Melissa alluded to how she met Mitch in Whirlwind; how she ran into him at her first assignment as a reporter for the school paper. There’s a little more to the story than a chance meeting, including dirty cowboys, fast horses, and road apples. I hope you enjoy it. –Robin
From the first day I set foot in the Daily’s office, Gary, the sports editor, had it out for me. I’d never laid eyes on the guy before, but apparently it only took one look for me to piss him off. His first disgusted appraisal accompanied an equally unwelcome greeting. “A freshman. Great. And a girl to boot. What am I supposed to do with you?”
Pam, the senior editor, rankled at his words. “You treat her just like you would any other reporter,” she scolded, her glare sharp.
“Right. She probably doesn’t even know what a hat trick is,” he said, refusing to meet her gaze.
“Most common in hockey or soccer, it’s three goals scored by the same player in one game,” I replied, and Pam smirked. “But Gordie Howe hat tricks are unique to hockey.”
Gary shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “There is no such thing.”
“Sure there is. Even I know that one, Gary,” Pam said, then looked at me expectantly.
“A Gordie Howe hat trick is scoring a goal, earning an assist, and getting into a fight, all in one hockey game,” I said. “Gordie Howe actually only did it once in his career.”
Gary’s face turned bright red before he stomped off to his desk mumbling something about there not being a hockey team at Poly. Pam gave me a thumbs-up, and I was grateful for her support. But Gary got the last laugh when he handed out the assignments.
As one of the few freshmen on staff at the Mission Daily, I knew I wouldn’t get the choice stories right off the bat. The sweaty football players and muscular bicyclists in skin-tight shorts went to the seasoned reporters. And, in his wisdom, Gary decided the place for a city girl like me to cut her teeth in the “real world” of newspaper reporting was the hot, smelly, dirty hell of the rodeo circuit.
“Be sure and bring your fly swatter,” he snorted, handing me the announcement for the Sisquoc Roundup.
Fine. I’d show him. Once I figured out where the hell Sisquoc was.
Luckily, finding the town on a map was easy enough, but beyond that, there wasn’t much more to know. Sisquoc was a rural town in a tiny valley forty-five miles away—350 residents, a fire station, a school, and a church.
Knowing Gary expected little from me, I threw myself into the assignment, learning all I could about the event and Poly’s rodeo team before heading south. I even bought myself an inexpensive pair of cowboy boots, hoping to blend in as I learned my new beat.
It was at that first rodeo I ran into Mitch—literally. I’d just picked up a schedule of the day’s events from the information table from the sun-worn, middle-aged registration lady when I turned around was knocked on my ass. All I saw was a flash of green and gold plaid before my paperwork flew everywhere, and my right hand landed in a pile of horse droppings.
“I…what…CRAP,” I yelled, shaking the crusted green feces off my hand.
While I sat on the hard ground, disgusted, a laugh rang out above me. It was so loud it scared the cows in the arena fifty yards away. I cringed as my dignity evaporated into humiliation. “Where’s the fire, sweetheart?” a deep voice boomed above me.
I contemplated wiping the digested grass stuck to my fingers on the guy’s dusty jeans, but used my own instead, ignoring his continuing chuckles. At least I could explain away my embarrassed blush as sunburn.
“Just be glad those weren’t fresh road apples,” he bellowed. A huge hand appeared in front of my face.I followed the arm it was attached to and got a good look at the brick wall I’d hit, easily comprehending why I’d ended up on the ground and he didn’t even sport a wrinkle.
The cowboy I’d bounced off of was well over six feet tall and nearly as wide, built like a world-class wrestler. His hand swallowed mine—the poop-free one—and he yanked me to my feet.
“So how are you enjoying your first time at a rodeo?” he asked jovially.
“What makes you think it’s my first time?” I said coolly, flinching at the double entendre. I scrambled to collect my notes and paperwork before they blew under a nearby trailer. My two-legged roadblock ambled along, handing me the few sheets I’d missed.
