Friday, March 26, 1999

Rookie Horse, Rookie Rider: Part III The end of the Trail - Howard Bramhall

So we back track, I find my mistake, the yellow ribbons are now on my right and all is well. But we just added three miles to our original 15 and I`m felling really stupid (Hey, I heard that). My exuberance has left me and Dance seems off too. Somehow I think he knows I messed up; lucky for me horses are the most forgiving creatures on earth. We finally enter the vet check from the right direction. I spot Joe talking to a woman, most likely his wife, and wave hello. He waves back, whispers something in his her ear and they both start laughing hysterically. I`m sure it`s a private moment between the two of them and has nothing to do with me. Yea, right. She then mounts her Arab horse and leaves the vet check area. Since I know there is a 30 minute hold before you`re allowed to leave, I figure I`m way behind the leaders now.

I doubt that many of you reading this are nonriders, but for those two or three of you who may be (Mom, Dad and sis), I`ll go ahead and explain the vet check, in my own abbreviated fashion. First thing that happens is one of the volunteers checks out your horse`s pulse rate. This count has to be down to a certain number before you are allowed to proceed, usually 60 beats or so per minute. I expected Dance`s to be high, but by the time someone gets to me (and it wasn`t that long), she takes it and tells me it`s 56. We are then allowed to go on to the next part of the check. (Exciting so far, don`t you think?)

We proceed to an area where riders and horses are jogging in a small arena, making turns around trees and markers with the whole thing bordered by a red rope. This part is not fun for me and Dance cause we didn`t train on this enough and I knew it. The rider must get their horse to trot, not walk, along side them for 20 yards or so. I have yet to master the "along side" aspect of this operation. When I do it I end up either in front of my horse, running for dear life, or I take a dirt bath with my horse dragging me till he feels like stopping.

The vet will tell you the purpose of this is to check out the horse`s legs and flexibility, but my belief is they want to see if you (the rider) are still crazy enough to continue. Either that or the vet is just bored and needs a laugh or two to make it through his long day. I mean where else do you get to watch middle aged, out-of-shape men and women running in circles, tugging on to a thousand pound creature, who usually doesn`t want to cooperate, cause they`re darn tired. I`m speaking for myself here, of course. Not all endurance riders are middle aged AND out-of-shape. I just happen to be blessed with both.

You get to perform this trotting-with-your-horse two different times, making sure to turn to the left and then to the right. Now on this particular day Dance, with his long legs that reach up to my neck, decided he wasn`t going to trot at all. So one of the kind assistants gets behind his butt, makes all kinds of noises, and Dance takes off loping around me. This maneuver pulls me off balance and down I go. He continues moving, steps on his reins, snaps them in half, and then trots beautifully right up to the vet and stops. The vet says, "That was lovely, now one more time. This time to the left." The laughter from the riders watching is still ringing in my ears.

Each rider has what they call a vet card, where the vet writes down numbers for the heart rate, and the respiratory rate. And he actually grades your horse in areas such as recovery, hydration, gut sounds (mine were fine), tack sores, and quality of movement. The vet added a special category on the card just for me. He gave me an A in "comedy of movement." The riders watching actually clapped when Dance and I had finished our show. But even this did not make me happy. Going the wrong way on the trail and a sloppy vet check had bought me down. Plus my face was caked with dirt from taking a fall behind my horse. I felt grimy, dejected and looked worse than that kid who always has that cloud of dust over his head in "Peanuts."

After the vet check we had to wait 30 minutes before we were allowed to continue. I went to my campsite, which was just on the other side of a dirt road from the vet check area. I sponged off Dance Line, loosened his saddle, threw him some hay and went to my cooler for a sandwich and a beer. I knew the beer was not a good idea but at this particular moment I just didn`t care. I was starting to relax and had just opened my second beer, when, all of a sudden, I heard screaming and cursing coming from one of my next door neighbors. I realized that 9MM had just paid the remains of her tent a visit and was very upset that it was dead.

I was amazed at the words she was using in her grief and when I heard her say, "Gonna kill that ******* firebug!" I knew it was time to leave. Luckily I was on the other side of my horse trailer and she hadn`t spotted me. I dropped the beer, ran towards my horse, tripped over my cooler, got up and grabbed what was left of Dance Line`s reins. We both ran as quietly and quickly as a horse and human can together. Actually, we tiptoed out of there, kinda like the horse and Bugs Bunny do in that cartoon (come on, I know you`ve seen it). I think Dance was afraid of 9MM as much as I was. We were both hoping she wasn`t going to shoot one of us in the back.

