Western Short Story
The sounds of a nearly-tuned piano played by someone with not much more than the skills of a beginner welcomed anyone who stepped inside the Lucky Shamrock Saloon and Restaurant in Wyevale, Nevada. It was a mid-sized town just inside the pointed southernmost tip of the territory and within a half-day ride west into California or east into New Mexico. There were a few ranches around, though it was mostly farm country and there was some mining that contributed to the local economy. That and the annual rodeo, one of the biggest in the country at the time. For that annual event, participants and visitors came from the farthest reaches of the country and beyond.
The favourite activities, of course, were the bronco riding, bull riding, buckboard and wagon races and the skills competitions. Those were the marquee events. But only a close second were the food contests ranging from chicken to apple pie and everything in between. But this year there was a new event that was drawing a lot of attention. A long-distance horse race that ran from Wyevale north in Nevada around Planter Mountain, the northernmost of the range, then directly west across the California border and back south. Riders would reenter Nevada near its southernmost tip and then it was only a short fast ride to Wyevale.
It was Caleb Morrison's idea. He had read about such races in Europe and the crowds that they drew and he knew it could draw more people than ever to the rodeo. He was the richest man in the area, having made millions in mining and the railroads and he loved the rodeo even though he was too old to compete any longer. It was Caleb who put up the prize of ten thousand dollars! To him it was a small sum but to others it represented a windfall. More than fifty riders had already registered for the race, each paying their one hundred dollar fee willingly. That made up half the winnings right there, Rance Parrish had noted, remembering how shrewd a businessman Caleb Morrison had always been.
Parrish was the rodeo manager and had been for a number of years. He had also been given the job of supervising the first annual long-distance horse race. There were no restrictions on the type of horse a person could ride but each horse would be carefully documented so riders did not use more than one horse. In some European races, Caleb Morrison had read, riders would switch to similar looking horses as a way of gaining advantage. The only rule was that each rider had to check in at various points established along the way and have a small passbook signed by the person in charge at each of those checkpoints. These were all employees of Caleb Morrison's railroad and mines. The riders could choose their own routes of travel according to their preference. At each of the checkpoints, supplies could be replenished by any rider in need.
The rodeo began on May First with a huge parade of floats, wagons and coaches, horses and bands, a truly epic performance as Morrison had wished. From a small parade in its first year, this one lasted more than an hour and a half and was spectacular! That was followed by an evening barbecue and dance that went on late into the night. In this case both the food and the music were unded by Morrison. He knew the value of people leaving town feeling they had had the time of their lives. He also knew that many of those folks were back for the fifth and sixth times and wanted to encourage that.
The regular rodeo events were to begin at noon on the following day but the long-distance race had begun almost two weeks earlier so the winner would be riding back into Wyevale during the rodeo, riding to the yells of the excited crowd. Morrison had arranged for photographers and reporters from a number of east and west coast papers to be in Wyevale for the finale of the race.
Twelve days earlier, as the sun began its ascent over the Picot Mountains, fifty riders stood beside their saddled horses, awaiting instructions.
Caleb Morrison, in a black, perfectly tailored morning suit, stood atop a wooden platform, megaphone in hand, and surveyed the sea of riders before him. He had interviewed each o over the past six days, along with Parrish, and was amazed and delighted at the diversity. There were Americans, Canadians, Europeans and even three Australians. And of the fifty riders, seven were women, a surprising and pleasing turn of events. The press coverage, across the territory and the country, had been overwhelmingly positive and Caleb was pleased beyond all his expectations.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he began. "Welcome to the Inaugural Southern Territories Race that we hope will be a permanent part of the Wyevale Rodeo. I want to thank you for your participation and recognize your courage and daring in taking on this challenge. It is no easy journey on which we send you today. In true sports tradition there are many participants but there can be only one champion. I wish you and your fine animals pleasant weather, good health and good racing! Now . . . ladies and gentlemen, mount your horses!"