He smiled widely whenever I peeked up at him, his dark eyes sparkling under the brim of his dirty hat. This cowboy had a surprisingly boyish face—his full lips and ruddy cheeks crowned with a broad forehead. Dark, sweaty sideburns peeked out from under his Stetson, adding to his youthful appearance. If not for such a cute face, this man would have been a monster.
“Only a rodeo virgin would wear a shirt like that out here. The biting flies are going to eat you alive.” His voice took on a more serious tone. “And you don’t have a hat. Maybe we can scrounge you up something for the day.”
I frowned. The high was supposed to be an uncharacteristically hot ninety-five today, and I’d worn a light green tank top. At least I’d worn jeans—I’d guessed correctly that horses and shorts didn’t go together.
“Come on. I have a friend who’ll help you out.” He led me through the parking area. “What’s your name?”
“Melissa Williams. I’m a reporter with the Mission Daily.” The words came out a little too loudly, belying the assertiveness I tried to project.
The humor drained from his face and he came to a stop. “Well that explains it. Listen, why don’t you just give me your email address and I’ll send you the results of the rodeo tomorrow. That way you won’t get your pretty boots dirty.”
Before I could respond, a tall, similarly clad cowboy trotted over. “There you are, Mitch! Quit chasing the skirts and get your butt over to the box. We’re up in ten minutes.” He eyed me as he came to a stop.
Mitch…my irritation went up in a cloud of recognition. “Are you Mitch McAlister? The steer wrestler whose string of eleven wins tied the school record last month?”
Both men looked down at me, their lips parting in shock.
“Mitch could break a record? Holy—”
“Chase Linwood,” Mitch interrupted, “meet Melissa Williams of the Mistakes Daily.” Grimacing at the derogatory nickname, I shook Chase’s hand. “And the record is actually fourteen, I believe.”
“No—” I started, but Mitch glared at me.
“Hi Mel. I’m his roping partner. We’ve won five in a row. Is that close to a record?” Chase asked, missing our silent argument.
Mitch’s eyes softened and he shook his head ever so slightly. Fourteen wins was the roping record, but for some reason Mitch didn’t want his success advertised. I decided to go along with him, for the moment.
“Um, no. That must be the eleven,” I said. I hated playing dumb, but at least Mitch relaxed.
“Damn it, I thought we were closer than that.” Chase gave Mitch’s arm a tug. “It’s been nice chatting with you, but we’ve got to go.”
Yanking his arm back, Mitch growled, “I’ll be there, just give me a minute.”
With a huff Chase took off.
Mitch jogged me over to the one tree in the parking lot. “How did you know I’d tied the record? No one knows that,” he said, lowering his voice.
“It’s obvious from your stats, which I took the time to look up.” I received the same incredulous look. “You can learn a lot, looking at statistics. You’re not the first engineering student to set a rodeo record, you know.” I rifled through my papers. “Four years ago—”
“Four years ago some guy did something and got written up in the paper. Did it say what happened after that? That his senior project disappeared the day before it was due and was replaced by a truckload of road apples? Was that listed in his stats?”
I had trouble believing Mitch was afraid of a little horse poop. “I’m here for a story, not to make your life miserable. I may be a rodeo virgin, to use your term, but I’m not an idiot.” As an afterthought I held up my hand. “And I’m not going to break a nail, either.” I kept my nails extremely short, and demonstrated that fact, extending my middle finger for his inspection.
I thought I caught a glimmer of a smile on Mitch’s lips, but then he spun on his heel and headed off after Chase. He didn’t invite me to follow, but that didn’t stop me.
The metal rail fence did. I found a spot where I could see the whole arena. At one end, the fence line opened up, revealing two nooks, each with a mounted cowboy backed into it. I was about to ask the guy next to me what was happening when a smaller gate in between the horses flew open and a calf raced out. The horses followed in hot pursuit, the cowboys circling their lassos over their heads. In less than half a minute, it was over. The calf lay on its side, held in place by the ropes tugging in opposite direction. Just as fast, it was released and ran to the other end of the arena.
