Reporters swarmed around Laney Steele as she mounted her horse with one swift movement.
Microphones, tape recorders and cameras were thrust into her face. Kaycee, Laney’s quarter horse, stood still with his mount on his back. Fortunately the horse was used to the chaos of media and of rodeo life. “News has been buzzing that a family emergency took place last night. Any comments?” “What made you stay in today’s rodeo?” “Do you really think you’re in condition to ride after your emotional turmoil?”
Laney ignored them. How many times did she have to say, “no comment” before it was taken seriously? Suddenly her confidant and fellow rodeo rider Terra, rushed up. “I’m sorry,” Terra breathed. “I’ve been trying to hold them all back.”
Laney shrugged and rolled her eyes in the direction of the reporters. “It’s alright. I knew this was inevitable.”
“The warm up time for barrel racers has now started,” the announcer’s voice crackled over the outdoor speaker system. “All barrel racers, to the ring.”
“Good luck out there,” Terra called, and Laney trotted off.
Laney could still hear the reporter’s chaos as behind her.
“Terra, would you care to comment on Laney’s emotional state right now?”
“What kind of friend do you think I am? Go point your camera’s into someone else’s business.”
Laney stifled a chuckle at Terra’s spunk. She trotted alongside the other competitors, heading towards the arena gate. Leave it outside the arena, Laney commanded herself. And so just before she entered the gate, she got the image of her mother’s face out of her mind. When riding, any distractions could prove catastrophic. She forced her mind on positive things instead – like the rush of adrenaline that was sure to follow her race. That rush was powerful motivator.
The bull riders performed first. When Terra, or Terra the Terrible as the rodeo company now called her, was up, Laney screamed for her until her throat was dry. She stayed on her bull eight seconds and finished second in her division. The calf roping started, and then came the barrel racers.
“Up next, the one you’ve been waiting for – Laney Steele on her steed Kaycee.” The stands roared. Those wonderful butterflies took up residence in Laney’s stomach once again. “Ladies and gentleman, this horse and rider team have come in the top five places in over twenty competitions this last year. Let’s see if she’ll live up to her reputation today.”
Laney posed herself just outside the gate, leaning forward, and gripping the reins in preparation. Right, left, left. Lean in on the turns, not too sharp, not too wide. The roaring had faded in ears. All that she noticed was her own heartbeat and Kaycee’s breathing. The gun shot the blank. Kaycee lurched forward before Laney could urge him to do so. He was in it for the adrenaline, too. They rushed around the first barrel, a right turn. Eyebrows furrowed and knuckles white from holding the reins, they took a perfectly calculated turn around the second barrel. The last barrel always brought out the rebel in Laney. She urged Kaycee into an intense gallop, and they took a tight left turn around the barrel. The blue barrel teetered, but didn’t tip. The crowd stood up in the bleachers, cheering her home, but Laney couldn’t hear any of it. Laney’s soul was flying. The butterflies in her stomach had morphed into a beautiful rush of adrenaline, giving her the energy to finish. The last stretch was her favorite, and they galloped straight out of the arena. She ran Kaycee out for a minute, allowing him time to cool down. Only when they slowed to a trot did Laney have time to catch her breath and realize how loud the crowd was.
“13.46 seconds for Laney Steele,” the announcer bellowed. “Her best time yet by two seconds, and she now stands in first place.”
The crowd continued to roar and the announcer transitioned to the next rider.
Laney reached down to Kaycee’s neck and gave it a mighty pat. “You did great.” His sides heaved with his quick breaths, but he turned to look at her with eager eyes. “That’s all for today,” she answered his pleading question. “And that was a good one – this adrenaline kick ought to last you for a while.”
Terra appeared by her side again. She held a water bottle in her hand and a bucket for Kaycee in her other. “You beat your old time. You’re on fire today,” Terra exclaimed.
“Thanks,” Laney breathed, grinning. “So were you.” She dismounted gracefully and allowed Kaycee to drink. As she stood and watched Kaycee, her left hip popped. She cringed and began to massage her hip. No sooner had she done that and the press was about her again.
“We’d like to congratulate you, Laney Steele. It looks like the bursitis in your hip is acting up again, and you still held it together and made the best time of your career,” said one woman with a microphone. “But with other riders yet to go, do you think it’ll be enough to win?”
“Laney, I’m dying to know – why do you choose to barrel race?” Another reporter interrupted. That was always the million dollar question with the media. It was also the question she was the most prepared to answer. As usual she ignored them all, inserting a “no comment” here and there.
“Laney, now that the race is over, are you going to visit your mother, the barrel legend Alison Steele? We’ve heard that she relapsed and is back in for chemo this morning.”
With Kaycee’s reins in hand, she turned around. “How did you know that?”
Terra rushed to her aid. “You don’t have to talk to them,” she said gently. “They just want to fire you up.”
Well, it worked, she thought. “Who told you that?” Laney repeated.
The man who had asked the question, a young man with glasses, swallowed hard. “The hospital released that information.”
Lacey glared. “They shouldn’t have done that. Her business is her business.”
Questions peppered the air once again. “How is your mother doing?” “You mother was a barrel racer legend herself – is it because of her that you’ve become a champion?” “How are you doing with her illness?”
Laney grabbed one of the microphones before anything else could be asked. “I’ll answer one question and one question only.”
Terra lurched forward to push away the reporters once and for all, but Laney motioned her to stop. The cameras leaned forward and the questions came once again. Laney put up her hand. “I choose the question.”
A memory from that morning flashed in her mind. “You’ll regret what you don’t do,” her mother had told her. The reporters were half wrong about her mother training her for barrel racing. As a kid, Laney had a separate riding instructor who had told her how to hold her reins and how to gallop in the two point position; it was her mother who had taught her what was at the heart of barrel racing. Dedication and no regrets, Alison Steele had said about the most important aspects riding. She lived out her advice, too. Until the first bout of pancreatic cancer weakened her, Laney’s mother was a rodeo woman for twenty-two years. She’d had many painful falls and close calls, but she’d always said the thrill of the ride made up for it.
“That question about why I ride at all.” Cameras were turned on again. She counted at least six different TV station cameramen around her. “I have my reasons for doing what I do. I do it for the adrenaline, for the rush, for the connection between me and Kaycee. I thrive on that. Also,” Laney continued, thinking of her champion mother’s pale face, “I ride for those who cannot. That’s why I push through the hip pain, and push through every other obstacle. The arena is where both my mother and I have felt at home.” Even in uncertain times, Laney was always sure of one thing – only when she rode Kaycee, with the wind in her ponytail and the dust in her face did she feel free. “Why should I choose something else?” She felt so confident now, but a few years ago she almost did choose something else. She took a bad fall on her hip and shattered any sense of purpose she’d had. She convinced herself to go back to being a waitress, and almost took a permanent job as a restaurant manager – almost. The job just felt wrong. The rodeo could never be taken from her spirit. Now she looked the eager reporters in the eye, one by one. “I’d rather feel freedom and the pain in my hip than regret.”