Материалы к занятию
Chapter 26, Part 2
The next two hours passed in slow motion, elongated minutes stretching into eternity. Linda served up some slices of pie, but neither of them was hungry. Instead, they picked at the slices, waiting.
Somehow, Sophia thought that being here with Linda would reduce her anxiety, but if anything, she’d begun to feel worse. Seeing the video had been bad enough, but hearing about his injuries in detail made her almost nauseated.
Luke was going to die.
In her mind, there was no question about it. He would fall, the bull would swing his head the wrong way again. Or Luke would ride but the bull would go after him as he was exiting the arena…
He had no chance of survival, not if he kept riding. It was only a matter of time.
She stayed lost in these thoughts until finally Linda’s phone vibrated on the table.
Linda lunged for it and read the message. Her shoulders suddenly relaxed and she let out a long breath. After sliding the phone to Sophia, she covered her face with her hands.
Sophia glanced at the words: I’m OK and on my way home.
The fact that he didn’t win in Macon wasn’t a reflection of how well he rode, but rather a function of the quality of the bulls. The bulls’ performances made up half of every score, after all, meaning that every event was left somewhat in the hands of the gods.
His first bull was pretty much a flat spinner. Luke held on and the ride was no doubt exciting to the crowd, but when the scores came up, he found himself in ninth place. The second bull wasn’t much better, but at least he managed to hold on while others ranked above him had been thrown, and he moved up to sixth. In the short go, he drew a decent bull, and he’d hopped off with a score good enough to move him into fourth place. It wasn’t a stellar competition, but it was enough for him to retain, even extend, his lead in the overall points standings.
He should have been pleased. With one more good weekend, he’d practically be guaranteed a place on the big tour, even if he rode poorly in the events that followed. Despite the lack of practice, despite the concussion, he was in just the position he’d wanted to be.
Surprisingly, he didn’t think that the rides had worsened his concussion. On the drive home, he kept waiting for his headache to intensify, but it didn’t. Instead, it remained in low gear, a faint hum, nowhere close to the agony he’d felt earlier in the week. If anything, it seemed better than it had been this morning, and he had the sense that by morning, it might even be gone.
A good weekend, in other words. Everything was working out according to plan.
Except, of course, for Sophia.
He rolled home an hour before dawn and slept until almost noon. Only after his shower did he realize he hadn’t reached for the painkillers. The headache, as he’d hoped, was gone.
Nor was his body as sore as it had been after the first event. There were the usual aches in his lower back, but nothing he couldn’t handle. After getting dressed, he saddled Horse and went to check on the cattle. On Friday morning, before he’d left for Macon, he’d tended to a calf who’d had a run-in with some barbed wire and he wanted to make sure it was healing properly.
Sunday afternoon and Monday were spent working on the irrigation system, repairing leaks that had sprung up because of the cold weather, and beginning Tuesday morning, he tore off, and then, over the next two days, gradually replaced the shingles on his mom’s roof.
It was a good week, the work physical and straightforward, and by Friday, he expected to feel a sense of accomplishment at everything he’d done. But he didn’t. Instead, he ached for Sophia. He hadn’t called or texted, nor had she, and her absence sometimes felt like a gaping hole where an essential limb used to be. He wanted things to go back to the way they were; he wanted to know that when he got home after the Florence event, he’d be able to spend the rest of the day with her.
But even as he began laying out the belongings he would need on his trip to South Carolina, he knew that she would never reconcile herself to the choice that he had made—and unlike his mother, she could walk away.
On Saturday afternoon, Luke stood watching the bulls behind the arena in Florence, South Carolina, and realized for the first time that his hands weren’t shaking.
Under ordinary circumstances, that should have been a good sign, since it meant that his nerves had calmed. Yet he couldn’t escape the feeling that it had been a mistake to come here. He’d felt a heavy sense of dread as he’d pulled up an hour earlier, and since then, the nameless black thoughts in his head had only grown louder, whispers that urged him to get back into the truck and go home.
Before it was too late.
He hadn’t felt like this in either Pensacola or Macon. Granted, he hadn’t wanted to ride in those events any more than he wanted to ride in this one, but that was mainly because he wasn’t sure he was ready to rejoin the circuit at all. But the dread he felt now was different.
He wondered if Big Ugly Critter could sense it.
The bull was here, in Florence, South Carolina, which made no more sense than it had in McLeansville last October. The bull didn’t belong on this qualifying tour. He belonged with the big boys, where he’d no doubt be in the running to win another World Champion Bucking Bull award. Luke couldn’t figure out why the owner had consented to let him participate on the lower circuit. Most likely the promoter had made the owner a deal he couldn’t refuse in conjunction with one of the auto dealers in town. That had become more common on the circuit—promotions like If you can ride him, you’ll drive off in a new truck! While the crowd generally loved the added challenge, Luke would gladly excuse himself from that contest if he could. He wasn’t close to being ready to ride him again, nor, most likely, was anyone else at the event. It wasn’t the riding that was the concern. Nor was it the prospect of being thrown. It was the way Big Ugly Critter might react afterward.
He watched him for nearly an hour, thinking, that bull shouldn’t be here.
And neither should he.
The event began right on time, with the sun high enough to warm the day, if only slightly. In the stands, spectators were wearing jackets and gloves, and the lines for hot chocolate and coffee stretched nearly toward the entrance. As usual, Luke stayed in his truck, the heater blowing. He was surrounded by dozens of idling trucks in the parking lot as his competitors tried to do the same.
