We all cheered again, and then I watched as one bullrider after the next tried to hold on for the full time period. Only about half of them made it, which meant the bullfighters were busy. Over and over, they jumped between the bulls and their riders, protecting the cowboys with their bodies. Why the hell would someone do that to themselves on purpose?
Of course, I was going a little crazy myself as Painter ran his fingers across my shoulders and down my arms, all the while pressing his leg against mine. By the final ride of the night, I’d fallen into a warm haze of desire that just wouldn’t go away.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s put our hands together for Cary Hull,” said the announcer. “We’ve saved the best for last, as Cary was our top prize winner during last year’s rodeo. From there he went on to become a circuit finalist. He’s been patiently waiting all evening to show you what he’s got.”
Down in the arena, Hull had climbed up and over the chute, ready to drop onto the bull for his ride. Then the horn sounded and the pair burst out into the center of the arena.
At first I didn’t realize anything was wrong—bulls are supposed to buck at a rodeo. But this one seemed wilder, crazier than any of the others. I mean, his eyes weren’t literally glowing red—no ominous chanting—but that thing was scary. The cowboy was holding on for his life, flanked on either side by Chase and the other bullfighter, light on their feet as they tried to anticipate the beast’s next move.
That’s when things fell to shit.
Without warning, the bull bucked higher than I’d ever seen. So high it hardly seemed real. The rider’s body flew free, turning through the air above him. That’s when he should’ve launched off but he didn’t. The bull bucked again, and this time the cowboy flopped along the side of him, which seemed to piss him off even more.
Up to that point, I’d assumed that Hull was holding on out of sheer stubborn badassery. Now I could see he was caught, flopping helplessly as the bull tried to kill him. The crowd fell silent as the monster bucked backward—higher this time—shying away from the fighters desperately flanking him. Chase ran along the side, trying to reach the rider while his partner distracted the animal.
It didn’t work.
In an instant, the bull spun to charge Chase. As the beast lowered its head for a killing blow, Chase reached out and caught its horns, throwing himself up and over its back in a move I couldn’t quite believe was humanly possible. He hit the animal hard—sideways across the ridge of its spine—somehow catching the rope holding the cowboy prisoner. We all watched, horrified, as the beast bucked again.
Hull broke free, bouncing as he hit the ground.
Enraged, the bull flew up and backward, twisting midair to land heavily on its side.
Right on top of Chase.
The bullfighter was dead.
He had to be dead—no human could possibly survive something like that.
We watched in horror and shock as the bull struggled to its feet, then turned on him, lying still in the dirt. In an instant, the other bullfighter darted between them, catching the beast’s attention. The big head swiveled as the man took off across the arena, mere feet ahead of the deadly horns, leaping high as he hit the metal barrier. Hands reached out to catch him, jerking him up and over the side.
He’d distracted the monster, but only for an instant. Now it turned back toward Chase’s limp body, snorting and stomping. The crowd grew silent, and directly below me a mother pulled a toddler into her lap, forcing his head into her chest so he wouldn’t see. If by some miracle Chase had survived the first attack, there was no way he’d get through this one.
That’s when the rodeo clown leapt into action.
For most of the evening, he’d been working the crowd with the announcer, joking and doing tricks between events, flirting with the girls and generally making a nuisance of himself. Now the clown was deadly serious despite his bright, floppy clothes and the paint covering his face. He sprinted at the bull, flapping and shouting, taunting it until it turned toward him.
Toward him, but away from Chase.
The bull charged, and now the clown was off again, leading the beast into the center of the arena. He reached the barrel and jumped into it seconds before the bull thundered into it with a bellow, sending the barrel rolling. Then riders tore by, chasing the bull away from the trapped clown. The bull tried to turn back, but no matter what direction he went, the cowboys were waiting.
I focused on Chase, lying on the ground, limp and still. Beyond him was Hull, rolling in obvious agony, but clearly very much alive. EMTs were running out onto the dirt now, as the riders formed a living wall between the animal and its victims. They herded the bull toward the far end of the arena, where a gate swung open, creating a safe path. It charged through and I hoped to hell they were ready for it back there—enough people had been injured already. Then an ambulance pulled in from the other side, and the announcer’s voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that was our final ride of the night. Normally we’d announce winners and hand out the prizes, but the North Idaho Rodeo officials have decided that under the circumstances, it’s best to end the event at this time. I’ve been told that fair organizers will announce updates on Chase McKinney’s condition as they’re available. We’ll be clearing the arena shortly. Until then, please keep all our rodeo athletes in your thoughts and prayers.”
I watched silently as the EMTs worked over Chase. Hull was already strapped to a backboard and they were lifting him into an ambulance. Unlike the bullfighter, he was clearly alive and aware of what was going on around him. Painter shifted next to me, and I realized I’d burrowed against him, digging my fingernails into his thigh.