Excerpt: Cowboy Charade

CHAPTER ONE

Toby Palmer pulled into the large field behind the fairgrounds and bumped over the rough ground heading for his horse trailer. He needed to feed and water his horses or he never would have left Kyle behind.

Frustrated, he banged the steering wheel with his fist. No matter what they’d said all afternoon, the sheriff hadn’t budge one iota. He found drugs in Kyle’s pickup and was convinced Kyle was trafficking in drugs.

As if.

Kyle hardly drank, he’d never do anything like selling drugs. But the single-minded town sheriff was so sure he’d caught a major criminal. No bail. Since it was Saturday, there was no arraignment until Monday morning. Kyle had to stay in jail another two nights unless something changed.

Like they found the real criminals who had hidden drugs in the door panel of Kyle’s pickup.

And that could be anyone.

Toby had heard rumors of drugs being sold at the rodeo, but he hadn’t paid much attention. An athlete needed to keep on the top of his game to be competitive. This year was looking to be their best ever at team roping and bull dogging.

Except, they’d be out of the running if Kyle didn’t get out soon. They’d already had to forfeit their entrance fees today. Tomorrow was the last day of the rodeoin Pueblo and then they were heading to Colorado Springs.

Only he’d be heading there alone if Kyle didn’t make bail–or prove his innocence.

How did anyone prove innocence? Kyle didn’t know the drugs were there. His finger prints would never be found on any of the bags of white powder that spilled out when that other car rammed the side of his pickup truck running a red light.

Toby’s headlights slashed through the darkness. With the windows of the truck open he could hear the muffled stomps of horses, the occasional outburst of laughter. Here and there small campfires illuminated the men sitting around them, swapping stories, bragging on their wins, ignoring losses.

Any other night and he and Kyle would have joined in.

He pulled in behind his horse trailer and cut the engine, leaving on the lights so he could see. He had to think of a way to get his partner out of jail and back on the circuit or the rest of the season would be a bust.

Jamming his cowboy hat on his head and Toby got out of the truck. First things first–he needed to tend to the horses–his and Kyle’s.

His horses were still tethered to the side of the trailer where he’d left them. The buckets of water were full. Remnants of hay were scattered around.

I fed and watered them. I didn’t know when you’d be back,” a voice said from the darkness.

He looked over as a young woman accompanied by a large German Shepard stepped into the light from the truck.

He recognized her right away. They were following the same circuit so their paths crossed at every rodeo in Colorado. Tall and thin, she wore the standard jeans and cotton shirt, cowboy hat on her head. She was one of the barrel racers who always placed in the top three–coming in number one more often than not. She had a sweet mare who could turn on a dime.

Thanks. I wasn’t sure myself. Kyle’s horse too?” Toby asked.

Yes. Where’s your partner? All that came down the rumor mill was you two had been taken to the sheriff’s office. When it got dark, I came to check on the horses.”

He clenched his fists in frustration. “He’s in jail for something he didn’t do. And neither one of us can get the sheriff to listen to reason.”

Can he make bail?”

It’s not an option right now. He’s considered a flight risk. Of course he’s a risk, he doesn’t live here. We’re heading out Sunday for Colorado Springs.”

As a bunch of us are,” she said. “What’s he accused of?”

Trafficking in drugs. Which is ludicrous. He’s never touched the stuff, much less sold any. The sheriff won’t listen. He’s convinced he’s arrested a dangerous criminal and plans to make an example of him to all rodeo cowboys that he won’t tolerate drugs in his town.”

Does that mean you might have to pull out of the competition?” she asked.

I hope not. But if I don’t have a partner, I sure can’t compete alone.”

Team roping required two, not a solo cowboy.

He rubbed his hands over his face. They had high rankings this year. Enough to think about the finals and the prize money. He could just punch someone with the way things were going. Preferably the sheriff who wouldn’t cut them a break.

This was shaping up to be their best year. He and Kyle had been banking all the prize money they’d won over the last four years so they could to buy a spread of their own. Winning this year would have clenched it.

Now this. How did those blasted packets of drug get into the truck door?

Tough luck,” she said. “Is there anything I can do?”

He looked at her. “Did you ever see any one around his truck– more than just hanging around? The drugs were in the door panel. A car ran a red light and smashed into the door. While the cops were investigating the accident, they discovered the drugs because of the damage to the driver’s door. It doesn’t take much to pop off the panel and then reattach with drugs inside the cavity.”

She shook her head. “I’m not even sure I know which truck is his. All of us drive pickups. And a lot look alike. I guess cowboys all think black trucks are macho.

Toby glanced at his own black pickup. “Maybe.” He didn’t like her thinking he drove a black truck to appear macho.

She grinned. “I, on the other hand, drive a fire-engine red one.”

What statement are you making with that?” he asked, feeling his mood lighten slightly.

I’ve never really thought about it. Red’s my favorite color, so that’s what I picked when I bought the truck.”

He glanced at the dog, sitting patiently at her side.

That’s why he’s got a red color?”

That and I think red looks good with black and tan. Meet Radar.”

Toby nodded. “Do I shake hands?”

You can with me. That way he knows you’re a friend.”

Toby Palmer.”

