Behind the painted smile, Dave Willis frowned as he stepped into the dirt-covered rodeo arena. He was glad for the make-up smile because it saved him the effort of working up a fake one. The night had already been long and tense with anticipation.
Waving to the crowd, he turned on his charm. “Y’all have seen a lot of bull riding tonight. But are y’all ready to see some real bull ridin’?” The answer came in a deafening cacophony of whistles, screams, and applause.
“You’re about to see the top two bull riders bustin’ it out for the chance to be in the final five moving on to the Professional Bull Rider’s biggest rodeo event in the country, the Built Ford Tough Series.”
Again the audience roared.
Dave shoved his hands into the pockets of his baggy shorts, contemplating his next routine. It was an old one, but it would work.
“So, yeah, my old buddy, Jesse Huffman--”
Whistles and cheers responded to the name of the bull rider who many in the audience hoped would win.
Dave continued. “Jesse decided the other day to lay off the bulls for a while and try some broncos. Whew! That stallion got goin’ so bad I thought Jesse was gonna lose it.” He paused for effect. “And he would have too if I hadn’t run across the Walmart parking lot and unplugged it.”
While the crowd laughed, Dave glanced over his shoulder at Jesse, who had already settled on the back of a massive gray bull and was methodically wrapping the rope around his right hand. As usual, Dave felt his gut wrench in worry.
Knowing Jesse was ready, Dave stirred the crowd. “Come on y’all. Give it up for my good buddy, Jesse Huffman.”
Jesse raised his left hand in the air, a signal to the judges that he wasn’t touching the bull or himself with his free arm. In a mixture of adrenaline and pleasure, he roared, “All right, turn ‘im loose.”
The chute burst open as the bull launched out in his initial buck. Dave’s heart raced as he prepared to protect his friend, but his effort wasn’t needed. The bull gave two good bucks before turning around and settling into a slow gallop across the arena.
Dave ran toward the bull waving his arms, giving Jesse time to jump from his back and run toward the fence. But the bull wanted nothing more than to return to the chute where he came from. A wave of murmurs emanated from the obviously displeased crowd.
Crowd control was one of Dave’s specialties. Facing the audience, he laughed. “Folks, it just wasn’t a good day for that big fella. Y’all think Jesse can do better with another one?”
Whistles and applause answered.
“All right then, hold tight, and we’ll show you what you came to see.” Dave jogged off the arena to find Jesse.
He found him behind the fence, staring up at the screen to see if the judges would award him a re-ride. After running a hand through his sandy blonde hair, Jesse replaced his white cowboy hat. Dave knew the importance of the ride, but still it bothered him that Jesse didn’t acknowledge his presence.
Re-ride. The word popped up on the points screen. Jesse blew a breath of relief, shaking his head. His opponent would ride and then he would have his second chance.
“You all right?” Dave let his arm rest on the fence beside him, realizing it had been weeks since they had talked extensively.
“Will be, once I get a decent ride.” Jesse didn’t look at Dave as he jumped to the other side of the fence. Dave followed.
“I can’t believe this.” Jesse kicked his leg up on the fence almost parallel to his shoulders, working to get his muscles limber.
“Hey, it happens.” Dave shrugged.
Ignoring the statement, Jesse gazed at the clown act as they ran out on hobby horses, lumbering in too-big shoes.
“Is Dana here?” Immediately, Dave realized that asking about his sister, Jesse’s wife, probably wasn’t the best choice of conversation.
“Yeah, she got in last night.” Jesse still didn’t look at him.
Dave nodded. “Think I’ll go try to find her.”
Switching legs on the fence, Jesse said, “She’s probably up near the top.” He chuckled, arrogantly. “She says she won’t be able to see the blood and guts as well up there when the bull tramples me.”
Dave mustered up only half of a smile and then turned toward the stands.
He found Dana at the top of the bleachers, absently playing with her kinky black hair sticking out from beneath her brown cowboy hat. A bag of cotton candy lay opened in her lap.
Dave climbed past a few giggling teenage girls and collapsed into the seat beside Dana. She smiled not with the pleasure of a clown watcher, but the satisfaction of a sister.
“Well, look who it is.” She leaned forward. “What do they call you? ‘Waltzer’ Willis--is that right?”
Dave rolled his eyes at the name given to him by spectators and cowboys because of his ability to seemingly dance with the bulls. “My friends call me Dave.”
