Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Gift

Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Gift

Code of the West

Chapter One

D.A. “Gus” Holt had never stayed still for more than five minutes in his entire life.

From the moment the doc had smacked his bottom in the hospital thirty-one years ago, Gus had been a go-er, a do-er a hell-bent-for-mischief little boy who’d grown up into a hard-driving, hard-riding, hard-living, bronc-ridin’ cowpoke.

The road didn’t exist that Gus hadn’t been down. The bronc didn’t buck that he hadn’t rode or at the very least tried.

Gus was known for his try — that almost mystical blend of cowboy guts and will — which, when combined with God-given bullheadedness and Gus’s occasional determined stupidity, had over the years helped him accomplish almost any damn thing he chose.

It had kept him competing in spite of three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder the first year he’d had a chance to go to Vegas for the National Finals. It had brought him out of the hospital with his ankle in a cast to win in the short-go two years ago at Cheyenne. It had helped him drive eleven hundred miles in way less time than the highway patrol would have approved of to make his ride on Ground Zero, the best bucking horse of the year, in Pendleton a year ago September. 

It had kept him going for a dozen years. 

But it wasn’t helping now because for the first time in thirty-one years, Gus didn’t have a goal.

He was drifting, lost, a ship without a rudder, a compass with no sense of north. 

For the first time ever, Gus didn’t know what he wanted or where he was headed. Worse, he didn’t even know how it had happened. 

He only knew he didn’t have the desire anymore. 

And he didn’t even have an excuse. 

Lots of rodeo cowboys lost their careers to injury. They woke up in a hospital with a doctor telling them they’d better find another line of work. Others hung up their spurs when they finished first. They won their gold buckle and, satisfied, they bowed out. 

Gus had had his share of injuries and docs telling him he’d be better off doing something else. But he’d never agreed with them, and he’d always fought to come back. He’d won his share of gold buckles, including the big one that everyone wanted. Three years ago he’d been the PRCA bronc riding champion of the world. But even after he’d won it, he’d kept right on competing because he still had the drive, he still had the fire and the desire. 

And now he didn’t. 

Just like that. 

Well, no, maybe not just like that. 

It didn’t — bang! — vanish the way a tire popped. Nope. This was more like a slow leak. And, if he was honest, it had been going on for a while, sneaking inside his life, settling in and taking hold before he really realized it was there. 

He began to see it in little things. All those miles he drove had seemed longer this year. The satisfaction of an eighty-eight point ride didn’t feel as good. 

He didn’t bounce up when he was down the way he used to. He creaked a little more when he got up in the morning, and it took him longer to work the kinks out.

He might have felt more juiced if he’d been going to the Finals this year. Then he’d have had a goal at least.

But for the first time in eight years, he wasn’t going. Breaking his wrist in Dodge City this August had pretty much ended the possibility of that.

He’d vowed to come back for a couple of rides at the end of the season. It was the standard acceptable thing to say. And the day money might have been worth it if he’d won.

But his wrist didn’t feel real strong come mid-October, and the doc told him he’d be crazy to risk it. 

Being told he was crazy had never stopped Gus before. 

This time it did. 

And when Noah Tanner and Taggart Jones invited him to teach some classes at their bronc-riding school in Elmer, he’d skipped Minot and the Cow Palace and had gone to Elmer instead. 

That’s when he realized something was seriously screwy. When a hell-raiser like him thought teaching school — even bronc-riding school — was preferable to giving his all in the rodeo arena, something wasn’t adding up. 

He wasn’t complaining exactly. He wasn’t unhappy. 

He was just wondering where he was going with his life, what the point was. 

Deep stuff for a guy who pretty much wrote the book on being shallow. 

He’d come to Taggart’s, figuring he’d get it all sorted out and take off again in a week or so. But he hadn’t.

He’d been here close to a month now, teaching three and four day clinics and helping with the ranch work the rest of the time. And he was no nearer understanding himself or what he wanted than he had been four weeks before. 

He felt like he was standing still, waiting for something to happen. 

It was happening just not to him. 

It had been a shock and a half to find out that his brother, J.D., was getting married the weekend after next. And to Lydia Cochrane, for crying out loud! 

Gus hadn’t ever figured J.D. for the marrying type. Over the years J.D. had gone through girlfriends the way Taggart’s’ best bull went through heifers, and he sure hadn’t given any sign of settling on one until all of a sudden Lydia nailed him down. 

Gus wondered what the hell a woman like Lydia a smart, city girl lawyer saw in a stubborn son-of-a-buck like his big brother. 

After all, J.D. wasn’t near as good-looking as Gus was. Didn’t have near the charm, either, no matter what all those old girlfriends might say. 

No sir, J.D. was just damn lucky. 

And that was another thing going wrong with his head! 

Here he was thinking his brother was lucky ’cause he was getting married! 

For heaven’s sake, if he’d thought marrying was so all-fired wonderful, Gus knew he could’ve been married by now himself. 

For a dozen years, as a matter of fact. 

If he’d wanted to be. If he hadn’t come to his senses in time. If he hadn’t told Mary it wouldn’t work out because he wasn’t ready to settle down like some old man. Well, actually if he hadn’t said he’d be better off dead than getting married in a week’s time. 

He probably shouldn’t have said that. 

Mary hadn’t taken it real well. 

Cripes, what was he doing, thinking about Mary? 

He never thought about Mary. 

Well, almost never. 

There was no point. He hadn’t seen his ex-fianceé in years. Last he’d heard she’d moved to Arizona, had intended to go to college down there. That had been a long time ago. 

Arizona? College? 

Mary? 

Go figure, Gus thought as he prowled around the bunk house on the Jones ranch. All he knew was he had way too much time on his hands if he was thinking about her. 

Sometimes, when he’d been down in Scottsdale or Tucson or Window Rock riding broncs, Mary had crossed his mind, and he’d find himself wondering if she might come and watch him ride for old time’s sake. 

He actually remembered daydreaming once or twice after a couple of the rodeos he’d won that she would come looking for him, that she’d come right up and slide her arms around him and tuck her hands in his back pockets the way she used to and kiss him like he’d never been kissed before. Or since. 

It was not restful, thinking things like that. 

And there he was again, thinking about restful! 

Decidedly restless, Gus kept pacing. Since when had he ever cared about restful? Well, he hadn’t. Still didn’t. 

But that was what happened when you were stuck in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end with nothing to do. He should’ve gone into Elmer tonight with some of the cowboys who’d come for the bull riding school. 

The Dew Drop wasn’t exactly your Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, but he could’ve shot some pool, drunk some beer, maybe set his sights on a little gal who was as lonesome as he was. 

Was he lonesome? 

Was that what was wrong with him? Gus flung himself down on the narrow wood-frame bed and considered the possibility. 

He couldn’t ever remember being lonesome in his life. Hell, he’d never been alone in his life! He’d always had his brother or his buddies or a whole bevy of women to keep him occupied. Lonesome? 

No, he wasn’t lonesome. He was just . . . just . . .

Hell! He bounced back up off the bed. All this soul-searching wasn’t gettin’ him anywhere! He needed noise! People! Action! 

It was only ten o’clock. Still early. The Dew Drop wouldn’t start rocking for another hour. 

He yanked a clean shirt out of the closet, tugged it on, buttoned it up, tucked it in. Then he buffed his cuff against his gold belt buckle, shrugged into his sheepskin jacket and clapped his black winter Stetson on his head. 

He felt better already. Full of purpose. 

Whatever he found at the Dew Drop had to be better than this!