Friday, July 8, 2016

Chapter 27


When she finished the orange juice and burger, she found herself feeling lost and conspicuous, but Riley was right, they did help her stomach. And if it wasn’t for the throbbing pain in her hand, she would have held off getting herself a beer. She knew it wasn’t the best idea, but it had been a hard day and the pain was only getting worse. The line was long, so she bought three and carried them back, one hooked in the inside corner of the elbow of her good arm, and two pinched between her thumb and forefinger. She forced herself to drink slowly at first, but when the announcer called Riley’s name, she threw the remainder of her drink back and raced to the fence.

      He ripped down the arena at break neck speed on a Palomino, diving into the air without breaking momentum, as though he could fly, and then he had the steer in his arms and to the ground faster than Charlie could register. The crowd under the tent raised such a ruckus she couldn’t hear his time, but she heard the announcer say that he was pretty sure it was a new NRA record. She squealed with joy. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. It felt good, so she squealed again. It was such a girly thing to do, but Riley was amazing like that, amazing in how he made her feel like a carefree little girl.

      She wanted to run straight over to his trailer to wait for him, but she still had two full beers sitting at her table that needed drinking. She went back to her spot and downed them both with quick gulps. By then she figured that there wasn’t much point in heading over to him. He’d be finding her soon enough, so she walked up to the bar and ordered three more.

      She was working on her fourth when her father wandered over in her direction. She put her head down and tried to obscure her face with her hat, without luck. He took a seat on the bench across the table from her.

      “That your boyfriend, that bulldogger? Rumour has it…”

      Her white face flashed up at him from beneath her black Stetson and her cold blue eyes met him full on. She threw back her fifth beer. “Fuck off.” She was no longer mad at him for falling short of being the father she needed. She was mad at herself because she could now see how much he and Cody were alike. “What do you want?”

      “What, I can’t have a conversation with my daughter?”

      “What do you want?” She rolled her eyes and started into her sixth.

      “What happened to that bull rider you had? You really want to be running around with this new guy? I mean an Indian.”

      “What’s your point?” she said, setting her cup on the table and rising instinctively to defend her space.

      “Well, seems to me you were better off before.”

      She hated to waist the beer, but it was too late, that mental picture she had of Stella serving Cody had already flashed through her head. She her beer into her father’s face.

      “You little whore,” he said rising to his feet.

      She was up on the bench and on the table. She lunged at him, and clocked him with her good hand, sending him backward into the row of people seated behind him. Carl scooped her up and pulled her down from the table.

      “If you don’t fuck off,” he told her father, “I’ll take care of you myself.”

      The tent full of cowboys condensed around the three of them.

      “Yeah,” her father said, “I’d probably kick the shit out of you, if it didn’t mean I’d have to fight the rest of your tribe.” He wiped the beer from his face with a napkin and disappeared through the crowd.

      “Thank you.”

      “Who the hell was that asshole?” Carl asked.

      She stepped a leg over the bench and settled into a straddled position. “My father,” she said.

      “Wow! What a jerk. Sorry, I didn’t mean-“

      “Yeah, he’s a real prick.” She surveyed the table and saw that she no longer had a drink. She smiled at Carl. “Can I buy you a beer?”

      “Well, I don’t know,” he said.

      She handed him a twenty. “And get me a couple while you’re at it.”

      He came back shortly with four drinks. As he leaned forward to set them on the table, Cody slid into the seat where her father had just been. “You move fast, don’t you? Or is this a time share sort of thing? Can I book you for October? It’s a slow sort of month for me. Oh wait,” he said, affecting a mock cower, “you’re not going to punch me out are you? Quite the Ali these days. Seem to be fighting every time I see you.”

      She was fed up with fighting. She just wanted to have a drink and be left alone. She looked down and fiddled with the red-checked vinyl table cloth.

      “You better apologize to the lady,” Carl said, standing to his full six foot three inches.

      “Or what? Why don’t you fuck off and let us talk?”

      Carl was ready to plow the little piss-ant. “I should have left her to go at you last night.”

      Riley came up behind Cody and tapped him on the shoulder. “Have you got a problem with Charlene?” he asked.

      Cody spun around. “So that’s it? It’s official and she’s your girlfriend now? Took you long enough to decide you wanted her.”

      Riley, not knowing what else to do, nodded firmly to the question.

      “Your girlfriend? See I thought she was mine, until you fucked her. Yup, Black Bull, I have to hand it to you. You were always after her weren’t you? Not much of a prize, but hell,” he said taking off his hat as though he were a gentleman, “Con-grat-u-“

      Riley laid him on the grass. Out cold between the tables. Cody didn’t move for a full two minutes, and then he slowly brought his hand to his mouth, before scrambling to his feet, blood dripping down his shirt. His muffled curses followed them to the entrance of the tent.

      “How’d you get here, Carl?” Riley asked.

      “Came up here with Dan.”

      “Great,” he said. “Mind driving Charlie’s truck back?”

      “OK,” his friend replied.

      Charlie threw him the keys. Riley grabbed her good hand. “Let’s get out here,” he said.

      Her face grew concerned. “But what about your buckle and your cheque?”

      “They can mail them to me.”

       Riley had the Palomino loaded in seconds. She noticed it wasn’t his usual horse “Where’s Smokey?” asked Charlie.

      “At home,” he said closing the trailer door. “This one was my mother’s. He’s the one I needed to ride today.”


*

Charlie managed to talk Riley into stopping at the liquor store when he drove back into Fort Nelson for gas, and he did so only after his protestations lost out. “If I stop now for you, you have to promise me something. Promise you’ll come away with me for a few days and let me show you a whole different world. Today you drink, but tomorrow, I want all of you to be here, OK?”

      Tomorrow seemed far enough away that it was easy to promise. She gulped down the first beer from the six pack as they started back down the Alaska Highway. Somewhere around Bucking Horse, the beer, and the overwhelming sense of safety, and the too many days of partying, let loose an exhaustion she couldn’t fight off. She laid her head in Riley’s lap and drifted off to sleep.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Chapter 26


Charlie woke up in a hotel room, but she couldn’t remember checking in anywhere. The shower was running and a man’s watch and boot wallet sat beside the TV on the dresser. She pulled back the covers to find she was wearing a t-shirt and panties, which was a good sign; though waking up in a man’s hotel room was not. She tip-toed from the bed to the dresser, picked up the wallet and opened it. There was no way in hell she could ever top this fuck up. She knew the face that stared back at her from the driver’s license. Carl. She’d met him at Riley’s party. She let the wallet fall back on the dresser, and collapsed to the floor. Too numb and still too drunk to actually cry, she wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth.

      Just as the idea came to her that she should get dressed and get the heck out of there, the bathroom door opened and Carl walked out. His long black hair was wet, but he was fully clothed. “You all right?” he asked the girl on his hotel room floor.

      “Oh man, I just majorly fucked up.” She closed her eyes and shook her head back and forth disbelievingly.

      “Are you worried that— No. No. Shit no. Nothing happened. Honest.” He blushed. “Don’t worry. The way you kept going on about Riley last night…he’s been my best friend since we were four.”

      “What did I say?” It was her turn to blush.

      He laughed and extended a hand to help her off the floor. “Oh, just how much you’re in love with him.”

      “I didn’t.”

      “Yeah, you did.”

      She groaned. “Is there anything else I should know about?”

      “You had a big fight with your ex last night. I think it was about something your ex had told Riley.”

      “A big fight?”

      “Yeah. It took a couple of us to pull you off him. You fight like a rez girl. Hardcore.”

      The room was spinning. She had to sit on the bed. “You’re not going to say anything to Riley, right?”

      “If he asks...” He pulled on his boots and stuffed his wallet into the right one.

      “Could I get a lift to my truck, if you don’t mind? I have to ride in an hour.”

      “No need,” he told her stepping over to the window and drawing the curtain back. She walked over to see what he was pointing at. “You left your truck here last night and we walked over to the other bar.”

      It was coming back now. She’d started at the Fort Hotel, because it was one of those kind of bars that Cody wouldn’t be caught dead in, but Riley’s friends had talked her into going over to the night club. That was where it all went fuzzy. “Was Riley there for the fight?”

      “No. I think he’s coming up some time today.”

      Great. He was going to hear about how she spent the night making an ass of herself over him. She wasn’t sure what was worse, her confessions of her love for him, or that she’d thrown down on Cody. She slipped into her jeans, begged Carl one more time not to tell Riley about any of it.

      “My best friend since four. I dunno.”

      She liked that he wouldn’t promise her. It meant he was honest, because really, who wouldn’t tell? She hopped in her truck and headed for the rodeo grounds.


*

Charlie had no idea how long she had been locked and hiding in the outhouse. At least long enough to convince herself she was done with rodeo for good, and she to decide she was packing her shit when she got back to Jacob’s and getting as far from everything she knew as she possibly could. Someone was outside banging away on the door impatiently, and had no choice but to compose herself, to cowgirl up and get back out into the world.

      The man on the other side of the door was not who she’d expected to see. That man she used to call “dad”. He looked at her like she was dead rat he’d just found in the barn. “You know, you used to be a helluva barrel racer,” he said. “You should have stuck to it instead of trying to be a man. Look at you.”

      She flicked the nails of her good hand against the gold plating of her belt buckle, pumped her eyebrows and spat between his feet. “Win some. Lose some,” she said, pushing past him.

      If there was a single bone left intact anywhere in her left hand, she’d have been surprised. She needed a cigarette, but her riggin bag might as well have been across the Sahara. “Mind if I bum a smoke,” she asked approaching Jim, who was working his magic on some girl of questionable age, flirting comically through that ridiculous painted face of his.

      “Sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his pack.

      She plucked the lit cigarette from his mouth. “That one will do,” she said. It was slimy with red grease paint, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. The smoke made her throat feel dry and she asked him if he’d mind getting her some water from her over in her gear.

      “Sure,” he said. “Where is it?”

      “Right there,” she said pointing to the corner where she’d left her things.

