trevor’s father, Tater, was world champion header twenty years ago. And…they’re off!”

Trevor’s horse, Chess, put on a burst of speed as the rope circled above Trevor’s head. He hooked one horn and, lickety-split, Edgard caught the back legs and the steer went down. The crowd cheered.

But the scoreboard flashed NO SCORE because Trevor had broken the barrier. Channing saw the disappointment and frustration on both their faces as they waved stained work gloves to the crowd and followed the pickup men through the back gate and around the outside of the arena.

Trevor and Edgard were out of the money again. It’d be interesting to see what their mood would be like tonight. They were sniping at each other before they’d lost.

Colby was first up in the tie-down roping.

Again the announcer rattled off Colby’s stats. She wondered if he listened or if his focus was solely on the job at hand.

Channing remembered overhearing Colby being interviewed by a cub newspaper reporter in one of the first small towns they’d visited on the circuit. How he’d told the woman the reason he competed in three events, rather than two as most All-Around Cowboy contenders preferred, was because his real job—ranching—demanded he could accurately rope runaway steers and have no problems riding a variety of horses, which was why he picked saddle bronc and tie-down roping as his main events.

Then when she’d asked why he’d take a chance on bull riding, he’d grinned and said bull riding was just for fun, because in real life on the ranch no one was stupid enough to tangle with a bull.

Channing was closer to the action at this end of the arena and didn’t need the binoculars. The black calf cleared the barrier and Colby’s horse, King, hunkered down, dirt clods busting beneath the flying hooves. With his rope circling the air, Colby caught the calf. He launched himself off the horse with his piggin’ string clamped between his teeth, knocked the calf to the ground, and flipped him on his side. The rope in his hands was a blur as he tied and then threw his hands in the air. The clock stopped.

King backed up, pulling the rope taut as Colby stood, and heaved himself back in the saddle, waiting the requisite six seconds so the judges could verify the tie held.

The calf squirmed but stayed down. The time read 4.7 seconds. The crowd whooped and hollered, and Colby waved as he reined King around and out of the arena.

Channing flipped open her program and wrote the times down next to the rest of the competitors. So far, Colby’s time held the top spot. She knew that almost more important than the money were the points accumulation, which would keep his position in the All-Around race.

Edgard’s time was 8.7 and Trevor ended up with no score.

Barrel racing was the next event. She recognized some of the women.

Cowboys loved real cowgirls, especially when they looked like rodeo queens but could ride and rope as well as a man. Channing also knew that gossip about who was riding who outside the arena ran rampant on the circuit. Few of the participants in the “wholesome family values”

events of pro rodeo were squeaky clean. Musical horse trailers seemed to be the game of choice to stave off boredom.

As Tara Reynolds, reigning barrel racing circuit champ, cemented her first place in the standings by an 11.9 run, Channing tried to recall whether she’d heard gossip about Colby or Trevor taking Tara and her tiara for a tumble.

Finally, the bull fighters came out and loud rock music blared from the speakers. The excitement of the crowd increased, beer vendors zipped through the stands more frequently. And from where she sat, it appeared more guys hung out by the chutes.

The bulls shut out the first ten competitors. Colby was up and he’d drawn Black Bart, a nasty bull, who’d gone unridden in the last seventeen outs. Channing remembered Jared getting tossed on his head right out of the gate when he’d tried to ride Black Bart. She leaned closer, not realizing she was chewing her lip until she tasted blood.

She had to calm down. The rodeo season was long and injuries were plenty. She had to trust Colby knew what he was doing.

Trevor was behind the chute helping Colby get situated on the bull, holding the bullrope while Colby rosined up his glove. Trevor’s foot came over the barrier and he pressed down on the bull’s hind end in an effort to get him to stand up. It must’ve worked because Colby’s free arm gripped the metal bar. A couple of solid shifts on the bull’s back, he nodded his head rapidly at the gate man and the gate flew open.

Man and bull burst out in a cloud of dust. Black Bart spun hard to the left, then countered with a spin to the right. Colby bumped along, his free arm high above him, but on the last switchback, Black Bart’s h*ps canted to the right and Colby slid over sideways, catching air as he sailed from the bull’s back.

He hit the ground hard on his shoulder, spun around to his feet to see where the bull was, and raced pell-mell to the fence as Black Bart charged him, weaving around the bull fighters, horns down, aiming for Colby.