He watched carefully until all of the riders were comfortably seated in their saddles, then raised his pistol and fired a single shot into the air. With a thunderous pounding of hooves, the fifty horses raced forward down the main street of Wyevale and into the open plains beyond.
It had begun.
"How many days d'you figure?" John Parrish asked Caleb Morrison.
"Generally speaking they can cover about twenty to thirty miles per day in some areas," Morrison replied. "I had a couple of riders make the run earlier in the year and it was twelve days for them under pretty typical conditions. With this being a one-week rodeo I figure we'll see the winner about day three or four if all goes according to plan."
"Be a shame if they got here earlier or too late," Parrish observed.
"For each contingency there is also a plan," Morrison said, winking at Parrish but saying no more and leaving the other man wondering what that meant. Parrish knew from experience that Morrison was a detailed planner and he figured Caleb Morrison had considered most contingencies.
Within an hour of racing out of Wyevale, the fifty riders had stretched out and slowed to a ground-covering lope or gallop depending on the rider's preference for making up distance or saving energy. Walt Stringer had ridden out earlier, along with a few other men positioned along the first hour to oversee the start. Walt was an original cowboy and he was astonished at the range riders' backgrounds and at the horses being ridden. Tall and lean, short and stocky, all colours and origins, much like the variety of riders. He sat his horse and pulled out a list, studying the names he had circled.
Baron Fritz Holmberg was a well-known distance rider hailing from Austria and one of the favorites, riding a big black that was a cross between an Arabian and a quarter-horse. Same renown for Nils Lundstrom, a Swede with a similar pedigree, riding a large dappled gelding. One woman had stood out from the others. Blake Tillman was a small woman riding a big strong dun gelding and he liked the horse and the way she rode it. Walt figured she would be in the top ten at the finish. Then he noticed the name he had circled and place a checkmark beside. Ryan Donovan was a cowboy from Arizona riding a large appaloosa stallion. Not the horse one might choose for such a race, Walt knew, but he had been watching them together and thought he had never seen a better matched pair, or a smarter horse. When the horse looked at Walt there was a sense of intelligence in the eyes, even some sort of assessment. And the fact that the cowboy talked to the horse as if it were another person, and that the horse seemed to listen and understand was even more intriguing to Walt.
There were another dozen or so names he had circled as well, riders Walt thought had the best chance of winning. But it was more than just the horse and rider, he knew. It was an understanding of the changing terrain, the ability to pace oneself and one's horse, the physical tolerance demanded by day after day of riding seated in a saddle, and the determination to overcome any and all obstacles to win the race. Walt Stringer knew that most of the riders who were starting the race would not finish it. He would be all-out surprised if more than twenty did. But at the start of the race they all thought they could win and they had to believe it in their hearts or not bother to enter.
Blake Tillman allowed her horse to ease back and let many of the others race on ahead. She knew this was about pacing oneself and about stamina, hers and her horse's. The dun was a racer and she knew if she managed things well he would complete the long race with ease. She was in the race to win and her confidence was based in experience, winning local races since she was fourteen. This was not a local race but she knew her capabilities and that of the horse.
Nils Lundstrom rode his dappled gelding seated stiffly upright in European fashion. He looked down on the other riders, with the possible exception of Holmberg, who he had raced against a number of times. At last count, they had each beaten the other six times and he swore that this time he would break that tie. For his part, Holmberg was equally certain he would win and he had an ace up his sleeve, one that would ensure his victory. Times had been hard for the aging aristocrat and while ten thousand dollars was not an enormous amount, his financial situation would be much improved if he won.
Ryan Donovan let the big appaloosa choose its own pace for the first part of the race and was in the middle of the pack when the horses started to stretch out. He had one advantage over the others, he believed. He had worked ranches in northwestern Nevada and had mined in northeastern California. As a result, he knew some shortcuts which, while risky, could cut his time substantially. He had chosen the appaloosa not for its speed, although it did like to run, but for its strength and sure-footedness. The trick was to use those shortcuts so no one else would follow him and gain similar advantage to his. The ten thousand dollars was going to be his ticket to owning his own ranch in northern Nevada near his brother's Wandering D ranch.
