Eight seconds, that’s all it would take, then he’d be done for the day.
Wade hung his head over the small stainless steel sink and tried to breathe. He’d be up soon, out there in the ring again for the first time since the accident.
Nerves clenched his gut. He heaved but only water came up. He couldn’t eat anything this morning. The thought of coffee made his stomach churn in rebellion. He splashed some water on his face then spit to clear the acidy taste of puke from his mouth.
There was a knock on his trailer door, ‘Broncs up next, WJ.’
The thought of Lucy hit his brain just then. It used to be her at the door. She had been there for his last rodeo. She was gone now. He shook his head as if it would shake her out. He wouldn’t let himself think about her very often. Losing her made time seem like a Montana blizzard, endless and harsh.
He looked at himself in the mirror. His tan skin looked sallow today. His brown eyes had lost the happiness women always commented on when he was younger – ‘That Wade is a happy one, smiles right up to his eyebrows.’ And it had been true.
He checked that his chaps were strapped tight around his jeans. When he had decided to return to the circuit, his father had presented him with a new pair of chaps with the same pattern his family always wore at roundups and rodeos – three circles of intertwined turquoise colour leather and silver on brown leather with fringe trimming down the sides and bottom. His last pair of chaps had been cut off of his body.
He strapped on the body protector given to him by his mother. She had campaigned for him to wear a helmet when riding bucking broncos but nobody did. Helmets were for bull riding, and his bull riding days were over. He decided bronc riding would be his first competition back on the circuit.
Wade put on his tan cowboy hat and took a deep breath. He grabbed his gear and stepped out of his trailer, greeted by a milky June sun. Daytime temperatures were on the rise, but night time cooled off sharply. There was still snow on the high caps of the Rockies visible from their ranch.
‘Good luck, WJ.’
He held up a few fingers in acknowledgement at the well-wishers but concentrated on the ground in front of him, trying to shut out the crowd.
The smell of barbecue hit his nose and made his stomach grumble, despite his nerves. He smiled a little at the memory of last June when he’d met Lucy on the circuit.
She was an Equine Management major at the University of New Hampshire and spending a year interning in Montana for Masons, a stock farm that supplied horses for rodeo riders who didn’t have their own rides. His horse had gone down with a tendon problem, and he’d gone to Masons for a loan horse.
When he’d met Lucy she’d been eating sticky ribs and her mouth was covered with dark barbecue sauce.
‘You got a little…’ Wade had motioned around his face, ‘sauce thing goin’ on.’
She grinned wickedly and ripped off a piece of rib meat before dropping the bone back in the Styrofoam box. ‘I haven’t eaten all day, and this stuff is just heaven. You can’t get any barbecue like this back East.’
Her East Coast accent sounded out of place in the Midwest. He didn’t know of any East Coasters on the Montana circuit.
‘I’d shake your hand, but you’d be covered in sauce.’ She raised an eyebrow at him, ‘then I’d be tempted to lick it off.’
He felt his face turn red at the thought. Girls on the circuit flirted with him, but it sounded different coming from Lucy. Nearly innocent, but he wasn’t sure if he saw something in her eye that said otherwise. She dressed differently too, English style riding boots with shorts and a t-shirt, nothing western. Everything about her seemed exotic.
She led the loan horse out of the trailer. ‘Be a good boy for…’ she turned toward him waiting for his name.
His brain fumbled. Everybody on the circuit knew who he was.
She stuck her now clean hand out to him, ‘I’m Lucy.’
‘Wade. WJ.’ Everyone on the circuit called him WJ, only his family used his first name. Lucy called him Wade from the beginning.
‘Ah,’ she nodded in recognition of the name, ‘WJ Nolan, the Real Deal.’
He shook his head in embarrassment.
‘That’s what they call you, right, the Real Deal?’
She was right. You could hear people say it all over the circuit. He was the most promising bull rider in Montana. He had had the best record of rides the previous summer in the whole of the North West. Everyone knew he’d be headed to Vegas for the winter to compete at the national finals and that meant big money. He could have been a millionaire at the age of nineteen. Then the accident happened.
