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Mattie falls over on top of Ronnie, which knocks the gun outta Ronnie's hand. Ronnie's laying on his back, and Mattie's straddling him, slumped over, head down.
"MATTIEEEEEEE!" Feel my heart beating in my neck. A strange tingling over every square bit me. Numbness in my chest. It was meant for me. It should be me dying right now, not Mattie. I... fuck! I... I... I... I... Mattie... "M... Mattie?" I almost can't beleive what I'm seeing.
Mattie, he sits up. Slowly.
Ronnie's jaw shakes like he wants to say something.
Mattie pushes himself up on his hands. Stands up. He looks down on Ronnie, then over at the shotgun. He leans over and picks it up. Holds it across his arm. He opens the stock, takes the shells out. Turns around and sets it on the bed. Relaxed as can be.
Ronnie sits up.
Mattie turns toward him. Keeps looking down on him for a minute. Raises his arm up and drops a hard backhand across Ronnie's face. "Lem, you okay?"
I can hardly hear him. Shake my head all over the place. "I don't know. I feel sick." I could have lost him. For good this time. This kid would have taken a bullet for me. He would have died for me.
"Did he get you?" His tone is so calm. Him and Ronnie, they just keep staring at each other.
"I... I don't think so." I feel like I'm gonna hurl.
Mattie backhands him again, and Ronnie doesn't even try to stop it. "What the FUCK is wrong with you?"
Ronnie shakes his head, mumbles.
"You could have killed someone, you stupid shit!"
"I... I wasn't gonna do it. I was just tryin' to scare him." I think it scared Ronnie more than anyone.
Mattie throws the spent shell casing at him as hard as he can. "You weren't gonna do it? Then why ta' hell would you even think about loading it?" He jams two fingers into Ronnie's forehead. "You know better'n that!"
"Mattie... they was blanks."
"You can still fuckin' kill someone with blanks! You think I'd go and wave a gun in Jenny's face?" He smacks Ronnie up-side the head a few times. "DO YOU? FUCKIN' DO YOU?"
I can see it in Ronnie, now. That same scared little boy that hides in Mattie from time to time. Confused and scared.
Mattie holds out a hand for him.
Ronnie just stares at it.
"Get yourself up."
Ronnie hesitates. They grab each other at the wrist, and Mattie helps him to his feet.
Mattie's an inch taller than Ronnie. He looks so much more intimidating right now than I ever imagined he could be. Could be on account of Ronnie looking a little shriveled up. "I thought you were better than this, Ronnie. I used to look up to you, and... and want to be like you. You were so brave and goodhearted. I don't even hafta tell you how disappointed I am." He shakes his head. "What are you even doing here right now?"
"Came back to get some stuff. I... I saw him laying and I saw red. Mattie, I just wanted him to know I meant business..."
"That's enough." He hugs him. "Don't think I'm ever gonna forgive you for this. You go upstairs and get your shit. Go back to your family where you belong. You brought another life into this world, now go take some fuckin' responsibility. Go on and stop worrying yourself about me." He pushes Ronnie back. "Go."
Ronnie backs up. Blinks at me a few times, starts for the door with a sad look in his eyes.
He looks over his shoulder at Mattie.
"You so much as raise an eye to Lem in a way I don't like, believe you me, I'll beat the living fuck outta you. Clear?"
He kinda nods. Turns and walks off with his tail between his legs.
Mattie stands there for a minute. Stares at the door.
My blood pressure must'a dropped or something. I'm freezing. Shivering.
He falls back and sits on the bed. Rests his elbows on his knees and holds his head.
It takes me a bit to get myself up. Stagger around a little. Feel light headed. I sit down next to him. "Mattie, your arm is bleeding."
I can barely see it in this light. Looks like a big bruise and a small cut on his bicep. A small trail of blood running down the side of his arm. "I think it was the wadding. The muzzle-flash must'a burnt my arm a little."
"Do you need to go to the hospital?"
