Seth sat on the bleachers in the scorching Texas sun, which made him feel like an overcooked piece of beef. But the day’s brutal heat was far from his primary concern. What made his legs tremble and shake like an alcoholic at the end of a three-day bender? That would be the frenzy of the rodeo arena located only a few dozen feet away. The clang of metal against metal had become part of the symphony he lived for every summer weekend. Yes, that was the source of the uproar, but the cause was the two-thousand-pound bull trying to break free of its narrow confines.
Anyone who witnessed the scene before him understood. Seth’s distilled emotions weren’t over the animal itself but the seventeen-year-old cowboy who would shortly be fighting to stay on for eight agonizing seconds.
To put the cherry on the stress sundae, the bull rider who would be trying to keep his seat was…his son.
His friend Travis slid onto the bench beside him. He turned to Seth with a smile. “Zane’s having a good run. He drew his bull from one of the best stock operations on the circuit. He should build up some points this round.”
Seth studied Travis briefly then shrugged. “I know. We’ve been doing this since he was big enough to throw his leg over the sheep they ride in the mutton-busting competition. But the lambs have morphed into huge ugly bulls who live to break every bone in Zane’s body. It’s been the same for years, but somehow, with each rodeo it’s more of my focus,” Seth said.
“Well, every rodeo puts you nearer to your goal of Zane winning the scholarship he needs to pay for his college education. I can’t seem to get my Amy too excited about anything since my divorce from her mother was finalized.”
Seth’s glance at his friend revealed a troubling change from his typical smart-ass attitude as Travis became lost in his thoughts. The arrangement they had reached years ago when both families had begun competing on the junior rodeo circuit was that they would not be more than supportive friends. He and Travis were in agreement that their kids were the focus, not any potential attraction between the two of them.
With a snort from the bull and the ring of metal against metal, Seth’s focus snapped back to Zane as his ride was about to begin.
Zane cocked his head and double-checked his helmet. That was one of Seth’s unbendable rules, that he would wear all the safety equipment possible, starting with the helmet and vest. The bull rider’s dance began when Zane’s head bobbed his readiness and the gate swung open.
The brindle-colored animal with its massive hump paused for a millisecond to identify its targets before exiting the chute with a single jump. Zane stuck his arm in the air like a proud flagpole on Independence Day. The bull filled his part of the contract with leaps and spins Seth would’ve thought impossible. The animal tang of arena rodeo filled Seth’s nostrils. Seth jumped up and down with enough nervous energy to make a hummingbird proud. Then they reached the part of the performance that drove Seth crazy—the other seven seconds of the ride.
He held on to the bleachers with the tenacity of a pack of winter-starved wolves after an elk. The crowd groaned and Seth cringed as Zane swung wide, almost losing his grip. But he knew his son’s determination only grew with each competition driving him closer to his goal. Seth ground his teeth together and held his laser-focus through the spectacle. Seth had heard rodeo cowboys called ‘modern-day gladiators’. Watching his son, he could see where that came from.
They reached the point where Seth wasn’t sure Zane could go any further and the timer went off. It felt like a reprieve from death row.
Seth glanced down just in time to see Zane hit the ground on two feet with his hands thrust above him. That’s when he realized Zane had stopped paying attention to the bull. Bad mistake. In a split second it had turned and taken aim at his son and was lunging forward with a sound like a diesel engine. Some kind of animal vendetta his son hadn’t watched for came to life. Seth wanted to scream, to run into the arena to protect his child, but none of that happened. Zane would have a record-setting shit-fit if he did, and he wouldn’t have to anyway. That situation was the exact reason the bullfighter was in the arena. Even better, today’s was among the best. Seth was confident everything would turn out fine so long as Shane Neri was in charge. He sprinted toward the bull still wearing some of the clown outfit from his earlier entertainment routine, but this was not a performance. This was life-threatening serious, which was what brought people to the rodeo—to see the rider pitted against the bull and become wrapped in the drama of life and death.
The pickup men charged the bull on their muscular quarter horses, forcing it out of the arena while Shane provided a distraction. It took only seconds. Zane ran for the fence and Shane finished his job.
Travis jumped up and down with excitement while his daughter Amy was relieved that her friend had survived another battle against nature, due in part to Shane’s athletic performance.
“It was a fantastic dismount! You can bank on Zane sticking them every time,” said Travis while pounding Seth on the back. He dodged the blow from his muscular friend with a laugh. “He’s showboating and he knows it. This isn’t gymnastics. There are no more points for sticking a dismount. Hell, it’s not even called a dismount. It’s getting off the bull without being hurt.”
“Damn! Did you see that? Shane’s an amazing bullfighter,” Amy said.
“You got that right, I’m glad he was there when we needed him. I’ll help Zane check everything and make sure he can get through his next ride with as few problems as possible,” Seth said.
The other two nodded in agreement and the trio made their way off the scorching aluminum bleachers. People underestimated the cumulative impact the unending parade of rodeos had on the contestants. Most discounted today’s performance as just another county fair event in Texas. But the competition’s points counted toward the state championship—and a college scholarship.
They left in search of Zane and reached the penning area. It didn’t take long before they found him strutting in his leather chaps, swinging his helmet from his hand. He saw Seth and ran to his father, wrapping his arms tight around him.
“Dad, did you see? That bull pulled every trick it had, and I rode right on the edge. It might not have been a perfect ride, but it was a damn good one,” Zane said.
“Zane! Watch your mouth. What would your mother think if she heard you talking like that?”
He calmed down, but only a little. “She would tell me it was okay occasionally. Sometimes you even have to drop a big one.”
