“Come!” Luc caught Ethan’s arm after dinner, and the man’s smile was malicious. “There are things every man must learn. Even you.”
Ethan jerked free, though three others surrounded him. Jean shoved him forward. He couldn’t decide what bothered them more – that he was British, or that he had married the girl Jean had been trying to win back. It didn’t help at all that his wife’s sister was also married to Jean’s cousin. These Frenchmen thought that made his wife their property, and Ethan was tired of them whispering in her ear, under the guise of protecting her.
Luc led the way out a side door, hissing in French at his friends to hurry. They stopped in a barn on the way to wherever they were going, collecting ropes and poles and grinning at one another. The horses stirred, shifting in their stalls and poking their heads out. One nosed around Ethan’s ear, and he flinched away, making the others laugh.
The poles seemed to serve no greater purpose than to prod him forward, and Ethan gritted his teeth to keep from showing his irritation. As long as he cooperated, perhaps they would finish their hazing sooner rather than later, and he could get back to his own evening plans.
They left the manor behind, the men talking in French so fast he understood only one word in three. Something about a bull in one of the pastures.
Jean gave him a jab with a pole when he balked at vaulting a fence.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” he said, in French. “If you can’t even jump a fence, you’ll never leap a bull.”
Ethan stared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Jean prodded him on. “You’re lucky at least that the moon is full and you’ll be able to see the bull coming.”
“Wonderful,” Ethan muttered. He rolled his shoulders and hoped he could avoid being gored. If they wanted him to leap a bull, he would do it, and so help him, he wouldn’t even whimper if it ran him down. And if this earned him enough respect to keep Jean and Luc from pressing his wife to leave him, all the better.
One of the others, Marcus, disappeared into the dark, returning a moment later with an animal too docile to be the bull. The creature let itself be led placidly along, chewing its cud, and he wondered just how often it was stirred from its sleep for whatever duty it was now expected to perform. Did bulls become more or less ornery when woken from a doze?
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Ethan said.
“Don’t worry, Monsieur.” Luc flashed him a smile as they crested the hill. Another fence stood in their way at the bottom. “We will not let you be hurt too badly. Give him a pole, Henri.”
Jean gave him another shove, knocking him to his knees in the dirt. The others laughed, and Henri dropped one of the poles next to Ethan as he passed. Apparently they didn’t feel a need to keep him moving now that they were in sight of their destination. Ethan’s hand closed around the wood, burnished smooth, and he rose. The poles had gotten a lot of use, it seemed.
“We could be making you leap with your legs and feet tied together from a standstill,” Jean called.
The four men were already in the pen, the cow tied to a fence post outside. It lowed softly, and another animal answered with a bellow.
“Are you going to come willingly, or am I going to have to throw you in?” Jean asked.
“Perhaps he lost all his courage when he failed to please his wife on her wedding night,” Luc said. “It’s just a little country bull-leaping, Monsieur.”
Jean snorted. “Maybe we should show him how it’s done?”
“Marcus?” Luc nodded to him and Marcus jumped off the fence where he had been sitting. Ethan could hear hoof-beats now, and then the bull was in full sight, a darker shadow against the grass – except for its horns, like crescent moons fallen from the night sky.
Marcus bounced lightly on his toes, shaking out his arms before falling still as stone.
The bull tossed its head, then lowered it and charged. Blunted horns or not, Ethan didn’t know how Marcus could just stand there with the bull coming down on him full tilt. Ten meters, then three, then one.
Marcus leaped just as the bull’s horns began to sweep up, turning his body sideways in midair over the animal’s back. He landed lightly on his feet behind it.
The bull grunted and twisted, but couldn’t change direction quickly enough. Jean and Luc were already in the pen, clapping their hands and distracting the animal from their friend.
“See how easy?” Marcus called. “I show you how to use the pole next, oui?”
Ethan shook his head. In spite of himself, he’d joined Henri at the fence line. The wind turned and he could smell the bull’s musk, sour with frustration. “You people are insane.”