He looks at it. Pokes it. "It's only a little cut. It'll be fine." He bites on his bottom lip. "Maybe it'll make a scar. Something I can remind Ronnie of next time he gets outta line."
I hear the door upstairs open and close. Hear Ronnie walk down the steps on the porch.
Mattie falls apart. Leans against me and starts bawling into my neck.
My adrenalin crashes. It hits me, everything that's just happened. It's not long before I'm crying with him.
# # #
A rider's worst ride are the bulls who like to drift across the arena and keep to the inside. There ain't no time for consideration, it's gut reaction from gate to buzzer. If a bull wants you on the inside of his spin, he's wants to hurt you. He's gonna try everything to get at you. A bull that jumps away from you is dangerous. Hell, they're all dangerous.
# # #
I lean over and try to get my hands under an irrigation pipe. The pistol strapped to my belt digs into my leg. Pain in the ass. It's loaded with snake shot. Gotta have it when you're workin' out in the fields in case you come across a rattler. I can't imagine why, but lately guns make me nervous.
"Lift with your knees!" Ol' Man Riddle stands up on his ATV and crosses his arms. Bigger pain in the ass. This job'd be fine if he wasn't over my shoulder micro-managing everything.
I put some heft in it. Pull it over to the side a bit so I can get it out of the collar. We have to get this thing rebuilt by day after tomorrow so the sun doesn't scorch his potato yield. Bad enough the engine burnt out in the wheel carriage, but he wants to move the whole fuckin' rig to a better spot.
A snake darts out of the pipe and right across my boot. Makes off in the bush. I jump back. Lift a foot. "Scaly little... shit!"
"It's just a bull snake. Quit'cher dancin' around! Don't dent that pipe or it's comin' outta yer hide!"
I drag the pipe over to the trailer on the ATV. At least he's not making me drag the whole set across the field pipe by pipe. These things're fuckin' heavy. My back's startin' to ache. At least it's only a week worth of piping work before we start doing other shit.
I run my arm across my brow and wipe off the sweat. Walk over to the next pipe, undo the collar and start pulling it out. The next one is connected to the pump.
"Soon as we get that last one off there, we'll disconnect the one on the other side and I'll run the damned thing to Big R, see if I can get it fixed. When you get it on the trailer, we'll call it fer' lunch."
I nod. Pull the pipe to the trailer and hoist it over the others. Lift the back end and get it even. I hear a truck comin' up the road and stop. I turn around and see Mattie leaning up against the fence next to the road.
"Hey, Shadow." I start workin' the collar on the pump.
"Came down to see if you'd be free for lunch." Mattie nods at Ol' Man Riddle. "Mister Riddle."
Riddle just grunts.
"I gotta get this Poweroll loaded so he can take it in for maintenance. Can't stop 'till then. This whole wheel line needs to be ready to go day after tomorrow." I yank the pipe and stumble back a bit. Some help Riddle is.
Mattie nods. "Can I give you a hand with that?" He looks at Mister Riddle. "Two hands make for quick work."
"Maah!" The guy has enough gravel in his voice to match the waddle under his neck. Kind of reminds me of that Orville Redenbacher guy, only without the dorky glasses. He swats his hand through the air. "Suit yer'self." Senile ol' coot.
Mattie smiles and hops the fence.
I tend to the other end of the pipe and get a clean break from the carriage. Mattie gets it from the other side, helps me take it over to the trailer.
We get a few more pipes loaded before Riddle speaks up. "I think that's enough. I'm gonna park the truck down by that gate there. Ride over with me and when you get back, latch the damned thing up to the back of the outfit here and pull it over."
"Allrighty." I nod at Mattie. "Right back." I hop on the ATV behind Riddle.
He hits the gas and we go flyin' off. This dude's fuckin' crazy as hell. Gotta keep a good grip on this thing or you'll roll right off. He pulls up next to his truck. Gets off the ATV and gets into an old farm truck he's probably had longer than I've been alive. There's a trailer hooked up to it.
"We got tie-downs?"
