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That Damned Ol' Rodeo

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August 2017 - Colorado State Fair

“I can’t believe we finally get to meet your wife tonight!” Chrissy says, closing her menu and smiling across the table at Shae. Waverly raises a mental eyebrow at her friend, surprised she’s the one to bring Nicole up — considering her less than kind commentary in the past.

“Don’t you already know her from literal years of competition?” Kate responds almost instantly, releasing the edges of her menu to lean heavily on the table. She looks at Chrissy the way Waverly had only done in her head, and Waverly sneaks a glance at Shae — who’s, thankfully, just looking at Chrissy, amused and not suspicious.

Chrissy shakes her head and replies in a way that Waverly recognizes as her oldest friend’s should-be-patented, change the subject tone, “No not really. I mean of course we’ve crossed paths, but you know riders and racers don’t really see each other except in passing. Plus, getting to know someone over a couple drinks is the best way to get to know someone, anyhow.” It’s spoken slowly and intentionally, as absolute fact. Waverly’s always thought it was a skill she’d gained at a young age, as a result of being a small town sheriff's daughter for most of her life, and there’s no denying the finality of that tone.

Kate can, though — Kate can see through just about anyone.

"Well sometimes you race too, right Chris?” She asks, feigning innocence while Chrissy clearly does her best not to glare at her friend. Waverly almost laughs aloud at Kate’s goading, wondering how Chrissy will respond — especially with Shae sitting right across from her. She worries that some of Chrissy’s more unfiltered feelings about Nicole will come spilling out, and Waverly actively reminds herself that this isn’t a problem she has control of and tries not to continue tracking Shae’s reactions to the conversation.

Chrissy leans on the table with her elbows, mimicking her friend’s posture. She gives Kate a quick, stern look but keeps her tone light — and less forced than before, Waverly notices, "Well unlike every other rodeo cowboy, Nicole has always been very ‘business is business’ and doesn’t loaf around with B acts like me; she’s a very busy person.” Her honesty gets a nod from Kate, but Waverly sees Chrissy realize she left that statement slightly judge-y and overcorrects herself by waving apologetic hands in Shae’s direction, “Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s probably what keeps her at the top of the ranks; I wouldn’t want to have to maintain that reputation.”

Waverly believes Chrissy’s apology; she knows that Chrissy doesn’t really hate Nicole in the personal sense. Most of the negativity toward Nicole really stems from some jealousy, and lots of bitterness toward the NPRA — who acknowledges barrel racing as the only sponsorable women’s event in all of rodeo, of which Nicole has been the reigning champion for four years running. Chrissy was named the WPRA’s champion bareback rider last winter, garnering only half the pay and half the accolades Nicole received for similar success. To add insult to injury, only one of these events buys a ticket to the rodeo Super Bowl, the NFR, so Waverly is nonetheless pleased to hear Chrissy say something almost nice about Nicole after months of bitterness.

“Listen. I will be the first one to say that rodeo Nicole is very, very different than my wife Nicole. I’m excited for her to meet you guys too.” Shae smooths over any of the table’s lingering discomfort with ease. “Are all of your boys still coming tonight?”

“Oh definitely. Doc promised me a dance when I told him there’d be live music.” Kate says coyly, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Champ is not easily dissuaded from socially drinking with his friends, and — since he doesn’t have an event until tomorrow afternoon — as his manager, I’m letting him off the hook for the evening.” Waverly says with a chuckle.

“And Robin?” Shae asks softly, looking at Chrissy across the table.

“Well today is his longest work day, but barring his absolute exhaustion, we’ll be there.” Chrissy says with a small smile toward Shae. Chrissy’s long-time fiancé, Robin, co-owns an equine training center and stable with his dad. He, and sometimes a small team, provide equipment and animal transport for all racing, rodeo, and show events for almost all of the Ghost River Triangle.

