At the last possible moment, ever so casually, Jeff Stratton raised his arms over his head and leaned his chair back, making a big show of stretching while he stuck his foot out directly into Clay Harris’s path.
Clay tripped over it and growled, “Grow up, you fucking asshole!”
“Up yours, Harris,” Jeff said with an amiable grin. “Where’s your fucking reflexes?”
“Stand up and make your argument if you want to try your luck so bad!”
Another voice joined into the fray. “If you two are lookin’ for trouble, save it for the ring,” Sam rebuked the two young riders. “Your bull’s up in two, Clay.”
“Tell it to Stratton; I was on my way,” Clay muttered. He kicked at the other man’s boot, smirking at the muffled yelp when he clipped Jeff’s anklebone.
“Hey, I didn’t try to kill you before your ride!” Jeff yelled.
Clay gave him the finger over his shoulder without turning around as he walked away.
“Why do you always have to start?” Sam stood with his arms crossed looking down at Jeff rubbing his ankle.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jeff looked up, his face full of naïve incomprehension.
“You don’t win extra points for injurin’ another rider behind the scenes,” Sam said dryly. “The only action that counts is in the ring.”
“It’s a competition.” Jeff shrugged, dropping the innocent act. “All’s fair in love and war, and bull riding is total war, man. Anyway, he does his share.”
“A real man doesn’t just want to win by any means.” Sam turned to leave but stopped when Jeff grabbed his arm.
“Then tell me what a real man wants, if it’s not just about the win!”
Sam stared pointedly at Jeff’s hand until the younger man let it fall. “What makes it worth the win is beatin’ another man when he’s in top form. Not chippin’ away at him until he’s so distracted he’d fall off a tame little pony.”
“Concentration’s all part of the game. If he can’t keep his mind on the ride….” Jeff shrugged.
“You think Doug Morgan ever fucked around like you?”
“He’s your friend; you’re not going to diss him,” Jeff complained in a low voice.
“He’s one of the greats. He didn’t need any penny-ante tricks to make his ride.” Sam watched the slow rush of color in Jeff’s face. “You could be too if you stopped this bullshit and just got on with the job.”
“You really think….” Jeff bit his lip, embarrassed about asking for Sam’s reassurance, but the other man had been around rodeo all his life, and he knew good riding when he saw it.
“It’s up to you. When you decide to put your money where your mouth is, I expect you may turn out to win a few buckles.” Sam chuckled as Jeff stuck his chest out without even knowing he was doing it. “You and Clay Harris. You’re both young, but if you don’t get hurt too bad, you got a career ahead of you.”
“Clay Harris?” Jeff scoffed, as if the mere thought of Clay being on the same level as him was inconceivable even though he did secretly admire the other rider.
Sam sighed. “Grow up, Jeff. And leave Clay alone, especially before he rides, or I’ll sanction you.”
Jeff watched the older cowboy walk toward the ring, knowing he would do as he said. He couldn’t even hold a grudge; Sam was like the elder statesman of the bull-riding circuit, and no one in their right mind would challenge him.
He followed Sam out to the ring and shouldered his way to the fence. Terrence was giving a poor showing in the ring, flopping around on the back of a bull that didn’t seem much interested. “How long?”
BJ answered without looking at Jeff. “He might make it to the horn, but he’s not making any points.”
As Terrence slumped forward, the bull snapped its head back, and Terrence jerked his head back to avoid the horns, sliding into the well and pitching straight off the back end of the animal. He landed face down in a cloud of dust. Two of the bullfighters were immediately out in front of the bull, chivvying it toward the gate, while one of them grabbed the back of Terrence’s pants, hoisting him to his feet.
Jeff laughed as Terrence got up with a grimy face. “Caleb better get clown combat pay for babysitting sequin-boy.”
The audience hooted as the announcer said, “Not enough bull to get into the money. No score this round for Terrence Gilbert on Weedwhacker. Up next is Clayton Harris. It’s early in the season yet, but Clay’s already in the top five on the leader board.”
“Weedwhacker? Should have been named Eat Dirt,” Jeff cracked.
Sam snickered but didn’t look over.
BJ said, “Makes you wonder why Terrence wears those sequin-trimmed chaps. Only gets them dirty whenever he falls off.”
Jeff shrugged. “Who’s Clay riding?”
“Eggboiler, I think.”
“Eggboiler? Who would name their bull Eggboiler?”
“I dunno. Eggboiler, Firestarter, something like that,” BJ said. “I only know the names of the ones I’m riding.”
“Yeah, right.” BJ was notorious for obtaining video clips of all the bulls on the circuit and taking notes, so Jeff wasn’t buying it for a second. “What’s Eggboiler’s record?”