Riddle slams the door, looks out the window the owly way he does. "They're in the toolbox." He nods at the back of the truck.
"Okay." I scoot up on the seat and take off.
By the time I get back to Mattie, he's already loaded two more pipes.
"Dude, you don't hafta do that."
He shrugs. "Ain't got nothin' better to do. Maybe he'd give me a job if he saw I was worth somethin'."
"You know how to hook this shit up to the Poweroll?"
"There's an eye-loop there. Think there's supposed to be some sort of cross-bar to hook it up to a ball hitch or something. Never had to do this kinda shit before."
"I think it's on the trailer with the pipes." I walk to the trailer and find a long metal bar. Hold it up and look it over. "If we can just figure this out, we're good for lunch."
# # #
I never really know where Jason is. Once in a great while he'll drop me a letter or a postcard. Or something else obscure from his travels around the world. I got something, made from silver, that came in pieces. I still can't figure out what the fuckin' thing is. I got one piece a month in a padded envelope for about a year. No note, no instructions, no nothing.
Chase thought it was Jewelry or something, but I just cant figure Jason sending me something like that.
I walk into the kitchen for breakfast and find a postcard sittin' on the table. About six women, all of them in burkas, standing on a beach. Across the bottom it reads Afghanistan Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition.
Jason and his tacky sense of humor.
I flip it over.
The babes await. I'm goin' undercover!! Heard you're riding a bull soon. Wish I could be there to see it. Keep out of trouble! Give Momma and Chase a hug for me.
Cpl. Jason Taylor
Momma walks in with a pack of bacon from the freezer in the mud room.
"When did Jason make Corporal?"
"Didn't Dad tell you? Said he talked to Jason a week ago right after he was promoted."
"Dad talked to Jason?"
"He called from somewhere in the middle east. Said they were putting him in Iraq pretty quick. He wasn't able to talk for long."
"Sounds like they're gonna make a career military man outta him."
"That's what I'm worried about."
"Did he say what he was doing there?"
She raises her eyebrows. Cuts open the bacon package. "A little of bullet dodging. A little hurry up and wait. He's got a small group of guys under him now. He was hardly able to take care of himself, and now look at him." Sounds like it's fraying on Momma's nerves. "How was your your first day of work?"
"Pretty good. Mattie showed up for lunch and ended up gettin' hired on."
She looks up. "Oh?" Goes back to her cookin'.
"Yeah. He helped me load up the rest of the irrigation pipe and we got it moved and set back up a full day early. I got 'bout half of it done before he showed up. Would have taken me most of today to get that all done, had Mattie not showed up."
"You didn't talk him into it, did you?"
"No. I told him he didn't need to help, and he just said he didn't have anything else to do."
"Well, you two don't be givin' that old man a hard time."
"We won't, Momma."
She points a spatula at me. "I'm gonna call him and make sure you guys aren't fartin' around."
I sigh. "Momma..." Put the postcard down on the table. "Ol' Riddle's pretty ornery, I don't think he'd let us fart around too much."
She cackles at me. "Good. Someone needs to keep you two in line."
God, if only she knew...
# # #
Mattie and I are brown-baggin' it today. Sitting on a hill behind Riddle's house. Enjoying every idle minute we can squeeze out of this lunch break. Mattie takes a bite of his sandwich.
"How's Ronnie lately? He looked a little off after that gun episode."
He shakes his head and swallows. "I won't even talk to him. He knows I'm plenty pissed. I mean, what if those were real shells? What if he'd killed one of us?"
"Thank God they weren't. How's your arm?"
"Little scab on it. Nothing bad at all." He eats a potato chip. "He looks lost, though. Almost defeated. By all accounts he should be happy. You know, feel blessed for what he's got."
"I think he was scared that he could have shot you."
"I was more worried about you."
"Shadow, you almost died because of me once."
"I'd die for you now."
"Mattie, I ain't worth shit. I'd rather you live and let me take the bullet. You deserve better than me, you know that?"
