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The thunder of motorcycles roaring down Main Street threatened to deafen Brody Murphy as he used the pay phone outside the Silver Dollar Saloon in Bandera, Texas.
"Ma'am." Brody tipped his hat to a wannabe cowgirl who sashayed by, leaving a scented cloud of expensive perfume in her wake.
"What's that god-awful noise?" Brody's buddy, Drew Rawlins, shouted through the phone connection.
"The Hell's Angels are in town."
"Where are you?"
"I'm in Bandera."
"Bandera? You were supposed to be here" meaning Drew's ranch, Dry Creek Acres "three hours ago."
Brody ignored his friend's rant as he studied his choices for lunch across the streetSouthern Comfort Bakery, Mi Pueblo, Busbee's Bar-B-Que and Bandera Saloon & Grill.
"Hey!" Drew snagged Brody's attention. "What are you doing in Bandera?"
Hell if Brody knew. He scanned the area, willing the answer to pop up in front of him. His gaze landed on a flyer attached to the saloon's oversize red door.
Cowboy Capital of the World
Wild Hog Explosion
Saturday March 20th at Mansfield Park
"Think I'll enter the Wild Hog Explosion." Whatever the heck that was.
"You're kidding, right?"
Maybe. Brody was down to twenty bucks in his wallet and half a tank of gas. Speaking of fuel, Brody gagged on fumes as a second pack of motorcycles drove past him.
"I offered you a job," Drew said.
Turning his back to the busy road, Brody rested his arm atop the pay phone. This wasn't the first time Drew suggested Brody quit the rodeo circuit and work for him as a ranch hand. Brody had been a ranch hand most of his adult lifepunching cows in Montana where he'd been born and raised. Hell, he lovedmake that had lovedworking cattle and horses, wide-open spaces and the soul-searching loneliness of riding the proverbial range. Two years ago Brody had quit his job at the Black Stone Ranch and now he lived one day and one bull ride at a time.
There was a part of Brody that yearned to hang up his bull rope. He was tired. Lonely. Downright lost. But working for Drew would be like walking around all day with a red-hot poker stuck in his eye.
His buddy understood the demons chasing Brody. He was the only person Brody had confided in about his past. Even so, Brody didn't care to witness the former bronc rider's happiness. Drew had retired from rodeo this past December after he'd scratched at the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas. He'd given up a world title for love and a chance to be a father to a son he hadn't known existed until recently.
Drew was happy. Brody was miserable. It would only be a matter of time before Brody's unhappiness ruined their friendship. If that wasn't enough to deter him from accepting a job at Dry Creek Acres, then taking charity from a friend was. Drew had offered the job, not because he needed help, but because he felt sorry for Brody.
"Thanks, but I've got a ride coming up," Brody lied.
"When are you gonna admit you aren't a bull rider?"
Never. "I'll be in touch."
"The job's yours anytime you want it."
"Thanks." Brody hung up and eyed the advertisement on the saloon door. What the hell. He'd head to Mansfield Park and check out the exploding pigs.
As Brody drove along the main drag, he did a double take at the horse hitched outside the Dairy Queen. Any town that allowed horses on the street was okay with him. He followed the signs to the park, mulling over his options. Bandera didn't have a rodeo until Memorial Day weekend, so there was no sense hanging around after today.
The past few months Brody had fought to maintain his enthusiasm for bull riding. Although he hadn't had much success in the sport, he'd basked in the thrill of the challenge and had enjoyed the camaraderie of his competitors. Then Drew had left the circuit and suddenly Brody's excitement for rodeo had spiraled downward. Quitting wasn't an option. His survival depended on never remaining in one place long enough for his past to catch up with him.
Yesterday he'd turned thirty-one, but he'd woken feeling fifty. He doubted his body could withstand the physical abuse of the sport much longer. In the two years he'd competed, he'd suffered eleven fractures. It wouldn't be long before the next broken bone refused to heal. Not a day went by that he didn't wish he had the courage to pull off this never-ending road to nowhere.
The gravel lot at Mansfield Park was crowded but Brody found a spot and parked. The smell of hickory and barbecue permeated the air and his stomach growled. Signs advertising a Pork Rib Cook-Off, Bicycle Rodeo, Piggy Pictures, Arts and Crafts, and Wild Hog Explosion were staked in the ground everywhere.
Brody observed a makeshift corral in the distance and made his way through the crowd. A banner proclaiming a five-hundred-dollar jackpot hung across the sign-up tablemore than enough money to fill the gas tank, his belly and pay his next entry fee. There was just one problemBrody needed a partner for the hog-catching contest.
