Skye MacMillan leaned over the top rail of the bucking chute and watched the feisty 300-pound young steer rear up and try to climb over the steel gate. Her right knee quivered, and her mouth was dry. She was on chute number three, and the announcer was calling out the names of the riders. His voice echoed inside the hard helmet that fit snugly over her ears. The nose guard and chin strap felt alien and uncomfortable on her head. Her two brown pigtails were cupped against the back of her neck by the helmet. She dry swallowed.

This was the third and toughest event she had entered today. While she waited for the bareback steer-riding to start, she had time to think about the other two events she had won.

The first event, barrel racing, she hadn’t won easily. Her trusty pony, Apache, was quick and fast, but she had hit one of the barrels with her knee. Fortunately, it hadn’t tipped over—all the hours of practice in the south corral at home had paid off. Then Apache had bellied flat-out over the finish line, and they had won by six-tenths of a second over the nearest competitor.

The second event, goat-tying, had been even harder. Again, Apache had given her the edge. He wasn’t spooked by goats, and they had practiced and practiced until she could dismount as close to the goat as possible. Apache had learned to slow down at the last minute so that Skye could leap off over his shoulder and maintain her run toward the goat without falling. In fact, Apache was so savvy that he would pace himself right beside her. Skye could keep her right hand on his shoulder, and he helped her maintain her balance as her feet hit the ground. At the last second he would veer off and let her finish her run to catch the goat.

Skye’s dad had let her practice at home on some of the smaller calves. She was good at kneeing them over on their sides and fast-tying three legs together with tight, fast wraps and slipknots. The goat had been tougher. Its legs were skinny in comparison, and Skye had been afraid it would kick free after she made her last wrap and slipknot. As she had leaped up and thrown her hands in the air to indicate that she was finished, she had held her breath. The goat had kicked and wriggled to get free of the ropes, but the ropes had held, and her time of 15.09 seconds had beaten the nearest competitor easily.

This was her second year competing in the PeeWee Rodeo Association county meet. Last year she had done well, but she had won no firsts. This year she already had two firsts. If she could win the bareback steer-riding event, she would have three firsts and a trophy as all-around cowgirl to take home. She would also qualify to go to state finals.

Skye’s thoughts jerked back to the ornery critter rearing and jumping in the chute. Her dad and one of the chute helpers were attaching the cowbell and getting the belly strap cinched up on the young steer. Her dad looked at her and gave her a thumbs-up sign.

She grinned back at him nervously. She slapped her leather-gloved hands against her thighs. Then she rubbed the palms of her gloves together to work in the resin so that she wouldn’t lose her grip on the ropes.

The announcer called for the first chute to open, and Skye watched as Billy Marten, who was in her 4-H horse handlers’ group, rode out on the back of a Hereford steer. His steer jumped out of the shute sideways and ran in a straight line for about ten paces. Billy tried to get the animal to buck, but it wouldn’t. Then the steer came to a complete stop. When Billy kicked it in the shoulders, the steer made a quick half-turn and pitched him off.

Billy sat up and yanked off his helmet. He spit dust disgustedly as he got up and walked away. A rodeo clown ran over and lured the steer away as it headed back toward Billy.

Ginny Helms was waiting her turn in chute number two. But when her gate opened, she fared no better than Billy had.

The announcer called Skye’s name, and she climbed over the rail to get onto the back of the pawing, snorting black steer. Her dad was beside her, helping her to get astride the steer and to wrap the rope around her left hand. He looked her square in the eye and said, “You don’t have to ride this year, honey. You have plenty of years ahead of you.”

Skye shook her head, “No. I’m going to do it!”

Her dad gave her a quick hug and said, “Now, remember, if you start to fall, let go of the ropes—first right hand, then left hand, and you’ll be free and not get dragged.”

She nodded at him and then at the chute helpers, who were shouting all kinds of instructions at her:

“Lean way back.”

“Keep jabbing his shoulders.”

“Jump wide when you hear the time whistle.”

“Stay flat after you fall.”

“Let the clown lead the steer away from you.”

“Hang tight.”

Skye’s head was buzzing with all the directions when the gate flew open.

The steer jumped sideways out into the arena. It jumped straight up. When it hit the ground on all four feet, Skye landed on its back with a teeth-rattling jolt. She recovered instantly, though, and leaned far back and kicked the steer’s shoulders with her heels. It spun to the left. It spun to the right. Skye’s only thoughts were to hang on and to pray that the time whistle would blow so she could let go and jump off. The steer kicked out with its hind legs, then tucked its head between its front legs. Then it stood on its hind legs and whirled around with its front legs pawing the air.

When the whistle blew, Skye instantly let go and flew over the steer’s right shoulder. She hit the dirt flat on her back, and the wind gushed out of her lungs.

Her dad came to help Skye. He loosened her belt and unbuckled her helmet as she struggled to breathe again. He kept asking her if she was hurt. All she could do was shake her head, because she hadn’t caught her breath yet. When Skye finally managed to gulp down enough fresh, clean air, she grinned broadly. Her dad helped her up, and as they walked out of the arena together, he lovingly put his arm around her shoulders.

Later, as they watched the remaining contestants try their skills, Skye looked at her dad and asked, “Dad, would you have been awfully disappointed with me if I’d chickened out?”

“Of course not. As a matter of fact, I’ve been wondering if you really want to go on with this rodeo business. I’m not sure I like seeing you get tossed around like that!”

Skye hugged him tightly and said, “Yeah, I’m going to go on with this rodeo business. After all, they say the first time out of the bucking chute is the worst. Besides, that trophy’s going to look awfully good on the mantel over the fireplace.”

Skye leaned against her dad, put her head back and let out a long “Whoooopeeee!”

Illustrated by Howard Post