By the end of the first day, the riders had strung out, with almost fourteen miles between the front runners, including Lundstrom and Holmberg at the front and those trailing everyone else's dust. Three riders had been forced to withdraw due to injuries to their horses on the rough terrain in the early part of the race. Two were limping and needed rest and one had broken its leg in a prairie hole and had to be shot. So, early in the race, the number of participants was reduced. More of them would leave the race each day, Walt Stringer was sure.
Darkness settled in and the riders found places to set up camps. From a high hill to the west, if anyone had been watching, twenty dots of light, flickering campfires, winked in the night. Some riders stayed on their own, others joined together to discuss the day's ride and their plans for the race.
Blake Tillman rode along in the latter third of the group, content with her place and knowing her horse, a runner who could go all day when necessary, could move ahead when she was ready to do so. She had been watching Ryan Donovan with his horse and copied some of his strategies. When she saw he had set up a camp on his own, she turned her horse toward him.
"Mind if I join you?"
He smiled and the smile was warm and inviting. "Pleasure'd be mine, miss. Bring your gear and set down."
She took time to unsaddle the horse, brush it down, check its hooves and nose and feed and water it. Then she picketed the dun under a nearby tree and joined Ryan, bringing her saddlebags and the food they contained. Each rider was responsible for their own food between checkpoints and at each checkpoint they could replenish, courtesy of Caleb Morrison.
"I like your horse. Bit big for a racer but nice long legs."
"I like yours too, miss. Seems the kind to stand up to what's ahead."
"Please call me Blake. You're Ryan Donovan, right?"
He nodded. "So my mother named me."
"Why did you enter this race?"
He shrugged. "To win, I suppose. Like everyone else. My brother Pete's got a nice little ranch in northeast Nevada and there's land nearby to purchase. The winnings from this race would be enough to buy that land, some stock and put up a house, or at least a cabin for a start. That's why I entered this race. It's a way to fund my future."
He looked at her. "What about you? Why did you enter?"
She laughed. "To make people take notice of women racers, I guess. I want to win, and I believe I will, but I don't have any plans for the money. I'm a nurse in San Diego and this was something of a lark, some excuse to get away from my little world and study the bigger one. Does that seem silly?"
He shook his head. "Not at all."
A couple of miles ahead, after a warm meal, Nils Lundstrom strode into Fritz Holmberg's campsite and sat down. "What think you, Baron, of these others? Are there any of which we should beware?"
"There are some gems among them, Nils, and others that will not see the end of the week, I am thinking. But we cannot take them for granted. They may not have our racing experience, for many of these people are in their first race of this distance. But they know this land better than we and they know their animals as well as we know ours. Many will finish the race."
Lundstrom snorted derisively. "I disagree, my friend. I do not believe more than a half-dozen will be in the race at the end. It will, often happens, be a race between you and I. How is Dragon holding up after one day?" Dragon was Holmberg's favourite horse and had won the man many prizes.
"Fine, but a little restive. I had to hold him back all day. He wanted to do nothing but run across the open prairies."
"He will get his chance. Mine was much the same." He turned to go. "To tomorrow, Baron. May your day be of good fortune."
Holmberg raised his mug of tea. "And yours, old friend!"
Back at Ryan Donovan's camp he and Blake Tillman talked about their hopes and dreams, his about a ranch, hers about travel and adventure.
"I can see the value in a ranch," she said, "But I want to see the rest of the world, to travel to Europe and to Asia and even to the Mediterranean. To sail on the oceans and climb tall mountains!"
"I can see the attraction in all of that," Ryan agreed. "But for me, owning land being able to see the sun rise and set over something you own, something you bring life to and grow into something, that's my adventure."
"Then we should enjoy our time together," she said. "Because it's unlikely our paths are going to cross again."
He smiled. "I agree."
"Do you mind if I bed down here?" she asked. "I'd feel more comfortable."
"Sure thing," Ryan Donovan said.
