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The rodeo announcer's voice blared over the loudspeaker signaling the day's final events for Cheyenne Frontier Days' rodeo competition. Haley Clayton wiped her sweaty brow and pushed through the crowd toward the bull pens lined up behind the arena.
A whistle from a nearby cowboy quickened her step. She ignored his slow perusal and moved on. The circuit consisted of mostly good, hardworking people with just a few rotten eggs. Today, the latter surfaced like bad pennies, stirring memories she'd locked away for eight years.
The chutes came into view. Haley dismissed her thoughts and focused on the pens. Several bulls bawled from a communal corral, but one stood alone, housed in a corner by thick steel panels.
The bull that nearly killed her two years before. Haley's heart skipped, jarring a multitude of locked-up emotions. Fear rose from her core, reaching out to suffocate her like a boa squeezing the life from its next meal. The two thousand pound black Brahma fastened his eyes on her. He lifted his powerful head and sniffed the air, tossing his shorn horns as though they weighed a pittance, as though defying her to face him again. She edged closer.
"I remember you."
Her eyes closed briefly, trying to blot out the image of Resurrection's muscled fury battering her into the dirt, his foul breath blowing in her face as his massive head picked her up and tossed her across the arena.
"He looks impressive."
Haley jumped and spun around. The man towered over her like a lodgepole pine. Jet-black hair surrounded a face bronzed by wind and sun. Muscles rippled beneath the western shirt tucked neatly into a pair of Levis. Dark brown eyes scrutinized her with gentle humor and concern. Feminine appreciation stirred; then caution swamped her heart. He exuded power, and power was dangerous.
"He is," she said, stepping back. "You riding today?"
The man shook his head. "No. But my stepbrother is." He leaned against the rail. Resurrection snorted. "He's been away from the circuit for a few years putting his life back together. Sure would hate to see him make a comeback on that one."
Haley relaxed a little but kept a safe distance. She knew all about pulling her life back together. "Maybe he won't. There are a lot of bulls to draw from.
Chances are pretty slim to get this one. Besides, some of the best bullfighters in the country are in that arena to watch his back." The man's gaze shifted to rest on her. Haley shivered and broke eye contact.
"I hope you're right."
"Tell him to look fear in the eye and not let it defeat him."
Curiosity and interest lit his eyes. "You talk like you know something about the subject."
She did. In more ways than in the arena, but he couldn't know. She wanted to reach out and reassure him. Fear made her keep her distance. He glanced at his watch and smiled, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. Haley's chest squeezed.
"I'd better get back," he said. "Thanks for talking with me."
"You're welcome. Tell your brother we'll be watching out for him." The man disappeared around the corner.
Haley looked into Resurrection's eyes. "You won't win. I won't let you. I'll see you soon."
She forced her fear into the abyss from where it had risen. This bull was dangerous, unpredictable and as unreadable as a blank page. She would never underestimate him again.
She hurried to her camper parked beyond the grandstands, unlatched the door and flung it open. Her trailer held the July heat like a slow cooker. She opened the window and flipped the switch on the fan above the sink. The scents of popcorn, caramel and hot dogs oscillated in the breeze. Her stomach rumbled. If she hurried, she could make her costume change and still have time to see her daughter compete in the mutton busting competition.
Haley squeezed into the tiny bedroom she shared with Sarah and donned her clown outfitragged jeans, purple suspenders, a patched oversized shirt, and a red-and-blue wig topped with a round-rimmed polka dot hat.
Her father's picture rested in a wooden frame beside the bed. An identical costume covered his stocky body. His huge smile sported even white teeth surrounded by wide, painted red lips that stood out against the white face paint. A single black tear was painted near the corner of his eye.
Haley ran her finger over the glass, feeling his loss. Other pictures lined the wall. Pop holding Sarah in the hospital. Pop and Sarah blowing out birthday candles at two years and four. Then the last oneall of them together on Sarah's fifth birthday two years ago, a month before her crash with Resurrection that triggered his fatal heart attack. A soft knock outside drew her attention.
"Haley? You in there?" Hap Jenkins popped his head through the screen door.
Haley set the picture aside and opened a jar of face paint, then glanced up. Her father's old sidekick leaned against the door jamb, resting his bum knee on the metal step. His gnarled hand gripped the bent aluminum frame that had seen better days.
"Sarah Rose sent me to fetch you," he said, staying in the doorway while Haley applied the face paint. "Mutton bustin'," he growled. "Kids ridin' sheep. Lot of foolishness if you ask me."
"I seem to remember you cheering me on when I was seven."
"Huh. Thought it was foolish then, too."
She met Hap's gaze in the mirror and slathered the white paint on her forehead. Would Hap and Pop have been so proud of her if they'd known the truth?
"How'd you fare in the competitions today?" Hap asked.
"I'm in the money. Top three for barrels. Should bring in a decent payback."
"How much more you need to buy that land?"
Haley tucked her hair under the wig, rose and stepped into the sunlight with Hap, closing the trailer door behind them. "A few more rodeos' worth. We can't keep traipsing around the country in this portable shack forever. Besides, Sarah wants to go to a real school this year."
She grabbed his arm and headed toward the sheep pens.
His feet shuffled in the dirt. "Resurrection's back."
She pulled her arm from Hap's, hoping he hadn't felt the tremor in her hand. "I know. I've seen him."
"Ain't too late to get someone else to take your place tonight."
Haley slowed her pace, letting Hap catch his breath. The pain, the months of recovery came back in a rush. She concealed her fear behind a forced shrug. "I figured I'd have to face him again someday or at least another like him."
"Ain't another bull like Resurrection."
She brushed her fingers across the costume fabric and felt the raised scars hidden beneath the shirt, constant reminders of her brush with death. "You blame Resurrection for Pop's heart attack," she murmured. "But he wasn't responsible."
