Thanks for reading!

Any use of real places, events, corporations or products within this text are strictly for the purpose of adding realism and authenticity to the writing. Critiques are always welcome. Also, please let me know what you think of the format. If you want more information about any rodeo events, there are tons of resources online.

Written exclusively for Nifty Archives. This story involves sexual relationships between boys, aged 15 and older. If this is illegal in your area, please do not read on. This story is work of fiction. Any similarities between real places, people, and events is completely coincidental and unintentional. If you read the archives frequently, then you know the drill. Take the rest with a grain of salt. This story is (c) 2007-08, Milos. All rights reserved! Please do NOT repost this story without permission.

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I'm feeling uneasy about Rook and everything I said. Everything I did. The living room's dark, and I've been staring off at an empty corner for a few hours now. Who do I call? Who the hell do I talk to?

There's a murder of crows outside. I can hear them squaking every so often over the wind. It's like they're there to taunt me. I can't help but think about Rook, for some reason.

Don't want to say anything to Rook. Mattie won't even pick up his phone. Can't talk to Momma, and I don't think Chase would understand it at all. I teeter with the idea of calling Brynn out for coffee or something. I can't. Everyone would turn on me.

I fish out my wallet. Pull out a worn business card from the back of the stack, look it over front and back. It doesn't seem too late. The line rings.

"This is Reagan."

"Uhh... ah, hi there, Miss Reagan."

"Lem? Is that you?"

"Yeah. How you figure?"

"You're the only one that ever called me Miss Reagan. How've you been?"

"Good. Found myself in a bind, and I needed someone to talk to. I was wondering if I could set up a time to call you, just to chat for an hour or so."

"You sound down. Is everything okay?"

"Sorta. Not really. I don't know anymore. Me just being stupid again." My eyes are getting watery. "When do you got a free bit of time?"

"Right now, honey. Just tell me what you need to say."

"I don't want to bother you if it's a bad time."

"Lem, it's never a bad time. I'm here for you. Um, hold on, let me get a notepad." There's a pause. "There we go. So, what's bothering you?"

I sigh. "A lot of stuff. Everything's been going pretty good up 'till now. Been working out at the gym with a guy I met in English Lit, doing well in school, have a few good friends in the Ag department."

"Sounds pretty good."

"Well, Mattie came over for spring break, went with me to a rodeo down in Denver. Rook came with us."


"The guy from my lit class. He's a little different. Artist type. Had some pretty wild hair there for a while. One of the guys from the Ag department calls him a rooster. Anyway," I sigh again, "the long n' short of it's that Mattie's fallen off the face of the planet. Won't answer his phone. We were supposed to meet up back in Burlee, but he flaked out on me."

"Are you worried that he doesn't want to talk to you?"

"I'm sure I'd know if something happened to him. Well, two nights ago, Rook and I made love." I sigh, chuckle sadly. "Well, it wasn't love, he just up and fucked me. The whole thing's been eating at the back of my head, and now I feel worse than I did when I lost Mattie the first time. I feel like... like there's nothing inside me. I can't get away from myself." I'm bawling, now.

"Lem, do you feel bad because you think you let Mattie down?"


"Do you think he's mad at you for something?"


"What reason would he have to be mad at you right now?"

"I don't know. I miss him. He hates me." My hand is shaking. God, what's happeneing to me?

"Does he know about you and Rook?"

"No. Fuck. He'd never talk to me again, I'm sure of it."

"Let's get away from Matthew for a bit. Are you mad at yourself for having sex with Rook?"

"It's not so much that we did it, it's the way I presented it."

"Okay. But you're worried Mattie wouldn't approve?"

"He wouldn't. But we had a deal. We agreed that we were free to date other people. No hard feelings if somethin' came out of it, you know?"

"Why are you worried about it?"

I sob. "Because I feel like a fuckin' whore the way I came on to Rook like that. I told him to use me the way Jeff did. Just, do whatever with me. I thought that's all I deserved. And Shadow was in the back of my head the whole time."

"You sound like you're in a vulnerable position."

"I feel like it."

"How does Rook feel about this?"

"I haven't told him much about Jeff. When I told him to... to use me, he just said he thought it was hot."

"Do you feel like you have a need for that? To be used the way you said? Maybe like a fetish or something?"

"I don't like that kind of thing. Back then, I was so willing to do anything for Jeff just to be with him. Rook's a face in the crowd, far as I'm concerned. We're so different. I just can't get past that and how filthy I feel."

"I feel like there's something else you're side-stepping. A deeper sense of guilt, maybe?"

"Maybe? I don't know. I got this long lecture from Rook. Got me to thinkin', what if Jeff gave me something and I gave it to Mattie?"

"You were having unprotected sex?"

"I didn't think it was a big deal. Fuck, I should have learned when I almost got Brooke pregnant."

"Since Jeff was pulled into the equation, you're worried that you could have infected Matthew with something?"