      The girl of questionable age looked bored and wandered away.

      “Where?” Jim asked her again.

      Charlie turned to look where she was pointing. Crap. Someone had swiped it while she was balling in the outhouse. She opened her mouth to ask Jim if he had seen anyone over there, but he was off in pursuit of the girl. Charlie hobbled over to the stripping chute to collect her riggin. She searched the line of gear, freshly stripped from the broncs that had just been bucked out, but it wasn’t there. It looked like whoever had swiped her bag had swiped it too. She gritted her teeth, trying to hold it together. It had to be there. It wasn’t. “Fuck!”

      The stock contractor leaned over the fence.

      “Looking for your gear?

      “Yeah.”

      “Your boyfriend grabbed it,” he said.

      “Boyfriend?” She wasn’t aware that she had any. “Don’t tell me that stupid little fuck Cody took it.”

      “No, not your ex. I mean Riley.”

      And then he caught her eye, standing there, a coy smile spread across his lips. After everything she’d done to him, Riley was standing there smiling at her.

      Her face knotted in confusion. She didn’t know what to say. There was nowhere to begin. It was a wheel spinning and she wasn’t sure at which part to come in.

      “I thought you might be a bit busted up, so I packed up your things for you. Are you OK. You had me worried, Charlene.”

      Her face warmed to a smile. Tears trickled onto her cheeks. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you.”

      He was uncomfortable with the vulnerable display of emotion. He could have easily grabbed her and kissed her right there, but he couldn’t. “I uh, couldn’t find your butt pad, when I was rounding up your things.”

      She laughed and turned her backside toward him. “That’s because I still have it.”

      He reached down her pants just a little and yanked it out with a comfortable familiarity.

      When she turned back to face him, she saw that Cody was watching from a few feet away. She thought it would be the perfect time to kiss Riley and give Cody a good show. But it wasn’t what she really wanted. She suddenly felt very private and protective of her feelings for him, as though they were something too special to flaunt for revenge. Special beyond all of that. “Riley,” a few more tears escaped from the corners of her eyes. She wiped her face with her sleeve, and tugged the brim of her hat down to cover her face. “You’re a saint.”

      When he hugged her, she hugged him back, every ounce of her body feeling apologetic. She could imagine no explanation for why he was forgiving her. She didn’t want forgiveness. She wanted him to yell at her and tell her how worthless he was. But she needed him to hold her, just like he was.

      “Hey Black Bull, get a room.” Cody shouted. “Or maybe she’s too tired from being with your buddy last night.”

      Charlie felt Riley’s body stiffen in her arms. She pulled his face back to meet her eyes. “I didn’t— Nothing happened,” she stammered.

      “I know,” he said. “Carl told me all about it.”

      “Her relief gave way to embarrassment. “All about it?”

      “Yeah. All about it. Come on.” He threw her riggin bag over his shoulder and put his free arm around her.

      He stowed her bag in her truck and then they walked over to the beer gardens. The tent was packed, but they managed to spot a few empty seats at the end of one of the rows of tables. They squeezed their way between the benches.

      “You all right there, bareback rider?” asked an ancient, knotted up old-timer, as she passed by him.

      Charlie turned and smiled at the man, a little too overeagerly to convey sincerity. “Just a scratch or two.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly with her good hand. A room full of eyes turned toward her. She was used to being recognized, but today the attention was suffocating. She made her way toward the empty seats with her head down, like a coyote.

      “I need a beer,” she said to Riley. Her voice was hoarse and her body starting to tremble with withdrawal.

      “I’ll get you something,” he said, reaching out to help her sit. He stopped himself, unsure if she wanted assistance, or not.

      Charlie smiled. She would have welcomed the help, if it wasn’t for all those eyes peering out from beneath a sea of cowboy hats.

      She settled in uncomfortably. The dirty athletic tape cut into her swollen flesh. She held her busted hand under the table and worked at ripping it free, hiding her winces beneath her hat. By the time Riley returned, she had crumpled it into a ball and was rolling it on the thigh of her Wranglers with her good hand.

      “Here,” he said, placing a drink in front of her.

      She slapped the ball down on the table. “Thanks.”

      “I thought you might be hungry, so I got you a burger too.”

      She lifted the plastic cup to her mouth. “Orange juice? This better have something in it.”

      “Nope. Just drink it. It will make you feel better, get your blood sugar back up.”

      Begrudgingly, she took a sip. How could she say no to someone who seemed to care so much?

      “Look,” he told her, “I’ve got to go get my horse ready. Will you be OK here, for awhile?”

      She nodded her head, her mouth already being full of burger.

      He was making his way back through the long aisle before she was able to swallow, and thank him properly. to let him know just what his showing up really did mean to her.

Chapter 25


Charlie slipped her gloved hands underneath the twine of another square bale and heaved it onto the trailer behind the tractor. They’d already been at loading the hay for a few hours and Stella still wasn’t back with Jacob’s truck. “Fucking bitch,” she said under her breath as she heaved another bale up. “I really need to get the hell out of this place.”

      “You talkin’ to yourself down there?” Jacob shouted through the tractor cab window.

      She grunted and threw another bale on top of the last. This was stupid. She was stupid. What the hell was she doing?

      Jacob stopped the tractor and crawled down from it.

      “What now?” she thought.

      “Here,” he said, tossing her a cold beer.

      She caught it and held it against her forehead. And then, the sudden inactivity hit her with a hard sucker punch. She stood there lost, frozen, like she had maybe forgotten how to breathe. Her gaze wandered out across the hayfield and beyond the river coulee, out of the focus of her eyes. Circles rimmed the outer edges of vision, black rings that shrank in and swallowed her sight, carrying her off to fade into the wind. Her knees buckled and she went down.

      Jacob bent over her, taking her body in his arms. When she opened her eyes again, he was there, staring down at her. He lifted her ball cap off her forehead then kissed the place just above the shiner.

      “Am I interrupting something?” Stella asked, walking out across the field.

      “No,” said Jacob, releasing his embrace and righting himself quickly. “Gypsy just faded on me here for a bit. Too much sun, I think.”

      “You all right?” Stella asked, extending a hand to help Charlie up, that Charlie was obliged to take, though she would have rather shaken hands with the business end of a scorpion.

      Charlie shook her head. “I’m fine. Yeah, probably too much sun. I don’t know what happened. But I’m good now.”

      “I saw a friend of yours today. Little busted toothed runt. Something gives me the feeling you'd love to know I threw an extra-large cup of steaming hot French vanilla in his lap.”

      Charlie laughed, in spite of herself. “No? Really? Oh my god, what happened?” she asked bending over to salvage what was left of the beer she dropped when she fainted.

      “Well first he got into it with another guy. Over you, I think. I thought he was going to get his ass pounded into the pavement, but the other guy walked away. He could have taken him though.”

      “Native guy?”

      “Yes, actually.”

      “Ah fuck. So then what happened?”

      “He thought he could spout off at me, and I’d play as nice as the other guy. But I’m not nice. Am I Jake? Jake will tell you I’m not nice. And I don’t take shit from anybody. So, I unloaded my coffee on him. I was tired of standing in line waiting to pay for it, and was looking to get rid of it anyway. For a tough little shit talker, it sure brought his ego back down to a size more fitting of his stature.”

*

All of the hay was either put up or shipped out, and Stella and Jacob had gone to town for dinner. The house was empty. The quiet imploded inside Charlie’s chest cavity and ricocheted around her like an echo. It was a long shot, but she thought she might know somewhere she could go that was just far enough from Cody and Jacob and Riley that didn’t mean returning to the road. Needing someplace to land, she picked up the phone with a shaky hand and dialed the number.

      “Hello,” said the strange woman on the other end.

      “Hi. Is Chuck around?”

      “Um, no.” The voice was curt. “Who is this?”

      “His daughter.”

      “He’s gone to a rodeo this weekend. But I’d appreciate if you didn’t call again. We do not wish to be involved with people like you.”

      “People like me? I don’t know what Chuck has told you, but ...” She couldn’t find the proper words to defend herself.

      “Look. I know what you are, and we don’t welcome that around here.”

      “No. I’m sure you don’t. And, I’m sure seeing as how you’re with my father, you are of fine upstanding moral character. I’ll bet you hooked up with him before he moved the last one out.” She could tell by the woman’s silence that it was true. “By the way, that stand-up guy you’re with? My mom killed herself because of him. You should ask him about it. Have a nice day, and go fuck yourself.”

      She cracked a beer and guzzled it back. She threw the empty can in the garbage and walked toward the fridge for another, but before she got there the phone rang. She raced back to where she had left it on the table. Maybe it was Riley and not all was lost.

      She picked up the phone. Dammit. Her father. She was regretting having ever thought she should call him.

      “Hello.”

      “Don’t be calling my house no more.” He said it like the house hadn’t been the place where she had grown up.

      She walked back to the fridge and got that beer she had been after. She was going to need it. “Who’s the new chick?”

      “Sharon.”

      “What happened to Tory?”

      “Oh, she was a few back,” he said laughing, pleased with himself for finding women to be so readily disposable for him. “Anyway, Sharon doesn’t want you calling the house.”

      “Why?” She pushed the screen door open and stepped outside.

      “Well, she’s got a couple of young girls and she doesn’t want any bad influences on them.” They weren’t even his daughters and he was worried about guarding them? Where was he when she needed guarding?

      “I’m a bad influence?”

      “Well, with your peeling and all.”

      “You say it like I’m a hooker.”

      “You could be for all we know.”

      “You don’t know me better?” Her voice cracked.

      “There’s no telling what kind of a lifestyle you could be living when you’re in with that kind of crowd.”

      “What kind of life style?” she echoed, lighting a cigarette and taking it out to the porch. “I’m staying with a guy who runs a guide outfit, and working as a ranch hand. How’s that any different from your life style?”

      “Yeah, I heard all about it,” he said. “Isn’t that guy older than me? I bet he just loves having you around.” He laughed again. Her father could be such a pervy creep. “A sugar daddy, huh?”

