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When Cash yelled, “Ready?” Ava reached into her camera bag for her video camera.

But Gemma put her hand on Ava’s arm. “No need to tape this. Just watch.”

The mechanical beast jerked, spinning one way and abruptly switching course. The back end popped up. The front end lifted and slammed down. Chase’s feet were flying; his left hand was straight up above his head. His body countered every movement. The next switch set Chase sailing onto the puffy mats.

Ava cringed. That had to hurt.

But Chase didn’t lie there, moaning in pain. He was back on his feet, yelling at Cash for another go.

This went on for an hour until Cash insisted Chase take a break. They huddled in the corner, Cash gesturing wildly and Chase nodding his head.

“How did Cash get started training bull riders?” Ava asked Gemma.

“Cash rode bulls in the PRCA for twenty years. He never won a national championship, which is ironic because if he would’ve competed in the Indian Rodeo circuit, he probably could’ve had multiple championships.”

“He wasn’t tempted to switch circuits?”

Gemma shook her head. “He wanted to be judged on his bull ridin’ ability alongside all other riders, not just those with the same skin color. Then Cash fell on some tough times and couldn’t compete. After we got married, I encouraged him to share his expertise.”

“So is he looking to turn your boys into champion bull riders?”

Gemma peeked at Ava over the tops of her sunglasses. “Over my dead body.”

Ava laughed.

“I’m bringing sandwiches down for the guys in a bit. You want one?”

“Sure. I’ll take mine on whole grain bread, with low-fat mayo, goat cheese and organic sliced turkey. And I’d like avocado, sprouts and cilantro on it too.”

Gemma froze.

Ava burst into laughter. “Hah! Gotcha. Bet you thought I was showing my true Hollywood diva side?”

“Just for that, I’m making you peanut butter and jelly. And don’t even ask me to cut off the crusts.”

Chase had been scarce yesterday after tangling with the mechanical bull and helping Cash in the afternoon. Ava suspected he’d gone to bed early because his body hurt, but he claimed fatigue, not soreness, and she let it go.

Midmorning, Ava headed for the corral to start her duties as videographer and noticed more kids hanging on the rails. “So, Gemma, did you lock up your other kids in the woodshed yesterday?”

Gemma snickered. “These are Cash’s grandkids. Thane—” she pointed to the older boy who looked about six, wearing a Colorado Rockies ball cap, “—and Parker.” Parker wore a coonskin cap. Gemma whispered, “Parker is in his pioneer phase and refuses to take the hat off. It’s about to drive his mother crazy. Which is probably why Macie sent the older kids along with their dad today.” Gemma gestured to the chute across the way. “Their dad, Carter, is helpin’ Cash load bulls.”

“Carter,” Ava repeated. “I think I met him at Kane and Ginger’s wedding.”

“Probably. He’s married to Cash’s daughter. He’s also Chase’s cousin.”

“I’ll never keep this all straight.”

“Took me a while too. Don’t know what the hell those women were thinkin’ with all the C and K names in the McKay family.” Ryder raced off and Gemma yelled, “Huh-uh, buddy boy. Get back here. Daddy doesn’t want you by those bulls today.”

“Aw, Mom, that’s not fair.”

“Tough. Stay by me or go in the house.”

Ryder sighed. Kicked a clump of dirt and scaled the metal rails like a monkey.

“Looks like Chase’s about to leave the chute. You ready?”

“All set.” Ava’s hat shaded the worst of the sun’s glare.

A man inside the arena opened the gate. The bull erupted from the chute, all four hooves airborne. Chase’s entire body jerked forward as the bull’s front legs landed. Then the beast twisted its back end, trying to throw Chase off. Somehow he stayed on. But the bull’s next spin sent Chase sailing into the air and he collided with the ground.

The neck strap caught the camera as Ava lurched forward, shocked at seeing Chase lying on the ground. Motionless. The gate opener was leading the bull out another gate, ignoring Chase completely. “Why isn’t someone helping him?” She began to scale the metal corral.

“Hold on.” Gemma tugged her back down, forcing Ava to meet her gaze. “You’ve never actually seen bull ridin’, have you?”

“No! I thought it’d be like yesterday, with the mechanical thingy. Not like this. Not with him really getting hurt.”

“Ava. Honey. Bull ridin’ is an extremely dangerous sport. Bulls are highly unpredictable. There is no control factor. And these bulls that Chase is trying to ride? Real wild cards because most of them haven’t been ridden. We have no idea how the bull is gonna react until it’s tested out.” Her worried eyes searched Ava’s. “Chase knew that goin’ into these stock trials. Didn’t he tell you the dangers? What you might see?”

