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The billboard on top of the grocery store featured a picture they'd taken straight from his mother's photo album. Lucky Welch, headliner of this year's Selena Rodeo, shook his head and hoped no one recognized the bull in the background. It had belonged to his grandfather and was a family pet named Whimper.
Pulling out his cell, Lucky punched in his mother's number. She didn't even bother with "hello." Instead, in a no-nonsense voice, she said, "Lucky, I'm right here with Bernice. She says it's silly to pay good money to stay at a campground when you're surrounded by family."
Surrounded by family was a bit of a stretch, but Lucky knew better than to mention that detail. "Mom" He paused, knowing that no matter what he said, he'd be staying at Bernice's. That Bernice Baker was his mother's best friend from childhood and not really family had never been an argument that worked. Nope, his mother always had one better, like
"Bernice has already changed the sheets in Mary's room."
The changing of the sheets for company, at least in his family and most West Texas families, for that matter, was a time-honored tradition and not one to mess with. Plus, Lucky had met bulls easier to win over than his mother. Well, okay, one bull, to be exact: Whimper.
An hour later he pulled his truck into Bernice's yard and waited for the fireworks. They came in the shape of his mother and her best friend, who exploded out the front door and down to meet him.
Since his brother's death six months ago, his mother had taken excitable to a new level. After assuring her he was doing just finewell, fine for a bull rider who'd put 52,000 miles on his truck this yearhe unpackedin Bernice's oldest daughter's bedroom. He stuffed his rigging bag into a closet already full of old clothes, old shoes and old suitcases. He piled his Blackwood spurs and hand-tooled leather chaps on top of a hope chest that Mary had often referred to as hopeless. Slightly older and full of jokes and mischief, Mary had taught him that girls could be tough but that sometimes the toughness was an act.
His mother and Bernice waited for him on the porch, enjoying the sunset. Polar opposites, they'd been friends since their first day of high school. Lucky's mother, Betsy Welch, had ridden the bus an hour each way from a neighboring town. She stood almost six feet tall and still favored the big hair of her generation. Bernice had always called Selena, Texas, home. She edged just over the five-foot mark and was nearly as round as she was tall. She still wore her hair tied back in a simple ponytail. She'd been the tomboy; Lucky's mother had been the princess and Selena's rodeo queen when she was just eighteen.
"We're going to have fried chicken later on," Bernice said.
"Sounds good, but I want to check out the town."
"You mean the competition," his mother guessed.
Lucky headed for his truck. Bernice's young son, Howard Junior, called Howie by everyone, followed Lucky down the path. "I'm gonna be a bull rider when I grow up," he bragged.
Ten-year-old Howie looked like he should still be pushing cars on the ground, watching cartoons or carrying a snake and chasing girlsnot planning to hop on the backs of bulls. "You practice every day?" Lucky asked.
"Then you're not gonna be a bull rider."
"Yes, I am," Howie insisted stubbornly.
"You gonna practice every day?"
"Don't haf to."
Lucky grinned and ruffled Howie's hair. "Okay, if you say so." Howie scowled in return, as Lucky put the truck in gear and headed to a town temporarily doubled in size because of the rodeo he headlined. The town was one long street of businesses flanked by modest homes. Tonight, the bowling alley had a full parking lot, the restaurants had long lines and music blared from a bar on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Main.
Man, he wanted to take the highway to the Lubbock rodeo. His buddies were all there, and the purse was way bigger. When they heard he was doing Selena, they'd either laughed or offered condolences. He couldn't decide which was more fitting. Most claimed his absence from the Lubbock rodeo was the answer to their prayers.
They had less competition, and he had a very happy mother.
Her roots were in the Selena area and although now she was a big-city girl, he knew deep in her heart she'd rather be here. If this rodeo made her happy, fine, he'd do it.
He found a parking spot at the end of the street, walked to a hamburger joint and stood in a ridiculously long line. He watched teenagers talking on their cell phones instead of to each other. Husbands his age divided their time between watching their children climb on the indoor jungle gym and talking with their wives.
That's what he was witnessing. Ordinary, daily life. People who were doing the most routine activities: talking, eating, playing, sharing. Not at all like his own solitary life. Lucky shook his head to clear his thoughts. Man, he needed to shake this melancholy mood. Since Marcus's death, dark moods and the desire to be alone kept popping up at the most inopportune times. His gloom had already cost him too much money and too much time. Tonight, the need to get away and brood had cost him homemade fried chicken.
He finally snagged a meal and headed for a seat. Bowing his head, Lucky spoke to his Heavenly Father, asking for forgiveness, healing and help.
When he lifted his head, not only were the fries cold but also his appetite. Maybe it took a bit more than six months and a thousand prayers to get over the loss of a brother, a brother who'd loved Bernice's fried chicken, a brother who had also loved the rodeo life.
Yup, this part of Texas brought back all kinds of emotions. When Marcus and Lucky were young, they'd left the overcrowded streets of Austin and spent memorable summers with their grandparents in a town even smaller than this one, just forty-five miles west of here. They'd even come here for the Selena Rodeo, not only because his mother loved her memory of being a rodeo queen but also because during his younger days Grandpa had been a bull rider. He'd ridden in the first Selena Rodeo. He'd started the passion. And he'd emphasized the danger.
Lucky paid attention; Marcus didn't.
Now Lucky had spent the last six months trying to forgive his only brother for dying.