He studied his son and formed a slight smile. “Okay. I’ll let you off on that one. She would give you some slack since that was a nasty bull. I’m just glad you’re not hurt.”
About the time he thought the conversation would end, Travis and Amy chimed in.
“That was amazing. There’s no way they won’t give you a scholarship. Who else would be better competing for Texas than Zane Davis?” Amy said.
Travis added to the support. “It was a great ride, Zane…one of your best in the last few weeks. Keep it up and you’ll win that scholarship.”
A smile grew across Seth’s face. “You two are getting carried away. Let’s get the boy in college and have it paid for with no injuries. That’s the basic goal. Once that’s accomplished, we can talk about him taking over the ranch and raising his own kids on it.” He glanced at Zane, uncertain about what he might see on his son’s face at those bits of information.
Travis lifted an eyebrow but resisted any comments about ranch ownership. “Okay, there’s only a few more contestants left before they announce the winners of the senior boys bull riding. Let’s get a Coke, then we’ll see what happens.”
None of the next contestants came close to Zane’s score, and Travis offered to take everyone out to eat if Zane won. Close by was one of the best taqueria trucks, so devouring tacos might be the activity of the night.
But shortly afterward, it was announced that Zane was the winner for his category, and after the cheering subsided, the teenagers clamored for food, especially the kind that might fill a teenage boy. Travis could remember those days when puberty had left him famished most of the time. They found a favorite truck, not tacos but the best corndogs on the fairgrounds. He’d been waiting in line for several minutes when someone called his name. He turned and smiled at a familiar face in the truck waiting to take his order.
“Hey, Cheryl. It’s good to see you. How did you end up making corndogs?”
“Oh, you know how it is. The kids are in college and we retired the old man. I thought it would be a perfect chance for me to earn extra Christmas money. Grandma doesn’t pay well.”
Travis chuckled, “That’s ambitious…doing everything this early.”
“Yup, that’s me. Now, what can I get for you?”
“Well, I have the whole crowd, so hang on.”
“No problem, ready when you are.”
“We need a corndog for Amy. No, scratch that. Amy wants one hotdog with the neon-green relish.” He shook his head. “She loves those things. I don’t get it. A corndog each for Seth and me. Then, for the champion junior bull rider four—yes, count them, four—corndogs with a side of waffle fries coated in chili.”
She finished taking the last of the order and winked at Travis. “Nothing else? A side of beef? Moose?”
Travis chuckled. “Nope. If he wants dessert, I’m sending him back alone.”
She laughed then disappeared to fill his request.
Soon he was being passed two paper bags full of food. He spotted his group where he’d left them, under the awning with a picnic table that Seth had located after Zane and Amy had joined them for refueling.
The closer he got, the more uncertain Travis was that he wanted to deal with the hungry denizens he traveled with. They looked like extras from Shark Week. But as soon as they ate, especially Zane, life would be better.
He pulled his food out of the sack, sat beside Amy and doused his meal with a couple of squirts of ketchup and mustard. The meal lasted only a few minutes before the young ones had eaten everything and wanted more. This time Travis was not as congenial.
“It’s your turn now. There’s plenty of junk food to eat when you get out on the midway. Just watch out for each other, please,” Travis said.
Amy gave him a condescending glance and patted his head. “Father, Father… We’ll be fine. We are not still the little munchkins from your childhood. Cowboys know how to survive.”
“It’s not a joke, Amy. People are different now than they were when I was your age. Back in the old days, we had a quarter for a call and people knocked on your door to use your phone because they’d had a wreck. We let them in because it was the decent thing to do. Nowadays I’m not sure you’d get anybody to let you in their house unless you were dripping blood—and probably not even then.”
“I was just teasing. Sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. I know how that gets your goat,” Amy said.
Zane finished the last of the fries, adding ketchup and homemade hot sauce to the chili. He wiped the remnants from his face and turned to the adults. “We recognize what you guys went through. It’s not like we don’t think about being careful. We’ll watch out for each other.”
Travis was vacillating—and by the look in Seth’s eyes, he was thinking similarly—as to whether their kids were humorous or obnoxious. In the next few moments, Zane and Amy broke into a spontaneous chorus of We Will Survive, and the choice for ‘obnoxious’ was made.
Travis let out a long, exhausted sigh. Why do I keep trying to educate modern-day kids? Though they don’t seem much like kids anymore. A consolation, if there was one, might be that none of the other parents were in any better situation. Travis’ sixteen-year-old girl was wearing him out just as fast as Zane was doing to Seth.
Travis glanced at his watch and waved to their kids. “Go. Have fun. Take care of each other. Yes, I know I’ve told you the same thing a dozen times. Make your parents happy and pretend to listen—and be back here when we told you to be.”
To their surprise, the kids left with hugs and reassurances, even though they sprinted the last fifty feet before disappearing into the midway crowd. Travis watched for a moment, wishing the pair would revert to five-year-olds and come running back to be protected by their fathers. That wasn’t happening, Travis knew, but he was sure Seth wished the same thing.
Seth gave him a crooked smile. “We can hope for their safety, and we’ll have to keep each other sane in the meantime. I’m feeling too old for the midway, even if it’s like Disney on Ice.”
Travis smiled and did the two-step for a few feet before motioning Seth ahead of him. “Let’s go through the 4-H and FFA exhibits. We can pretend we aren’t parents with blood, sweat and tears invested in our children’s projects.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Maybe it will give us more perspective.”
Seth nodded and Travis tried not to react to his endearing expression. It was times like these he wished they hadn’t agreed to keep their relationship to just friendship. Travis didn’t think he’d mind exploring something more intimate.