Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Prologue

"Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day."

The final notes fell upon the sleeping child and Dorothy silently slipped through the shadows to the foot of the narrow wooden bed. The wind howled through the cracks in the tiny log cabin. It often did so early in the spring, but the children were used to its cold caresses, and as Dorothy looked round to make sure all was in place, she noticed tiny puffs of clouds rising with each infant breath. The proud mother sighed faintly and prepared herself for another chilly night alone with her boys.

A mother's work is never done, and before Dorothy retired, she removed a ball of yarn and the beginnings of a scarf from beneath her bed. Norman's birthday was less than two weeks away. If she didn't finish it, he might not get anything from Mom and Dad. Perhaps that is what disturbed her more than anything. The gifts said, "Love Mom and Dad," but Dad was never there. Nevertheless, Dorothy knitted and pearled deep into the night.

* * * *

Dorothy and Kay Jones had moved east to the Colorado mountains three years ago from the small mining town of Blanding, Utah. Kay had received a promising job working for a rancher just north of Pagosa Springs and, at the urging of Dorothy, he decided to move his family there. At first, he thought that it would be a hassle to move, but Dorothy insisted, so he sold two of the sheep he had in his fold, and got the money necessary to move his family to the small community at the base of the mountains. The first year was difficult, but Dorothy fought through it and made a surprisingly comfortable home. The only thing that was missing was the consistent presence of a husband and a father. Kay worked as a sheepherder, and despite the love he felt for his wife and his boys, his job demanded that he spend much of the spring and summer in the sheep camps with the Navajoes and Basques. On this cold night, Kay found himself wrapped in a blanket next to the fire thinking of his beautiful wife and his four precious boys.

"You want some of this stew? grunted the tall, lean ghost of a Navajo they called Joe.

"Nah, you go ahead." Kay whispered in a tone Joe took for disinterest.

"You sure, 'cause I don't want you wasting away 'fore you go see your honey."

Kay chuckled as the big Navajo attacked the stew, but his thoughts soon returned to the little cabin and its inhabitants. Thus occupied he soon fell into a peaceful slumber. The Navajo looked across the flames at the tired shepherd. He smiled knowingly.

Jones was a quiet man, and in Joe's estimation that was just fine. So many of the guys Joe had known over the years talked too much. They'd come in to camp and brag about their experiences down at Lucy's, or they'd boast of the money they'd won playing poker. Joe knew it was just talk but all the same the stories tired him. He had been in the camp for about six years and he'd heard every story, he'd even told a few himself, but the quiet, thoughtful silence of Jones was the best story he'd never heard. Perhaps that's why he smiled as he glanced across the flames. Jones was a tough one to figure out.

Dawn brought with it a bitingly cold wind. The camp was nestled in a thick forest of aspen trees just below a draw on the south side of Wolf Creek Pass, and, as the sun tickled the tips of the mountains, the frost blew off the naked skeletons of the trees like dandelions in a fan. Jones had awakened several hours earlier and prepared some grub and fed and watered the horses. Joe awakened to see him stirring the contents of the blackened tin.

"How'd you sleep old boy?" inquired the Indian, still trying to focus in on the surroundings.

"Slept okay, I suppose. Hoot came in about four and woke me up to go fetch one of his ewes. He says he's about to take off for Blanding. Something about his dream."

Joe sat silently for a few moments. Hoot was another of the guys that used the camp, and his leaving was a big surprise to the Indian. Hoot had talked for a long time about leaving the camp, but no one ever really believed he would go. His pa and his two brothers had run sheep all their lives and for Hoot just to up and leave was pretty incredible.

"When did he say he was going?"

"Day after tomorrow. His pa's gonna be upset, but he ain't one to not go 'cause of his pa. Least that's what he's saying now." Jones chuckled as he spoke. Hoot was a big talker, but his pa was a large, stern man with a demeanor that scared even the toughest of the ranch hands. Soon as he found out Hoot was planning on leaving he would blow up like a smokestack. This thought seemed to humor both of the men as they blew on the embers of the fire.

"You figure his pa'll kill him, or just tar and feather him?" Joe laughed at the mere thought.

"I think Hoot would prefer the tar and feathers. He seems to like that stuff." Both men howled as if they'd discovered the reason Hoot had revealed his intention to leave--he secretly wanted to be tarred and feathered.

Despite the humor these two companions found in Hoot Peterson's dilemma, the dilemma was, in fact, quite humorless to Hoot himself. He was a young man of 23 years, and despite the fact he'd grown up in the mountains all his life, he really longed to leave them behind and do something on his own. His dream was to become an actor like the kind he saw in those films each year when they went to Wichita. He'd learned how to read at an early age and every chance he got, he'd act out the movies he'd seen or he'd make up new characters to play. As he got older, his desire to act increased, and, as it increased, his father became more and more set against him leaving. Not because he didn't want his son to be an actor, but because he had devoted his whole life to developing and building his ranch, and his life's desire was to turn it over to his sons in a few years. If one of his sons left, his dream would be diminished.

As the two men laughed around the fire, Hoot sauntered in to warm up his frozen toes.

Joe saw the young man first and burst into an even greater fit of laughter. "Jones tells me you're to be tarred and feathered this afternoon down at Lucy's."

"Really?" replied Hoot in a tone of concern that only served to fuel the hysteria of the big Indian. Jones, too, nearly fell into the fire when he looked into the frightened eyes of the youngster. Slowly their laughter subsided, and Jones, seeing the gravity of the situation decided to be a little more compassionate.

"You mean you still haven't told your pa?" he offered as a peace sign.

"No, and I need some advice. You fellas know my pa. What should I do? I mean I can't stay here any longer. I got this great opportunity down in Monument Valley with a promoter and if I wait, my chance will pass right by. I know my pa'll kill me, but if I don't go he might as well." As Hoot spoke, Jones withdrew into thoughtful silence, and Joe knew it was his turn to speak.

"Sorry I was laughing, Hoot, but you're right. Your pa's gonna have a cow if he knows you're fixin' to leave. I say if you really want to go you just oughtta go. Me and old Jones here will tell your pa when it comes time. By the way, what kinda job is this promoter gonna give you?"

Before Hoot could respond, Jones jumped to his feet and exclaimed, "No, you don't, Joe. I am not and will not tell Charlie anything of the sort. If Hoot's gonna leave, he ought to be the one to break his daddy's heart, not me!"

Joe paid no attention to the remark and politely asked again, "What's this promoter got waiting for you, Hoot?"

"Well," replied Hoot, looking anxiously at both men, "he offered me an opportunity at being a daredevil. He wants me to go down the rapids of the Colorado River in a barrel. They say it's never been done, but when I make it, I'll be a big celebrity, and I might even get to be in one of them moving picture shows. I know it's kinda dangerous, but I seen the barrel, and it's got lots of padding. I know what you're thinking, but if I don't do this now I might never leave. I'll probably wind up like you two."

Jones still wanted to yell at Joe for offering his assistance, but after hearing Hoot's plan, he decided to remain quiet and be supportive. Jones had known Hoot for about two years, and despite the young man's desire to kill himself on the river, Hoot was a hard working sort, and if he wanted out it wasn't any of Jones' business to prevent him. With these thoughts he sat down again next to the fire and started to stir the ashes.

Joe, too, liked Hoot. If he wanted out, Joe would give him a way. "You'd better get packed before your pa gets back. You understand?"

A big smile fought its way on to Hoot's face, and before he knew it he was racing off to his lean-to to get packed. Both Joe and Jones chuckled once again. The die had been cast. Hoot was really leaving.

* * * *

Chapter One: The Bet

Charles Peterson fixed his gaze on the two-story clapboard gaming hall and saloon known as Lucy's. Located halfway between the San Juan mines and Pagosa Springs, Lucy's always attracted a colorful set of characters. At ten in the morning, however, Charles didn't figure he'd find too may folks lingering around, but he had a few hours to kill before he was expected on the mountain and Lucy's was as good as any place to order up a cup of coffee. He trotted up the three steep steps to the spit-stained boardwalk and swung open the heavy oak doors to the saloon.

As Charles entered, he smelled the musty odor of old smoke sticking to the barstools and beer-drenched tables. He noticed a couple of drunks along the far wall slouched over what he could only imagine was coffee. He wondered why they were still there. He knew Vera would never allow them past six. Maybe she's playing, he thought hopefully. Sure that something was amiss, Charles ambled past a few dirty tables and kicked open the door that led to the gambling hall. As he walked toward the private lounge, he could hear fits of laughter reverberating off the pine planks of the hallway. Then he heard what could only be the deep, coarse growl of Judge Henry Dugan.

"He's a liar! He's a liar, I tell ya! Dead to rights. There's no way. No way."

Charles reluctantly opened the door and peered into the thick, dank smoke. There in the middle of the floor, in a drunken stupor, lay the body of Cus Dayton. He was laughing and with him the rest of the room; Vera Black, Jacob Sorrentino, Cole McBride, Sally Forester, and Miguel Lopez. Only Henry wasn't at that very moment doubled over fighting to catch his breath. Charles thought Sally was going to pass out if she didn't watch herself and Jacob was almost there himself.

"Chuck," yelled a progressively more animated Henry. "You be the judge. There ain't no way. I got fifty bucks he can't do it."

"Do what?" asked Charles, a tad perplexed yet intrigued at the wildness of the scene.

Vera Black was the first to catch her breath and, as she wiped the sweat from her pale forehead, she yelled as if no one would be able to hear her if she didn't. "A handstand! A cotton-pickin' handstand!" As the words escaped her mouth she exploded again into another fit of laughter. Miguel, too, exploded and fell off his chair clutching his stomach.

"You make it a hundred, old man," cried the drunken Mexican, "and you got a deal."

"Done," bellowed Henry holding his wallet above his head like Lady Liberty with the torch. "Cus can't stand on his feet, much less his hands. Look at 'im, Chuck. You gotta know he can't do it."

