Pick-Up Man

by Hawk50

Universe: his is set in an AU modern Rodeo setting.

Thanks to OneofAradia and TerriTracks for looking it over. Feedback is welcome. This might be the first story in a series.

Chris Larabee eyed the fairgrounds as he eased his black extended cab Chevy Silverado pickup, complete with horse trailer, down Graham Street nearing the Jasper Lions Club Rodeo grounds. Spotting the weathered sign that read “stock entrance”, he pulled into the dusty holding area and parked.
Getting out, he stretched, hearing the bones in his back pop. Lord knew he loved small town rodeos, but Texas was a damn big state, and driving all night to make an event had long ago lost its appeal. At least he’d be here through the weekend.
Less appealing because he was no longer competing. Instead, he and partner Buck Wilmington had made the transition from steer wrestling to pick-up riders.
Chris smiled. He’d made a name for himself on the circuit a few years ago. One World Championship – he wore the buckle proudly – two National Championships, a few regional championships and some 15 years finishing in the top Ten.
A brawnier than average steer, a premature launch and a misstep during a rodeo in Missoula, Montana, had brought Chris’ steer wrestling career to a halt. He’d endured two surgeries, three months in a full leg cast and six months of rehab. He could ride as well as he ever had, but the days of digging his heels into arena dirt stopping a 400+ pound steer were over.
Chris remembered the day after his second surgery, looking up from his hospital bed into Buck’s handsome face. Buck had run a hand over his full black mustache, dark blue eyes solemn and had drawled, “Well, old dog, what now?”
Chris knew he could hang up his spurs and retire to the family ranch in Lawrence, Kansas. But truth was, he wasn’t ready for a life as a cattle rancher. Which was why he now found himself leaning casually against a peeling fence board in Jasper, Texas, on a mild May day, awaiting Buck’s arrival.
He didn’t have long to wait – five minutes later Buck’s old red Ford F-150 pickup rumbled into the holding area.
The two men strode shoulder to shoulder across the lot and checked in with the Lion’s Club member responsible for early arrivals. Unloading the horses from their respective trailers, they put them in a holding pen near the bucking chutes and made sure they had plenty of water. They unhooked the trailer from Chris’ truck and drove into town for an early lunch.
They stopped at Texas Charlie’s, a place famous in Jasper for its barbeque. Charlie Nicholson, a jovial, barrel-chested man with a droopy sandy colored handlebar mustache, enveloped Chris in a bear hug before he’d gotten ten steps inside the door of the restaurant.
“Chris, you sorry rascal.” Charlie, though not as tall as Chris, outweighed him by a good 70 pounds. Chris swore he felt his ribs creak from the pressure. “How are you? How’s the leg? Still rasslin’ steers?”
“Slow down, Charlie, and let me catch my breath,” Chris said, breaking into a rare wide grin at the man’s enthusiasm. He noticed Buck, who’d come in right behind him, had wrapped up Nancy, Charlie’s plump, buxom wife, in a big hug. It figured. Buck was a notorious ladies man. It didn’t matter if the woman in question was young or old, fat or thin, a beauty or as plain as a mud fence. Buck didn’t discriminate. He loved them all. And they loved him right back, if the look on Nancy’s face was any indication.
Charlie noticed, too. “Hands off my wife, Wilmington, or I’ll sic the dogs on ya. So,” he said, hands on his hips, “what brings you boys to town? Rodeo, I’m guessing.”
“Charlie, if you’ll just shut up and let the man get a word in edgewise, he can probably tell you,” Nancy said, still nestled under Buck’s arm. Obviously she’d heard the dog threat before and wasn’t too worried.
“You’re right, hon,” Charlie said, and ushered Chris and Buck to a booth near the window. Over glasses of sweet tea and mountains of barbequed brisket, cole slaw, pinto beans and Texas toast, Chris explained that he and Buck were there to work the rodeo, not compete.
Charlie shook his head. “Helluva break, Chris. You were one of the best natural steer wrestlers I’ve ever seen. And Buck, you were a first-rate hazer. This year’s top money man, that new boy out of Wichita’s pretty good, but he doesn’t have your timing – leastways, not yet.”
“We’re supposed to meet with some fellow named Ezra Standish. Understand he’s working with the Gays to provide rodeo stock,” Chris said. Most small towns had a place where everybody met and where you were sure to learn all that was going on. Charlie’s was just such a place. Charlie would know, or find out.
Charlie nodded his head. “Yeah, since Neal’s getting on in years and Don’s got other interests besides stock contracting, they thought it’d be a good idea to partner up. Fellow’s from outside Atlanta – has prime stock from what I hear tell. Some of the rankest bulls and broncs on the circuit. Couple of them will be here.”
“What do you know about him?” Chris asked.
“Not much,” Charlie said. “First year here. Dresses real nice. Uses ten dollar words. Plays a mean game of poker. But Neal and Don seem to think he’s okay, so that’s good enough for me.”
Hearing those words, and Charlie’s endorsement, Chris shot a look at Buck and they both relaxed a little. Soon they were picking Charlie’s brain about the guys on the circuit and the local rodeo in general.
“Two kids I’ve been told to keep an eye on,” Charlie said. He’d eased himself into the booth next to Chris, and Nancy sat next to Buck. They were sharing a huge slab of Charlie’s famous coconut crème pie. “First kid’s named J.D. Dunne – out of Boston, of all places! Seems he’s got some of this season’s fastest times in calf roping. Real young, first year in the circuit professionally, probably 19 or 20 years old. Not much bigger than some of the calves he ropes, but he rides like lightning and has good hands.
“Other young fella’s a Texas boy – Vin Tanner. Bull rider. Mid – twenties, lean and wiry and he sticks to those bulls like a burr on a saddle blanket. Has covered most of his bulls this year. Been riding about four years, but this is his first year here. Took a bad fall last year at Mesquite, but bounced right back. Can do that when you’re young, I guess.”
“I guess,” Chris said, a slight shudder running though him. He didn’t envy the men who rode bulls. It was a crowd pleaser, all right, but… Bareback and saddle bronc riding was hard enough – those horses could jar every tooth out of your head. But bulls – not only did they try to realign your spine, they were vicious. Most horses bucked to get rid of the flank strap. Once it was off they’d usually go with the pick-up riders to the gate. But bulls shook off their riders and then went after them, determined to pound them into the ground. Some of the worst injuries Chris had ever seen during his years in rodeo had occurred during the bull riding events.
Changing the subject, Chris asked, “Who’s announcing this year?”
Charlie’s eyes twinkled. “Old friend of yours. Josiah Sanchez.”
Chris smiled at the name. Josiah Sanchez was a bit of a legend in the rodeo world, having been the voice of many PRCA events for the better part of two decades. Knowledgeable, personable, with a sonorous voice that could make angels weep, Josiah was also an ordained minister. It wasn’t unusual to find him preaching an impromptu Sunday morning service for the faithful after a long Saturday night of announcing.
Josiah had been in the announcer’s booth when Chris had suffered his career-ending injury, and had soothed the crowd as the medics assessed Chris’ condition in the arena. Josiah had also been among the first at his hospital bedside the next morning when Chris had awakened after that first surgery in Missoula.
“Got a program right here, if you want to take a look,” Charlie said, offering Buck and Chris the thick booklet.
Thumbing through the pages, with their obligatory Western-style ads, pages of photos of Rodeo Queen hopefuls and FFA kids with their livestock, Chris’ eyes spotted a picture of the Gays and Ezra Standish, listed as the stock contractors.
Ezra appeared somehow ‘softer’ than the Gays, until you saw his eyes. The look in them was one of a shrewd businessman. Clad in a smart Western-cut suit that Chris knew didn’t come off any rack, he had a thick head of well-styled hair and a sharp, fine featured face. Chris was looking forward to meeting him.
A few pages later, the visage of Josiah Sanchez jumped from the pages. While not classically handsome, the man had an imposing face, with a jutting jaw, graying hair and a larger than life smile.
Further back in the program, Chris found a short write-up and photos of both J.D. Dunne and Vin Tanner.
Upon seeing J.D.’s picture, Buck exclaimed, “Holy cow, he’s just a baby!” J.D. did seem impossibly young, with a shock of dark hair which fell into wide eyes and he sported a mischievous grin.
Vin Tanner had an old cavalry slouch hat pulled low over his eyes and wavy hair falling almost to his shoulders. Despite the hair, Chris could tell there was nothing feminine about the face with its square jaw and attractive features. He hoped he and Buck would run into these two sometime during the weekend. Just because they appeared in the program was no guarantee they’d be at the rodeo. Travel changes, accidents and scheduling conflicts were all things that could prevent their making the event.
Buck pointed to a page near the back. It seemed he and Chris also warranted a short write-up and a photo.
The photo was one taken while he and Buck were still steer wrestling. In it, he and Buck were posed with their favorite horses, Pony and Beavis. Chris was holding Pony’s reins with one hand and had the other hitched in his belt, his World Championship buckle in full view. Buck had one hand on the pommel of Beavis’ saddle and a hitching rope loosely coiled in the other. Although the photo was only about four years old, Chris felt it was taken a lifetime ago.
