Something was ringing. At first, Nate thought maybe it was Hank barking. They were camped out at a KOA campground, and his little tent wasn’t quite big enough for the both of them to sleep in. Hell, Nate wasn’t sure if there was enough room for him and his boots. He’d had to leave his hat in the pickup. Hank was tied to the bumper of the truck, where he could see and be with Nate, but not crowd the tent.
Gradually, though, it dawned on him that it was his new little phone. The tiny silver flip thingy had been forced on him by his cousin Henry in Tulsa, who’d told him that way his momma would be able to get a hold of him. He didn’t have voice mail, just so it would keep ringing on nights like tonight.
Nate flipped it open once he found it, trying to talk like a human being and not a hibernating bear. “‘Lo?”
“H…H…Hopalong?” Someone was crying on the other end, or trying damn hard not to, sniffling hard, that East Texas drawl just as familiar as breathing.
“Lacey?” Oh, shit. All of a sudden, he was wide awake. “What is it, honey?”
“Yeah. I. Yeah. There. Oh, fuck, Hoppy. Your momma left a towel draped over a lamp to dry it and it caught all afire and… She’s okay. They just want to keep her in the hospital a couple days, but the house…” He could hear bustling and fussing all mixed in with Lacey’s sobs. Damn it.
His heart set up to pounding something fierce. “Momma. Oh God, Lace. What? I mean. She’s okay, you said. What. The house?”
Lacey Garrison was his best friend from high school, lived on down the road from Nate’s momma, helped her out while he was on the road. His own personal Annie Oakley since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, Lace was solid as a rock, and to hear her cry was scarier than damn near anything.
“It’s still standing, but it looked bad. I…” He heard Lacey take a deep breath, slow herself down. “I rode in with your momma, and I haven’t seen Ben or Mikey yet to tell me how bad it is.” There was a little cough, a rattle. “God damn it, Freddie. I said I was fine. Leave me be.”
“You get checked out too, you hear?” If she’d been in that house, pulling his momma out, he was gonna beat her within an inch of her life. And maybe hug her tight. “I can be home in… seven hours if I get on my pony and ride.”
“You’ll kill yourself, sure as shit. Just come on in the morning. Doc Fry says June’s gotta stay two days, at least. I’ll stay with her.”
“Okay. Okay, you. I. Are you okay?” God, he just couldn’t…his house. His mother. “I’ll come on. I’ll be there.”
“I’ll be fine as frog hair.” He heard somebody’s voice, then Lacey snapped. “Goddamn it, Freddie Jackson. Leave it alone. Go fuck with somebody that needs it.”
Well, if she could holler that hard she must be okay. Nate chuckled, reaching out to scratch Hank’s ugly old ears as the dog whined and nuzzled up to him. “You hang in there, Lacey. I’ll be home. We’ll get it all taken care of. Call me on this line if you need me faster.”
“Okay, Nate. You be real careful. I can’t nurse you both.”
“I know, Lace. See you soon.” He started up to his knees, moving to get his sleeping bag rolling. “I… give Momma a kiss for me. Thank you, Lace. For taking care.”
Of Momma. Of the house. Of every damn thing he’d left behind. God bless her, she had his back, and he knew it.
“It’s what friends do, Hoppy. You just come on to the hospital. If I’m not here, I’m out dealing with the critters.”
That was Lacey for you. Always running and dealing with something, just like her momma, God rest her soul.
“Okay. Bye, Lace.”
He waited for her to say goodbye. Nate hadn’t once, and she’d read him the riot act the next time they’d talked.
He got a chuckle. “Well, I’ll be damned. The cowboy can learn. Bye, Hopalong. Take care of you.”
“I will,” Nate said, clicking the little phone shut. Well, Hell, who knew it would have come in handy? It took him all of ten minutes to pack up camp and feed Hank, running to the outhouse before he hopped in the truck. He’d pull off long enough to get a sausage biscuit, but after that it was stopping to pee and water only. He surely did need to get home, and wouldn’t that be weird after all of this time?
Last thing he expected was to be heading to Wills Point, for fuck’s sake. During the rainy season, too. Christ. What had Momma been thinking?
The windshield wipers slapped out a tune. It was the only noise in the truck with the radio off. Given all the thoughts bashing around in his noggin, Nate couldn’t bear the cheerful tunes or cheatin’ songs he usually listened to. He was on the way home.
He’d left for good once upon a time. Had made a big deal out of it, made a grand exit. He’d been on the circuit three, four years, had been wintering at home with his momma, when all of the neighbors and cousins had decided he needed an intervention.
“There ain’t no life in rodeoin’, son,” one of them had said. “Just no sense in you actin’ like a trashy drifter,” had come from cousin Ron, his daddy’s only relative left in town.
Trashy. Drifter. When he’d made more in one season than he could at Wills Point in five years. When he’d come home two years in a row with state championship buckles, one from New Mexico, one from Wyoming. When he’d paid for Momma’s new roof with a third place in bareback bronc riding at Las Vegas in December.
He’d packed his shit, kissed Momma on the cheek and said he’d call, then flipped them all the fucking bird, just rude as all hell, told them he’d just drift away like the fucking piece of trash he was, thank you. He could still remember his momma’s pale cheeks and the tears… Nate’d never meant to hurt her. Not her. He just wanted to shock the rest like they’d hurt him.
The only person he stopped to see on the way out of town’d been Lacey. Lacey, with her dark, messy ponytail and her bangs falling in her eyes, her men’s Wranglers and her determined chin.
He pulled up to her momma and daddy’s place in a cloud of dust, his ‘72 Chevy rattling like it was on its last legs, everything he owned sitting like a pile of nothing in the back. He had a little pup tent and a cooler, a backpack full of clothes and his bareback rope. That was pretty much it.
Lacey was out in the shed, working saddle soap into a harness.
“I’m leaving, Lace. Just thought I’d stop by and say so.”
“Already?” Blue eyes flashed up at him, surprised and shocked. “Leaving to where, Hoppy?”
Nate stuck his hands in his pockets, looking at the toes of his boots. They were new, had little silver toe caps on them. His good boots. “I dunno, Annie. Maybe up to snow country. Bound to be someone needs a line shack man or a feeder.”
“Oh.” Lacey looked back down at the tack, fingers moving again, a little slower. “I. Things a little small here, huh?”
A loud snort escaped him before he could stop it. “You know damned well I was gonna winter here.”
“So? Why’re you running?”
“Well, if I stay I’ll be getting the third degree the whole time, won’t I?” Goddamn everyone and their nosy selves. “They all…cousin Ron. Edgar Rice from the feed store. Old man McMurtry. Momma’s cousin Elizabeth. They all came to the house today, Lace.” His cheeks heated just thinking of how humiliating it was, to have them all staring at him like an angry jury.
“Ah, shit.” Lacey sighed, ponytail swinging as she shook her head. “They wanting you home for good, I take it?”
His voice half broke. “They called me trashy. Said I’d amount to nothing.”
“Fuck them and the horse they rode in on.” The harness hit the ground with a thump as Lacey stood, damn near vibrating. “You do good on the circuit, Nate. You know it. Your momma knows it. I know it.”
That had his face sliding into a smile. His Annie Oakley—always ready to take up for him.