Dinah Hoyt was chosen by the good citizens of Bushwack, Colorado, to “buy’’ former Bushwack resident Shane Daniels at auction and then talk him into using his celebrity as a bull rider to save the Old Pioneer Days festival. Everyone knew that she and Shane had once been close. But no one knew exactly how close, or what had come of that teenage love affair not even Shane. And if Dinah had anything to say about it, he wasn’t going to find out!
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Shane knew he was running late, but he wasn't going to worry about a little thing like that. It was bad enough coming back to Lost Springs Ranch under these circumstances. They could take him when they got him or not at all.
Damn, he felt stupid climbing out of the Dickersons' big old station wagon in front of the arena where Rex Trowbridge, the director of Lost Springs for Lost Boys, as Shane privately thought of it, had told him the auction would be held. Not that he'd have had much trouble figuring that out. The wooden bleachers overflowed with peoplewomen, mostly.
Shane liked women and a goodly number of them liked him, but he couldn't see any advantage to being ogled by the multitudes. Ah, well, anything for good old LSLB.
He grinned at the elderly couple beaming back from inside the rattletrap automobile. Ben Dickerson had ranched in Wyoming for decades, his beloved Mabel at his side through good times and bad. Shane had done a little work at their Bar D when he was a kid and they'd treated him fair and square.
They'd also seemed downright pleased to give him a ride to Lost Springs after he'd made his way by plane to Casper and by bus the rest of the way to Lightning Creek. They hadn't asked any embarrassing questions about why a rodeo champion was coming into town afoot. He appreciated that. He didn't want to admit he was just trying to save some money.
Now he said, "Much obliged for the ride, folks."
"Glad to help." Ben waved the thanks away. "Me 'n' Mama here enjoyed hearin' about the glamorous life of a big rodeo star." He winked. "Hope you bring in a lotta money because this place sure does need it. From what we been hearin', it's on the verge of closin' down. Any way we can help, we're glad to." With a final wave, he drove off to find a parking spot in the crowded field designated for that purpose.
Shane knew what Ben Dickerson was talking about because he dropped by Lost Springs every chance he got. In his line of business, that was usually several times a year, since he and his road partner, Josh Kilmer, crisscrossed the country traveling from rodeo to rodeo. With every winning ride, Shane tried to donate at least a little bit of the take to his alma mater.
Without the intervention of Lost Springs, he'd probably be in jail todayor dead. Shane Daniels liked to repay his debts.
He heard a roar of applause and laughter from the arena and turned with the same fatalistic determination he occasionally had to call on to convince himself he really did intend to climb aboard a ton of heaving, snorting killer bull. He hadn't wanted to come back for this fund-raiser, but as Rex had pointed out with unrelenting patience, neither had a lot of the other bachelor alums of this foster-care facility in south-central Wyoming.
It wasn't necessary to convince Shane the old place was worth saving. He might only be a bull rider, but he knew guys who'd gone on to become doctors, lawyers, copseven politicians, but you couldn't expect a hundred percent success rate. That jab had earned a wry grin from Rex, who was proud to number a senator among the graduates of Lost Springs.
And no, the senator wasn't coming back to make a fool of himself for good old Lost Springs. He was married.
Just get it over with, Shane counseled himself. What was it gonna amount to, anyway? A date with a stranger, a personal appearance at somebody's party, a speech on rodeo to some civic group, a seminar on how to ride rank bulls, endorsement of some honky-tonk or restaurant..
He could do all that standing on his head. He couldGroan. A whole herd of buckle bunnies charged, their sights obviously set on him. Worse, he knew the one in the lead, and she made his blood run cold.
Wynona Sweet, early twenties, was a rodeo groupie who'd hit on every cowboy Shane knew under the age of forty. Wynona was from Texas, had no visible means of support and had been on Shane's trail for a couple of years now. She wore big hair and tight clothes, and subtle she wasn't.
A horrible thought struck him just about then: if she bought him, he was in for one helluva ride.
"Shane! Shane! Shane!" A bevy of giggling females, all dressed in rodeo flash with spangles and beads and fringe and lots of cleavage, surrounded him. Hands touched, stroked. Voices chided, "You're late! Where you been, you sweet thing? We took up a collection and came all the way to this middle-of-nowhere place to buy you."