      “Jacob’s just a friend.”

      “No man ever kept a cow he wasn’t milkin or breedin. And, no man ever married a whore if he had better options.”

      “A whore?” She would have smashed his face in, if he wasn’t safely secured behind a phone somewhere on some anonymous road. “You mean like all those women you ran around with behind Mom’s back?”

      “Well, now,” he chuckled, “that’s a different story. Your Mom was depressed and I had to find a little loving somewhere.”

      She gritted her teeth and threw the stub of her cigarette into the driveway. She pulled another out of the pack. “She was depressed because you kept fucking around on her.”

      “You’ve got that wrong. Your mother was a hard person to live with.”

      “Real hard, I’m sure. Hard to have someone do your laundry and cook your meals while you’re out fucking around.”

      “Look,” his tone became angry, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

      How dare he get angry with her? She’d never done a thing to him. “Well if I’m a whore, it must run in the family. Get it from my father’s side.”

      “You’re the one who chose to start spreading your legs for cash. That’s not my fault, though it’s a fucking embarrassment to the family.”

      “First, we aren’t a family. Second, did you even hear me? I’m working on a ranch, not dancing!”

      “And I’ll bet you got one helluva an arrangement going there, don’t you? Real step up from peeling.” He laughed again and it hit her that he expressed joy and exercised oppression simultaneously in that signature laugh, because for him, they were synonymous.

      “Jacob’s one hundred times the man you’ll ever be.”

      “I’m still your father, and you remember that.”

      “You were never my fucking father.”

      She missed the days before cordless phones, as she drilled her finger into the end button. It just didn’t carry the weight of satisfaction that slamming the receiver down used to. She held the empty beer can in her palm and smashed it into the step. It didn’t make her feel any better.

      She couldn’t go to town and she didn’t feel like sitting around an empty house, so she grabbed a six pack of beer, a couple of changes of clothes and her riggin bag, then scrawled a quick note to Jacob.

            Gone to Fort Nelson early. See you Sun.

      She wasn’t sure how to sign it. Fuck it.

                        Later,

                                 Gypsy



It was a four hour drive to Fort Nelson and she hoped to be good and numb before she got there.

Chapter 24


Riley walked slowly up the stairs, his jaw sore from clenching it too long.

      Ry was bundled beneath a blanket on the couch, where he had been when his uncle left for town a few hours before, a large aluminum mixing bowl beside him.

      “I feel better now,” he said in a small raspy voice. “Is it too late to go fishing now?”

      “You just get some rest, little man. We’ll go when you really feel better,” Riley said, his voice cracking slightly.

      “You OK?” Jen asked.

      “One of those days,” he replied. He held up an envelope in his hand.

      “What is it?”

      “Letter from our dad.”

      “And?”

      “Blame and coded threats. The usual.”

      “Well, he’s where he belongs. Let him rot there.”

      Riley had nothing left to say about it. He turned and walked toward his bedroom, closing the door behind him.

      Charcoal equine eyes stared knowingly back at him from the four directions of his walls— sketches from all the hours when there was nothing to do but dream of horses. Dream of their warmth to keep him going when the concrete emanated so much cold it leeched irretrievably into his bones. Dream of their freedom when the cell bore down on him with strangling claustrophobia. Snitch? Yeah, his father could call him that. Say he had no honour. But where was the honour in a father who let his son take the fall for him? Always about honour your elders. What all the leaders in the Ghost Dance Posse pushed down their soldiers’ throats. Why you don’t question and you always take the fall. Honour. But what of the older generations sacrificing for the younger ones? What of leaving legacies to pave the way for their grandchildren, instead of addicting them to drugs and then teaching them how to turn around and addict the next generation?

      Riley had thought he’d really found something when he moved to go live with his father. Money and girls and the promise of a warrior’s life. He’d bought into it all. Took the branding as though it was some kind of sacred ritual and not just another form of corrupt indoctrination that stated he was owned. And he would have done the time for his father too, he believed in it that much. But then came the real teachings, the time spent in real ceremonies, and with the truer rites of passage. All of these part of his prison program. And when he looked at it with his new vision, he could see no other way to be the warrior he’d longed to be. No other way to do the honourable thing. His father was no elder. He was just another gang leader exploiting young women and pushing hard drugs on his own people. That wasn’t likely going to change. So why was he on the outside while Riley was locked up with no meaningful way to make amends for what he’d done himself? And that’s when he decided he was done with taking the fall for a man who was never his father. A man who had exploited him like he exploited everything and everyone else.

      The threats. The head fuck rhetoric and put downs. And then whatever the hell Charlene had done with Cody the night before. It was too much. He swiped his hands across the walls of his bedroom, grabbing at fistfuls of paper. He crumpled and tore them, destroying the evidence of the dreams he had dreamed, until his accomplishments fell like snow from his palms. The dreams didn’t matter now. The storm was awake. It opened its eye inside his heart.

      The dreams weren’t enough, without someone to share them with. He banged his head against the bare wall. He should have taken a round out of Cody. He could have pulverized him. He hospitalized a man once, for weeks, for calling a posse brother a ‘wagon burner’. He’d gone there and found out exactly what he was capable of. But he learned it was a place he could never go again, not even for the quick visit of a single blow.

      There was a knock on his bedroom door. “You OK in there?” Jen asked from the other side.

      “Fine,” Riley said opening the door and pushing past her. “I’m going out for awhile.”

      “Talk to me. I’m here for you,” she called down the hallway after him.


He hadn’t known where he was going when he got in his truck. Or maybe that was a lie, because he had no reason to drive out to that part of the rez. He kept right on denying it to himself, even as he parked outside of Devon’s house. Even as he pulled out his wallet to check how much cash he had on him.

      He opened the gate, setting off a carnivorous barking fit from a couple of tethered pit bulls. Just something easy for a little numbing to get by. That was it, he promised himself. He pounded a fist on the door.

      Devon greeted him, a big grin across his pock marked face. Riley regretted having come here. The pungent smell of pot wafted through the door, and he felt like gagging. It was just one of those things that never agreed with him. Even in his hardcore days. He tried to think of an excuse for being there, some reason other than the truth that really brought him, so he could turn around and forget the mistake he was making.

      “Welcome back. So, yooh lookin?” asked his cousin, as he reached inside his snap-side track pants to scratch his thigh. “I don’t know that I should sell to yooh. You might rat me out, eh.”

      “I thought when I ran into you at the bar last night you said if I needed anything, to stop by.”

      “Yeah, of course man. I’m just playin. Come in fur a minute. Cheryl will wanna say hi. We never see you much these days. Now you’re all clean living and shit. Too good for us.”

      “I can’t stay. You got beer or a bottle or something.”

      His cousin gave him a hard look. “Fuck off. You didn’t come here for a bootleg. I got what you really want.” He pulled out a small plastic packet with a few little nuggets in it, and dangled it in Riley’s face.

      Riley fidgeted nervously. “Just the booze. I’ve got the cash right here.”

      “I don’t knohw. Maybe I shouldn’t help you off your wagon.”

      “That’s fine. I’ll drive to town if I have to.”

      “Noh man. It’s a long drive. I got beer. A case? But when you really get your party going, you’re going to want this. Trust me. On the house.” He shoved the packet in Riley’s front shirt pocket, then left before Riley could dig it out and refuse it. Devon came back with a case of beer and handed it over. Riley gave him the handful of cash he’d pre-counted.

      Devon flipped the bills. “It’s another ten. Prices have gone up.”

Riley pulled out his wallet and took a ten dollar bill from it.


With the beer by his side, he was already high on the anticipation of a drink. He couldn’t go home to do it, because Jen and Ry were there, and it would be easier to get back on the road again if no one knew he’d stepped off it in the first place. So he drove out to the far horse pasture.

      He reached for a beer, but remembering his bundle tucked under his truck seat, he stopped. Others had fallen also. He wouldn’t be the first. He was only human. And this was just a onetime thing to get through a rough spell. He took the leather bag containing his pipe over to the forest edge, and laid it at the base of a large cottonwood, nestling it beside a large root. Then covered it carefully with rocks, so that it was deeply hidden under the cairn. He’d just drink this case of beer, then he’d sober up and retrieve it.

      Back at his truck, he cracked a can of beer, and downed it fast. It felt too good. So good he was forgetting why he’d given up. When he was released from jail he was so full of ideas. He would commit himself to learning the ceremonies. Then he would bring those true warrior ceremonies home to the youth who were also hungry for rites of passage. He’d learn a better way with horses and run camps for those youth in crisis. He’d be the light he had needed. And he had committed his life to the ceremonies. He had learned a better way of communing with horses. But somewhere in it all, the closer he progressed toward his goals, the further away they seemed. Impossibly far. Where he thought he would be unstoppable, he found himself crippled with loneliness. So crippled, that instead of being the role model of sobriety for his community, he didn’t even say a word in protest when everyone decided to party at his place. So isolated and alienated his need for intimacy had led him to take it from the woman he loved when she was intoxicated, and after he had silently vowed to Creation that he would help her find the road in the way he had. What was the point of his old man sitting behind bars, if this was all he could make of the second chance at life that he’d paid so much to have?

      He took a knife from his glove box, and after denting in the side of the can, he used it to poke a hole in the centre of the dent. A fix a little heavier than the beer, just to get him by. Just to ride out the storm. It was a ritual of escape. And one he’d practiced many times, though he had never thought he would do so again.

      He looked out across the pasture. A palomino danced in the rising wind. A few rocks could mean the difference between what he had here and the streets of Edmonton. He knew that. But he’d come back before. He was stronger now. He could do it again.

      He rubbed the side of his face and closed his eyes. Just this once. Just to take off the edge. It didn’t have to be anything more.

      A thump against the truck window startled him. “Fuck!” he said jumping. The palomino pressed his muzzle against the glass, painting it with a string of slobber and snot.