Chrissy picks her menu back up to finish choosing her lunch, but Waverly notices a subtle change in her demeanor, and makes a mental note to check in with her friend later. She knows things between Chrissy and Robin have been less than great, in general, for most of the year. Chrissy doesn’t typically talk loosely about any of her relationship problems, but with Chrissy traveling the women’s circuit, Waverly knows that she and Shae have gotten a lot closer and — thankfully — she’s probably found someone to confide in. Waverly feels a sense of relief, knowing that her oldest friend has someone to talk to, especially as the circuits pick up momentum and Waverly herself become increasingly less available. She’d be lying to herself, though, if she didn’t admit she was a little jealous as well.

Waverly tries to take some of the attention away from Chrissy, so her change in mood doesn’t become the new topic of conversation, “Does everyone know what they’re going to order?”

Kate releases a heavy sigh, looking up from her menu again, “I’ve read the same ten words at least five times, now — so no. Hopefully the waiter isn’t too impatient.”

“Same.” Shae says, looking intently at the menu; Waverly laughs to herself as they rush to choose what to eat before the inevitable arrival of their waiter — she’d already picked out what she wanted when she was the first to arrive; last minute decisions are not her game.

Shae is the first to put her menu back down, unsurprising to Waverly since they’re in Shae’s hometown and she picked the restaurant. Any time any of the four of them are in the same location for an event, the person most familiar with the town or city plans where they meet — and if none of them have been to the area before, Waverly plans it. They always meet for lunch the day before competition starts, and try to do dinner together before everyone gets back on the road, although it often depends on how moody their respective cowboys feel about their performance. This weekend’s event, at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, is the first time all four of them have gathered together since Houston’s Livestock Show and Rodeo in March.

“So Shae, what’s the name of the bar we’re getting drinks at tonight?” Waverly asks, already mentally preparing for this evenings gathering.

Before Shae can respond, Kate laughs and says, “You are such a Virgo. I love you, but you are such a Virgo.”

“Listen, a planner’s gotta plan.” Waverly says matter-of-factly.

Kate raises an eyebrow and closes her menu, “How many times did you look at the online menu for,” she pauses to look down at the front cover of her closed menu, “Pa’s Mountain Diner before sitting down now and looking it over again?”

Waverly covers her face to hide the blush of embarrassment creeping up her cheeks before peeking through her fingers at the woman across from her, “They didn’t have one.”

The table erupts in laughter again and their server finally comes over to take their orders. As she waits for the server to get round the table, Waverly realizes that it’s been a long time since she’s had a meal that didn’t revolve around rodeo; sometimes, during these lunches, she has to remind herself not to ask Chrissy about the events she’s competing in, or Kate how many events Doc has planned for the remainder of the circuit, but today it feels nice not to talk about work for a few hours.

While they wait for the food, the conversation turns to Shae; it’s the first event, since the three of them hit it off with her at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas eight months ago, that’s been close to where she and Nicole currently live and, they learn, where Shae actually grew up — they all ask about her childhood, how she became an equine vet, and of course the best places to visit in Colorado Springs.

“Okay, I have a serious question,” Kate says just after their food arrives, smiling at Shae who raises an eyebrow at her friend — knowing it will be anything but serious. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy to know about the place you call home, but I really want to know about the person you come home to — especially since we get to meet her tonight, instead of ogling from afar.” The ogling comment gets a look of feigned judgement from Shae, who chuckles immediately after and shakes her head at Kate, prepared for whatever question comes next. “Is Haught as good as she looks?”

“Omigod!” Waverly scolds her friend, through a mouthful of her meal, across the table — she was not expecting that. She grabs her drink to quickly wash down her bite of food so she can remind Kate that they’re in public.

“What? I can’t be the only one to wonder how she rides off-horse.” Kate, still chuckling, replies as if it were a completely appropriate conversation to have during lunch. Waverly coughs, choking down a gulp of water, unsure if the heat she feels on her cheeks is a result of feeling embarrassed or losing air flow. Chrissy’s eyes go big, but she pretends not to pay attention and sets a hand on Waverly’s to make sure she’s okay. Waverly waves her off as her coughing subsides, and for her part, Shae just laughs along with Kate and shakes her head.