"I'm a little worried about it, yeah."

"Well, maybe what Rook said is something you needed to hear- to open your eyes to the world a little."

"I felt so bad about it. Like such a little fuckin' kid, just being put in my place or something. I felt like I deserved what I got."

"So, you were punishing yourself?"

"I don't want to say it, but it felt good at the time. This is gonna sound fucked up, but I wanted him to do what Jeff did. You know, the last time. I don't know why."

"I don't think that's very healthy for you, honey. It sounds to me like you're having a hard time understanding your role in your relationship with both Rook and Matthew. And I think you're also having a hard time adjusting to what Jeff did to you. You know what Jeff did to you was wrong, right?"

"Yeah, I know."

"Do you want to continue a relationship with Rook?"

"I could give him a chance, but he ain't Mattie."

"Lem, different people have different things to offer. Sometimes you need change to realise what it is that your heart really needs."

"Why does it hurt so bad?" I start sobbing again.

"I think it hurts because Matthew is the only real love you've ever known, aside your family. It sounds like Rook was a release for sexual tension. There's nothing wrong with two concenting adults having sex, I'm just worried more about your frame of mind. Would you do something for me?"

"What's that?"

"If I made some calls and found someone, could I give you a referral to see someone there? I think there're still a few things you could stand to talk about with a professional."

"Great, I must sound like a basketcase."

"Not at all. You're the same good-natured kid I met a few years ago. You're just in a rough spot with nobody to turn to. And it doesn't need to be on an ongoing basis. Maybe just until you work some of these side-issues out. I don't want you to lose sight of what's special about you."

"What the hell's so special about me?"

"You are, Lem. All of you. And don't you let anyone make you think or feel that you aren't!"

# # #

The first bull that 681 sired was with a brindle named Daisy out in Vixen Creek. With Backdraft's red coloring, the stripes on his offspring came out to be more reddish than tan. I never saw a bull quite like it, but then again, you get some pretty crazy hybrids out there.

The bull's called Wild Tiger. He's a pretty good ride. High scoring rank. I've been on his back more than a few times.

# # #

I'm in Craft's class for more abuse, but he's been pretty decent to me. I guess Jarrod was right; he gets under your skin, then he likes you. Rook still calls Craft a parasite. I came in a little early this morning. Had my coffee with me, and he had his. We sat there and talked for half an hour. He actually seemed like a pretty cool guy. Asked me about the rodeo, what I wanted to do with myself the rest of my life. If he wasn't so predatory to new students, I might just think he was my favorite teacher.

He's having us write an essay on what we did over the summer. He says it's not for his reading pleasure, he just wants to see how everyone writes, see where the problem students are going to be. Then he got his meat-hooks into some little country chick from Minnesota. Almost made her cry. She ain't gonna last, so I think I'm gonna talk to her after class if I can catch up with her.

I'm staring at this blank sheet in front of me. Holding this pen between my fingers. Holding it clost to the tip and shaking it back and forth like I might just fling it across the room. What do I put down? That I followed the rodeo around all summer?

How about how I shamed myself? Just put my ass in the air, waved it around and let myself fall from whatever grace I had in me. Should I write about how mixed up I was? How mixed up I still am? I couldn't even say whether or not the sex was good. How about the awkward date we had two weeks after that? He just went on like nothing happened. Didn't even bring it up.

I could write about the painting. I'm sure Craft would love to read about how I got all naked, put on a cowboy hat, and laid across Rook's couch. Hell, there was two bottles of wine between us. After a while, he had to get a snapshot because I wouldn't stop moving. We made love over the painting, got us both covered in paint. We didn't fuck, I can't bring myself back to that point after the way I acted.

This time, he was gentle. A different person, like he knew I was hurt. We just messed around a little. I came first. He told me to do it on the painting. Then he did. Rubbed it into the paint with his cock.

I'm not so sure about him, but I can't stop myself. Fuckin', it's like Jeff all over again. But where the fuck is Mattie to keep me inline? I haven't heard from Mattie since he canceled out on me, and I haven't been able to reach him. Well, I'm sure he'll find better than me, anyway. He's got his own life to live.

I could write about my first therapy session with this new guy, and how much of a head-case I am. He ain't no Reagan, that's for sure. Maybe my more normal life. Working in the Ag department, taking care of animals, learning farm and ranch management. Doing rodeo. Helping out the freshmen who got here early, camping up in the hills with Brynn, Brian, Taylor, Skyler, and a few others. Drinkin', just pokin' around like we'd do back home. Up to no good.

Skyler's an interesting kid. He crosses my mind at untimely moments, sometimes. He's from Washington. Bout a year older than I am and he already has a kid that's almost five. His ex takes care of his boy, and Skyler doesn't get to see him much on account his ex is a huge bitch. But Skyler's a good guy all around. Funny. Swift to the wit, and has a funny way of putting anyone in their place right quick. One of the good 'ol boys. Into football, rodeo, and trucks. Damn good mechanic. Hell, he went with me to pick out my new truck. Talked my ear off like a salesman.