Chuck had to agree with the judge. Cus weighed well over 300 pounds and despite the fact that he was a fairly spry cowhand, he looked more like a sow in heat in his current condition. The sweat on Cus' face slid down his porky cheeks like butter on a fresh cob of corn. He was a mess. He finally stopped laughing, but every time he tried to get up, he tumbled over in a huge heap of lard.

"Seriously, Miguel," began the judge as Cus again floundered like a fat catfish on the grill, "you can't believe he can do it."

Yet, just as Miguel was about to concede the bet, Cus shifted his girth into a rotund ball of gluttonous muscle and placed his meat-cleaver arms firmly underneath him and then, with a grunt heard all the way in Alamosa, he kicked his enormous legs straight in the air. Layers upon layers of fat cascaded toward the floor like a sick waterfall. Henry gasped audibly and Vera let fly with a few well-timed expressions of horror. It was a sight none of them hoped to ever see again, but the show was not over. Cus exhaled and then with an effort that none of them could have possibly expected, he pressed himself fully into the air. His arms shook like quaking aspens but he held steady for nearly twenty seconds before they finally gave out and he plunged to the floor.

The sound was deafening. Charles thought the floorboards might literally give way from the force of the fall, but they withstood the blow and just squealed in agony. Charles had to admit it was as miraculous an event as he had ever seen. Vera screamed victoriously at the top of her voice, Jacob howled in disbelief, and even Henry stood up and applauded the outrageous feat. Cole, who had been mildly amused with the morning to that point, wiped tears from his bloodshot eyes and sent Sally off to fetch him another beer. Miguel lay on the floor beneath his chair in a state of complete shock or complete giddiness. Charles couldn't tell. Cus, for his part, just lay in the middle of the room exhausted and spent and soaked in his own sweat.

"So, Judge?" began Miguel with a twinkle in his eye. "You gonna pay the Mexican all your money?"

Henry still couldn't believe what he had just seen, but he was a man of his word. He slowly reached into his wallet, pulled out a wad of twenties, counted them out, and placed them reluctantly in the Mexican's hand. A bet was a bet.

"Sally!" yelled the Mexican clutching his money triumphantly. "Bring the judge one, too!"

* * * *

Chapter One and a Half: The Bet (continued)

At six feet five, Charles Peterson towered over the bloated body of Cus Dayton. He stared down incredulously at the hulking mass and then stepped over him and seated himself between Vera, the plucky owner of Lucy's, and Judge Dugan. After a few minutes of amused silence, the group saw Sally return to the lounge carrying two large steins of beer. She set one in front of the judge, who promptly pressed it to his lips, and placed the other in front of Jake Sorrentino, a bookish but shrewd attorney from Durango.

"And mine?" Cole McBride snipped as he cast an aggravated glance at the saucy, little waitress.

"Oh, yeah, Cole. Sorry about that," she quickly replied as she scurried off again.

Cole really wasn't that upset at her forgetfulness as it gave him another opportunity to watch her shake and shimmy her way down the hallway. Jake rolled his eyes at Cole's sophomoric behavior and focused in on the lanky cowboy that had just joined them.

"So, Chuck, what brings you down to Lucy's so early?" asked Jake.

"Oh, nothin' really," replied Charles. "Just hoping to get in on a game or two before I headed up to the camp to see my boys."

Not one to miss a game of any sort, Jake edged forward in his chair and reached across the table for a deck of cards. Miguel, too, liked a bit of action, so with a small effort both he and Jake nudged Cus out of the way and repositioned the table in its rightful place in the center of the room.

"Seven-card Stud or Draw, Chuck?" asked Jake.

"Just deal, Jake. I reckon I can handle my own either way," Charles said as he wriggled into position at the table and eyed the attorney. Charles had known Jake for almost twenty years. He wasn't a crook, as far as Charles could tell, but his reputation was less than spotless. The word down in Pagosa was that Jake had a way of winning over a judge. So it came as no surprise that Judge Dugan and Jake should be holed up in the same game at Lucy's. "So what's the score?"

Jake took a deep breath and then slowly went around the room. "Well, until Cus passed out, he was up a few bucks. Nothing real serious just yet. Vera's about even, right, hon?"

Vera nodded and carefully placed an unlit cigarette between her wind-burned lips. Charles could see she had been up all night.

"Miguel is up now thanks to the judge," continued Jake. "And the judge, well...we can't all be winners."

"How 'bout you and Cole?" asked Charles, like an eagle getting a bead on its prey.

"Jake's on a roll, Chuck, don't let him fool ya," interjected Judge Dugan with a touch of bitterness.

"And Cole?" Charles asked the judge.

"Like I said, Chuck. Jake's on a roll."

Charles watched as Jake shuffled the cards and offered them to be cut.

"Vera, you in?" asked Jake.

"I suppose just for a few hands."

"How about you, Cole?"

Cole could hardly be bothered but he managed to tear himself away from the hallway enough to nod.

"Miguel's in, so all that's left is you, Judge. How about it?"

The judge looked around the room at the competition and patted Miguel on the shoulder. "No thanks, Jake. Mikey here has all my money today." The portly Mexican smiled a big toothless smile and sidled up to the table with the judge's hundred burning a hole in his pocket. The fivesome was set.

Chapter One and Three Quarters: The Bet (continued)

Charles watched as Jake took a quick sip of his lager and then clutched the cards lightly and dealt. Charles marvelled at the dexterity with which the attorney flicked the cards so precisely into tight little piles in front of each player. Charles shot him a suspicious look. He had played enough with Jake to know everything was not as it seemed.

Oblivious to Charles' suspicions, everyone anted. Charles glanced down at his cards to see a King face up. Unless an Ace was on the table he would be first to bet. He peeked at his two down cards to reveal an Ace and a Five. He would definitely raise the bet if he was first to act, but before he could even assess the table, he noticed that Jake had taken off his hat and leaned back in his chair. The attorney scratched the stubble on his chin and again reached for his beer.

"Chuck, I've been thinking about the horse," he said with an air of inquisition.

"The horse?" Chuck responded carefully.

"You know! Miguel's chestnut mare."

Miguel's interest piqued at the mention of his horse.

"Yeah?" replied Charles. He remembered a discussion he'd had with Jake about Miguel's horse a few weeks before, but Jake was pretty soused at the time and Charles doubted he could remember it. "I remember you said you didn't think it was twice as fast as you."

"Oh, it's twice as fast as him," added Miguel pointing at Jake.

"Well, I've been thinking," continued Jake, trying to ignore Miguel's interruption. "What if it wasn't me?"

Intrigued but unconvinced, Charles leaned forward in his chair. "Go on," he urged.

"Well, I realize a horse can cover a mile in under two minutes, give or take a few seconds, and even an Olympic athlete would be hard pressed to run it in under five, so that's not a fair comparison, but suppose we handicapped the whole thing." Jake's eyes blazed under the hot lights in the lounge as he got more and more animated. "Suppose we make it a bit fairer."

Charles looked down at the wounded giant snoring beneath him. "You mean we make the horse carry Cus."

The table laughed again at the thought of Cus atop a horse.

"Listen, Jake," Charles said indignantly, "I don't care who you put on Miguel's horse and I really don't care if Hercules himself was the runner. A horse is still easily twice as fast as any human."

"Easily twice as fast," echoed Miguel.

Jake again scratched his stubble like a drunken philosopher. "So, even with Cus on Miguel's horse, you'd still bet on the horse?"

Charles bit his bottom lip trying not to throw his money at the fool in front of him, but still he sensed something was slightly amiss. "How far would they go?" He didn't think it would matter one way or another but he wanted to tie down all the loose ends.

"The horse with Cus on top goes ten miles and the runner goes five."

Vera pulled the unlit cigarette out of her mouth and objected. "Charles, there ain't a single horse this side of Oklahoma City that can haul Cus ten miles."

Charles thought about it for a few moments. "How 'bout ten and five, but we put Cole on the mare?"

At the mention of his name, Cole did finally manage to extricate himself from the clinging hands of Sally Forester, but the alcohol still held him firmly in its grip. "I don't ride, Chuck. You know that. I mean I can ride, I just don't do it. You know what I mean, I don't ride good no more. That's what I meant to say."

Jake listened carefully to Cole's slurred logic. He wasn't even close to Cus' weight and girth, but he wasn't small by any means either. For a coal miner, he was downright enormous. Jake had him pegged at just over 230 pounds. The weight would be a factor, but Jake seemed more interested in Cole's lack of horsemanship.

"Cole," Jake said, staring the miner down, "How long has it been since you rode a horse?"

Cole couldn't be counted on to remember a detail like that in his current state but his estimate of three years was enough to convince Jake.

"Charles, my friend, you have a deal, but I get to pick the runner," Jake offered confidently.

"Jake, you don't even know anyone down in Pagosa. How you going to drag some kid over here from Durango?"

"Fine, then. You pick the runner but I get to see him first."

"How much?"

"The usual?"

"Five hundred bucks it is. Now let's get this show on the road, before the antes get all cold."

* * * *

Chapter Two: The Preparations

"Hoot? Hoot Peterson?"

The last thing Hoot wanted to do before he left Pagosa was attract any undo attention. As he scanned the boulevard for his questioner, however, his eyes rested on the attractive figure of Dorothy Jones dragging two small boys behind her. Slender and athletic, Dorothy wasn't a woman to be ignored. Hoot could see why Kay was so often distracted up at the camp.

"Mrs. Jones," he said with a courteous tip of his Stetson.

"I thought that might be you, Hoot. What are you up to? Getting supplies for the camp?" Dorothy's green eyes bore deep into Hoot. Unlike his father, and despite the fact he yearned to be an actor, Hoot didn't have much of a poker face.

"Yep, I'm gonna take it all up this evening," he lied.

Dorothy didn't believe him for a second. "Boys," she began as she kneeled down and directed her boys to the pharmacy, "why don't you see if Doc Redd has any new candy. Hoot and I are going to have a little chat."

