A/N: Yup another story. This one is compliments of Cris (aka judo_lin). She is evil and has the unholy ability to scare the crap out of me by randomly Tweeting me pictures of spiders on Twitter. So we have struck a deal - in exchange for her prohibition from all things arachnid on Twitter, I would write her a Cowboyward. I know, me writing an Edward story is completely new territory for me. We'll see how it goes.
So here it is, a story in three parts. It is written in its entirety, but to ensure her compliance to the rules, I will be posting one chapter a week for the next three weeks. If anyone sees her Tweeting pictures of ANYTHING remotely resembling a spider please contact me so I can take down this story. Of course my readers will never lose out as I will be happy to email them a copy. It will just ensure Cris doesn't get to see it. Yup I can be evil too!
I hung up after spending several hours on the phone with my best friend going over the schedule for this year's rodeo circuit. He was a changed man since his dad had died unexpectedly a few months ago. The happy, easy-going ladies' man had become sullen and withdrawn. He had wanted to cancel the year entirely and retire to take over running the ranch, but his momma stood firm – he was to chase his dreams for one more year as planned; his father would have wanted it that way.
Times sure were changing. This year would be my last as well. I had a wife now, and as much as we both loved the rodeo, we wanted to settle down and have a family more. I wanted to see my willowy wife round with my child. I wanted black haired little girls sweet talking me into a pony and tough little boys to take to Mutton Bustin'. We weren't getting any younger, and, at least in my case, the broncs were getting tougher. I knew my wife would still be running barrels and bending poles when she was old and gray and our kids would be right there with her, but the time had come to take a few years to slow down and start making babies instead of just practicing. There would be plenty of years to look forward to, watching the young ones chase down their own buckles.
So this year would be our last run at glory. Not only were we going to be riding the bulls and broncs, but we were going to be dragging the horses along and trying team-roping at some of the smaller rodeos. If we were any good then it would be something to look forward to in a few years. But after the National Finals in Vegas come December, I would be a full-time rancher and family man. Truth be told, I was looking forward to it. But this last year would be more about helping my best friend find his feet again. His future was secure, his ranch profitable, but losing his father had knocked him in the dirt harder than any bull ever could. The schedule we worked out was busy to say the least, but with bulls and broncs to ride, and me relying on him as a partner in the team-roping, he wouldn't have time to dwell on what he'd lost. And maybe, just maybe, he would find that one woman that would bring everything into focus like I had.
As if thinking of her had called her to me, she flitted in the room with an uncharacteristically troubled look on her face and tears welling up in her big blue eyes. "What's the matter, darlin'?"
"I just got off the phone with Emmett."
I smiled at the thought of my brother-in-law. The man was built like a linebacker and had been quite the steer-wrestler before he got married and settled down with his wife Rosalie about five years back. Rose was pregnant with their second child. "Is everything alright with the baby? She's too early to go into labour isn't she?" Only a complication could put that look on my, normally happy, girl's face.
She waved me off. "Rose is fine but he ran into an old friend of ours at the service station in Gainesville. Do you remember Bella Swan?"
I smiled, remembering Alice talk about her best friend from high school. I had only met her a couple of times when we all used to compete in the high school rodeo circuit. Being a year older than Alice and Bella, I really didn't get to know Alice until after Bella had already left. Alice had said something about Bella moving up north to Washington to be with her father for senior year. "She's back in town? That's great. How are her parents? Is she visitin' her mom?"
Alice started wringing her hands, her chin quivering slightly. "That's just it. Remember I told you that her mother died in a car crash the summer before senior year?"
I nodded, vaguely remembering the story now that she mentioned it.
"Well, her dad died three years ago." A tear ran down her cheek. "She's all alone, Jazz."
I reached out and pulled her gently into my lap, she was so tiny her weight was nothing. "I'm sorry to hear that, darlin'." I used my thumb to gently brush her tears away. "How's she holdin' up?"
Alice let out a sob. "That's the worst part. I guess her dad must have had some debts cause after he died…she lost the house. I think…Emmett got the impression that she's…that she's…homeless."
My mouth fell open. "Back up, honey. Tell me the whole story."