Two days later, he made his first move. There were three places along the route where he planned to make up time on the others, one in Nevada, one on the border with California and one, the truly dreaded one, in southern California on the Nevada border, within a day's ride of Wyevale. He did not like to think of that one too much. Truth be told, it frightened the hell out of him.
He had scouted the area he currently rode nd he knew that about a mile ahead was a shallow brown rock outcropping that would be his turnoff place. He looked ahead and back. There was no one in sight ahead as those riding in front of him had crested a rise and were heading down toward a wide, deep, dangerously fast-flowing river in the distance. They would have to take a ferry across and as it could only carry a half-dozen horses at a time, delays were inevitable.
Behind him and within sight were only three riders, the others still somewhat further behind and still well out of sight.
He rode to the side and waited for the three to pass by, checking the hooves of his big appaloosa as if there might be a problem with a shoe.
Blake Tillman was one of the riders. "Trouble?"
He shook his head. "Just checking things is all and stretching my legs. You go on ahead. I'll be along."
"Aren't you afraid of falling behind?"
He shook his head. "There's still plenty of time. Best to care for my horse so that he'll be ready to run later."
She smiled, nodded and rode on. Once the three riders were over the crest, he quickly put on moccasins and then took four small sacks from his saddlebags and put one on each of the horse's feet. He led the horse onto and across the rocky outcropping, knowing he would leave no trail. Once across the outcropping and out of sight, he took the sacks off the horse's feet and mounted, turning at an angle toward the river. A half-hour later he found the shallow spot he remembered where the river narrowed and the current slackened off through the sharp turn. There he took the appaloosa across, chest deep, and up a slope, counting on the horse's size and strength against the strong current. It was a struggle, even for the big horse, but they made it.
Once across, he spurred into a run for a half-hour before turning toward the other riders, coming out a small opening between two hills. There was no one in sight. He turned north, knowing he had made up significant time on the riders behind without breaking any rules and without tiring the appaloosa. He knew the even stronger current further east meant the other riders would have to cross on the ferry and his short-cut, the easiest of the three he planned, would have gained him more than three hours. They would catch up to him at dark, but he and his horse would have expended less energy and would be rested. And he would now be among the leaders, which was where he needed to be.
He camped under a sprawling cedar that evening as it got dark. It was a couple of hours later when Blake Tillman caught up with him. She sat her horse, staring down at him in obvious disbelief. "But how?"
He smiled. "Found a shortcut," he said. "The appaloosa's a good swimmer so we were able to shave some time by swimming across the river without having to wait for the ferry. That gave us time to get ahead and get some rest."
"But you might have drowned!" she said. "You were reckless!"
"But it gained me time and put less demand on my horse and if you're going to win this kind of race, those things are important."
"Can I join you again?"
He smiled. "Surely. Step down. The fire's still warm."
Over supper she studied him. "You seem to know this area pretty well. Have you travelled through here before?"
He nodded. "As I told you, my brother has a ranch in northeast Nevada, so we've been across to California a few times driving cattle to market. I've noticed a few things that might give me some advantage."
"Care to share?"
He shook his head. "Afraid not. Winning's too important."
She laughed. "I don't blame you."
They rode together for a couple of days, keeping pace with the first third of the racers, knowing they had to save their animals for the final push in California. That would separate the wheat from the chaff, Blake told him.
"I may disappear in a day or two," he said. "When I do I won't likely see you until we're back in Wyevale."
"I'm not sure and if I'm wrong I'll have no chance to win. But it's a risk I'm willing to take. Otherwise I can't win."
"Can I go with you?"
He shook his head. "It might mean nothing, and if it's there, it would be far too dangerous for you and your horse. It's my risk."
It was three days later that he took the chance. The riders were a full day east of the Planter Mountains, a tall range that ran north and south through central north Nevada. The riders would turn around the northern edge of the mountains, putting them into California and turning them south for the final half of the race. They had completed a check-in at the last Nevada checkpoint and would ride north for another half day before turning west into California.