The boys anxiously shuffled off to ooh and ahh at the bright colored hard candies displayed in the front window of the pharmacy. Dorothy watched them leave then stood and placed her hands firmly on her hips.

"So, Hoot...you're really going to do it?" she asked already assuming the answer.

Hoot looked mortified. "Do what?" he cried, certain Kay hadn't had time to betray his trust and wondering if Dorothy really knew.

"I see," she gently nodded. "You haven't told your pa just yet."

In a last ditch effort to avoid any further discussion, Hoot decided to play dumb. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones. I'm afraid I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

Dorothy chuckled and assessed the gangly young man with the frightened gaze and the thick, curly blond hair. She admired him. She had often dreamed of a different life; a life without children and responsibilities. She loved her husband and her boys, and she had no regrets about them, but she'd wanted to go to Santa Fe when she was younger and become an artist. It wasn't a reality she could imagine, but still she had thought about it. She looked squarely into Hoot's soft blue eyes. She saw so much potential. So much raw energy.

"Its okay, Hoot, I didn't tell a soul. I promise."

The tense wrinkles on Hoot's face dissolved immediately upon hearing Dorothy's words. His shoulders relaxed and he took a big relaxed breath. Dorothy's warm smile invited an explanation and Hoot, although he was embarrassed by his deception, felt like sharing.

"How'd you find out?" he finally asked.

"Oh, I have my sources, Hoot. You forget Kay and I moved here from Blanding. It's been floating around there for awhile."

"Really?" Hoot seemed surprised.

"It isn't often a daredevil visits those parts." Dorothy's eyes narrowed and her thin lips pursed into a slight frown. "So, why all the secrecy?"

"It's just that I'm so nervous, Mrs. Jones. I ain't never done nothing like this, you know?"

Dorothy again nodded. "I know."

"And I was gonna tell him. Really I was, but you know how he gets. I just didn't want to upset him is all." Hoot's voice started to tremble as he thought about his father's reaction to the news.

"So, how do you think he's going to find out?"

"Your husband and the big Indian, Joe, was gonna tell him this afternoon sometime."

"Oh, my husband's going to tell him, is he?" Dorothy's voice suddenly became less playful and a bit more business-like. "What else is my husband up to besides breaking your pa's heart?"

Hoot could feel a bead of sweat forming on his forehead. Somehow the whole conversation had gotten away from him. "Nothing that I know of, Mrs. Jones. He's always talking about you and the boys, least as far as I can tell."

"Now, Hoot, you know as well as I do that Kay isn't much of a talker."

Hoot nodded in a form of defeat. "Like I said, least as far as I can tell."

"It's okay, I know he's been busy, what with the early frost and all. It's just that I miss him, Hoot. That's all."

Hoot stood quietly for a few moments not knowing what he should say, so he didn't. Dorothy took the hint and let him off the hook.

"So when are you headed out?" she asked, returning to her playful demeanor.

Hoot shifted his weight back and forth like an anxious father at a hospital. "That's just it, ma'am. I want to leave right now, but I have to collect on a few debts, and they won't be ready 'til tomorrow. I just know my pa's going to find me if I don't go, but I can't."

Just then, Dorothy's boys returned from the pharmacy and began to tug at her dress. Dorothy reluctantly picked the youngest one up and with a fierceness Hoot hadn't expected, she looked him square in the eyes. "Just follow your dreams, Hoot. Just follow them."

* * * *

Chapter Three: An Understanding

Kay Jones hated that he was the one to tell old Chuck Peterson about his boy. After all that Joe had promised Hoot, Kay was the one left to break the news. He knew he would be. Joe was notoriously unreliable when it came to promises. He had even gone so far as to take Kay's horse with him on to the mountain to make sure Kay would be the one to talk to Chuck. Kay chuckled when he thought about the payback he would mete out.

He looked slowly around the sheep camp. He missed home. It wasn't just his boys and his wife with her sweet perfume. Of course he missed them, but it was more than that. It was that when he was home he could hang his trousers on an iron hook next to his bed or sit on the porch in an arm chair and whittle. It was that it was his place and he didn't have to share it with six or seven other blokes. He picked up a few of the blankets laying by the fire and shook the dust and pine needles off them. They smelled of smoke and sweat. Dorothy would be horrified, he thought. She would never allow a blanket to smell like that. Really, it was the little conveniences. The clean blankets. The smell of hot cider on the stove. The feel of a warm rug beneath his naked feet. Those things made the difference. It had been three weeks since he'd been down to Pagosa to see Dorothy and the boys. He had sent messages and tried to keep them abreast of his comings and goings, but it was hard on him. Mostly it was hard on Dorothy.

He picked up a twig that had fallen on to one of his blankets and tossed it in to the still-smouldering fire several feet away. Kay figured he had a few more minutes before Chuck was supposed to arrive, so he sat down next to the fire, pulled a large Bowie knife from its holster on his belt, and began to whittle an intricate train whistle out of a small block of Ponderosa pine. He made a few preliminary cuts with the knife before he saw a trail of dust rise from the opposite side of the draw. It wouldn't be long.

* * * *

Chuck entered the camp at a quick canter atop his stunning black gelding. He paused for a moment when he saw Jones stand but then continued right on up to the shed he and his boys had constructed the previous spring. He stepped off the panting animal and eagerly assessed its fitness. It was almost eight miles from Lucy's up to the sheep camp, so Chuck wanted to see just how tired his horse would be. It was awash in sweat but it pawed and snorted as if it could go another several miles without slowing down. A big victorious grin spread across Chuck's long narrow face.

"Jonesy," he shouted as he saw the broad-chested Welshman approaching the shed. "I'm about to be a rich man."

Jones just nodded as if he was distracted. Chuck took it as an invitation to continue.

"You know ol' Jake Sorrentino. Well, he went and bet me five hundred dollars that a horse isn't twice as fast as a human. You believe that?"

Kay didn't and, despite his mission to break the news to his boss, he decided to engage in a little banter.

"Not really, Chuck. I guess it depends on the horse."

"Miguel Lopez' mare. The one that beat Judge Dugan's colt in that match race last fall."

"What's the catch then?" Kay asked with increasing interest.

"Well," continued Chuck with the same wide grin, "he wanted Cus to be the rider, but I talked him into letting Cole McBride do it."

"Cole McBride?" gasped Kay. "He don't ride, Chuck."

"Think about it, Jonesy. All he's gotta do is stay on top of it. A drunken armadillo could do it."

Kay nodded in agreement. It was a silly bet on Jake's part.

"Who's gonna race against it?" Kay asked as an afterthought.

"That's the best part of it, Jonesy. The drunk fool let me go and pick the runner. He's gotta approve it, of course, but I figure I'll just get one of the high school kids down in Pagosa to do it." Chuck winked at Kay like he wanted to let the Welshman in on a big secret. "Might even pass the boy a twenty to try his best and make a race of it."

Kay again nodded his approval and then began to shift his weight back and forth on his worn boots. He didn't want to do it.

"By the way, Jonesy," Chuck began as he shook open the door to the shed, "why aren't you up on the mountain with Joe? I thought you was gonna take those ewes to the meadow up above Black Rock Mesa."

"That's just it, Chuck. I gotta talk to ya." The blood drained from Kay's face as he leaned against the side of the shed. He kicked at a couple of tufts of June grass and tried to imagine just what he should say.

"And?" said Chuck impatiently.

"Joe left me here to talk to you about Hoot." He hated hearing the words. He looked up to see a sneer replace the smile on Chuck's face.

"What about Hoot?" snipped Chuck.

Kay waited a few seconds before choosing his words.

"He's gone," he whispered.

"He's what? Gone?"

Kay noticed Chuck's face turning red and could almost see the steam coming out of his ears. He again kicked at the June grass beneath his feet and tried not to look at the explosion he figured was coming.

"He left a couple of hours ago."

"Tell me he isn't going down to ride that in that barrel. Jonesy, tell me he isn't that stupid."

Kay remained fixated on the dirt at Chuck's feet. His silence told Chuck everything he wanted to know, though, and within seconds, Chuck slammed the door, untied his horse from the hitching post, and threw himself into the saddle. Kay felt the weight of the world descend on him. He kept feeling he should do something to stop the angry rancher.

"Chuck," he yelled, grabbing the reins of the black gelding, "don't do it. You'll only make things worse. Just let him go."

Chuck shot a fierce look at Kay and then in a voice that hinted at some fear, he replied. "If it was you're son, would you?"

Kay relaxed his hold on the reins and then released them completely. He understood. Chuck gave his horse a gentle kick and then headed back along the same path that brought him.

Chapter Three and a Half: An Understanding (continued)

Hoot leaned back in the Queen Anne sitting chair and looked out on the San Juan River. The Hot Springs Inn wasn't cheap but Hoot was fairly sure if his pa was out looking for him, he'd never suspect Hoot of staying there. It was what he'd call hoity-toity.

The Hot Springs Inn was built just after the turn of the century by a Frenchman named Henri Didier. He had wanted to take advantage of the increased lumbering in the area and the fact that A. T. Sullenberger had just finished a railroad spur to connect up with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He picked a prime location just a stone's toss from the Great Pagosa Hot Springs and built what soon became the most popular and expensive hotel in town. Hoot knew nothing of the history, but he knew his dad, and he knew his old man would never step foot in that pretentious hotel.

Hoot took a deep breath and kicked off his boots. It had been a long day. He could smell the sulphur and salt of the springs. He thought it was probably true that the word Pagosa really meant stinky water. That would be just like the Utes to call it something like that. After a few moments of silence, Hoot heard a small tap on the door. He'd been expecting it. He lifted himself out of his chair, walked to the door and peeked carefully out the peephole into the wide hall. Convinced that his father wasn't poised to barge in on him, Hoot opened the door and pulled Sally Forester quickly inside with him.

"A little on edge, are we, Hoot?" Sally giggled as she stumbled into the dimly lit room.

Before Hoot could respond, he couldn't help but notice the long silky-white legs peeking out through the slit in her elegant peach dress. She really was stunning.