Her breath choked as she tried to calm down. "Em said he saw her at the Texaco station. She was driving a beat-up truck and towing a goose-neck trailer with a couple horses in it. He scooped her up in a big hug, like he does, and insisted on taking her out to lunch. I mean he – we haven't seen her in like seven years. She used to practically live at our house before her momma died." She stopped to grab a fresh kleenex from her pocket and blew her nose. "Well, over the course of lunch he finds out that her daddy died three years ago. She put a nice face on, but he says she's been riding the rodeos up north and doing odd jobs to support herself."
"That's a horrible story, sweetheart, but maybe she's happy. How do you know she's homeless?" I tried to reassure her, knowing she tended to the dramatic side at times, but even I had a bad feeling that I hadn't heard the full story.
"Would I be this upset if she was happy?" She half shrieked and smacked my chest before continuing. "Emmett said she looks terrible. I mean he said she's beautiful, but that she's really skinny and looks run down."
"Well where is she stayin'? Did you get a number for her? You could always call her and invite her to stay here." It would go a long way toward easing Alice's mind if she could see her friend for herself.
Alice nodded as she wiped her nose, the makeup around her eyes black and smeared from her tears. "She laughed when she answered the phone. Apparently I took half an hour longer than she expected for me to call. I blamed Emmett for taking too long to call me." She laughed at little. "She should be here in about an hour. I told her we could stable her 'boys' for her while she visits."
I brushed her hair back behind her ear. "Of course we can. We have some empty stalls in the stallion barn or there are paddocks off the mare motel." I rubbed her back soothingly as she dried her tears. "How long is she stayin'?"
Alice let out a frustrated sigh. "Only the night. She's headed to the Winter Classic in Mesquite."
"She'll get there early. It doesn't start till the weekend," I thought out loud.
"Bella said something about setting up early and getting a prime spot."
I hugged her before standing her up on her feet. "Well then you'll have at least a few hours to catch up. Now I'm going to run down to the stallion barn and see about those stalls. You're going to want to fix your face so she doesn't know you've been cryin'."
Alice looked horrified and I laughed as she ran off to repair the damage.
I had just finished smoothing out the sawdust in the second stall when I heard an old diesel truck pull in the drive. By the time I made it out of the barn, there was plenty of squealing and laughing to be heard. My first impression of Bella Swan was that she had been rode hard and put away wet. While she had a bright smile on her face, it never quite lit up her eyes, and there were dark circles around them from lack of sleep. She had long brown hair pulled into a ponytail under an AQHA ball cap, and her worn sheepskin carhart jacket almost seemed to swallow her up.
Alice noticed me getting closer and pulled Bella around so she could be introduced. "B, this is my husband, Jasper Whitlock. I don't know if you remember meeting him when we were kids."
A smirk spread across her face as she offered a heavily calloused hand out to shake. "Of course I remember. It's great to see you again, Jasper." She turned that smirk towards Alice. "Nice to see she managed to hog-tie you. I hope the branding wasn't too painful."
Alice's mouth dropped open in horrified shock, her blue eyes wide. "I can't…you weren't ever…" My outspoken, never-at-a-loss-for-words little wife was rendered speechless and had turned ten shades of red.
"Branding?" I felt the smile threatening to spread. Apparently there was more to this story.
"Oh yes. Ali always said that she was going to hog-tie you and brand you so all the buckle bunnies would know who you belonged to. She wasn't Texas High School Rodeo Association Goat Tying champ for no reason, she had incentive." Bella wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.
My laughter was drowned out by Alice's outraged shriek. "Isabella Marie Swan, that was not something that you were supposed to repeat! Ever!"
Bella backed away as Alice playfully smacked at her, the two of them laughing hysterically.
Neighing from inside the trailer stopped the playful chase that had started. "Coming," Bella sang out. As she walked to the back of the trailer she said, "Let me introduce you to my boys."
I looked over the truck and trailer with a critical eye. You could tell a lot about a cowboy (or cowgirl) by the rig they drive. In this case, things were looking just a bleak as Alice had thought. The truck had seen better days but seemed sound. The two-toned blue and gray early 90's model Dodge dually towed a small, three-horse Sooner gooseneck that was in good repair but had definitely seen better days.