“Listen,” Shae begins, and the table’s attention, including Waverly who tries to mask her blush by continuing to wipe her mouth with her napkin, is all on her, “all I’ll say is that if she were even half as attentive and thorough in the rest of our relationship as she is in our bed, then I may very well be the happiest woman in the state of Colorado, maybe the entire country.” Shae says casually before taking a sip of her drink and winking at Kate over her glass.

Waverly watches Kate playfully elbow Shae, exclaiming that she knew Nicole would be some kind of ginger goddess, and Chrissy laughs along with them. Waverly tries to join in, but she sees Shae.

It doesn’t look like as much of a joke as Shae had wanted them to believe. Her smile is too strained, her eyes avoid landing in one spot, it’s too familiar.

It has Waverly questioning for the first time if Shae and Nicole are happy together — and that maybe her comment held a lot more truth than the innuendo would have them all believe.

Guilt bubbles in her stomach and Waverly reaches for her drink to help her suddenly dry mouth, the words ‘attentive and thorough’ replaying in her head help dull out the ringing in her ears.

 

______________________

 

July 2016 - Cheyenne Frontier Days
(13 months earlier)

Waverly walks to the bar and waves sweetly at the bartender who almost immediately comes over and takes her drink order. She frequently volunteers to grab drinks when she and Champ are with Doc and Kate or else her tab ends up with many more whiskey shots than she’s aware of while the boys get ‘in between rounds’ drinks.

When he leaves to go fill her order, a voice off to her right says, “I’ve been standing here for almost five minutes and haven’t even been looked at and you just come waltzing up and get your order taken instantly.” Waverly turns, having it in her mind to apologize for cutting in front of someone who’s about to get angry with her, but sees a woman in a faded jean jacket and a ball cap, long red hair almost touching the top of the bar she leans on, smiling at her. Before Waverly can respond the woman’s smile falls into a slight smirk, clearly pleased, and she leans back and says, “Although, I can’t say I blame him.”

Waverly chuckles and shakes her head, mentally thanking the dim bar lighting for covering any blush forming under this woman’s unexpected attention, and faces forward again to wait for her drink. She can practically feel the woman smirking in her periphery before Waverly hears her speak again, making a point not to look over at the sound of the stranger’s voice, “But seriously, I’ve been waiting forever.”

Waverly eventually looks over at this mystery woman after she’s finished speaking, and she’s leaning on the bar again, hands open in front of her as if she can’t possibly understand how she’s not being served — an innocent smile never leaving her face.

“Well you have to at least try,” Waverly says to the woman who nods along intently like she’s waiting to hear more. So Waverly continues, “It’s all in the smile and wave; you have to at least look interested.” Waverly feels the rising embarrassment, wishing she could take back the example wave she just nervously gave to the woman who still only offers up a smile in her direction. “Plus, you don’t look like you want a drink, you look like you’re waiting for someone to get here.”

Waverly smiles confidently at her own response, and the red-headed woman hums, nodding as if taking in new information before saying, “Ah, is that why you showed up?” this time smiling wider so that a dimple shows on her cheek.

Waverly can’t hide her surprise, or her smile as a small laugh escapes her mouth, “I just came to get drinks for my table.”

“And here I thought you might have been flirting with me. How unlucky can a girl get today?” The mock confusion and disappointment rolling off of this woman’s lips is lightened by the constant, warm smirk on her face.

Waverly feels the heat from the continued attention settle in her stomach, but composes herself before adding, “Have you just been waiting here for hours to say all that to someone?”

A small bark of laughter comes from the woman next to her, and Waverly finds it impossible to hide her smile again. The stranger puts on a face of feigned confusion and replies, “No, I’ve been waiting for a drink — see, I thought I mentioned that.”

Waverly looks down shaking her head to try and wipe the smile off her face and clear her mind. She doesn’t remember the last time she flirted with a stranger — maybe it’d never happened before; she’d been with Champ her entire adult life, and happy in their relationship. Plus, normally when men flirted with her at random bars it always just sounded like ‘Your body looks like something I’d like to fuck’ no matter what words came out of their half-drunk mouths.

This didn’t feel like that.

Innocent isn’t quite it, but Waverly feels like she could walk away without another word and this woman wouldn’t pester her, or follow her — she’d probably just keep smiling and go about her day.