"Not anymore," he stuttered like a schoolboy at a peep show as he put his arm around her thin waist and drew her close. "You're dressed up all fancy," he observed. She smelled as good as she looked. He'd been with Sally for almost six months, yet she always surprised him.

"Well, its not every day a girl gets invited to the Hot Springs," she said. "Especially not by a boy like you, Hoot Peterson."

Hoot smiled and leaned in for a kiss, but Sally pulled away and brought her finger to her lips.

"There'll be time enough for that," she teased.

Defeated, but undeterred, Hoot tried again to lasso the spunky filly, but found her quite determined to resist his advances. Finally, Hoot admitted defeat and seated himself in the same Queen Anne chair that he'd just vacated. Sally hopped off to investigate the bath room.

"You know I'm leavin' tomorrow, don't ya?" Hoot yelled above the noise of the faucet Sally had just turned on.

"Did you tell your pa?" Sally yelled back.

Hoot's shoulders sagged and a sullen expression fought its way on to his face. "You women are all the same," he snapped. "You all can't help but be my mother. No, I didn't tell him, and, you know what, Sally? I ain't gonna! He's just gonna have to deal with the fact that I left without telling him."

Sally exited the bathroom and stood in the doorway irritated. "Are you done yet?"

Ashamed at his outburst, Hoot just nodded.

"You know I saw him this morning," Sally said.

"My pa?" Hoot asked.

"No, Santa Claus, you dolt," she said as she winked and slid onto his lap. "Of course, your pa. He was up at Lucy's gambling."

Again, Hoot stiffened up at the mention of his father. "You didn't tell him I was leavin' did you?"

Sally shook her head and kissed Hoot gently on the forehead.

"I was busy all morning working, honey," she lied. "I hardly had time to talk to him about anything."

Hoot slid his hand up Sally's back and rested it on her shoulder. "Thanks," he whispered. "I know I should have told him but it all happened so fast."

"You know I didn't tell my mother neither, when I come up here from Aztec."

"You mean when you and Cole McBride moved up here?" Hoot suddenly felt jealous. It took just one mention of Aztec to set him off.

Sally feigned surprise and hurt and then responded to Hoot's accusation like a coyote trapped in a corner. "Is that how you want this to go, tonight, Hoot? You want to sit here and argue about my relationship with Cole McBride? You know I left him more than a year ago. You know that as well as you know me, Hoot Peterson. Now is that how you want to leave things with me, tonight?"

Hoot again felt ashamed. He leaned over and cupped his face in his hands. He could feel the tears welling up inside him, but he didn't want to cry. He didn't want to seem weak. The pressure of the last several hours was too much to bear, though, and he soon felt a warm tear trickle down his cheek. "No," he sobbed.

Sally coolly placed her hand on Hoot's shoulder and kneeled down next to him in the chair.

"Hoot, baby, its all right," she began. "It's really all right. I'm sorry I exploded, baby. Let me make it up to you. Let's go get in bed. I'll make it all better."

Sally then helped Hoot to his feet and led him to the four-poster bed. The tables had been turned.

Chapter Four: The Die Is Cast

Chuck Peterson stretched out along a comfortable sofa in the office of Luther Preston of the First Colorado Bank and Trust. He would rather have been anyplace but sitting in that office, but he knew that sooner or later Hoot would have to show his face and withdraw his money. Chuck knew Hoot could get about $150 from a few ranchers he'd done odd jobs for, but without the nest egg his grandfather had left for him, he wouldn't last but a few weeks. It irritated Chuck, however, that Hoot could be so dumb and so impulsive. He was just like his mother, rest her soul, setting out on an adventure with nary an idea of the consequences. Chuck shook his head repeatedly as he remembered when Margaret had bought twelve Alpine Dairy goats and decided to start her own cheese business. It was a fiasco. Yep, Hoot was just like her.

To make matters worse, at least in Chuck's opinion, was the fact that Hoot knew the promoter was a fraud, but he was still choosing to run off and join him. Chuck thought for a minute. What was his name? Soloman Diggle. Soloman Diggle! The name kept racing through his mind. He'd been with Hoot when they met the Diggle fellow at a fair over in Durango and Chuck had immediately felt he was a con man, what with his barrels, his top hat, and his bull horn. Chuck even recalled that Hoot had said something about him being shady. It didn't add up to Chuck. He had spent a sleepless night at his brother's house just thinking about it. Maybe that is what bothered him about Hoot leaving. It didn't make any sense.

From the office, Chuck could see all of Hot Springs Boulevard. He watched as a shrewish woman carrying a worn and dated trunk scuttled across to the train station. He then noticed a few ranchers exiting the coffee shop across the way. He might have been one of them if he hadn't been holed up in Preston's office waiting for his boy. Just as he about lost interest in the boulevard and its flurry of small town activity, he noticed the harried figure of his youngest son emerge from the decadent lobby of the Hot Springs Inn escorting Sally Forester. Chuck let out an audible yelp of disbelief.

"You all right, Mr. Peterson, sir?" asked a concerned Luther Preston as he poked his head in.

"Well, considering how everything is going today, Luther, I've been better," replied Chuck still steaming at the thought of his son and the local tramp shacking up in the Hot Springs.

"I understand, sir, but if there's anything we can do..."

"Just bring him in here when he gets through those doors, do you understand?" Chuck interrupted before the banker could feign interest in his plight.

"Yes, sir," the banker said with a tone of displeasure. Chuck figured he just wanted his office back, but as much money as Chuck had in that bank, Luther should be happy to let him borrow the office for a few minutes. Luther knew it, too, but he was put out by the inconvenience nevertheless.

The banker left the office and Chuck returned to the lazy bustle of the boulevard where he saw his son enter the feed shop alone. He scanned the boulevard for signs of the girl, but she must have slipped away while Chuck was talking to the banker. A few minutes past and Hoot exited the feed shop. Chuck could see he had a handful of money. He was headed directly toward the bank, but with his hat pulled low, Chuck could tell he didn't want to be noticed.

A few seconds passed again before the small strand of bells attached to the bank's front door announced Hoot's arrival. He entered wearing a pair of gabardine trousers, a pressed dress shirt and a pair of polished brown loafers. He cut a very handsome figure that was attested to by the nervous greeting of the female teller. Chuck could see him chat casually with her for a few moments before Luther Preston approached him. The two had a brief exchange before Luther led him toward the office. Confused by the explanation Luther had given him, Hoot entered the office in a huff.

"Luther, what do you mean you can't release the funds?" he shouted, oblivious to the presence of his father in the room.

"Just what I told you, Hoot. There's a small problem we have to clear up before we can release the funds," replied Luther, now feeling great discomfort at the situation.

"What pro...," began Hoot before he noticed his father seated in the sofa against the far wall of the office, "...blem do we have here?"

Chuck eased himself off the sofa and stepped to the door, closing it with a gentle push. Then he faced Hoot with a somber yet determined look on his weathered face. "It's not going to happen this way, Hoot," he whispered just loud enough for Hoot to hear him. "You know well enough that outfit ain't no place for a Peterson."

Upon seeing his father sitting on the sofa, Hoot's mind had been racing, but now that his father was lecturing him about what he ought and ought not to do, Hoot just got angry. "Ain't no place for a Peterson?" he shouted as he wheeled around and pounded Luther's desk with a closed fist.. "And the ranch is?"

Chuck had expected the outburst (Hoot was, after all, his son), but he had thought it would be born of frustration not anger. "Now, don't go flying off the handle now, young man. You understand?" he cautioned. "I'm still your father and I won't be disrespected."

"I can't disrespect you, but you can disrespect me?" Hoot shot back with an icy stare.

Chuck had remained calm for the most part, but Hoot's accusation that he was somehow being unfair lit a fire under the tall rancher and he exploded like a powder keg. "Disrespect? How dare you accuse me of disrespect?" Chuck boomed. "I have given you everything! Everything! There isn't one thing that I haven't given you and yet you stand here and accuse me of disrespect! You're lucky I don't put a boot in your backside right here in Luther's office."

As Chuck continued his voice got lower but progressively more menacing. He then took two aggressive steps forward and stood face to face with Hoot. "I give you everything," he grumbled, "and I don't even get the courtesy of a goodbye. I gotta hear about it from Jonesy. Are you scared of me, Hoot? Is that it? Well, you better be scared of me, 'cause I can make your life a living hell. And don't think I won't. Now go get your stuff and let's go home. I'm tired of these games."

Hoot's eyes, now clouded with fear, stared firmly at his father. "That's just it," he whispered with as much courage as he could muster. "I don't want everything, Dad. I just want this. I've dreamed about leaving since I was little. Ma always said I should follow 'em, no matter who stood in my way." As the words left his lips, Hoot turned away and walked to the window to avoid his father's piercing stare.

"Don't drag your mother in to this, Hoot," said Chuck with a little less ire. "She'd have never let you run off with Dibble. Never."

Hoot knew his father was right. She would have hunted him down just like his father had done. Hoot leaned on the window sill and his eyes filled with tears. Defeated yet again, Hoot turned back to face his father. "So what now, Dad? You just ain't gonna let Luther give me my money? Is that it? I suppose you just want me to head back up to camp and forget all this happened?"

Hoot's voice began to rise again as the desperation became more and more apparent to him. "You just want me to rot up in the hills like them other boys? You just want me to give up on everything?"

As Chuck watched the tears cascade down his son's face, he looked out past him into the street. At that very moment, Cole McBride stumbled across the boulevard into the same coffee shop he'd just seen the ranchers leave. Chuck thought about it for a moment. It seemed too good to be true. Chuck almost felt guilty that he had even thought it, yet it was glorious and fair.

"I'll tell you what, Hoot," he began, fighting the urge to laugh at loud at the irony. "I'm gonna make you a deal, if you're up for it."

Hoot stopped crying and searched his father's face for some sort of sincerity. "What? If I go get my stuff right now, you won't put a boot in my backside?" His question dripped with sarcasm, but his father just smiled.