I knew the terms—the header was the cowboy who threw his loop over the cow’s head, the heeler had to catch the cow’s hind feet—I’d even watched videos online. But everything seemed to happen so much faster live. Three more teams went in a matter of minutes, and then Mitch and Chase backed their horses into the box.
Mitch stretched out his rope and tucked part of the loop under his arm. Chase’s loop hung loose next to him. And then they were off. The thunder of hoofbeats mixed with yells and grunts, and the cow went down.
I counted the seconds in my head, only getting to 12 before the cow dropped. “Yes!” I shouted, earning a glare from the guy in blue next to me. Mitch and Chase had the second fastest time.
After each team went, they lined up again for the second round, and then again for the third. I remembered my camera just before Mitch’s last run, and snapped a couple of pics during the few seconds they were in the arena. Only one shot wasn’t a blur.
Once the third round was over, times were added together, and the winners announced. Mitch and Chase weren’t winners today, but were only a few seconds behind the team that did.
Their event over, the guys rode back to their trailers. I followed as fast as I could. When I managed to catch up to Mitch, he yanked on the reins, spinning his horse around.
“What do you think you’re doing? You want to get kicked in the head? You don’t run up behind a horse.”
I froze, then followed the circle he traced with his arm.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle your horse,” I said.
He mumbled something and dismounted.
“What’s…your horse’s name?” I asked. Rather than check out the animal’s goods to find out if it was a him or a her, I carefully patted it on the rump.
Mitch removed his hat, mopped the sweat with his sleeve, then jammed the Stetson back on his head. “You don’t know anything about horses, do you?”
He frowned at my hand and I pulled it away.
“Well…I read The Black Stallion four times,” I said. Mitch groaned. “No, I don’t know anything about horses.”
“Finally, the truth. It’s about damn time,” he said. Mitch put a hand on my shoulder and guided me closer to the horse’s head. He patted its neck, and I followed his example. “Don’t touch his nose, okay? He hates that.”
I didn’t miss the hint. “Okay. What’s his name?”
The ghost of a smile crossed Mitch’s chapped lips. “Buckeye. Can I ask you a question, Melissa Williams?”
“If you know so much about my stats, why are you here? Why come all the way out here to ask me about numbers you already know? Isn’t the real story what you don’t already know?” He scrubbed Buckeye’s neck.
My fingers stilled. I didn’t know what to say.
“I mean, I appreciate that you recognized my name, and know I’ve had a good run. The last guy they sent out here lasted about five minutes and then misspelled most of our names in his lame-ass article.”
No wonder he hated reporters.
“I won’t misspell your name, I promise.” I stroked Buckeye’s neck. “I’d really like to find out the story behind the stats, if you don’t mind. How long have you been riding?”
Mitch’s smile returned for good. “Okay, then. Before we talk about that, we need to get you fixed up.” He tied Buckeye to his trailer and then led me around the other side to an RV. “Beth and Linda’ll help.”
Mitch knocked on door. We heard a faint “Just a minute.”
He turned to me. “Could you do me a favor? Don’t mention the record to anyone else. I was serious about what happened to the last guy. Football players may slap each other on the ass to show support—these guys show their love with a handful of horse shit.” His puppy dog eyes rivaled the most manipulative two-year-old’s.
“We’ll see,” I said, not promising anything. “Maybe if you give me the five cent tour and an exclusive interview I can bury your record in the story. Assuming you win, that is.”
The trailer door opened and a woman my age appeared.
Mitch gave me a thumbs-up. “You’re on, though I’m not sure the interview is worth even that much.” He looked up at the silent, but obviously confused woman. “Beth, do you have a shirt Melissa could borrow for today? She’s new. I’ve got to get ready to win the next event.” He waved and wandered back to his horse.
The confusion in Beth’s face faded but didn’t disappear. “You’re a friend of Mitch’s?”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”