It’s nice.

She sees the bartender, in her periphery, coming back with her drinks. She thanks him and he starts to walk away but she puts her hand on his wrist gently, “I’m sorry, can you add one more of those to my tab for her?” He stops and she gestures back toward the woman at the bar who looks pleased and maybe a touch smug. Waverly begins to gather her drinks and thanks the bartender before tossing the stranger one last glance and heading to her table.

She doesn’t mention anything about the woman at the bar when she sits down, it’s not anything she wants to answer questions about right now anyway — but maybe she’ll mention it to Kate later when the story can be drowned out in the din of the stands during Doc’s event. Kate loves this kind of stuff, and it never happens to Waverly.

Really, Waverly never lets it happen.

Soon the flirtatious woman is no longer at the forefront of Waverly’s mind, and life resumes as usual, but when Doc decides to order the next round — a pitcher and a round of shots for good luck, as is his tradition — Waverly finds herself quickly volunteering to grab the order, laughing at Doc when he moves to stand and head to the bar, “No offense, Doc, but you always spill on the tray. I’ll grab it.” Kate laughs and mockingly soothes her husband’s wounded ego.

“She must be the one sneaking shots this time,” Champ says lightheartedly, but Waverly feels a tinge of shame being caught volunteering so quickly to go get drinks again — when she normally goes begrudgingly.

“Are you complaining that I’m bringing you drinks?” Waverly says in mock annoyance, hands on her hips as she looks at her husband with a smile.

“Never! You know you always were my favorite Shorty’s waitress, babe,” Champ says, pulling Waverly closer.

She ruffles his hair, “That’s only because I was sleeping with you and giving you free drinks.” She kisses his cheek as he tries to quickly fix his hair, and turns on her heel to get their drinks, smiling as she hears Doc and Kate still poking fun at Champ.

The bar is a little more crowded now as the after-work crowd comes in, and as Waverly approaches the bar, slipping in between groups of people, she looks off to the right to see if the woman from before is still there.

She’s not there. Two men, who definitely look like they’re here for Frontier Days, are sitting in her spot and Waverly can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

She passes by another small group of people and tries to find the bartender’s location at the bar, so she can get served quickly, and runs right into someone’s drinks as they’d turned to leave the bar. She’s immediately soaked and apologizing before she realizes that she ran into the redheaded woman from before.

“I am so, so sorry,” the stranger is saying, looking for a place to put her drinks while Waverly tries not to let the beer seep through every layer of her clothes. The stranger returns with a handful of napkins, shoving them in Waverly’s direction.

Their eyes meet again, and Waverly laughs lightly, taking the napkins and dabbing herself off, “It’s alright, don’t worry about it; now I know this shirt wouldn’t work well during the next wet t-shirt competition I’m in,” the woman laughs at the joke and Waverly is happy to hear the sound again.

“Here, let me take those,” the woman offers, as more and more of the napkins become unusable. Waverly gently hands them to her, and she puts them up on the bar where her two mostly empty glasses have been placed.

“Thank you,” Waverly says, feeling like her shirt is about as good as it’s going to get, “It looks like you’ve finally figured out how to get drink service.”

The woman laughs lowly and looks back toward her drinks and then again at Waverly, apologetically, “But not getting any better on the luck front. I’m sorry.’

“Don’t worry about it, seriously. It’ll at least get you a free drink.” Waverly says smiling, trying to lighten the mood.

The stranger’s smirk is back, dimple appearing on her cheek. Waverly immediately blushes under the gaze and tries to remember what she just said that triggered this response. The red headed woman tilts her head curiously, “Are you not flirting with me again?”

It’s Waverly’s turn to laugh, and she lightly hits the woman in the arm, “I meant a free drink from the bartender because those drinks got spilled on me; I can be very persuasive.”

“I’m sure you can be.”

The coyness in this woman’s response makes butterflies flutter around in Waverly’s stomach. She turns toward the bar, standing right in front of the mostly empty glass and used napkins and quickly grabs the attention of the bartender — who she easily convinces to replace the drinks in front of her.

Triumphantly, Waverly turns to hand the stranger her drinks.