"I don't want anything other than you, Lem. I've known your heart before I could remember. I'll always love you, no matter where we go from here."
I eat part of my sandwich, just listen to the wind. Try to change the subject. "Think you and Ronnie'll ever patch things up?"
"It won't be any time soon. Depends on how he tries to make good."
"You think he knows? About us, I mean."
"Don't give a shit if he does, not that any of it matters at this point. I'm pretty sure he does, though. The letter was pretty obvious."
I sigh. "Yeah."
"What did you do with that, anyway?"
"It's in a safe place. Ain't nobody gonna find it unless I go crazy and start firebombing."
"I gave it to Reagan for safe keepin'. She's got it tucked away somewhere. Means too much to me to lose it."
He thinks for a minute. Nods his head. "Good call."
"Momma wasn't too happy when she found Jason's Penthouses, don't think I'd be able to explain my way outta that one, if she found it."
"I think I'd like to kiss you right now."
"Oh yeah? What's stoppin' you?"
"The fact that ol' grumpy pants is standing at the bottom of the hill."
# # #
Ol' man Riddle gave Mattie and me the rest of the weekend off, seeing as the Buck Moon festival starts tomorrow. I ride Tomorrow and maybe Saturday, if'n I can keep myself on top.
I think Mattie wants to go pokin' around the bush tonight. I intend to get some sorta pokin' done, at least after I get in some ride time down at the 4H later on today.
I hop outta the shower and dry myself off. The towel's starting to get a little smelly, so I suppose it's time to throw it to the wash. I get under the sink, find the last clean towel folded up in the small wicker basket Momma keeps down there.
I put on my favorite underwear, a clean undershirt, and try to fix up my hair. I have a nasty cowlick on the front of my head. Cant ever do anything with it. Maybe I should just buzz the shit off or somethin'. Go down the hall, close my door behind me. Get my pants on, my socks. I stand up and grab a clean shirt. I'm fixin' to throw it on when I hear two car doors close outside, one right after the other. I look over the windowsill.
There's a really nice white car parked in the driveway. A sedan. You'd probably never see something like that around a place like Burlee. Ain't practical. There're two guys dressed up in Military suits standing there. White hats, white pants, black coats. The one on the passenger side's a black guy. The one on the other side is fixing his hat while he walks toward the door. I can only see the top of his head.
There's a sinkin' feeling in me right now. Like the wood floors turn into quicksand. Two Marines on your front doorstep can only mean one thing. I yank my shirt on and dart out the door. Almost knock Chase over when I come through. I push her to the side. "Look out!"
She calls after me. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know yet." I start screaming. "Momma! MOM!" Go halfway down the steps, look over the banister to the living room. "MOM!"
She comes out of the kitchen holding a bowl and a washcloth. "What? What's wrong?"
My face tingles. "Momma, some military guys just pulled up in a white car. They're comin' up to the door."
She's slack-jawed. Looks at the door right before the bell rings. Gasps. She sets the bowl down on the hutch and walks to the door with slow steps.
I go down the stairs, skip every third one. Stand on the landing.
Chase starts coming down.
I hold up a finger and point at her, like I'm tellin' her to stay put. Stand behind Momma as she opens the door.
She's got the washcloth in her hands. Starts twisting it really hard.
The black officer is standing on the left facing us. The other officer has his back to us, looking off down the lane. The black guy takes off his hat. "Missus Taylor. I'm Corporal Freeman."
Momma sounds rushed. "Yes? Can I help you?"
"Your son, Jason, he's told me so much about you."
"Jason? Is he safe?"
Freeman looks over at the other guy, then back at Momma.
"Is Jason safe?"
The other guy turns around. "I'm just fine, Momma."
Momma stomps her feet, throws her hands in the air and screams. After a second, she almost goes through the screen door to get at him. "Jason!" Momma puts her hands on his sides, looks him up and down. Hugs him, then looks him over again to make sure she ain't dreaming. Hollers like a loon while she hugs him tight and rocks him back and forth.
