The announcer's magnified voice could be heard well outside the arena. People made their way down the side of the street, many with a cup of Coors in one hand. Toddlers walked between their parents in boots and audaciously colored cowboy hats. And all the people, some with purchased meals or nachos, made their way to the stands to seek the best view.
The twilight sky was streaked with carnation pink clouds. Gavin surveyed the arena drill team from the top of the stands as the horses wove between each other at a gallop and their riders saluted the crowds.
Sunlight ignited the fiery red curls of a woman across the arena. Poppy seated herself toward the bottom of the stands and began cheering as the drill team continued their performance.
He remembered the time Poppy convinced him to attend the rodeo with her the year he lived in America. She sat on the seat behind him with her arms around his neck and her chin on his shoulder, shouting and cheering in his ear whenever someone scored well.
He started as the soft-spoken blond man seated himself beside June Lily and kissed her cheek. Gavin smiled and reached across her to shake his hand. "Noah, I'm grateful to actually meet you."
Wyatt Elliot, the rodeo announcer, cleared his throat into the microphone.
"If we can get all the little ones between five and nine out here, we're going to have a little contest."
Aurelia and Leah leapt to their feet and thundered down the stands, hopping down at the end. By the time they reached the arena, children were standing in a row and ready to run. A distant chute opened and released a small calf with a red ribbon on its tail. Gavin smiled when the children began to inch forward eagerly until Wyatt called them out.
"The goal here is to catch up to that calf and grab the ribbon off his tail. Whoever does that wins. So on your mark…" the children leaned forward. "… Get set…" the calf nosed around the sand in the back corner of the arena. "… Go!"
The children raced forward similarly to a school of fish, pouring into the corner of the arena until the calf escaped through an opening. Aurelia was close to the head of the children, but her hand was always just out of reach. The crowd cheered the pursuit until a small boy with a black Stetson hurtled himself onto the calf and snatched the ribbon from his tail. After tumbling to the ground, he stood triumphantly with the ribbon raised as high over his head as he could manage.
"And we have a winner!" Dean Sharp, the rodeo clown, approached the kid with a microphone while the other children gathered by the gate. "Hey, there, you man. What is your name?"
"So, Luke, do you have a girlfriend?"Dean winked at the stands. Luke's pinched face made everyone laugh. "Well, you might get one, now! Congratulations, buddy."
Dean presented a ten dollar bill to the little boy, who raised his hat proudly and ran out of the arena along with the other children. June Lily smiled proudly at her girls as they clamored back up the stands with pouts and Noah reached out for them to crawl beneath his arm.
"Your girls did well," Gavin said as they crossed their arms.
"Your kids will have their chance in a moment," June Lily answered.
As she spoke, Wyatt Elliot asked for all the children between the ages of nine and thirteen to come to the arena. Ethan, in a pair of worn jeans and boots, and Abby, with overalls and her hair braided over one shoulder, rose in the opposite stands and made their way to the arena gate. Keegan Morgan accompanied them and Beth smiled as she climbed down the side of the crowded stands to participate.
The children stood in a row in the arena again. Ethan and Abby leaned forward in anticipating, with
"I plan to beat you this time, Montgomerys," Keegan pointed at them and smiled.
"Don't count on it," Ethan answered and revealed his hand to Abby. "Teammate?"
"Teammate," she accepted his hand and gave it a pump. The opposite chute was raised and a slightly older steer calf came loping into the arena. Ethan sensed chills of excitement run up his spine and skin.
"On your marks… Get set… Go!"
Ethan sprinted to the lead of the children with his eyes on the steer, attempting to keep him pinned in the corner. Aggravated, the steer escaped through the opening of children and continued across the arena. Ethan snarled with frustration and pursued the steer from another angle. Although he didn't search her out, he knew Abby would be near the middle of the children with her eye on him.
"Here he goes!" Keegan called as he chased the steer back up to the corner.
"Abby, get ready!" Ethan shouted and charged toward the steer at a ninety degree angle. He and Keegan were almost at the same pace. Another lunge sent him headlong into the steer with his arms around his neck. But the steer surged ahead with some difficulty, dragging the boy along with him. Abby squeezed between Beth and another girl and leapt out to reach for the tail.
The calf kicked out and narrowly missed her hand after it grazed the ribbon. But before she had the chance to try again, and before Ethan managed to reach around at the raised tail as it swished, Keegan dodged the other children and snatched the ribbon.
"And we have a winner!" announced Wyatt. Ethan released the steer and staggered back against the arena fence, gasping for breath. Abby raised her eyes sheepishly to his, but he managed to smile.
"What is your name?" Dean asked as he came forward with the microphone.
"Keegan Morgan," smiled the boy with curly auburn hair.
"And do you have a girlfriend?"
"Ask me again in five minutes," Keegan answered and the crowd laughed.
"Well, congratulations, Keegan Morgan," Dean smiled and presented him with a twenty dollar bill. He raised it proudly over his head and pointed to Ethan and Abby.
"Meet me at the 4H booth in five minutes."
Abby stared at him as she sidled up to Ethan. "You don't suppose he's going to ask me to be his girlfriend…?"
The twins exited the arena with the other children and made their way toward the booths. Misters lined the awnings of each one, congealing the smeared dirt on their clothes into mud. After Ethan purchased a can of orange soda, Keegan came striding toward them with a smile on his smudged face.
"Sorry, had to get change from my mom," he said with a five dollar bill in each extended hand. Ethan and Abby each accepted one reluctantly.
"Why are you giving these to us?" Ethan asked.
"You two came pretty close," Keegan shoved his hands down into his pockets. "You probably would have won if that calf hadn't kicked out at the end. Besides, you are a good pair of kids."
The twins exchanged glances and thanked him as he sauntered back to the stands where his parents were seated. After they pocketed their gifts, they searched out their mother and sat at each side. From across the arena, Gavin smiled approvingly at the effort his children made. He sneaked a glance beside him at June Lily and her husband, and the rest of the people he knew in the stands. Perhaps Poppy was no longer a part of this picture, but California was still his second home.