      Riley had been caught out. By a horse. But maybe not just a horse, because there were some who said that horses were the incarnation of ancestral warriors. True warriors. The ones who sacrificed everything for the people. Looking back into the horse’s eyes, he could see the light of the ancestor inside. He could hear the voice speaking, “you weren’t saved for this.” He looked from the horse to the can in his lap, and then at the case of beer. He was being challenged now to give the storm a good fight.

      Riley got out and touched the sweet spot where the hairline began above the horses eyes. A fight. He could at least try. He grabbed a chunk of the palomino’s mane and swung his leg over the gelding’s side. He tensed the muscles in his thighs and the horse broke into a trot that gave way to a gallop across the pasture.

      Hooves pounded the ground, and through the cracks in the cadence grew a song that belonged to the music he heard only in those very rare moments when something greater than himself was afoot. Like the wind, it had no source, no tangible essence that could be touched or seen or named, but it filled him, until his cheeks were wet with tears. The intimate synergy of the formless drummers, songs rising from their throats, folding him into the ether. He no longer was aware of where the bounds of his own body ended. His heart beat the spirit drum along with them, thundering in his ears, his breath a part of the chorus of everything that had lived or breathed under the long pale sky. He threw his head back and released the song into the physical world, letting it cry victory with the power of the resilience of those who had gone before him.

      The palomino opened his gate full stride into a cantor, giving Riley the wings he could never have. The song grew louder. It vibrated through his bones. He closed his eyes, bent forward and pressed his head against the horse’s neck, letting go of the harsh illusions of the world.

      It was a long time before the gelding slowed to a trot, and finally a walk. When the horse came to a stop, Riley opened his eyes to see where he was. He reached out and rubbed the branch of a willow between his fingers. Behind it stood a pond, flat like glass, reflecting the blue of the sky perfectly. This was the special place where he and his mother would ride when he was very little, he in front of her, her arms around him so lovingly he was free to take for granted that the cruelty of the world would ever touch him. The last time they had come here together, Riley had driven to this place, still a few years shy of getting his license, but his mother was too sick by then to sit a saddle.

      He slid from the palomino’s back. The earth was soft beneath his feet. He bent to his knees and carved out a hole in the ground with his hands. He took the small plastic bag from his pocket and pressed it into the dirt then pushed the soil back over it. Then he rose and took a pouch of tobacco from his back pocket, extracted a handful, held it up to the sky, and made his prayers. When he was done he blew his breath into his palms, and then placed the offering on the calm water.

      He opened his medicine pouch and pulled out a small piece of sweetgrass that had been taken from a larger braid, and a tiny white piece of diamond willow fungus, and with the lighter he nearly just burned his life away with, he lit the medicines. The smoke rose to the heavens and he cupped it, washing it over his heart. He drew it up over his face, mouth, eyes, ears, and down the back of his neck, purifying his mind. He washed his feet, his hands. He cleansed all of his body thoroughly, asking for clarity, and the guidance of the spirits where his ow strength was failing.


He thought a great deal about Charlie on the ride back to the truck. That he had asked too much before its time, and he had to own his part in what happened. She wasn’t free entirely of guilt. And it hurt like hell. He was angry...if Cody was telling the truth, because there was no guarantee of that. But whatever it was that happened or didn’t, he had to accept that you couldn’t expect more of people than they were capable of. Even if it was a lie, how capable was she? If he chose to keep trying, he’d have to be a willow. The hurt would not break him then, but neither could he stand tall with pride and expectation. He could expect to bent repeatedly to his knees. She was destructive, especially toward herself. And in the sickest way, he recognized that what she had done carried the possibility that it was provoked by too many good feelings she wasn’t in a place to accept. The destruction was dangerous. It meant he was never going to be able to be her knight in shining armour, because she would find ways to goad him into bringing her to the edge of no return, where she'd make him push her so it was easier to leap. It couldn’t be like he wanted. She had first to learn to trust that someone in this world wanted only to help her. But then she had to help herself first and foremost. All he could do was try to help her figure out how. He’d been wanting for her to fill the voids in him for years now, and look where that had nearly just brought him, when he thought he finally had that, but only disappointment followed. So how could he expect to fix her by filling her voids when she was too fragile to be touched?

      When he returned to his truck, he took a horse brush from the pick-up box and ran it across the palomino’s back, sweeping away the dust and sweat. He thanked him for the gift of the ride with long deliberate strokes.

      He could hear his truck phone ringing, but he ignored it. The outside world did not belong to this moment of gratitude. He scratched and pampered his mother’s gelding, old now, but still as strong and swift as ever, until the gelding grew bored of him and edged away, signalling it was ready to return to grazing.

      He had forgotten about the can he had nearly turned into a makeshift pipe, but there it was sitting on his seat with the beer. He stared at it for a long time, as though it was an artifact from another life, and it was, just an echo of an eon ago that had no place in this time. He shoved it in a take-out bag and threw it out the back window, into the pick-up box.

      Remembering that his phone had been ringing a moment ago, he picked it up to check his messages. There was only one, but he had to listen to it a couple of times to take it all in.

      “Hi Riley!” the recorded voice said, “Sarge Beaufort. I coordinate stunts for movies down here in Calgary. Anyway, we’ve got a big picture coming up and could use some horse trainers and stunt men. I hear you’re my man in both regards. We’d need you by the end of next week. So, if you’re interested, give me a call back ASAP.”

      He listened a second and a third time, making mental notes of all of the things that would need taking care of. Could his sister handle the chores? He could get Carl to give her a hand. What would he pack? Horse gear or personal stuff? Personal stuff first. Clothes, shower kit, the book he was reading, CD case, pencils and sketch books... Horse gear? He could sort that out as he went through the tack shed.

      First, he needed to dump this beer in the forest, and retrieve his bundle. Then, after he smudged himself and the bundle, he would sing the song he was gifted from the spirits to remind him to hang on, because bigger things were always coming.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Chapter 23


Stella looked in the gas station mirror inspecting her teeth for coffee grounds. She was a full blown java addict, but percolated coffee, especially the kind that had boiled over, was not her thing. She needed something more refined to wash the taste from her mouth.

      She settled for French-Vanilla from an automated machine.

      The line at the counter was long. She picked at the plastic lid, thinking very seriously about abandoning the cup and just hitting a Tim Horton’s drivethrough.

      The door jingled, for the hundredth time since she’d filled the cup, and for the hundredth time she turned toward the noise. In walked a cowboy with a swagger that was physically verbose for his lack of height. They hadn’t changed much. Bullriders were still cut from the same cloth as back in her day. He looked her up and down in a way that made her skin crawl. She was about to cross her eyes and stick her tongue out at him, but his attention quickly turned from her.

      The bullrider narrowed his eyes on the new subject of his attention. “Hey, Black Bull.”

      The other man gave a small nod. It was friendly, but not inviting.

      “So, I paid you back last night.”

      She watched the suspicion knit itself into the man’s brow.

      “Remember how you took my girlfriend home with you, after her little strip dance?”

      “I helped her out. Nothing happened.”

      “Yeah, well I returned the favour last night. I had her ass right there and ready, but then I figured she’s more used up than I like them. Too much of that bareback riding. Wasn’t worth my time, so I turned her out.”


      Stella stepped aside. She was sure the taller cowboy was going to knock the rest of the little guy’s teeth out. The customers ahead of her bunched closer to the counter keeping their eyes fixed on the developing action.

      The man gritted his teeth. “I don’t know what Charlie ever saw in you.”

      “Charlie?” said the Bullrider. “Charlie? Gypsy? Mrs. Black Bull? Fuck I can’t keep up.”

      The taller cowboy met the little one toe to toe. “You think this is a game? When do you say enough is enough and stop screwing with her?” He grabbed the bullrider by his shirt. The muscles in his face twitched, but the force of intense discipline held him back. “And the name’s not Black Bull. I’ll teach you so you won’t forget it, if you want.”

      The swagger ran down the little guy's leg, into an invisible puddle of ego on the floor.



      The larger one let him go, butted ahead of the line, threw two twenty dollar bills on the counter, and walked out.

      “See you later, Black Bull,” Cody called after him, but not loud enough Riley could actually hear.

      Stella tapped the bullrider on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said, preparing to say something sassy and smartass.

      “Hey, aren’t you that American gold-digger? How do you feel about my ex keeping your boyfriend busy while you’re away?”

      “You know,” she said, in an overly civilized tone, “you’re one sorry little prick.” Her movements were so calm and rational he couldn’t see it coming. She carefully pried the lid off the coffee, and having decided she didn’t really want it after all, flicked her wrist and emptied it straight into his crotch.

      She was so done with taking any man’s shit decades ago. It just felt too good to give it right back. She cackled like a wicked old hag all the way to Tim Horton’s.



*

For her first visit to a bar, Stella wasn’t doing so well. She crossed the tavern floor, barely standing. She would have collapsed in a clumsy heap on the floor, if the man in the nice suit who accompanied her didn’t take a tight grip on her arm. A teen with her first taste of booze, she staggered out into the night; feeling more confident about holding her unstable stomach in the cool nair, but before she made it back to Beauregard’s Cadillac the turbulent beast in her guts awoke and leapt from her mouth. Her new custodian held her loose hair back from her face.

      “There, there,” he said. “Too much of a good things is never a good thing.”


      When she was done, he helped her into the back seat of his car where she drifted off into a deep sleep. They arrived at their destination well after midnight. The slowing momentum of the car woke her. She arose from the back seat enough to see a cluster of cowboys, clumped around a campfire, through the windshield. A few of them stirred in the illumination of the headlights. She lay her head back down on the stiff upholstery. Her imagination had fooled her. She’d thought that playing an Indian princess in a Wild West show meant being part of some glamorous Roy Rogers travelling troop, something romantic like in the old movie pictures the nuns showed a few times a year. Seeing the mangy, shivering cowboys camped out on a fairground’s lawn looked anything but romantic.