The write up focused on Chris and his award winning rodeo career, but still some credit, rightly so, was given to Buck in his role of hazer in helping Chris achieve his success.
“I swear, Chris, you just get handsomer with age,” Nancy’s voice near his ear shook Chris out of his reverie. “Why some woman hasn’t latched on to a tall, good-looking, blonde, drink-of-water like you is beyond me. And Buck,” Nancy turned her eyes toward the other member of the team, “how you’ve managed to remain single is a mystery to us all.”
“Just waiting for you to realize your undying love for me and leave this guy,” Buck said, squeezing Nancy tightly to his side. Chris rolled his eyes, Nancy giggled and Charlie just shrugged.
Chris and Buck left the restaurant and decided to go over to their motel and see if their room was ready. Jasper wasn’t exactly overflowing with four-star motels, or motels of any kind, for that matter. When Chris had been competing, he’d stayed once or twice in private residences. Folks didn’t mind opening their homes to a World Champion rodeo rider. But Chris knew he was past the time for world championships. He was just glad he and Buck could afford to share a room. The lots behind the rodeo arena would soon be filled with pickups and horse trailers and perhaps a small pull-trailer or two. Chris remembered many nights early in his career spent sleeping in the cab or bed of his truck – depending on the weather. Now, the floor of the horse trailer made a passable bedroom at most rodeos.
The room was ready, so Chris unloaded his duffle from his truck and went up to take a shower while Buck took Chris’ truck back to the arena to pick up his things.
Because of the all-night drive, Chris was hoping he’d have time for a short nap before heading back to the grounds, but the time spent at Charlie’s had cut into the afternoon considerably. Besides, he and Buck still had to check in with Mr. Standish and make sure their horses and tack were ready to go before they were needed in the arena.
Buck soon returned and he took his turn in the shower as Chris began to dress.
Chris shrugged into snug black jeans and a black long-sleeved Western shirt with pearl snaps down the front and at the cuffs. He dusted off his black boots and black hat and threaded his concho trimmed belt through the loops on his jeans.
Chris smiled. He had to admit he had a penchant for black. He even had an ankle length black duster should the weather turn rainy or cold.
Buck stepped from the bath room; towel wrapped around his waist, took one look at Chris and began to sing the opening refrain of “I Walk the Line.”
“Shut up, Buck,” Chris said mildly as he sat on the edge of his bed, pulling on his boots.
“Hell, Chris, all you need is a pair of pearl handled Colts and you’d look like one of those old West gunslingers. I can see the wanted poster now – Chris Larabee – dangerous desperado -- $500 reward, dead or alive.” Buck used his hands to gesture, his towel in imminent danger of slipping to the floor.
“Get dressed, Buck,” Chris said, playfully averting his eyes. “I don’t need the full frontal thing. Save it for someone who’ll appreciate it.”
“I can think of about a dozen right now,” Buck said, grinning, easing into a pair of blue jeans and a blue and white striped Western cut shirt. “Too bad we have to work.”
The arena was beginning to look livelier when Chris and Buck arrived. Wednesday was the opening night of the rodeo and it ran through Saturday. Most of the cowboys higher in the rankings would be competing Friday and Saturday. Still opening night was opening night, and the crowd expected a good show. Chris knew he and Buck and the other participants riding tonight would give them just that.
Several of the evening’s competitors were warming up behind the chutes and Chris caught sight of a familiar face.
Frank “Dusty” Rhodes was an older cowboy who’d been saddle bronc riding when Chris was steer wrestling. He was a spare, short man with thinning dark hair, a powerful handshake and an easy smile. Frank had gone out drinking with Chris and Buck after many a successful – and unsuccessful – night. Chris walked up and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Frank, haven’t seen you since Amarillo. How’s life treating you?”
Frank turned and grasped Chris’ hand warmly. “Chris Larabee! Good to see you. Heard you were doing pick up work now. That ol’ skirt chaser still with you?”
Chris nodded his head in Buck’s direction. “Yep. No one’s made an honest man out of him yet. It’s good to see you.”
The two men talked a few minutes. Frank was one of those rodeo riders who earned just enough each season to pay his bills, put a little aside and remain hooked on the sport. He competed regularly but couldn’t devote all his time to rodeo, owning a little spread outside Fredericksburg. So he competed in the Texas circuit. Few men could read horses better than Frank. Talk was Frank could just look his assigned horse in the eye and know if he was going to be able to cover his ride or not. Chris believed the talk.
They were still talking when Chris caught a glimpse of a lean, tallish fellow with long hair warming up near the east chutes. It looked like Vin Tanner, but he didn’t think Tanner was scheduled to ride until Saturday.
Frank caught Chris’ stare and said, “That’s Vin Tanner. That boy’s having a helluva season.”
“But I thought he was a bull rider – not set to compete until Saturday,” Chris said.
“He’s making a name for himself in bull riding, alright, but he also does bareback as well. Just glad he’s not competing in saddle bronc. He can read a horse as well as me. And I swear the boy sticks glue on his butt the way he’s almost impossible to throw – horse or bull.”
Chris wished Frank good luck and walked over to where Vin was warming up.
He approached him from the rear. The man was lean, but Chris noted the width of the shoulders and the subtle bulk of his upper torso. It took a lot of strength to handle bulls and broncs and Vin looked to be up to the task. The number “38” was pinned to his back.
Chris also noted the worn appearance of Vin’s clothes. Though clean and pressed, his brown and white long sleeved shirt had seen better days. His faded blue jeans were almost white with age and his boots were a little rounded on the heels. The cavalry hat was battered and a little shabby. The man might be in the money this year, but he certainly wasn’t spending it on himself.
“Vin Tanner?” Chris said, ready to extend a hand.
Vin turned and looked Chris square in the eye. Soft bright blue met surprised green.
Chris normally wasn’t surprised by much, but his first look at Vin Tanner’s face – Vin’s eyes – brought him up short. Chris felt the strangest sensation course through him. He didn’t think it was sexual, although there was no denying the man’s attractiveness. No, Chris felt like he’d come home. There was something so – familiar – about Vin. Like he’d known Vin all his life. And from the expression in those blue eyes, Vin felt the same.
“Vin Tanner?” Chris repeated, holding out his hand, “I’m…,”
“Know who you are, cowboy,” Vin drawled, his voice soft and honey-laced. “Chris Larabee.” Vin bypassed Chris’ hand and instead grasped his forearm in a strong grip. “One of the best damn steer wrestlers to ride the circuit.”
Chris clasped the man’s forearm and an understanding look passed between them. Chris definitely hadn’t seen the last of Vin Tanner.
Soon Buck joined them. Introductions were made and the trio spoke a few minutes before Vin excused himself and went back to his warm up. Chris watched as Vin donned a pair of hand-tooled brown chaps and attached a small pair of silver spurs to the heels of his boots. Then Buck called him and Chris got busy doing prep work.
First he and Buck readied their first horses for the evening. Pony and Beavis were used primarily during the bull riding events. These two horses – Rattler and Solitaire – were lighter and faster, a must for the bareback and saddle bronc events. Then they began to help ready the roughstock for the rodeo’s first event – bareback.
Before he’d realized how much time had passed, Chris heard the distinctive voice of Josiah Sanchez booming out over the arena’s loudspeakers. “Ladies and gentlemen – cowboys and cowgirls of all ages – welcome to the annual Jasper Lion’s Club Rodeo!”
Most rodeo performances had bareback riding kicking off the show. While the flags of the Grand Entry circled the arena, the bucking horses were loaded into their respective chutes. Chris and Buck checked and rechecked their gear, cinches and ropes, mounted their horses and entered the arena.
Chris heard Josiah announce the start of the event, and he and Buck began their jobs as first-class pick up men.
Eleven riders were scheduled to compete, and Buck and Chris watched as the first two riders were disqualified for marking out, which meant they failed to spur their horses as the gate opened. The next rider was bucked off, but landed on his feet. Buck was able to get the cowboy to safety, while Chris loosened the flank strap and steered the bronc to the exit gate.
The next three cowboys covered their rides and earned more than respectable scores in the low 80’s and high 70’s. Chris and Buck had no trouble with them, the horses just glad to be rid of the pinching strap.
One more uncompleted ride and one more disqualification and then Chris heard Josiah announce, “Out of chute number four comes a young man making quite a name for himself on the circuit this year, folks, Vin Tanner from Tascosa, Texas, riding Barney.”
Barney may have had the same name as a kid-friendly purple dinosaur, but this Barney was more T-Rex than H.R. Puff ‘n Stuff.
Horse and rider exploded out of the gate; Vin spurring for all he was worth and Barney doing a spot-on impersonation of a killer tornado. The horse bucked, spun, kicked, twisted and did all but topple over backward, trying to dislodge the cowboy on his back.
Chris found himself, like the crowd, holding his breath.
After what seemed like an eternity, the 8-second buzzer sounded and Chris got to Vin as fast as possible. Vin grabbed Chris’ shoulder and cleared the bronc’s back. Buck steered Barney, now acting more like his namesake, to the gate.