I walked around the back of the trailer to see Bella backing a large black Quarter Horse off the trailer. He was tall and well-built with a suspicious eye and a small white star.
"This is Stanley. Don't be offended if he's kinda standoffish, and don't try to force your company on him or he'll cover you in snot." She tied him to the side of the trailer before going back into the trailer to get the second horse.
While I waited, I took a longer look at Stanley. He seemed to be appraising me as well, and for some reason I got the feeling that I was coming up lacking.
The sound of hooves had me turning to see a smaller, more athletic, brown gelding with a white blaze and two white socks in the front, stepping down. His eyes were bright and curious and he danced in place, careful to avoid bumping anyone.
"Oh! He's gorgeous!" Alice cooed.
Bella chuckled and rubbed the horses face. "He knows it too. This is Rocket, my barrel horse."
"What do you use Stanley for?" I asked. The two horses could not have been more different. One was built for speed and agility, while the other looked like he could take on a freight train and win.
"Stanley is an all-around cow horse, but I use him for pick-up riding mostly," she said as she bent down to run her hands over Rocket's legs to check for injury.
I was stunned and I could see Alice was as well. Pickup riders were the guys that are in the arena running interference between a rank bull and the rider they just bucked off, or in most cases, helping a cowboy off the back off a bronc at the end of his 8 seconds. Normally, it was big guys on top of bigger horses that could strong arm a guy out of harms' way or muscle the flank strap off a bronc. They were great riders with quick reflexes. It could be dangerous work, and I had only ever heard rumors of women doing it. I hadn't ever met one.
"Pickup riding…isn't that..." Alice trailed off not wanting to offend Bella.
Bella simply chuckled. "Yeah it's a man's world, and I don't do it all that often. I'm good though. Well, Stanley is good. He isn't intimidated by anything and just muscles right on up to those broncs for me to grab the flank strap, and he's a lot of horse for a cowboy to hang onto when they need a lift. I've only ever had to ride with the bulls once and that was more than enough for me." She shook her head at the memory before refocusing on us. "So where can I stash these two that they won't be in the way?"
I recovered quicker than Alice and led the way to the barn where I had readied the stalls. "I got stalls all set up for them in the stallion barn if that's alright."
"Works for me. They know how to behave. We don't need anything so fancy though. A couple of paddocks would be fine. We don't want to be a bother." She untied Stanley and the two of them followed behind her like well-trained dogs.
"Nonsense." Alice snorted. "The paddock's for you; the boys get the penthouse suites."
We got the horses settled quickly, and I was shocked as Stanley circled twice and lay down, apparently to take a nap.
Bella chuckled at my reaction. "We stay so many places that he lost any kind of nervousness in new situations long ago. Napping is always first on his list. Food is always around; a place to lie down is a luxury."
Alice and I shared a speaking glance as Bella hung up the halters.
She turned to face us with a tired smile. "So where can I park my rig so it won't be in the way?"
I showed her where she could back the trailer alongside the barn, and Alice waited for her to finish.
Bella jumped out of the truck. "Do you mind if I plug my trailer in? I like to read at night but the battery for my living-quarters is getting kind of warn out."
Alice and I blinked.
"You don't have to sleep in the trailer. I have a guestroom all set up for you," Alice said, frowning.
"I wouldn't want to impose," she said chewing on her bottom lip nervously.
"We would be happy to have you, Bella," I reassured her.
She readjusted her hat and zipped her coat another inch closed. Nervous ticks. "Umm…that would be great. I mean if you're sure."
Alice ushered us to the trailer. "Come on, Jasper can grab your bag and we can have a sleepover like we used to."
When she opened the door it was obvious that this was Bella's home. And it was not a 'living-quarters' trailer. The trailer had been built with the front section as a dressing room. A few hooks for clothes, a couple of bars for saddle pads; in a pinch a foam pad could be put in the overhead for the occasional overnight. But not to live in. Not for three years.