Susannah Davis,” she said with another grin and shook hands firmly.

I know. You’re doing good this year. Heading for Las Vegas?”

That’ the hope.”

Yeah, me, too. But if I don’t get Kyle out soon, that’ll be a bust.”

Toby stepped closer to pet the dog. He was surprised when his tail began to wag.

He likes you. Good thing, he’s not always so friendly,” Susannah said with a smile.

That’s smart of you to travel with a dog on the circuit. Some guys get a bit pushy when they’ve had too much to drink. Especially around pretty women.”

He’s my best friend. He’s a retired K-9. He was wounded and still walks with a limp so was mustered out, but he’s perfect for me. I’ve got to go. Just wanted you to know I fed your horses.”

I appreciate it. If I can do something for you sometime, let me know.”

Will do. Good night.”

Toby watched her walk back into the darkness. There wasn’t a thing he could do for his partner tonight. Checking on the horses again, he turned off the lights in the pickup truck. He walked the short distance to Kyle’s trailer and checked his horses.

His thoughts were churning. How was he going to get his friend out of jail? And hopefully in time to continue on the circuit.

Susannah walked through the scattered horse trailers and pickup trucks on the field. Her own horse was in the make-shift corral near the row of stalls used for those spending a lot more money than she had. The mare ambled over when Susannah reached the fence.

Just checking on you one more time,” she said rubbing the velvety soft muzzle. “Be good. Tomorrow we have a shot at winning. Rest up!”

Giving the horse one more pat, she and Radar headed for her pickup truck. She was sharing a room with Amanda Whitney at a motel in town. Some rodeos she slept in her truck, but she’d won a few times this season and splurged on the motel room. It was heavenly to have a hot shower and soft bed.

Who knew what she’d do on the next stop. Amanda wasn’t going to Colorado Springs, she was skipping the next two on the circuit and would rejoin in Loveland later.

As Susannah drove into town she considered the man she’d just met. She’d seen him for more than a few years on the circuit, but they’d never met before tonight. He had a group of friends he seemed to hang out with. And neither of their event crossed, so it wasn’t surprising they hadn’t met before–especially since she tended to keep to herself.

Once burned by a fun-loving cowboy, she was wary around men who had time to chase the dream. If she ever fell for someone again, it would be a man who had a steady job, roots in one location, and the ability to be faithful to one woman. Though how to gauge that before becoming involved was the big question.

Maybe someone who was faithful in other areas.

And loyal–like Toby seemed to be.

Toby was convinced Kyle was innocent. Yet, how did he explain the drugs in the truck? Could his friend be dealing without Toby’s knowledge?

Unlikely. He knew his friend’s values and obviously they were strong enough not to be involved with drugs.

She shivered slightly when she pulled her truck into the parking lot of the small motel. How awful that someone placed the drugs in Kyle’s truck. If caught the true perpetrator would skate off scot free with no risk. If the truth didn’t come out, his actions could cause an innocent man his freedom and reputation.

She turned off the engine and reached over to pet Radar. “You’ll keep us safe, right, big fella?”

His tail thumped against the passenger-side door when he wagged it.

Come on, let’s get to bed. Tomorrow we ride, then pull out for Colorado Springs.”

Lying in bed a short time later, Susannah tried to remember if she had noticed anything out of the ordinary over the last couple of rodeos. Many of the same contestants followed the circuit, competing against each other over and over. Yet when not competing in an event, most cowboys were friendly to each other.

With a few exceptions. Devan Perlman came to mind. That cowboy had a chip on his shoulder that didn’t quit. Quick to anger, itching for a fight every day, he was one cowboy she stayed clear of.

Though he had other ideas, it seemed. He’d asked her out a couple of times. She’d always refused and that hadn’t set well with the cowboy.

She’d seen him knock down another rider just for the fun of it. She had no intention of going out with him and tried to stay clear of him. She could see him thinking laws didn’t exist for him.

Another exception was Juan Alverez. That man gave her the creeps. His event was bronc riding, and he was good. But something about him seemed off to her.

Still, she didn’t have anything but her dislike to show either man being involved in drug trafficking.

Not that she knew what a drug trafficker looked like. If he was any good, no one would suspect–especially if he was using other people’s trucks to transport the drugs.

Rolling over, she tried to sleep, but face after face of those men whom she saw over and over came to mind. Rodeo was a sport of the west. One that had been around for decades, starting in the old cowboy trail camps and rail heads where men from different ranches showed off their skills and the best of them claimed bragging rights.

She couldn’t picture anyone she knew tarnishing that legacy with criminal activities.

The last face she envisioned was Toby Palmer. He was one mighty fine looking man. And super handy with a rope. He and Kyle competed in the calf roping events, heading and heeling and steer wrestling. And Toby was the crazy fool who leaped off a running horse to wrestle a 800 pound steer to the ground.

He had the muscles to show for it. He almost had her thinking thoughts of a future–except he met none of her criteria. He sure didn’t have roots to one place or a steady job. The faithfulness was up in the air, too. She’d seen him with a different woman in every town.

He wasn’t for her. Eye candy, maybe. And that would be her limit. Admire from afar, but stay clear.