CHAPTER ONE

 

“Ready or not, rodeo world, I’m back.” Nettie Moser inhaled the smell of rodeo—dust, animal sweat, manure—the scent of pure happiness. She strode to the arena fence near the chutes and climbed onto the top rail to watch the color guard parade the flag. A pretty teenaged cowgirl, long blonde curls bouncing under a white hat, led a group of equally lovely, brightly-clad ladies through their paces. The rodeo queen and her court.

 

Nettie shook her head. Some like the pomp and falderal, but I’ll take a rangy steer any day. She looked around at the crowd. Wonder where the other women riders are. She hopped down from her perch and headed for the registration booth where Jake already waited in line. “Here I am, ready to ride.”

 

It had been a long five years since her dear friend Marie Gibson was killed when her bronc collided with the pickup man’s horse. That accident had shattered Nettie’s rodeo dream but she finally overcame her fear with the help of her mentor’s unforgettable advice: Live your life, follow your dream.

 

“And I’m glad.” Jake pulled her into the circle of one arm. “But did you get a look at those steers, little gal? They look pretty big.” He winked at her.

 

Nettie took a couple of exaggerated, swaggering steps. “Never met a steer who could get the best of me.” She laughed out loud. It felt so good to be here in Cheyenne. The snorts and squeals and bawls of the rough stock in the pens, the shouts and cheers and curses of the cowboys were music to her ears. Anticipation skittering inside, she could almost feel the steer’s rough hide through her denims. She stuffed her leather gloves into her back pocket and leaned over to check pull the straps on her spurs tighter. She couldn’t wait to be on the back of a bucking, writhing animal, pitting her wiry102 pounds against its half-ton of muscle and bone.

 

“Hey there, Jake, Missus Moser,” a cowboy called as he walked by. Other friends greeted them as they worked their way to the head of the line. Nettie waved to them and danced in place, her boots scuffing up little puffs of dust.

 

Jake grinned at her antics and swept her into a dance step. “You’ll wear yourself out before you even get to the chutes.”

 

Nettie didn’t mind his teasing. Once again, she felt the old happiness, the anticipation she’d had when they were first married and looking forward to their dreams. Now, after years of drought and failure and moving from one place to another, she finally had her dream of a home—what looked like an iron-clad lease-to-buy ranch at Ingomar, Montana. And she had her first dream again—rodeo. The spring of 1941 was off to a good start.

 

Jake stepped forward to register. “Jake Moser. Saddle bronc ridin’.” He reached for a roll of bills in his pocket. “Nettie Moser. Steer ridin’.”

 

The man at the desk peered up at Nettie. “No women.”

 

Nettie felt kicked in the gut. “What are you talking about?” Memory flashed: she was fourteen years old again, about to ride in her first rodeo, hearing the old cowpuncher’s gravelly voice, You can’t ride. You’re a girl. She stepped closer.

 

The cowboy held out his hands, palms up. “This is an RAA-sanctioned event and we ain’t includin’ women. Sorry.”

 

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