Old thread-bare towels had been sewn to create curtains for the tiny windows. A small beat-up cupboard had been screwed to the wall with a small, mirrored medicine-cabinet above it. A tiny microwave sat on the top of the cupboard and just inside the door was a camping port-o-potty with a cooler beside it. A small ladder led to the spacious overhead that housed a single-sized mattress mounded with multiple blankets, leaving plenty of room for the suitcase beside it and a few old milk crates with books and photo albums in them. A fishing rod and reel hung from hooks above one of the windows.
"I'll just pass you down my suitcase." Bella said in a small voice. She was clearly embarrassed now and looked to be holding back tears.
She climbed in and the suitcase she passed down was something that Alice would have carried her make-up in. I took it from her carefully, cognizant of the fact that it probably housed every stitch of clothing she owned. She avoided looking at us as she stepped out with a backpack over her shoulder, closing and locking the trailer door behind her.
"Let's get you settled in, sugar," I said quietly as Alice led her now seemingly deflated friend to the house.
Dinner was a subdued affair where Bella skillfully avoided any topic of how she had been living for the past three years. She talked about all the places she had seen, the people she had met, great horses she had gotten to ride. The sagging economy had caused many of the rodeos up north to be cancelled or had become so small that it wasn't worth her while to work them. Now that she was back in the south she could practically work every weekend. It seemed Bella had become a jack-of-all-trades. If the prize money was good, and she thought she had a shot, she and Rocket would enter into the Barrel races or pole bending. Stanley did well in the AQHA shows for Working Cow-horse or halter events. At the rodeos she hired out as a pickup rider on Stanley or helped sort the cattle for the roping and wrestling. If no one needed her for that, she set up shop out of the back of her truck as a mobile farrier, which is where most of her income seemed to come from.
"I used do quite a good business back in Washington, but the downturn in the economy meant there was less money in horses. It's better here and in California."
"Where are you coming from?" Alice asked as she scraped more mashed potatoes onto Bella's plate.
Bella stopped her from piling on more pot-roast as she answered. "Oklahoma City by way of Las Vegas. Me and the boys worked the AQHA World Show in November before heading to Vegas for the National Finals. We left Nevada December 12th. I came back this way through OK City. I needed to get one of my saddles fixed and Stockyard City has some great saddle shops, and it's kind of on the way to Mesquite."
"Where did you spend Christmas?" I dreaded the answer before I finished asking the question.
Bella tried to smile casually but the sadness was clear in her eyes. "The Stockyards in OK City. It's pretty dead there this time of year, lots of room for the boys to stretch their legs."
Learning that Bella had spent Christmas in a rank feedlot alone pretty much killed the conversation for the rest of the meal.
Bella insisted on washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. Watching the two of them work silently but seamlessly together highlighted just how few women friends Alice had. The two of them were physically alike with Bella being the taller of the two by a couple of inches, but years of riding horses and doing farm work had left them with really athletic figures. But despite Bella's added height, she was actually skinnier than my girl. Alice was small and lithe. Bella looked like she could be curvier, but she needed a month or more of good home-cooked meals to get there.
When they were done cleaning up, Alice didn't leave Bella an option and told her that she had laid out towels in the bathroom so Bella could "take a swim in the tub".
"Are you saying I stink, Cullen?" Bella laughed, the mood lifting instantly and the two of them were back smiling and laughing.
"Hey, it's Whitlock now," Alice wrinkled her nose, "and if the boot fits…"
I couldn't help the smile on my face at the sounds of their happy laughter from upstairs for the rest of the night.
I angrily smacked my gloves on my thigh, raising a small cloud of dust when they hit my worn chaps. I looked back at my favorite mount as he limped into the barn behind me. He threw a shoe – again. And of course he was the one I had the highest hopes for in the team-roping.
Hearing hurried boots, I looked up to see Bella running into the barn looking worried. I chuckled as she ran to her 'boys' with whispered apologies. "I fed them breakfast already. I figured Alice had kept you up pretty late and you deserved the sleep-in."
She looked up at me sagging in relief. "Thank you so much. I haven't slept this late in…well it's been years since I saw this side of 9 a.m. from under the covers."
I hooked my gelding up in the cross-ties and bent down to feel his leg. He had stumbled pretty hard when the shoe came off and now he was limping with heat in his leg. I swore softly.