"No, no. Nothing like that. Something I think you might be up for."

Hoot's lip stopped quivering and he looked curiously at his father. "I'm listening," he said guardedly.

"You said you wanted to be a daredevil, right?"


"Well, this is something along those lines. Jake Sorrentino and I made a little wager yesterday. I think Miguel Lopez' mare is twice as fast as any human and Jake doesn't see it that way. So we set up a little race of sorts."

Hoot, who for a second had embraced a sliver of hope, looked at his father crestfallen. "And you want me to run against the horse?"

"You win the race," Chuck said almost like he was challenging his son, "and I let you run off to join the circus or whatever that crew is with Diggle."

"Dad," Hoot responded matter-of-factly, "only a fool would run in a race like that. You know full well a guy can't run that fast."

"I know that, Hoot, but Jake seems to think a guy like you just might prove me wrong." Chuck could hardly wait to utter his next sentence. "The thing is, Hoot, the horse has a little handicap...and his name is Cole McBride."

The mention of the name ricocheted off all the walls in the office and hit Hoot square in the forehead sending him for a loop. He recovered just long enough to look his father in those devious brown eyes. "Looks like you found your fool," he growled. "I'm in."

Chapter Five: The Entanglement

Again the cool wind whipped through the cracks between each log. Dorothy blew out the lone candle sitting at the end of the plank table and straightened the chairs. She smiled contently knowing the scarf would be done in time for Norman's birthday. She glanced over at the boys cuddled beneath her mother's patchwork quilt. They all just barely fit beneath it. Even Norman's toes would fit beneath it, if he would just keep them on the bed, she thought. Dorothy giggled quietly and tucked the toes of her eldest boy back under the warm quilt. Before retiring to her own bed, she stopped and looked at all four of them. They reminded her so much of Kay. She sighed. It would be another long, lonely night.

Dorothy slid on to the narrow bed between the door and the boys and slipped beneath her comforter. She then grabbed her worn Bible and began to thumb through it. Tired, but determined to read something, she settled in Acts and began reading the story of a boy who fell asleep in a tree listening to a sermon delivered by Peter. Somehow, she could relate. Peter's sermon soon put her to sleep as well. The wind still whipped.

Dorothy rested comfortably for the good part of an hour before she heard it. A twig snapped! Not the kind of a snap that a raccoon or even a deer makes but heavier. Clumsier. The kind a man makes. She wouldn't normally have paid it even the least attention, but it didn't sound quite right. She heard it again, but it was louder and closer.

With the candle on her nightstand still flickering, Dorothy could see the rifle resting in its cradle just a few feet away. Like a gazelle, she sprang to the rifle, yanked it out of its cradle, and rushed to the front door. She flung it open and tiptoed out on to the porch, her lithe figure silhouetted in the moonlight.

"Who goes there?" she yelled into the stillness. "I've got a gun and I am not afraid to use it."

Again she heard another snap and the noise of someone slithering through the brush a good fifty feet away.

"I'm warning you," Dorothy again yelled, lifting the rifle on to her shoulder.

"Dorothy!" a deep voice boomed from the brush. "Put down the gun!"

"Kay?" she whispered, almost to herself. "Is that you?"

Kay emerged from behind two large pine trees south of the house and, with his arms held high above his head signalling surrender, he warmly replied. "Live and in the flesh."

Dorothy lowered the rifle to her side, fighting the urge to squeal in delight. Like a schoolgirl, she skipped off the low porch and ran into Kay's waiting arms. He laughed and lifted her high into the brisk spring night.

"Good thing I ain't a thief," he said kissing her hard on the lips, "or I might have caught a bullet there."

Comfortably wrapped in Kay's strong arms, Dorothy could smell the familiar odors of the sheep camp. She squinted her eyes coquettishly and then turned up her nose in disdain. "You need a bath real bad," she declared.

Kay kissed her again on the lips and then slapped her playfully on the behind. "Nice to see you too."

* * * *

A bucket shower at 11:30 in the evening wasn't exactly what Kay had in mind when he decided to surprise his wife, but he wasn't the one that would be sharing the bed with a man who smelled of sheep dung either. He showered quickly, however, and rushed to the relative warmth of his bed. With a shiver and a shrug, he tugged the covers up over his head and pulled his sweet wife close. She smelled so good. A wave of emotion washed over him as he stroked the wavy locks of her hair. He had missed her.

"I wasn't really expecting you, honey," Dorothy whispered so she wouldn't wake the children. "Is everything all right at the camp?"

Kay smiled. Her ever-present politeness still enchanted him after so many years. "Yeah, everything's all right. I gotta meet Joe up above Quail Creek tomorrow afternoon to talk about Hoot Peterson, and its just as easy for me to pass by here than go over the Hump."

Dorothy nodded. "Hoot Peterson, huh?" she said, searching for a little more small talk just to help Kay wind down from his trip. "Is Chuck upset that he's left?"

"You haven't heard, then?"

"Heard what? I saw him two days ago down on Hot Springs and he said he was leaving yesterday. He left, didn't he?"

"No," Kay chuckled. "He tried, but his pa went down to Luther Preston's bank and caught him 'fore he could leave town." Kay rolled over on to his back and stared up at the exposed pine planks that formed the underside of his roof. "He ain't never gonna leave, Dor. Not now that he took on that fool bet of his pa's."

Kay glanced over to see a worried expression descend on to Dorothy's face. He always knew she had a soft spot for Hoot. She had said a few times that he reminded her of her father or some such thing.

"What kind of fool bet did he make?" Dorothy asked, drawing herself closer and placing her cold feet just under his.

Kay sighed and again gazed absently at the ceiling. "Oh, Chuck and a lawyer from over in Durango got a wild hair and set up a match race 'tween one of Miguel's mares and a guy. Well, after yesterday, the guy is gonna be Hoot. He done went and agreed to it if you can believe that. Now, he only has to be half as fast as the horse, but he can't win it, Dor. There ain't a snowball's chance of him even making it close."

Dorothy listened but he could tell she was sorely confused. "Why would he agree to something like that?" she asked, her voice rising with incredulity.

"If he wins," Kay explained, "his pa said he could go down the river in the barrel. No questions asked. He'll be free and clear of the ranch altogether."

"And if he loses?" Dorothy interrupted.

"Well, hon, I guess he just stays at the ranch and collects on his inheritance when old Chuck kicks the bucket. It really ain't a bad deal when you think about it."

Dorothy didn't think so at all and her narrowed eyes drove the point home to Kay. "When is the race?" she barked.

"Chuck and Jake met this afternoon over at Lucy's and I think they set it up for Saturday. Why?" Kay was almost afraid of the answer he might recieve. He tenderly traced Dorothy's cheekbone with his pudgy fingers. The gears were turning inside her pretty head. One of the things that had attracted him to her when they were younger was the fiery nature of her temperament. Still, witnessing it first hand could be overwhelming. He braced himself for the anticipated response.

"Eldon...Kay...Jones," she began, measuring each and every word. "You will, and I repeat, will help that boy win the race. Do you understand? I don't care what it takes, but you and Joe are going to make sure that boy finishes before that horse."

Kay turned on to his side and propped up his head. "Is that so?" he asked rhetorically. "And you're employing poor Joe in this little scheme of yours as well?"

Dorothy was dead serious. "Listen, Kay. That boy needs your help, and while I love you more than you'll ever know, you aren't capable of the type of trouble this might require and Joe is, so promise me you'll talk to Joe and come up with a plan to help Hoot."

Kay shook his head and a smile again crept on to his lips. "Do I have any choice in the matter?" he said, kissing his girl on the forehead.

"Not if you want a warm meal in the morning," Dorothy replied.

"Biscuits and gravy?"

"With a little side of bacon, if you're lucky."

"Well, I better be if I'm gonna help Hoot win that race."

Dorothy giggled and returned the kiss with a peck on the forehead. The night had suddenly become a lot less lonely.

Chapter Five and a Half: The Entanglement

Joe craned his neck to see around the small juniper tree that flanked Cole McBride's ragged bunkhouse. Cole was definitely inside, but from the sound of things, he wasn't exactly resting up for his big day. A good sign. Joe could hear at least two other men and a woman. It was probably Sally Forester but he couldn't be sure. Another good sign. The tall Navajo looked back over his shoulder and motioned for Jones to accompany him at the corner of the house. Jones nodded and, with considerable effort, managed to roll the huge barrel of beer they'd carried from Lucy's up to Joe's side.

It had been a monumental task to get Vera to give up one of her barrels. Joe had known it was going to be tough because Vera was so paranoid about the Prohibition ban, but he finally convinced her. He just told her that no one ever wanted to mess with a drunken Indian so her beer was safe with him. She agreed and so he and Jones now sat next to Cole's house with a big oak cask full of beer.

"Thanks for helpin' me there, Chief," Jones muttered when he finally caught his breath.

"No problem," Joe said.

"You figure this is gonna work?" Jones asked, wiping the sweat off his brow.

"Probably not," Joe responded, "but short of killin' him or the horse, this is our best shot."

Joe was still amazed at what a big deal this whole race had become. Hoot's life as far as he could tell kind of hinged on it. But it went beyond that. Joe had been down to Pagosa on Thursday and, much to his surprise, Jake Sorrentino had a bunch of people hanging up signs announcing the race like it was boxing match. "Father versus Son" read one of the bigger announcements. It had gotten so out of hand, Joe had even seen someone hanging up red, white, and blue bunting like they often did on the Fourth of July. By the time he was ready to leave, a dozen or so folks had asked him what he thought of Hoot's chances. He, of course, thought they were nonexistent, but he replied that they were pretty good if Cole was three sheets in the wind. This elicited a chorus of hearty laughs, but it also gave Joe an idea. An idea that he and Jones were about to act upon.

"You want me to knock or do you want the honor?" Joe whispered to his anxious friend.