Momma smacks him across the arm with the rag. "You scared the livin' shit outta me! Turd!"
Chase smiles and comes down the steps. I follow her onto the front stoop.
Figure I should introduce myself to Jason's friend. Hold my hand out. "Hi, I'm Lem."
He smiles. "Lamont." He's got a death grip on him, that's for sure. "You're the bull rider, are you?" I've never seen a colored man with dark green eyes like that. Handsome guy.
"Will be soon, I guess."
He turns to my sister. "You must be Chase?"
Jason winks at me. Holds his hand out.
I grab it and get pulled into a hug.
"How you doin', Kiddo?"
"Pecker-head. I thought you was a goner when I saw that fancy car pull up."
Momma puts her hand on my shoulder. "What are you doin' in town? I thought you were supposed to be in Iraq."
"We have some shore leave before we ship out." He smiles at me. "Didn't wanna miss Lem riding his first bull."
"Both of you, come on inside! Let me put on some more coffee. You just missed breakfast. If you two're hungry I can throw something on." She turns to Chase. "Sweetie, go get Dad outta the barn. Tell him there's some people here on business. Don't tell him who it is."
Chase giggles. "Okay, Momma."
Jason pushes a button on the keychain. The trunk pops open on the white car. He nods at me. "There's a few boxes in the trunk. Would you bring 'em in?"
"Careful. There's some breakable stuff in there."
I hurry over. I wanna sit down with Jason. Hear his stories. I know most of 'em are probably bullshit, anyway. He tells 'em like they're stories from a combat movie, but it's a good listen, and it sure makes Dad happy. I pull the boxes outta the trunk. They're pretty heavy.
I backtrack to the house. Use my back to push through the kitchen door. I set the boxes on the table and sit down across from Jason.
Momma's in the middle of fiddlin' with the coffee machine. "Is that your car, Jason?"
He just sorta laughs. "On my salary? Hell no, she's a rental. Wouldn't mind having one of those someday."
I lean forward on my elbows. "What is it?"
"Chrysler 300. It was either that or the PT Cruiser. Been out in the desert six months solid, so a little luxury's a nice change. Ain't that right, Lamont?"
He laughs softly. "Yes-sir'ee!"
Momma leans up against the counter and waits for the coffee to brew. "So, where're you from, Lamont?"
"Houston, Texas. Born and bred."
"I'd love to see Houston, sometime. Is this your first time in Montana?"
"Yes, ma'am. I've always wanted to visit this part of the country."
"I sure hope you're gettin' to see your family while you're on leave." Momma sure is a charmer. She could make anyone feel right at home. I'm sure a man like Lamont is gonna get a lot of stares in a town like this. Just don't get a lot of colored folk up this way. I don't think anyone would mess with the guy since most people in this town respect a serviceman.
"We've got a flight into Texas for a few days after this. It's just me and my mom at home, so I'm not really tied down." He smiles at Jason. "Go home and get me some soul food!"
Jason leans back with his hands behind his head. "That's one thing I sure missed was Momma's cookin'."
Momma pulls the pot off the burner. "You know, I bet'd be a great afternoon to pull out the barbecue."
Jason grins at Lamont. "Careful, she'll go and cook enough for the whole company."
I hear the back door open. Heavy footsteps in the mud room. Dad must be washing off his hands.
"We're in here, Gary." Momma offers Lamont the first cup. "Help yourself to the cream and sugar. I usually have mine nice and strong, so it's pretty much mud." She sets another cup down in front of Jason.
"Strong coffee's fine with me." He smiles at Momma. "Thank you, Missus Taylor."
Dad steps around the corner and stops. Chuckles softly when he realizes it's Jason sittin' there.
Jason stands up and walks across the kitchen. Gives Dad a huge 'ol hug.
"How you doin'?"
"Good, Dad." He takes a step back. "This is Lamont. We're in the same company."
Lamont stands up.
Dad reaches over and shakes his hand. "Good to meet you."
"Pleasure, sir." Lamont smiles and sits back down.