Wynona reached for him, her curved fingers reminding him of talons. He skittered back, bumping into the woman behind him. "Sorry, ma'am." He raised his hat in apology. Although accustomed to being surrounded by admiring fans, he was still uncomfortable with the buckle bunnies, so called because a cowboy's belt buckle was their favorite souvenir. He'd heard it said that Wynona had a whole saddlebag full of the damned things.
Even before he finally won the world champion bull rider title for the first time last year after a half dozen near misses, he'd enjoyed his share of attention from the fair sex. But that was nothing at all compared to what it got to be like afterward.
When he was younger and just starting out, he'd probably have enjoyed the thought of being a notch on some woman's bedpost; that's what the rodeo cowboys were to these women, just like rock stars were to the groupies who followed them around. But now that he was older and presumably wiser at twenty-nine, he'd discovered that he really didn't care much for women in bunches. Mob scenes were not his thing.
You're gettin' old, Daniels. Maybe it's time to start thinkin' aboutthe hell it is!
Behind the gushing women, small boys began to gather. The current inhabitants of Lost Springs stared up at one of the ranch's success stories with huge, awe-filled eyes. He was living their dream and he felt that responsibility acutely. He'd been in their shoes not so very long ago.
"So?" Wynona challenged, drumming her fingertips on his red plaid shirt. "Say something, honey. What're you doin', hopin' I'm the one who buys you?"
A redhead he'd seen only at a distance at his last couple of rodeos gave him a slow, sexy smile. "Not you, Wynonaus!" Her expression turned kittenish. "There're five of us put in on this," she explained. "We've been saving our pennies ever since we heard about this auction. Think you can handle all five, Shane?"
Jeez, he didn't even want to think about trying. "No, ma'am," he said, edging away, knowing that the more polite he got, the less they'd like it. "I sincerely doubt I can."
"Honey," the redhead said, "if you can ride a bull, you can ride anything."
"Anything on four legs," he modified, careful to keep that unadorned expression of sincerity on his face. "If you'll excuse me now, I see some friends I gotta say hello to."
"But they're waitin' for you at the auction," Wynona complained, gesturing toward the stands. "You've already screwed up the order."
"Damn," he said with exaggerated regret. "Maybe it'll all be over before I get there. I'd sure hate that, but I still gotta say hello to some friends."
Breaking through the ring of women, he was instantly surrounded by an admiring flock of boys of every age and size, most of whom he knew by name. All of them chattered away at once, eyed his big world-champion belt buckle, begged for autographs, reached out tentatively to touch him.
He saw the boy he'd been in each face turned hopefully toward him. His success, such as it was, gave hope to every one of them. All they saw was the glamour and excitement of a rodeo champion, not the danger or the punishment or the frequent disappointments.
He'd seen the same things as these boys in the beginning, when he was casting around for a reason to getand stayout of trouble. If they found out the truth, he wouldn't be the one to tell them. Rodeo wasn't the life they thought it was, but he could honestly say he was doing the thing he most wanted to do, crazy though that might seem to those who made their living wearing suits.
That thought made him feel considerably better, since he didn't even own a suit, had never owned a suit and didn't want to own a suit. Digging into his shirt pocket, he hauled out a ballpoint pen he kept handy for just this purpose. And as he signed the scraps of paper they thrust at him, he talked. "How's it goin', Eddie? Bring that history grade up, did you? That's great. I knew you could. And, Alan, I see you got that cast off your arm. I guess you'll think twice before you try to wrestle any more a these tough Lost Springs calves."
"Aw, Shane." The boy named Alan stuck his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders defensively. "I coulda done all right if Sam hadn't caught me. I was surprised, that's all."
"Well, partner, I've been surprised a time or two myself. Just be sure you don't make the same mistake twice."
Shane kept signing and talking, wondering as he did so if there was some black market for his autograph that he knew nothing about. He must have signed six or seven times for some of these boys and still they kept coming back and asking for more.
A movement toward the back of the crowd caught his attention even in the midst of the small talk. A boy of perhaps eight stood next to a much larger kid, although he didn't look to be that much older. Suddenly the big boy gave the smaller one a shove that sent him to his knees. The big boy said something Shane couldn't hear, but the curl of his lip indicated it wasn't a compliment.
