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D.A. “Gus” Holt had never stayed still for more than five minutes in his entire life.
From the moment the doc had smacked his bottom in the hospital thirty-one years ago, Gus had been a go-er, a do-er—a hell-bent-for-mischief little boy who’d grown up into a hard-driving, hard-riding, hard-living, bronc-ridin’ cowpoke.
The road didn’t exist that Gus hadn’t been down. The bronc didn’t buck that he hadn’t rode—or at the very least tried.
Gus was known for his try—that almost mystical blend of cowboy guts and will—which, when combined with God-given bullheadedness and Gus’s occasional determined stupidity, had, over the years, helped him accomplish almost any damn thing he chose.
It had kept him competing in spite of three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder the first year he’d had a chance to go to Vegas for the National Finals. It had brought him out of the hospital with his ankle in a cast to win in the short-go two years ago at Cheyenne. It had helped him drive eleven hundred miles in way less time than the highway patrol would have approved of to make his ride on Ground Zero, the best bucking horse of the year, in Pendleton a year ago September.
It had kept him going for a dozen years.
But it wasn’t helping now—because for the first time in thirty-one years, Gus didn’t have a goal. He stared out the bunkhouse window into the late autumn darkness that settled far too early over Taggart Jones’s Montana ranch, and wished, not for the first time, that this edginess he felt would go away.
He didn’t like it. Didn’t like not having a goal, knowing what he’d be doing next, what he wanted to be doing next. He was drifting, lost, a ship without a rudder, a compass with no sense of north.
For the first time ever, Gus didn’t know what he wanted—a gold buckle—or where he was headed—to the next rodeo. Worse, he didn’t even know how it had happened.
He only knew he didn’t have the desire anymore.
And he didn’t even have an excuse.
Lots of rodeo cowboys lost their careers to injury. They woke up in a hospital with a doctor telling them they’d better find another line of work. Others hung up their spurs when they finished first. They won their gold buckle and, satisfied, they bowed out.
Gus had had his share of injuries and docs telling him he’d be better off doing something else. But he’d never agreed with them, and he’d always fought to come back. He’d won his share of gold buckles, including the big one that everyone wanted. Three years ago he’d been the PRCA bronc-riding champion of the world. But even after he’d won it, he’d kept right on competing because he still had the drive, he still had the fire and the desire.
And now he didn’t.
Just like that.
Well, no, maybe not just like that.
It didn’t—bang!—vanish the way a tire popped. Nope. This was more like a slow leak. And, if he was honest, it had been going on for a while, sneaking inside his life, settling in and taking hold before he really realized it was there.
He began to see it in little things. All those miles he drove began seeming longer this year. The satisfaction of an eighty-eight-point ride didn’t feel as good.
He didn’t bounce up when he was down the way he used to. He creaked a little more when he got up in the morning, and it took him longer to work the kinks out.
He might have felt more juiced if he’d been going to the Finals this year. Then he’d have had a goal at least. But for the first time in eight years, he wasn’t going. Breaking his wrist in Dodge City back in August had pretty much ended the possibility of that.
He’d vowed to come back for a couple of rides at the end of the season. It was the standard acceptable thing to say to any reporter who asked. And the day money might have been worth it if he’d had a chance of winning.
But his wrist didn’t feel real strong come mid-October, and the doc and the physical therapist both told him he’d be crazy to risk it.
Being told he was crazy had never stopped Gus before. Usually it goaded him on.
But this time, he listened.
And when Noah Tanner and Taggart Jones invited him to teach some classes at their bronc-riding school in Elmer, he’d skipped Minot and the Cow Palace and had come to Elmer instead.
That’s when he realized something was seriously screwy. When a hell-raiser like him thought teaching school—even bronc-riding school—was preferable to giving his all in the rodeo arena, something wasn’t adding up.
He wasn’t complaining exactly. He wasn’t unhappy. He was just wondering where he was going with his life now, what the point was anymore.
Deep stuff for a guy who pretty much wrote the book on being shallow.
He’d come to Taggart’s, figuring he’d get it all sorted out and take off again in a week or so. But he hadn’t.