They soon became inseparable, and he forgot about time when she was around. He did his stint before and after his bull ride, helping the other riders get in to the chute, getting the next bulls ready, and then he’d take a break. Lucy was always out tending a horse when he walked past Mason’s trailer, so he’d stop and say hi.
It wasn’t long before she started taking her break after his rides, and they’d end up in his trailer.
Lucy discovered a place on his neck just behind his ear. When she put her mouth on it, he felt time freeze as if his heart had stopped. It was like living and dying all at the same time. The thrill hit him from his chest down to his groin. It was a better buzz than bull riding.
After she was gone, he would catch himself absently rubbing the spot. It made his heart sink, and he missed her all over again.
Wade nodded to the other bronc riders standing around waiting for their turn. He hauled himself up onto the platform and forced himself to look out at the ring. Fear prickled down his back but he ignored it.
The concept was simple, stay on the bull or bronc for eight seconds; the execution wasn’t so easy. He watched as a rider was just falling to the ground and rolling away from the horse. Plumes of dust rose from the heels of the horse bucking away to the other side of the ring. That was one reason he chose broncs over bulls. Horses ran from you; bulls ran toward you.
It was the first rodeo of the season, and the stands were full of families. Red, white and blue bunting lined the perimeter of the ring. People were cheering and kids were eating pink cotton candy clouds. He scanned the crowd for his parents but couldn’t pick them out.
One of the rodeo men nodded to him, ‘Hey, WJ, you’re fifth up now. Can you give me a hand with a couple of these broncs?’
Just like that he was back in it as if he’d never been away, never had a six month recovery, never been told by the doctors he shouldn’t compete again, never lost Lucy.
Wade saddled his horse and climbed the grey metal gates again to ready himself for his ride. He slid along the railings getting closer to the bronc chute and his turn. He climbed in to the chute on top of his ride, a black horse called Bullet. The horse jittered underneath him, muscles rippling with energy. The desire to lose Wade from his back felt more urgent than Wade’s desire to stay on for eight seconds.
‘Welcome back, WJ.’ A rodeo hand patted his back, as two others leaned over the railings to steady Bullet.
He looked out at the crowd, now just round faces with no features. The emcee announced his name, adding it was his first time in the bronc competition. The unspoken left hanging in the air after the announcer’s voice died away. His first time in the bronc competition because he was too shit scared to get back on a bull. The horse jolted sharply, and the image of the last bull he rode flashed in his mind.
Negro Diablo was a 1700 pound bull pissed off at being stuck in a chute with a 180 pound moron on his back. Wade would never forget the black devil.
Its menacing bulk shifted forward and back in the chute. The gate flew open. Wade lasted 3.2 seconds before he started to fall. His hand became hung up in the rope holding the bull, and he couldn’t get it to release. The bull charged around the arena dragging Wade alongside. A metal railing closed in on him and his body slammed in to it. The force of the bull’s fury lifted him in the air.
The last thing he remembered was his head colliding with the bull’s head. Pain ricocheted around his brain and he lost consciousness. If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet he would have been dead. He’d seen the YouTube video of it. The wreck lasted 43 seconds. He had looked like a rag doll after the head injury. The force of the bucking bull yanked Wade’s hand free from the rope, jettisoned him over the bull’s back and then to the ground. The bull fighters rushed toward the centre of the arena but not before the bull twisted back toward Wade, stamped on his chest and then tripped over landing on him.
When he arrived at the hospital his brain was swollen, he’d dislocated a shoulder, and had broken ribs, one of which had punctured a lung. The weight of the bull had bruised his pelvis and broken an arm. All anyone could do was wait and see how damaged his brain was, or if he’d regain consciousness at all.
Lucy had refused to leave his bedside. Everyone gave in and let her stay. If Wade had been awake he would have told them all how headstrong she was. She didn’t succeed in the Midwest as a newcomer being a shrinking violet.