      “Well, we’re here,” Beauregard said, putting the car into park. She was relieved to find she wasn’t expected to camp out like the cowboys, and was thankful to take the one half of a thin mattress that was offered to her in a rundown Arrow Stream—that was, until her half turned into a third, and then a quarter. Finally, she sought the safety of the seat at the kitchen table, which even in her drunken state did not allow her much sleep.

      The morning came early and with it an aching bladder. She went outside to find somewhere to squat. The cowboys were already awake and busy putting up the panels of an arena. She could sense their eyes following her from beneath their hats, as she picked her way cautiously across the dewy field to a small thicket of brush. She felt like a mouse being stalked by coyotes. 


      Beauregard was awake by the time she returned. He sat at the table, bare-chested, sipping from a tin coffee cup. His shoulders were unusually broad. Stella had attributed their size to the cut of the suit he had been wearing, but she could now see that while he was thin, he was also strong and chiseled. She studied his hairless, shirtless body. She smiled. He was easy on the eyes.

      He did not return the smile. “Did you sleep much last night?” he asked her.

      “No.”

      “It shows. You look like shit. Get yerself some sleep. You’re going to be my big draw now, so I don’t need some haggard looking squaw. I 
see in this light that you have freckles. I don’t want you to leave this trailer without brushing some of this on your face first.” He handed her a small container of dark minerals. “Now, get some sleep.”

      Stella took the make-up. She tucked it into the cloth she had wrapped all her things from the school in, and crawled into bed. It was still warm and smelled of strange man sweat, but she was weary and closed her eyes. As she lay there she wondered what kind of man she was now dealing with. She certainly didn’t like the way he referred to her as a ‘squaw’.


      Sleep did not come until well after she’d heard Beauregard leave the trailer. Even then it was light and erratic. But somewhere in the morning she must have drifted off to sleep. She’d jumped when he touched her shoulder with a gentle hand. The burning orb of sun was now too high to be directly seen through the trailer windows. It had to be at least noon. She sat upright on the edge of the bed, unsure what to expect.

      “You know some dances, right?” he asked her.

      “Maybe,” she said, “from a long time ago. I don’t know if I remember.” Her heart rose up in her chest and with it doubt.

      “You know any other dances? Sexy ones?”

      “I’ve seen girls dancing in the movies.”

      “Good enough. I can teach you. Try this on,” he said handing her a package wrapped in brown paper. She undid the string and opened it. Inside was a buckskin dress, covered with a million tiny glass beads. The smell reminded her of a home she knew she would not likely see again.

      “It’s beautiful. Who made it?” she asked, running her fingers over the meticulous beadwork.

      “I did,” said Beauregard opening a bottle of whiskey and pouring some into a glass. “Try it on.”

      Stella’s trust was rapidly waning. She looked from him to the floor. Did he mean for her to undress right here in front of him?

      Beauregard tipped the whiskey down his gullet, then turned his back to her.

      The dress was smooth against her skin and that smoky smell broke her heart with longing. It was tight and she had to tug it over her hips.

      Beauregard turned around and she held in her belly as best she could. He sucked a front tooth. “Yes, you will do just fine. And make sure you put this on, too,” he said, taking a box from a small closet. He opened it and drew out a large feathered headdress. He reached out, taking the liberty to finger a lock.
“You’re hair isn’t dark enough and it's far too short. I’ll get you a wig in the next town.” He let her hair fall back against her cheek, poured himself another whiskey and left the trailer.

      The dress was beautiful, but how long could she squeeze into it? She looked at herself sideways in the mirror and admired the sleek profile she made. Then, she let out her breath and relaxed her posture, a bump emerged in the reflection. It was hard to believe that inside that belly was probably a tiny living creature. Her hand caressed the protrusion softly. A mother? She might be a mother. She said the word out loud to feel it on her tongue. “Mother.”

      The door swung open, jarring her back to awareness. As she stood there startled, sucking in her belly, the look on Beauregard’s face told her everything. “Damn fuckin’ whore,” he said, storming in toward her. “I paid $100 for a piece of knocked up trash? No wonder the sisters wanted to be rid of you so bad.”

      “$100?” she shot back. “Well, you paid too much. The government probably didn't give them that much for me in a year and I’m fifteen now. I was going to be out of there in the next few months anyway.” She reached for the headdress and threw it to the floor, giving him a defiant look.

      He grabbed her by the hair and she had to bend her neck to alleviate the strain he was putting on her. “Well, sweetheart, don’t you worry. I can make that back off you in a night. Those white guys out there just love to sink their pricks into girls like you, 
when they don't have to feel all civilized and repentant about it. Didn’t your mama teach you that? ”

      She pulled back so hard that a fistful of her hair came away in his hand. She yanked at the buckskin dress, but the seams were too strong to rip it from her body. It clung to the damp angry perspiration that covered her skin. She tugged it again and dragged it up over her head and threw it in his face. “You have no right. I’ve taken enough shit from white men in my life. I sure as hell am not going to take shit from some smelly, whiskey-soaked, drunken heathen of a damnable Indian.”

      The back of his hand was hard against the side of her head. Not the face. The head. The thud of it registered before the fact that she’d been hit. She took it without a tear and met him with a glare.

      “Indian, hey?” His black eyes narrowed so near to her that she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I already told you, I’m whatever I tell you I am.”

      Stella stared back at him, too enraged to be embarrassed that she was half naked. “I don’t care what you think you are...”

      One of his large powerful hands ripped her backward onto the bed. He was on top of her and struggling was useless. He was shoving himself inside her before she could comprehend what his intentions were. “You know what I am right now? I’m your daddy. That’s right. And you do what daddy tells you.”

      He held her tight against the mattress, as if he expected her to fight, but she didn’t. She’d long since learned that it was better to just wait for it to be over. She drifted from the nauseating smell of whiskey and sweat to a happy place where her spirit could free itself from the horrors of the body. She thought of the horses— paints, appaloosas, palominos, roans— all of them running across grassy plains— owned by no man, free. It was a game she had perfected, hide-and-seek in a place where no one could ever find her, or hurt her. She was running free with the horses across the plains.

      The dream broke, as he pulled off her. "Go wash your cunt," he said, zipping his pants up.

      It didn't matter. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d already made a plan.



Monday, July 4, 2016

Chapter 22


Stella was roused awake by the sound of Beauregard’s croupy wheeze. The room was cold, and their breath was visible in the dim light of a lantern. She woke Beauregard by softly rocking his bony shoulder. When he opened his eyes she had him sit forward and propped some pillows behind his back. Her instinct was to go at him again about moving to town, or at least seeing a doctor. But all her nagging did, no matter how much love and concern she put into it, was to make him angry and irritable. She pulled on her jacket and got up to relight the fire.

      She opened the damper, and then walked over to open the door so the smoke wouldn’t build in the room before the fire got a good catch.

      “The salt,” he said.

      “Salt?”

      He pointed his finger to a container on a shelf behind her.

      “Right. The salt.” The foolishness of it annoyed her, but she took the salt down and spread a line of it across the threshold of the open door. “I’ll fix you something to drink. Some strong black coffee will help that cough.” She dumped a few teaspoons of grounds into the percolator and placed it on the woodstove to boil.

      The cabin was small and warmed quickly.

      “Come here,” he said, flapping his left hand on the bed impatiently like a fish out of water.

      “I’ll be there in a minute. I’m just waiting to make sure the coffee doesn’t boil over.”

      “Come.”

      Stella hung her jacket back on the hook and obliged.

      She stroked Beauregard’s graying hair, as she stared at the glow dancing behind the small pane of glass at the front of the stove. The smell of wood smoke drew a memory of a vague and distant past, maybe a cold and hungry winter before they came and took her from her mother. Beauregard rested a leather hand on her lap, and she had an urge to suckle his frail body like the baby she never got to have.

      It had been a long journey where time turned everyone into the opposite of what they had been. The poor girl who patched the holes in the only dress she owned, and did nude shows and turned tricks for someone else’s gain...for Beauregard’s gain, she’d been living the good life for years. Had been around the world. Knew what fork to use. What wine to order. Owned works of modern art. Beau had promised her Hollywood, and anything she wanted to hear, as long as she was his cash cow and giving up the milk. Jacob had vied to be her knight in shining armour. And look at them both. Who set the once tough-assed, hard drinking, shrewd swindler, up with some land of his own, with her inheritance? The land and the accommodations weren't much, true, but she gave as much as the old man would take. And then look at the once dreamy cowboy, with the incorruptible innocence in his eyes. Fucked from a war he never learned how to leave.

      They’d forgotten her. All the love they had pledged. But in the end, she was the one who went back for them. Beauregard she found through an army of private detectives, and it was no easy task. And Jacob? She hadn’t thought much about finding him. Fate took care of that when it delivered him one day, strung out and down to skin and bones, to the Veteran’s hospital she was volunteering at. Who had been the savior then? Who stayed by his side and loved him through the darkness? And when he was ready for the world again, who sold him a quiet piece of land in Canada for a quarter of what it was worth, to give him a new start? Still, they both claimed to love her. But she was the one who went back. She was the one who kept them going. And that’s just how she liked the men in her life now. Under her control.

      She got up, and with a rag, removed the percolator from the stove, but not before it boiled over. She poured them each a cup of coffee, the grounds mixed in and visible as the liquid left the spout.

      “I should be getting back soon,” she said handing him a cup.

      “No, stay with me,” he asked, through a fit of coughs.

      “It’s getting late and I’ve been gone too long. I’ll come back tonight. Unless…”

      The coughing eased and he brought the coffee to his lips. He looked at her over the rim of the cup. ”Unless?”

     “You let me take you to see a doctor.”

      “Stella. No. I’m going to die. I’m going to die soon. I’m going to die here. I’ve long outlived what I ever should have. You need to make peace with that. But I’m going to die here. Know this, no doctors. They keep people like me and we never go home.”

      A shiver ran up her spine. He shoulders were bare beneath the thin spaghetti straps of her dress. Beauregard brushed aside the bright auburn hair that lay on one of her shoulders. “I liked it better when it was dark.”

      “My natural colour or the black you made me dye it?” she asked, not really caring what the answer might be.