“He can be rode,” BJ admitted. “But he’s tough. Clay stands to make some points if he can stick on him.”
Jeff clenched his fists unconsciously at the commotion in the chute. He could see Clay’s head and shoulders jerk as the bull slammed against the sides. “Hope he does.”
BJ looked at him incredulously and put out a hand to his forehead. “You running a fever, boy?”
“What?” Jeff batted his hand away, cursing his pale skin and hoping he wasn’t getting red again.
“You want Clay to score? I thought you wanted to beat him bad.”
“I want to beat a man at his best, fair and square.”
“When did you get religion?”
Jeff knew he was turning red, but he met BJ’s eyes. “I may like to pull a guy’s leg, but I wouldn’t really do anything to mess up their ride.”
BJ studied him for a moment before nodding. “Knew that about you.”
Jeff was glad the heart-to-heart was over. What was it today that everyone was helping him to the nearest couch and going all headshrinker on him? “There he goes.”
Firestarter went airborne right out of the gate like a fighter jet launched off a carrier. Clay stayed with him, his body in a nice, tight formation, his head centered over his torso. He could feel the tense and release of steely muscle between his legs as the bull hit the ground and took off again.
Firestarter jerked his head to the left and circled once, stopping short to snap his head to the right and repeat the maneuver. Clay started to grin. Firestarter was a tough and canny bull, but he was in the zone today; he could feel it. The action felt like slow motion to him; he could feel it in his body the instant the bull changed directions. His abdomen tightened as the bull kicked up his back legs and lurched to the right. Timing it just right, Clay shifted with him, keeping his torso upright in the saddle.
He heard the horn go in the distance, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t want this ride to end, it just felt so good. Firestarter was of a different opinion, however, and he ran for the side of the ring, whirling at the last moment to try to slam Clay’s leg against the fence.
Clay was ready for him and let go of the rope, leaping for the top rail of the fence and kicking loose of the bull. He balanced like a tightrope walker for a moment before doing a backflip into the ring, to the audience’s delight. The clowns ran out in front of the bucking animal and herded it toward the gate. Clay climbed back onto the fence and straddled it, waiting for his score.
His chest was heaving, but he was smiling when he heard it: 91.25. “Beat that, Jeff Stratton,” he muttered under his breath.
Clay flushed horribly when he heard the announcer go on, telling the crowd that Jeff Stratton was the only cowboy there likely to beat that score and that the two of them were in the top five and had a heated rivalry on the circuit, always trying to outdo one another. He’d hoped their private competition would stay that way, but rodeo was worse for gossip than any ladies’ tea party.
“Congratulations, Harris. Nice ride, despite the openin’ entertainment.”
Clay turned to see Sam holding out his hand. He shook it. “Thanks, Sam. I appreciate it, coming from you.”
“Came from the judges too. They seemed to like it, or you wouldn’t have scored so big.” Sam nodded approvingly at him and walked away.
Clay ambled over to where BJ and Terrence stood at the fence line. “Hey.”
“Hey. Nice ride. Didn’t even have to brush yourself off.”
The twinkle in BJ’s eyes told Clay the jibe was meant for Terrence rather than him. He was amused to see that Terrence had taken the time after his ride to wash his face and neck thoroughly. Probably slicked a comb through his hair too, although under the hat he couldn’t tell.
“Bull was well trained. Give a cowboy a ride and then deliver him right over to the sidelines after the horn blows,” Clay said.
BJ squinted, peering at Terrence. “You remember to wash behind your ears like your momma told you?”
“Is it a crime to like to be clean?” Terrence clenched his fists defensively and walked away.
“Man, he’s fun to ride,” Clay commented.
“More fun than Stratton?” BJ asked.
“With Stratton it’s not a game.”
“You two should have your own private rodeo.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“None of the rest of us have cracked 90 this year yet, and the two of you go on like there’s nobody else on the circuit.”
“Season’s young. You topped 90 last year, BJ. You will again,” Clay said, sensing what bothered BJ the most.
“Thanks. I hope so too, but when I do, tell Stratton he better not trip me up on the way to the ring.” BJ touched his hat and sauntered off to find his first ride.
Clay didn’t know the other riders lined up along the fence very well yet, and that let him feel free to study Jeff’s ride without having to make conversation. BJ was right; he did see Jeff Stratton as his primary competition this year, but that didn’t mean another rider might not hit a hot streak or that Jeff could get injured, which would take him out of the game. Clay never thought about getting injured himself; ideas like that could make you overly cautious, and bull riding was no place for a careful man.