He’d been here close to a month now, teaching three- and four-day clinics and helping with the ranch work the rest of the time. And he was no nearer understanding himself or what he wanted than he had been when he’d arrived.
He felt like he was standing still, waiting for something to happen.
Trouble was, lots of things were happening. Just not to him.
J.D., for example, was getting married! It had been a shock and a half to come back to Elmer and find out that his brother, J.D., was planning on tying the knot. And with Lydia Cochrane, for crying out loud!
Gus hadn’t ever figured J.D. for the marrying type. Over the years it had always seemed to Gus that his older brother went through girlfriends the way Taggart’s bulls went through heifers. He’d never ever given any sign of settling on one.
Then somehow, and Gus had no idea how, he’d got stuck on Lydia. And she’d got stuck on him!
It boggled Gus’s mind that a woman like Lydia Cochrane—a smart, city-girl lawyer—saw anything appealing in a stubborn son-of-a-buck like his brother!
After all, J.D. wasn’t near as good-looking as Gus was. Didn’t have near the charm, either, no matter what all those old girlfriends might say.
No sir, J.D. was just damn lucky.
And that was another thing going wrong with Gus’s head! Why was he thinking his brother was lucky ’cause he was getting married?
If he’d thought marrying was so all-fired wonderful, Gus reminded himself, he could’ve been married by now himself.
For a dozen years, as a matter of fact.
If he’d wanted to be. If he hadn’t come to his senses in time. If he hadn’t told his girlfriend Mary, who was busy planning their wedding, that it wouldn’t work out because he wasn’t ready to settle down like some old man. He’d been nineteen, for heaven’s sake!
And he’d actually said he reckoned he’d be better off dead than getting married in a week’s time! He probably shouldn’t have said it quite like that. Mary hadn’t taken it real well.
And what the heck was he doing, thinking about Mary?
He never thought about Mary McLean.
Well, almost never.
There was no point. He hadn’t seen his ex-fiancée in years. Last he’d heard she’d moved to Arizona, had intended to go to college down there. That had been a long time ago.
Who knew? Not Gus. She could be married and have half a dozen little kids by now. He didn’t let himself think about it as he prowled around the bunkhouse. All he knew was he had way too much time on his hands if he was thinking about her.
Sometimes, when he’d been down in Scottsdale or Tucson or Window Rock riding broncs, Mary had crossed his mind. Then he’d find himself wondering if he might look up into the sea of spectators and see her there, that she might have come to watch him ride—for old times’ sake.
He actually remembered daydreaming once or twice, after a couple of the rodeos he’d won, that she had come looking for him, that she’d come right up afterward and slid her arms around him and tucked her hands in his back pockets the way she used to. Then she’d kissed him like he’d never been kissed before. Or since.
It was not restful, thinking things like that.
And there he was again, thinking about restful!
Decidedly restless, Gus kept pacing. Since when had he ever cared about restful? Well, he hadn’t. Still didn’t.
But that was what happened when you were stuck in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end with nothing to do. He cracked his knuckles. He should’ve gone into Elmer tonight with some of the cowboys who’d come for the bull-riding school.
The Dew Drop wasn’t exactly your Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, but he could’ve shot some pool, drunk some beer, maybe set his sights on a little gal who was as lonesome as he was.
Was he lonesome?
Was that what was wrong with him? Gus flung himself down on the narrow wood-frame bed and considered the possibility.
He couldn’t ever remember being lonesome in his life. Hell, he’d never been alone in his life! He’d always had his brother or his buddies or a whole bevy of women to keep him occupied. Lonesome?
No, he wasn’t lonesome. He was just…just…
Hell! He bounced back up off the bed. All this soul-searching wasn’t getting him anywhere! He needed noise! People! Action!
It was only ten o’clock. Still early. The Dew Drop wouldn’t start rocking for another hour.
He yanked a clean shirt out of the closet, tugged it on, buttoned it up, tucked it in. Then he buffed his cuff against his gold belt buckle, shrugged into his sheepskin jacket and clapped his black winter Stetson on his head.
He felt better already. Full of purpose.
Whatever he found at the Dew Drop had to be better than this!