He searched the crowd for loners who might be willing to team up with him. A teenager stood by himself near the boar pen. The kid was skinny, which hopefully meant he was quick on his feet. Brody would rather the teen chase the pig in circles than himself. "You lookin' for a partner, kid?"
The boy jumped inside his skin and stepped back. His blue eyes widened with apprehension.
"What's the matter?" With Brody's luck the teen was on the run from the law. "You in trouble?"
The kid's posture stiffened. "I'm not in any trouble."
"You here by yourself?"
"Yeah, so what?"
Nice chip on the ol' shoulder. Brody studied the kid. Olive-colored skin, black hair and startling blue eyesa mix of Caucasian and Hispanic.
"I need a partner for the hog-catching contest. What do you say we team up? I'll give you a hundred bucks if we win."
The kid scoffed. "The jackpot's five hundred."
"How about one-fifty."
The boy stared at Brody's lace-up cowboy boots with a spur ridge on the heal. "You a rodeo cowboy?"
"Bull rider." Brody puffed out his chest.
"You any good?"
"Sometimes." Mostly not.
"How come you wanna catch a hog?"
"You sure do ask a lot of questions."
"Okay, I'll be your partner."
Brody motioned over his shoulder. "Let's sign in and pay the entry fee."
"I don't have any money."
"I'll cover you." Brody grinned. "If we win, you get a hundred-forty dollars."
"Gee, thanks." The kid trailed Brody, his hands shoved into the pockets of his sagging jeans.
"How old are you?" Brody asked when they reached the table. "Thirteen."
The kid looked olderprobably due to his lanky build and height. Brody wasn't a tall man. He stood five-feet-ten inches without his boots on and the boy almost looked him in the eye.
"You got a name?"
"Brody Murphy." They shook hands, then signed a release form and paid the entry fee. They were told to wait until their names were called.
"You ever catch a hog before, Ricky?" Brody asked.
They watched the pair inside the corral trip over themselves attempting to corner the pig. The buzzer rang and Ricky asked, "You got a plan on how we're gonna bag our hog?"
"You chase the bacon in circles until the oinker's too dizzy to run, then I toss the burlap sack over its head."
Ricky's jaw sagged. "Pigs don't get tired and we've only got three minutes to catch one."
"How fast can you run?"
"Then my plan should work."
A half hour later their names were called. They entered the corral and Brody walked to the far side of the pen with the burlap bag. Ricky stood by the chute that held the female boar.
The announcer introduced Brody and Ricky, then the gate opened, and the hog bolted for freedom. The teen hadn't joked when he'd bragged he could runhe was lightning fast. The crowd's cheers grew more enthusiastic, most folks forgetting Brody stood in the shadows.
He checked his watchone minute had ticked off the clock. Ricky and the pig hadn't slowed down. Another minute passed and Brody moved to the center of the pen. Ricky continued to chase the hog counterclockwise. Drew waited for the right moment then stepped in the path of the pig, startling the animal. The boar stopped on a dime. Brody tossed the bag over its head and scooped up the oinker.
Caught off guard by Brody's actions, Ricky was unable to swerve out of the way and slammed into Brody. The two toppled to the ground, but Brody managed to hang on to the squealing burlap bag. The crowd erupted in applause.
"Good job, kid." Brody spit dirt from his mouth.
Chest heaving, Ricky smiled, revealing red-stained teeth.
"You split your lip." Brody handed the burlap bag to one of the event workers then helped Ricky off the ground. "Let's hope no one else succeeds and we don't have to share the pot." After they left the pen, Brody asked, "You still got all your teeth?"
Ricky stuck his finger into his mouth. "Yeah."
The winners wouldn't be announced until three o'clock, so Brody led the teen to a Porta Potti and grabbed a wad of toilet paper from inside. "Press this against your lip." He hoped the kid wouldn't get into trouble for competing in the event. "I guess your mom's going to be mad you got hurt today."
"My mom won't care."
Ricky's head bobbed up and down.
"Barbecue sounds good." Brody used his last ten dollars to purchase two food tickets. He and Ricky ordered pulled pork sandwiches and sodas then found an empty picnic table. The kid ate in silence, gulping his food despite his puffy lip.
"How come you aren't here today with your friends?" Most thirteen-year-old boys hung out in packsthat's the way Brody had grown up. When he'd met Kelly after he'd graduated from high school, he'd given up trolling with the guys.
