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"Where's your better half?" Bull rider Rusty McLean stopped next to Beau Adams in the cowboy-ready area of the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs. "Duke was makin' a run at the National Finals Rodeo this year, then he slipped off the radar. He get injured?"
Beau wished an injury had sidelined his twin from today's rodeohe was the only Adams competing this first weekend in October. He'd hauled Thunder Ranch bucking bulls, Bushwhacker and Back Bender, to the competition by himself. Duke, aka deputy sheriff had remained at home protecting the good citizens of Roundup while the Thunder Ranch hands had taken a string of bucking horses to a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming. Beau's father was off doing who knows what with his new lady friend.
"My brother quit," Beau said. In July, Duke had blindsided him when he retired from rodeo, leaving Beau to carry on the Adams' bull-riding legacy. He'd flipped out, angry that his brother had walked away from a possible world title when Beau had sacrificed so much for him. Beau had spent his childhood defending his twin when bullies had teased Duke about his stuttering. Standing up for his brother had carried into their teen years and when they'd reached adulthood, it had become second nature for Beau to make sure that Duke remained in the rodeo limelight.
"You're joking," McLean said. "Duke was ranked in the top ten in the country at the beginning of the summer."
"No joke, McLean. Duke's done with rodeo." Once Beau's anger had cooled, he'd realized Duke had never asked him for any concessions, which made Beau wonder why he'd allowed his brother to beat him in bull riding all these years. He had no one to blame but himself for the tight spot he was innot enough rodeos left in the season to earn the necessary points to make it to Vegas. Regardless, Beau was determined to salvage what was left of the year by winning a handful of smaller rodeos leading up to the Badlands Bull Bash and Cowboy Stampede in South Dakota the weekend before Thanksgiving. A first-place win would show rodeo fans that Beau Adams was a serious contender for next year's title.
"You're pullin' my leg, Adams." McLean stuffed a pinch of tobacco between his lower lip and gum. "Duke wouldn't throw away his points 'less'n he had a good reason."
The sooner the truth got out, the sooner Beau's competitors would forget his brother and take notice of him. "Duke's been bit by the love bug." At McLean's puzzled expression Beau clarified. "He got married."
"The hell you say. I didn't know he had a girlfriend."
"It happened fast." Crazy fast. So fast Beau's head still spun. Of all women to go and fall in love with, Duke had picked Angie Barrington, a single mom with a grudge against rodeo. She ran an animal rescue ranch outside their hometown of Roundup, Montana, and a few of her boarders happened to include horses injured in rodeos. Much to Beau's chagrin, Duke had traded in a trip to the NFR for a ring and instant fatherhood.
You're jealous. Hell, maybe he was. There must be a bug in the water back home, because Duke and all but one of Beau's cousins had married in whirlwind romances reminiscent of Hollywood movies. It irked him that Duke was all in love and Beau had yet to catch the eye of Sierra Byrne, a woman he'd been flirting with since spring.
"Too bad about Duke. His loss is my gain," McLean said.
"Don't get cocky." Beau grinned. "You gotta beat me to win that buckle." Buckle aside, Beau wanted to take home the prize moneythree thousand dollars. Not a fortune by any means, but with the tough economy, the cash would help pay a few ranch bills.
"Adams." McLean snorted. "You ought to know better than anyone that Bushwhacker's the best bull here. All I gotta do is make it to eight on him and the buckle's mine."
The braggart was rightBushwhacker was the top-rated bull at the rodeo. At five, he was a year older than Back Bender, but both were money bulls. So far this season, Bushwhacker had thrown every cowboy who'd ridden him and only one rider had made it to the buzzer on Back Bender. "The odds aren't in your favor, McLean."
"Ladies and gentlemen." The rodeo announcer put an end to the cowboy banter. "As was broadcast earlier, due to one of our stock contractors encountering a flat tire, the rodeo committee has switched the order of events. Bull riding will take place next, followed by our final event of the daythe bareback competition."
The crowd booed its displeasure, but quieted when the announcer continued his spiel. "You're about to witness some of the toughest and bravest men alive ."
Beau blocked out the booming voice and studied his drawGorgeous Gus. His new best friend was a veteran bull with a reputation for charging anything on two legs. Beau adjusted his protective vest and put on his face mask. He hated wearing the gear, but if he intended to win a title he'd sacrifice his vanity to remain healthy and injury-free. He climbed the chute rails and straddled the two-thousand-pound tiger-striped brindle Brahma-Hereford mix.
"Folks, I gotta say this next bull makes me nervous. Gorgeous Gus hails from the Henderson Ranch in Round Rock, Texas. Gus has already put three cowboys out of commission this season."