      He wheezed heavily and coughed again. “The rich terracotta chocolate that it was when I met you.”

      “Terracotta chocolate? That doesn’t sound very appetizing.”

      “But it was. It was beautiful when the sun hit.”

      “I’m not sure how you’d remember it. It wasn’t like that for very long.”

      “I remember. Every time I hold you and I close my eyes, I remember. I’m so sorry.”

      “For changing my hair colour?”

      “No. Well, yes that too.” He sputtered again for a long time. “I’m sorry for all the other stuff, mostly. You must have thought I was a demon. I was. I was the demon who destroyed you.”

      “You didn’t destroy me. You were a mean son-of-a-bitch, but you taught me how to survive in this world.”

      “Bullshit. You knew that long before I came into your life. I could see it in your eyes. It’s why I chose you.”

      “And here I thought it was for my beauty,” she teased.

      “No. It was the way you looked at me. I saw a fighter in there. I saw a girl full of fire who knew how to work a game.”

      Stella didn’t feel like going over it all again. It was what it was. He was a different man then. She’d long since forgiven him. She fished in her purse for her phone. “No call from Jake yet. I guess he’d call if he needed me.”

      “Stella, I mean it. I’m sorry.”

      “Shhh,” she told him. “Let it be.”

      His face became anguished. “When I close my eyes I see other things too.”

      “We don’t have to go there. Please, not there.”

      “I’m going to suffer right until the end. It’s the evil I put into this world, the things I did to you, and others… that poison has come back to me. It’s in my lungs now. Some days are good days, but it isn’t going to get much better. I’m going to die. And it’s going to get bad. And you need to promise you won’t make me go to town. I need this suffering to absolve my sins. To set the balance right. Let me have my suffering.”

      “That’s silly talk,” she assured him. “Could I at least hire a nurse for you?”

      “Yours is the only compassion I want. I was a monster in those days. What was it you called me? A wine-soaked, drunken heathen of a damnable Indian.”

      “Don’t go there. Not there. OK?”

      “I was a monster.”

      “You were a shrewd businessman. A shitty card player, but a shrewd businessman. And one hell of a showman." She pulled the blankets up high around him and tucked the edges in. “There were good times too. Don’t they count? I learned a long time ago that the way to get through this world is to only take the good days with you and to leave the rest behind. It’s how I survived.” She rose to get ready to leave.

      “I don’t know if I’m going to see you again.”

      “You’re too stubborn to die.”

      “I need you to promise me you’ll do something”

      “Sure.”

      “I want you to find love. Real love.”

      “I have. Twice,” she said putting her jacket on.

      “You never had a choice with me. That wasn’t real love.”

      “But I do love you. And what about the Colonel? I had a lot of happy years with him.”

      “I know you, Stella. You loved the life he gave you and his kindness. But did you really love him?”

      
“Sure. What more could there be to want? I’ve known what it is to love a man and be loved.”

      “I wasn’t talking about a man, anyway. You Stella. Love you. All of you.”

      She walked very slowly to her truck, wondering if it was the last time she'd see him alive.




Sunday, July 3, 2016

Chapter 21


Cody told her she’d ruined her life. Was that possible? Could one event or decision ruin everything forever? If it could, then the day she met the redheaded cowboy. Not the day she first took the stage. If one moment could change it all irrevocably, then everything that followed after that had only been a series of inevitable outcomes. If one event could ruin a life. But what of redemption? What of the alternatives she had forgotten, that didn’t forget her? Was it possible for those alternatives to circle around again for a second chance to present themselves?


      Charlie had never known she could be worthy of such attention. To have an entire room focused on her. Her stage debut had been such a hit the bar manager paid her to get back up and do an encore. Cody and Miss Clarissa Purple Pants had been there for that one. And with her nerves quelled by having already done it once, and a whole lot of booze, she’d owned it. But it was all over now. Last call had come like a smack in the face. The bar was closing and she had nowhere to go. Her riggin bag and personal belongings sat behind the DJ booth— her whole life in a couple of bags.

      Cody had long since left the bar with Clarissa for the room that Charlie was supposed to be sleeping in.

      “What’re your plans for tonight?” asked Riley.

      “Well, I got a heap of cash. There’s the money from making the ride, the cash from the shows, and then the tips. I was thinking I might rent myself one of those fancy hotel rooms with a Jacuzzi. Except I guess I don’t have a job anymore.”

      “Jacuzzi? Can I join you?” Chester asked, with a shit-eating grin that stretched from ear to ear.

      She didn’t need to answer him with words. Her look said it all.

      “Fine, but if you change your mind, I’ll be up there trying to win a magnet for my cabinets from that cute little darlin.”

      Jim had his arm around Divinity, and they were whispering playfully in each other’s ears. Instead of finding it cute, it just pissed her off. The world gave not one damn about her broken heart. And here was the proof. That two people could fawn so pathetically over each other, when everything she knew had just come to an end.

      Riley took one of her hands in his. She looked up at him. “Hey. You OK?” he asked.

      “Would you think I was a wuss, if I said ‘No’?”

      “There’s always Chester’s offer,” he joked.

      She smiled a little, but the laugh died in her throat.

      “You’re right. You should save your money. Come back with us to the rodeo grounds and you can stay in my trailer. It’s small and smells like horseshit, but it beats the heck out of a big fancy hotel with a Jacuzzi.”

      A stifled laugh escaped a little. “Ok.”

      They all went outside and waited for a cab. When it arrived, the group piled in, Charlie, Riley, Jim, and Divinity in the back seat, and Chester in the front. It was cramped and the claustrophobia was making Charlie nauseous. The air was too heavy and stale to get a proper breath. She needed to get out of the back seat. She was about to open her mouth to ask the driver to pull over before she puked, but the cab turned onto the grassy lawn of the rodeo grounds, stopping between Riley’s truck and horse trailer, and Chester’s truck and camper. She let out a sigh of relief.

      The taxi stopped, and she piled out into the cool night air and inhaled deeply. And then it struck her heart with a cold beat. Cody wasn’t coming after her. There wouldn’t even be an apology. This was how it was now. Whatever it was.

      Her head was cloudy. What was this now? As she walked toward Riley’s trailer, she stubbed the toe of a boot on the ground and pitched forward. Riley caught her in his arms, saving her from a collision with the hard earth. She looked up into his face, “My hero,” she said affecting a cheesy Southern accent. “How will I ever repay you?” Her words were thick and slurred, and not near as flirty as she’d intended.

      He put his hands on her hips to steady her toward the trailer, then propped her against it. “Stay here. I’m just going to grab your bags,” he told her.

      “Fuck. No way.” She clasped a hand over her mouth. She’d almost forgotten everything she owned in the trunk of the taxi.

      Chester stumbled into the cab of his truck and was snoring before his head hit the seat. Jim hoisted Divinity into the back of the camper that was missing its stairs due to some mishap no one could now recall. He reached inside and then tossed a beer toward Charlie. “Catch.”

      She dropped it. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she said, knowing it would now be half foam. She bent clumsily forward on her knees, picked it up and cracked it. Blowing hard, she sent the volcano of foam spraying across the grass in front of her.

      When she looked up, she saw that it was now just her and Riley in the darkness.

      He opened the door at the front of the live-in horse trailer, and tossed her bags inside, then lifted her to her feet again and helped her inside to the small kitchen table. “Here we are,” he said.

      “I’ll be right back. Will you be OK for a minute? I have to check on my horse.”

      “Yup. If I’m not dead now, nothing’s going to kill me.”

      He stroked the top of her head softly, before heading out into the night again.

      She sat at the table and waited for him to return. There was not a single thing left to do in the world, but wait for him to come back. “Yup, nothing to do but wait. And drink this beer.”

      It was empty by the time Riley returned.

      He opened a closet and began to pull out a sleeping bag. “I can just sleep in my truck tonight. You take the bed,” he offered.”

      “No. Don’t do that. If you don’t mind my snoring, I’m pretty sure we can make it work.”

      “You don’t snore.”

      “I sure do. But stay. OK?” She traced the simulated wood grain of the table top with a finger. “I haven’t spent a night by myself since I met Cody.” She was being tough. She could be tough. A tear or two? That was alright. It couldn’t be helped. “You know, he’s the one…” She choked on the torrent that flooded over her, tossing her in a tsunami of emotion that could no longer be controlled… “He’s the one who’s supposed to hold me when I hurt. But he did this to me.” She threw herself on the bed and writhed in the fetal position, clutching her belly, so that the pain she was feeling was sharply visible. “What do I do now?”

      He laid down beside her to comfort her. “You find strength in yourself.”

      “But how?” she pleaded.

      “You survive it. That’s all you have to do. You hang on and you make it through.”

      Her composure returned enough for her to sit up. She looked him square on. “What if I can’t?”

      “You can,” he said, getting up to grab her a bottle of water from the fridge.

      Charlie stripped off her jeans and crawled beneath the sheets.

      Riley handed her the water, and she drank it with the intense thirst that comes of emotional drain, while he stripped down to his underwear. Then he turned out the light and crawled in beside her.

      The sobbing returned, and the bed shook with the aftershocks of her rupturing heart. She couldn’t stop her body from trembling.

      He held her close to him—a band aid. It didn’t stop the bleeding, but it eased the gushing. “In the spring and summer of our lives we gather sticks,” he told her. “And they get heavy. So heavy they nearly break our backs somedays. But we learn how to carry them and we get stronger. And then in the winter of our lives we burn those sticks for warmth, and we learn gratitude as the burdens of yesterday become our fires of today.”

      “I’d like to burn Cody and Clarissa.” She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “What do I do now?”

      Riley, propped on an arm, looked down through the darkness into her sad eyes. “Now you are free to find all of those things that have been out there waiting for you. The things you couldn’t have until you reached this point in your path.”

      His cheek was warm under her icy shaking hand. A heavy silence fell over him. In the quiet she could feel his heart begging her to fill the moment, as though the entire world depended on what she chose to do next. She met his lips. Built up behind the softness of her mouth was all the longing of desperately needing to find one true thing in the world to hang onto.