Dying before he found his way back home.
Six months ago and on his fifth ride of the day, Marcus made his eight seconds, jumped from the bull and was knocked unconscious by a quick turn of the bull's head. Then, before the clowns could intervene, Marcus was stepped on, butted, trampled and broken in front of hundreds. And Lucky had seen it all, hopeless to stop the tragedy.
A friend had kept Lucky from climbing the fence and running to his brother while the bull still raged.
In a matter of seconds.
Lucky unwrapped the hamburger he didn't really want and took a bite that had no flavor. A toddler stumbled by with a French fry clutched in one hand and a tennis shoe in the other. He hit the ground, bounced back up, grabbed the French fry from the floor, shoved it in his mouth and moved on. One of the women laughed, and suddenly, Lucky noticed just how beautiful she really was. How alive. Even as she cleaned the face of a high-chair-bound baby, she touched her husband's hand.
" But the woman is the glory of man." Lucky unwittingly recalled the familiar Bible verse. Lucky had not experienced the glory of a wife to call his own, but Marcus had married once.
It lasted five months, probably because Marcus was seldom around. After that, his brother had spent the next three years in and out of relationships. Most had lasted weeks, one quite a bit longer, but never with women who could be considered the "forever" type.
Lucky shook his head. His thoughts didn't bode well for tomorrow's rodeo. Thinking about his brother hadn't made the last six months easier, hadn't helped his standings on the circuit, hadn't put money in his pocket. Good thing the previous three years had. He had almost quit after Marcus died. Truthfully, Lucky stayed in only because of the memories. That and the Sunday morning worship that gave Lucky hope that maybe he'd help some other Marcus find his way home.
Lucky threw the remains of his meal in the trash can and headed outside. The dark Texas sky greeted him. He didn't want to go back to Bernice's or head for the bar to see who he knew, who he could drive home. He leaned against the restaurant wall and looked down Main Street. There were at least four bars, two restaurants, a bank and a church.
Lucky wished there were four churches, two restaurants, a bank and an empty bar with a For Sale sign in its window. Some of the circuit riders called Lucky a preacher because he carried a Bible, could quote scriptures without hesitation, and, yes, frequented the bars when the rodeo came to town.
Not to drink. Nope, he'd put down the bottle the first time a drunk Marcus was hauled to jail after wrapping his truck around a tree. Lucky had come to despise the bottle after watching Marcus pour his money, talent and friends down the drain while under its influence. Now Lucky frequented bars in order to drive his friends to their motels, their trailers and, yes, even to the homes of the girls who followed the rodeo, "buckle bunnies," who were so lost Lucky didn't know what scripture to begin with. Lucky crossed the parking lot, climbed into his truck and pointed it down the familiar street.
Tearshot, instant and completely unwelcomeblurred yet another oversize image of Lucky Welch. Natalie Crosby almost turned on the windshield wipers, but windshield wipers only worked when it was raining outside the vehicle, not when the wetness came from her own eyes.
Gripping the steering wheel of her aged Chevrolet, she managed to avoid running into the rodeo fans clustered at the gate. The poster beckoned rodeo fans to come to the fairgrounds, have fun and cheer on their favorite riders. What Natalie neededwantedwas a giant dart and an even bigger target. Since that wasn't an option, it looked like a little emotional overload would have to do. Sensibly, she pulled into a parking spot a little farther from the entrance than she liked. It was either that or plow into a horse trailer.
"Mommy?" Robby wiggled in the backseat. He could see the activity outside and didn't want to be confined. Add to that Natalie's strange behavior, and no wonder she had a fidgety, confused little boy.
"I'm okay, Robby. Sit back." Natalie wiped at the tears and succeeded only in spreading the evidence of her despair instead of removing it.
After taking several deep breaths, she looked at the poster again and reminded herself there was no need for virtual darts. The man wasn't Marcus. Couldn't be. No way would Marcus be headlining Selena's premiere event of the year. He'd drawn the death bull six months ago, and his rodeo career ended with a ride in a hearse instead of a ride in a parade.
This rodeo rider was Marcus's little brother, Lucky. Some called him the Preacher. She'd never met him, but if she'd heard correctly, he was the antithesis of Marcus. He preached instead of partied and carried a Bible instead of a little black book.
Her cousin Tisha, who shared Natalie's last name, had little to say about Lucky, except that he didn't seem to like her much.
Right now, the image of Lucky faced the crowd with an oversize, mirthful grin and impossible dark brown eyes that demanded notice.
Natalie checked the tiny rearview mirror she'd attached to her windshield. It allowed her to check on Robby while driving. She intended to make sure he had everything he needed, especially a good and stable home. Robby was responsible for her attendance todayRobby and this overgrown bull rider. Natalie hadn't graced the Selena rodeo in a decade and definitely didn't want to be here today.
"Mommy, why we sit still?" Robby battled with the buckle on his car seat. He was growing up way too fast, wanting to do things for himself. Still, she'd rather he battle the seat belt than notice the battle taking place in front of him.
Natalie gritted her teeth. No way could she explain her fears, her conflicts, to a three-year-old.
Someone thumped on the back fender of her car. Walter Hughes, her dad's best friend, waved as he hurried by. "We need to talk later," he mouthed. She was grateful he didn't stop. Questions would only make her rethink what she had to do, and Walter had known her since she was born. No way would he accept that she had stopped by the rodeo "just for the view."