She’s tall.

Waverly didn’t notice before.

“Thank you,” the woman says, receiving the drinks. “No drinks for you?”

Waverly smiles and shakes her head, “I’ve still got to order mine. See, that’s what I was doing when — I don’t know if you remember this or not — I had some drinks spilled all over me.” It’s said lightheartedly and the woman is laughing along with Waverly, but this time Waverly can see a faint blush bloom on the woman’s cheeks — it gives Waverly a sense of bravado that she’s not used to feeling.

“I’m Nicole, by the way,” she says as her laughter dies, bringing Waverly back to earth, “I’d stick out my hand but they’re a bit full now.”

“Nicole.” Waverly repeats aloud without meaning to. Does this break the rules of innocent flirtation? She hopes not — it’s not like she’ll ever see this woman again once they leave Cheyenne after the events are over. She realizes she still hasn’t introduced herself and feels a new pang of embarrassment, “Um, nice to meet you. I’m Waverly.”

Nicole smiles when Waverly introduces herself. “Well thank you for the drink advice tonight, Waverly — and sorry again for spilling on you, I’m not usually so clumsy with my hands.” She winks at Waverly before turning to leave, and Waverly is certain she catches the blush on Waverly’s cheeks before she goes.

 

______________________

 

Waverly, up until now, thought about that night in Cheyenne with fondness — and, when she felt stagnant or a little lonely, she returned to that night frequently. Something about the the ease, the spontaneity, had always made her feel a little more adventurous than the reality of her life.

It’s foolish, really.

Naive.

She hadn’t recognized Nicole for who she was, at the time. Chrissy wasn’t kidding when she said Nicole Haught was all business; if she wasn’t riding a horse, Waverly had never seen her — on top of that, Waverly hadn’t even pegged Nicole as a competitor at Frontier Days; she had assumed the woman was a local. In her ball cap and denim jacket she didn’t exactly look the rodeo type. No boots, no big shiny belt buckle — of which Waverly knows Nicole Haught has many — and no stetson. How was Waverly to know who she was, practically disguised?

She hadn’t known Shae yet either, but after they all became friends and Waverly had seen a picture of Shae an Nicole together on Instagram during a date night, Waverly realized just exactly who she’d met at that bar in Cheyenne. She never said anything, out of sheer awkwardness, but now Waverly almost wishes she had.

Almost.

And it isn’t the flirting while being married that leave Waverly so unsettled — every couple has their own set of boundaries. Growing up with Wynonna and the various people she’s dated, and certainly being close with Kate and Doc, Waverly has known her share of less than traditional couples, and even marriages. It doesn’t exactly reflect her own relationship’s boundaries, but she tries not to project.

It’s seeing, right on her friend’s face, that there’s something amiss — Waverly’s memory of that night is tainted now.

Maybe it’s because Nicole is gone too much — it definitely wouldn’t be the first marriage in rodeo to end because of the sport itself; it could easily be that.

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because Nicole is unfaithful. Even though Waverly would have had no way of knowing at the time, she feels like a terrible friend for the very possibility of being another secret, another lie in their relationship.

It’s too familiar.

Maybe that second drink Nicole had in her hand that night wasn’t even for Shae. Maybe she was with some other stranger who’d bought her coy smile and effortless flirtation.

Waverly is pulled out of her now soured memory of meeting Nicole Haught when Chrissy asks her a question. Waverly searches her mind to try and think about what was asked, but she has to admit she wasn’t paying attention. How long had she been zoned out? “I’m sorry, Chris — what did you ask me?”

Chrissy chuckles, “I asked if you were excited about your big show yet, or if it still felt too far away to be anything except stressful, but you were on another planet!”

“Maybe she was mentally ordering dinner.” Kate says and winks playfully at Waverly who shakes her head.

Her big show.

The Gibson Exposition and Livestock Show.

Waverly’s tried to avoid work conversation at lunch today because she knows she’ll get started talking about this and never stop — and she really does want to enjoy her time with her friends, but right now it’s a welcome distraction from her guilt — she’s glad not to have to think about Nicole Haught for a while.

