JESUCRISTO ON a cracker! My ass bones are permanently connected to my back teeth. Happy effing birthday to me.
Maury Garcia hit the saddle again with a bone-jarring jolt. The sound of the horn signaling eight seconds prompted a flash of his teeth, and then he waved his hat an extra second for good measure, loosened his rope, and slid to the side of the fifteen hundred pounds of semimean he’d drawn for this round. Hope it’s good enough. The bull was big, shiny black, and scary-looking, but he wouldn’t get the highest score for this ride. Not enough spin.
Maury’s boots hit the dirt of the arena, and he moved fast toward the fence while trying to look like he wasn’t rushing at all. It’s all in the attitude, ladies and gentlemen.
The announcer yelled, “A classic ride from champion Maury Garcia. Give him a hand big enough to show how much you appreciate that talent, ladies and gentlemen.”
At the fence, Maury turned, gave a sweeping bow, úúthen stepped behind and hopped up on top to receive his score.
His right-hand guy, Earl Westerman, came up to the fence. “Good one.”
“Thanks. Bull was pretty good.”
“You were great.” Earl punched Maury lightly on the arm with one of his big fists.
Maury smiled. Earl was somebody you went to for moral support, not objectivity.
Applause started as the announcer said, “The judges have awarded that classic Garcia ride with 92.5.”
Earl grinned, an expression that lit up his plain, everyman face. “See. I told you.”
Maury shrugged. “Good enough for now.” But it was a gift for sure. Maybe the judges knew it was his birthday. Right. That news he didn’t share with anybody.
A heavily accented voice over his shoulder said, “So the judges gave you another package in a big bow, right, Wetback? You’d think they’d be professional enough to not be impressed by your reputation.”
Maury didn’t even have to turn to face the tall, handsome, meaner-than-any-pissant-bull Brazilian, but he did. “You think you can do better, Cheeses?” The guy’s name was Xesús, but in that language it sounded like “Cheeses” to Maury. So what if he exaggerated the pronunciation?
Maury showed lots of enamel, and Silva gave it back. He and Xesús Silva pretended they were just kidding with their snark. In real life it was dead-on serious. The dude thought he was Jesus in the flesh. The fact that he was one of the few guys who could screw Maury’s chances at being world champion that year didn’t help.
“On the bull I drew, man, I can ride circles around you. Hell, my kid brother could beat you.”
“I’ll be watching with interest, Cheddar.” Maury gripped his lucky gold medallion between two fingers and slid it on its chain. Back and forth. It was one of the few reminders he had of his brother Ramon, and it soothed him.
Silva fought the grip of his black eyebrows and managed to conjure a smile that didn’t light up anything.
Earl said, “Hey, Silva, half your guys can’t even speak English. How come you do?”
“I’m smarter. And richer.” He cocked his Resistol over his eyes and walked away with a roll of his hips Maury couldn’t help but notice.
“Think he can do it?” Earl stared after Silva, who sadly was at least half as good as he thought he was, which made him very good indeed.
“You’re two points ahead right now.”
“Yeah, but he outscored me on the last round. On Ash Hat he could do better this round.”
Earl kept staring toward the pack of Brazilian riders grouped together near the bull paddock. “I hear Silva’s brother’s gonna compete as a rookie this season.”
Maury glanced over. “His brother’s no rookie. You’ve met him. Jose. Older than Cheez Whiz. Not as mean.”
“No, this is a younger brother. Hear he did real well on the Brazilian PBRA circuit, so he came north just this week. Since he’s starting late, he’ll get in fewer rides, but he’ll get experience.”
“Yeah, well, those Brazilians stick together.”
“I think it’s because they all live on that ranch during the season, while our boys go home.”
Maury shook his head. “They’ve gotta have some serious patriotism to put up with Xesús. I admire most of those guys. You can’t tell me they like him.”
“Nah. I hear a lot of them can’t stand him, but he’s pretty free with his fists, so most of them keep their mouths shut around him.”
Maury turned back to the arena. Another ride had gone by. The cowboy qualified but didn’t come close to Maury’s score.
The announcer called, “Next up on Ash Hat, from Salvador, Brazil, Xesús Silva.” The announcer pronounced it “Jaysus,” which made Maury snort, but he sobered as he stared at the latch man about to open the gate for Silva’s ride. Maury took a breath. He didn’t want to ask God for any special favors just because it was his birthday, but of course not wanting to and not doing it were two different things.
The gate flew open, and Ash Hat plunged straight out. That probably threw Silva off because this bull was a spinner. But to prove he was no predictable pussy, Ash Hat bucked forward, throwing out his hind legs like a sumbitch, one of the hardest moves to stay on. In midbuck, the damned bull seemed to levitate, then shift into a tight spin. Damned Xesús stayed on like he was glued to the bull’s back. Maury could practically hear the points adding up.
