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    The rangy reddish-brown steer stared into Nettie Brady’s eyes for just a second. Then it shook its massive head and blew hot moist air into her face.

    Nettie leaped back and glanced around the makeshift arena to see if anybody was laughing at her. A dozen parked Model Ts formed a black ring in the pasture where cows had grazed only hours before. Ranch-hands perched on their vehicles in the late-morning sunshine as they waited for the next stage of the neighborhood rodeo to begin. One cowboy stood on the hood of his car, ready to announce her debut.

    “Look out there, little gal. Let us get ’im eared down first.” A cowboy grabbed the animal’s ears and held its head close to the ground, while another man fastened a denim jacket blindfold over the eyes. Two more cowhands stood behind and splayed the hind legs tight with ropes so Nettie could mount. She took a step forward.

    “This ain’t no place for a girl.” A bow-legged, leather-faced man wedged himself between her and the steer. “You belong in skirts, not trousers.”

    “What?” She’d borrowed her brother’s denims, sneaked out of the house early this morning and come all this way, and now this old man wasn’t going to let her ride? Nettie rose up to her full height. “Mister. I can ride as good as my brothers. And they’re competing today.”

    “You’re a girl. You’re too young,” the old cowboy persisted. “You get on outta here ’fore you get hurt.”

    “Yes, I’m a girl. But I’m almost fifteen.” Nettie looked him straight in the eyes, anger boiling inside like a stewpot on a stove. “And I’m gonna ride that steer. You just wait and see.” She stepped around him, toward the steer.

    One of the cowboys holding the animal chuckled. “Ah, let her give it a try.”

    The leathery face scrunched into a frown. “You know you gotta ride till yer thrown or the steer stops bucking, don’t ya? Ain’t no 10-second whistle here t’ let ya off easy.”


    Nettie squared her shoulders. “I know.”

    The old man snorted, mumbled something about “women in rodeos” and stalked away.

    “Ready?” a cowboy asked.

    Nettie wiped her sweaty hands on her pants, tugged on a pair of leather gloves, and turned toward the angry steer beside her. Was she really ready for this? Sure, she’d ridden calves and yearlings out in the pasture, but a half-ton steer? And in front of a bunch of men?

    One more hard swallow, one more deep breath of the manure and animal sweat-laden air. She accepted a leg up onto the steer’s bony back from one cowboy’s cupped hands. He chuckled. “You don’t weigh much more’n a feather to be ridin’ this big ol’ beast. You sure you wanna do this?”

    She couldn’t back out now. She had to show them she could ride.

    “Yep.” Nettie pulled her hat down tight over her braids and wrapped the surcingle around her right hand, palm up. She flexed her thigh muscles through her borrowed denim overalls, to make sure she had a death grip on the steer’s sides. Then she gave a nod to the men holding the animal.

    In the background she heard a few jeers and catcalls as the announcer bellowed out, “And now ... ready to join the ranks of Montana lady rodeo riders ... is ... first-timer ... Net-tieeee Brady!”

    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 mucus and butt his menacing horns toward them. She felt herself being lifted from the steer’s back with a sensation of flying. Her 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 older brothers surrounded her.

    Ben hugged her.

    “You did it!” Joe slid from his horse and clapped her on the back.

    “We knew you could.” Her older brothers hoisted her onto their shoulders to parade her around the 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.