When it comes to the bulls, he's just as rough and tumble as any one of us. He's got some muscle on him that he hides well, but the way he carries himself, it's a little like Mattie. Hell, I'm sure he'd hurt himself lifting something heavier than he is as a matter of pride, just to prove he could. He likes to joke around with people. Can take a joke, too, but won't take lip or shit from anyone. He's very levelheaded, too. I respect that about him.

But the paper's not about Skyler, it's about my summer. What did I do that Craft wouldn't bust my ass about too much? Maybe it's just best to put down how much I worked. Some of the interesting things I saw out on the road. This paper's gonna take me a while.

# # #

Here it is, the middle of October, few dates with rook under my belt, trying to get to normal, and I finally spot Mattie online. I have to meet up with Brynn in fifteen minutes. I don't even bother typing him up, I just pick up the phone and dial.

"Hey, I was just thinking about calling you." He sounds quiet, sad.

"You little shit, I was getting worried something happened to you." I scratch my arm, sit on my bed.

"You stopped calling."

"Well, you stopped answering. You gotta stop pulling this Houdini shit on me."

I hear him sigh. "It's been strange the last few months. Can I come see you?"


"I wanna leave tomorrow. I mean, it'd just be for a week. I need to get outta here. I just want..." He sniffles. Crap, he's crying. "I want to hold you again, Lem. I've been a piece of shit, and I want to be around someone who makes me feel good."

It feels like the world gets out from under my feet. "Shadow..." I sigh, think. Now I feel like a piece of shit. "What about school? You can't just up and miss a week of school."

He sobs. "I don't care anymore."

"I don't wanna hear you say that. It scares me when you say shit like that." I pause. "You're not fixin' to hurt yourself or anything, are you?"

"No... no. Just down and out."

"We all feel like that sometimes, baby."

"Know what's fucked up? I never felt like that when I was around you. Even growin' up. I just knew you'd be there if I had a problem, even if I didn't tell you what it was. Those times we'd skip rocks up the irrigation ditch, or we'd just lean up against the tree and watch the grass grow. I don't wanna let go of that."

"I don't want you to let go of that. I wouldn't let go of that, either."

"Can I come see you?"

"I don't want you to fuck up your scholarships. Think you could wait until Thanksgiving? I could take off a few days early and spend the week."

He sighs. "I 'spose I could."

"Why do you feel like a piece of shit?"

"Don't wanna talk about it."

I try being gentle, like Reagan always was. "You sure? I'll listen if you do."

"I just wanna hear your voice." There's a click. "Fuck."


"Someone's trying to call me. I really got to take this call."

I feel deflated. "Okay. Call me back when you get a chance, 'kay?"

"Okay." He hangs up.

I have to get going if I'm gonna pick up Brynn on time. I stand up, look in the mirror and inspect my face. Put on a squirt of cologne. I get my keys and my wallet. Put on my jacket and start for the door. I start the truck and start for Brynn's dorm.

I pull into the parking lot outside of Brynn's dorm, look up at her window.

Someone peeks through the blinds, then the light shuts off. I figure she's on her way down.

My phone rings. I turn down the radio and answer. "Hey."

"Sorry about that."

"It's okay. I'm going out for coffee with a friend to get some studying done, so I won't be able to talk long."

"Who, Rook?" He sounds a little cross. Why does it feel like he knows?

"No, Brynn. I said I'd help her do some flash-cards for one of her classes."

"Sorry. He gives me the creeps."

There's a long pause. I figure I should keep him at arms-length from Rook. "Mattie?"

"I'm still here." He sighs. "I miss you somethin' bad."

"I know you do. I miss you, too." I try to think of what to say, just to keep him talkin'. "You still think about gettin' on the circuit? You could probably travel around with Oreo and do team ropin' events or something. I've been making some good money. Got a new truck with it, did I tell you that?"

"You got a new truck?"

"Yeah, a new Dodge Ram. Kind of a dark rusty brown one."

"That sounds cool. I gotta hang on to my money. Ain't got a lot of it."

"It's pretty tough making ends meet here, but I keep enough around to pay my bills and live off of. All I have is school and truck payments. Momma kept me on her insurance until I get outta school."

"God, you have no idea how much I need to be with you right now."

"Me, too. Hey, Brynn's coming across the lawn, and I don't wanna be rude. You wanna talk later on tonight?"

He sighs. "I guess so."

Great, I can just imagine him sitting there in the dark all miserable. It's all I'm gonna be able to think about all night. "Hey, it'll only be a few hours. I promise I'll try to be quick."

Brynn jogs around the front of the truck. For not hardly having any chest, her boobs sure are bouncing around good. Funny, the things you notice at times like this.