Chris set Vin down onto the dirt floor of the arena. Leaning down, he grasped Vin’s forearm. “Helluva ride, Vin,” he said quietly.
Vin touched two fingers to the rim of his hat, which had, miraculously, remained on his head. “Thanks, cowboy,” he said, grinning.
Just then Josiah’s voice rumbled across the arena.
“Folks, you’ve just seen bareback riding at it’s finest. Vin Tanner scores a remarkable 91! Let’s hear it for the cowboy from Tascosa!”
The spectators erupted into cheers, whistles and wild applause, Vin acknowledged the recognition, lifting his hat to the crowd, a smile lighting up his face. He turned in a circle, and then made his way past the chutes to an exit.
Buck rode up to Chris. “That was one impressive ride, pard. Boy’s a natural.”
Chris just nodded. “Let’s get back to work. Next rider is up.”
The last two cowboys covered their rides, but their horses were lackluster after Barney’s performance. Both riders scored in the mid-70’s.
Chris knew he and Buck wouldn’t be needed in the arena until the saddle bronc event, so they unsaddled their horses, got them settled and went to look for the Gays and Ezra Standish.
Neal Gay was near the steps leading up to the announcer’s booth. His handsome, weathered face broke into a broad smile and he shook Chris’, then Buck’s, hands.
“Good to see you boys,” Neal said, clasping Chris on the shoulder. “Any problems?”
“So far it’s going very well, sir. Your roughstock is some of the best I’ve seen, if your broncs are any indication,” Chris said.
“Thanks,” Neal said. “We’ve got Ezra to thank for some of that. Barney is one of his. Plus a couple of the saddle broncs and several of the bulls.”
“Speaking of Mr. Standish,” Buck said, “Is he here? We’ve not met him.”
So Neal took them over to where Don Gay was standing with some of the Lion’s Club officers. A well dressed man had his back to the trio.
He turned at their approach. Chris caught a glimpse of a gold incisor as the man smiled and extended his well-manicured hand.
“You must be Chris Larabee.” The man’s voice held the slow molasses tenor of the South. Shaking Chris’ hand, he said, “Ezra Standish.” He then extended a hand to Buck. “And you, Buck Wilmington. Pleasure to meet you both.”
The men spoke for a few moments; Chris busy assessing the attractive Southerner. He was smooth, no doubt about it. But he spoke with respect and deference to and about the Gays and he obviously knew his stock. Chris shot a look at Buck and could tell Buck had drawn the same conclusions. This was a man they could work with.
The remainder of the rodeo passed without serious incident. Chris was glad to see Frank Rhodes do very well in saddle bronc, which meant he was likely to end up in the money. He could tell Frank was pleased, also. When Chris set him down in the arena after getting him off his ride, Frank let out a whoop at his score of 87 and threw his hat into the air.
There was one tight moment during the bull riding competition when one cowboy, a rough and tumble young redhead from Norman, Oklahoma, got his hand caught in the rigging when trying to dismount.
The talented rodeo clowns distracted the bull – a Brahma cross with two crooked horns. Buck managed to loosen the rigging and Chris hoisted the cowboy behind him onto Pony’s back. The crowd cheered at the teamwork and the young man waved his appreciation.
Soon the rodeo was over and the crowds were filing out, but that didn’t mean work was over for Buck and Chris. On top of their horses to care for, and some chores with the roughstock, they also had to spend some 45 minutes doing pick up work for some last minute entrants who weren’t able to make the rodeo’s rosters. These young men may not have crowds cheering for them, but rodeo officials ensured they got their rides.
Tonight there were just four – all in saddle bronc.
It was on the last pick up that Chris ran into a bit of trouble. The young man riding was an unseasoned greenhorn who froze in the saddle after a disqualified ride on a meaner than normal bronc. The problem was he was too scared to jump off and had a death grip on the saddle. The bronc had long ago lost his flank strap and was tearing around the arena at breakneck speed, just wanting to get out of the ring and get rid of this weight on his back.
Chris and Buck finally managed to flank the horse on either side. Chris reached for the young rider just as the cowboy lunged for him, and a jutting piece of metal from some jewelry on the boy’s wrist gouged Chris in his right arm.
The kid was obviously really new to rodeo. Most cowboys knew jewelry could get hung up in the rigging and thus didn’t wear any when they rode.
Chris’ arm was throbbing as he exited the arena; a rip in the sleeve of his shirt and blood streaming down his wrist. Buck eyed him with concern. “You’re bleeding pretty good there, pard. Might ought to get that looked at.”
Fortunately the ambulance assigned to the rodeo was still in its assigned place. The EMTs wouldn’t leave until the last of the roughstock was put up for the night.
Chris felt he could treat it back at the hotel, but this was closer. Letting Buck take Solitaire and Rattler, Chris walked over to the back of the ambulance.
A young man and young woman were sitting near the door, each sipping a cup of coffee. At Chris’ approach, they both leapt to their feet. The young woman made appropriate ‘tsking noises and the young man – a handsome black fellow probably in his middle to late thirties – grabbed a nearby first aid kit.
Chris chuckled. The woman was obviously a bit of a rodeo groupie. She had Chris sit down on a nearby folding chair and clucked and fussed over him while the young man did all the work of patching him up.
“Looks a lot worse than it is,” the young man said. The name patch on his jacket read ‘Nathan.’ “How did this happen? Rusty nail? Your tetanus up to date?”
Chris told him about the incident and assured Nathan he was indeed current on his shots. “You don’t work rodeos in small towns without being current on tetanus,” Chris said, with a small laugh.
“You’re right on that,” Nathan said. “These damn kids. You’d think they’d know not to wear jewelry – can lose a hand or a finger that way. Glad you weren’t hurt too badly, Mr..?”
Chris extended his left hand rather awkwardly. “Larabee. Chris Larabee. Although Chris is just fine. Gather your name’s Nathan – read it on your jacket.”
Nathan grasped Chris’ hand warmly. “Nathan Jackson at your service. Nate’s just fine, too. Hmm, Chris Larabee. Didn’t you use to steer wrestle?”
“Sure did. Pick up man now,” Chris replied.
‘Penny’ – if the name on the jacket was correct – was impressed. “Steer wrestler,” she said, batting some ridiculously long artificially enhanced eyelashes. “Were you any good?”
“Good? Woman, you’re talking to a world champion here,” Nathan sounded almost indignant. Chris could only hope Penny’s EMT skills were better than her flirting skills. Although, to be honest, she probably wasn’t old enough to know who he was. She’d be more apt to get weak-kneed over the likes of J. D. Dunne, Chris mused. Or Vin Tanner.
Nathan put the finishing touches on the dressing and gave Chris a pat on the shoulder.
“There you go. Try to keep it covered and dry. Shouldn’t bother you too much. You can take ibuprofen or Tylenol if it gets to bothering you.”

”Thanks, Nate,” Chris shook the man’s hand. “Look forward to seeing you again – under better circumstances, of course.”
Nathan grinned. “See you around, Chris.”
Chris made his way back to Buck at the horse trailers. “You okay, old dog?” Buck asked. “Would hate to lose you this early in the run.”
“Just a scratch, Buck,” Chris said. “What say we grab something to eat?”
“Josiah invited us up for a bite at Catfish Cabin,” Buck said. “Said he’d save a spot for us. Be good to catch up on what he’s been up to.”
Soon the pair found themselves sharing a table with Josiah, eating peanuts and tossing the shells on the scarred wooden floor. The atmosphere of the place was homey, with sturdy wooden tables surrounded by mismatched chairs. The menus were on handwritten eraser boards on the walls.
After exchanging pleasantries and ordering, the trio caught up on what had been happening in each other’s lives. Soon, the talk turned to the current rodeo.
“So, this is, what, your seventh or eighth year to call at the Jasper Rodeo, Josiah?” Buck asked, digging into his meal of fried catfish, salad and hushpuppies.
“Ninth, actually, if you don’t count a few gaps here and there. Yes, there’s just something – right – about a small town rodeo. It’s more real. More about the cowboys, less about the trappings,” Josiah said.
Chris and Buck knew exactly what he was talking about. Big rodeos like Houston and Vegas paid well and provided needed exposure for rodeo itself, but the sport almost got lost amid the glitz and glamour.
“So, Josiah, you got your eye on any of the competitors this year?” Chris asked.
“Well, I think Frank Rhodes might walk away with some money, J.D. Dunne’s the one to beat in calf roping and Joe Shurley is doing pretty well for himself in steer wrestling, but I don’t think that’s who you’re wanting to know about, is it, Chris?” Josiah said, a knowing look in his eye.
Chris actually felt a flush creep up his neck and he lowered his gaze.
“You’re good, Josiah,” Buck said, marveling at the man’s perception. He, too, had seen the connection between Vin and Chris. He’d seen it only once before – when he and Chris had first met. “Tell us about that youngster from Tascosa.”