Music blared from the sound system but Beau kept his gaze averted from the JumboTron. He didn't care to watch as it replayed Jacob Montgomery's attempt to ride Gorgeous Gus in Denver this past July. Gus had thrown Montgomery and then, before the cowboy had gotten to his feet, the bull had gored his leg. A few seconds later the collective gasp that rippled through the stands sent chills down Beau's spine.
"Goin' head-to-horns with Gorgeous Gus is Beau Adams from Roundup, Montana. This is the first matchup between cowboy and bull."
Beau closed his eyes and envisioned Gus's exit out of the chute, but Sierra Byrne popped into his mind, interrupting his concentration.
"You ready, Adams?" the gateman asked.
"Not yet." Beau shook his head in an attempt to dislodge Sierra's blue eyes and flaming red hair from his memory. That he'd allowed the owner of the Number 1 Diner to mess with his focus didn't bode well for the next eight seconds. He flexed his fingers and worked the leather bull rope around his hand, fusing it to Gus's hide.
Breathe in out in out . The blood pounded through his veins like roaring river rapids after the spring snowmelt in the Bull Mountains.
I'm the best.
No one can beat me.
He repeated the new mantra in his headdifferent from his previous pep talks when he'd taken a backseat to his brother's performances. Since Duke's retirement Beau had won several rodeos, but the bulls hadn't been rank bullsnot like the notorious Gorgeous Gus. A bead of sweat slid down Beau's temple. In a few seconds, he'd know if he'd been blowing hot air when he'd sparred with McLean. Satisfied with his grip, he crouched low and forced the muscles around the base of his spine to relax, then he signaled the gateman.
Gus exploded from the chute, twisting right as he kicked his back legs out. Beau survived the buck and Gus allowed him half a second to regain his balance before a series of kicks thrust Beau forward and he almost kissed the bull's horns. Beau ignored the burning fire spreading through his muscles as he squeezed his thighs against the animal's girth.
The dance went on twist, stomp, kick. Twist, stomp, kick. Gus spun left then right in quick succession, almost ripping Beau's shoulder from its socket. Sheer determination and fear of being trampled kept him from flying off. The buzzer sounded and the bullfighters waved their hands in an attempt to catch Gus's attention.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Beau launched himself into the air. He hit the ground hard, the oxygen in his lungs bursting from his mouth like a six-pack belch. He didn't check on Gusa one-second glance might mean the difference between making it to the rails.or not.
Ignoring the sharp twinge in his left ankle, Beau rolled to his feet and sprinted for safety. The mask on his helmet obscured the barrier, making it difficult to judge the distance. When his boot hit the bottom rung, a hand crossed his line of vision and a hard yank helped him over the top of the gate just as Gus rammed his head into the rails, the impact rattling the metal.
"Holy smokes! What a ride by Beau Adams!"
Applause thundered through the arena, and the ear-piercing racket of boots stomping on metal bleachers brought a smile to Beau's face as he removed his mask.
"Eighty-six is the score to beat!" The JumboTron replayed the bull ride.
Beau spun at the sound of the familiar voice. His cousin, Tuf Hart, stood a foot away, the corner of his mouth lifting in a cautious smile. "Tuf!" Beau clasped his cousin's hand and pulled him close for a chest bump and a stiff one-armed hug.
Tuf looked tired. Worn out. Maybe even a little beaten down. He'd left the Marines and returned to the States almost two years ago but had kept his distance from the family. Beau knew for a fact that his cousins Ace and Colt were upset with their baby brother for not returning to the ranch. Beau snagged Tuf's shirtsleeve and pulled him away from the chutes.
"Do you know how worried the family is about you?"
His cousin's gaze dropped to the tips of his boots.
"Fine. I won't pry. Just tell me you're okay."
"I'm getting there."
What the hell kind of answer was that? "Where've you been all this time?"
"I'd rather not say."
The youngest Hart had missed all the family weddings and good news. He bet Tuf hadn't heard that Ace and Flynn's first child was due around Thanksgiving or that Tuf's sister, Dinah, had married Austin Wright and they were expecting a baby next summer.
"Man, you gotta know your mom misses you."
Tuf removed his hat and shoved his fingers through his short brown hair. "I'll be in touch soon."
The twenty-eight-year-old standing before Beau was a stranger, not the cousin he remembered. "You don't know, do you?"
"I can't talk right now." Tuf made a move to pass, but Beau blocked his path.