      Riley melted softly into her, with the matched desire to be that one thing.

      She worked her thigh between his legs and felt him respond. She nudged very gently to encourage him more, and he brought her closer. All the exhaustion and drama of the night was fading from her. She withdrew her cold hand from the side of his face and slipped it into the elastic band of his underwear.

      Riley took her wrist and tugged her hand away, but she persisted. She went for him again. But instead of accepting it, he pulled back from the kiss allowing a flash of confusion to blind her. She stared at him, lost and waiting for an answer.

      “We don’t have to do this right now,” he said.

      “But I want to.” She moved her hips against him. “Don’t you?”

      “Yes Charlie, of course I do.” He held her closer to him “But you’ve already been through so much tonight and it’s just not the right time.”

      “When is the right time?”

      “I don’t know, Charlene. I just know it isn’t now. This moment here, it’s just a small blip in the entirety of time. There’s no rush. We can wait until you’re healed and we both know that we’re doing it for the right reasons. We have a lifetime to figure things out.”

      “Tomorrow isn’t promised, Riley. We have right now. And right now, I don’t want to be alone.”

      He said nothing. Moved not a muscle.

      Charlie turned away from him to face the wall, defeated with the shame of rejection.

      “You’re not alone.”

      “I am.” Her body began to shake again, heaving with sobs.

      Riley wrapped his arms around her and held her. “You’re not. I’m right here.”

      She couldn’t understand it. What was he after? He rejected her, then told her she wasn’t alone. Of course she was. Just dumped by the love of her life, and now Riley wouldn’t even touch her. She felt like an incurable disease. She closed her eyes and cried herself to sleep.


Charlie couldn’t tell if she was still dreaming. She felt awake, but her brain could not make sense of its surroundings. The arm around her was darker and larger than Cody’s. She raced through the possibilities with lightning speed, screeching to a halt when she came across the idea of being with Riley. She turned to see his sleeping face to confirm it.

      Had she? No. Thank God. Cody would kill her.

      No.

      He wouldn’t.

      Cody no longer cared. There was no Cody.

      The door opened ushering in a blast of sunlight, followed by Divinity. “Hey cowgirl, I just got off the phone with my agent. I told him how hot you were, and he’d already heard from the manager at the bar, and do you believe in serendipity? I believe in serendipity. No such thing as coincidence. That’s just God being anonymous. So anyway, a girl cancelled out on Prince George, which is where I’ll be working this week. So, how about filling in?”

      Charlie sat up and rubbed her eyes. “What?”

      “Do you wanna go on the road with me? $45 a show plus tips, which you’ll rock. I’ve got a bunch of old costumes I can lend you, or sell you. I’ll give them to you for cheap. I’ve got to get on the road for Prince George right away. Chester is driving me back to my car in a few minutes. What do you say? It’s been ages since I had a travelling partner. Please, please, please say yes.”

      Charlie didn’t need to think about it. What was there to lose? “Sure.” She climbed over Riley and pulled on her Wranglers.

      “Wait,” he said. “What are you doing?” He raised himself up on an elbow.

      “I’m going to Prince George.”

      “Charlie, I don’t think you should rush into this. An amateur contest is one thing, but this is a pretty big decision to make just off the cuff.”

      Divinity waved her hand through the air. “Ahh, she’s a natural. She’s meant for the stage.”

      His face took on the pain of betrayal. “What about ...” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He was scrambling now. “I can get you hired on with me. I’ve got a place for you to stay until you find your own. Let me help you. I can even get you to the rest of the rodeos this season.”

      “Oh yeah,” Charlie said, turning back to Divinity, “I’ve got a rodeo in Grande Prairie next week.”

      “I know. Jim told me.” said Divinity. “That’s why we’re booked in there after Prince George. We’ll leave Saturday night and Jim will pull some strings to make sure you ride on Sunday.”

      Charlie smiled. “No need. I’m already up on Sunday.”

      “See, it’s fate. Serendipity.”

      Charlie hauled her bags up over her shoulder. “See you in Grand Prairie, Riley. Thanks for the place to crash. Oh and if Cody asks where I am, tell him I’ve runoff to be a stripper.”

      And then she passed absently by a fork in the road without seeing there ever were two directions to choose from, and in an instant forgot all the signs that had ever indicated otherwise. The memory of the first kiss was gone. As gone as she was, without bothering to look back, where Riley could be seen in the rear view mirror calling after her.

Chapter 20


Charlie was slipping the truck into reverse, when the passenger door opened. She banged her head against the steering wheel and let it rest there. “Go away.”

      “Can I catch a ride?”

      She was silently stunned by audacity.

      “Come on. It’s a long walk and it will be at least an hour before I can get a cab.”

      “Fine. Where are you staying?”

      “Same place. I just rented it out while I was away.”

      Charlie was silent for the five blocks, while Cody went on about something that didn’t register through her autopilot mode. She drove somnambulistically, without thought. She didn’t need to think about which turn to take or how far down the street it was, because she’d driven to that little green house so many times.

      She pulled to a stop along the curb and waited for Cody to get out, but a few minutes later, and one hangnail scraped off of her thumb with her index finger, and he was still sitting beside her. She stared into the darkness at the far end of the street where the world vanished from perception.

      “I want you to know I’m sorry.”

      She swallowed hard. “Are you?”

      “I’d do anything to take it back.” His hand brushed down her back. She felt his touch tingle into her toes.

      “Well, it’s too late.”

      “I feel responsible for what you’ve become.”

      She looked out the driver’s side window. “Oh, you mean a peeler?” He was staring at her. She knew it and it drew her eyes back to him.

      The expression on his face straddled the fine line between pity and contempt. Her stomach was dangerously close to dropping through the floorboards of the truck. He was right. She was garbage.

      She tipped her hat down to hide her shame.

      “No. No. Charlene,” he said pulling her into his body. “Don’t cry. Things don’t have to be like this. Things could be different this time.”

      His kiss was hard and dispassionate, but his words— they were pulling her in. Familiar. Something lost and then found. She parted her lips.

      Cody didn’t bother to unbutton her shirt, didn’t even pull her pants off of her left ankle. Let alone invite her into the house. She stared at the yellow glare of a porch light across the street and wished he’d just get it over with. She thought about Riley, and how she’d felt beneath his smooth, warm body. Why was she here?

      The seat belt buckle dug into her thigh, but it was awkward for her to shift away from it, as Cody squirmed pulling down his pants. She wanted to be anywhere but here. To scream. To say “no”.

      The glare of headlights lit up the cab of the truck, and then turned into Cody’s driveway. “Oh shit,” he said pulling his pants up quickly. “Looks like I got something better tonight. Maybe we can do this stroll down memory lane another time.” He zipped his Wranglers as he got out.

      Charlie’s whole body shook as she pulled up her own pants. What was worse: if he’d gone through with using her for a masturbation toy, or the fact that she meant so little to him, another girl could pull into his driveway, and she ceased to exist? She wasn’t sure. She needed a drink, and a smoke. She needed a fucking life. She inhaled the smoke into the very bottoms of her lungs, watching as Cody greeted the petite brunette with a passionate kiss. Charlie didn’t recognize her. She put the truck in drive and crept to the end of the cul-de-sac, where she turned around. Driving back by the little green house, where her flower beds had long since gone to seed, through the window where her homemade curtains had faded, she saw them embracing each other.


      There was nowhere to go. She couldn’t go home to Jacob’s. She wanted Riley, but why would he want her? And should she even want him? She pulled off the highway and drove up to the rodeo grounds, grabbed a six pack of beer from behind the truck seat and carried it out behind the chutes.

      “Charlie, you gotta get your shit together,” she told herself as she cracked a can. “What the fuck was that?” She climbed up onto the wooden platform. The stars were bright and cosmically unsympathetic toward the lone girl with the disintegrating soul.

      She closed her eyes and remembered past rodeos here. She’d once found a little boy under this same platform. They were loading the saddle broncs. She’d been gathering up her things, and as she looked up, he’d caught her eye. He was no more than a toddler and his wide brown eyes were frightened and lost, as he tucked further into a corner beneath the platform. Adrenalin had propelled her body toward him. She’d hauled him out to safety like mama bear before a horse might cow kick him through the rails. She held him tight to her chest for a long time. Finally, she loosened her grip on him to get a good look at the child in her arms. He was covered in layers of snot and dirt, but in those large eyes she saw a reflection of herself.

      The boy snuggled into her as though she were someone he knew intimately. “Does this kid belong to anybody?” she shouted. But the cowboys were too busy strapping on spurs and flak vests and rubbing rosin into their saddles. “Do you have a name, little guy?”

      He said nothing.

      She found a bandanna in her rigging bag and dipped it in the cool stock water trough. It had smeared mud around his cheeks with the first few swipes. She had to rinse the cloth a few times more before she could unearth the little boy hiding under the dirt.

      “You must be hungry, hey little guy?”

      The small child said nothing. She wondered who would let their child loose in only a diaper, at a rodeo. Her father. He would have.

      She found a concession stand and bought a plate of fries, which the boy wolfed down, as though it was his first meal. She dabbed the ketchup off of his chin with a napkin and opened a bottle of water for him. That was when Cody had found them.

      “Look what I found,” Charlie said, feeling more than comfortable with a child on her hip. “Can we keep him?” It was said like a joke that had more truth than jest to it.

      “No. Put him back where you found him. I’m going to get my gear out of the truck. Where’s the keys?”

      The little boy tucked his head into the curve of her neck “Here,” she said, handing Cody the keys. “What do you want me to do, put him back under the platform?”

      “How the fuck do I know?” he called back over his shoulder.

