"Slow night, eh Rusty?" Winston, the horse man, leaned his head into the cramped space that served as a dressing room.
Rusty stiffened. Winston seemed relaxed—if he suspected anything he'd be acting tense, nervous. The way he was. He let out a breath. "Kids don't seem as excited to see us as they used to. These days they just wanna sit in front of the TV playing those video games."
"Ain't that the truth." Winston rubbed a hand through his hair, sending a halo of dust into the air around him. He sneezed, then dragged a dirty sleeve across his nose. "Boss says we're leaving in a half hour. Got a big set up on Friday and we gotta tear down by tomorrow morning."
"Why the rush?"
Winston shrugged. "Some new gig." He raised one eyebrow. "A big one." Then he shoved a finger into his ear to scratch God knows whatever lurked inside. Probably fleas.
Rusty waited. Winston hoarded information like a kid with all the marbles, and Rusty refused to play his games. He turned back to the cracked mirror and rubbed the washcloth over his mouth.
Winston shuffled his feet on the plank flooring, but didn't speak.
Rusty rolled his eyes. If he wanted some peace and quiet he needed to get Winston to hurry up and say whatever was on his mind. "So Rochester's out? Where we going that takes two days to set up?"
Winston whistled. "It's a big one." He'd already said that. Winston paused another beat, then spilled it. "We got New York."
"We're in New York."
"City. New York City."
Shit. New York frigging City?
A smile spread across Winston's normally surly face. "It gets better. We're gonna be in The Garden. Can you believe it?" He tilted his head towards the ceiling, no doubt imagining the basketball players he idolized hanging around the ring—even though it was off-season—to chat up a crusty old horse wrangler. Right.
Winston snapped out of his daydream. "You aren't excited? A week-long gig in New York is big time. Some other outfit was scheduled but a couple horses got colic, then one of your brothers caught a horn in the throat."
Rusty shuddered. Didn't matter how long he worked this job, the bull's horns still terrified him. If anyone asked he said he stayed on because protecting pansy-assed cowboys gave him a sense of purpose, but really he was just lazy. Finding another job was too much damn work.
Winston's eyes caught his in the mirror. He seemed uncertain, like he had something else to say. Did he know? "So… half an hour then." He turned and left.
Rusty slumped in his chair. New York? He'd been counting on Rochester and the farmers who take the day off for some wholesome family fun. He didn't know anything about people in New York City.
He leaned closer to the mirror. Black makeup stained his eyebrows and a garish red burrowed into the creases around his mouth. He was getting too old for this shit. He dipped the washcloth into the plastic bowl in front of him and wiped off what he could.
Half an hour. He needed to get moving.
His knees popped as he rose from his chair and he dug his gnarled fingers into his lower back. Definitely too old. But who else would hire a drunk? He forced his knees into a crouch and twirled the combination lock on his battered trunk, then pushed aside the shiny red satin and felt hats until he touched the dusty old ropes. Last time he counted there were almost two dozen—more than enough to keep him with a steady supply of gin for the next month. But only if they went to Rochester.
How the hell was he supposed to sell this crap in a big city?
He glanced over his shoulder, then covered the ropes before Winston came back. The old man had been with the show for over twenty years—five more than Rusty—and he liked to think he had some kind of power over Rusty, even though everyone knew the clowns were the stars of the show. Well, after the cowboys.
Winston's power trips were what first gave Rusty the idea. The ropes weren't hard to take. The wrangler drank almost as much as he did and they went through so much rope that two or three a week went unnoticed. True, the lasso rope was a little less common—that's why he was so on edge tonight—but over the past year he'd figured out that a genuine rodeo rope that was used to lasso a calf or goat or whatever scrawny animal they rustled up that week brought in the most cash. He'd lurk near the parking lot after the show, the ropes snaked around his waist, tucked under the folds of fabric. He hit up the families first. If the kids didn't bolt at the sight of him—he still didn't understand why more kids weren't afraid of clowns—he'd slip out a rope and within minutes little Johnny or Betsy had their father by the neck.
Hmm… that gave him an idea.
New Yorkers were a desperate lot. Money drove everything they did, and from what he'd been hearing, it wasn't flowing like in years past. Maybe he could use that to his advantage. He usually had some free time during the day—yet another benefit of being the entertainment—so maybe he could head down to where the suits worked. He'd bring along a sign, but he needed something better than rodeo lassoes. What else needed a rope with a loop at the end?
He dropped back into the chair, a slow smile brightening his face. He'd get his gin after all.