"Yeah... that sounds okay."

She hops up into the cabin, smiles at me.

My black heart's breaking slowly. "Hang in there, okay?"

"I will." He hangs up.

I say it under my breath. "Crap."

Brynn tilts her head at me. "What's wrong? You look like something's botherin' you."

"Mattie's having a rough time right now." I pull the truck into drive and start heading toward town. "First time I've heard from him in months, and he won't tell me what's going on."

"Poor little thing. You think it's serious?"

"I asked him if he was thinking about hurting himself. That's the only thing I really needed to know right now, but if I ding at him too much about something, he wont say anything. He's always been like that. More you poke at him, the more he pushes it inside. I'll let him tell me on his own."

"You must be very patient."

"Not at all. It eats me up inside, sometimes. Hell, I grew up with the kid. Know him better than anyone else. It hurts me when he hurts, you know?"

"It sounds like growing apart's hard on him."

I sigh. "For both of us." I feel like I need to level with her, right now. Before I explode. "Brynn? Can I ask you a personal question?"


"What are your thoughts on... umm... gay folk?"

"Ohhhh." She looks at me worriedly. "You worried Mattie might be... that way?"

"Maybe that's a little part of it, but I wouldn't turn my back on him one way or another." I look over at her, then back to the road.

"I don't really care about that sort of stuff. A person's a person, it's what's in their heart that matters more. I don't really know any gay people up close and personal or anything."

"Brynn, I don't know what's goin' on inside me, I mean, I totally gotta be off my rocker right now."


"Can I tell you something very personal? Just between you and me?"

She nods.

I sigh again. "Mattie and me have a past that's kinda... complicated. Umm... God how do I put this?" I sigh again.

"It's okay, sweetie."

I'm tingling right now, from underneath my chin down my chest. "Him and I were lovebirds of a sort. I'm not gay, I don't want to be labeled like that. I really don't know what I want... I just happen to be a guy goin' with another guy."

"That must'a took a lot to say."

"I just needed to say something before I freaked out. My life just feels so strange, like it's someone else at the wheel, and I'm just watchin'."

"Like, you don't wanna be gay or something?"

"I don't like the idea of it, but I feel right around Matthew. He tears me apart inside, just, limb from limb."

"I hate that feeling. Just being so head over heals in love with someone, you don't know what to do with yourself."

"There's just a lot of pain wrapped up in it all. I just don't know if a cowboy or a bull rider should be like me. It's not part of this life. I don't know if I could ever just be what I am like city guys do."

"I can't imagine it'd be all that easy for them city folks, either." She pauses. "Sweetie, would you tell Brian?"

"What? I can't, Brynn! The guys wouldn't understand."

"Brian's not like that, and I'd hate for you to feel like you had to be somethin' you weren't around us."

"I am me around you guys. I'm not any different, and I wouldn't act different if people did know."

"People might surprise you, Lem. Brian considers you one of his best friends, and I think he'd be hurt if you kept something like this from him too awfully long. We like you for you, not for who you love. Just so you know."

# # #

Brynn and I walk up the walk to Brian's apartment.

"I think I'm going to move in next semester." She smiles, pulls her jacket around her neck a little tighter.

"You two're good for each other."

She looks down the parking lot a little. "Skyler's here. You don't have to do this right now, if you don't wanna."

I nod, look down at her. "You know, I don't really think Skyler would care. I bet my old therapist would tell me I need a few really good friends that know, just to keep me grounded a little bit."

"Good way to look at it." She pauses. "If it's too personal, just tell me, but why were you in therapy?"

"After Mattie and me got together, we got into a little fight over something stupid. He disappeared. Found out a week later that he tried to commit suicide. I was a wreck after that. There's a lot more to it than that. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime."

"Sorry to hear that. I guess that's why you always worry about him?"

"Huh? How do you know I always worry?"

"You aren't very candid about it."


She unlocks the door. I follow her in. Skyler and Brian are sitting at opposite sides of the couch. Looks like they broke out the X-Box. Taylor's sitting on the love seat. Probably waiting for a turn.

Brian doesn't even look up at me. He's fixed on the game. "Hey, Lem."

"Hey, guys."

Brynn leans over and kisses Brian on the cheek.

Brian pauses the game, kisses her back. "How was the studying?" He grins at me. "Lem keep those fast hands to himself?"

"It's not his fast hands I'm worried about." She walks into the kitchen.

Taylor stands up. "I got some shit I gotta get done."

"Later." Brian's too involved in his own thing to really care.

Taylor gives me the stink-eye and walks out.

"Jeez, what's up his ass?" Skyler shakes his head and goes back to the game.

"I think the guy's always had it out for me." I scratch my arm.

"Nawww. Just the way he is." Brian jams his fingers into the buttons. "Damn it!"

I sit on the loveseat.

He looks at me real quick, then back to the screen. "What's on your mind?"

