Authors: Cat Johnson
For all the cowboy-loving readers who have stuck by me during six Studs in Spurs novels. This one is for you!
Ten years ago
“You’re gonna have to pull that rope good and tight, kiddo.”
Skeeter Anderson’s heart pounded so hard it seemed to vibrate his whole body from the chest out. Breathing was an effort. Listening to his instructor was near impossible. He tried to comprehend the meaning of the words and follow his directions. There was so much to do, so much to remember, for just an eight-second ride on the back of a bucking bull.
The fact his teacher was none other than Cooper Holbrook, one of Skeeter’s lifelong idols, wasn’t helping his concentration any either. He somehow managed to do as instructed. He took the end of the bull rope the gateman handed him and hoped the two men watching hadn’t seen his hand shake.
Pulling the length of rope hard before laying it across his palm, he closed his fingers around it and then wrapped the tail of the rope around his wrist. For as long as Skeeter could remember, he’d seen countless riders perform these exact same steps before a ride, both live and on television.
Today it was his turn. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around that. It was really happening. He was on his first, real live bull, and the man who’d beaten some of the best riders in the world for the championship title was teaching him.
“Now, pound on that hand. Make sure those fingers stay closed tight around that rope, boy.”
Skeeter made a fist with his left hand and used it to pound the fingers of his gloved right hand tighter around the bull rope.
“Are your feet clear of the rope?” Cooper asked.
Skeeter nodded, the unfamiliar feel of the mouthguard between his teeth making it hard for him to speak. The faceguard on the helmet made it hard to see too, but Cooper wouldn’t let him ride even a practice barrel without wearing a helmet.
“You sure about that, kid?” The tone of Cooper’s voice made Skeeter reevaluate his leg position.
Fringe flew as he flipped each leg of his chaps out of the way and blindly moved his feet forward and back on either side of the bull. Skeeter felt his left spur catch on the length of rope wrapped around the bull’s bulk. He moved both boots clear of the rope.
“Good boy.” Cooper smiled. “Don’t want a foul the second you leave the chute. The judges see a spur hooked in that bull rope and that’s exactly what you’ll get. Now, when you feel ready, you nod to the gateman. A’ight?”
“Was that nod for me or for Glen?” There was amusement in the older man’s voice, but Skeeter was too nervous to share in it.
He drew in a shaky breath and nodded again, this time along with a mumbled, “Go.”
At Skeeter’s command, Glen swung the gate wide. It hit the rails with a loud clang of metal on metal. The sound startled Skeeter and spurred the bull beneath him into action, sending them both with a jolt into the practice ring.
Bucking beneath him, the bull tossed Skeeter’s weight in a different direction with every move.
“Stay on top of your rope!” Somehow Cooper’s voice made it through the roar of the blood rushing through Skeeter’s veins.
He yanked himself forward, closer to the bull’s shoulders where he held the rope in a death grip. The bull kicked the air behind them, but Skeeter didn’t see it. Cooper had drilled it into his head if he looked at the ground, he’d end up there, so Skeeter kept his eyes glued to the middle of the bull’s back and tried to stay centered.
Each strike of hooves against dirt jarred Skeeter right down to his teeth, making it obvious why Cooper had insisted he wear the mouthguard.
Almost moving in slow motion, the ride seemed to last forever even as it ended in the blink of an eye. One moment Skeeter was bouncing hard against the bull’s bony back, the next he felt his grip on the rope slip and he was airborne. The ground rushed toward him. He threw his hands out in an attempt to catch himself but landed with a grunt face down in the dirt.
“Get up and get out of there, boy! Before he comes looking for ya.”
The bull was still in the practice pen with him. Dazed from the force with which he’d hit the ground, Skeeter had forgotten that for a second. He shoved himself off the ground and ran for the nearest section of fence. He leapt up and grabbed onto the top rail. From his perch above the ground, Skeeter twisted to look for the animal.
Glen, the gateman, was in the ring with him and did double duty for this practice, performing the job of bullfighter now. He ran at the animal head on, waving his hat and shouting to drive the bull toward the out gate Cooper had opened.
Once the animal was out and the gate slammed closed, Skeeter caught Cooper’s attention. “How—” Skeeter remembered the mouthguard. Ignoring the dirt on his hand, he pulled it out. His hand shook so badly he could barely hold on to the spit-covered piece of plastic. “How did I do? Did I make eight?”
A wide smile spread across Cooper’s face. “Yeah, you made eight.”
“Woo hoo!” Skeeter punched the air. “When can I do it again?”
While making his way across the ring, Glen shook his head. “First time on a bull and the boy’s already hooked.”
“Looks like. And at eleven years old too.” Cooper let out a laugh. “His momma’s gonna kill me.”
That caught Skeeter’s attention. His mother hated the idea of his riding. She only let him take these lessons with Cooper Holbrook because Skeeter had begged her. Even after she’d agreed, he’d still had to get straight A’s on his last report card as part of the deal. He’d worked his butt off in school to make that grade. Skeeter wasn’t about to blow the opportunity when his mom had finally agreed to the lesson.
And he’d had to earn the money to help pay for this lesson by mowing lawns. He didn’t mind that so much. He knew his mom worked extra hard at her two jobs. Harder than his friends’ moms, some of who had no jobs at all except to stay home and take care of the house.
He would have done anything to get to do this. Cooper was just about the best bull rider alive. That he also happened to live in the town next to where Skeeter lived and had agreed to teach Skeeter was like a dream come true.
