Between her riggin bag and the trashcan stood Cody, a hand tucked possessively into the back pocket of his latest blonde buckle-bunny-of-the-week. Forcing a strut into her walk, and resisting the urge to grab the rails to steady herself, Gypsy passed by the searing emotionless cold of his smiling eyes. It would be so easy to collapse to the ground at that moment and dissolve into the mud, but she was tougher than that, she thought, and as she bent over her large pink gym bag, she was sure to give Cody a good full view of her ass. He could take a long look at it... and kiss it! She twisted the cap off a bottle of water, straightened, and glanced back at him, before downing it with one quick swig. Smilingly wryly, while simultaneously stifling her need to wretch, she threw the empty bottle on her bag. Fuckin exes anyway.
Those cold watchful eyes of his unnerved her. Made it difficult to concentrate on the simple task of working her fingers into the tight leather of her padded glove. Inhaling through her nose, she tried to catch focus. The ride ahead was the only thing she could afford to see. She had to nail it, not only because Cody was waiting for her to fail, but because her pig’s ass of a father was going to be out there riding pick-up. If ever she needed to score that fat shiny buckle… She needed something just the right size from which to serve them each a double helping of humble pie.
Cody joined the other cowboys who were busy rubbing rosin on their riggins and taping their elbows. Gypsy turned away from the men. She fumbled with the zipper to loosen her jeans, her hands shaking so hard she could barely manage to push the butt pad down the back of her Wranglers and rezip them.
Her body quaked and her mind swam with parasitic echoes that ate away at her concentration. If she didn’t catch focus real quick she was going to wind up proving those pricks right. Focus. She needed to catch focus.
She wished she could turn herself inside out and be rid of that booze soaked and toxically saturated flesh of hers, but her veins ran like they were one hundred proof and the best her stomach could manage was a few more involuntary convulsions. She could have done with a quick sec to shotgun a beer, but there wasn’t time.
She took her riggin by the handle and climbed up on the platform behind the bucking chutes. The back of her bronc was wet with a rain that had just let up twenty minutes before, and it shivered as she placed the wide band of handled leather on its back. She grabbed a long piece of hooked wire and ran it beneath the horse’s belly. Swallowing hard to fight back tears, she struggled to catch the dangling cinch on the far side. If ever she could use Riley’s help. But he was just one more thing she couldn’t afford to be thinking about right now. One more thread unravelling from her concentration. She caught the cinch and drew it up, then ran the latigo through the ring on the end of the riggin and pulled it tight, still trying hard to push him from her mind.
The sun broke from the clouds and she took it as a sign of hope, until her shoulders baulked with another sudden stomach cramp.
A bullfighter in oversized cut-off Wranglers jumped up on the other side of the chute. “You all right?” he asked, his painted frown animating his concern. “Where’s Riley?”
Her face tightened, but she couldn’t meet his sad clown eyes. “I don’t know, Jim.”
“That’s not like him...not to be here.” He pointed to the large purple contusion that peeked out from beneath her hat. “Whoaa! What happened? Maybe you should turn your horse out. You look like hell.”
She shook her head no, afraid that if she tried to speak, this time her voice would fail her. After a moment, a barely audible whisper slipped past her parched lips. “Thanks.”
“If it’s because of Cody… you know you don’t have to ride just to prove something to him,” he told her.
It wasn’t just Cody, she thought, glancing at her father sitting smug in the saddle atop a horse in the middle of the arena. There was no way in Hell she was letting him help her off her bronc after she made her eight second ride. Pick-up man? What a joke. When had he ever picked her up? No. She had every intention of bailing right into the mud after she spurred herself a cheque. “The bruise is old,” she said looking back to Jim.
The bronc shifted restlessly. She placed a boot on top of its back and gave it time to settle before dropping the rest of her leg into the chute and setting the remainder of her weight down. The bronc was antsy, pawing and pacing beneath her. A lump formed in her throat. As long as he didn’t rear up it’d be OK. Cody hopped up to spot her. She wanted to turn around and spit in his face as he grabbed a hold of the back of her belt, but she had too much else to worry about. The bronc pressed against the rails crushing her leg with its flank. Shocks of fear fired through her body, but she sucked in a deep breath and pushed her hand into the riggin handle. It was time to get a good hold on that focus.
She wrapped her fingers into a tight fist, closed her eyes, tucked her chin, pushed her hat down, slid her ass up, raised an arm, and nodded.
The gate swung open and the stock contractor shoved the bronc’s face toward the arena. The bay reared his front hooves and lunged out of the chute. Mud sprayed from the ground. Gypsy kicked her heels ahead and braced herself. Twelve hundred pounds of horse flesh blew into the air beneath her. Her arm straightened out and she was jerked from the centre. If only she’d been set properly in the first place.
She grabbed with her right heel, scrambling to get back in the middle.
On the third hop she went off to the right. Her feet landed in the mud. Her hand still stuck in the handle of the riggin.
She’d once asked Jacob for some rodeo advice. He’d told her, “Get off with the pick-up man. It hurts a lot less. And if you get hung up, stay on your feet. No matter what, run, and stay on your feet.”
She swung her left arm up and grabbed the riggin trying to create enough slack to free her hand. The hind leg of the bronc came down on the back of her calf and sent her skittering in the slick mud.
Stay on your feet. Stay on your feet. It played again and again through her head.
She hauled on the riggin and got back to her boots. The hind hoof came down again.
Stay on your feet. But her legs were not moving as fast as she was willing them to.
Someone jerked her elbow forward and her hand came free, sending her face first into the mud.
She heaved the top half of herself up, from the slick ground, and looked around. Her father was already herding the bronc out of the arena and into the stripping chute. She turned and nodded to the other pick-up man, the one who saved her.
Forcing a smile, she made it back to her feet and waved to the crowd.
A roar erupted in the stands. A crash of thundering applause. The bleachers bloated with the rising spectators. She wondered if Riley was one of them. If Cody was laughing behind her. Whatever.
Turning from the audience, she spat the horseshit and mud from her mouth, and trained her eyes on the chutes. She still had to make it out of the arena. One foot. And then the other. The bars were cold when her good hand reached for them. She clung to one trying to lift herself up, without enough anything to get off the ground. A cowboy reached down to help, but she shook her head in refusal. Ignoring her protests, he grabbed a hold of her jeans and dragged her up by her belt and her flack vest.
A medic came over to check her out and Jim rushed to her side to see if she was alright. She waived them off, trying to muster an ounce of stoicism. She couldn’t let them see the seams breaking apart inside of her battered body. She couldn’t let Cody see it. She wanted to tell him to fuck off, to quit getting his kicks out of her because it was killing her and turning her into this weak pathetic girl. But she never said a word, didn’t even glance at his smirking face as she staggered past him to the outhouse. She stepped inside, latched the door, unwound the laces of her glove, and removed it. Her hand was mangled swelling ground burger beneath the skin. She held it to her body, hung her head and silently cried.