He's good at reading people. "God, how do you do that?"


"Get outta my head!"

He laughs. "Seriously, man. Last few days you've looked like someone dropped your toast in a pile of bullshit, sunny side down."

"You do have a way with words."

We sit in silence for a while. I just zone out watching the game. After he runs over an old lady and crashes into a streetlamp, he pauses the game and looks over at me. "Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Is it the Rooster?"

"Rook? No."

"I bet it has something to do with him."

"No. It's just a little personal."

"Wanna go somewhere and chat?"

"You're a good friend. I'd hate to lose that."

He smiles. Got that stoner look about him. Not that he's the kind of person that'd even touch pot, though. "Why you think that?"

The flurry in me spins. A snow globe in my stomach. "Remember Mattie?"

"Yeah. He's seems like a good kid."

"He's what's on my mind, lately. Dropped off the face of the planet, and I'm worried about him."

"Think he's okay?"

"Inside, I think something's up. I can't help but think it might be me."

"What did you do?"

"Man, you gotta understand we have a long history."

"Good, bad?"

"Both." I sigh. Look nervously at Skyler when I say it. "This is just between us." I run my hands down my face. God, I can't believe I'm doing this.

"It's okay, man."

"Mattie and I are like a set of lovebirds." I stop. Let it sink in. See if someone freaks out. I'm half expecting one of them to jump off the couch and beat the holy living shit outta me.

Skyler doesn't even bat an eyelash. Brian kinda nods at me.

"Look, I'm not gay. I don't know why he's the exception, but he is. It's not easy for me to say that either. To anyone." I sigh, talk under my breath. Search the floor for a place to hide. "Go, Lem. Done fucked things up again."

Brian looks me in the eye. Pats my leg. "You want a beer? You need a beer." He gets up and walks to the kitchen. Grabs a Stella Artois and pops the cap. "Skyler, you need another?"

"Naw, still got half of this one left."

He grabs one for himself. Walks into the living room and sets a bottle in my hand. Almost like it's story time around the camp fire. He sits down in his spot. Takes a swig. "Really? You're... really?"

Brynn crosses her arms. "Brian!"

"I wasn't being mean." He looks at me. "Man, Lem, I didn't figure you were... um... I mean, you don't act like it. It's like, you're one of the guys."

"I am one of the guys. I've been what I been before I even met you, and I didn't lie about it or anything."

"Hell, it's not something anybody asked. I don't really think it's anyone's business, anyway." He looks over at Skyler.

Skyler just nods.

# # #

"Please tell me what's bothering you."

"I can't."

"Is it me?"

He sighs. It dawns on me that he's probably still crying. After a few minutes, he finally whispers. "It hurts, lovin' you."

"W... why?"

"Because I can't have you. I can't be there, but I wanna. Fuck what other people think. I wanna be yours."

I try to chuckle. "You'd probably get sick of me plenty quick."

"Know what I miss the most?"

"What's that?"

"The most gentle kiss in all of Montana. I always felt safe with you. I could always feel your heart beating at night when we'd sleep close to each other. I don't think my ticker's workin' right, anymore."

"Whatd'ya mean?"

"There's been other guys, Lem. Guys that look at me. They don't want to be friends. They want me. They tell me I'm hot, and they want to do stuff. Stuff I don't think I can do with them."

I feel jealous. Suddenly, I don't like the idea of anyone else being with him. I try to keep it under my hat. "You even know how good lookin' you are?"

"I'm fuckin' goofy lookin'! Got these huge dingbat ears. I'm all gangly. Hell, my teeth are fucked up to no end."

"They ain't that bad. You wanna know what I love about you?"

There's a pause, like he don't wanna hear what's comin'. "What?"

"I love it when you smile. It feels special to me because you don't do it around other people much. I love your eyes. I love the way you hold me." I stop, try to collect myself so I don't sound weak, because I'm fallin' apart right now. "I love all of you."

He sighs.

"What's the matter?"

"You're too good for me."

"No, I'm not. If anyone's too good, it's you for me."

"Stop. I'm nothing."

"You're everything."

"Goddamn it. Stop saying that."

"Fuck, then we'll be nothing together."

He sniffles.



"No matter what happens, I love you."

# # #

I'm coiling rope in the Ag building, hanging the lariats on hooks. Putting shit away. I drop a part of a bridle on the ground, lean down to pick it up.

Taylor's walking by with two arms full of tack. There's plenty of breadth for him to walk through, but I feel something that he's carrying smack me across the back of my head. Knocks my hat clean off.

There was something metal in there, too. Damn, that hurt. "Hey! Cuttin' it a bit close, aren't ya'?"

He doesn't even look back.

I figure it could have been an accident. People get knocked around and bumped into all the time. I get everything hung up where it's supposed to go, walk around the corner toward the garage doors.

Everyone's standing there in a group, talkin' about the weekend.

