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       Corralled, p.29

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  She found herself peering at the contestant area, hoping for a glimpse of him. Without a pair of binoculars it was impossible to discern one cowboy from another. Hank was probably in the back with the livestock, checking out the bull situation anyway.

  Why aren’t you searching for Kyle?

  Question of the day. The year. Maybe of her life.

  Everything changed two days ago when she and Hank were alone at the cabin. She realized Hank wanted more than a fling. He probably always had.

  It touched her in the last week that he’d gone out of his way to do fun, sweet things for her every day. Little romantic gestures like making her coffee. Helping her with word puzzles. Finding a magazine to interest her. Hand- feeding her Skittles and M&M’s when she was behind the wheel. Or just holding her hand. Even when he slept.

  But those silly tokens hadn’t been the tipping point. That’d happened last night, when she’d caught Hank’s eye as they were driving to another rodeo. The glow from the dashboard seemed dim compared to the light in Hank’s face when he’d looked at her.

  As if he was exactly where he wanted to be, in the cab of a pickup truck, in the middle of nowhere, with her.

  The time at the cabin had also changed the dynamic with Kyle.

  When Kyle wasn’t driving, he was sleeping in the camper. He’d distanced himself— not that he was acting like a jerk, but he’d become quiet, claiming his winning streak meant he needed more time to mentally prepare himself for an event, not less.

  Lainie had gotten used to Hank. Used to being with him all the time. They meshed in so many ways, it scared her.

  It scares you because you were a little bit in love with Hank when this started. Even when you said you weren’t going to choose, you already had.

  Did Kyle sense that? Was that the real reason for his retreat?

  Maybe, but Lainie couldn’t shake the feeling that for Kyle, this sharing thing had merely been convenient, but for Hank, it’d always been so much more.

  She just didn’t know how to address it.

  The sun clung on the edge of the horizon. Once that fat orange ball faded from view, the stifling heat would abate. Folks fanned themselves with programs. Kids sprayed one another with water- bottle spray fans. Babies cried. Children ran pell- mell up and down the wooden bleachers. Food and beer vendors constantly shouted their wares. Welcome to small-town rodeo


  The first bareback rider started the night out with a bang— a score of eighty- two. Most riders hung on for the full eight seconds, but none surpassed the high mark set from the start.

  Saddle bronc scores were usually higher than bareback scores, which seemed weird, given that bareback riders didn’t have the saddle to help them keep a seat on the animal.

  Interspersed between the bulldogging and the calf roping was a rodeo clown act. Hank always bristled when people confused bullfighting with what passed for entertainment.

  During the act, Lainie wandered to the fence separating the contestants from the general public. Rodeo promoters stationed a guard at the contestant entrance. But a pair of double Ds popping out of a low- cut shirt pretty much guaranteed entrance anywhere.

  Pangs of loneliness settled low in her belly. She was surrounded by families joined together with their love of rodeo, from great- grandparents down to the tiniest baby. Rooting for hometown contestants. Gossiping. Betting on scores and times. Beer drinking and some even dancing on bleacher seats. Lainie was a part of it, yet not completely. Working for Lariat often left her with the same sense of disconnection. Disconnected from her life and from her job.

  Dammit. She wasn’t a brooder by nature. Drifting in that direction wouldn’t change a damn thing in her life tonight.

  For the next hour, she watched the team roping— heelers had a damn hard go of it— and the specialty act consisting of trick riders and more unfunny clown antics. What struck her as odd was that the venue didn’t dictate the caliber of the entertainer. She’d attended big events where the clown’s entire repertoire consisted of fat- mother- in- law jokes and seen smaller venues that hired a better than average performer.

  Barrel racing reminded her of Tanna, and Lainie realized she hadn’t spoken to her in a week. Time on the road was a blur.

  “Who’s ready to see some bull riding?”

  The crowd went wild.

  The announcer detailed bull riding rules while the barrels were picked up. Guys ran out with rakes and shovels to even out the dirt.

  Lainie’s stomach did a little flip when Hank’s name reverberated through the loudspeakers.

  As usual, Lainie’s heart leaped the second that chute opened.

  As soon as the rider untied his riding hand and landed on the ground, Hank was focusing the bull’s attention on him.

  Twenty bull riders were on the docket. Some guys took extra time getting ready in the chutes, which caused the announcer to fill the air with mindless drivel. A restless energy rippled through the crowd. As much as no one wanted to see a bull rider hurt, the projectile ejections, the close brush with hooves made for a great show.

  Who didn’t love a great show? Thousands of people had witnessed her father’s death. For some, it’d been an event to brag about. Some ghoulish people even bragged to her that they’d been in Cheyenne that fateful day. She never quite knew how to respond, so most of the time she mumbled something lame like, “Good for you,” and escaped as soon as possible.

