The local rodeo used what had once been a football stadium. When one of the bigger schools had built a much larger and better equipped pitch closer to the centre of Lockhart, the local league teams had moved house, and the old stadium had been bought over by the only other big horse people in the area apart from the Cole family. The place was constantly teeming with horses, cattle, sheep, and people, and Clem drew up his truck in the red dirt lot filled with dozens of other trucks; all the four wheel drive vehicles showing signs of work and labour. The area further back held the trucks and loose boxes of those who had come to compete, and Clem didn’t miss the gleaming silver trim of Nathan’s Chevy along with his horsebox. The man himself was nowhere to be seen, but Clem felt a tightness spread across his shoulders knowing the big cowboy was somewhere around.
But the tension vanished as soon as Ashlee took his hand, and hugged himself against Clem’s side all too briefly.
“I’ve never been to a real rodeo before.”
“Never? Your parents didn’t bring you out when you were kids?” Clem watched a trio of girls between five and eight dash by, followed by their pudgy little toddling brother. “Our pop used to bring us all the time, ‘course that was when he hoped I might have a lick of skill when it comes to wrangling steers and ridin’ horses.”
“You mean, you don’t?” Ashlee looked half-shocked.
“I can ride, everybody can a little bit, but I’m not actually good. I can’t do any of the fancy stuff you’ll see here.”
“So, where do we go?” Ashlee peered around.
For Clem it was simple, but he imagined that to the uninitiated that slinking around the back side of the wooden corrals where steers lowed in the half-dark and slipping through the sliding door that seemed to swing dangerously loose on its top mooring was a little weird. Clem kept Ashlee’s hand held securely in his own as they moved around the edge of the stadium. In had been adapted since the football teams had moved out, and the area of was only roughly half the size it had once been in order to make room for the chutes, horse storage, and exercise rings. The air was full of the lowing of the cattle, the noises of men and horses, and the scent of hay, dung, sawdust, beer, and hotdogs.
“You want a hotdog?”
“Yes please!” Ashlee’s smile was brighter than the midday sun. “Do we just sit anywhere?” He glanced up at the wooden bleachers. They extended all the way up to the half roof, which meant the top level could only be sat on by very small children, or doubled as a bed for the odd overly tired cowboy.
“Yeah, you wanna go choose us seats?”
“No,” Ashlee grinned, swishing his hips, and plucked the money from Clem’s fingers, “I’ll get hotdogs, you go get seats. I bet I can guess how you like it, Sugar.”
“Ashlee…” Clem bit his tongue, and held himself back from what he had wanted to say. The young man turned and flicked his hair, one eyebrow arched. “You’re beautiful.”
Clem couldn’t imagine he didn’t get told that all the time, but Ashlee still blushed as he turned away to go and buy hot dogs. Clem turned and climbed up the bleachers with huge long legged strides, and chose a spot about half way up which would offer and good view of the rodeo. There were already a couple of horses out in the ring, getting warmed up for their work later on. No sooner had Clem sat down than he heard someone call his name and stood up to clap hands and bump shoulders with another tall, well-muscled man of about his own age in a slightly battered camo printed ball cap.
“Clem! We were wondering when you were gonna quit bein’ a hermit!”
“Hey Jimmy,” Clem glanced over his shoulder to where his friend had appeared from, “David, guys!” he waved. “I didn’t realise I’d been missed.”
“Jeez Clem,” Jimmy shook his head and sighed, “I swear you need some serious fixin’ in the head of you think your buddies haven’t missed you. We all thought Nate had won us in the divorce, but he’s not been around much either.” Jimmy shook Clem’s shoulder again, “come on man, join us; have a beer.”
“I can’t-,” Clem began.
“Drivin’?” Jimmy rolled his eyes, “dude, you must weigh two hundred pounds if you weigh anything at all: you can have one and still drive that damn Ford truck you love so much.”
“No actually,” Clem grinned, hooking his thumbs into his front pockets, “I mean, I’m on a date.”
“Dude!” Jimmy looked equally shocked and impressed, and he turned to holler at their collected friends “Clem’s on a date!” over the chorus of wolf whistles and joyous hollers, Jimmy grinned up him. “So, where is the lucky boy?”
Clem scanned the crowd coming from the hot dog stand, and it took him no time at all to pick out Ashlee, carrying two hot dogs in one hand, drinks in the other, and what looked like a bag of chips under one arm. Clem beamed, he didn’t know where Ashlee put it all, but the young man could eat.
“Clem… seriously?” Jimmy frowned at him. “Just ‘cause Nate dumped you doesn’t mean you have to go switching sides and pretending you like girls now-.” Whatever else Jimmy had been about to say died on his lips as Ashlee looked up at them and grinned. Clem stepped down the bleachers to help him with the food and the large steps, and put everything down where they would be sitting so he could make proper introductions.
“Jimmy, this is Ashlee,” he waved over at where David and the others sat, “and those are the guys.”