So I go back to the new clipboard lady, still wearing her football helmet, and she checks my card for time. She makes a mark on the card, hands it back to me and announces I can now leave. "Wrongway," she says "you know you`re following the white trail now, right?" GRRRRRRR. "Yes Ma`am," I respond holding in my frustration, "I know the way." "Sure you do," she says with an all too knowing smile on her face. And we`re off again. Back on the open trail with no one to follow. And, as par for the course on this day, I have no idea where that first white marker is.

Well, we only have ten miles left but my buddy, Dance, is burnt out. He just doesn`t have the lope or even the trot left in him. I`ve learned my first important lesson as a Rookie Rider. Control your horse at the start, don`t let him fly down the trail cause he`ll pay the price later if you don`t pace him properly. So we walk. He`s so darn tired I`m starting to think we should turn around and call it a day. This is some sport, this endurance thing I`ve gotten us into. And a 25 mile run isn`t even considered an official endurance distance. The official term for the 25 is Limited Distance and I think they call it that cause it`s just about the limit old farts like me can do on a horse.

I`m just about to turn around and quit when Dance`s ears perk up (Linda Tripp would be envious at the things he can hear) and he glances back, hearing a horse and rider approaching. And when I hear it I can tell they are coming fast. I turn around to see who it is and then I spot her. My stomach turns in a knot and the acid starts churning. It`s 9MM and I know she`s carrying. She`s still wearing that coat (to hide the gun, I`m sure) and I see it flapping in the breeze created by the speed of her horse. And, as the coat flaps away from her waist, a bright glare shines in my eyes from the reflection off her heavily polished revolver. "Dance, we got to get moving here. This woman is not well." Somehow he understands, and off we go. Almost as fast as when we started this race. Horses sense danger better than anyone. Even better than chicken humans like me.

I get the urge to play hide-and-seek with 9MM but I reconsider. She seems to have tracking blood in her and I don`t want her spilling any of mine. So Dance Line and I do the only thing we do well. We run like there`s no tomorrow. I`m just hoping he can last so we can see another day. Right now my burnt out forest back home doesn`t seem so bleak. I`m counting on her horse being more tired than Dance since I know they`ve traveled at least ten or fifteen miles more than we have. And even if she does not catch up she wouldn`t really shoot us, would she? I mean over a cheap tent and maybe a few minutes of lost sleep?

We`re loping and occasionally galloping. I keep looking back but don`t spot her. But I know Dance is tired and maybe we should trot or walk a bit. Suddenly, up ahead I see the Paint and know we`re right behind Pantyhose Joe. I`m thinking she probably won`t shoot me in front of a witness. So behind him we go. "Hey Joe, (I omit the Pantyhose) how you two doing?" He looks back at me and smiles. "Hey," he says. Another talker on the trail. His Paint is still loping, must be part rabbit this horse. Dance and I slow down to a trot and get into Joe`s pace; just like old times, except now I`m not so relaxed. "Bring me any beer?" he asks me. "I was going to Joe, but we had to leave in a hurry." "How come?" he says. So I tell him about 9MM; he already knew about the tent, even though he didn`t really believe me when I first told him the story. And then I tell him she`s close behind us and I think I`m in trouble. He laughs and says as far as he knows no rider has ever been shot in an endurance ride by another rider. A few have been lost to hunters` bullets, but that`s to be expected. I`m starting to like Joe`s sense of humor.

Dance is doing better, his trot seems to match the lope of Joe`s Paint. I feel like we`re halfway done by now and think we might actually finish. To complete is to win in endurance. For me to complete and get the heck out of camp before 9MM catches us is to live. I`m starting to feel better and think we might be OK. Joe says he had to slow down and that we`re probably not in the top ten for the 25. Oh well. I tell him that when Dance and I are finished we`ll have completed about 29 cause of my wrong turn. We both try and decide what nickname the other riders will give me. "Rookie?" "Wrongway?" "Firebug?" "Deadguy?" I decide I don`t like the last one.

All of a sudden we hear her coming. She`s galloping towards us, faster than a normal rider would travel. "You might as well face the music," Joe says to me. Easy for him to say, he`s never seen her up close. Bad enough Beethoven was deaf, he would have went blind if he saw this woman. So 9MM finally catches up to us and right away she`s yelling at me. Cursing worse than the Preacher and that French woman put together. "Did you tear up my tent?" she finally asks. "Well, Ma`am, it`s kinda like this" I say and then I start talking quickly. I try and blame my horse, but Dance looks up at me like "Hey, you`re joking here, right?" So I break down and just tell her, "Yes I did. I was trying to catch my horse, who got away from me, and accidentally ripped up your tent. Didn`t you get my note?"