"What happened?" Bella asked.
"New farrier in town, the old one retired. This is the third time I've had a shoe come off – twice on this horse. The guy talks a good game, but his newfangled ideas and fancy shoes don't stay on for shit!" I stood up and started unsaddling, disgusted that the goals I had set on this horse for the day were shot to hell. "It'll be days before he's sound again and probably a week before that Yankee-trained city kid can get back here…waste of goddamn time…" I cursed under my breath. I didn't want to have to look for another competent farrier. The guys were a dime a dozen and ninety-five percent of them were crap. The good ones were so busy that they weren't taking any more new clients.
When I came back from stowing my saddle in the tack room, Bella was standing back appraising my gelding. She untied him and walked him forward a few steps, muttering and shaking her head at what she saw. She looked up with a frown and handed me the lead rope. "Can you lead him down the alley and back so I can watch him walk?"
I didn't protest and simply did as she asked grateful to have another horseperson's opinion on what she saw.
"No wonder you got shoes popping off; the horse is balanced all wrong. He's not breaking over properly for his conformation." At the confused look on my face she went on to explain. "Shoeing is about more than just the foot. You have to look at the conformation of the horse and how your trimming is affecting the knee, the leg, and the shoulder. Your boy has little feet for a Quarter Horse. Nothing you can do about it; that's the way the good Lord made him. Your farrier tried to make his feet bigger because that's the way 'they're supposed to look'." She shook her head in disgust again. "Fools forget they are shoeing an animal not just a foot,"
"Can you fix it?" I asked, happy to have an explanation.
She nodded. "I'll get my stuff. I'll have to unhook my trailer so I can back the truck up to the barn. I want to hot shoe him and I need my forge."
"Whatever you need to do," I nodded. "I appreciate the help."
"You realize the minute I pick up that foot you won't be able to get your money back from the other guy right?"
"I don't care; I need him safe and sound." I thought about the ways I would be getting my money back from the hack for the multiple times he had been out to work on the horses and the work I now had to have redone.
Alice came out almost an hour later and found me holding a lead rope while Bella's tiny body was wedged under my horse, muttering as she shaped and reshaped the hoof and shoe. From time to time she would take a step back and take a look at the horse as a whole before getting back to work. She was a little bit of a thing with her heavy cow hide chinks and fitted, down vest showcasing her small body. Honestly, she didn't look big enough or tough enough to be doing the jobs that her current lifestyle demanded of her. I could easily see why Alice had been practically force feeding her at dinner. She looked like a stiff breeze might blow her away, never mind an ornery colt or bad tempered stud.
"What's going on?" Alice asked as she burrowed deeper into her coat, shivering a bit.
When I explained the problem Alice frowned. "What about Miss Milly?"
"Who's Miss Milly?" Bella asked over the clanging of her hammer and the roaring of her propane forge.
"Alice's barrel horse," I answered her, concerned at the thought of a shoe letting go as Alice and Milly rounded a barrel at top speed. I had seen some spectacular wrecks - and the injuries, and in rare cases deaths - in my time and swallowed at the thought of Alice being the one under 1,000 pounds of injured and panicked horse.
Bella stopped hammering to look up at us with wide eyes. "You got this new guy to shoe all your horses?"
I sighed and rubbed at my forehead. "Yeah."
Alice was already moving to get out her mare. "Can you take a look at Milly?"
"One at a time, Ali." Bella lined up the hot shoe and the hoof, the smell of burnt hair filled the air and white smoke rose from around the shoe. Satisfied with what she saw, she stood and took the hot shoe to the waiting bucket of water as the sizzle of hot metal filled the air she turned to look at me. "How many horses did you have done?"
I sighed heavily. "He trimmed all of them, but I had him shoe the horses we're taking on the circuit with us. Four total."
She pursed her lips but got back to work nailing on the new shoes, crimping and filing the nails.
As I led my gelding back to his stall I was amazed to see he wasn't favoring his leg. "What did you do? He's not even limpin'."
