With just a moment of dread, she felt the curve of the animal's spine as he hunched, muscles tightening. The noise and the heat and the dust of the day disappeared. It was just her and nine hundred pounds of muscle and bone locked in combat.
The steer exploded off the ground. His loose hide rolled across his backbone. He twisted his front quarters up to one side. His hind legs kicked out to the other. A frothy bawl escaped his mouth. He switched directions, then again.
Nettie's right hand froze around the strap. Her knees dug a hold into the steer's ribs. She waved her left arm high, just like a real cowboy. Each twist and turn jolted along her spine, up to her clenched jaw.
Her mind and body worked together to anticipate each move. With every jump, the animal snorted ropes of saliva into the air. The wild body writhed beneath her, trying to shed his unwelcome load.
Each tug and jerk strained Nettie's arm muscles to the limits. Her shoulders felt as though they would pop out of their sockets. Numbing fatigue threatened to loosen her hold. She would not lose this fight. She'd rather die than fail in front of all these cowboys.
Seconds dragged like a roped calf to a branding fire.
The whirlwind slackened. The steer gave a few more half-hearted twists. Cheers gradually penetrated her tunnel world. Thought returned to her hazy brain. The steer was winding down. She was still on its back.
He gave a last, disgusted kick and came to a dead stop, his head hung low. Two men distracted the animal while he continued to blow strings of saliva and butt his menacing horns toward them. She felt herself being lifted from the steer's back with a sensation of flying. Her oldest brother, Joe, reached out from atop his horse, carried her to safety and let her down to the ground. Before she could spit the word "Thanks" through still-clamped teeth, her younger brother Ben was there hugging her.
"You did it!" Joe slid from his horse and clapped her on the back. "We knew you could."
The boys hoisted her onto their shoulders to parade her around the small arena. Car horns squawked. The watching men cheered. She had done it. No jeers now. Dizzy, unbelieving, she grinned and waved until they reached the outside of the arena and set her down.
But the crusty old cowhand who'd confronted her spat into the dust and called out, "That musta been an easy one. Let me ride him next!"
The answering ripple of laughter and whoops flushed Nettie's face, but despite her shaking limbs, she stretched herself taller, held her head straighter, and smiled. "Why, you couldn't ride a corral fence if it was standing still."
The listening men applauded. "You tell 'im, little gal!" someone shouted.
A giggle rose inside. She tossed her braids over her shoulder and strode away. She didn't care if those old timers thought women shouldn't ride in rodeos. She had done it.
Powered by adrenaline, she floated through the crowd, her boots barely connecting with the dusty ground. Unbelievable. She really had ridden that steer, and stayed on him till the end. Her arms tingled, sweat stung her eyes, and her legs still quivered from the effort. She let out a whoop and skipped around behind the circle of cars.
The crowd cheered on the next rider. Nettie stopped and yelled, too. She wanted to hear those cheers for her again. Gosh, that had felt good.
Here at this rodeo, with horses and cattle and cowboys, with the noon sun beating down, with the dust and the noise. That's where she'd rather be any day of the week.