I come up behind Taylor. Brian comes up on the other side of the group with a saddle. He kind of holds it up like he wants someone to take it. "Lem, would you get this one? Got another one I gotta bring in."

I nod. "Sure enough."

The group lets Brian through.

Bout to take a step forward and almost run square into Taylor. He mumbles something, but I can't really hear it.

I put a hand on his arm to guide him to the side a little. "'Scuse me a sec."

He turns around and just pushes me. With both hands. Knocks me back a few feet.

I stumble over the heel of my boot. Land flat on my ass. "What the hell is your problem?"

"I told you not to fuckin' touch me."

I get to my feet, brush myself off. "Well, you could speak up, junior. Nobody understands a mumbler. Fuck! I's just trying to take the saddle, no need to get pissy."

"Then you can keep your faggot hands off me."

It's a move smooth as butter. Brian hands off the saddle and steps up to the side of Taylor. Has an arm over his chest, kind of pulls him backward a little, then up and slams him against the gate. Pins him up there.

I jog up behind Brian, stand at his elbow.

Brian's chewin' on a blade of grass. Has his eyes fixed on Taylor's face like he's concentrating on it. "Got somethin' to say?"

"God, you of all people, Brian!" Taylor squints at him, then me.

I talk softly. "You don't have to do this, Brian."

"Shut your queer mouth." I'm guessing Taylor wished he didn't just say that. He wheezes as Brian drops one in his gut.

"Quiet yourself down."

Everyone's just standing there in shock.

Skyler's standing with his arms crossed. I can tell he's trying hard to look calm. You see it in his eyes, he wants a good fight. I don't know which side of the porch he's sitting on, as far all things are concerned.

"Why don't you apologize to Lem and be on your way before I have to hurt my knuckles."

"I don't have anything to say to shit like that."

Brian slams him against the gate again. He turns out a little and looks over his shoulder. "Hey Danny, would you please bring me a cup of ice from the machine in the kitchen?"

Danny kinda scoffs. "Why?"

"It's a parting gift for Taylor. He's gonna fuckin' need it when I knock his face around."

Someone kinda hisses.

Taylor turns red in the face. "Hey, fuck you, Brian."

Brian punches him in the gut again. "I don't have any patients for your mouth right now, so you'd better just stick a cow turd in there or something before I come uncorked." He winds the front of Taylor's shirt up in his fist, walks him toward the parking lot. Got Taylor walkin' along on his tip-toes. Brian must have him pretty good. "I'd like to think I know you all pretty well, and I'd like to think of some of you like family.

"You might want to think long hard before you open your mouth to say something discourteous around my friends-any of 'em, I don't care who it is-because you won't see me standing for it. I don't like getting into these little altercations, but I will kick someone's ass, believe you me. So if anyone else has issues with Lem's arrangement, or who my friends are," he lets go of Taylor's shirt and pushes him toward the garage door, knocks him over, "then you can drag your sorry ass out that door and keep plenty clear of me."

Taylor gets to his feet, starts like he's about to charge Brian.

Skyler gets Taylor at his collar before he can get to awfully far. Starts pushing him out the door. "No, you don't. You heard him. Git."

Everyone kinda disperses. Brian walks over to me. "You okay?"

"Guess so. Didn't hurt nothing, really." I hug at my elbows. "How you suppose he knew, anyway?"

"Don't know. I thought he'd gone when you told Skyler and me."

We walk along, back toward the kitchen area. "Suppose Skyler could have said something?"

"I don't think he would have. Unless it slipped out or something, but Skyler's the kind of guy who thinks long and hard before he talks."

"I've only told a small few people about Matthew. Rook's the only other person here that knows."

"The rooster kid?" He smirks at me. Slaps my shoulder.

"Yeah, the rooster kid." I sigh. "Just don't know. Fuck, now everyone knows."

"I wouldn't say that. People probably just think he's callin' you names to get a rise outta you."

"How much you want to bet he'll tell everyone?"

"He does, and I'll be the first in line to kick his ass. He's been wearin' thin on everyone's nerves, lately."

"Lem! Lem!"

Brian and I turn. Danny's running up the hall toward us.

He stops right in front of me. "Don't get mad or anything, but a few of us caught Taylor keying up the side of your pickup."

"Awwwwww FUCK!"

Brian nods. "You kick the shit out of him?"

"He saw us coming and ran off. But he was stupid enough to do it right in front of the fuckin' security camera, too."

I cross my arms. "He just fuckin scratched it or what?"

"Think he was gonna etch faggot in, but he only got f-a-g-o before we got there."

"Little shit can't even spell it right. I think that's a bigger insult."

Brian shakes his head. "That ain't right. You just don't mess with a man's truck." He looks at me. "What you wanna do about it?"

"I'd like to knock his dick in the dirt, that's what I'd like to do."

"I got your back, man."