Jeff was mounted on Under Eight, a bull that was famed for getting rid of its riders in under the required time to earn a score. When he nodded and the gate opened, Clay could see that the bull was every bit as tough as Firestarter. If Jeff managed to stay on for the full eight, unlike most of the bull’s past riders, he would earn a high score even if he didn’t put on that good a show.
Clay had to admit Jeff was giving the audience the price of their tickets though. Unlike Terrence, who could stick to the back of an animal but tended to flop there like a rag doll, Jeff looked as if he were part of the bull. There wasn’t much air between his Wranglers and the saddle when the bull left the ground, and his hips moved smoothly with every motion, swiveling to meet each snap and turn.
In spite of the competitive spirit that thrived between them, Clay had to admire the way the other man could ride. And Jeff was up there smiling and grinning as if he felt the same exuberant joy on board the bull that he did. Clay didn’t want to admit they were anything alike, but maybe he was just fooling himself.
They didn’t look anything alike; Clay was stocky and sandy-haired where Jeff was dark with stick-straight hair and a bit slimmer, although still tough. They had one thing in common though: both of them liked to win.
The horn blew, and Jeff kicked free, sliding off the right side of the bull, which managed to turn its head and butt him in the rear before being drawn off by the bullfighters. The crowd in the stands laughed when Caleb chased Jeff, pretending to kick his rear also, and Clay sniggered at the thought of how mad that must have made Jeff. He would have hated it himself: to have a ride like that end in a head butt to the butt. Then he laughed out loud with delight; Jeff’s ride was close, but he had scored only 91.0. Clay was the winner for the day.
“Watch your back, son; he’ll be gunnin’ for you tomorrow,” Sam advised as he passed by and saw the triumphant look on Clay’s face.
“Let him. I enjoy beating a man when he’s on the up,” Clay said.
BJ and Clay grabbed a table at the Save a Horse saloon that night because the cowgirl groupies were out in force. As they’d hoped, two pretty girls came by soon enough, each holding two mugs of beer.
“Is this seat taken?” the girl with brown hair asked.
Clay obligingly shoved over on the bench seat. “Just waiting for you, darlin’. I’m Clay. That there’s BJ.”
“Doris,” the girl said. She sat down and pushed one of the beers in front of Clay. “I saw you ride today.”
“Oh yeah? How’d you like it?”
“You got the top score today. Firestarter’s a tough bull.”
“You follow bull riding?” Clay noticed that BJ and the blonde girl were getting acquainted as well.
“Duh. Yeah, or would I be here now?” Doris smiled provocatively at him, and Clay knew he could have her tonight if he wanted.
“You like a winner?”
“Don’t all girls?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Clay’s attention was drawn across the room by Jeff’s distinctive laughter. He was sitting with a cute girl who was listening to him attentively as he described how he’d held back today but was going to beat Clay tomorrow.
“Excuse me,” Clay said. “Something I gotta take care of.”
“You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Doris pleaded, not standing up to let him out of the booth.
“Sure thing,” Clay promised vaguely. Once Doris stood up to let him by, he forgot all about her, his sights set on the girl sitting with Jeff. He crossed the room and held out his hand to her. “Clay Harris. Noticed you across the room. What’s a pretty little thing like you doing with a broke-down cowboy like him?”
The girl looked up at him, her eyes widening when she saw who it was. “Melissa Harden,” she said, flicking a triumphant look across the room at Doris.
“Clay, go tend to your own heifer and leave mine alone,” Jeff said with a hint of warning.
“Pardon him, miss, he never learned that ladies don’t cotton to being called heifers,” Clay explained. “Let me buy you a drink.”
Melissa seemed amused at the evident conflict between the two men and a little thrilled to be the bone of contention at the heart of it. “I would be delighted. I had to buy this big lunk a beer.”
“Not very gentlemanly of him.” Clay held out his arm. “Come with me, Miss Mel, and we’ll have a fine old time tonight.”
Jeff stood up, frowning. “You can’t just come over here and take—”
“I’m not taking. I’m inviting.” Clay’s eyes danced at the impotent rage evident in Jeff’s. “It’s Miss Mel’s choice if she’s going with a gentleman or staying here with you.”
“Sorry, Jeff, see you around some time.” Melissa stood up and took Clay’s arm, giggling with delight. “Where we going, cowboy?”
“Wherever you like as long as it’s in Fresno,” Clay said.
“I’m hungry,” Melissa announced.
“Then we’ll go out and get something to eat. See you, Stratton.” Clay tipped his hat politely and escorted Melissa from the bar, never sparing a thought for Doris awaiting him in his booth. If he had thought about her, he would have just assumed that BJ would be double lucky tonight. For him, stealing Jeff’s girl out from under his nose just capped off a nicely winning day.