The tiara was only a simple band of rhinestones, but to Jessica Graham it was everything. She thought about it when she was mucking out the stalls, and she thought about it when she was trying to halterbreak her spindly legged colt, and she thought about it when she was walking back to her mother’s house, bone-tired, at sundown. She had thought about winning the rodeo queen crown ever since her romance with horses began: When she was six, her father gave her an old blue roan that was gentle and never pitched her off, and in the summers she would lope him through the shade of persimmon trees and thick-limbed sycamores until it grew dark. Back then, when the rodeo came to Llano, she had marveled from the stands as the contestants raced into the arena on horseback, shimmering in sequins and satin. Her mother, Maxanne, had run for rodeo queen in 1978, and now that Jessica was fourteen, she could make a run for queen herself. “I’d wear the tiara everywhere I went if I won, and the sash too,” she said, breaking into a grin. “You’d have trouble getting the dang thing off me.”
Life in Llano County can be hard and lonely and short on ceremony, but once a year, when a caravan of horse trailers and circuit riders rolls into town, the rodeo holds out the promise of transcendence. The rodeo is the biggest event of the year in Llano, and the queen’s crowning is the most talked-about part of the show—unless, of course, a bull rider gets thrashed within an inch of his life. This northern edge of the Hill Country provides few other diversions, only the wide-open space to daydream and ride, and Jessica spends a great deal of time doing both. Most days she runs her mare, Princess, bareback through the sandy- bottomed creek that cuts through her family’s land, a four-hundred-acre spread that has been in her family for three generations. Hers was not among Llano’s prominent ranching families, and for Jessica, winning the crown was both a point of pride and a preoccupation. Even the boy she was sweet on proved to be little distraction; when she was with him, she was thinking about how the crown should be hers.
The pageant consisted of four contests of equal importance: personality and appearance, horsemanship, parade float design, and ticket sales. The new queen would be announced at the rodeo in June, after all the judges’ scores had been tallied. The pageant was notoriously political: Winners were picked less often for their horsemanship abilities than for their family name, and Graham wasn’t much of a name to run on. That made Jessica even more determined to try. She would compete against four other contestants: Tasia Bauman, a varsity cheerleader and an aspiring model; Jennifer Myers, a sophomore who was the sister of the reigning rodeo queen; Kim Feller, a popular senior who was headed to Tarleton State in the fall; and Ashley Leifeste, the champion barrel racer and golden girl of Llano, who, though only fifteen, had won almost every rodeo title she had set out to win.
Jessica was the youngest of the group, and though she had just finished her freshman year at Llano High School with Ashley and Tasia, she had little of their grace. Still, she was good with her horse, and she was hungry to win. She had played the scene of her crowning over and over again in her head: the roar of the crowd, the glow of arena lights on a warm summer night, the moment when she would lean down low in her saddle to accept the victor’s bouquet of red roses. That night she would shine while the whole town was watching.
The women’s culture club of Llano occupies a restored Victorian house just off the town square, its polished interior appointed with white lace curtains, Oriental carpets, and a bust of Beethoven that gazes out over the drawing room. Twelve days before the rodeo, the pageant began here in earnest with the personality and appearance contest: a question-and-answer session that would be scored by a panel of five women, each picked for her impartiality. Jessica and the other girls hovered around the punch bowl and waited for the judging to begin. They had been told to dress for the occasion in Western wear, not the kind they usually wore—blue jeans, ropers, and cotton T-shirts—but something more queenly. For the benefit of the judges, some wore broomstick skirts, concho belts, or pointy-toed boots. Tasia, who was always perfectly turned out, wore a black-suede cowgirl ensemble complete with star-shaped appliqués and white-leather fringe. Jessica made do with a simple denim dress, her sun-streaked hair worn straight and neat.
The contestants waited to be summoned into the wood-paneled dining room, where they would be asked “Who is your role model?” and “What are your future plans?” along with the inevitable question, “What would you do to make the world a better place?” Jessica was the last to be called. When it was her turn, she sat ramrod straight in front of the judges with her hands clasped in her lap, smiling her most genuine smile. She spoke of how much she admired her stepfather (“There’s nothing he can’t do”) and how much she hated snobbery (“No one should look down on anyone else for being poor”) and how someday she hoped to be an equestrian photographer and horse trainer—responding to every inquiry with a courteous “Yes, ma’am.” She giggled perhaps more than she should have and shifted nervously in her wood chair, which creaked during the long silences when the judges marked their evaluation forms. They had been asked to appraise poise, style, and grooming as well as confidence and sincerity, since the winner would represent Llano not just at the rodeo but in all Hill Country parades and festivals throughout the year.
By the end of the evening, the girl most people in town