The rope whipped through the air and landed almost exactly where it was supposed to. Teagan held his breath and tightened his fingers on the fence while he watched it slide up the back legs of the calf.
"He's got it! ... Fuck, no, he don't." Bram rolled his eyes and snorted with disgust. "How in holy fuck is it so fucking hard to find a decent heeler? Jesus." He pushed away from the fence that surrounded the practice ring. "I'm gonna go smoke."
Teagan sighed and watched the cowboy in the ring leap off his horse. He had only gotten one of the calf's rear legs, not both, and it took the man about four seconds to figure it out once he was down in the dirt with the animal.
Joe threw Teagan a look from under the brim of his hat and dismounted. He strolled to the steer and lifted the rope he'd tossed around the cow's front horns. Teagan watched Joe spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt as he coiled his rope. "Five second penalty," he said to the cowboy, who was examining his own rope as if it was to blame for his mistake. "Can't afford that."
"Lemme try again?" The cowboy squinted up at Joe, a hopeful note in his voice.
Joe glanced at Teagan. Teagan shook his head. "Nope," Joe said, walking back to Stormy and mounting up again. "That was your third time, boy. Close is only good in horseshoes, sorry." He waited until the steer was back on its feet before wheeling Stormy around and heading for the barn.
The cowboy still sat there in the dust, discouraged. Teagan had a momentary flash of sympathy. He'd been there, once. Fifteen years ago, to be sure, but still. He didn't have time for this shit now, not when qualifying rounds were in two weeks.
"Sorry." Teagan sighed and waited, hoping the kid would get to his feet.
The boy shrugged and got up, slapping at his jeans. "I fucked up. Ain't no call for you to be sorry." He mounted his horse and looked down at Teagan. "Hope you find your heeler."
Teagan watched him leave the ring and scrubbed a hand over his face. It sounded so damn easy. He tried not to curse Stubby again, but the man couldn't have broken his ankle at a more inconvenient time. It wasn't that uncommon for a team roper to also participate in solo rodeo events such as calf roping or steer wrestling, but Stubby liked the saddle broncs. The last one hadn't liked him, however, and had promptly stepped on Stubby's ankle three days ago during practice.
Now, Teagan was stuck with trying to find a heeler that he could compete with in the upcoming rodeo season. It was harder than it sounded. He lifted his head and watched the young cowboy ride off down the lane, tiny puffs of dust kicking up under his horse's feet. Fuck. He'd come highly recommended, too. Chet Dawson had given Teagan the kid's name.
Reminding himself to call Chet and ask him what the fuck he'd been thinking, Teagan pushed off from the wooden fence and headed toward the house. It was looking like rain, in any case. Good enough excuse to stop for the day.
The smell of Lori's beef stew wafted over him as soon as he walked in the door. Teagan followed the succulent smell of onions and meat to the kitchen, stomach rumbling. "Loribeth," he said as soon as he stepped into the room, "might as well just set two bowls down in front of me to start off, 'cause you know I'm gonna want seconds."
"Hat," Lori answered absently, chopping parsley and throwing it into the pot.
Teagan sighed and hung his Stetson on the hat rack. No use telling her he was reaching for it anyway; she'd just give her long-suffering sigh and not believe him. "Yes, ma'am."
"Any luck, baby?" Lori peered into her pot as Teagan washed up at the sink.
He shook his head and grimaced. "Sorriest excuses for ropers you ever did see. What the fu--the heck was Chet thinking, sending that kid over this way? And he was the best of the bunch, too." Teagan sat down heavily in a chair and pulled up to the table. He rested his forehead on the heels of his hands and closed his eyes. "We're screwed."
Lori clucked at his choice of language but didn't disagree. "You'll find someone, sweetheart. Plenty of cowboys in Wyoming."
"True. But it seems there's a shortage of heelers." Teagan groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. "We need the money, Lor. Could try it solo, but that's just chasing clouds, you know? Ain't so good when I go it alone. More money if I find a good partner."
"I know, baby." She sat in her usual place across from Teagan and began eating her stew.
Teagan glanced up at Lori, noting the silver strands in her dark hair. She was nearing sixty now, but didn't look a day older than she'd been when Teagan's father had married her fourteen years ago. It had been a good match, and although Teagan had been a young, rough-and-tumble cowboy of only twenty-four back then, even he knew that anything was better than watching his father grieve for Teagan's dead mother.
When Teagan's father had passed away last year, there was no question of Lori staying in the house, although Teagan's father's will had never been changed to reflect Lori as the new owner. The house belonged to Teagan, but he was gone nearly seven months out of the year anyway, traveling the circuit. The few weeks that he and Lori shared the house were quiet and filled with a mutual silent mourning for Alexander Rafferty.
Teagan finished his dinner and dutifully took his plate to the sink. "Gonna go ride for a few, Lor."
"Rain coming, honey. Take a coat."