  Kyle rode twelfth, drawing Moneymaker, the rankest bull in the go- round. Moneymaker had a reputation for staying calm in the chute. But the second that gate opened, the slavering beast roared to life with a vengeance. Unpredictable on his best day, Moneymaker had been ridden only four times in thirty- four outs, and each one of those rides garnered scores in the nineties.

  Lainie gleaned some of the information about the bull from the program guide, some from the conversations around her, and some from the announcer.

  “Next up, Kyle Gilchrist. This cowboy hails from Rawlins, Wyoming. Kyle’s been on a winning streak lately, and let’s hope his luck holds tonight. He’s taking a shot at Moneymaker, a CRA American Finals Rodeo veteran.”

  Please be safe. Lainie leaned over the railing, hoping to see the action taking place in the chute.

  Kyle rosined his rope. Fiddled with it several times. He slipped in his mouth guard. Canted his hips. Free arm waving above his head, he nodded to the gatekeeper.

  The millisecond that bull tasted freedom, he let ’er rip. Fifteen hundred pounds straight up in the air. Twisting a hard left as he swung his hips right. Then right again.

  Kyle slid sideways. If the crowd’s gasps were any indication, everyone thought he’d fly off. He didn’t, which was a testament to his skill and his tenacity.

  Another high jump. Another hard landing for man and beast.

  This time Kyle wasn’t prepared for the jolt and he pitched forward.

  He overcompensated and the next few actions played out in slow motion. Kyle was ejected ass over teakettle, but his hand was still tangled in his wrap. More gasps sounded from the crowd as they recognized he was in the position known as “the well.”

  That was when Moneymaker started his notorious tornado spin. Kyle frantically tried to get himself free. The bull spun so fast the bullfighters couldn’t get close enough.

  Lainie’s terror grew when she saw Hank dart in midspin and slap the bull on the ass, hard, with both hands. Moneymaker stopped abruptly, sending Kyle swinging as he smacked into Moneymaker’s side. During the momentary lull, Hank stepped in and yanked on Kyle’s bull rope, freeing his hand.

  Kyle dropped to his knees, cradling his arm, gasping for breath.

  He lost his balance and face- planted, oblivious to the animal gunning for him.

  Hank threw himself below the bull’s head, right at the gigantic chest, blocking the bull from landing on Kyle’s spine. Yelling at Kyle, Hank rolled to his feet to run interference, as it appeared the bull would make another run at both

  Kyle stumbled upright, scrambling for the barrier fence, falling once, getting back up to scale the metal rails.

  Before the bull gave chase, he whipped his massive head around and caught Hank right square in the chest with a horn. Hank flew back and hit the ground face- first like a sack of potatoes. As if that weren’t bad enough, Moneymaker’s hoof grazed the back of Hank’s head before the other bullfighter lured the bull away.

  The pickup men immediately swung ropes, cornering the bull, dragging the livid beast to the livestock gate.

  Hank wasn’t moving. The other bullfighters gathered around and Kyle raced back, dropping to his knees in the dirt beside Hank.

  Lainie couldn’t breathe.

  The medics rushed in, first snapping a neck brace on and then slowly rolling Hank flat. A stretcher appeared, vitals were checked.

  Next they’d lift him onto the stretcher.

  Dammit. She couldn’t see. The stupid medics were blocking Hank from the crowd’s view. From her view.

  Fear glued her to the spot.

  What if he’s dead? What if the bull pierced his lung and damaged his internal organs and he’s bleeding to death? Just like my dad?

  This was an absolute nightmare.

  “Miss? Are you all right?”

  She managed to turn her head to look at the woman whose eyes brimmed with concern. Lainie shook her head.

  “Are you sick? You’re pale as a ghost.”

  “I . . . can’t . . .” She worked up enough spit to swallow and forced the words from her throat. “The bullfighter is my boyfriend.”

  “Oh, sweet Lord, child, no wonder you’re in shock. Let’s get you down there.”

  Lainie nodded numbly.

  “You have to let go of the railing, dearie.” She squeezed Lainie’s hands with her own.

  Somehow, Lainie’s fingers uncurled from the rail and she turned away from the medics still working on Hank. Part of her didn’t want to look away. Part of her didn’t know if she could continue to watch.

  “That’s it.” The woman wrapped her hand around Lainie’s waist. “One step at a time. Ready?”

  Again Lainie nodded.

  The woman led her up the stairs to the main ramp. “I suspect your young man will perk right up once he knows you’re at his side.”

  If he’s conscious. If he’s not already a lifeless blob with the light completely gone from his eyes.

  Clapping echoed, jarring Lainie out of her morbid thoughts.

  Clapping meant they’d taken Hank out of the arena.

  That doesn’t mean he’s all right.

  When they reached the contestants’ entrance, the guard blocked them. “Sorry, ladies. No admittance.”

  “This young woman is the girlfriend of the bullfighter who was just injured.”