“Ashlee?” Jimmy looked like he’d just seen his sister making out with a horse, “he’s a…”
“Boy?” Ashlee finished for him in a deadpan tone, “Uh-huh. Next question?”
“Umm…” Jimmy glanced between his friend and his friend’s exotic date, panic written across his features in Sharpie marker. “I gotta get back…”
Clem watched him go, and sat down with a sigh.
“Here,” Ashlee handed him a hot dog, “onions, mustard, no ketchup and mayonnaise underneath the sausage.”
“How did you work that out?”
“I’m smart and pretty?” Ashlee beamed and sat next to him with his own hot dog. He chewed happily, but when Clem glanced at the young man again, he looked pensive.
“Are you embarrassed by me?”
Clem set his hot dog aside, food didn’t seem particularly important, and lifted Ashlee’s chin with two fingers. The young man picked at the hem on his denim skirt, his brows drawn close together. Clem kissed him hard, and he felt rather than heard Ashlee groan at the touch of their lips.
“Never.” Clem lifted the skinny young man and pulled Ashlee sideways into his lap. It felt amazing to have him instantly snuggle and press himself against Clem’s broad chest as though the farm hand was something in-between a date and furniture. Ashlee hooked both his stocking clad legs over Clem’s thigh and ate his hot dog. “Now what sodas did you get?”
“Grape and root beer.”
“Which one did you want?” Clem stroked his fingers down Ashlee’s spine and the young man shivered delightfully in his lap.
“Root beer,” Ashlee smiled hopefully.
Clem picked up the purple can and grinned: he hated root beer.
“I think I might love you just a little bit more right now.”
Ashlee blinked once, and then stared at him in querying surprise. Clem smiled softly back, but before he could clarify his statement, and before Ashlee could ask whatever question was being written in his furrowed brow and slightly pursed lips, Clem picked up the unmistakable tone of Madison.
“Hey baby!” she skipped across the bleachers with a beer in one hand, the other dragging along a young man Clem recognised from the custom car mechanics in town, “how’re you doin’ Clem?” Clem didn’t get a chance to answer. “You must be Ashlee! Oh don’t get up babe,” Madison sat beside Clem and held out one beautifully manicured hand, “hi, I’m Madison.”
“Hi,” Ashlee beamed, and for half a heartbeat Clem was jealous that the young man’s dazzling smile was directed at someone else, “nice to meet you.”
“Oh, this is Tyler,” Madison pulled her date forwards, and the young man glanced at Clem with a frightened expression. No doubt he’d already been blown away by Madison and her bouncy blonde hair, tight denim jeans and curvy physique, and now he looked like a mouse trapped between two very sexy and beautiful cats. “Have you ever been to the rodeo before?”
“Well you look the part,” Madison leant in close and dropped her voice conspiratorially. “You got Clem to wear a shirt, very impressive.” She sat back. “That’s a great skirt, too. Please say you’ll take me shopping in the city sometime?”
“Sure thing,” Ashlee grinned.
“I’ll hold you to that.” Madison jumped up and wiped off her jeans; Tyler was mesmerised by the motion of her fingers against her butt. “See you later boys!”
The rodeo events were run by the clowns, and the clowns at the local rodeo were triplet brothers who dressed up in various combinations of their old high school baseball gear, matching Stetsons, and running shoes. As they warmed up the crowd, Clem wrapped his free arm more firmly around Ashlee’s waist and began to talk him through the rodeo events.
“Girl’s events are usually first.”
“There are different events for girls?”
“Yup,” Clem kissed his soft hair, “we ever get you on a horse and I’ll bet they’ll let you go round the barrels though. Reining is up first: it’s all about the rider’s control of the horse, and they ride in circles, small and large at pretty high speeds around the ring. The circles have to be perfect, so it’s not as easy as it looks. The horses need to spin in their own hoof prints and be able to perform a sliding stop, which is a dead stop from full speed. The horse’s back feet actually slide under his belly.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Ashlee frowned, “don’t the riders get thrown out of the saddle?”
“That’s what practice is for.” Clem turned to look over his shoulder, and saw a skinny blonde woman in khaki jodhpurs, tall western boots and a padded, fur trimmed jacket grinning at him. “It makes the horse look like he’s tryin’ to sit down on his butt.” She smiled warmly, “I thought that was you, cher. Grayson look, it’s the nice guy from the feed store.”
“Hey friend,” her big broad shouldered boyfriend lent around his skinny partner and held out his hand to Clem, “I ain’t sure we all ever officially met: Grayson Harding. Thanks so much fer helpin’ Sukie out the other week.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Clem Linton, this is Ashlee Charles.”
“Hi.” Ashlee, Grayson and Sukie all shook hands and exchanged smiles. Ten seconds later, the horn went in the ring, and the rodeo started.
