Next up, Kennedy Rawlings!”
Dawson Conway squinted against the bright, midday sun and looked toward the ring as the announcer called out the name of the next competitor. Across the dusty showground, he picked out his boss and Mrs. Rawlings from the crowd. The middle-aged couple stood close together near the bucking chute.
Even from this distance, the young ranch hand could see the unease and worry in their faces and frames. Jake Rawlings stood tall and stiff. It was rare to be at an outdoor event in their small town and not hear his pleasant laughter spreading infectiously through the crowd, but today he stood silent without a hint of a smile. His eyes stared out at the quickly clearing ring, but Dawson knew the only thing he really saw was the chaos and confusion of last year’s train wreck.
Beside Mr. Rawlings, his wife nervously watched as the previous round’s unsuccessful rider was helped from the ring by the pick-up team. Her left hand was fisted tightly in the extra fabric of her denim skirt, while her right hand gripped her husband’s forearm. Molly Rawlings was a sturdy, strong woman, but today, as she clung to her partner for support, she looked fragile and vulnerable.
In all his years working on the Rawlings’ ranch, Dawson had only seen her look this way once before; recalling the shock of her unexpected weakness that day, and the heavy fear it had spread through his own body, he looked away quickly.
It wouldn’t do his nerves any good to remember something like that today.
Instead, he focused on the rest of the audience. Word had spread through their small Alberta town that Kennedy would be competing in the women’s rodeo again this year, and the rumors had certainly drawn a crowd.
Normally, the women’s events didn’t draw in half the spectators that the professional rodeos did, but today the fairground was packed. Dawson wished he could believe it was all in support of herand certainly a number of the onlookers were there for exactly that reasonbut he could tell from the hushed whispers following her name, and the excited ripple spreading through the crowd, that the majority of the spectators had only come in the hopes of seeing another show.
To keep his anger from showing on his face in case the Rawlings or one of their sponsors spotted him, Dawson pulled his Resistol down over his eyes and crossed his arms. For the big rodeos, the ranch usually hired him out as a pick-up man riding a good-natured mares, but they never asked it of him for the women’s rodeos, and he never offered. With his jacket collar turned up and his worn-out hat pulled down low, he simply stood by the south-west corner of the paddock like a sentinel on guard, watching, waiting, and worrying.
A sudden hush then a flurry of excited whispers heralded her approach. Flicking the brim of his hat up, Dawson glanced back across the showground as Kennedy advanced. Like all the Rawlings, she was impossible to mistake, even in a crowd. That family carried their personalities in their gait, and Kennedy’s stride spoke of confidence, fearlessness, and a fierce, indomitable pride.
He grinned openly as she boldly cut her way through the crowd. Her shoulders were rolled back, her chin was thrust out, and her hips swaggered like a true vaquero.
At nineteen, Kennedy had finally grown into the long-legged, awkward body she had been teased for all through school. She was a tough, tall girl with a solid, athletic build. Like the champion stock her father bred, she was broad-shouldered and muscular. Rough-mannered and rough-spoken, she had a reputation for always speaking her mind. She could be quick-tempered at times, and although she was by no means reckless, she had a fiercely stubborn, competitive side. Like her father, when she set a challenge for herself, she would push herself to her absolute limit to see that goal reached.
It was a trait that had brought Jake Rawlings his early success as a young man working the circuits, and had become the driving force behind Kennedy's decision to carry on the family tradition by competing in rodeos as well.
Her career choice wasn't unusual for their community. Their town always had a strong showing of participants in the women's rodeo, and a handful of local girls also competed in the professional circuit. Kennedy’s family certainly would have supported her if she had shown an interest in following a similar professional path, but she’d bristled at the idea. The pro competitions were too restrictive; women could only compete in a handful of events, the bulk of which were timed ones. Although Kennedy was a natural at barrel racing and team roping, her heart wasn't in it.
She lived for the rough stock events; she thrived on the risk and danger of testing herself physically against the raw power and strength of the broncos and bulls.
As a result of both her appearance and interests, Kennedy had a reputation for being wild and fearless. Even her parents held that opinion of her, but Dawson knew better. She wasn’t as thick-skinned as she let on.
Dawson’s mind strayed to the night before. He had just finished checking over the stock at the end of his shift, and was about to make his way back toward the main house when a shadow fell across his path.
Kennedy leaned against the side of the barn a few meters ahead, unsmiling.
He paid no mind to her unpleasant expression. The fact she’d waited outside the barn so long her impatient pacing had worn a noticeable furrow in the dirt spoke more clearly to her current mood than her forced scowl did. She was desperate to see him.
Dawson felt his lips curl up affectionately at her contrariness. He had known her for yearsthe six years he’d worked on her family’s ranch and a full decade of school before that. They’d grown up together.
Even as a child, she’d hidden her emotions behind a mean look, but he’d never been put off in the least by her posturing. In all honesty, it was what had first drawn him to her. He’d always wanted to see what type of girl hid behind all those harsh glares and curt words.