Well, this sets her off. She loses it totally. 9MM flips back her coat so quickly I knew she had done this, or had practiced doing this, draw often. Before I could get in another word I was looking down the barrel of her revolver. And I could see the red on the safety button, which meant it was not on. My crazy life started flashing before me, but Dance decides he doesn`t like the movie. He rears up and, with his front long leg, he kicks 9MM right in the head. BAAAM. Down she goes. As she falls backwards her gun goes off and I hear Joe scream.

Oh damn, she shot Joe. Dance comes back down to earth and Joe and his Paint cautiously walk next to me. "Are you hit?" I ask Joe, not seeing any blood. He tells me no, but the bullet went so close to his ear he could feel it go by. And then Joe and I just stare at each other for a while looking like we had just seen a flying saucer or something.

"What are we going to do?" I ask. "We?" Joe responds. I get down off of Dance and Joe gets off his Paint. Joe holds the reins of both horses and I, carefully, walk over to 9MM. Her cowgirl hat is crushed from the fall and her face has an upside down U, which goes over the bridge of her nose and comes down on each cheeks. Her coat is opened and I read her T-shirt underneath which says HUNT NAKED. I have trouble picturing this, so I force my brain to think about the steps you take when performing CPR. This becomes another unpleasant thought because 9MM is the receiver. I start feeling queasy so I take a deep breath, bend at my knees and lower my head. This stops that nauseous feeling and gets me prepared for what I have to do next.

I approach 9MM and kneel down next to her head. This feels like being next to an unconscious grizzly bear, not sure whether he`s dead or just sleeping. I reach over and touch her neck, to see if there`s a pulse. Not feeling one I ask God (well, I am on my knees) if he`s really expecting me to perform mouth- to-mouth here. As I lower my head next to hers I listen intently, hoping to hear her breathing. And when I feel her breath on my cheek I let mine out in a sigh of relief. I move my hand lower on her neck and feel a weak, but steady pulse. "She`s still alive," I tell Joe. "What do we do now?"

"You keep saying we," Joe says again. "Just tie her to her horse and bring her in. I`ll ride ahead and alert the authorities so they can call an ambulance." Great, I`m thinking, I get to finally spend some quality time alone with 9MM. Well, at least she won`t have her gun, cause I go over and pick it up and stick it in my leather bag tied to my saddle. Joe holds my horse while I go get 9MM`s Arab, put her over the saddle, belly down, and tie her hands and legs together with some hay rope I find in my saddlebag. Joe helps me and ties some rope around her body, attaching it to the horse and the saddle. Joe says, "I can`t believe she was going to shoot you over some tent. I`ve seen this woman at other rides, but never really spoke to her. I think your horse saved your life today."

We finished tying up 9MM, both Joe and I looking kinda proud when we finished. We had ropes and hay lines and anything else we could find attaching part of her body to the saddle and the horse. Kinda felt like putting your kids bicycle together from scratch the night before Christmas. I even attached her crunched cowgirl hat to one of her beltloops.

Joe mounts his horse and trots away to alert everyone. I get back on Dance Line and we walk, with 9MM and her horse, on towards camp. This walk seems to take forever and I`m still nervous with 9MM at my back. I`m continuously looking behind me to make sure she`s still there and not looking up at me. I also check my saddle bag to make sure her gun is still there. Every once in a while she mumbles something incoherent. I think I hear her say words like "hunt" and "kill" and "death," but it`s difficult for me to tell if she`s actually speaking or if my fear is churning up my imagination. I start thinking about 9MM, wondering what exactly does she wear when she hunts? I picture this mean, nasty, unattractive woman naked, killin Bambi, deep in the woods and then gutting the deer and eating the heart, all covered in blood from the fresh kill. YUCK!!!

Finally, I spot the camp. Cop lights are flashing and an ambulance is up ahead. A crowd of riders and campers have gathered near the finish line and when someone spots us he excitedly yells, "Hey, here they come!" The crowd drifts my way and two of the ambulance guys quickly wheel out this gurney thing and come right up to me and Dance. I get down, someone grabs my horse`s reins (what`s left of them) and I continue holding the rope attached to 9MM`s Arab. The ambulance guys untie 9MM (one of them jokes about the number of ropes attached to her body) and gently remove her from the horse. They place her on the gurney and wheel her towards the ambulance. The men end up having to pick the thing up cause the wheels keep getting stuck in the dirt road. I`m thinking to myself that I hope I never see her ugly mug again.