Josiah settled back in his straight back chair. “I don’t know much, boys, and what I do know has been gathered here and there. Because getting that boy to talk is like pulling hen’s teeth. He may have been born in Tascosa, but he was pretty much raised in two places – with a group of Plains Apache around Anadarko, Oklahoma, and Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch near Amarillo. Lost his only relative – his mom – when he was around five or so. Don’t know how he came to live with the Apaches. Think that was a case of falling through the cracks in the System. Came to the Boy’s Ranch at about age 14. From what I understand he had a near mythical relationship with animals by then. The ranch just honed his skills in rodeoing. Started riding the circuit about four, five years ago. Understand he divides the majority of his winnings between someone in that Plains Apache group and the Boy’s Ranch.”
Chris frowned. That explained a lot. The clean but worn clothes. The warrior’s grip instead of a handshake. The Apache designs on his leather chaps.
“I know he impressed you in the bareback event, Chris. He’s just that good, or better, with bulls. A God given talent, I reckon,” Josiah said, smiling at the memory of some of those rides. “You boys’ll get a chance to see that Saturday night.”
As the trio exited the restaurant, Josiah insisted on picking up the tab. Chris and Buck thanked him warmly, then made their way to Chris’ pickup. Back at the room, lights out, Buck snoring softly in the room’s other double bed; Chris laced his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. Sounded like Vin hadn’t had an easy go of it so far in life. Yet the boy had seemed so at ease in his own skin when Chris had met him. He hoped he’d have a chance to get to knowVin better before the weekend was up.
Thursday evening passed without incident, and with no real standout in any of the competitions. Still, Chris and Buck were glad no one was hurt – and that included human and animal.
They spent the better part of the evening in the company of Neal and Don Gay and Ezra Standish. After eating, the men gathered back at the luxurious Silver Eagle the Gays owned for use at rodeos. A few drinks, a couple of beers; and Chris and Buck found themselves playing poker with Ezra and the Gays.
“Hell, Ezra,” Buck said, tossing down another losing hand. “Did you used to be a card sharp in a previous life? I’ve never seen anyone bluff as well as you.”
“I’m flattered, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said, smiling, the light glinting off that gold incisor, the drawl more pronounced after a few drinks. “I must confess I learned poker at my Mother’s knee. Maude Standish is a legend in Atlanta circles. She taught me all I know. I have since surpassed her in my poker acumen.”
“Huh?” Buck had a puzzled look on his face.
“That just means you might not want to continue playing cards, Buck,” Chris said, smiling at the man’s confusion. “Ezra here is one helluva gambler.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Larabee. I take that as a compliment.” Ezra nodded his head towards Chris.
Chris pushed his chair away from the table. “I know when to cut my losses and run,” he said, nodding to the other men at the table. “Buck, you ready? See you gentlemen tomorrow.”
Ezra sat back at the table, still shuffling the cards. “Mr. Larabee. Mr. Wilmington. A pleasure, as always.”
As the two left the Silver Eagle, Buck elbowed Chris in the ribs. “Man, that fellow is something. I couldn’t even tell if he was cheating.”
“He wasn’t, Buck,” Chris said, as they got into Chris’ pickup. “He’s just that good.”
Friday dawned a little overcast, but soon the clouds gave way to sunshine. Chris and Buck arrived early afternoon to the arena, anxious to see to their horses and check equipment. They noted several new pickups and horse trailers in the lot. The competitors for Wednesday and Thursday had cleared the back parking area. Chris noticed with some regret that Frank Rhodes’ rig was gone; he’d been hoping to congratulate him again on his great ride on Wednesday.
One of the new arrivals was a striking powder blue Dodge Ram with matching horse trailer. Tied to the back of the trailer was a handsome paint gelding with a hand-tooled saddle. A young man wearing a bright blue western cut shirt, fitted vest and jeans was putting the finishing touches on the tack. And – what the hell was that on his head?
Buck strode over and plucked the hat off the young man’s head. “What you wearing, kid?” he asked. The size difference was striking; Buck stood at least a head taller than the young man, and probably outweighed him by a good 50 pounds.
Lightning fast, the youngster whirled and snatched the hat back out of Buck’s grasp. “It’s a bowler, mister, and I’ll thank you to keep your hands to yourself.”
Chris laughed, admiring the kid’s spunk. “That’s a good way to get your arm ripped off, Bucklin,” he said. Extending a hand to the youngster, Chris introduced himself. “Pay him no mind, son. I don’t. Name’s Chris Larabee.”
“J.D. Dunne, sir,” the young man shook Chris’ hand vigorously. His eyes shone and he smiled brightly. “I’ve heard of you. My maw and I used to follow your career when I was a little fellow.”
“Hell, son, you still are,” Buck’s voice boomed as he slapped J.D. on the back and extended his hand. “Buck Wilmington.”
J.D. shook his hand, but continued to look at Chris. “I had no idea you’d be at this rodeo, Mr. Larabee. Are you competing?”
Chris shook his head. “Not competing, son. Pick up man. And please, call me Chris. My father is Mr. Larabee.”
“Okay, si—Chris,” J.D. said. The trio talked for a few moments, interrupted occasionally as other people came over to greet J.D. – many of them women. Seems the slight, dark-haired young man was quite a favorite amongst the fairer sex. Buck was quick to take notice.
“I’m gonna like this kid,” Buck said, slinging his arm around Chris’ shoulders as they walked back to where their horses were tethered. “He reminds me of me when I was that age.”
“Then heaven help us all,” Chris replied.
It was another smooth, easy night. The high point was the calf roping competition. Chris and Buck sat atop some fence rails with other contestants, watching the event.
Timing is critical in calf roping. A mounted cowboy starts from a ‘box’, which is a three-sided fenced area adjacent to the chute holding the calf. From a standstill, a rider must put his horse into a gallop when the calf leaves the chute, and at the same time not break the barrier in front of the box before it releases. If the barrier is broken prematurely, a 10-second penalty is added to the time.
The cowboy must lasso the calf from horseback. Ideally the calf will be stopped by the rope but not thrown, because valuable seconds will be lost while the calf is allowed to get back on its feet before the cowboy can flip it onto its side.
Of the five riders competing before J.D., two had broken the barrier before the start time, and one missed his calf completely. The other two riders did well and scored times of 11 seconds and 10 seconds respectively.
Chris and Buck heard Josiah announce J.D.’s name. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, from the unlikely city of Boston, Massachusetts comes J.D. Dunne, current points leader in calf roping.”
It was like watching poetry in motion. The calf came barreling out of its chute and J.D. and his paint pony were right behind it. Piggin’ string clutched tightly in his teeth, J.D.’s lasso sailed through the air and brought the calf to a smooth, abrupt halt. Quick as a flash, J.D. had dismounted; his talented horse backing slowly up to maintain a steady pressure on the rope. Before Chris could seemingly take another breath, J.D. had the calf down, tied and had thrown his hands in the air to signal time and to stop the clock.
J.D. remounted and moved his horse forward to relax the tension on the rope. Six seconds passed, while the timer waited to see if the calf stayed tied and to record the official time. Then, Josiah was back on the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new record for the Jasper Lion’s Club Rodeo. J.D. Dunne scores a remarkable time of 6.53 seconds! The world record stands at just over 6 seconds. Let’s give this young man a show of our appreciation for this amazing feat!”
The crowd went wild, and J.D. stood, grinning widely, at the applause. The calf was set free and trotted off to the exit gate.
Buck just looked wide-eyed at Chris. “Th – that was amazing,” he said, almost stuttering. “I’ve never seen calf roping like that since we’ve been on the circuit.”
“You’re right, Buck,” Chris said, agreeing. “The kid’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
They didn’t have time to discuss it further; they didn’t even have time to congratulate J.D. It was back to work for the pair. Thankfully, the rest of the evening was uneventful, and soon the rodeo was over and the crowd was streaming out of the stands.
Chris and Buck were ready to assist the additional riders when Don Gay came walking up. “You boys mind taking the night off? I’ve got a pair here that need some pick up experience. And don’t worry, Rudy Burns and some of the other bullfighters are staying to give them a hand.”
“Sure thing, Don,” Chris said, wondering what he and Buck were going to do with the remainder of their evening.
It was as if Don read their mind. “You could mosey up to Solley’s,” he said, with a wink. “Hear there’s going to be a quite a party up there tonight.”
Solley’s was a ramshackle honky-tonk up off Highway 96 North of Jasper. It wasn’t fancy, but the sound system was good, the beer was cold, the lights were dim and the dance floor was huge. So after Chris and Buck took care of their horses and tack, grabbed a bite to eat and cleaned up a little, they found themselves hugging the rail around the dance floor, each sipping on a longneck.
It had to be close to eleven thirty, and the evening was in full swing. Chris and Buck saw a few of the younger Lion’s Club members there, several of the competitors, and truckloads of pretty women, all itching to get their hands on a real rodeo man.
J.D. Dunne was holding court at a corner table. Seated with him was another calf roper who’d done fairly well this evening and five delectable young women, all of whom only had eyes for J.D. The other poor fella didn’t stand a chance.