Once again, he let the others get ahead of him. Blake Tillman was wary but unable to discern his plan and she continued ahead. He waited until no one was visible behind then turned again off the trail and up into the hills on the west side of the trail. No one in such a race would consider going up a mountain but he knew there was a divide up there that would save him a day of riding at the least. But there was risk, for to come back down the other side, he and the appaloosa would have to navigate a steep slide of dangerous shale. It was getting late and this needed to be done before darkness fell or it could not be done until the next day and he would gain nothing.
Donovan did not know it, but this time he was being followed. Brock Hyssop, one of the Texan riders on a big strong steeldust, had been using his telescope when he saw Ryan head up into the hills. He knew from camp talk that Ryan had found a shortcut across the Black River and he thought maybe there was another short-cut up in the hills. If so, he wanted to use it to gain time and distance on the others. He stayed back and followed the trail, finding following it easy. Donovan was making no attempt to hide the trail which made Brock Hyssop think he did not expect anyone else to ride into the hills. And that made sense.
An hour later Ryan Donovan stared at the slope of shale that stretched out below him. There had been no rain recently and that was good. Rain made shale slippery and loose and one slip meant disaster for horse and rider. Looking down at it, he felt a little queasy in the stomach and when the appaloosa turned its head to look up at him with a questioning glance, he nodded.
"I know it's a big chance, boy, but we can't go back. We'd lose too much time. We do this and we'll be ahead off all but two or three of the fastest horses and we can win. I promise if you get us through you'll have your own corral and oats for life. This is why I chose you, for those sure feet and long legs."
The horse snorted, looked down at the slope of shale and shook its head but when Ryan clicked the reins it took that first tentative step out onto the slope.
Ryan guided the appaloosa step by step onto and across the slope. Each step was taken carefully and the trail ahead and below watched with care. Twice in the first few minutes loose pieces of shale slid beneath the horse's hooves, but the sure-footed appaloosa merely raised that foot, waited for things to settle and then took the next step. Down the slippery shale slope they went, weaving their way across it like a farmer ploughing a hillside. It was a dangerous gambit but he knew the horse and knew too that if they could navigate the shale safely to the bottom of the valley he would gain time on the others and it might even put him in the lead. It was dicey, but there were not than many days left in the race.
He kept his feet out of the stirrups in case he had to slide off the horse, but an hour later they reached the bottom of the slope without incident. Both he and the horse sighed in relief. He took the saddle and gear off the appaloosa and led it to a stream where it drank its fill. He let it crop at mountain moss, giving it a deserved break. Daylight was beginning to fade, with night about two hours off. A half-hour later he saddled the horse, mounted and turned south, now in California and within a couple of hours of the next to last race checkpoint.
Heading back toward the trail the others would most likely take, planning to join the race just north of the checkpoint, he saw the faint flicker of light. It was a fire where no fire should be, at least not from anyone in the race. He studied the camp from a distance and saw one man squatting by a fire and two horses picketed a little way beyond. He thought about it for a moment and then decided, hailing the camp and being invited in.
He rode into the camp and stepped down. "Howdy," he said. "Didn't expect anyone to be around here."
"Me neither," the other man said, introducing himself as Dewey, no last name. "I'm just camped out waiting here," he said.
Ryan looked puzzled. "Waiting?" He looked around. "But there's nothing much out here. What are you waiting for?"
The man had been drinking and it had loosened his tongue. He got careless. "You heard about that big race they been having?"
Ryan nodded. "Heard about it. When's it happening?"
Dewey smiled. "Hell, man, it's happening now. In fact, some of them's due to be passing through right here the next day or two. Thought you was one of them but you came from the mountains, the wrong way for that. You travelling?"
Ryan nodded noncommittally. "So you're waiting here so you can get a look at the racers?"
Dewy shook his head deliberately. "Nope. Just one of 'em. Man paid me to bring this here black horse out here and just wait for him."
Dewey winked. "So's he can switch it and have a fresh horse for the rest of the race. The two of them horses is almost identical. No one will be able to tell he's made the switch and has him a fresh horse. Smart one, that gent."