One of the onlookers (he seems to be an authority type) takes the rope attached to 9MM`s horse from my hand, places one of his on my shoulder and says, "Here, let me take her horse for you. The law wants to speak with you." Right on cue, a Policeman wanders up to me and starts asking questions. He brings out an official looking pad and gives me a serious look, like I`m under oath here and better not lie. I`m thinking, "Damn, did Joe talk to this guy, and if he did, what did he tell him?"

I`m contemplating that the truth is what needs to be said, but then I start this internal debate with myself. Did I assault 9MM with my horse? Even though I knew it was self defense, will this guy believe me? The cop asks me if I knew her name. I tell him, "No, she was camped next to me but I didn`t get to meet her." Damn, told a lie already and didn`t even mean to. I start to sweat even though it`s getting cool outside.

About this time Joe walks up to us and joins in. I thought the cop would be bothered by this, but he isn`t. In fact, he had seemed bored with me, but when Joe appears the Policeman livens up and acts like Joe is some kind of celebrity or somebody important. Joe says to the cop, "You`re about done with your questions, right?" The cop says, "Yes sir, I just have one more." UH- OH, here it comes. I`m going to jail for sure. Maybe Dance too (I love my horse, but I`m hoping I don`t have to share the same cell with him). Assault with a deadly horse. Battery on a Naked Hunter. The Policeman asks me his last question. "Do you want me to give your name out to the newspapers if they ask me who it was that saved her life?" Instantly, I stop sweating. Being the humble hero that I am, I answer, "No thanks. I seem to draw enough attention to myself without the help from the media." The cop laughs and then leaves, but he has to shake Joe`s hand first before going. How does Joe have so much power here?

Joe escorts me to the ridecamp area. About 15 riders gather around and they all want to hear our story. Beer cans appear and chairs are bought around forming a circle. Joe goes first, and then I butt in, and together we tell a tale far different from what really happened. I`m not sure why Joe does this for me but I know I owe him a lot more than a six-pack for watching my back like this. After we conclude our story, a few of the women riders comment that they`ve seen 9MM at other rides, but no one in the circle can remember ever speaking with her. One of the ladies says she remembers her as the "unfriendly type" who didn`t seem to want to meet anyone or make any new friends. I`m thinking I doubt if she has many old ones.

Finally, one of the women changes the subject and the group starts talking about the race, who placed where, who were jerks and who was nice on the trail (trail etiquette is important in this sport), and some of the interesting stories that are a constant part of endurance riding. I start reflecting on my week-end, just sitting content listening and happy that I`m not being hauled off to jail. As I daydream (yea, I do this a lot), my eye catches two people, one male and one female, who appear to be staring at me. And it looks like an unfriendly one.

I shake the cobwebs from my head so I can focus on the two of them. My memory kicks in and I recognize them as the "French couple." What helps me is the female`s twisted eye glasses and, as they start walking my way, I notice she`s limping so much she has to lean on the man`s shoulders. And, as they approach me, neither of them is smiling.

I know I`m too tired to fight with them and decide to just sit there and take it like a chicken. The man has a bottle in his hand and my guess is he`s planning on hitting me over the head with it. He swings it around towards me, but instead of smacking me with it, he shows it to me and says, "Mon ami, Je suis Jean Claude." And the female says, "Je suis Louise Marie." Wow. These two really are French.

Turns out they aren`t mad at me at all. Joe happens to speak fluent French (this guy is constantly surprising me) and translates for everyone. The entire circle of riders stop talking and focus on the French couple and their story. Through Joe`s translation we discover that they were pursuing me to apologize for the rudeness of their horses. They had misunderstood my request to pass them on the trail. Marie then comes up to me and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Joe tells me she wanted to thank me for giving them incentive to ride as well as they did. Turns out the French couple came in second and third in the 25, just behind Joe`s wife, who had come in first.

So, in celebration, they uncork the bottle and it was the best tasting wine I had ever had. Later on, Jean Claude goes to his trailer and brings back some more bottles, some incredible cheese, a couple loaves of bread (French, of course), and the entire circle of endurance riders gets tanked. We all got so drunk they even let me sing. I sang my favorite song, "Shoulda been a Cowboy" and everyone was so smashed no one complained.

I remember someone helping me to my horse trailer later on that night and when I awoke the next day the place was deserted. Everyone had packed up and left. Dance Line was standing in his portable corral, looking content and well fed, but ready to go home. And inside my trailer, taped to the wall was a ribbon attached to a piece of paper saying, "To the best Rookie Horse and Rookie Rider ever to grace our ridecamp. We hope to see you both again at our next ride." And it was signed by every rider, except 9MM. Marie had even drawn a picture of the Eiffel Tower by her name. And one signature stood out, apart from all the rest, at the bottom of the page. It simply said, "Your Pal, Joe Nameth."

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