But realizing his prey was gone, Black Bart stopped abruptly. His balls and jowls shook with anger and long streams of white snot flew from his nose as he trotted over to the livestock pen.

Colby reached out for his bullrope and watched his ride on the big screen. The clock had stopped at 5.2 seconds. He climbed over the railing and disappeared.

She wondered if he was commiserating with other riders who’d eaten dirt? Was he having his shoulder checked out in the medical tent?

Now they just had to wait for the payouts. Then they’d be on the road headed to Greeley for the two-day event there.

Channing didn’t know if she was supposed to head back to the horse trailer or wait in the stands. Jared had never wanted her around his rodeo pals or sponsors, now she knew why.

But things were different with Colby and Trevor at least. Except the devil on her shoulder whispered maybe they’d prefer she’d stay in the background, too. After all, she was scarcely above buckle-bunny status.

As she debated, Cash Big Crow spotted her and lumbered up to where she stood.

“Hoka hey. How come you’re up here by yourself, pretty lady?”

She laughed. “Where else am I supposed to be? What are you doing?”

“Nothing much.”

“Nice ride, by the way. Did you finish in the money?”

He scratched his head. “I think so, that’s why I’m hangin’ around.”

He peered over her shoulder to the commotion in the parking lot behind her. “You know who Gemma Jansen is?” Channing nodded. “Have you seen her lately?”

“Yesterday. She was headed home.”

Cash’s eyes narrowed. “Home? Why?”

“She said something about her foreman not doing his job at her place. Then I think she planned on taking bucking horses to Cody before she headed to Valentine.”

“Alone? Goddamn her. That woman’s got no business travelin’ all over half the damn country by herself—”

“Unlike you. You’re perfectly entitled to do whatever the hell you want, right?”

He grinned guiltily. “Sorry. I really ain’t a chauvinist. It’s just she’s so damn stubborn she won’t ask for help from nobody.”

“Channing!”

She whirled around and saw Trevor hanging on the fence.

“Colby’s been lookin’ everywhere for you. Time to go, girl.”

“Be right there.” She smiled at Cash. “See you in Greeley.”

Colby paced back and forth. Grumbling to himself. Would it be too goddamn much for her to be around when he needed her?

“Colby? What’s wrong?”

He slowed his angry breathing as he stalked to where Channing had paused by the contestants’ entry gate.

“You have a pained look on your face. Are you hurt?”

“No. Where the hell have you been?”

She frowned. “In the stands watching the rodeo.”

“Just off enjoyin’ yourself?”

“Yes. Why? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”

“No.”

“No? What’s the matter with you?”

Colby grabbed her arm and bent down until they were nose to nose.

“Why weren’t you in the spectator stands with the other wives and girlfriends enjoyin’ the rodeo from there?”

“What? Because I-I—”

“I searched for you after every goddammed event. You should’ve been there. That’s were I expect to see you from now on, do you understand?”

Channing threw off his hand. “Then maybe you should’ve given me a ticket, because I sat by myself on the other side of the arena like I always do.”

“Always?”

“Yeah, always. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is me wonderin’ why don’t you want to sit where you’re supposed—”

“Supposed to what?” She speared a finger into his chest. “You took off and left me the minute we hit the check-in booth. I’ve never been here. I’ve never been to any rodeo with you, remember? What was I supposed to do? Stand around like some floozy and wait for you to make up your mind on whether I was good enough—”

“Stop talkin’ right now.”

“No. You don’t get to order me around when you abandoned me. I don’t know why the hell I’m surprised that you don’t want people to know you’re with me.”

He was too pissed off to speak.

She blithely continued, “I’m used to being the cause of embarrassment. I am aware I rank well below the rest of the more knowledgeable buckle bunnies trailing after you like lovesick calves—”

“I’m warnin’ you, Channing, stop chatterin’ like a goddamn magpie and listen up right now. Didn’t Jared—”

“Jared was just as worried about what people might think of us being together as you are, cowboy. So, despite your claims to the contrary, you’re more alike than you know.”

Shit. Colby stepped back and squeezed his eyes shut. He’d forgotten Jared had kept Channing sequestered so no one blabbed to her about his wife. Therefore, Channing wouldn’t have known a certain amount of seats were set aside at every performance for family and friends. When he reopened his eyes, she was stomping off.

“Channing, come back here.”

“No,” she tossed off over her shoulder.

“I’m warnin’ you, girl, you don’t want to make me mad.”