Ryan smiled. "That's pretty clever, Dewey. Who's the rider?" But he thought he already knew the answer.
"Not just a rider, but a gent," Dewey said. "A real-life Baron from over there in Europe. Paid me a lot of money to help him win this race." Dewey sat down and took another big swallow from the whiskey bottle, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and offered the bottle to Ryan who just shook his head.
"Well, I'm for a bit to eat and to bed," Ryan said. He fixed himself a meal while Dewey watched, the other man sipping from time to time at the bottle. Ryan let him. A half-hour later, Ryan turned into his blankets but kept an eye on Dewey. Dewey sat for a long while at the fire before he took to his blankets on the other side of the fire. Twenty minutes later he was snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Still Ryan waited.
Brock Hyssop sat his horse above the shale slope and shook his head in silent amazement. It took some kind of nerve, and some kind of horse, to try this kind of thing, he thought. But he could see that one horse had done it, because the marks of the horseshoes chipping the shale were evident. If one horse could do it, he reasoned, so could another and his was big and strong. Besides, he could not afford to go back. He would lose too much time.
He looked at the sky, realizing he had only a couple of hours before dark. Should he turn back, wait until morning and try the slope or get at it right away before it got too dark? He realized that the longer he waited the more reluctant he would be to make the attempt.
"Now or never," he said to himself. "If that boy can do it, so can we."
He started the mountain bred horse onto the slope, turning to cross the top of it in the first of what would be many crisscrosses. They made it to the far side and he turned the horse to move it back across and slightly down the slope. About twenty feet further out, he held the horse as a patch of shale ahead became loose and slid all the way to the bottom, clattering along and tightening Brock Hyssop's shoulders with tension. He waited a moment and then nudged the horse forward. With the second step, however, the shale under them began to shift and before he could urge the horse forward it tumbled onto its side. They slid and rolled, horse and rider, down the slope, tumbling along with the avalanche of shale, the noise like thunder in his ears!
Ryan Donovan got up carefully and wrapped his bedroll then walked across the soft sand and saddled the appaloosa. He bridled the big black horse and, using his knife, cut the bridle on the other horse and the cinch on Dewey's saddle. Then he walked away from the camp, leading the appaloosa and the big black. A quarter mile away he mounted the appaloosa and rode for two hours until he was close to the next checkpoint. He found a spot for a cold camp and slept until dawn, then rode ahead and within an hour reached the checkpoint.
The two men waiting at the checkpoint were surprised to see him. "You musta rode most the night," one of them said.
"Darn near," Ryan replied. "I ran across this horse late this morning. No rider in sight and no gear. I thought I'd leave him here if that's alright with you. Maybe the person who owns it will come along. No brand on him."
"Then he'll be yours to keep if no one claims it," the man said. "Finders keepers. If no one claims him before the race ends we'll have him back at the starting point at the end of the week."
"Fair enough," Ryan said, providing his information.
He completed his check-in and replenished his supplies from their wagon, taking time to unsaddle the appaloosa, brush it down, feed and water it and check its feet. Then he saddled up again and prepared to continue.
"Say, I almost forgot to ask," he said, turning to the two men. "How many riders are still in front of me?"
The shorter of the two men held up a hand with three fingers pointing up. "Three," he said. "Swedish fellow, an Oregonian and a Texan. They all looks tired, and them horses too. Gonna be interesting to see who makes it the rest of the way. They's no more'n an hour or so in front of you right now."
Ryan nodded and put the appaloosa up to a gallop.
When Brock Hyssop regained consciousness, it was completely dark. In the dimmest bits of moonlight, he could see the horse lying on its side about thirty feet from him. It was not breathing.
"Damn," he said and then he tried to move, but he could not, and the attempt sent waves of pain through his back, arms and legs. He lay back, sweating and afraid. He knew without a doubt that his back was broken and he could not move. He reached for his gun to fire shots that might attract attention but his holster was empty, the gun lying among the shale, he imagined.