“Honestly, I just can’t believe it's so close to finally being here.” Waverly responds, looking at Chrissy with joy and appreciation; Chrissy and Robin have helped so much in various stages of making this dream of hers come true, making Chrissy one of the few people in her life who knows just how much work this event has taken.

“Three weeks away!” Chrissy says, clearly reading Waverly’s feelings of excitement and encouraging them further. It makes Waverly’s heart burst with affection for her friend, knowing that if she’d responded any other way, Chrissy would have seen it and tried to lend her support to whatever that feeling might have been — because that’s what Chrissy has done for her throughout the entire process.

Two long years of turning nothing into something.

After her Uncle Curtis died three years ago, the property that he and Waverly’s Aunt Gus lived on — owned by the Gibson Family for three generations now — fell into disuse, and disrepair the longer time went on. Champ had been helping Curtis during his last year, as his health declined, but 43 acres is quite a lot to tend to for someone that’s gone half the year and eventually Gus decided she couldn’t manage it anymore and told Waverly she intended on selling it.

One tearful phone call with her sister, Wynonna, later and Waverly knew she’d make something of that old property; no way in hell would she let Gus sell it. It’s where her mama trained growing up, and where Willa had learned to ride before Mama left. Waverly herself had lived there off and on with her aunt and uncle after Willa died, and lived there permanently after her father’s death when she was 13. It was her home, and not something so easily thrown away.

She and Champ have their own property of course, their own home, but they only live there, at most, 5 months each year because of the rodeo circuits. Their camper feels more like home than their house does, and even though Waverly hasn’t lived on Gibson land in a decade it’s still the place that Waverly feels is most deserving of the title ‘home’.

So, during every free moment they’ve had over the last two years, she and Champ have turned the Gibson property into rodeo and show grounds. They’ve leveled acres of property, turned the old pole barn her mama trained in into a large stable, and during the winter seasons Waverly went through all the trials and errors to get the right permits — and most importantly, get the backing for the event — to build her own, small arena with bleacher style seats along one side to fit about 200 people.

“Three weeks,” Waverly repeats, allowing herself to feel proud of her accomplishment, “and I think I am finally ready — we’ve got almost all of the paperwork in place, we’re finalizing attendees, getting the money in order of course. I really hope it’ll bring some good press and business for Purgatory.”

“The last good thing that happened to Purgatory was when the diner opened that drive thru window,” Kate says confidently, “and this blows that out of the water, Waves. It’s going to be fantastic.”

“I’m so sad I won’t be able to make it,” Shae says, reaching for Waverly’s hand. “There’s a veterinary conference at Colorado State that I’m speaking at that weekend, and if you guys weren’t over 1000 miles away I’d try to make out for at least part. It’s going to be amazing though.”

“I’ll take lots of photos.” Kate replies with a wink at Waverly to give her support. It buffers Waverly up again knowing she has Kate’s support despite the rodeo portion of the event being women’s only.

Initially, the PRCA had declined their support of Waverly’s event. So, setting her pride aside, and selling her soul a bit, Waverly brought the idea to the WPRA — steeply highlighting the fact that it was Gibson family owned, as well as Michelle Gibson’s childhood home and first training ground. She hadn’t ever wanted to get ahead solely because of her last name or her mother’s name, but eventually Waverly came to the conclusion that if her mother was going to be any help at all to her in life, it might as well be this.

The WPRA was more than glad to have the Gibson name slapped on an event again, and Waverly’s reveled in her success, pride aside.

Waverly tries not to let the emotions overwhelm her when Chrissy adds on that she’s so proud of what Waverly’s been able to accomplish, but the tears rise in her throat and she releases a breathy laugh — waving off her compliment, “phew, guys, we’re not supposed to talk about work at these lunches. Come on!” She sniffles back the tears and re-centers herself.

Her friends concede, and Chrissy swiftly changes the subject as she’s always been so capable of doing, and the rest of their time together at lunch is spent laughing and catching up while they finish their food. They eventually get their bills and say their goodbyes until later that night, and Waverly thinks about how happy she is in this very moment — and tries to avoid the small part of her mind that is dreading seeing Nicole Haught tonight.