Bella smiled a bit. "I made sure the foot was balanced. He wasn't all that hurt, but the way he had been trimmed meant that when he twisted the shoe off he was putting more pressure on-"
"You know what, I don't care." I interrupted her. "Can you fix 'em?"
She looked at me blankly. "Fix what?"
"The horses we're takin' on the circuit? And take a look at the others. I can't have a bullshit trim job laming my horses or killin' my wife." I nodded in Alice's direction where she was petting her mare's face as they waited.
"How many are we talking here?"
"The four for rodeo, and ten that are barefoot but are stayin' home." I saw the hesitation on her face, but after what I just saw, she was worth her weight in gold. "I'll pay you extra for the short notice."
She looked offended and put her hands on her hips. "You will not! You put me and my boys up for the night. I'm happy to help. I'm just not sure I can get them all done today."
"So stay a couple more days." Alice piped up looking hopeful. Bella looked like she might protest but Alice hurried to convince her. "Please, B! It'll be fun! Mesquite doesn't start for like four more days. We're only two hours away and the boys can spend some time in the pasture while you make a little money."
"I'm not taking your money!" She threw her hands up in the air.
"You sure as hell are!" I snorted out. "Three reasons, A- I would have to pay to have the problem fixed anyway, and it may or may not work out. I'd rather give the money to you. B- I don't want that hack stepping foot back on my ranch, monkeying with my horses feet again, and C- I know you wouldn't do anything to put my wife's life in danger. You shoe her horse, and if anything goes wrong I know it won't be because her horse fell off his shoes." I pointed at her as I emphasized my arguments, refusing to take no for an answer. "You're doin' the job, I'm paying you your goin' rate, and I'm going to be happy as a pig in slop doin' it."
Her lips started to twist and before long she was chuckling. "A pig, Jasper? Really?"
Alice started giggling and before long, the two of them were hanging off each other, laughing at some kind of mental image they both magically shared. It was good to see them so happy, and I couldn't help but join in. "Alright, alright…that's enough laughin' at my expense. Alice, bring that mare of yours up here so the lady can get back to work."
When Bella Swan pulled out of our ranch four days later, I was truly sad to see her go. She was an extraordinary woman who had been dealt a shit hand in life. I thought over all that I had learned about in only a few short days. She was intensely lonely but had nothing and no one to anchor her anywhere. Her two horses were the reason she got up in the morning. Without living family around to help out, she had to follow the rodeos and horse shows around the country to make a living. The woman had a heart the size of Texas and the pride to match. She insisted on deducting the regular nightly stable fees for her boys from the money I paid her to trim and shoe the ranch horses. And if what I paid was her regular rate then I had no doubt that she was barely getting by. I knew she had given me a deal somehow though.
Some of the good ol' boys around the circuit still held some prejudice against women farriers, so I figured the only way she could keep up was to have lower rates. But from what I saw, the woman was a damn talented 'shoer. She had a gentle hand and a soft honey voice that the crankiest of horses responded to but was tough enough that when push came to shove they got the reprimand necessary.
Alice stood beside me, her arms around my waist, sniffling back tears as her friend made the turn onto the highway. A couple of happy blasts on the horn and the beat up rig took that sweet little girl back out of our lives. "I don't want to lose her again, Jazz." She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and a quiver in her chin. "I want to help her somehow."
"Well then it's a good thing I got her to tell me what rodeos she's workin', isn't it?" I said softly. I was of like mind with my wife. That girl needed our help and some how, some way, come this time next year – she would be putting down roots right here in Whitesboro.
A/N: Show me love in the form of reviews. It's new territory for me and I would love to hear your thoughts. Please keep in mind that while I do show horses and love to go cutting with my Dad, I have never participated in the Rodeo. I have done my homework to the best of my ability but some of the facts and experiences may not be a perfect representation of Rodeo life. It's fiction, cut me some slack.
Major thanks go out to Maxipoo1024, my codependant lifemate and beta extraordinaire. She is all things possessive over my verbal vomit and I love her for it. Please go and check out her brilliance, Twilight and Supernatural fandoms are her playgrounds and my girl can tell a hell of a story!
To Cris - I hope this is what you wanted. Infact it's quite a bit more than what we agreed on, but it took on a life of its own.