"Well," he said aloud, "This is it for me. At least I'm going out with my boots on." He lay back, easing the pain, and waited calmly for death to arrive.
The man at the checkpoint had been right. Three hours later Ryan Donovan could see two horses walking along side by side some distance in front of him. He continued moving along at a lope, the appaloosa wanting to run but Ryan holding him back. A half-hour later he caught the two of them.
The Oregonian looked exhausted. "We're done," he said. "I took a chance pushing my horse for the last three days and I don't regret it, but we're not going to be running anywhere soon." He patted the neck of the big horse. "Tonight we're going to settle into a nice campsite for a couple of days and just rest. I won't push him anymore. It might kill him. If we can finish the race in the top twenty I'll be more than satisfied."
"I understand," Ryan said, keeping an eye on the Texan who had moved his horse to a slow trot ahead of them. "He's all in, too."
The Oregonian nodded. "I don't know how he stays in the saddle. He's got to be sixty years old! This meant everything to him."
"Get going," he added. "I'd hate to see that Swede win. He laughed right at us as he rode by. His horse looks to be in real good shape, but I think you can catch him. Go!"
And go he did, taking the appaloosa to a gallop and passing the Texan fifteen minutes later, the man still trotting the quarter horse along. The Texan waved limply and smiled, then shook his head. "Go get 'em, cowboy!" he called.
He did not catch up to Nils Lundstrom until dinner time and rode into the man's camp before stepping down from the appaloosa.
"Evening," Ryan said genially. "Mind some company?"
"Not at all," Lundstrom said, eyeing the appaloosa. "He looks to be in very good shape given the past days of racing."
Ryan nodded, looking at Lundstrom's mount. "I'd say the same for yours. We're going to have us an interesting finale, I think."
"Did you see Baron Holmberg in the past couple of days?"
Ryan shook his head.
"Strange," Lundstrom said. "He seemed so sure of winning, as if he had an ace up his sleeve. I did not expect he would give up so easily."
"Maybe his ace didn't play all that well." Ryan offered.
Nils Lundstrom looked at him but said no more. "I'm off to bed. Please douse the fire when you are done eating. I leave at first light."
He splashed what was left of his drink into the grass, sloshed the cup in the brook that gurgled by and took to his blankets. Ryan finished his meal and spent the next half-hour taking care of the appaloosa before turning in.
He was saddling the appaloosa when Nils Lundstrom awoke and was on the trail while the Swede was still getting himself organized. A little bit of a lead would force Lundstrom to run his horse, Ryan suspected, because pride is a funny thing. If this worked out as planned, and his one more desperate ploy did not kill him and the appaloosa, then he would win this race. If . . . only if.
It was an hour later that he heard the running horse coming up behind him. The appaloosa tensed, ready to run, but Ryan held it back. Lundstrom rode up to them a few minutes later and slowed to match the appaloosa's gait.
"So it has come down to this," he said. "Just the two of us for all the money. I must say I thought it would be the Baron and I at the end, as with old times, but this will be just as satisfying, for you have ridden a good race on a magnificent horse. And now, I must gain ground on you. May the better rider be victorious!" he called out as he spurred the dapple gelding and it leapt forward.
Ryan did not attempt to overtake the man, though he moved the appaloosa forward a little more quickly as if he wanted to. He was not going to try to outrun the Swede. He hoped to outfox him.
The Baron had reached Dewey Turnbull's campsite late the evening before only to find it abandoned. Turnbull had managed to repair his bridle and cinch, that taking him an hour after waking up mid-morning with a hangover. He rode for a short while before losing Donovan's trail and then, the Baron's money safe in his pocket and not wanting to suffer the man's inevitable wrath, Dewey simply turned west for the California coast.
Holmberg was beside himself with anger. He stared at his exhausted horse knowing he could ask no more of it. He had pushed it hard, believing he would have a fresh horse for the final run. He ranted and swore for several minutes, even punching a tree, netting himself a sore fist, before settling down to camp for the night. There was nothing more to do. He had gambled and lost.