The hair on the nape of Shane's neck prickled. He didn't know the big boy, but he knew the small one. Eli Dodge was a wiry little kid who'd been at Lost Springs slightly less than a year. He'd become a particular favorite even before Shane had asked Sam Duncan about the boy. The former coach and counselor at Lost Springs had sighed.
"Not a bad kid," Sam had said, which wasn't too meaningful because he would have said the same thing about Jesse James as a child. Sam didn't think there was any such thing as a bad boy. "That kid was pretty beat-up when he come to us through the welfare system. Seems he was gettin' old enough to interfere with his ma's profession and she just turned him in like an overdue library book. You know what he said the first time I talked to him? He wants to be a cowboy. Kid had no idea which side of a horse to crawl up, but he wants to be a cowboy."
Sam gritted his teeth and shoved his battered cowboy hat to the back of his head, revealing receding white hair. Eli's story obviously hurt him, but this wouldn't be the first boy Sam would set upon the path to responsible adulthood.
He had worked at Lost Springs for a good forty years and was now using his pension to remain on the ranch, still nurturing and guiding boys to manhood. As he had nurtured and guided Shane.
Eli now came up off the ground like a catamount to fling himself at his much larger tormenter, his small face screwed up into a mask of fury and his fists flailing away.
God, the little runt reminded Shane of himself at that age. He would have done the samehad done the same, in fact. Yeah, Shane's last stand!
"Here, now!" Shane waded through the suddenly silent boys and hauled the two combatants apart by the scruff of their necks. He glowered from one to the other, his stern gaze eventually settling on Eli. The kid's left eye was already reddening; he was going to have a real shiner tomorrow, but it would be a badge of honor.
"You," Shane said. "I've been lookin' for you."
Eli's dark eyes narrowed and that stubborn lower lip thrust out. "What for?" He leaned away, putting more pressure on his neck. A multitude of expressions crossed his face, suspicion eventually predominating.
This kid had been hurt. Shane felt something tighten in his chest until he could barely breathe. He could be looking at himself, a small boy determined to face down a world that had never done a damn thing for him up to that point.
"I got something for you," the man said to the boy. Releasing both kids, Shane unbuckled his belt and dragged the heavy tooled leather strip from the loops on his jeans. He'd made up his mind, but he had to do this fast or he wouldn't do it at all.
He handed the belt to Eli by the buckle, the leather trailing to the ground as he knelt. "Here," he said. "From what Sam tells me, you'll win one of these yourself some day. In the meantime, maybe you'd like to hang on to mine for good luck."
The boy stared at him with mouth agape, as if he couldn't believe what was happening. Shane couldn't believe it, eitherthat he would so calmly hand over the only material possession in the world that meant anything to him. Hell was going to freeze over before he won another world champion buckle.
"You mean" the boy gulped "for keeps?"
"Yeah," Shane growled. "For keeps!" At that moment, he was convinced he'd lost his mind.
Then Eli's face lit up like a Christmas tree and Shane felt the tightness in his chest ease. What the hell? It's only leather and metal and my jeans are tight enough they won't fall down.
The boy stretched out a trembling arm and Shane laid the buckle on his open palm.
It was bigger than the small hand.
Shane stood up abruptly, pleased when the other boys fell back around Eli in awe. The kid's social status had just skyrocketed.
"Well, fellas," he said, "I guess I'd better be movin' on now." He gave them a conspiratorial wink. "They're about to auction me off like a danged cow" He raised his brows. "Like a danged bull. The things I do for Lost Springs!"
Turning away while Eli basked in the envy of his peers, Shane stopped short. Sam Duncan stood a few paces back, his smile bittersweet.
"They sent me to hurry you along," the older man said.
"Yeah, sorry to be so late." Shane said it automatically; he'd often apologized for his many infractions when he was an inmate here. "The guys" He glanced back at the circle of boys reaching out to touch Eli's prize with reverence.
"Yeah, I saw." Sam's gaze softened, as did his voice. "Shane Daniels, you do Lost Springs proud. Welcome back, son."