He flashed her a cheerful smile and tipped his worn hat in her direction. Evening, Miss Rawlings.”
In the low light, he saw her roll her eyes, but also smile faintly. Shut up, Dawson,” she snorted, as she shouldered past and slunk into the barn.
The amused ranch hand turned and followed, too curious about her presence to leave, even though he knew his weekly paycheck and a warm dinner were both waiting for him up at the house.
Pulling the barn door shut behind him, he watched her. She seemed restless and agitated. Her shoulders were tense under her thin flannel shirt, and she carried her Stetson in her left hand, slapping it against her thigh with every second step, distractedly. She wandered past each animal’s stall, but seemed completely oblivious to the lifted heads and soft whickers of greeting.
He quietly trailed behind her, petting each animal he passed soothingly. He was beginning to worry. Kennedy was usually tirelessly devoted to the animals, particularly the horses. As she disappeared into the tack room, he hurried after her.
Reaching the small room’s threshold, he paused and watched her pace to the end of the room, then stop and stare blankly at the row of harnesses.
Are you looking for something?” he asked.
She glanced over her shoulder and met his concerned gaze, but didn’t reply.
They stared at each other for a long moment before Dawson risked a more personal guess. Do you want to talk about tomorrow?”
Kennedys eyes finally came alive. There’s nothing to talk about. I’m fine!” she snapped, visibly stiffening.
So that’s what was bothering her. Dawson took an apologetic step back, and raised his hands in surrender. Sorry, Ken. No harm meant. Just trying to be helpful.”
I don’t need any help,” she said, her voice gruff.
He nodded and leaned against the doorframe. Course not. You’re practically a pro.”
She answered his teasing with another derisive snort, but this time with less anger behind her gaze as she looked at him.
He knew where her mind was wandering. Last year’s fall had shocked them all, but none more so than Kennedy herself. She had come out of the bucking chute sitting strong and tall on the bronco. As soon as she marked the horse out, she gripped her thighs tight and began to count down the eight seconds. The horse’s first jump didn’t stir her in the least, and a confident grin had spread over her face. However, the look was short-lived.
With his second buck, the horse shook her loose. She lost her grip on the rigging and instinctively reached down with her free hand to try to grab her mount’s mane. She knew she was disqualifying herself with the action, but even that illegal move wasn’t enough to restore her balance. With his next powerful kick, the bronco threw her off.
She landed hard.
The pick-up men had all rushed into the ring. Before she could be trampled, the agitated horse was distracted by the obnoxious, efficient rodeo clown. He lured the gelded male to the pipe, where he was calmed and quickly herded back into the bucking chute. On the other side of the ring, the attending medic knelt in the dirt beside Kennedy’s prone form.
As the Rawlings rushed through the gate and across the dirt towards him, Dawson suppressed a sinking heart and rose, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants, and began the unenviable task of trying to reassure them as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Kennedy woke up in the hospital two days later with a concussion, a broken arm, and a handful of fractured ribs. Under her mother’s anxious eye, she had slowly healed over the next few months.
Knowing she was too competitive and determined to quit with such a tarnished performance record, her father had reluctantly helped her back into her saddle as soon as she was physically able, and her training had resumed.
Now, a year later, she was fit and capable of competing again, but her confidence was still injured from the incident. With her return to the rodeo less than twenty-four hours away, he could see she struggled with self-doubt and anxiety.
In the soft voice he used to coax and calm skittish horses, he whispered, I just want to help, Kennie.”
Dropping her gaze to her scuffed working boots, she sighed. I just need to get my mind off of last time,” she admitted quietly. I need a distraction.”
Looking back up, she caught his eye and gave him a deadpan, serious look. Do you really want to help to me, Dawson?”
A loud cheer from the crowd pulled Dawson’s mind back to the present. He looked over to the pipe just in time to see the gate open and Kennedy explode out of the bucking chute in a blur of straining muscles, whipping hair and stomping hooves. Every gaze was on her as her round began.
As a concession to her anxious parents, she wasn’t riding bareback this year. She was balanced atop a specialized saddle and gripped the simple rein tightly. Her free hand reached up to the sky above her.
As her mount reared up for his first jump, she marked the horse, gripped down hard with her legs, and braced herself.
Watching her jaw clench as she struggled to balance herself despite the horse’s irregular rhythm, Dawson remembered how she had tightened her jaw last night as well after he had confirmed his desire to help her in any way he could.
Her face had been a hard mask as she stared him down, trying to judge the sincerity of his offer before finally nodding and stepping closer. Then take off your shirt,” she demanded.
When Dawson didn’t immediately reach up and begin to undo his buttons, Kennedy impatiently grabbed him by the front of his work shirt and pulled him into the room. Ignoring his weak protests, she pushed his back against the closest wall and pressed up against him.
Unlike the other girls who had propositioned him in the past, Kennedy’s body was hard and firm as she pressed it against his. She also didn’t waste any time on sweet words or weak promises.