Jason walks around the table, sets one of the boxes down in front of me.
I stare at it.
"You gonna open it?"
"Am I supposed to?"
"Yeah. It's yours."
"Oh. Think I'm gonna need a knife or some scissors or something. Enough tape on this thing to hold Fort Knox together."
Dad hands me his pocket knife.
"Just be careful how you open it. Don't want to cut what's inside." Jason sits down and leans back in his chair.
I cut the tape around the edges. Pull the top off the box. There's tissue paper covering whatever's inside. I peel it back. Find dark leather. A lot of it. I pull it out and hold it up.
Dad slaps me on the back. "Well, how bout that, Lem? A new set of Chaps!"
They're all black leather with red stitching. A few red strands for the fringes, but mostly black. On the side of the leg, there's a big red symbol. Never remember what the damn things are called. "God, Jason. They're awesome!"
He nods at me. "Well, try 'em on!"
I stand up and start strapping them on. Buckle the straps. "They feel like they were made just for me! I love 'em!"
"They were made just for you. You'll have to wear them tomorrow."
Jason nods. "One'a the guys I went to boot camp with, his dad's a leather smith in Oklahoma. I was gonna wait until Christmas, but I thought this was good'a time as any. Called Momma and got the measurements. It's about two inches longer than they should be, so you can grow into them."
"Thank you, Jason. God, I don't know what to say."
Momma walks over and admires them up close. Points to the symbol on the legs. "You know what that is?"
"Sorta, can't remember what it's called."
"It's a fleur de lis." She looks up at Jason. "A really pretty one, too."
Jason smiles. "I remember you mentioned it. I looked it up on the internet. Though that was the coolest looking one. I think it was from the coat of arms for Firenze or something like that. Tuscany."
"Tuscany's in Italy, sweet pea."
Jason shrugs. "Close enough."
I start taking them off. "It's cool, but why the fleur de lis?" I crack a smile. These are the coolest looking chaps I've ever seen.
"Because we're French, Lem." Jason almost falls back in the chair. Catches himself and sits up.
Momma stares at the ceiling. "Let's see, my grandmother's grandma was born in Versailles."
Chase looks around. "I thought we were mutts."
"We are. I think about a quarter French on my side. Dad has some on his side. You'd be French, Spanish, Dutch, Iroquois, German... some sorta ragbag like that." Momma rubs the leather between her fingers. "I don't remember. I'll ask grandma next time I talk to her. She'd know." She looks me in the eye. "You take damn good care of these."
"Oh, I will." My heart wants to burst with pride. I feel myself grin from ear to ear. Chaps in the rodeo's like feathers to a peacock. I just got me some shiny new feathers.
# # #
I look at myself in the mirror. Put two fingers on my chin and pull my skin around to get a better look. It's not like I really need to shave at all, but when you've got a date with Lady Luck, you gotta to look your best. I have about two or three hairs on my chin. If I really let myself go, for, like, two months, I might get one of those fuzzy skeez 'staches. Hell, that's too redneck. Even for me.
Wipe the fog off the mirror again. Slather on some shavin' cream and make quick work of my face. Rinse it off. Put on a little after-shave. Stings like hell.
I comb my hair up nice. Go to my bedroom.
I got my clothes laid out on my bed. My Wranglers. A new shirt Momma got me to go with my chaps. Black with a red collar and cuffs.
Somehow I ended up with Mattie's underwear last night. Had me so worked up it's making me half hard just thinkin' about it. If I wasn't in such a hurry I might have had to throw some dice. I put them on, maybe for good luck. Don't think there's ever been superstition about a cowboy wearing his friend's underwear. They're just a little snug, but nothing too bad.
Pull on the jeans. A tank-top. My shirt. My belt. Wearing the buckle I won for Barebackin' last year. I sit on the bed. Put a red sock on my left foot. A dark blue one on my right. Black Nocona cowboy boots. I look around for my spurs, so I don't forget 'em. I know better than to wear them around the house. Black ridin' hat.