Danny tips his hat at me. "Me, too." I get the feeling that if Brian ends up like Hink, then Danny's gonna be Brian's Tyler.

"You know what? I should let campus police do their thing."

"Really? Why?"

I sigh. "If I beat the living shit out of him, and believe me, I want to, I won't get the truck fixed on his dime. I can't afford a new paint job. Ugh, mother fucker!"

# # #

God, it's been a long spring break. Ride after ride after ride.

Momma and Chase get in this afternoon. They just decided to drive down to Casper on account it's so damned expensive to fly in to the airport here. Dad was tickled pink I made finals, but he has to stay home and work.

Finals for bull riding are on Friday. Two more rides to go, and I'm sitting in third place right now. This could go anywhere.

I've got the night off. Been exploring Casper here and there. Brian, Brynn, Skyler and I all took off and went to Hell's Half Acre this morning. They filmed Star Ship Troopers there.

Not a whole hell of a lot to do around Casper. I think we did it all when we got here. Well, it's better than Burlee. Casper actually has a mall and two Wal-Mart stores. Won't be 21 until September, so I can't go out and drink. Brian's really cool about that. He went to the liquor store across the highway from the hotel and got some booze so we could hang out in the hot tub.

It's nice that everyone doesn't treat me any different. The more I get to know Brian and Skyler, the cooler they are. It's Brian's last year. Brynn's got a year left, yet, so I think they'll be sticking around Spearfish until she's done.

I'm leaving the hotel so I can get lunch and find a place to meet Momma when she gets in. There's a restaurant just off the highway as you come in from the north, a little hole in the wall called Casper's. I've been here a few times. One of the only places in town open 24 hours. The smoking section gets so hazy, but if I'm with Brian, it's where we sit. Surprised I've never picked up the habit. I'm sure Mattie'd have done killed me, if I did.

God, Mattie.

I'm fixin' to dive into a daydream when I run into someone in the lobby on my way out. Well, he grabs my arm.

"I've been watchin' you, kiddo. Followin' you pretty close."

Takes me a second to realize who he is. "Hink? How the hell you been, man?" I shake his hand, give him one of those brotherly hug-dash-pat-on-the-back things.

"Pretty darn good! Looks like you've been doing pretty good for yourself." He stands back, looks me over. "Holy cow, look at you! You could probably bend a bull in half!"

I laugh. "Decided I should put on a little mass after I broke my arm. Helps keep me outta trouble. What are you doing? You stayin' here?"

"Just checkin' in. Came in to watch finals."

"Where's Tyler?"

"That mousey little turd? He's off in Texas doin' some rodeo."

I laugh. "Hey, man, I was just fixin' to run across the road and get some lunch before I catch up with my Mom. You're more than welcome to join me."

He looks at his watch. "You know what, I might just do that. Can you give me a minute to throw my bags in my room?"

"Yeah, I'll just hang out here."

He nods. "Nice. I'll only be a bit." He grabs a duffel bag at his feet, walks down the lobby past the pool.

I sit on a sofa and twiddle my thumbs a little. Just watch the people walk by. A maid vacuums the cafe. Guy at the front desk checks some lady in. Pizza delivery guy walks in, goes the same way Hink did. Nobody even really notices me.

Mattie... Rook... Jeff... fuck. All of them in my brain at once. Just... damn it.

Hink walks in, stops in front of me. "Ready?"

I stand up. "Yeah. Take my truck?"


He follows me out to the parking lot. The restaurant's only about three blocks away, but I'm not sure where Momma wants to meet, or when they'll even get in. Don't want to be unprepared. We drive under the highway and take a quick left into the parking lot.

"Nice truck. Always liked the new Rams."

"Thanks." I hop out and hit the lock button on the key-fob. "She treats me pretty good."

"I'll bet." He holds the restaurant door open for me.

I can already smell the stink of cigarettes.

The waitress looks at us as we walk in. "Just the two of you? Smoking or non?"

I look at Hink.

"Nonsmoking, please." He smiles at her. Watches her ass as she leads us to the table.

"What can I get you to drink?"

He sits down on the far side of the booth. "Coffee for me."

The waitress looks at me as I sit.

"I'll have a coke."

She walks away.

Hink watches her disappear behind the busting station. "Not too shabby."

I giggle. "Don't think you're gonna get a side of that with your burger."

He looks at me. "Huh?"

I point to my ring finger.

"Oh. Did she?" He scrunches his eyebrows like he doesn't believe it.

"Pretty sure she did."

"Oh." He shifts in his seat. Folds his hands together on the table. "Third place, man. How you think you're going to do in the finals round?"

"Don't know. We'll just have to see." I smile.

"I'd be willin' to bet you'll clean up. You got some pretty stiff competition, but that kid that's in first, the one from Oregon, he's a little inconsistent. I think he's riding lucky."

"Really think so? I thought it looked like he was on his game."

"Well, he hasn't won anything to speak of. He screwed up a finals round for himself in Spokane. He said it was too much pressure."