Earl shifted uncomfortably next to him. Yeah, he knew how the ride was scored same as the next man, and he saw Maury going down in flames.
Just to make Earl feel better, Maury said, “No worries. We’ll get him next time.” Maury clasped his lucky medallion, dragging it back and forth. It was early in the season. Plenty of time to grind that Brazilian to dust. Plenty of time to win—even if he was fucking thirty years old. I could have gone all night without remembering that.
Ash Hat spun and bucked and Silva waved his black hat like the champion he wanted to be.
Wish I could walk away. He slid the medallion against his cheek.
Suddenly a sparkle of light flashed across the arena. Silva seemed to look, blink; his free hand sailed in an arc and slap! He touched the side of the bull.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd as the horn sounded eight seconds.
Maury stared around. Wait, what?
Some people cheered, but the crowd was buzzing.
“Silva slapped.” Earl practically bounced. “Did you see that? He touched. He’s disqualified.”
As Silva slid off the bull and the bullfighters went to work, the judge tapped the back of his hand.
Holy shit, it’s a disqualification. Happy birthday to me.
Most of the crowd groaned, a few cheered, and Silva glowered as he walked through the fence.
Maury shook his head. “That was weird.” Then he grinned. “But it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
He climbed off the fence, turned, and—wham! Screaming in Portuguese, Silva launched himself at Maury and slammed him to the ground.
“What the hell? Get off me, you asshole!” Maury brought up his hands to defend himself. Silva had maybe an inch on Maury, but Earl had a good fifty pounds on both of them, and he reached down and hauled Silva back.
A wet, spitting cat had nothing on Silva. “You cheated! You did it on purpose. They should disqualify you!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Maury hauled himself off the ground and wiped the dust from his jeans.
From behind Maury, a voice said, “I’d like to know that too.” Maury glanced at Harve Elkins, one of the directors of the PBRA.
Maury shook his head but said nothing.
Silva pointed at Maury. “He blinded me.”
Harve frowned. “Seem to see okay to me.”
Silva wiped a hand dramatically over his face. “While I was riding. He flashed a mirror to distract me. I lost my way and touched the bull. I would never have slapped without his interference.”
“Where would I get a mirror, for fuck’s sake? You’re making this shit up.”
Harve walked a couple steps closer to Silva. “Guys try to distract each other sometimes. It may not be good sportsmanship, but it’s not against any rule I’m aware of, so even if Maury did do something, there’s nothing I can do to him. Whatever it was might have come from the crowd. Woman’s lipstick or something. You’re a good rider, Silva. Nothing like a flash of light ought to bother you.” He took off his hat, slapped it against his leg a couple of times, and then turned. “Kiss and make up.” He walked away.
Silva didn’t even try to pretend. He raised a lip. “Cheating coward.”
“I did nothing to you, Silva. Nothing.”
“I saw that light come from right there.” He pointed toward the fence where Maury had been sitting. “But don’t worry. When I’m done, you won’t need glasses to see me at the top of the score sheet. We’ll see who sucks it up then, loser.” He stalked away.
Maury watched him go almost in disbelief. “Where in hell did he get that burr up his butt? Does he just want to blame something on me so bad he made it up?”
Earl reached out and picked up the medallion around Maury’s neck. He held it toward the overhead lights, and a small flash glinted off the ceiling far above.
Maury stared. “I’ll be a son of a bitch.” Ramon had given him a birthday present.
Like some agreement from heaven, his phone rang. Maury looked at the phone, glanced a little uneasily at Earl, and answered. “Sí, querida Mamá.” He walked over by the fence and faced it to get a little privacy from the hordes of cowboys and owners rushing around gathering up equipment.
Five or six voices started singing “Happy Birthday to You”—badly.
Maury laughed. “Thank you, thank you.”
They finished the song, off-key and not together. His youngest brother, Antonio, yelled, “How’d you do, bro?”
“I took first place this round.”
A few voices cheered.
Antonio said, “I knew you would. Nobody beats a Garcia.”
Sadly, that made him think of Ramon, who sure as fuck had been beaten, but he pushed down the thought.
His mama said, “So what are you doing to celebrate your birthday besides riding large, mean animals?” She didn’t love what he did for a living despite the relative luxury it provided for the family. “Do you have a date?”
He didn’t sigh so loud she could hear. “I’m just trying to forget it all.” He gave Earl another glance. “No celebrations in order.”
“You’ve achieved great success for one so young, hijo. Be grateful to God.”
“I am, Mamá. Believe me.” But he couldn’t force himself to be grateful for the downhill slide he could expect over the next decade. Few bull riders competed successfully after forty. Hell, making it that far would be a miracle, considering how many bones he’d broken since he started riding at six. Sadly, he had nothing else he wanted to do, even if he’d been qualified.