I'm wearin' so much black, I'm gonna end up lookin' like Johnny Cash.
I go to my dresser. Check my pockets and make sure there's no change in them. Go through my wallet and find a five dollar bill. Fold it in half, put it in my right back pocket. Gonna have Momma hold onto my wallet for me until I'm done riding. For safe keepin'. Hang grandpa's old crucifix from my neck and tuck it under my shirt. Never been very religious. It's just something I've always done. Ronnie has one too.
I open the door and head downstairs to meet my date for the evening. Miss Lady Luck.
# # #
I pace around behind the bullpen. Bull riding's coming up quick. Last night was a blur, keep playing it back in my head then remember I'm about to do something stupid. Well, most people think riding a bull is pretty stupid. Still respectable enough for a sport, though.
My arms and chest are numb. Feel these butterflies in my stomach that I know too well. Got my new chaps on. Number strapped to my vest. Neck collar fixed on.
Everyone's sittin' off in the stands. When I look over, Mattie's talkin' to Chase. Jason and Lamont are wearing some sort of Khaki uniform, chatting between Momma and Dad. Guess you wouldn't wanna come to a rodeo in a fancy suit like they came in wearing yesterday. Momma's holding the video camera. Try to catch that memory. Something to hold onto while we all get a little bit older.
A few cowboys walk toward me. I recognize one of them. Hinkley Miller. Goes by Hink. This guy was hot shit at CNFR when he was in college. Just got up into pro rodeo a few years back. Does okay with himself, but hasn't broken into the top ten just yet. You see him on the Versus channel from time to time, when they run PBR events. He was raised in Shelby, so once in a while he'll come back home and do these little podunk events. That's if he has the time.
The three of 'em, they lean up against the fencing next to me.
I try not to stare. I'd like to meet him, but I'd probably fuck it up and say something dumb. Don't wanna sound like a damn kid. I kinda look over outta the corner of my eye every so often.
"Cool chaps, kid."
I look over. "Huh?"
Hink's talkin' to me. "I said I like your chaps." He smiles. Kind of a goofy lookin' guy. Might have been slammed in the grill a few times by the random cow or buckle bunny. Guess it makes me realize how lucky I've been all these years. No broken bones, knock wood. Few scratches and bruises here and there. "You look a little green around the gills."
"Me? Heh. Sorry. Little nervous, I guess."
"What's your name?" He reaches across his chest and holds his hand at me.
"Hink." What did I just say?
"That's my name, kid." He laughs, smiles. "Try again."
That was embarrassing. "Sorry, just taken back a bit. I've read a lot about you. Seen you on the TV a few times." I should really shut up. "I'm, uh, Lem." Grab his hand and shake.
He pats me on the shoulder. "Why so nervous, Lem?"
"My first time on a bull." I shrug. "Can't imagine it'd be too much different than riding a steer."
"About the difference between a crashin' bus and a 747."
I frown at him.
"Don't worry 'bout it. Just remember which way's up and where the closest fence is and you'll be fine."
# # #
Shadow's wearing his old perfume. The flowery stuff that makes me miss him, even though he's right here. Soft skin, like peaches and cream. A flurry spins through me, like snowflakes on a breeze. A feeling like fire, like he's going to take me for the ride of his life.
The gates in the run slam. Bulls channel through, filter to their pens. Grunting and stomping. Smells like shit. I'm lookin' at a brindle animal with a few scars. He's not just another bull, he's my first bull. A flurry spins through me, deep and troubling like snow in a blizzard. A icy feeling like fire, like he's gonna take me for the ride of my life.
I straddle Mattie's hips. Feel his bare skin against mine. Rub my hands under his wife-beater, feel up his sides. Feel his pride underneath me, pressing against me. He holds my hips, pulls down on them a little. Mattie calls out to the Gods.