I shrug. "First time for everything, I guess. What do you think of that kid from New Mexico? The one in second."

"Don't know much about him. He kinda came outta the blue."

"Well, hopefully I can keep up."

"If you can do this one and keep taking titles all summer, I bet you could get onto the Ford PBR circuit in no time. Hell, I'd be willing to help you get on any way I can."

"Seriously? When?"

"Whenever you want. You got the resume for it." He shrugs. "Need some of you young kids to keep us old farts in line. Keeps a fire lit under my butt, that's for sure."

I laugh. "Well, the kids have a lot to learn. Me included."

"I'd be willing to give you a recommendation. Show you to the right hands to shake."

"I might take you up on it."

He smiles. "Right on, bro. You just tell me when!"

"Where's the best place to start?"

"Well, most of us had to apply for a riding permit and do a certain riding series. After you make so much money, you become a PBR cardholder and get upgraded into another series. Right now, you start off in the Copenhagen Bull Riding Tour as a cardholder, which is where they pick riders for the big leagues. The Ford Tough series. I can't guarantee anything, but maybe I can help expedite things along."

"What, aren't there four different leagues you go through?"

He nods. "Yeah. Long as you keep making, what is it, 'bout twenty-five-hundred a year minimum, you keep your cardholder status. I'd be willing to bet you'll get up there pretty damned fast. You ride like a mad man."

I laugh. "Is that a bad thing?"

"Not at all. Just lookin' at you on a bull, you look like you could spit tacks." He smiles. "I just wanna be there when you're inducted."

I blink at him. "Inducted into what?"

"The hall of fame."

# # #

Last ride of CNFR. I'm neck and neck with the New Mexico kid. For coming out of left field, he's pretty damned good. If I want this buckle, I'm gonna have to keep my head in the game.

I bow my head, say my little mantra to the bull and pat it on the neck. I gotta respect this thing if I'm gonna make it. Even if I fumble this ride, I still have third place. I'm in first right now because the Oregon kid didn't fare too long on either of his last two rides.

I stare at my rank's stripes for a second, try to recall if I ever saw a brindle-coated bull that was this red. Try to calm my breathing, do this Zen thing Rook tried to teach me. Try to relax. I'm on a powder keg, and I'm going into this thing like I'm John fuckin' Wayne.

'Lem Taylor in chute three, and he's about to take a ride on Vixen's Wild Tiger. Lem is a sophomore representing Black Hills State University in lovely Spearfish, South Dakota. Mister Taylor is currently in first place. Give the boy a hand! Let's see if he can hang onto that spot.'

I hear Momma over the crowd. "Lets go, lets go, lets go! COME ON, LEM!"

I'm not used to this. It's the first time there've been TV cameras all over the place. There's a guy behind me, standing on the gate, taping me while I get ready for the ride. They broadcast CNFR on ESPN 2, sometimes. Makes me nervous. Wonder if Mattie's watching me right now.

One of the chute managers holds my rope straight up. I tug down on it to get my rosin, pull it out of his hand. I let go, he pulls it taut again. Holds it up for me. I run my gloved hand up and down the rope, kinda like I'm jerkin it. Put my free hand over the other one, run the rope a few more times. I put my hand under the rope resting against the bull's back, squeeze my hand closed a few times. The chute manager pulls up on the rope pretty hard, tries to get things nice and tight. He lays it over my glove, and I get as good a grip as I can. Tug up against my rope a little, put my free hand up. Work my hips in a little, squeeze my legs against his sides. Breathe in, breathe out. Like riding a shadow.



The bull turns straight out and lurches forward. He takes a few good bucks, knocks my hat clean off. Takes a wide turn to the inside, but it's doesn't feel like he's trying to get me down the well. He starts workin' the buck pretty hard. My arm's all over the place, and I catch my free hand coming down toward the bull. Comes a foot away from his back before he changes direction and jerkes me the other way. With that sort of momentum, that could have been a deek if I'd have touched him.

He's got my legs goin' good, too. I must look like a rag-doll right now. My hand's still wrapped pretty tight. I get in a few spur hits to get him riled up. This thing can do better, I can feel it. That's one thing that Hink said, I have an aggressive style. I'm gonna squeeze every bit of energy out of this flailing steak!

He jerks around again, makes my arm fly behind me a little. Something in my shoulder feels like it pops. Not like I broke or dislocated anything, but it's sore right now. Not unbearable, think he just twisted something funny. It's like when you hit your funny bone.

The buzzer.

He takes two more bucks before I decide to bail off the side. I spring to my feet and run forward a little bit. The bull stops bucking and runs toward the exit. Shakes his head when he goes through.

New Mexico's on his rank in the chute. As soon as I get off the arena floor, he takes his ride. I don't know why, but he falls off after about three seconds.

I just took the buckle with a pretty big lead!


Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!