      She turned to walk away, but a man saw a man was approaching, so she stood fast. “Hey, there you are,” he said, snatching the child from her arms without even a thank you, and the boy disappeared with him, somewhere into the crowd.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Chapter 19


“Gypsy!” A bubbly top heavy blond called, running across the barroom, dodging tables and chairs in her six inch stilettos. She threw her arms around Charlie, nearly knocking her over. “I didn’t know you were back up here in Fort St John. Where are you working? Not at Grinder’s, I hope. The tips really suck there. I haven’t seen you in ages.” She paused just long enough to catch a breath. “What happened to your face?”

      “Nothing. Yeah, no. I’m not working. Not dancing anyway. I’m working out on a farm, actually.”

      “How are you these days? Wow! I’ve missed you. How long has it been? Ages hasn’t it? Still riding bucking horses?”

      Divinity hadn’t changed a bit. Still talked a million miles a minute.

      “Yeah, still riding broncs. I thought you’d quit dancing, settled down with that guy, the minister. What was his name?”

      “Well, you know how it is. I loved him, he loves the Lord, and the Lord loves me, but I love the road.” She pulled Charlie by the sleeve, toward the bar. “I couldn’t give it up. And you know, where better to spread a little of the good word than a place where people need it most.” She winked, then turned and extended two fingers to the bartender. He responded silently by pouring them a couple of tequila shots. “To the road!” she said.

      “To the road,” Charlie repeated. She slammed the empty glass down on the bar. “I’m soo ready to go back on the circuit. But...”

      “But what? Oh. I get it. Who’s the guy?”

      Charlie felt like she was back in grade nine. Grinning and blushing like a schoolgirl. “I’m not sure it’s anything.” She tried to shake it off, that feeling of new love that could lift you up and drown you all at once.

      “Come on, girl. I know you well enough. We’ve covered a lot of miles together. It’s something. Now give up the goods.”

      “Well...” Shit, Divinity was never going to let it go. She’d have to tell her now. “You’ve met him before.”

      “Yeah?”

      “OK. Remember that that prick who cheated on me in the bathroom?”

      “Yeah. The classy one. You’re not getting back with him are you? That’s not the guy is it?”

      “No. No. Remember his friend?”

      “Jim? How could I forget? Yeesh….”

      “No, not Jim.” Charlie laughed. “The one who tried to talk me out of going with you.”

      “Oh yeah, I sure do.”

      “Yeah,” Charlie said, looking at her feet to hide the red in her cheeks.

      “Wow! He was yummy and sooo sweet. I could tell he was in love with you back then.”

      “You could?”

      “Oh heavens yes,” she said adjusting her gargantuan boobs in her far too tight of fitting bra. “The way he just wanted to save you. I expected him to saddle up his horse, sweep you up and ride you off into the sunset.”

      “I’m not sure it’s anything,” Charlie repeated.

      Divinity pointed a hot pink manicured nail toward Charlie’s face; as she tipped back her shot with her other hand. “He didn’t do that, did he?”

      “Oh, no. Horse accident.”

      “Well then, how will you know if it’s anything if you don’t give it a chance? The road will always be there.” She gestured to the stage, “But you know and I know, relationships don’t make it when you’re doing this.”

      “Yeah.” It was a truth. Charlie hadn’t had anything even remotely worth mentioning since she’d started on the road with Divinty a couple years before.

      “Listen, I’ve got the next show. I could just stay here and chat with you forever. I missed you so much. We have so much to talk about. Well, I better go get ready. We can catch up after ’kay? So good to see you again. I can’t believe I ran into you tonight. Eeeh.”

      Charlie giggled to herself as Divinity made a sprint in her six inch heels toward the door. It was good to see her again. They’d put on a lot of miles together.

      Scanning the room, Charlie saw a group of old cowboys that she recognized. They were hunched over a table in the back corner, sipping on draft beer and swapping yarns of BS. One of them noticed her and waived for her to join them.

      She could tell by their speech, as she approached the table, that they’d been at it all day, but she was happy for the company.

      “Well hey there, bareback rider. Take a seat,” said the man with the Doc Holliday mustache who’d waived her over. “What’re ya drinkin?”

      The music was turned down to a between show volume of quiet, so when the door opened, the creak of it could be heard across the barroom. And in walked the last son-of-a-bitch she wanted to see. Charlie slid down low in her seat, hoping Cody wouldn’t see her. Her heart pounded and the more she resented the fact that just his presence could have an effect like that on her, the faster it got.

      She watched him from beneath the brim of her hat, each step bringing him closer. She downed her drink and prayed for the waitress to hurry back with the next one.

      “Imagine seeing you here,” he said to her. “Oh, that’s right. You dance here now, don’t you?” Without asking, he took a seat beside her.

      One of the busted up old cowboys reached across the table and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Cody. I heard you were back in town. Saw your dad the other day. Said he sold that nice stud of his.”

      “Yeah, he bought a better one.”

      “Oh, shh boys,” said the man with the mustache. “Here she comes.”

      The music pumped against the walls, making them rattle, as Divinity hopped up onto the stage. Perky as ever.

      “Hey, you know that gal?” Cody asked, drooling like a coy dog. “Can you introduce me?”

      “I don’t think she’d be interested in you?”

      “Oh, yeah? Why not?”

      “She was there for the purple pants. The one I left with?”

      “So, what’s going on between you and Black Bull now?”

      “His name isn’t Black Bull and it’s none of your business.”

      “Woah. You seem awful touchy about it. Black Bull, Red Calf, same thing.” He leaned in close enough that she could feel his breath in her ear, and down her neck. “If I were him, I wouldn’t have left without you tonight.”

      “Not without another girl to take home, anyway.” She made the mistake of turning to face him square on as she said it. And who did he think he was? Little prick, sitting there staring earnestly into her eyes.

      “I just want to make sure that he’s treating you right. I’ve known him a lot longer than you which means I probably know things you don’t. I think you deserve better. Just saying. I’d hate to see you get caught up in…well… I mean, if you two are a thing now, why didn’t he stick around tonight?”

      “He’s taking his nephew fishing tomorrow.”

      “Or maybe he has a habit that needed feeding.” Why’d the music have to be so loud? Cody was using it as an excuse to lean in closer.

      She had to think about that one. No. It had to be bullshit. Riley had asked her to go home with him. “You’re just stirring shit. Riley is definitely not on drugs.”

      “Oh, you didn’t know Black Bull likes to drop crack in his peace pipe.”

      “Fuck off. You’re just fucking with my head.”

      Not a muscle moved on Cody’s face. “Am I? So, how’d you end up with Black Bull anyway? Last I’d heard, you were shacked up with that hunting guide from the States.”

      He was milking her for details. She knew it. She knew whatever she said would be used against her. But she couldn’t shut herself up. “I work for Jacob. That’s it. And, there’s nothing going on with Riley.” Her mouth twitched at the corners, betraying her.

      “I can tell you have a thing for him. I just want you to be careful. I don’t want to see you get hurt. Funny, I never thought of him as the type of guy to end up with a stripper, but then again he’s a not exactly who he pretends to be. I could be wrong, but it looks to me like he’s playing with you. A white peeler is a pretty good prize for a buck like him.”

      “You’re forgetting, we’ve been friends a long time. And speaking of friends, that’s a real nice way to talk about one of yours.”

      “Friends for a long time… And what do you know about him? Maybe it is love. Who am I to say? I just don’t want to see you get messed up with the shit he’s into.”

      He knocked the breath out of her and she couldn’t hide it.

      Cody took the opportunity to place a hand on her knee.

      “Would you just shut up already?” she said pushing his advances away.

      “I care about you Charlene. I’m only looking out for you.”

      A slow song came out of the speakers. The old boys grabbed their rolls of loonies and got up to move to the long table that wrapped around the stage. “I’m gonna win me a poster of that little filly right there,” one of them said.

      When they were alone, Cody slid closer to her. “Charlene, why’d you leave? We could have worked it out. Was all this really better than being with me? Look what you’ve done to your life.” He caressed her neck with his fingers. It made her skin crawl. “You’re better than this aren’t you? I know I made some mistakes. But Christ, you threw it all away to spread your legs for half of Canada.”

      An electronic pulse came from inside his jacket. He pulled out his phone. “Hello. Oh, hi Ken. Oh, me? I’m at the ‘Dill having a drink with my ex. She’s a peeler, now.”

      Peeler. That word made her cringe. And he’d used it twice in the last two minutes.

      Charlie left the table before he was done his call. She couldn’t get away from him fast enough. She ducked into the bathroom, not because she had any urge to go, but because it seemed like a safe place to hide, until she could get her head screwed back on.

      She fixed her hair about a million times, and repositioned her hat another million, before coming to the decision that she would just say a quick good-bye to Divinity and get the hell out of the bar.

      “Gypsy!” Divinity squealed, noticing Charlie coming out of the washroom. “Come sit. These guys,” she said, indicating the old timers and Cody, “have ordered us some drinks, and we’ve got shots on the way, too. I can’t wait to hear about your new beau.”

      Cody snorted.

      “I’m sorry, I have to go,” Charlie said.

      “It’s been so long. I really want to catch up. I missed you. Besides, we have drinks on the way.”

      Damn sweet-hearted Divinity. Charlie sat down.

      “So, I was thinking, I’m flying out to Toronto next week to go and feature. How about you come with me? I can get you booked in some great clubs. They’d love a real live cowgirl.”

      “I bet they would,” said Cody.

      Charlie picked up the drink the waitress had just set down in front of her. “No, thanks. I don’t do lap dances. I’ll stick to the Western circuit.”

      “Yeah, but the money is killer in Toronto.”

      Charlie could feel Cody rubbing his knee against her thigh. She had to keep on track. She swallowed the rest of her drink. “I’ll stop in to see you tomorrow. When’s your last show? Maybe we can go out after?”

      “I’m done at 10.”

      “Great. Well, I’ve got an early morning tomorrow. I better go.”

      The blonde batted a pair of long, thick black eyelashes. “So soon?” She rose to her feet to hug Charlie good-bye.

      “That guy is the one. My ex,” Charlie whispered in her friend’s ear. “Watch out for him.”

      “It’s OK,” she whispered back. “I like my men to have all of their teeth.”