He found beer on tap, a well-used dart board, the decades-old lingering hint of cigarette smoke, two Keno machines, and a little honky-tonk music.
Half a dozen local cowpokes lounged at the bar. Two of the bull riders from Taggart’s school were playing pool. Three others, ones whom Gus recognized as among those who’d had to peel themselves off the arena dirt quick this afternoon, were drowning their aches and pains in bottles of beer.
A couple of buckle bunnies were chatting them up. Another had her arm looped through bull-rider Steve Hammond’s arm. They were heading out as Gus came in.
Steve gave Gus a thumbs-up as they passed.
“Don’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do,” Gus said.
Steve grinned. “No fear.” Then he turned to the woman on his arm. “Not much ol’ Gus wouldn’t do.”
That was a fact. Gus grinned as the door banged shut behind him.
“Hey, Gus!” One of the bull-rider pool players waved him over. “Wanta play doubles?”
He snagged a beer, grabbed a pool cue and joined them. He tried to get interested. Gus did everything competitively, but it was hard to concentrate when everybody but him shot pool with one eye on the girls who came to watch.
When a couple of the girls put their quarters on the table for the next game he had hopes that it might get interesting, but it didn’t. They didn’t play well. They just batted their lashes and flirted and his buddies flirted right back.
Nothin’ new there. Gus had done the same thing himself a thousand other times. It hadn’t ever annoyed him before. It annoyed him tonight.
He tried flirting, too, but he couldn’t seem to get into it. His smiles felt forced. His teasing jokes felt as flat to his ear as the beer tasted on his tongue.
When one of the girls said, “Maybe you’d rather dance, sweetheart,” he gave it a shot. But the music sounded flat, too.
Maybe he was getting sick.
But before he could decide if he was running a fever, one of the locals decided he didn’t want Gus that close to his girl.
“I ain’t your girl, Tommy,” the girl protested hooking her arm through Gus’s.
But Tommy had had enough alcohol to believe otherwise. “I said, take your hands offa her,” he told Gus. And he followed his words with his fist.
Well, hell, Gus thought, his head snapping back with the force of the blow, adrenaline kicking in. This is more like it!
He swung back, felt the solid crack of his fist against the local cowboy’s jaw.
“Git ’im, Gus!”
And yeah, after that it was pretty much a free-for-all.
Twenty minutes, one black eye and two loose teeth later, Gus was on his way back to the ranch. And even though he was pretty sure it was one of the bull riders, not Tommy, who had given him the shiner and the loose teeth, he didn’t complain.
A guy felt alive when he came out swinging.
Leastways, Gus thought with a sigh as he felt his earlier edgy dissatisfaction settle over him again, he always used to.
“Nice shiner.” Taggart studied Gus’s eye with interest the next morning when Gus showed up at the house for breakfast. “Didn’t realize that bronc you were demonstrating on yesterday nailed you.”
“Didn’t,” Gus muttered. He slid into the chair beside Becky, Taggart’s daughter, who looked at him sideways, her eyes widening.
“What happened?” she asked, her expression looked worried.
Gus shrugged awkwardly. “’S nothin’. Ran into a door,” he mumbled, realizing that he shouldn’t have come up for breakfast. He should’ve known better than to introduce the remnants of a bar fight into a family breakfast.
He hadn’t given it much thought this morning, even though three or four of the guys had remarked on how good a time he must have had last night. It was unusual, after all. In the old days, in fact, Gus would’ve grinned and agreed with them. But in those days, he would have been eating donuts and drinking coffee with them, instead of turning up at Taggart’s kitchen door.
But having breakfast with Taggart and his family had become a habit since he’d been here.
“It’s part of the deal,” Taggart had told him when he’d first arrived. “Home cookin’ is included in your wages. Can’t pay you a lot so you’re welcome to eat with us any time.”
At first Gus had been doubtful. He was more used to being one of the hands rather than part of the family. But Taggart’s wife Felicity was a darn good cook, and once he’d tasted her home-cooked meals, he’d turned up regularly.