Henri laughed from his seat on the fence. “Bull-leaping is the least of it.”
Marcus had a pole in his hand now, and this time he ran toward the charging bull, rooting the pole in the dirt and throwing himself over the animal in a tremendous twisting vault. It looked safe enough – if Ethan could land on his feet the way Marcus just had. He tightened his hold on the pole, wishing for some kind of grip, traction on the smooth wood.
Luc and Jean cheered and Marcus jogged to the fence, bouncing over it just as easily as he had the bull. He clapped Ethan on the shoulder. “Your turn, oui? Now that Bruno tires, it is easy.”
The beast pawed the ground and bellowed.
“Go, go!” And before Ethan could voice his objection, Marcus and Henri had thrown him over the fence, pole and all.
Ethan scrambled to his feet. He hadn’t had enough to drink for this. But there was no way he was going to let these men call him a coward. Not over a little country bull-leaping.
The bull had turned again, guided by Luc and Jean. It went against every instinct in his body to start running at it, but he forced himself into a jog, the pole held tight in his hands. His palms were sweating. Don’t slip.
“Not yet!” Marcus shouted from the fence. “Wait until you see his eyes!”
He waited, willing himself to run faster. He waited another two heart-beats after he saw the bull’s eyes before he planted his pole and launched himself up.
The bull caught the pole with a horn and twisted its head.
The wood snapped before Ethan finished his leap. Instead of moving gracefully over the bull, he landed sideways on the animal’s back. The air left his lungs even before it bucked, and Ethan tumbled off into the dirt, rolling instinctively away. The back hooves kicked out where his body had been, barely missing him.
Luc and Jean were already shouting, and one of the others grabbed him by the arms, dragging him from the path of the bull’s temper before he was trampled.
“Sooner, next time,” Marcus said, helping him stand up.
Ethan glared at him. “You told me to wait!”
“You wait too long, you catch the horn,” Marcus grinned and passed him another pole. “Jumping is easy. Knowing when to jump, not so easy.”
“Bloody fools.” Ethan swiped the pole from the man’s hand. This one was textured with grooves. Just like them, he thought, to give him an inferior tool for his first try.
“Try not to tickle Bruno’s back this time,” Luc called as they drew the bull toward him.
Ethan twisted his back, testing the muscles. He’d have a bruise on his ribs in the morning, but he’d been remarkably lucky not to have broken something.
This time, he ran forward without any hesitation, ignoring Bruno’s bellow. This time, he was going to leap the damn bull so that he could put all this behind him and take his wife to bed. This time, he planted his pole at the first glint of the bull’s eye and threw himself up with everything in his body.
The pole bent with his weight, but didn’t snap, and Ethan hung in the air for the shortest time – too bright stars above and wind howling in his ears over a pounding heart. Gravity caught up with his jump before he managed to get his legs beneath him. For a terrifying moment, arms pin-wheeling, he thought he was going to break his neck.
He landed face down in the dirt, checking himself at the last minute from trying to stop his fall with outstretched arms as he came down.
The Frenchmen cheered, clapped, and hooted while he spat dirt. Ethan closed his eyes and prayed for the strength to rise without showing his pain. Someone hauled him to his feet, dusting him off, and then clapped him on the back so hard he nearly fell to his knees again.
“See?” Marcus said. “Easy!”
Ethan grunted. His ribs felt as though they had been knocked loose in his chest. Henri eyed him, and then opened the gate for the cow.
“Take him back,” he said to Luc. “Another fall like that and his wife will notice the bruises.”
“Too bad,” Luc said. “Another couple of leaps and he might have learned to land on his feet.”
“Next time,” Ethan promised.
Luc grinned. “We’ll hold you to it.”
“Drink up!” Marcus passed him a bottle of wine. Ethan didn’t know where it came from. “Next time I teach you to leap with your legs tied!”
One bottle of wine was not going to be enough.