The announcer spoke fast and furiously into the crackly and decrepit sound system, but Sukie provided much more awesome commentary, and she and Grayson moved down to sit in their row, and the four of them shared chips and chocolate pretzels that Sukie said were divine. Clem didn’t really understand why anyone would dip salty bread products in sweet chocolate, but Ashlee liked them, and anything which made the young man wriggle happily in his lap could only be good in Clem’s books. The reining didn’t last long, because there were only four competitors in the category, and while the rodeo clowns set out the barrels for the next event, the girls who would be running them warmed their horses up in long laps around the outside of the ring.
“So how does this work?”
“Oh don’t get Sukie started; it’s only her favourite sport!”
“Cher!” Sukie slapped his arm and sipped her beer. “The cowgirl an’ her horse race up the centre, turn around one of the side barrels as quick as they can, then run across to the other barrel; though it doesn’t normally matter if they go right to left or left to right; then round, race to the third barrel right at the far end, loop that, an’ dash back over the line. It’s timed, an’ fastest horse wins. You have to go ‘the long way’ around each barrel,” Sukie took her drink, Grayson’s and Ashlee’s empty can of root beer to make a little map, then trotted her fingers around the course. “Just like that, it’s real fun. If you knock a barrel, there’re penalties, an’ depending on the competition, even brushing one can add lousy seconds to your time.”
“And you do this?”
“She’d be out there now…” Grayson began.
“Except apparently turning up to a rodeo meeting in jodhpurs isn’t allowed, and some big jerk there was really rude about my horse,” Sukie grit her teeth, and Clem wondered if Grayson would ever survive the woman being angry with him, because she looked pissed off even at the memory. “I was showin’ a couple of pictures to people, and he made a big thing about the fact my horse wears pink, even though he’s a boy. And then I let slip that my brother rides English, he does eventing and he’s really good, and this guy said he was a pansy for riding like that.”
“…so she got ticked off an’ didn’t register,” Grayson finished. “Babe, I love ya, but ya gotta not let these rednecks push ya around.”
“Hey now,” Ashlee grinned, and rubbed the back of Clem’s neck, tickling his fingers over the bones of his spine, “not all rednecks are bad.”
“Oh! I didn’t mean-!”
“Don’t worry about it,” Clem smiled easily, but he was covering a scowl. There were no doubts in his mind that he knew exactly who it was who had upset and offended Sukie at the rodeo meeting; because Nathan always went to all of them.
The barrel racing was fast and furious, and all of them hollered and cheered for the girls and their horses as they flew around the course. There was something amazing and exhilarating about watching them, the speed of the horses, the focus of their riders, the impossible way they seemed to move together, spinning and flying across the sand. Clem felt his heart beating ever faster, his pulse thundering in his ears along with the hooves of the horses. It wasn’t until Ashlee turned slightly in his lap and whispered in his ear, that Clem was brought sharply back into his own body, and realised how happy he was.
“Thank you Sugar.”
Clem blinked, and looked down at him. Ashlee smiled and bit his lip in a slightly nervous manner, and Clem couldn’t resist.
“I love you.”
The big ranch hand pushed his fingers into the back of Ashlee’s wonderfully soft hair, tilted his head, and kissed him as the claxon sounded. They didn’t see any of the first round of the next events, because Clem couldn’t look anywhere apart from Ashlee when he had his eyes open, and his eyes weren’t open most of the time. Ashlee was warm and supple in his lap and under his fingers, and even though Clem could hear the cheers of the crowd, the sounds of horses and steers in the ring, and the whoops and hollers of cowboys, nothing was as loud as Ashlee’s heartbeat against his own. Each kiss was perfect, Ashlee’s lips tasted better than anything Clem had ever known, and they fitted together as perfectly as any two people could. Vanilla filled up all of his senses, and when Ashlee finally broke eye contact and smiled, he stroked his fingers down the front of Clem’s shirt under his leather jacket.
“I think I like the rodeo.”
“Is that so?” Clem pecked his cheek, just to break the rising tension between them, “I think I don’t ever wanna let you go.”
“You might have to, Sugar,” Ashlee purred.
“An’ why is that?”
Ashlee shifted in his lap and turned to whisper in his ear.
“’Cause otherwise how will you be able to watch me strip for you?”
Clem gulped audibly, and Ashlee turned back to the main ring.
“So, what’d we miss?”
Just as Sukie was beginning to explain why on earth anyone would want to jump off a speeding horse onto a running steer and wrestle the poor creature with pointy horns to the ground, Clem noticed who was in the ring. He must have been riding as support for whoever was currently pinning down the black steer, because Cayman was pacing in little circles as his rider held the reins in one hand. But Nathan’s eyes were fixed on Clem in the stands, and the big farm hand had seen that dark look before. Ashlee noticed.
“Why is that guy staring at us?”
“That’s him,” Sukie growled, sounding like a pissed off kitten, “he’s the one who was mean about my horse.”
“Sugar?” Ashlee squeezed Clem’s fingers in his lap, “who is it?”