Jones arched his back as if stretching all of his muscles and then stood tall and approached the freshly-painted door of the bunkhouse. "I'll do it!"

Joe watched as the barrel-chested Welshman knocked authoritatively on the door. A series of muffled grunts and low-pitched shrieks erupted in the room before a slender, attractive young woman cautiously opened the door.

"Sally," Jones said in a tone that Joe sensed was a little too formal given the circumstances.

"Kay," responded Sally coolly.

Jones stood in silence for a few moments before he whispered just loud enough for Sally to hear. "Hoot just asked me to come down here and tell you he was waiting for you up at the camp."

Joe struggled to keep himself from laughing at Jones' bravado. Everyone but Cole and Hoot knew Sally was a sneaky little two-timer, but it was still fun to hear Jones call her on it when Cole was but a few steps away. She shifted nervously from one foot to the other in the doorway not knowing what to do. Her face soon turned a vivid shade of purple, but she was saved further embarrassment when Cole ambled to the doorway.

"Who is it, babe?" he insisted, nuzzling Sally on the back of her neck.

"Nobody!" she snapped back, but when Cole saw that it was Jones, he opened the door even further and, much to Sally's chagrin, greeted him warmly.

"It's Jonesy, everybody," the heavy-set miner chimed. "What brings you down here?"

"Just wanting to wish you good luck, Cole. We got some money on ya tomorrow and we brought a little gift to keep ya focused."

To that point, Cole hadn't noticed Joe standing at the corner of the bunkhouse with the beer barrel, but when he did, he jumped like a kid on Christmas morning. He lumbered out of the bunkhouse hollering like he won the lottery at the fair and cozied up to the barrel.

"You and Injun Joe here done brought me some of Vera's home brew?" he said excitedly as he slapped Joe on the shoulder like he was long lost friend.

"Yep," replied Jones, still giving Sally a look of reproach. "We just thought you could use a little incentive to win tomorrow."

"But we don't want you to go off and drink it all tonight," Joe interjected, slapping Cole on the back with a little more force than was necessary.

Cole burst out laughing. "Ah, ha, ha! Good one, Joe! Me and the boys'll take it easy. I swear."

By the time Cole had finished guffawing, a lanky red-headed coal miner named Jimmy Swenson had made his way out of the bunkhouse and was eyeing Vera's potent concoction. Not far behind Jimmy waddled Cus Dayton. Joe knew Cus had been giving Cole riding lessons but he was best known for his drinking escapades. Joe felt quite sure that the contents of the cask would never see daybreak.

"Now I thought you boys was Hoot's friends," Cus bellowed as he, too, drew a bead on the barrel. "Seems a little strange, you bettin' on Cole tomorrow."

Joe acknowledged Cus' intuition with a courteous nod. "That's just it, Cus. We are Hoot's friends, but if he wins tomorrow, he's gonna go off and leave us. We'd just as soon have him stay if it was up to us. Plus, it don't hurt to win a few greenbacks in the meantime."

"Makes sense," Cus reasoned before he bent down and picked up the entire barrel and placed it on his shoulder. As Cus, Jimmy and Cole all hustled back into the bunkhouse, Jones and Joe exchanged knowing glances. So far, so good.

Three hours and at least five trips to the outhouse later, Joe emerged from the bunkhouse arm in arm with Jones. The rest was up to Hoot.

Chapter Six: Prelude to a Race

They were all supposed to meet at Lucy's at 10:00 A.M. Chuck arrived a few minutes early to find a crowd of nearly fifty miners, ranch hands, sheepherders, and drunks lingering around a giant oak tree that marked what was supposed to be the starting line. He scanned the motley crowd, looking for familiar faces. Vera was sitting on the steps of Lucy's chomping on a licorice-colored cigar and making small talk with a group of miners probably down from the mountains above Silverton. Chuck guessed they were Jake's friends looking for some action.

Miguel Lopez and a few of his Mexican buddies from over in Alamosa gathered around a hastily constructed corral near the big oak. Chuck couldn't see the mare that would be his ticket to five hundred dollars but the manure and the saddle hanging from one of the aspen posts suggested she was nearby. He still couldn't believe Jake had made the bet. He had to have seen Miguel's mare win the match race with Judge Dugan's colt. It was an impressive beast if Chuck had ever seen one.

Off to the south along the road that led down to Pagosa, Chuck could see perhaps forty or fifty bright red flags hanging from every conceivable tree. He had to hand it to Jake; the man was a real piece of work. He wondered how much Jake and Henry were charging folks down in Pagosa to watch the finish. Knowing Jake and the judge it was probably twenty-five cents or more. With the finish line directly in front of the courthouse across from the hot springs, he imagined the whole town would be out.

Chuck again scanned the rapidly growing masses. He still couldn't see Hoot anywhere but his nemesis, Jake, emerged from Lucy's carrying a piping hot cup of coffee and a ridiculous smirk. Chuck couldn't quite decipher its meaning. Still he needed to touch base with Jake before everything began, so he trotted across the pine needles and the cottonwood twigs toward the saloon. As he arrived at the boardwalk, Chuck discovered the reason for Jake's smirk in the weasel-like figure of Soloman Diggle. The tiny bespectacled man's smug smile immediately rubbed Chuck the wrong way.

"Well, Jake, it looks like things are coming together on this little bet," began Chuck when he caught Jake's attention. "I would never have imagined all the flags and banners, though."

Jake laughed. "When you told me you got Hoot to be the runner, I guess I might have got a little carried away."

"A little?"

"The flags were all my idea, Chuck, but Diggle here came up with the banners and the music," replied Jake, pointing casually at the little promoter and then at a ragged group of musicians busily extracting intruments from dusty black cases.

"A touch of class, I call it," added Diggle, his voice scratchy and annoying.

Like an unrepentant child, Diggle extended his hand as if to greet the tall rancher, but Chuck only stared at it with disdain. "Don't want to soil my reputation," he sneered.

"Your courtesy knows no bounds," squealed Diggle with delight.

Chuck turned his back on the rat-faced promoter and again addressed Jake. "I take it the horse is here, but I don't see Cole or my boy. You seen 'em?"

"Still plenty of time, Chuck." Jake sipped his coffee slowly and confidently. "Hoot said yesterday when I talked to him that he was gonna sleep as long as he could 'fore the race. And Cole? I ain't seen him at all. Heard he's been takin' riding lessons from Cus though."

"Now that's an act I'd pay to see in my show," chimed in Diggle. "Two fat men on a mule."

It was a funny image, but Chuck wasn't going to give Diggle the satisfaction of an amused grin. He hated all that the man stood for, and the fact that he had even shown his face at this event spoke volumes about his integrity and character. He was a man who preyed on the gullibility of others. It irked Chuck that his son wanted so desperately to be his prey.

Jake probably sensed Chuck's downright hatred and couldn't help but pour salt in the wound. "Chuck, Diggle tells me Hoot is scheduled to go down the rapids on Independence Day. He says he's starting to sell tickets just as soon as Hoot wins the race here. Right, Sol?"

"He's destined for stardom, I tell ya. Stardom." Diggle beamed from ear to ear. He, too, enjoyed harassing Chuck.

"Stardom, huh?" Chuck winced. "Well, you're right about the dumb part."

"Speaking of dumb," cried Jake, "here comes the man of the hour."

Chuck turned to see his son, Hoot, striding toward the threesome, his blond locks bouncing with every step. Dressed in a warm sweatshirt and longjohns over what was certainly white gym shorts and a white undershirt, Hoot looked every bit the athlete he had been in high school. If Chuck hadn't been so determined to win the bet and keep Hoot on the ranch, he might have been impressed.

"Gentlemen," Hoot said, shaking Jake's hand and nodding to Diggle. He didn't turn to acknowledge his father, but rather scanned the crowd looking for someone.

"She's not here, Hoot," snapped Chuck, knowing that Sally hadn't shown.

"Wasn't even looking for her," Hoot lied, his face turning red. He hadn't seen her since that evening at the Hot Springs Inn and his patience was running thin.

"Course you were, Hoot," interjected Jake. "She's probably just over at Cole's keeping her options open."

Both Jake and Soloman exploded in laughter unaware of just how accurate their observation would prove to be. Hoot buried his fists deep into the folds of his sweatshirt and Chuck just steamed watching his son search for Sally Forester. With the race still a good thirty minutes off, the gamesmanship had just begun.

Chapter Seven: The Race

Kay Jones tapped his fingers nervously on the aspen pole that formed the south side of Miguel's corral. The squawking chatter of the Mexicans exchanging money only heightened his anxiety. He glanced over to see a small mustachioed Chihuahuan holding up four fingers and shouting something about the "Gordo". Kay listened closely enough to realize that he was offering four-to-one odds that Cole would fall off his horse before the finish line. Kay was tempted to call the bet, but without even a dollar in his pocket, he only shook his head and waved.

"Jonesy," came a call from behind him.

Startled, Kay turned to see Joe approaching, his bloodshot eyes begging for coffee. The big Indian lumbered up to the corral and leaned heavily on one of the posts. Joe's weight caused the whole corral to bend and creak. Kay couldn't help but giggle. "That bad, huh?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"Yeeeaaaaahhhh!" Joe groaned. "I forgot I had to set the course with ol' Hank Dugan this morning. He woke me up about six."

Kay's giggle grew to a hearty chuckle. "So you got what? About two solid hours of sleep last night? That ain't too bad."

"Add it to the three miles I walked up to Harding Junction with the Judge and the three miles back and I'd say I've had a restful and relaxing morning." The sarcasm flowed easily off of the Indian's lips.

"Harding Junction? That's where Cole has to go to first before he goes down into Pagosa?"

"Yeah, I guess Jake and Chuck agreed that was the fairest way."

"So they got the biggest Indian they could find and made him the race steward, huh? Hope they paid ya well."

Joe was not amused. He shot Kay a look of disgust and utter exhaustion that spoke volumes of the night he'd had. "You seen our boy yet?" he finally asked.