Chris and Buck walked over to his table, and congratulated J.D. on his performance. He shook both their hands and said, “Thanks, Chris, that means a lot coming from you. Oh, and, of course, from Buck.” Buck didn’t hear the unintentional slight; he was busy eyeing the talent at J.D.’s table. At J.D.’s invitation to join him, Buck promptly pulled up a stool and wedged himself between two young women, one blonde and one brunette.
Chris waved the group off. Buck was certainly in his element; but he bet J.D. could hold his own. “Thanks, J.D., but I think I’ll wander around for a minute.”
Chris made his way back to the railing, deftly weaving through the crowd. He politely turned down several offers to dance, and looked around the room, raising the beer to his lips. At a table in a dark corner he caught a glimpse of long wavy hair and a cavalry slouch hat. So Vin was here. Funny, Vin didn’t strike him as a man who’d spend money at a honky-tonk.
Walking up to the table, Chris caught Vin’s eye. “Evenin’, Vin. Surprised to see you here. Drinking alone tonight?”
“Evenin’, Chris,” Vin hooked a chair with his foot and scooted it away from the table. “No, actually J.D. invited me. He and I have rodeoed together a while. Didn’t know it was gonna be so crowded. We were just sitting at the bar when this passel o’ women came in. Next thing I know, J.D.’s on the dance floor. So I decided to find me a relatively quiet spot to roost.”
Chris smiled as he sat down. While it was true J.D. was drawing the women in like flies, he’d noticed quite a few feminine glances toward this back table. Vin was just giving off this ‘no trespassing’ vibe. Chris wasn’t even sure if Vin realized it.
He noticed the lone beer, half empty, sitting on the table. “You ready for another?” he said, nodding towards it.
Vin grasped the bottle in his long, slim fingers, twirling it lightly between his palms. “No, thanks. I’m riding tomorrow. Gotta keep my head on straight.”
Chris nodded; he’d been there before. So he and Vin just sat and talked. Chris didn’t reveal any of the information Josiah had given him about the young bull rider; he just let Vin talk at his own comfort level.
As the evening worn on, Chris realized he’d told Vin a whole lot more about himself than Vin had. Vin now knew that he’d grown up in Lawrence, had known Buck for ages, and all about his career as a steer wrestler. He knew about Chris’ accident, his penchant for wearing black and his relationship with Josiah. Vin had revealed very little about his past – just the fact he’d learned his craft at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch. When Chris asked him how he’d come to be there, Vin just said he’d had an ‘unusual’ childhood, and left it at that. Still, it was comfortable, sitting here with the man. Chris felt that connection he’d felt when he and Vin had first clasped forearms.
It was 1 a.m. when Chris decided he’d had enough of the loud, smoky atmosphere. He excused himself from the table and went looking for Buck.
He found him still at J.D.’s table, now overflowing with empty beer bottles and what looked like the remains of a hefty portion of buffalo wings. J.D. was out somewhere – on the dance floor or in the toilet. Buck sat, eyes at half-mast, a big grin on his face, exchanging nibbles of chicken interspersed with kisses from a buxom redhead who giggled every other bite – or kiss.
“I’m fixing to head out, Buck. You comin’?” Chris asked, knowing the answer ahead of time. Buck’s bed would not be slept in tonight.
“Naw, old son, I’m catching a ride with J.D. or one of these lovelies here. We’re going back to Brenda’s for a nightcap. Okay with you?”
“Fine with me, Buck, seeing as how I drove us here. You good to get back to the hotel?”
Chris asked.
Buck just waved him away, much too preoccupied with the redhead’s – Brenda’s? – attention. Chris went back over to where Vin was sitting.
“Think I’m going to leave. You okay?” he asked Vin, who stood up from the table.

”Depends,” Vin said, looking around the dancehall. “Have you seen J.D.? I rode out here with him.”
Chris grinned and slapped Vin on the shoulder. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride back to town. Seems like Buck and J.D. are going to be otherwise occupied.”
The ride back to the arena was quiet, but comfortable; neither man saying much. Chris almost asked Vin if he wanted to bunk at the motel for the remainder of the night, since he knew Buck wouldn’t be dragging his butt in until the next morning. He didn’t, because he wasn’t sure how Vin would take the invitation. Chris wasn’t sure himself why he was offering. He couldn’t explain the connection he felt with Vin. It was if they had known each other before – another lifetime, perhaps? Chris didn’t believe in all that past lives mumbo jumbo, but there was just something so familiar about Vin. He sensed Vin felt it, too, although Vin didn’t say much.
Vin drove an older GMC pickup and Chris could see he’d set up a pallet of sorts in the truck bed. He bid Vin good night, they exchanged that warrior’s shake, and Chris returned to the motel.
He was surprised to find Buck sacked out in the other bed when he awoke at 7 the next morning. Buck took his job very seriously and wouldn’t ever intentionally put Chris or any of the other competing cowboys at risk by not being 100 percent, but there were times when a pretty face and sexy body clouded Buck’s better judgment.
Buck was actually up when Chris emerged from the shower, and soon both went down to the motel’s little café for breakfast. To Chris’ surprise, J.D. and Vin were seated at a table in the corner.
Buck greeted J.D. like a long-lost friend, not like someone whose company he had shared just hours ago. So, Chris mused, there was obviously a connection between J.D. and Buck, just as there was between him and Vin.
The breakfast was a lively one. Buck and J.D. exchanging jibes and tussling like brothers; much to Chris’ and Vin’s amusement. The past evening’s events – and the ladies’ attributes – were expounded upon at length by both Buck and J.D.; with Buck’s tales growing more and more outlandish.
Finally, after one eyebrow-raising story, J.D. fixed Buck with an unbelieving stare. Mumbling around a mouthful of scrambled eggs, J.D. said, “Buck, you are so full of crap.”
Buck clutched his chest in mock horror. “J.D., son, you wound me. Everything in that story is gospel.”
“Yeah,” J.D. muttered. “The gospel according to Saint Buck.” That drew a laugh from both Chris and Vin.
J.D. pulled out later that morning. From the amount of phone numbers, e-mail and postal addresses exchanged, Chris knew that Buck and J.D. would keep in touch. Sure enough, not more than ten minutes had passed until the text message option on Buck’s cell phone chimed.
“Damn that youngster,” Buck said, struggling to type a simple reply. “I told him I preferred talkin’ on the phone. Guess he’ll be plaguing me with all sorts of new-fangled ways of communicating.”
The two men worked around the arena that morning and into the afternoon, getting ready for the final night of the rodeo. And, somewhere in the pit of Chris’ stomach, a little seed of worry planted itself and took root. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he had a premonition –
So Chris made sure that none of the uneasy feelings he had about tonight could be contributed to his or Buck’s performance. His equipment was checked and rechecked. Horses were gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Buck did the same with his horses and tack. He’d been around Chris long enough to never ignore Chris’ premonitions.
The evening was beautiful. May in Deep East Texas could be hot, but a rare north breeze stirred the flags around the arena and cooled competitors and spectators alike. The Jasper Rodeo was like a grand old lady who knew she had just one more chance to make a good impression, so she pulled out all the stops. The Grand Entry was more spectacular, the clowns were funnier, the musical entertainment first class and the competition more exciting. Plus all the events had come off so far without a hitch. Just when Chris thought he’d been wrong about his feelings and could relax, he heard Josiah announce the final event – bull riding – and that nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach came roaring back.
Chris had seen Vin briefly during the musical entertainment. Vin had been busy warming up and putting his gear on. In addition to his hand-tooled chaps, spurs and leather glove, Vin had added a protective vest of high impact foam. He and Chris had exchanged a few words and clasped forearms in that familiar grip.
Seated on Pony with Buck by his side on Beavis, Chris again felt that unease; then the first bull came out of the chute and it was down to business.
Bull riding is the most recognized and popular of all rodeo events. It’s also the most dangerous.
Bulls have more raw power and move differently from bucking horses – both bareback and saddle bronc. Bulls are more likely to spin in tight, quick circles. It’s also harder to stay ‘on-balance’ on a bull, and a rider who is constantly off-balance is more likely to be thrown. An off-balance rider will score fewer points than a rider who is more ‘in control’ of his bull. Scores of zero are quite common as many riders lose control of the animal almost immediately after the bull rages out of the bucking chute.
That was exactly what happened to the first two contestants. Chris shook his head. If these bulls were part of Ezra’s stock, they were first-class and on fire tonight.
However, the bullfighters were also first-class and in rare form. The second cowboy ran into a little trouble after his dismount. The dismount went well, but the bull, a beefy Brahma crossbreed named Moze, decided he wanted cowboy for dinner and turned on the young man, butting him in the back with his head. Darrel Diefenbach and Rudy Burns, two outstanding rodeo bullfighters, were right there. Darrel whacked the bull on his nose with his cowboy hat. Distracted, Moze lunged one way while Chris plucked the cowboy out of danger.