Ava shook her head.

“Didn’t you watch any bull ridin’ on TV before you agreed to tape him?”

“I saw a video on YouTube. But it’s nothing like watching this live, with the horns and the hooves, and the sickening sound of his body smashing into the ground.” Ava pressed her hand against her lower abdomen. “I…I don’t have the stomach for this, Gemma.”

“Sure you do.”

“What if he gets hurt? Like really badly hurt?”

“That’s a risk. That’s also part of the appeal for men who do this for a livin’. You must understand that about Chase, Ava. This is who he is. Ridin’ bulls is not only his job, but also his passion. He’s reached the highest level of the sport and you don’t get to that position without bein’ a damn good athlete.” She rubbed Ava’s arm. “See? He’s already up and goin’ back for more.”

As much as Ava didn’t want to look, she couldn’t help it. Sure enough, the fringe on Chase’s chaps flapped as he hustled back to the chute.

The guy at the gate yelled, “I’m thinkin’ that one’s a keeper, Cash, if it threw boy wonder on his ass.”

Male laughter echoed back.

“That’s Colby,” Gemma said. “Carter’s older brother and Chase’s cousin. He got here early this morning.”

“Colby knows rodeo stock?”

Gemma nodded. “Cash and Colby competed on the same PRCA circuit for years. They quit around the same time, but the love of rodeo never really left them. They’ve been buying and breeding bucking bulls for a couple years. We’re doing things pretty unconventionally regarding stock trials. Seemed a sign Chase needed help with his ridin’ the same time Cash and Colby needed an experienced rider to test new bulls.”

Male shouts competed with the loud clanks.

“That one’s a chute fighter,” Gemma offered. “Which is problematic. They’ll let him fight until he settles down. But he could be too tired to buck and they won’t have an accurate idea of his bucking ability. After Chase rides him today, they’ll probably need a re-ride tomorrow to see how he performs. A bull that’s a chute fighter is an extra danger to the rider. A lot of injuries happen before the gate opens.”

“Does that thing he’s wearing, a modified catcher’s mask, prevent that?”

“Not all riders wear those protective helmets, but Cash makes them mandatory here.”

More loud sounds of flesh hitting steel and male warning shouts.

“Is Chase on the bull right now?”

“God no. They’re waitin’ to see if the bull calms down.” She pointed to the camera. “You oughta be getting this on tape.”

Eventually the huge bull, an ugly two-toned yellowish white with splotches of brown, calmed down. Chase secured his hand, nodded to Colby. Once again, Chase didn’t reach the eight-second mark before his ass met the dirt. A less forceful buck off than the last one, but the power when his body impacted into the ground had to rattle his bones and jostle his brain.

The idea of Chase constantly being subjected to skull fractures from a horn or a hoof to the head made bile rise in her throat. She bent down and retrieved the water bottle from her messenger bag. Sipping the lukewarm liquid slowly, half-afraid she’d toss her cookies, half-tempted to force herself to hurl so she had a valid excuse to leave.

Suck it up. You willingly signed on for this and you can’t quit the first day.

Ella tugged on her pant leg. “Miss Ava? Will you play with the kitties with me?”

Sure, kid. Let’s go right now.

Gemma squeezed Ella’s shoulders. “Maybe later, sweets. Ava is taping Chase’s rides so he can watch ’em tonight.”

“’Kay.” Ella raced to the old barn.

“How come she gets to go somewhere but I can’t?” Ryder complained.

“Because she could care less about the bulls. You, my curious son, would be back there pullin’ Chase’s bull rope if you had the chance. Here we go.”

Ava resituated the camera.

Come on, Chase. Ride this one.

The gate opened, the bull shot out like a rocket, zigging and zagging. Halfway across the arena, Chase bailed off, slipping sideways and landing on his hands and knees. Even from this distance she could see the hard set to his jaw, the stiff angle to his shoulders. He yelled, “Set ’em up again. A big one this time.”

Gemma said, “You know, it’d help if we recorded the buck-off times.”

“Good idea. There’s a notebook in my bag.”

Bull number five leapt out of the chute like a two thousand pound ballet dancer and Chase went flying like a trapeze artist from Cirque du Soleil. He rolled to his feet after he landed on his shoulder. Dust followed behind him, à la Pigpen from Peanuts as he moseyed to the fence. Ava snickered, until she zoomed in on Chase’s pained face. He was hurt. But that wouldn’t stop him.