Kay pointed out the slim figure of Hoot Peterson pacing back and forth in front of Lucy's. "He's over there warming up."

"And Cole?"

Kay had been wondering about Cole since the time he got there that morning. He and Joe had left the big oaf completely pie-eyed the night before with almost a quarter of a barrel of beer remaining, so he knew it would be a tall order for him to show. Still, Kay thought with Chuck promising him a hundred dollars for the win, Cole would find his way there somehow. "Ain't seen him," responded the soft-spoken Welshman, rolling his eyes back into his head.

As the two friends sat silently watching the festivities, Miguel Lopez trotted up leading his chestnut mare. It was a beautiful specimen. Kay had been there when it beat Judge Dugan's colt. She'd got out on the lead and never let up. According to Kay's calculations, she'd won the mile race by almost six lengths, an impressive margin considering she was carrying ten pounds more. Kay liked her. It was hard not to.

"Amigos, how is it going?" Miguel said, opening the rickety gate and entering the corral.

"Pretty good, Mikey," answered Joe. He, too, liked Miguel's horse but mostly he just liked Miguel. The two of them had run cattle a few years back and had been friends for as long as Kay could remember. They'd had a row once in a saloon down in Gallop but all was forgiven when Joe punched a man just for looking at Miguel's daughter a couple of months later. The river ran deep with those two. "Hey, Mikey," said Joe almost as an afterthought, "you seen Cole?"

Miguel grabbed a curry comb and shook his head. "I sent Jose over to his place to make sure he is coming, but you know Cole, he could be lying face down in a ditch in Cortez for all we know. Wouldn't surprise me at all."

Just at that moment, Kay noticed a small Mexican boy of fifteen or sixteen years of age sprinting acros the alpine meadow to where they stood. Miguel dropped his comb into the bucket at his feet and scurried out of the corral to greet the boy.

"Y donde esta el gordo?" he asked when the young boy caught his breath.

"El esta totalmente mareado. No va a llegar asi, creo. Esta durmiendo con la loca que anda con el buho."

Kay spoke a little Spanish, so he understood the boy fairly well. Cole wasn't coming! He was too drunk to even wake up. Kay listened a little more as Miguel got the full story. The tiny Mexican boy had gone so far as to douse the behemoth with a bucket of cold water and he didn't even stir. Kay found it interesting, however, that the young boy seemed most interested in talking about Sally Forester. She could get under the skin of about every man she managed to get her claws on.

After a heated discussion about what they should do, Miguel decided to break the news to Chuck and Jake. He didn't look too enthused about it, though. "You boys comin'?" he hollered back to Kay and Joe. His tone was accusatory and both Kay and Joe worried that somehow the little Mexican boy found out about their involvement in the plot to derail Cole. They exchanged guilty glances and slowly followed Miguel across the meadow to Lucy's boardwalk where the band had just begun to play.

As they approached the boardwalk, Jake Sorrentino jumped off the porch and ran down to greet them.

"Miguel Lopez, so glad to see you, amigo. I hope that beast of yours is up for the challenge. My boy, Hoot, says he's gonna take you and his pa out to the woodshed and whoop you both today." Jake's eyes dazzled in the early morning sun. Kay thought he must have had one of Vera's little pick-me-ups.

Miguel shook Jake's extended hand politely and then waved to both Chuck and Hoot. "Can I talk to all of you together?" he yelled with some conviction.

Both Chuck and Hoot trotted over and listened as Miguel began to speak.

"Listen," began Miguel. "I know this has become quite a big deal, but I have some news that will probably change things a bit."

Jake turned and signalled for Soloman Diggle to join the men as they listened.

"Well, what is it?" asked Hoot as he hopped around trying to stay loose.

Miguel narrowed his eyes. "It's Cole. He ain't coming. I sent Jose over to round him up and the buffalo is dead asleep."

A huge grin spread across Chuck Peterson's face. "Well," he said, trying not to seem over-enthusiastic about the news, "I guess we'll just have to postpone the race for another day."

"Never!" screamed Hoot, a look of panic in his eyes. "We're running this race today no matter what. No matter what!"

Both Soloman and Jake got the same expression that Hoot did. Kay realized at that point that they must have invested a large amount of money promoting the race and weren't about to see it go for naught.

"Chuck, how about we just find another rider? It can't be that difficult," reasoned Jake.

Chuck knew he had them right where he wanted them. Kay felt sick that his and Joe's plan had backfired into giving Chuck some leverage in the race. He looked over at Hoot and felt a sickening dread fall over him. Dorothy would be so disappointed with this outcome.

"It can't be that difficult?" Chuck boomed over the top of the band. "You can't just find another guy at such little notice. Nope, we have to postpone it. It's the only fair thing."

"What if we get a better rider, Chuck?" said Jake. "You pick him and we'll just give him a weight handicap. Listen, Chuck, we got all these people and they want to see some kind of race. We can't just leave 'em high and dry."

"And you can't just leave me high and dry either, Dad," added Hoot as a tear of desperation tumbled down his cheek.

Chuck walked slowly over to the boardwalk, his tall slender figure casting an ominous shadow over the entire festivities. Even the band that had so gaily trumpeted the impending excitement a few minutes before, fell silent awaiting his verdict. He buried his hands deep into his pockets and took a long extended breath of the crisp morning air. "Well..." he began. "I'd hate to disappoint all of the folks lining up down in Pagosa, so I guess we can find another rider, but I get to choose him, right?"

Jake nodded anxiously. "Sure, Chuck, but it's got to be a fair race. You can't go pickin' a guy like, say, that guy."

A look of sheer terror spread across Kay Jones' face as he looked up to see Jake's finger pointed directly at him. Kay looked over to Chuck hoping to see him agree with Jake, but instead he saw a look of curiosity in the uplifted eyebrow of the rancher.

"Now, Jake. Let's not get too hasty. Say I picked Jones here and was to give you a handicap of sorts. Just to make things interesting."

Jake, never one to cower from an interesting bet, signalled Chuck to continue.

"What if, say, I chose Jones, but I made him carry the big Indian all the way up to Harding Junction? That's a good four-hundred and twenty pounds for three of the twelve miles."

Kay's terrified eyes shifted immediately to Joe. The Indian looked as though he'd just got hit over the head with a baseball bat, but he recovered enough to make his objection. "What if the big Indian and his little Welsh friend don't want any part in this little bet?" he asked.

Everyone stood silently waiting for someone to respond to the big Indian. Soloman Diggle finally broke the silence. "I'll pay you fifty dollars and the other chap gets one hundred. How's that for some incentive, you know, just to make things interesting?"

Joe turned back to Kay and shrugged his shoulders. They both looked like the bat had hit them again but in a good way. Kay thought of all the things a hundred bucks could buy for Dorothy and his boys. And he didn't have to win. He didn't have to win! He could throw the race and nobody would be the wiser. Hoot would get his wish and run off to ride the barrel down the river or whatever he wanted and two rich gamblers would exchange a few hundred dollars between themselves. Kay's apprehension at participating in the whole melee dissipated and a calmness ensued.

"That is quite interesting," responded Joe. "I guess were both in."

Kay nodded.

"I'm not so sure I like this setup," said Jake Sorrentino, his fingers working over his stubbly chin like a prizefighter. "Suppose you had the Welshman carry the Indian up to Harding Junction and you had him carry Vera down to Pagosa on his way back."

Chuck had expected the haggling. He contemplated the offer and then made a counter offer. "I like it, Jake, but instead of Vera herself, let's have the Welshman carry a keg of Vera's finest home brew for the winner to drink at the finish line. Deal?"

"Deal!" declared Jake.

With everything settled, Soloman Diggle excitedly motioned for the bandleader to start up the band, Miguel's Mexican contingency scrambled to readjust the odds on all of the sidebets, and Vera reluctantly entered Lucy's to retrieve a precious keg. Everyone else made their way to the starting line. Amidst the confusion, Chuck walked over and tapped Kay on the shoulder. Kay turned to see the same expression of ferocity and fear on Chuck's face that he'd seen a few days before up at the camp. Kay again felt a sense of dread.

"Jonesy," whispered Chuck just loud enough for the barrel-chested sheepherder to hear, "you lose this race and you won't work for me ever again. You hear?"

Kay stood stunned. "What?" he asked, thinking he'd heard Chuck wrong the first time.

"You lose this, you don't work for me!" growled Chuck, gritting his teeth.

"But Chuck, I don't understand."

"You understand perfectly, Jones. Like I said before. If it was your boy, what would you do?"

Chuck kicked the dirt in front of him and casually left Kay in a small cloud of dust. Kay did understand. All too well.

Chapter Seven and a Half: The Race Continued

A cold breeze freshened just as Kay approached the starting line. Hoot had stripped down to a pair of gym shorts and stood shivering as Soloman Diggle announced his name with the bull horn. The introductions were brief but both Kay and Hoot recieved applause from the miners, ranchers, and homesteaders gathered under the stoic oak. Kay simply nodded his head as his name was announced. Somehow the day had gotten away from him. He still couldn't quite believe that he was the one on Miguel's mare, Gracie. Kay thought it ironic that he would have Grace on his side in all of this.

"Good luck, Jonesy."

Kay looked down off the beautiful chestnut beast to see Hoot extending his hand, a curious grin on his face. Kay reached down and took Hoot's hand in a firm handshake. "Good luck to you, too, Hoot," he murmured. Kay then watched as Hoot extended the same courtesy to Joe. As the big Indian and the athletic daredevil-to-be grasped hands, Hoot looked straight up into Kay's eyes and winked. Kay wanted to wink back. He wanted desperately to let Hoot know that the race was securely his, but he couldn't. Not after what Chuck had said. There was just too much to consider. Kay's eyes fell to the saddlehorn to avoid the awkwardness he felt.

"Are the contestants ready?" boomed the sniveling carcass of Soloman Diggle, who now stood perched on the second rung of the aspen corral.