  The guard gave them an accusing stare. As he debated, she heard Kyle shout her name from behind the gate. The man stepped aside.

  Lainie noticed Kyle cradling his riding arm, and the bruise on the side of his face. The wailing of sirens in the background snapped her back to reality: Hank was injured badly enough to justify an ambulance ride to the hospital.

  Kyle was out of breath. “I was just coming to find you.”

  “Is he . . .” Lainie couldn’t force out the rest of the sentence.

  “He’s still unconscious. That’s all I know.”

  She would’ve crumpled to the ground if not for the Good Samaritan keeping her upright.

  “Let’s get to the hospital.” He grimaced. “I don’t know if I can drive.”

  “Neither of you should drive. I’ll drive you both,” the woman insisted.

  Lainie inhaled a deep breath. She stepped away from the woman and offered her a shaky smile. “I don’t even know your name.”

  “Marion Basham.”

  “Thank you, Marion, for all your help. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, a ride to the hospital would be appreciated.”

  “No trouble at all. My car is close and I’ll get you there in a jiffy.”

  Marion didn’t chatter beyond asking the basics. Lainie was grateful for the buffer between her and Kyle. It would’ve been hell on her nerves to rehash the accident— as she knew Kyle was apt to do.

  At the emergency entrance, Lainie thanked Marion profusely, which Marion waved off with the typical ranch woman’s response,

  “I was glad to help.”

  The place wasn’t bustling like most big- city hospitals. Lainie wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign or a bad sign. The nurse behind the desk took one look at Kyle cradling his arm and inquired, “Broken bone?”

  “No. We ain’t here about this. Has Hank Lawson, the bullfighter injured at the rodeo arena, been checked in yet? He came by ambulance.”

  Her eyes turned sharp and businesslike. “Who are you?”

  “We’re his family.”

  “He’s waiting for the doctor. If you want to have a seat, I’ll let his nurse know you’re here.”

  “Is he all right?” Lainie blurted, even when she knew they wouldn’t tell her a damn thing.

  “I’m sorry, I can’t give you that information. Like I said, the waiting room is right over there.”

  “Thanks.” Lainie gave her name and Kyle’s name and stood by the desk, trying to see down the hallway.

  “Come on,” Kyle said, tugging her away with his left hand.

  After they sat, she faced him and pointed at his arm. “Did the medics check that out?”

  “They weren’t concerned about me at all.” At Lainie’s stark expression, he squeezed her hand. “I meant—”

  “I know what you meant. You should get that looked at.”

  “So do it. Ain’t like you’re doin’ nothin’ else right now.”

  “You are such a pain in the ass sometimes.” But Kyle knew how to keep her mind occupied. “Where’s it hurt?”

  “The better question is, Where don’t it hurt?” he quipped. “If I woulda measured it before the ride and now after, I’d bet money I gained a good two inches of length.”

  She gently moved his thumb back and forth. “Excessive pain here?”

  “Nope. Mostly above where the wrist brace ended.”

  “Issues with the shoulder socket? Feel like the muscles are torn? Did anything pop?”

  “Not that I recall. I was trying to keep fluid so the bull didn’t rip my arm clean off.”

  “You’re lucky he didn’t.” She poked a couple more spots and was satisfied when he didn’t react with pain. “My advice is—”

  “Rest, ligament cream, and ibuprofen every four hours,” they finished in unison.

  Lainie muttered, “A smart- ass as well as a pain in the ass.”

  “This ain’t my first rodeo, sugar. I’ve heard that advice a time or twenty.”

  Silence floated between them as the minutes ticked by.

  “Hank saved my life.”

  “I know.”

  “I was so tired from trying to break free that falling in the dirt and letting that motherfucker stomp me didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Now Hank is in there, God knows how bad—”

  “Lainie Capshaw. Please come to the front desk.”

  Her heart pounded. Fear lodged in her throat. Dread lodged in her gut, making the trip to the front desk excruciatingly long. At the kiosk she choked out, “I’m Lainie Capshaw,” to the young female nurse who’d paged her.

  “Please come with me,” she said brusquely.

  “What’s going on?”

  The nurse, who was three inches shorter than Lainie’s five foot four, stopped abruptly. “Mr. Lawson is refusing any treatment until he speaks to you.”

  “Hank’s awake?”

  “Awake and unreasonable. Maybe you can talk some sense into the man, since he demands to see you.” Her ponytail bobbed as Lainie trailed behind her down the corridor. She motioned for Lainie to wait.

  A privacy sheet separated the exam areas. The nurse snapped,

  “Mr. Lawson. Lie down. Rig
ht now. If I see you sitting up again, I’ll restrain you.”

  “Try it,” Hank snarled.

  Lainie ripped the privacy sheet back so fast the metal hangers sounded like a zipper.

  Oh, God. There he was. Pissed off. Wearing a flimsy hospital gown,
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