Wrestling with the strap on the riding helmet to get it off, Skeeter hopped down from the rail and ran to where Cooper stood. “You’ll tell my mother I did good. Right?”
“I will, kid. You did real well.” He let out a snort. “Damned if you’re not a natural.”
Cooper Holbrook thought he was a natural. Skeeter didn’t know if he was shaking more from the ride or the compliment. All he knew was now that he’d ridden once, he couldn’t wait to do it some more. “Can I get on again?”
“I think that’s enough for today, kid. We can work together tomorrow, if you want.”
“Can I ride him again tomorrow instead of the practice barrel?” After being on the back of a live bull, Skeeter couldn’t imagine going back to riding a barrel tied to four ropes. Kids rode practice barrels. Men rode bulls.
“Yeah, you can get on him again, but
we do some work on the barrel.”
“Okay.” Skeeter was all about compromise, especially if it got him what he wanted in the end.
He knew bull riders had to pay their dues to be the best. Learn, practice and work their way up from the bottom before they got to the top. He’d work on his skills and then he’d get to ride. He could barely breathe from the anticipation, until he remembered something that was enough to squash his excitement about tomorrow.
The deal had been for one lesson, but his mother couldn’t make him stop riding now after all his hard work. Could she?
Truth be told, she could, and until he was old enough to make his own decisions and earn enough money to pay for all the lessons he’d need to be the best, there was nothing Skeeter could do about it. He’d just have to do whatever it took to get her to agree.
Cooper reached for the helmet in Skeeter’s hand. “You’re gonna need to buy one of these if you plan to keep riding. You can use this one while you’re here, but if you ride in a competition, you’ll need to have your own.”
He’d have to look into how much helmets cost. Maybe he could find a used one somewhere to buy. And he’d have to make more money at his jobs around the neighborhood or convince his mom to help him pay for it, as well as for the lessons. It wouldn’t be easy, but he’d make it happen.
“Yes, sir. I will. I’ll save up my money.”
“You do that, kid. It’ll be good practice for you since it’ll be the start of a long life spent pinching pennies if you decide to make bull riding your profession.”
A professional bull rider. The thought had Skeeter’s heart soaring.
Now he just had to get his mother to let him do this. He brushed the dirt off his jeans, trying to look as if he hadn’t hit the ground. She wouldn’t understand that even a perfect ride usually ended with the rider in the dirt. It was all part of the sport. He turned to glance at the driveway to see if his mother’s car was anywhere in sight.
“Hey, kid. One more thing.” Cooper’s voice brought his attention back around.
“If you’re gonna be hanging around here more often, I figure I better know. Why do they call you Skeeter?”
“When I was four my grandpa put me on the back of a sheep. He said I grabbed on and held like a little mosquito.” He shrugged. “Been called Skeeter ever since.”
“Mutton bustin’ at four years old, huh?” Cooper swung his head from side to side, grinning.
It had been Skeeter’s grandfather who’d taken him to his first rodeo and who’d sat with him and watched bull riding every time it was on television. The memory made Skeeter’s chest feel tight. “I wish Grandpa could have been here today to see me ride.”
Cooper shrugged. “Bring him next time. I won’t mind an audience.”
“He died.” Thank goodness Skeeter could finally say that now, a whole year later, without crying. He’d rather die himself than let Cooper see him cry like a baby.
“I’m sorry to hear that, kid.” Cooper drew in a breath and let it out. “I’m gonna talk to your ma when she gets here about keeping up your lessons.”
“Thanks.” His excitement flared back to life. Skeeter couldn’t control the grin that was so wide it was starting to hurt his face.
Glen walked over with the bull rope that had fallen off the bull right after Skeeter had. He looped it over the rail and shook his head. “Damned if he don’t remind me of you, Coop.”
“Oh, really?” Cooper cocked a brow.
“Yup. You get that same look in your eye after a ride.” The man grinned.
As Glen walked away in the direction of the barn, Cooper’s gaze shot to Skeeter. “If that’s true, then God help you, boy. You’re bound to have a tough life ahead of you.”
Skeeter could handle it. His life hadn’t been a piece of cake so far anyway. But the life of a professional bull rider like Cooper? Skeeter was ready for whatever that threw at him.
The sound of gravel crunching on the driveway caught Skeeter’s attention. He turned to see his mother’s car inch its way toward the ring. He hardly held himself in check so he didn’t go running toward her. The only thing preventing him was that he didn’t want to act like a little kid in front of Cooper.
She seemed to take an eternity to park and then walk toward him. She stepped carefully through the dust and the sparse grass. Her waitress uniform looked so out of place next to the practice pen it might have made Skeeter laugh if he hadn’t been so excited, but his mom didn’t seem to notice or care that she didn’t fit in here dressed like that.
Cooper must have noticed her uniform though. He was staring at her as she made her way from the parked car to the ring.
Skeeter jumped to explain. “My mom works at the diner weeknights after her shift at the hospital is over. She works there on Saturdays too. That’s why she’s wearing that uniform.”
“That’s a lot of work for one lady.” Cooper shot Skeeter a sideways look. “What’s your daddy do for a living?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t live around here.”
After a second, Cooper nodded. His gaze shifted, moving to Skeeter’s mom and then back to Skeeter. “There ain’t nothing wrong with having two jobs and working hard, son. Except I suppose it doesn’t leave her much time for herself, now does it?”
“Sure, it does. She has Sunday mornings off. We go to church and then she and the ladies there have coffee and cookies together while the kids go play outside.”