"Mebbe not. But yer pop's old heart couldn't take seein' what that critter did to you. I couldn't take it either if "
The sheep pens came into view. Hap's words trailed into a whisper. Haley stopped mid-stride and faced him, taking his rough hand in hers. He'd been like a second father to her. His feelings mattered.
"You always tell me to face what scares you most, stare it down and use it as a stepping stone." She smiled, hiding her fear under the surface. "Pop called it minimizing the monster without losing sight of the danger. No one thought I'd ever enter the arena again, Hap. But I did. I'll be fine."
"Them cowboys are depending on you to watch their backs."
"Keeping them out of the bulls' line of fire is my job. I'll do it." Haley spotted Sarah straddling the sheep pen fence and waved.
Sarah motioned them to hurry. Her gray-green eyes sparkled with excitement. "Come on. Hurry. I'm next." She spun around and headed for the chute, her black braids slapping against her shoulders.
Haley leaned against the fence, gripping the rail. Her gut twisted every time Sarah rode. A few moments later a gate opened, releasing a black-faced sheep with a jean-clad seven-year-old clinging to its back like a monkey. The animal jumped forward, hunched its back, then sprinted. Haley held her breath as Sarah held on, then slid beneath the sheep's belly. Sarah picked herself out of the dirt. A smile hid her disappointment. Haley released the rail and wiped a bead of sweat from her cheek.
"Tough break," Hap called.
Sarah unpinned the number from her shirt and ran to the fence. "That was wild. Guess I'll be too old next year to compete. I'm going to miss it."
Haley hugged her daughter. "You did your best. That makes you a winner." She ruffled Sarah's bangs and flipped a braid. "Just think of all the new stuff you'll be eligible for next year, because you'll be 'old.'"
"Oh, Mom." The disappointment left Sarah's face.
Haley spotted Sarah's friends pulling their father through the gate. She handed Sarah the backpack stashed beside the fence. "The girls are here. Have fun at the sleepover. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay. I love you, Mom."
Haley gathered Sarah close. "I love you, too, Rosie girl." She planted a kiss on Sarah's head, leaving a streak of white face paint in the dark hair.
Sarah sprinted across the arena and disappeared. "I love you more than you know."
"She misses not having a father," Hap said, the old unasked questions sparking his eyes.
Haley clenched her fists. "I won't argue with you about this again, Hap. Especially not today. I'm going back to the pens."
"I take that as you don't want company."
"Maybe later," she said. "I need to concentrate on Resurrection."
"Ya might ask God for some help in that direction," Hap said.
"Praying never helped in the past."
Hap's sad smile added a few more wrinkles to his face. "Guess I still got enough prayers for us both. I'll check on the horses and see you later."
He limped toward the stables. Guilt replaced Haley's anger. Hap believed she was keeping Sarah from her father. But Hap didn't know the truth. No one knew. Except God. And the man who'd shattered her dreams. She wasn't faithless. She believed in God, just not in His ability to protect her or deliver the justice she felt she deserved.
The gift of Sarah didn't erase the violence of that one night or ease her sense of lost security and fear when a man showed too much interest. The handsome features of the man she'd met earlier popped into her mind. She quickly banished it. What she wanted she would never have. God had stolen her chance for a normal life. She couldn't rely on Him.
The truth will set you free. The phrase echoed in her mind, inviting confidences she neither asked for nor wanted. Spinning on her heels, she crossed the arena and hurried toward the bull pens. In a nearby booth, a radio played a familiar hymn. She hurried by before the music stirred memories of happier times, before the world had left its mark on her.
God could have changed the events leading to Sarah's conception. But He hadn't. It was she who had held the choice of life and death in her hands and had chosen life, and she would protect that life with her own, no matter what the cost. Sarah may not have been a product of love, but she was loved. And if God wouldn't protect the innocent, she would, even if it meant forever concealing the truth of Sarah's conception. Nothingand no onewould ever hurt her daughter.
Jared Sinclair placed the last chair in the circle, then glanced at his watch. The small booth allotted to the Christian Cowboy's Fellowship didn't hold more than twenty people. That hadn't been a problem so far. Volunteering usually didn't take him away from his South Dakota ranch, but this trip was an exception. His stepbrother, Mitch Jessup, had asked him to come, and Jared arranged his schedule to combine business with spending some much needed time with Mitch.
Mitch's newfound faith was forged in the fires of trials, and Jared wasn't sure it was strong enough yet to handle a comeback into the life that had contributed so much to his downfall. He had to look out for Mitch, keep him centered and on track.
As if on cue, Mitch entered with a handful of old chorus books.
"I wish they hadn't rescheduled my ride. Do you think you'll be back from your business meeting in time to watch me?"
"Hope so," Jared said. "Who'd you draw?"
Mitch's square jaw tightened. "Resurrection. Great way to make a comeback, huh?"
Jared swallowed hard. A vision rose in his mind of the massive bull he'd seen earlier. Fear for Mitch closed his throat. "Maybe you should wait on this one."
"No. I'm ready. Besides, if I win, just think of the extra money I can donate to some worthy cause. I just wish "
"I just wish I hadn't wasted so many years."
"They aren't wasted if you allow God to use you with what you've learned," Jared said.
He helped Mitch arrange the music, an uneasy feeling dogging each movement. He'd hated what Mitch's hard drinking and womanizing had done not only to Mitch's body and soul, but to Jared's mother and Mitch's father.
But Jared had faithfully prayed for Mitch, and when his prayer was answered, Mitch was changed so completely that there was no doubt in anyone's mind that God did indeed answer prayer and transform lives. Still Jared sensed a hidden needan unshared burden that weighed like a millstone around Mitch's neck.