"I don't have many friends," Ricky mumbled, his mouth full of barbecue.
"What do you do in your spare time?"
"Play video games."
"Does your mom work?"
"She shoes horses."
"A farrier, huh?"
"What about your father?"
"He doesn't live with us." Ricky's clipped answers suggested an unhappy teenager.
"My parents passed away a long time ago." Brody hadn't been close to his folks. "My mom thought she could never have kids and then at forty-nine years of age she got pregnant with me."
Forty-nine didn't seem all that old to Brody now that he'd entered his thirties. "I was a wild one growing up." He'd gotten into his share of trouble because his parents had been too old and too tired to ride herd over him. "We lived on a farm, but I hated plowing. I wanted to be a cowboy."
After Brody reached legal working age he no longer helped out in the fields, because his father hadn't been able to pay him. He'd punched cows for the local ranches to earn money to buy his first truck and pay for his clothes. After he'd graduated high school he'd signed on permanently with one of the ranches. He'd rarely given any thought to his aging parents until one day out of the blue his father had dropped dead of a heart attack. Brody had no love for farming, so his mother had sold the land and moved to Bozeman to live with her older brother and his wife. She'd died a year laterbefore Brody had made a trip down to see her.
"My mom was seventeen when she had me." Ricky volunteered the information after a lull in conversation. "She and my dad never married."
That meant Ricky's mom was a year younger than Brody. "You see much of your dad?"
"No." Ricky rubbed his finger along a scratch in the table. "My mom doesn't like my dad visiting us." A swath of red swept across the kid's cheeks as if he was embarrassed his parents didn't get along. There were always two sides to every breakupexcept in Brody's case. He had no one to blame but himself after Kelly had walked out on him.
Skipping the fatherhood inquiries, Brody asked, "Do you help your mother shoe horses?"
"Sometimes. Mostly I muck the barn."
"Does your mom work for herself?"
"You sure are nosy."
"Sorry." He blamed his prying on the fact that he hadn't had a decent conversation with another human being in a week. "Guess I miss having someone to shoot the bull with."
"You could get a dog."
Brody chuckled. "You gotta dog?"
"Yeah. Spot helps calm the horses when my mom's working with them."
"What kind of dog is Spot?"
"Blue heeler. He was my great-grandpa's dog."
Was? "Something happen to your great-grandfather?"
"He died a few years ago."
"Where's your grandfather?"
"I don't know. I've never met him."
The teen's great-grandpa was dead. His father was a deadbeat dad. And his grandfather had never been in the picture. Brody had better stop with the questions before he learned too much. Getting close to people wasn't in anyone's best interestespecially his.
"Let's see if one of the other contestants has bagged a pig." They joined the people gathering near the corral. A cow bell clanged and the crowd quieted.
"We've got two winners today! Brody Murphy and his partner Ricky Sovo. Mike Stern and his partner Bob Benington."
Damn. Brody decided some money was better than none.
He collected the two hundred-fifty dollars and forked over the kid's share. "Been nice doing business with you, Ricky." He tipped his hat, then headed for the parking lot.
Brody drove back through town to gas up and waited five minutes in line before his turn at the pump. He went inside to pay for fifty dollars worth of gas and a Twinkie. While the fuel pumped, he perused the PRCA schedule for the end of March and beginning of April. He might consider one event if he could scratch together the two-hundred-dollar entry fee.
The pump kicked off and Brody moved the truck to a parking space in front of the convenience store. He ate his Twinkie and people-watched. A pair of past-their-prime biker chicks pulled into the station on Harleys. Decked out from head to toe in leather and chains both women had jet-black hair and more wrinkles than a shar-pei pooch.
A movement out of the corner of Brody's eye caught his attention. A little girl, not more than a few feet tall, stood on her tiptoes next to the trash can outside the store and threw away a fast-food bag. She turned and smiledin that instant Brody was swept back in time. His lungs tightened painfully as he watched the girl's father scoop her into his arms. His gaze remained glued to the pair as the giggling child hugged her father.
Eyes burning, Brody recalled the last time his daughter had hugged himAngel had wound her slim arms around his neck the night he'd carried her to the truck to drive her to the emergency room. They'd arrived at the hospital over an hour later, but Angel hadn't had the strength to open her eyes. Two years had passed since his five-year-old daughter's death. When would Brody stop seeing Angel in every blond-haired little girl who crossed his path? How far did he have to run to escape the memories?