Ryan Donovan watched carefully for the spot he had chosen for his last desperate move. The trail here wove west, then cut sharply south and east around a deep canyon more than eight miles long, taking the riders a half-day deeper into California lands before turning around the end of the canyon back east toward Nevada. But Ryan Donovan, searching the rim of the canyon a year earlier on the lookout for stray cattle had found a spot where the lips of the facing walls were only twenty or so feet apart. He had read that a strong horse could clear eighteen feet at a full run and he figured that a strong horse with stronger legs might just be able to jump the chasm if it had no rider or saddle to carry.
He angled through a grove of trees that masked the way down to the canyon and was at the spot within an hour. He climbed from the appaloosa, stripped its saddle and stood looking at the gap it must master. It seemed wider than before but that was probably his imagination. He had walked the horse the last half-hour to conserve its strength and had no doubt it was rested enough. But could it jump far enough? He had tested the horse over numerous creeks and bridges and the jumps had almost always been successful. But this was different. There had been no canyon far below. And there would be no second chances.
No point delaying things. He gave the horse a good rubdown and rested it for another half hour. Then he led it to the edge of the canyon wall and let it smell several red apples before tossing them across the gap onto the other side as the horse watched. Gauging the distance, he walked the horse back about fifty feet, positioned it facing the canyon and, with a loud yell, slapped it on the rump and chased after it, yelling all the while.
It was magnificent! The appaloosa did not hesitate a moment, taking to the air at the very edge of the canyon and lifting itself across the wide-open space, landing with two feet to spare and running another twenty yards before turning back. Ryan Donovan cheered!
He let the horse munch away at the apples for a while and then whistled for it. The horse came closer to the far side of the canyon wall and Ryan tossed a fixed loop across and over its head. He tugged on the rope and the horse, well trained, stepped back, raised its head and held firm. Ryan tied his gear to a second rope and tossed a loop from the other end over a bush on the other side of the canyon as well. Then, taking the other end of the rope that was on the appaloosa, he tied it tightly to a tree behind him. He was ready.
He went hand over hand across the canyon, the rope sagging with his weight but the appaloosa and the tree supporting it. It was with a sense of relief that he pulled himself over the far edge of the canyon and stood up. He shook the rope off the appaloosa and then, grabbing the other line, tugged his saddle and other gear off the far side of the canyon. They dropped into the canyon and hung there and he slowly pulled the heavy weight up.
He saddled the horse, after giving it a good rubdown and oats and then turned south and east toward Wyevale for the final few hours of riding, knowing he had most of a day's lead on Nils Lundstrom. He had won!
Late in the day he crossed the small bridge a mile this side of Wyevale with people lining the roadway, notice of his approach long since communicated from watchers along the latter part of the route, and slowly rode the appaloosa into the center of the town to the cheers of the crowd!
Exhausted riders appeared over the next few days. Nils Lundstrom, astounded, angry and demoralized, rode in a day after Ryan Donovan, shocked to be told he was second and unbelieving until he saw Donovan.
"But how . . .?"
"I found a short cut across the canyon," Ryan said simply.
Lundstrom said no more, merely turned on his heel and huffed away.
Blake Tillman rode in three days later, completely spent. Others told her what had happened and she looked Donovan up. "Figured when you disappeared after we crossed the Black River that you'd found a way to get ahead. I must say, though, I never thought you'd actually win this thing. Congratulations."
"Thanks," he said. "I was waiting to take you to dinner to celebrate."
She laughed. "Once I clean up and have a nap I'd be happy to join you." She headed off to the hotel to do just that.
Baron Fritz Holmberg rode in that afternoon, disconsolate and still angry. He met Lundstrom at the bar and learned the story of the ending of the race.
"He must have cheated!" the Baron intoned.
Lundstrom smiled and shook his head. "No, Baron. He did not cheat. He outsmarted all of us. That is how he won."
"Still, we could contest the outcome," Holmberg said.
"Do so if you wish," Lundstrom said. "But I will not."