A hard flick to my hat brim detonated a cloud of dust into the sweltering, stagnant air, and I hated how the subtle imagery matched the powder keg of dread ready to bust my chest open. Selena coughed and punched my hip. I cringed. No doubt she was glaring at me, too, but I shrugged it off and stepped forward, jamming the Stetson back on my sweaty head.
“Go get ’em, tiger!” she said.
I rolled my eyes but couldn’t help the reluctant smile, even if it didn’t last long. Did I deserve a second chance? Hell no, but Selena convinced me to give it a shot, and I wasn’t going to let her down.
She kept insisting what happened wasn’t my fault, but every time I looked at her, crippled and trapped in that godawful wheelchair, I couldn’t shake the guilt. If only I could take back what happened a year ago. If only I could rewind the clock and stop my sister from getting trampled in that stampede. If I’d been there on time . . . if, if, if . . . if only.
I pressed the tips of my fingers into my furrowed brow, just above the roaring ache behind my eyes, and begged the tormenting thoughts to stop. My mind grasped at faded memories, like the times my sister and I competed by rounding up the most cows, chasing strays over rough terrain. Or us team roping at rodeo—always out to beat the Holman twins. My eyes stung, but I wanted more of those days.
“They’re just cows! C’mon. You got this.”
I flinched. Selena meant well, but her words only made the dread coil tighter in my gut. With my eyes pinched closed, I took three hesitant steps and kept them that way until proof of life other than the thunder of blood rushing through my veins filtered in. Opening them, I gasped.
Two dark doe-like eyes, set wide and framed by long lashes, blinked back in apathetic laziness. Her chocolate brown muzzle wobbled in slow, circular chomps, but there was no angst in that bovine face.
The hateful voice in my head didn’t care. I was practically a murderer, and painful loathing branded my heart. By my own selfishness, I’d robbed my sister of everything that mattered to her—her future and her dreams of becoming a pro barrel racer.
I couldn’t get the carnage out of my head; the brutal image of her unmoving, violently twisted body spattered in inky blood and churned up mud. Ever since, even the sight of cows could trigger a panic attack in me. But it didn’t matter how stupid or irrational the fear was; those cows were our livelihood and my responsibility. It had to stop.
We’d been working on this moment for months, Selena and me. Today, on the anniversary of the accident, I somehow let her convince me to touch one, which I regretted from the moment I said yes.
I swallowed past the lump in my throat and flexed my fingers. My gaze froze on the little strands of half-masticated hay protruding from the side of the cow’s mouth.
“It’s not rocket science,” Selena yelled from behind me, much louder than was necessary given the short distance.
“Not rocket science? Really?” I shot the half-strangled retort over my shoulder without taking my eyes off ol’ Bessie and ignored the stinging sweat dripping into my eyes.
“Look at her. She’s not gonna bite.”
“I am lookin’ at her.” My heart rate sped up just saying the words.
“Well . . . .”
“All right. All right.” I took another deep breath and lifted my shaky hand toward the fence.
The cow took one step closer, her head stretched over the rail, probably hoping I’d give her a treat. The thought hadn’t occurred until then. Maybe it would have made the whole ordeal easier.
Eyes narrowed, I gritted my teeth and laid my numb hand on the cow’s muzzle. A jolt of pure adrenaline screamed through my muscles to run. Selena’s taunt echoed in my head. I wasn’t sure if it was real, but it was distraction enough for the coarse texture of fuzzy skin, stretching taut over the cow’s nose, to finally register to my touch. The lazy beast pressed her warm nose into my palm. Achingly long seconds passed, but my heartbeat slowed and shoulders sagged.
“Hey there, girl.”
Tentative, I reached and rubbed her face with both hands, my relief as palpable as the grittiness of dust lingering in the air. I leaned forward and rested my forehead against hers, knocking my cowboy hat to the ground. Silent tears streaked down my cheeks. For once in a long while I didn’t feel lost.
A hand rested on my back, and I raised my burning eyes.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Selena said, low and husky. I glanced at her perched in the wheelchair and tried not to look at her friend standing behind. “I never blamed you and neither did Dad. And you know if the cancer hadn’t have got him, he’d be here right now, cheering you on. You know that.” She took a shuddering breath. “I’m okay and you need to be, too.”
About Rachael Ritchey
*Written by Indie Author, Rachael Ritchey. To read more of her works, including her published pieces, follow her at:
Twitter: Rachael Ritchey