Kay's eyes rose and he reluctantly nodded. Hoot nodded, too, but with more enthusiasm than Kay had hoped for.

"Then take your marks..."

Kay dug his toes into the stirrups and nudged Gracie to the line.

"Get set..."

A quick glance over his shoulder at the big Indian behind him on the mare.


Kay kicked the flanks of the speedy mare and she sprang forward just like he knew she would. An enthusiastic cheer erupted from the haggard crowd, but Kay kept his eyes on the mare and the road ahead. He refused to even look in Chuck's direction. Still, he could feel the piercing heat of his stare. It haunted him already.

After a dozen or so strides, Gracie pinned her ears back and started to extend, eating up the grass in front of her. Even with both Joe and Kay aboard she flew across the meadow and began the long steady climb up to Harding Junction. Kay breathed a sigh of relief when the road narrowed and Lucy's faded into the leaves and branches of the quakies. He was happy to have all of those people behind him, if only for a little while.

After a mile or so, Kay eased Gracie into an easy gallop. Win or lose he couldn't afford to burn her up. Miguel would never forgive him for that. As she settled in, Kay noticed that Joe hadn't said a thing since the beginning of the race. Kay turned his body just slightly to get a look at the big Indian. Joe's face revealed nothing. He held on tightly; nothing more, nothing less.

"You okay, Chief?" Kay yelled, as he ducked beneath a small branch.

The branch slapped Joe in the face. "Yeah, if you'd keep us out of the trees," he scolded. Kay laughed but he could tell that Joe wasn't in the mood for talk.

The two men continued riding in silence past the turnoff to McGill's Mine and over Hansen's Creek. Kay knew that Harding Junction lay just a few hundred yards ahead of him on the left. He loosened the reins a little as Gracie's breathing became more labored and she tugged at the bit. Kay eased her even more as he sensed her discomfort.

"We're getting close, Jonesy," Joe hollered, sensing his part in the fiasco was about complete.

Kay flattened into a tuck before he spotted the pudgy figure of Judge Henry Dugan leaning against his black 1924 Model T Ford. He again looked over his shoulder at Joe. "I thought you said you walked up here with the Judge."

Caught in a lie, Joe just shrugged his shoulders and patted Kay on his. Kay pulled hard on Gracie's reins and brought her to a standstill right in front of the Judge. Without wasting any time at all, Joe jumped off the sturdy mare and slapped her on the rump. He then looked up at Kay. "Jonesy, I didn't hear what Chuck told ya, but I know Chuck. He threatened ya, didn't he?"

Kay averted his eyes and stared again at the saddlehorn, refusing to say anything.

"I figured as much," said Joe. "Listen, Jonesy, you gotta do what ya gotta do. Hoot'll understand. Really, he will."

All of the emotions of the morning threatened to overwhelm Kay as he sat uncomfortably atop Gracie. He wanted to cry, but he wasn't the type to ever do that in front of another man, so he just stared emotionless at the saddlehorn. His thoughts turned to Dorothy and his boys. They would be at the finish line, cheering on Hoot and cursing his competitor, oblivious of their father and husband's complicated involvement. "I don't know, Joe," he managed to whisper. " I just don't know."

Joe shook his head. "Well, you better be off, old boy."

Kay kicked Gracie softly in the flanks and turned her on a dime. "Thanks, Joe."

* * * *

Hoot could feel the hot, burning sensation rising in the back of his throat. To the best of his knowledge, he wasn't quite finished with the second mile, but already his legs had lost their bounce and he struggled to keep his mind off the pain he was feeling all over. Truth be told, he was thankful the rest of the trek was downhill. Just keep moving, he told himself. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The worst of it all was the dust. Every few seconds another truck loaded with miners or Mexicans passed him on the road and a dusting of fine granite and sandstone would billow out from beneath the tires. He had choked a number of times already but he couldn't help but wonder just how big the crowd in Pagosa would be. It had to be getting big. He had counted nearly fifteen trucks loaded to the gills with soot-covered men as they passed him on their way down to the finish line. He hadn't counted his pa, though. In the back of his mind, he knew the old man would be passing soon. That's all right, Hoot thought. This is my day.

Sure enough, after he ran past the tiny grist mill at the entrance to the draw that lead up to Lucy's, Hoot heard the familiar toot of his father's car horn.

"Looking good there, Hoot," shouted Chuck as a cloud of dust floated into his son's reddening face. Hoot didn't respond. He only gritted his teeth and picked up his pace, leaving the black sedan momentarily in his wake. "You better watch out, though. Jonesy'll be coming along any second."

Hoot knew that Kay wouldn't be able to catch up with him that quickly, but his curiosity got the better of him and he sneaked a peek back up the hill. Nothing. From the inside of the car, Chuck erupted in laughter and nearly drove off the road. He honked his horn again and sped off down the hill, passing Hoot like he was standing still.

Embarrassed by his own father, Hoot spat into the manzanita at the side of the road and wiped the dust-caked sweat from his forehead before it dripped into his eyes. Despite the pain in his legs, Hoot again sped up, his chest heaving with each tortured breath. He was happy, though, that Jonesy was the one riding Miguel's horse. Hoot figured he'd caught a break with that one. Jonesy wanted him to win.

One foot in front of the other. One foot...

* * * *

"He's what?" cried Dorothy Jones, hardly believing what she had just heard.

"He's the one riding against Hoot in the race," came the reply from the calloused old miner Dorothy had recognized as a regular up at Lucy's.

Dorothy thanked the miner with a tip of her bonnet and turned to gauge where her children had escaped to. Norman was busy playing tag, Max and Corry were making there way down the embankment to throw rocks in the river, and Lindsey was gnawing on a cookie in the perambulator at her side. A lot more interested than she had been five minutes earlier, Dorothy turned to focusd her energies on finding a good place to watch the festivities. She spotted a small grass-covered berm in the sun about a block down from the courthouse.

"C'mon boys," she shouted at Max and Corry, who were trying to smash small fish with big rocks. "We have to go watch Hoot and the horses in the race. Daddy's gonna ride one of the horses."

The boys threw a couple more rocks and branches into the river, but they eventually scrambled up the embankment and were soon nipping at Dorothy's heels.

"Daddy's gonna ride one of the horses?" asked Max.

"I thought you said he was gonna meet us here," added Corry, not quite putting the pieces together.

Dorothy hadn't pieced everything together yet, either, so she just shrugged her shoulders. "I guess he'll explain when he gets here, won't he?"

"When are they comin'?" asked Max, sitting himself Indian-style on the berm.

At that moment, Dorothy noticed Chuck Peterson crossing the boulevard in front of the courthouse. He tugged at the tape that formed the finish line and muttered something to a small, nebbish character with spectacles. Even from that distance, Dorothy found Chuck's demeanor to be stand-offish. "It should be anytime now," she responded. "Look there's Hoot's daddy. He was with them when they left so they can't be that far behind."

"Mama, I see him!" shouted Corry from atop the berm. "He's over there."

Dorothy stood on her tip-toes. Sure enough, Hoot Peterson had just broken from the cover of the aspens and scrub oak that blanketed the road to the West and was hoofing it toward Hot Springs Boulevard and the finish line. He looked every bit a beaten man, but Dorothy was surprised to see him still keeping a healthy pace.

"Do you see Daddy on top of the horse, yet?" Dorothy asked.

"Not yet, Mama. Daddy's gonna lose if he don't hurry," continued Corry.

"He's a good man, your pa. If he knows what's good for him, he'll let ol' Hoot win just this once."

"Why, Mama?"

"Well, Corry, honey, this race means a lot more to Hoot than it does to Daddy."

"So you want Daddy to lose it?"

"Just this once, honey," Dorothy insisted as she backed onto the berm to get a better view. With almost three-quarters of a mile left for Hoot, the victory seemed secure, but just then a holler went up from the hundreds of Mexicans at the finish line. Dorothy again stood on her tiptoes. A little higher on the hill, a puff of dust signaled the impending arrival of the horse and its rider.

"C'mon, Hoot!" she screamed without a second thought. "C'mon!"

As Hoot turned onto Hot Springs Boulevard, Dorothy could see him beginning to languish. His shoulders slumped and he peaked over his shoulder twice that Dorothy could tell, but he kept running. If anything, his speed increased.

An agonizing two minutes passed as Hoot rambled down the boulevard, his lead dwindling with each and every step. Kay and the big horse eventually made the turn on to Hot Springs Boulevard as well, and set their sights on Hoot. Dorothy was surprised, however, to see Kay in a tuck with a serious but somber look on his face. Is he really thinking of winning this thing, she thought.

"You're almost there, Hoot," Dorothy encouraged. "Keep going! He's right behind you!"

As Hoot passed Dorothy and her four boys, Dorothy took in the whole scene. It was chaotic. Miners, Mexicans, sheepherders, ranchers, and even housewives and children all lined the Boulevard shouting and cheering. Showers of confetti poured from the second floor windows of the courthouse and the bank. The drunks had ambled out from behind the saloons and boarding houses to get a view of the action, and the bookies were grasping anxiously to their wads of cash. Dorothy even caught a glimpse of heavy-set chap she recognized as Cole McBride.

She turned back just in time to see her husband bearing down on Hoot. The horse, awash in frothy white slobber and soaked in sweat, galloped like a soaring Pegasus with her lightning bolts. Dorothy couldn't watch. Conflicted and confused, she buried her head in her hands and listened for the reaction of the crowd. It seemed like forever before another titanic cheer exploded from the finish line.

"Mama, Mama," cried Norman, who had escaped to get a better view of the finish. "He did it! He did it! Hoot beat the horse! He beat him by a couple of feet is all. It was so close."

"And your Dad, how's he doing?"

"I don't know. He looked pretty upset but he shook Hoot's hand and patted him on the back. He was a pretty good sport from what I could tell."

"Yes, he was." Dorothy chuckled to herself, gathered her littlest one, and hollered to the others still playing on the berm, "C'mon, boys, let's go give Daddy a great big hug."

* * * *