Hers was the first face he saw when he regained consciousness three days later.
‘That was a wreck,’ he’d croaked.
Lucy hung her head and cried.
Wade closed his eyes and shook the memory from his head. He glanced at one of the rodeo hands and nodded as he raised his hand to signal he was ready.
The chute flew open. He held the rope tight as Bullet bucked him high in the air. His ass crashed down on the saddle when he landed, only to be tossed up high again as Bullet kicked his back legs up in the air. The third time he landed hard, he felt himself slide sideways on the saddle and lose his grip. Wade crashed to the ground, putting his hands over his face and head, as he kept an eye on Bullet who was moving away from his prone body. He didn’t waste any time getting to his feet and moving toward the gate. Three rodeo hands were there beside him to see if he was injured. Everyone remembered what he had looked like in the ring eight months ago.
He looked up at the time board – 5.3 seconds.
‘Take a breather,’ one of the rodeo hands said to him.
Wade nodded and walked into the holding area where they kept the livestock in pens. He didn’t want to go back to his trailer yet. He knew his parents would be there waiting for him. He wandered down the alley between the pens where the bulls were. He looked around for Negro Diablo and thought he saw him in a pen in the next alley.
5.3 seconds, he could take that time for the first ride of the season. He was a rough bronc rider despite helping break horses on the ranch. Being a lighter touch with an unbroken horse was different from riding a bronc horse trained to buck.
He wondered if Lucy was training horses right this minute. She didn’t like him saying he was breaking a horse. She preferred the term gentling or joining in. Their terms were different but their approach was the same – get the horse to follow you, to trust you. She had worked with a colt for his father two months after the accident. Wade had been there on the side lines itching to be the one in the ring, to be back in action on the ranch. Everyone had treated him like he needed gentling. He wasn’t broken.
Lucy and his mother had watched him like a hawk. Every time he went outside one of them would be on his heels making sure he wasn’t going for a ride or trying to help with any of the heavy lifting, like cleaning out the cow sheds or hauling bales of hay.
He snapped one day when they’d both appeared at the barn door to check up on him. He turned on them, ‘Leave me the fuck alone! I just need some goddamn air.’ He had wrenched a halter off the wall and thrown it at them. They had retreated.
After that he froze Lucy out. In the back of his mind he knew his time with her was coming to an end. She was going back to New Hampshire in April to finish her third year by writing a dissertation on what she had learned working for a horse contractor. It was mid-February. He did the maths. She was going back home, back to her life. There wasn’t a place back East for a rodeo cowboy who worked on his daddy’s ranch.
He recalled the last words he’d said to her, ‘Just go. All your good time fun this summer was just shit. I don’t want you around anymore. Stop crowding me like I’m some cripple you need to take care of.’
He watched tears hit her eyes, but she blinked them away. ‘Wade…’
‘Don’t ‘Wade’ me. Just go, get.’ He had sent her away like a shamed dog.
And she’d gone. She was like a horse in that way, lose the trust and lose the horse. He had been spending the last few weeks eroding away her trust in him. He thought it would make the break easier.
His last words had trampled their seven months together in less than a minute, a wreck worthy of any brutish bull. There were three dark blotches where her tears had soaked into the barn floor. He clenched his jaw and refused to add to them.
He eyed Negro Diablo in the pen and frowned. A lot can happen in eight seconds, he thought, crushed by a bull, or words spoken that can never be taken back, hurt carved into a person as real as any physical injury.
Wade dropped his saddle and took the phone out of his bag.
He pressed the phone icon then her name.
It rang on the other end and she answered. Two seconds.
‘I’m sorry…’ Four seconds.
‘I’m here, Wade. Your mother invited me out to see your first ride back. I’m outside your trailer.’ Six seconds.
His smile reached past his ears making his eyes crease for the first time in months. He ran. He wasn’t wasting any more time. Eight seconds.