“How ‘bout sisters?”
“It’s been my experience that they call me what they want.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “I’m glad you got to come.”
“You’re gonna be in there on Jesse’s re-ride, right?”
“Of course.” Dave noticed her brown eyes were drooping slightly. “You look tired.”
She nodded, trying to hide a tight yawn behind her hand. “I stayed up waiting for Jesse to get back to the hotel room last night. Finally gave it up and went to bed about one this morning.” Distracted, she tore a piece of cotton candy off, put it in her mouth, and sighed. “I guess he decided to go out with some of the guys.”
Dave lowered his gaze to the arena where the clowns were in the middle of a mock gun fight.
“You don’t want him to win this do you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“’Cause I don’t either.”
One of the clowns in the ring pointed his rifle straight up and pulled the trigger. A shot reverberated through the speakers, and a huge stuffed chicken fell from the rafters, landing at the clown’s feet. The crowd laughed.
Dana lowered her head. “I’m tired of traveling. I’m tired of Jesse being gone so much. I’m tired of not having him even when he’s with me. But,” she looked into Dave’s eyes and shrugged wearily, “Jesse’s doin’ what he loves.”
“Jesse loves the eight-second thrill and the winning.” Dave looked back down at the arena. “He doesn’t love what he does.” Dave vaguely massaged his left wrist and the scars that remained from his last bull ride, years ago, when his hand got hung up in the rope and was all but torn from his body. After that, Jesse got the mounts and Dave turned to clowning.
“When it’s all said and done, I just want Jesse.” Dana resealed the bag of cotton candy. “I don’t want him wearin’ the champion belt buckles and goin’ to late-night parties. I want him back like we used to be before he made it into all this.” She bit her lip. “I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna last, Dave. He’s stopped going to church with me when he’s home. He avoids my calls when he’s away. And--”
The and covered a lot of ground as Dana began to weep.
Dave pulled her close. “Come on now. You can’t give up. Jesse’s gonna let it go one of these days. I know it.”
She nodded and pulled away, wiping tears.
The shootout routine ended with a puff of blue and yellow smoke, followed with a roaring crowd as the second finalist geared up for his ride.
“You’d better be gettin’ back down there.” Dana nodded toward the arena.
“Hang in there, Cowgirl.” Dave patted her back as he stood. He fought back anger as he climbed down the stairs to the back of the arena.
He saw the glazed look in Jesse’s eyes as he stared up at the clock on the scoreboard, no doubt his mind already on the next ride and the eight seconds to victory.
Dave walked up beside him. “Are you ready?”
Looking almost annoyed, Jesse slapped the leather gloves on his palm. “Ready to win this thing.”
Dave bit his lip.
“Dana enjoyin’ the show?” Knowing the answer full well, Jesse laughed and began pulling on the gloves, making sure each finger fit tightly.
Dave bristled. His voice was low and even. “Jesse, you gotta decide what you want.”
The cowboy jutted his chin defiantly and snorted. “I know what I want.” He looked up at Dave for the first time, thrusting a roll of duct tape out toward him. “I want to make it to the top and I’m about to do it.”
Dave pulled at the tape, tearing off one strip with his teeth. “Okay. Let me put it to you this way.” He began wrapping the tape tightly around Jesse’s wrist and glove to hold the glove in place. “You need to focus on keepin’ what you’ve got.”
Jesse looked away. “What did Dana tell you?”
“I already knew.” Dave tore off another piece. “So what are you gonna do about it?”
Jesse met Dave’s gaze again. “If y’all don’t want to back me up that’s fine.” His voice turned cold. “But it’s what I want to do and I’m gonna take it--all the way.”
Dave felt the comment directed at him and knew they were riding into territory he did not want to revisit. “You got to prioritize the things you love: God, Dana, your riding--your friends.” He hesitated. The ride had started in the arena. The blaring music was almost drowned out by the crowd’s cheers. “Sometimes you gotta let go of what you want--”
Jesse fired off, “Yeah, you’d know about letting go.”
The remark struck Dave harder than any blow a bull could have rendered. He finished taping the last piece and gaped at Jesse, hoping he didn’t look as betrayed as he felt. “So you think that because I quit bull riding, because I put on this goofy-looking getup every week, because I’ve been there to keep the bull from killin’ you in every ring since you started ridin’--you think I just let it go?”
The eight-second buzzer went off, signaling the end of the ride.