He ventured out once before his turn, as did a lot of the other competitors, to watch Trey Miller’s attempt to ride Big Ugly Critter. As soon as the chute door opened, the bull ducked his head and launched into a twisting kick; Miller didn’t have a prayer. When he landed, the bull turned, just as he had after Luke’s ride, and rushed him, head down. Luckily Miller was able to make it to the arena fence in time to scramble away to safety.
The bull, as if aware how many people were watching him, stopped his charge and snorted hard. He stood in place, staring at the receding Miller, the cold air making it appear as though he were breathing smoke out of his nostrils.
For his draw, Luke had pulled Raptor, a young bull with a short history on the tour. He was supposed to be an up-and-comer, and he didn’t disappoint. He spun and bucked and jumped, but Luke felt strangely in control throughout, and by the end of the ride, he’d earned his highest score of the season. After he’d jumped down, the bull — unlike Big Ugly Critter — ignored him.
There were more competitors at this third event of the season, making the wait between rides that much longer. For his second bull, Luke drew Locomotive, and though his ride wasn’t as highscoring as the first, he remained in the lead.
Five rides later, Jake Harris had his turn on Big Ugly Critter. It didn’t last long, but in a sense, he was either less or more lucky than Miller had been. He made it to the center of the arena before being thrown, and again, Big Ugly Critter turned and charged. There was nowhere to go. A younger rider might have been in trouble, but Harris was a veteran and was able to dart out of the way at the last instant, the bull’s horns missing him by inches. Two bullfighters jumped in to distract Big Ugly Critter, offering a temporary reprieve that allowed Harris to reach the arena wall. He launched himself upward and threw his legs over just as the angry bull closed in, ready to gore.
Then, turning and squaring up, the bull set his sights on the bullfighters still in the arena. One made it to the safety of the arena fence, but the other had to hop into one of the barrels. Big Ugly Critter went after it, furious that his real prey had gotten away. He rammed the barrel, sending it careening across the arena, then rammed it again before pinning it against the wall, where he continued to savage it, swinging his horns and snorting, an animal gone insane.
Luke watched, feeling sick to his stomach, thinking again that the bull did not belong at the event. Or any event. One day soon, Big Ugly Critter was going to kill someone.
After the first two rounds, twenty-nine riders were on their way home. Fifteen remained. Luke was seeded first in the Championships round, the last rider of the day. There was a short break before the round started, and as the wintry sky darkened, the lights had been turned on.
His hands remained steady. His nerves were in check. He was riding well, and if his day so far was any indication, he would ride well again—which was strange, given how he’d felt at the beginning of the day. Nonetheless, the sense of dread he’d felt hadn’t totally dissipated, despite his successful rides.
If anything, it had grown worse since he’d seen Big Ugly Critter go after Harris. The event promoters should have been aware of the danger, given the bull’s history. They should have had five bullfighters in the ring, not just two. But even after Miller had ridden, they hadn’t learned their lesson. The bull was dangerous. Psychotic, even.
Like the other finalists, Luke lined up for the last draw of the day, and one by one, he heard the bulls being assigned to the various riders. Raptor went third, Locomotive went seventh, and as the names continued, his sense of foreboding intensified. He couldn’t look at the other competitors; instead, he closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
And in the end, just as part of him had known would happen, he drew Big Ugly Critter.
Time slowed down in the final round. The first two riders stayed on, the next three were tossed. It went back and forth on the next two.
Luke sat in his truck, listening to the announcer. His heartbeat began to speed up as adrenaline flooded his system. He tried to convince himself he was ready, that he was up to the challenge, but he wasn’t. He hadn’t been when he’d been at his peak, let alone now.
He didn’t want to go out there. He didn’t want to hear the announcer mention the truck he could win or the fact that the bull hadn’t been ridden successfully in the last three years. He didn’t want the announcer to tell the crowd that Big Ugly Critter was the bull who’d almost killed him, turning his potential ride into some sort of grudge match. Because it wasn’t. He didn’t hold a grudge against the bull. He was just an animal, albeit the craziest, meanest one he’d ever come across.
He wondered whether he should simply withdraw. Take the scores from his first two rides and be done with it. He’d still finish in the top ten, maybe even the top five, depending on how well the other riders did after all was said and done. He might drop in the overall rankings, but he’d remain in position to make the big tour… Where Big Ugly Critter would surely end up.
But what would happen the next time? If he drew the bull in the first round? When he was in California, for instance? Or Utah? After spending a small fortune on the flight and the motel and food? Would he be prepared to walk away then, too?
He didn’t know. Right now, his mind was incoherent, filled with static, though when he glanced down, his hands were completely still. Odd, he thought, considering…
In the distance, the roar of the crowd went up, signaling a successful ride. A good one from the sound of it. Good for him, Luke thought, whoever it was. These days, he begrudged no one his success. He, more than anyone, knew the risks.
It was time. If he was going to go through with it, he had to make his decision. Stay or go, ride or withdraw, save the ranch or let the bank take it away.
Live or die…
He drew a long breath. Hands still good. He was as ready as he’d ever be. Pushing open the door, he stepped onto the hard-packed dirt and gazed upward at the darkening winter sky.
Live or die. That’s what it all came down to. Steeling himself to the walk to the arena, he wondered which it would be.