The next several rides had varying degrees of success and failure. Both the rider and the bull are awarded points, and a ride is scored from 0 to 100 points. Twenty five-each are for the bull and rider, and the remainder comes from other factors, such as staying on-balance, and style. The most common scores are in the high 70s. A score above 80 is considered excellent; in the 90s, exceptional. The riders tonight had a few scores in the low 80s and mid-70s.
Chris suddenly realized that Vin was the last rider of the evening.
It was almost as if everything in the universe was tuned in to this final ride. Even the normal crowd chatter died down.
Chris saw Vin in the chute, straddling the back of a huge black Brangus bull. He secured his right gloved hand on the handle of the ball rope and tried to settle in. The bull was a fighter, giving Vin and the other cowboys helping around the chute a really hard time – rattling the pen’s boards and banging against the iron rails of the gate.
Meanwhile, Josiah’s voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Our final rider of this rodeo is a young man making a lot of waves on the circuit this year. Those of you here Wednesday saw him give the top ride of this rodeo in bareback, scoring an amazing 91. Tonight, he’s competing in his primary sport. Ladies and gentlemen, Vin Tanner from Tascosa, Texas, on Eli Joe.”
Vin pulled his slouch hat down more firmly on his head, shading his eyes, and nodded to signal he was ready. The chute opened.
For Chris, it was both the shortest and longest 8 seconds of his life.
To say Eli Joe made a dramatic entrance out of the chute would be a gross understatement. All of a sudden over 2,000 pounds of coal-black dynamite exploded in the arena, kicking and snorting and twisting; Vin glued to his back like a pesky fly, spurring for all he was worth.
This was a bull that liked to ‘sunfish,’ which meant he leapt completely off the ground and thrust all four feet to the side in a twisting, rolling motion. He also liked those quick, tight circles. The bull jerked Vin so hard Chris was sure Vin’s spine would snap.
Vin stayed in complete control, as if he were permanently attached to the bull’s back. His spurring was sure to earn extra points with the judges. This was clearly a case of man versus beast for dominance – and Vin was winning.
The 8 second buzzer sounded. The crowd was on its feet; roaring, knowing they’d just seen as close to a perfect ride as they might ever see in their lifetimes.
Eli Joe knew he’d been bested. It pissed him off. And that was when all hell broke loose.
Vin had actually made a clean dismount; landing in a squat, knees bent. He was just rising to his feet, ready to sprint to the fence, when Eli Joe turned on a dime and hooked him in the left side with one long, sharp horn.
Then Vin was on the dirt floor of the arena, and Eli Joe was butting him – once, twice, three times – in the chest with his broad, black head; hooves coming dangerously close to his body.
Rudy Burns let out a war whoop and grabbed the bull’s tail. As Eli Joe turned to deal with this latest annoyance, the barrel man, Rick Chatman, positioned himself and the barrel near the front of the bull. It was a Mexican standoff; Eli Joe pawing the ground, the bullfighters yelling and taunting and egging him to attack the barrel. Anything, anyone, just to get him away from the cowboy on the ground.
His heart in his throat, Chris moved Pony in between Eli Joe and Vin. The bull turned, making one last attempt to reach Vin. Pony blocked the way and the bull slammed its considerable bulk against horse and rider. Pony staggered a little, but held fast, and Chris felt the bone in his lower right leg snap. He’d give in to the pain later. Right now there was too much to do; too much at stake.
Buck managed to get a lasso around Eli Joe’s thick neck and, amidst yelling bullfighters, a stubborn horse and the bite of the rope; Eli Joe gave up his vendetta and allowed himself to be guided out of the arena.
Despite some distressed murmuring from the crowd, it was unsettlingly quiet. All eyes were on the still body of the cowboy near the center of the arena.
The EMTs hurried out onto the arena grounds. Chris dismounted awkwardly onto his left leg and shuffle-hopped over to where Vin was lying. Nathan and Penny were on either side of Vin; assessing his condition, getting him positioned on a backboard, placing a cervical collar around his neck.
Chris saw a flutter of blue. Vin was conscious. Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw the ambulance drive onto the grounds. The back door flung open and a rolling gurney was taken out of the back. As the medics positioned Vin on the gurney, he raised his right hand, as if acknowledging the crowd. A relieved burst of applause filled the air.
Then, Chris experienced a bit of déjà vu, as he heard Josiah’s calming voice over the loudspeakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, rest assured this cowboy is receiving the finest of medical care.
And, he also scored an amazing 99 on his ride tonight. Give him a warm Jasper round of applause along with your prayers, folks. Vin Tanner, from Tascosa, Texas. First rider to ever cover a ride on Eli Joe.” The noise was like a groundswell – clapping, cheering and whistling.
As the medics began to place Vin into the ambulance, Nathan reached Chris’ side. Chris felt a hand on his arm, and Nathan’s concerned brown eyes looked into his green ones.
“Chris? I saw that hit on you and your horse from Eli Joe. And you look a little shaky. You okay?”
Chris managed a weak smile. “No, Nathan, I’m not. Damn bull broke my leg.”
Signaling Buck over, Nathan explained the situation and helped Chris into the back of the ambulance. As the doors closed, Chris could hear Buck shout out something about taking care of the horses and meeting him at the hospital. Then someone bumped his right leg in the confusion and things grayed out.
Chris came to in the E.R., lying on a cold exam table with his boots off and the right leg of his black jeans slit from hem to mid thigh. An older woman in scrubs came over when she saw him awaken.
“Hey, sugar,” she said, brown eyes warm and sympathetic. “Good to see you awake. How are you feeling? Any nausea? You cold?”
“I’m fine,” Chris said, although his teeth were chattering.
“Sure you are, hon,” she said, winking. Taking a blanket out of a microwave looking contraption, she spread it over him. Immediately he relaxed into the warmth. “We’ll be taking you to x-ray soon, but it looks to me like a clean break and there’s no swelling. We’ll probably be casting it soon.”
Chris reached out and grabbed her hand. “Vin. How’s Vin?”
“That the handsome young man you came in with?” the nurse asked. “He’s being evaluated now. I’m sure you’ll hear something soon.” With that, she squeezed Chris’ hand and walked out of the room. He was about to call after her when he heard a commotion in the hallway and Buck’s voice rang out, “Chris? Where’s Chris Larabee? Chris? You in here, old son?” And then Buck’s handsome face peered around the doorframe.
“There you are,” he said, just as he was intercepted by the nurse Chris had seen earlier.
“Sir, you can’t go in there,” she started to say, but Buck turned on the charm. “It’s okay, darlin’,” he drawled, honey sweet. “We’re here workin’ the rodeo. I just need to let him know that I’m handlin’ all the paperwork and such. You been to x-ray yet?” he asked, turning his eyes back to Chris.
As she gently but firmly steered Buck out the door, the tech arrived and took Chris to x-ray. As they wheeled him on the gurney down the hall, he called to Buck’s departing back, “Hey, Buck! Find out about Vin, okay?”
The x-ray seemed to take hours, but it did turn out to be a clean break. As he was being wheeled back into an exam room to have the cast applied, he saw Buck, Josiah and Nathan sitting in the nearby waiting area.
He asked the nurse, “Can they come in?”
Perhaps it was because Nathan was a familiar face around the E.R., or that Josiah and Buck had smoothed the waters with the crew, or that the hospital staff had been dealing with the rodeo and its riders for more than 60 years; but soon all three men were gathered around Chris’ gurney.
The orthopedic surgeon came into the room. He was an impossibly young man of Indian descent. He gazed at Chris with snapping dark eyes and spoke with a polished, almost British accent.
“It appears to me to be a closed fracture of the tibia – very easy to fix, requiring only a short leg cast. It’s a clean, shallow break; you won’t need pins or rods or surgery. My assistant will be in shortly to apply the cast. I heard about your ordeal from the EMT staff. You were lucky, Mr. Larabee.”
“Thanks, doc,” Chris said, extending a hand for the man to shake. “If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you end up in a small East Texas town?”
The doctor flashed a brilliant smile. “I grew up in rural India, Mr. Larabee, close to Mumbai – I believe you refer to it as ‘Bollywood.’ The only entertainment we had on weekends consisted of Indian films, and older American movies. I idolized John Wayne.” He patted Chris on the shoulder. “If you have any further questions, have a nurse or my assistant page me. Be careful, cowboy.” And he left the room.
Chris turned to Buck. “Did he just call me a cowboy?” he asked with a grin.
Buck laughed. “Yep, old son, I believe he did.”
Chris turned serious. “So, how’s Vin? I haven’t been able to find out anything.” Noting the grim expressions on their faces, he said, somewhat tentatively, “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Nathan spoke up. “We really don’t know, Chris. Bull hooked him in the side and he was bleeding pretty badly. Plus he was having some trouble breathing from those blows to his chest. We got him stable and they rushed him down to St. E’s in Beaumont.”
Seeing the look in Chris’ eye, Buck said, “We’re there, pard, just as soon as you’re finished here. I promise.”
Nathan and Josiah left, headed down to Beaumont. Buck went out to chat up some of the nurses while Chris got his leg cast.