“Good, hijo. Gratitude must be your religion.”
“I know, Mamá.” Neither of them added “Since nothing else is.”
“Find a nice girl, Mauricio. Settle down. You’ve done enough bulling.”
He snorted. That was certainly true. “I’m not trained for anything else, Mamá. You know that. I need to work longer so we can all live comfortably.”
“Get married at least.”
“It’s hard to meet nice women in this business.”
“My point exactly.”
“Enough, Mamá, please.” He let her hear the sigh this time.
“I’m sorry, querido. I didn’t mean to berate you on your birthday.”
Antonio snarked, “No, she’ll wait till your birthday’s over.” Then he laughed wildly. “She’s saving up for tomorrow.”
“As I said, I’m sorry. Happy birthday, my son.”
The group yelled happy birthday again and then hung up.
When Maury turned, Earl was grinning like a loon. Well damn.
“How come you never told me it’s your birthday?”
Maury shrugged. “I didn’t tell anybody. She’s my mother. She was there.”
Earl stepped beside him. “Come on, I’ll take you out for a drink for your birthday.”
Maury slapped his hat against his thigh, then fit it back on his head. “No need. Getting older’s no cause to celebrate in this business.”
“Hey, I could argue that, but how about I buy you a drink to toast your win today.”
Maury’s lips turned up tightly. “Apparently, I even got that by cheating.”
Earl chuckled. “More like the gods of bull riding saying Silva was too obnoxious to win. Come on.”
Maury let himself be led to the contestants’ exit and then outdoors. He stared around at the parking lot and the flat lands and low-rise buildings beyond. “Where the hell are we again?”
“Someplace in Texas.” Earl laughed again. “Come on. There’s a bar nearby.”
“Will a lot of the riders be there?”
“Probably, but there’s not a lot of drinking holes to choose from.”
They hurried through the fast-dropping temperatures of a Texas February, climbed in Earl’s rented SUV, drove for about two minutes, and pulled into a crowded parking lot, full of trucks for the most part. Maury glanced around. “I don’t know, Earl. I’m not crazy about seeing every cowboy from at least two countries tonight.”
“No help for it, man. Can’t get a drink in Texas without a cowboy.”
He sighed. “Okay.”
Cowboys and their girls were walking into the bar, some of the men with the compact bodies and athletic roll to their walk that said bull rider. If a rider was over six feet, he was pretty much a giant in that business. When Earl held the door and Maury walked in, a few guys looked up, and a couple started to clap. Not really what he’d wanted, but Maury gave a smile and touched his hat brim.
A pretty dark-haired waitress either recognized Maury or got a misimpression he was important from the reaction because she hurried over. “I’ve got a good table for you right back here.”
“Thanks, ma’am.” They followed her to what was a really good table away from the band and the crush at the bar. Wonder who she chased away to give it to us.
Maury took the corner seat facing the room and ordered a beer.
Earl put a hand on his arm. “Don’t you want a margarita or something? Come on, it’s your birthday.”
Maury shook his head. “Gotta ride.”
Earl raised his eyebrows. “Okay, guess I’ll have a beer too.”
The waitress grinned. “Okay, two beers. And happy birthday.” She waggled her fingers as she walked through the crowd toward the bar.
Maury stared around the room, nodding toward men he knew. In the opposite corner of the big room, a group of Brazilian riders sat around a table together. He couldn’t hear them, but he knew they were chattering in Portuguese since some of them didn’t speak much English. No matter what language they spoke, the Brazilians still won a helluva lot.
Earl punched his arm. “Hey, man, what’s the big deal about having a birthday? You’re young. I mean, I’m gonna be thirty-five. You know what they say. Birthdays are better than—”
“—the alternative. Yeah, I know.”
The waitress brought the beers and a plate of french fries that she’d managed to bury a birthday candle in. “Happy birthday to you….”
She sang off-key, but people from a couple of surrounding tables picked it up, and pretty soon half the room was singing. Hell, a lot of them probably had no idea whose birthday it was. Enough beer would do that.
He wanted to say, “Fuck that fucking song,” but he didn’t. He smiled, blew out his candle with only the wish that they’d stop singing, picked up a fry, and waved it in the air before taking a big bite that got laughter and applause.
Someone yelled, “Speech. Speech.”
No effing way. Maury shook his head.
“Come on, Garcia. Tell us how it feels to get old—er.” That came from Andy O’Hara, one of the ranked riders who never managed to beat Maury.
“I guess what they say about getting better must be true, right, O’Hara? How else can you explain it?”
The girl sitting with O’Hara gave Maury a smile. “Better. Definitely better, baby.”
O’Hara glared at the girl, but he kept smiling at Maury.
The front door of the bar opened. Maury looked over. Oh shit.