Jesse was focused on rubbing rosin on his glove, but Dave saw the muscle in his cheek jerk. “Okay then, Hero. What do you think I should do?” He eyed Dave cockily. “Do you want me to stop riding bulls?”
Dave shook his head. “I want you to realize there’s a lot more to lose than comin’ in first in this ride or any other ride. In fact, winning might be the biggest loss you’ll ever take.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be the judge of that.” Grabbing his hat, Jesse turned on his heels in disgust.
Dave ran a hand through his dark hair, watching his friend strut off. Swallowing his hurt, he climbed over the fence into the arena.
The tension in the audience was thick enough to lasso as Dave trudged into the center. He watched Jesse winding the rope around his hand again and again, determination on his face.
When the bull shot out of the chute, Dave’s heart began to race.
Jesse leaned close over the bull’s hump to get over the initial buck. Fury widened the bull’s eyes.
Dave jumped out of the way, watching the animal maneuver back and forth, flailing his body in an attempt to throw Jesse off.
Jesse stayed low on the bull, his hand clinging to the rope as he pressed his legs into the bull’s thick flanks. The crowd screamed their support as Jesse held his mount.
When the eight-second buzzer went off, the crowd went off too, waiting for the dismount. But the wait was too long for Dave; he knew Jesse was hung up.
He watched the bull whip his neck around, kicking his legs out in the opposite direction. Still fighting to free his hand, Jesse was not ready for the momentum. The buck jolted him off balance and threw him over the side, his arm twisted behind his back. His body dangled closely to the bull’s thrashing legs.
Dave felt phantom pain shoot through his arm at the memory of getting hung up. Rushing forward, he communicated silently with the other bullfighters who had run into the ring to distract the bull. Trying to avoid the bull’s flailing legs, Dave felt helpless, seeing the pain and panic in Jesse’s face. He knew the solution was so simple. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yelled, “Jesse, let your hand go limp. Stop pullin.’ You’ll slip out of it.”
When the bullfighters distracted the bull long enough to stop thrashing, Jesse’s hand finally slipped out of the rope and he fell to the ground in a heap. Dave grabbed him under the arms and pulled him up, all but carrying his friend toward the fence.
But the bull had his eyes set.
Dave had seen many bulls with a vendetta against the rider. When the bull charged them head down, Dave pushed Jesse toward the fence and leaped in the opposite direction of the bull’s charge.
He could feel the bull pounding the ground behind him with two thousand pounds of rage. In a moment, Dave felt the impact of the bull’s head on his back thrusting him into the air.
When he landed on the ground, Dave felt as if his lungs had malfunctioned--he couldn’t manage to suck in any air, couldn’t stand up and run. As the arena began to spin, he heard Jesse’s panic-stricken voice calling him from across the arena. Just before everything went black, he wondered what a ton would feel like running across his back.
Five minutes later Dave rested on a gurney, wheezing as a paramedic slid a stethoscope across his chest. “It just knocked the wind out of me,” he said sitting up, but the threat of darkness and nausea pushed him back against the gurney.
Sitting on a second gurney across from him, Jesse winced as a paramedic stuck an IV in his good arm. He looked over at Dave, concerned.
Dana stood behind her husband, with a hand clutching his shoulder and the other hand shakily brushing away tears.
Jesse’s voice shook. “I--I really thought he had you, Dave.”
“Probably would have if the other bullfighters hadn’t been so fast.” The next words were hard for Dave to admit. “I think you took it all the way with that ride.” He closed his eyes, a smile tugging at his lips. “Could stand some work on that dismount though.”
“Yeah.” Jesse shook his head, as if amazed. “I don’t know what happened. It was almost like I was holdin’ on so tight that I forgot to let go. All I had to do was open my hand.”
Dave opened one eye and grinned. “Easiest thing in the world.”
“Mr. Huffman.” A runner from the judges’ booth came sprinting over. “They’re callin’ a foul on your ride. Said it was a touch on the flank right before the buzzer. You wanna challenge it?”
Shock and anger hardened Jesse’s face. “You better believe I want to challenge it. I mean, you can’t tell me--” Whirling around to look over his shoulder at the judges table, he met Dana’s gaze.
Dave watched resignation soften Jesse’s brow as he turned back around and looked down at his arm.
Finally, he drew a slow breath and reached up to grasp Dana’s hand. “Nah. Let it go.”