Chris had worn enough casts and seen enough casting done to know the young woman working on him knew her stuff. She made sure his foot was flat, or in the neutral position, before applying the stockinet, the padding and the casting material. She put extra padding over his Achilles tendon and spent a good bit of time on the foot of the cast, which is the weight bearing area. She smoothed the casting material, working out the rough edges and bumps and made sure the cast came out far enough to give Chris’ foot plenty of support. Plus, she was very easy on the eyes. Chris grinned. Buck was missing out standing at the nurses’ station.
A fact Buck learned as he came back later, two cups of coffee in hand, as Amy finished her work.
She smiled at Chris after giving him last minute instructions on the crutches he’d been issued. Buck saw her slip a piece of paper into Chris’ hand.
“Now, Chris, call me if you have any trouble, okay?”
“Will do, Amy,” Chris said, smiling at the raven-haired woman, “Thanks.”
“Damn, son,” Buck exclaimed, handing Chris one of the coffees. “How do you find ‘em? I’ve been over at the nurses’ station all this time and none of those ladies, pretty as they are, can hold a candle to that filly.”
“It’s a gift, Buck,” Chris said.
After some last minute release forms, care instructions and prescriptions, Chris and Buck were on the way to Beaumont. Buck had driven Chris’ truck so Chris could stretch out in the back seat of the extended cab. Chris slept most of the way down, the medicine they’d given him for pain kicking in.
When they arrived, Buck parked as close to the entrance as he could and helped Chris out of the truck.
The hospital was busy for the wee hours of the morning, but the pair soon spotted Nathan and Josiah. And, Chris realized, Ezra had joined them.
“Well?” Chris said, after a nod acknowledging Ezra.
“Easy, Chris.” Josiah’s presence was a calming influence. “Vin’s in surgery. We should know something in a little while.”
The foursome went to the surgical waiting area. Someone got coffee – someone got Chris a pillow on which to rest his leg – they talked quietly amongst themselves at first. And, as they waited, other folks who’d been at the rodeo began to trickle in. Two of the bullfighters – Darrel and Rudy. A couple of bull riders. Others Chris didn’t recognize. They filled up the chairs in the waiting area. And then the stories started coming out.
Apparently Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and that person in Anadarko weren’t the only ones Vin had been helping along the way. Since he’d begun riding, several folks had benefited from a meal or a paid entry fee or a lift to an event. Some had crashed right along side him in the bed of his truck. Or had gotten some last minute advice on getting a better ride from their bronc or bull, even though that advice could have cost Vin a win, or placement in the money stats.
Slowly, a picture of Vin Tanner began to emerge. No matter how difficult his childhood and young adulthood must had been, this was a man who worked hard, rode hard, played fair and was always willing to extend a helping hand. A man whose word was his bond. A man who put his trust in a forearm grip. A man who, Chris acknowledged, he was proud to know.
Some twenty people were in the waiting area when the doctor emerged a couple of hours later. So, when he asked for the family of Vin Tanner and all 20 stood up, he was taken aback.
Ezra approached him with a sheet of paper.
“Sir, you will find we are all here for Mr. Tanner. The young man has no immediate family. However, this form states my company is assuming all his medical expenses and I am authorized to act on his behalf. Certainly that counts as family. And, I believe we would all benefit knowing of his status.”
Chris looked at Ezra with new found respect. The man knew how to sling words around. Chris wasn’t sure if Ezra was telling the truth or not. But, somehow, Chris believed he was.
The doctor obviously bought it.
“I’m Dr. Lawrence. Mr. Tanner was placed under my care when he arrived. While the surgery was a success, he’s not out of the woods yet, but we are optimistic. That bull’s horn penetrated the protective vest, tore some muscle and nicked the spleen. We got the bleeding under control and repaired the damage as best we could. The problem has been the anesthesia. You know that it can suppress breathing and he’s compromised enough as it is. The vest provided some protection from the bull’s head butting his chest, but he still sustained a cracked sternum, two broken ribs and two cracked ones, all on the left side. One was a little displaced; we’re monitoring it so it doesn’t puncture a lung. I’ll be checking his progress on the surgical end, and Dr. Chen will be providing care for the chest trauma. Now,” the doctor looked at the group, most still trying to process the information given them. “Is there a Chris Larabee here?”
Several fingers pointed Chris’ way, and, shifting his weight on his crutches, Chris nodded and said, “I’m Chris Larabee.”
“He’s been asking for you,” the doctor said. “Come with me.”
Dr. Lawrence was a tall, husky young man, probably in his late thirties, with kind eyes and a genuine manner about him. Chris liked him immediately. Dr. Lawrence took Chris back to an ICU recovery room and assured him that Vin’s stay in ICU would be temporary. “We just have to monitor him over the next twelve hours or so; make sure the anesthesia didn’t acerbate those chest injuries. He should be moved to a room this afternoon.”
Chris heard the doctor’s encouraging words, but his eyes and his mind were on the man in the hospital bed.
Vin wore no gown, and a soft, off-white blanket was pulled up to his waist. The head of his bed had been elevated, enabling him to breathe easier. A stark white bandage decorated the lower half of his left side and several leads dotted his chest; wires snaking down to various machines measuring heart rate and heaven knew what else.
Bruises were already beginning to form on that lightly muscled, tanned chest; a particularly vicious one starting down the center over his breastbone. Chris was relieved to see that Vin had just a nasal cannula; no breathing tube or oxygen mask was needed.
He sported three I.V.’s – two filled with clear fluids and one with blood, probably replacing what was lost with that deep side wound.
Chris was so busy taking it all in, he forgot Dr. Lawrence was in the room until he felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
“Are you all right, Mr. Larabee? I know it’s a lot to take in. Looks like you didn’t leave the rodeo unscathed, either. Here,” the man scooted a square backed chair up to the right side of Vin’s bed. “Have a seat. He’s been in and out of consciousness the past several minutes. It will do him good to see a familiar face when he wakes up.”
Dr. Lawrence left Chris sitting there. Not sure if he should speak or grip Vin’s hand, Chris just sat, watching Vin sleep. Not two minutes later a pretty redhead in blue scrubs, a stethoscope hanging around her neck, came into the ICU cubicle.
She smiled at Chris as she made her way to the head of Vin’s bed.
“Hi, I’m Liz. You must be Chris. I’m Dr. Lawrence’s surgical nurse. Funny, his first name is Chris, too.”
Liz started checking Vin over, noting temperature, blood pressure, checking the bandages and leads, listening to his chest; all the while lightly touching him – forehead, shoulder, and chest – and keeping up a soft litany of conversation.
“Vin? Time to open those baby blues, sweetheart. Chris is here. Come on, Vin,” she turned, smiling, to Chris.
“Do you know he actually apologized for us having to operate on him this morning? Think he said something like ‘hate to be a bother, ma’am.’ Can you imagine? Barely conscious, all that blood and hurting as badly as he was, too. Reminds me of my little brother – especially those blue eyes! Except Steven isn’t as good-looking. Or as polite. Glad you’re here. He was asking for you.”
Chris just looked at her. This woman certainly had a unique bedside manner. Constant touching, constant chatter. Way too many endearments. Yet, Chris liked her. A lot.
She continued crooning to Vin. “Vin? Come on, honey. Open your eyes. Time to wake up now.”
In seconds, Liz and Chris were rewarded with a glimpse of blue eyes. Liz almost squealed with delight. “That’s it. Come on, sweet boy. You thirsty?” Vin nodded, almost imperceptibly. Liz reached for a cup of ice chips on a nearby over-bed table. She popped one in Vin’s mouth.
“That’s it, just suck on the ice. No water just yet. In fact, I’m going to get you some Ginger-Ale. I’d like to minimize the chance of Vin getting nauseated,” she said then, speaking to Chris, and, in a low voice, added, “because of those chest injuries. It’s hell getting sick when your ribs and sternum are broken.”
Chris winced involuntarily at the image. Luckily he’d never broken a rib, but he’d strained some chest muscles on occasion wrestling an uncooperative steer and every time he’d coughed or sneezed or taken a deep breath it had hurt like hell.
Liz left to get the Ginger-Ale. Chris heard a soft moan and Vin’s eyes fluttered open again. “Ch-Chris?” he stuttered.
Chris leaned in, grasping his right arm lightly, careful of the IV lines. “Right here, Vin. I’m right here.”
“Didn’t know if you’d come,” Vin said, eyes glancing his way. Vin caught sight of the cast and moved abruptly. “Chris! What hap…?” Too abruptly. His face actually took on a greenish tinge and he lurched to the right side. “Ugh – I’m gonna…”
“Liz!” Chris cried out, trying to reach for the emesis basin.
Liz was there in a flash, somehow managing to support Vin’s weight, get the basin underneath his mouth and keep his hair back from his face as he heaved. He brought up a little liquid, but most were dry heaves; wrenching and, if the look on Vin’s face was any indication, extremely painful.
Finally done, Liz eased him back onto the pillows. She grabbed a cloth and wiped the sweat off his face.
“Aw, shit,” he said, panting from the exertion and pain. “That hurts like a sumbitch.”
Liz glanced at the monitors and carefully checked Vin’s ribs, making sure he hadn’t done any damage to himself.