I crawl the gate and mount up. Slide in on the narrow, behind the hump on his neck, so he can't squish me. Hug the rank with my legs and squeeze. Lean down a little to get the other side of my rope. Swallow my pride and think about what's under me, how it can all come undone in less than a second. Pray to Gods I didn't even know existed. The spotter readjusts his grip on my shoulder straps. Lifts up on me a little.
I scoop up his shirt, from bottom to collar. Hold it in my fist and pull him up toward me. Press my lips to his. Pull against the shirt tighter as I take him. Get it all the way down and sit flat against his pelvis. Twist his shirt around so I'm holding it like a rope. Admire the tone of his belly.
I've practiced this half a dozen times today. It's different now. I get some slack on the rope, get the strap right where I want it. Got my little finger right on the middle of his back. Pull the rope tight across my hand, close my hand around the strap and pull it toward me a little. Wrap it around the back of my glove, go through my hand again and throw the tail over the side. Get it nice and tight. Slide up on my rope. Let my feet down.
I put my left hand up. Pull down on his shirt. He grinds into me. Arches his back. In and out. Roll my hips and take it all. Just enjoy the ride.
I hold my left hand out to the side a little, wiggle my hips and squeeze as tight as I can with my legs. Remember the feeling. Remember what I was told.
Like riding a fierce rank.
Like riding my fine cowboy.
'Over in the Pepsi chute, we've got eighteen year old Lem Taylor, from right here in Burlee, riding on Big Horn's Silver Chimera. This is Lem's very first Bull ride.'
"Oh, God. NNnnnnhhh. Do it!"
I half expect this to be in slow motion, like in the movies. The rank floats outta the chute, comes down on his front legs. Sound like a bass drum when he hits. Chaps flared out, stopped in time. Clods of dirt and mud just hanging on the air. The force of the landing rippling through the cow's muscle. Lines of snot afloat, right from the bull's nose--his ass-end just hovering there for a moment. His legs tucked up, slowly, slowly extending down to catch himself. The clock on the arena wall flashes. A millisecond changes over with a pounding beat. Then another. Then another.
This thing rips outta the chute like a banshee. I can just feel this animal's power underneath me. A keg of TNT with a lit fuse. Hard, jolting. It's not as graceful as a horse by any means. Goes for his first leap, so I pull against him and try to make like I'm tryin' to crawl over the front of the bull. Lean back on the rebound. Dig in with my spurs. Bam! Bam! Bam! Up and down, side to side. He's got me all over the place. Feel's like he's trying to shake my free arm right off'a my body. Disconnect me at the shoulder. An honest bull.
Been paying so much attention to the moment I didn't even notice the buzzer. Got a pickup man right next to me.
I open my hand and try to shake free of the rope. It clings to my hand pretty good. Too much resin. God, what the hell was I thinkin' when I did this up so tight? I try to yank my hand outta the loop and almost end up going over the other side. I throw myself onto the back of the horse and hold on.
He circles around and lets me off by a gate.
'Let's hear it for Lem Taylor. -- I'll tell you what, we've watched that boy grow up. He still holds a fourteen year mutton bustin' record here in Burlee!'
Look over my shoulder and make sure I don't have a bull chargin' toward me. I can hear people in the audience cheering, Momma over all of 'em. I hold my hat up in the air while I walk through the gate.
"You lucky little son of a bitch! You know what you just done?" Hinkley's walkin' toward me.
I smile. Feel like I'm burstin' at the seams. "I done covered my first bull!"
He grabs my hand and shakes it, slaps my shoulder with his other hand. "You just done covered a bona fide PBR bull with a sixty-eight percent buck-off rate."
"I did what?"
"Yeah. That one's in the top two-hundred standings. That's one hell of a first ride! You took that one like a real pro!"
I grin. "Well, shit!" Think for a second, if the bull hadn't rattled everything outta my head. "Why is there a pro bull here?"
"His contractor lives outside'a Great Falls. You get animals like that at these little things sometimes." He looks over his shoulder at the scoreboard. "Be proud of yourself, man. You're in fourth place. Looks like you're ridin' tomorrow."
Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!