It was the novelty of it, he assured himself. So, it turned out, was being part of the family. Most mornings he found himself hunting up lost-at-the-last-minute math books for Becky or cutting toast into skinny “firewood logs” for Willy and Abby, the three-year-old twins, and leaning back in his chair and listening to all the chatter. He figured he’d get sick of it darn fast and make do with the coffee and donuts like the guys coming to the clinics.
But truth was, he didn’t get sick of it. He had been coming up to the house for breakfast all month as well as for dinner. He actually liked it.
“You should’ve put ice on it right away.” Felicity studied his eye as she set a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. “We always have plenty,” she reminded him. “It’s an occupational necessity in these parts.”
“Did you do it last night? You could have called. I would’ve brought you some ice,” Becky said eagerly.
That was another thing about Becky. She was all eagerness these days, as devoted to Gus as Gus was to breakfast. He was still trying to come to terms with Taggart’s daughter as a teenager.
She sure didn’t look like the little kid he remembered. She was only a couple of inches shorter than he was now, tall and coltish, with amazing long slightly wavy shiny dark-brown hair. Before Taggart had married Felicity, he’d always kept his daughter’s hair chopped short because it was a whole lot easier to take care of.
Felicity had changed all that. Becky actually looked like a girl now. At least some of the time. And her hair was long and thick. It reminded Gus of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders’ hair. And there was a terrifying thought for you.
Even more terrifying was realizing that while Becky didn’t have the shape of a Cowboys cheerleader yet, there were definite signs of curves in a silhouette he remembered as fence-post-straight when she’d been a little girl.
The realization made him feel awkward. And old.
Now he glanced sideways at her sitting next to him at the table and said gruffly, “I ain’t such an old man that I couldn’t have hobbled up here and got some ice if I’d needed it. My eye’s fine. I can still see through it. I can see you got oatmeal on your chin.” He winked at her.
Hastily Becky wiped at her face, flustered. The tips of her ears turned red. “Is it gone?” she demanded.
He grinned. “It’s fine. Wasn’t anything. I was just joking with you,” he added after a moment, not wanting to have made her uncomfortable.
“Oh!” Becky brightened at once, then flashed him a thousand-watt smile. “That’s okay, then.” She dug into her oatmeal again. Her elbow bumped his. “Oops.”
“You don’t want to go to J.D.’s wedding with a black eye,” Felicity decided, filling his mug with coffee.
Gus didn’t want to go to J.D.’s wedding at all. Weddings had never been his thing. He’d shied away from them completely since…since he’d ducked out on his own. He shoved that thought away immediately. “I’ll get some ice,” he said because it would satisfy her, not because he intended to use it.
“I’ll get you some.” Becky shoved back her chair so quickly it tipped over. She scrambled to right it. “Sorry,” she said again. Now her cheeks blazed red, too.
Gus wondered when she’d developed this inability to walk through a room without knocking over furniture. He’d thought that was province of teenage boys.
Becky opened the freezer compartment, fished out some ice and stuck it in a plastic bag, then wrapped it with a dish towel. “Here.” She poked it at Gus’s eye. He reached for it. Their hands collided. The ice fell into his lap.
“Ohmigod!” Becky exclaimed, mortified. “I’m so sorry! I—”
Gus grabbed for the bag as the ice scattered everywhere. “It’s okay. No sweat.”
But Becky, her face now scarlet, dropped to her knees to begin picking it up. Willy and Abby plunged beneath the table to help.
“Let them do it,” Taggart said, dragging Becky to her feet. “We gotta go.”
Becky stumbled up, not quite looking at Gus. “I didn’t mean… Well, I-I hope your eye’s better, Gus.” Her gaze flickered in his direction for a split second.
He flashed her a grin. “Don’t worry about me. No damage really. See you later.”
Becky swallowed, then gave him another of her thousand-watt smiles. “Yeah. Right. That’d be great.”
Taggart hauled her out the door.
“Beck’s going through just a little bit of an awkward phase,” Felicity said.
Gus blinked. “Is she?”
Felicity just looked at him.
Gus shrugged. Well, maybe she was. But she was thirteen. He was thirty-one. And Becky wasn’t the only one.
End of Excerpt