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.
“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.