“I was afraid of this,” she said. “The anesthetic we used plays havoc with some people’s stomachs.” She pulled a capped syringe out of her pocket and injected its contents into the IV port in Vin’s right hand. “This should help with the nausea. Here, sweetie,” she said, putting a straw in the Ginger-Ale can and steering it to Vin’s lips. “Small sips. Should help with that taste in your mouth. Can you hold the can? Easy does it.”
As Vin sipped the liquid, Liz went on to explain, “Dr. Chen is opting to not tape Vin’s ribs at the present time; partially because of his cracked sternum and partially because we need to keep his lungs clear to prevent pneumonia and strapping them down can restrict chest capacity. We’ll keep a close eye on him for the next forty-eight hours or so, just to see how he tolerates the pain and how successful we are at getting him to breathe deeply and cough.”
“ ‘He’s’ right here, you know,” Vin said, a little grumpily.
“Of course you are, punkin,” Liz said, placing a hand on his forehead and then letting it slide through that tangle of curls. “I just thought Chris might like to know what’s going on with you.” Liz looked at Chris and clucked her tongue. “Looks like you got involved in a fracas, too, handsome. Are you comfortable in that chair? Have you taken your pain meds? Here, let me get you something to drink, so you can take a pill. Don’t need to have two of you in hospital beds.” She bustled off. Chris and Vin looked at one another.
“Real force o’ nature, ain’t she?” Vin said, then moaned as he set the can down on the over-bed table. “Shit,” he said. “This sucks.” Eyeing Chris, he asked, “So what happened to you?”
Chris grinned at him. Vin might be stove up, but he still had some snappy comebacks.
“Eli Joe happened. You were on the ground, so Pony and I tried to keep you from becoming bull burger. He ran into the side of us. Pony’s okay, but he managed to break my leg.” Chris’ eyes gleamed in admiration. “That was some ride, Vin. I’ve never seen the like of it.”
“Thanks, Chris,” Vin said, a pleased blush actually coloring his face. “That means a lot coming from you. Sorry you had to get hurt on account of me.”
“If you’re going to blame anything, blame that bull,” Chris said. Running a hand over his face, he suddenly felt very tired. “God, Vin, that scared the shit outta me. You weren’t moving.”
“I do ‘preciate you coming here,” Vin said.
Chris fixed Vin with a look. “There’s no place else I’d rather be,” he said. And he meant it.
Liz was soon back with a drink for Chris, and Nathan, Josiah and Ezra were allowed, one at a time, to stick their heads into the cubicle. The twelve hours needed to monitor Vin’s reaction to the anesthesia passed slowly; the injection Liz had given him seemed to stave off any more bouts of nausea.
Buck dragged Chris off to a local motel for some much needed rest about mid-afternoon. Vin was still in ICU, although it was pretty certain they’d be moving him to a room later that day.
Arrangements had been made to pick up the horses and trailers and take them back to Chris’ ranch, as Chris would be out of commission for a good two months. Buck also had someone drive his truck back to Lawrence, keeping Chris’ truck for errands, transportation and as a means of carrying Chris back to the ranch when the time came.
The Gays had been notified, via Ezra, of the situation and Buck and Chris had been assured their jobs would be there in the fall. Neal and Don even offered Buck steady work while Chris was recuperating; but he declined their offer, saying he and Chris had been a team for more than 15 years and he wasn’t aiming to break in a new partner.
The excitement of the last several hours, coupled with the broken leg had pushed Chris’ body to the limit, so he slept for almost 12 hours. It wasn’t until early Monday afternoon that he and Buck returned to the hospital.
Ezra was coming out of the business office when Chris and Buck came in the main entrance.
“Ah, Mr. Larabee. You handle those crutches like a veteran. I gather your proficiency and dexterity come from past experience?”
“Oh, yeah, Ezra,” Chris said, smiling. “Way too much experience.” He looked around the lobby. “Anyone else still around? Vin get moved yet?” He began to hobble over to the elevators.
“Indeed. He is on the 4th floor. Room 413. Mr. Sanchez is with him. Everyone else had pressing obligations to fulfill and engagements to keep. However, I’m sure they will be checking back with some regularity. Mr. Sanchez has agreed to field the calls for the present. Well,” he pressed two fingers to his forehead, as if touching the brim of a stylish hat. “I must be about my business. Please wish Mr. Tanner a speedy recovery. And reassure him that we are handling the medical expenses. Least I could do,” Ezra added, almost an afterthought. “Eli Joe is one of my bulls.”
Buck and Chris watched him leave. “Y’know, pard,” Buck said, an amused look on his face. “If I live to be 100, I’m not sure I’ll ever figure that fella out.”
“He’s a fraud,” Chris answered. Addressing Buck’s puzzled look, he explained. “On the outside, he’s an accomplished gambler, excellent businessman and probably a bit of a con artist. Inside, he’s Jell-O. Hell, all cowboys know getting hurt rodeoing is a risk you take. Ezra didn’t have to foot Vin’s bills. He wanted to. You and I are going to keep in touch with this Mr. Standish. Think he’d make a fine friend.”
Upon entering Vin’s room, they found Vin asleep and Josiah seated in the room’s only chair, reading his Bible. He looked up at their arrival.
“Chris, Buck, good to see you. How’s the leg?”
“Doing fine, Josiah,” Chris said. “How’s Vin?”
“He’s feverish, but the doctor said that was to be expected after what he’s been through. In a lot of pain and the boy keeps refusing to use the morphine pump. Sounds like someone else I know who behaved just like that after surgery.”
Chris didn’t even pretend he didn’t know who Josiah was talking about. He clearly remembered the ‘talks’ he and Josiah had had after his leg surgery.
“Thanks for being here, Josiah,” was all he said.
“Yes, well, Vin kinda gets to you, you know?” Josiah said. “Anyway, I’m glad you two are here. I’ve got a rodeo to call on Thursday, so I need to be getting on the road. Have any arrangements been made for someone to stay with him or some place for him to recuperate? He shouldn’t be on his own for at least four to six weeks.”
Chris glanced at Buck. Although they hadn’t discussed it, Chris knew that Buck would be in his corner.
“We’ll confirm with Ezra, but I think Vin will be coming to Lawrence with us.”
Josiah got a pleased look in his eye. “Well, alright then,” he said with a smile. Getting up, he shook hands with both Chris and Buck. Moving over to Vin’s bedside, he ran a gentle hand through Vin’s tousled curls. “Get well soon, cowboy,” he said softly.
The next few days were rough on both Vin and Chris. Vin had a hard time shaking the fever, and Buck had a hard time convincing Chris to eat regular meals and rest, as set as he was to stay by Vin’s side. Dr. Chen, a small, dark haired Asian man, was a bit of an unconventional physician, to say the least. One afternoon Chris and Buck found Vin slathered with some sort of salve smelling of cucumbers.
“Comfrey – helps the bones knit,” one of Dr. Chen’s nurses, a petite feisty blonde named Carrie, said. The nurses also kept Vin on a regular program of respiratory therapy, to ensure his lungs stayed clear. Vin bitched and complained rather frequently, but manned up to the painful exercises.
Messages and get-well wishes continued to come in almost daily. J.D. called every afternoon from the road; he’d talked to Buck and would be visiting the ranch in Lawrence in the coming weeks. So would Nathan, Ezra and Josiah.
Now, all Chris had to do was break the news to Vin that he was going to be a houseguest.
In the end, it was ridiculously easy. It was the afternoon of the sixth day of Vin’s hospitalization. He’d been fever-free for 12 hours; 12 more and the doctors were sure he could be released under supervision. Ezra had been by to see how things were going. Chris had just finished talking to Nathan on the phone and Buck was out in the hallway talking to J.D. on his cell. Chris was sitting by Vin’s bedside, thumbing through a magazine.
“Yeah, Vin?”
“Doctor says they’ll be springin’ me directly.”
“Yep, that’s what I hear.”
“So, what you gonna do, now that you don’t have to baby-sit no more?”
“Well,” Chris drew out the word deliberately, stretching his arms high above his head and hearing the bones in his back pop. “Figure I’d mosey up to the ranch in Lawrence. Lay around a while. Eat some of my momma’s great home cooking. Sleep. Watch some TV. Bug the crap outta Buck. Take a ride when my leg’ll allow.”
“Sounds real nice,” Vin said, a telltale sigh in his voice.
“Want to come along? Plenty of room. My mom’ll do her best to fatten you up a bit.”
Vin bit his lip, a frown creasing his fine features. “I dunno. Feel like I’d be in the way.”
“Mom would love to have you. Since I’m on the road so much, I’m not home enough for her to fuss over and feed. She’d love another youngster to take care of.”
Buck had stuck his head around the corner when the conversation started, and he added. “Come on, Junior. You’d be welcome. There’s always room for one more at the Larabee spread.”
“You’re sure that’d be okay? Don’t want to be imposin’.”
“Wouldn’t have asked if it weren’t.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Vin said, almost shyly, ducking his head.
“Then it’s a plan,” Chris said. And it was.