Didn't Tuf care that his mother had suffered an angina attack this past May and that the ranch had hit upon tough times? As a member of the family, Tuf should have known his mother had been forced to take Thunder Ranch in a new direction. Aunt Sarah had sold off most of the cattle, leased a sizable chunk of grazing land and had secured a hefty bank loan that Ace had cosigned.
"Call your mom and let her hear your voice."
The muscle along Tuf's jaw pulsed but he held his tongue.
Had something happened to his cousin in Afghanistan? The Tuf Beau had grown up with would never have shut out his family.
"Tell my mom I'm in Maryland and that I'm okay." His cousin walked off and joined the other bareback riders preparing for their event.
What was so important in Maryland that it prevented his cousin from returning to Thunder Ranch? Beau figured if Tuf had traveled this far west to compete in a rodeo he must be homesick. Hopefully, Tuf would come to his senses soon and haul his backside to Montana before Aunt Sarah dragged him home by his ear. Forgetting about his cousin, Beau focused on the Thunder Ranch bulls, eager to view their performances and he didn't want to miss Bushwhacker tossing McLean on his head.
"Next up is Pete Davis from Simpleton, North Dakota, riding Back Bender from the Thunder Ranch outside Roundup, Montana." The crowd applauded. "Back Bender's a young bull but he's got energy and lots of gas. This bull goes all-out for eight seconds and then some."
The announcer summed up Back Bender pretty well. The bull never ran out of kickit was as if electricity flowed through the animal's veins instead of blood. When the gate opened, Back Bender erupted from the chute with a fierce kick before turning into a tight spin, then coming out of it with a double kick, which sent Davis flying at the three-second mark.
The bullfighters rushed in, but Back Bender continued to kick and the fans cheered in appreciation. Beau shook his head in wonder. The dang animal loved to buck.
"Like I said, folks, Back Bender's tough to ride and his brother, Bushwhacker is nastier. Turn your attention to chute number three for the final bull ride of the day."
Beau scaled the rails for a better view of the brown-and-red bull. Bushwhacker kicked the chute, warning those around him that he meant business.
"Bushwhacker also hails from Thunder Ranch and this bull loves to ambush cowboys. He lulls a rider into thinking he'll make it to eight then tosses him into the dirt. Bushwhacker is undefeated this season. Let's see if Rusty McLean from Spokane, Washington, can outsmart this bull."
McLean adjusted the bull rope, his movements jerky and uneven. The boastful cowboy was nervoushe should be. He had a fifty-fifty chance of being the star of the day or going home the biggest loser.
C'mon, Bushwhacker. Show everyone why you 're the best.
McLean signaled the gateman and Bushwhacker exploded into the arena. The bull's first buck was brutalhis signature move. He kicked both back legs out while twisting his hindquarters. Too bad for McLean. Bushwhacker's raw power unseated him, and the cowboy catapulted over the bull's head. McLean stumbled to his feet as the bullfighters intercepted Bushwhacker and escorted him from the arena. Staggering into the cowboy-ready area, McLean flung his bull rope and cussed.
"Better luck next time," Beau taunted. The cowboy spit at the ground and stomped off. "Beau Adams from Roundup, Montana, is the winner of today's bull-riding competition. Congratulations, Adams!"
Excited he'd taken first place, Beau collected his gear and the winning check, then found a seat in the stands to watch Tuf compete.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our final event of the day is the bareback competition. Those of you who don't know a bareback horse is leaner, quicker and more agile than a saddle bronc. Bareback riding is rough, explosive, and the cowboys will tell ya that this event is the most physically demanding in rodeo." The crowd heckled the announcer, several fans shouting that bull riders were the toughest cowboys in the sport.
"Sit tight folks, you'll see what I'm talkin' about."
The announcer was righta bareback cowboy's arm, neck and spine took a brutal beating and Beau worried about Tuf. If his cousin was just returning to competition, then he might not be in the best physical shape and the ride could end in disaster.
"First out of the gate is Tuf Hart, another cowboy from Roundup, Montana."
While Tuf settled onto the bronc and fiddled with his grip, the announcer continued. "Hart's gonna try to tame Cool Moon, a three-year-old gelding from the Circle T Ranch in New Mexico. Cool Moon is a spinner, folks."
Seconds later, the chute opened and Cool Moon went to work. The bronc twirled in tight, quick circles while bucking his back legs almost past vertical, the movement defying logic.
Hold on, Tuf. Hold on.
The moment Beau voiced the thought in his head, Tuf flew off Cool Moon. As soon as he hit the dirt, he got to his feet quickly. Beau watched him shuffle to the railsno limp. His cousin hadn't won but more importantly he'd escaped injury.