A Second Chance
By Dawn Natelle
Day two at the race camp: Dawn
SATURDAY, June 25, 2016
Rachael woke early. The summer sun rises well before 6 a.m., and the girl crawled out of her sleeping bag at that time, listening to the chorus of birds singing the morning in. She felt entirely refreshed after her exertions to save Sprite the evening before. Lisa was still lying in bed. Rachael wondered how such a small girl could snore so loudly.
She went to the portable outhouses that had been set up for the races. One of the benefits of being first up was that they were still clean from the overnight maintenance. Then she headed over to the corral, and fed the horses: not just Blackie and Dutchess, but the horses of the other farm. When all six horses had feedbags on, she started mucking out the corral, raking the manure and straw to the side, and then laying out new straw. She was just done that when she heard a familiar voice.
“You’ve almost finished my morning chores,” Robert said cheerily as he grabbed a wheelbarrow and a shovel, and started scooping yesterday’s filth into the wheelbarrow. “You went to bed pretty early last night.”
“Yeah, I was beat,” Rachael said. “I feel better now though.”
“You missed the excitement last night. There was a meeting and they moved the races around. We still start with the ponies and then the powder puff, but they moved the under-16 to Sunday. Some of the men want to race the same horses in the over-45s and the open, so they moved the over-45 to the third race today.”
“So Sunday will be the under-16, under-20, and the open?” Rachael said.
“Yep. So we have to decide who rides what on Sunday. You should run the open for us, since you are smallest and Blackie will be tired with three races in a day. I guess that means that I should ride the under-16, and you can ride the under-20,” Robert said.
“That’ll be interesting,” Rachael noted. “I mean, what are all those 19-year-olds going to think about racing a 15-year-old girl.”
“They’ll think better of it at the end of the race when they watch you cross the finish line first. And think: in the open it will be farm owners and guys over 20 racing you.”
When they were done cleaning up the corral, they headed back to the camp and started the breakfast. Rachael started mixing a huge tub of pancake batter while Robert put sausages and bacon on the barbeque. He used one side, and Rachael placed a griddle on the other side and started making pancakes for her and her boyfriend.
They had almost finished eating when the smells of bacon started luring people out of bed. Most of them stopped at the grill, and sniffed the meats before rushing off to the outhouses. Peter snagged a slice of bacon as he left, tossing it between hands as he ran off. Robert and Rachael were done eating and back at the grill as people from the two families came back to find that hot pancakes and a plate of meat were ready to choose from as the young couple made more. Cook duty lasted a full hour, with little Lisa last to come to the table. She was nervous. Her race would be at noon, and she had never raced before.
Mrs. Jackson came up and hugged Rachael at the end of the meal: “Thanks. This was normally my job. And you even managed to get a trainee to help you. Good work.” She led a team to clean up and wash up, letting the kids leave. Lisa walked with them as they explored the site. Since early morning people had been setting up booths and rides. It was all supposed to start at 10 a.m. Robert and Lisa were used to the various booths, and explained them to Rachael.
“That one is the 4-H booth,” Robert said. “I have a shift there during supper time, so I might miss Dad’s race. It is the best place to eat. There are food places that travel with the rides, but the food there is not as good. We usually only get candy apples or cotton candy from them. The 4-H makes almost half of their yearly budget from the profits of the races.”
“That row of booths are the games,” Lisa said. “Dart balloons, hit the milk bottle, ring the bell, fish bowl, crown and anchor and spray the clown.”
“It looks like the same rides as last year,” Robert said. “Merry-go-round, Octopus, tilt a whirl, airplanes and cars for the little kids, and a big slide.”
“Are there that many people coming?” Rachael said. “I thought it was just the farmers.”
“No, the whole town comes out,” Robert said. “I’m surprised you never have been.”
“Well, we were pretty poor before Geoff,” she said. “And we didn’t have a car to come out into the country anyway. Mom and Dad will probably be here tomorrow.”
“I’m sure they will be. This is sort of the early version of the fall fair. There are more rides and booths at that, but this is cool. All the service clubs are here, except the Legion. They had to drop out a few years back, because they couldn’t get enough people to man their booth. They sold a killer chicken on a bun. The Lions do that now, and donate 10 percent back to the Legion.”
“The Optimists run a pony ride for the little kids,” Lisa said. “I used to ride that every year, until I got Dutchess. I rode Robert’s pony at home, but it was still cool to come here and ride. Some town kids only get a chance to ride the ponies here and at fall fair.”
“I’ll have to make sure that Bobby gets a chance to ride,” Rachael said. “Even if you have let him ride Dutchess at the farm.”
“The Rotary run a bingo tent, and the Kiwanis have a beer tent,” Robert said. “I’m still too young for either of those. No doubt the twins will try to sneak in. It’s hard though … the servers are all people from town, and they know who is 19 and who isn’t.”
“Minor hockey dads look after the parking for tips, and the mothers have a booth selling pie slices,” Lisa added.
“Look, it’s Gary from the church,” Rachael said, waving and calling the man over.
“Hi kids,” the church manager said. “You are out early. Come to watch the races?”
“Actually, all three of us are in the races,” Rachael said. Lisa beamed with pride at being included as a rider. “What are you up to? Are the Hobo Army running a booth?”
“Not this year,” Gary said. “But we have the bus fixed up well enough for a test run, so we are offering free rides to the races from a few spots in town. The radio is sponsoring us, giving us free promotion spots, so I’m out here scouting out the area. It looks like we will be dropping people off there,” he pointed, “where they are setting up the radio station remote truck. The first bus should be coming in at 9:45, so I will wait until it lands in, and then head back on it. The first bus will probably be empty going back.”
Even before 10 the booths started opening up and Robert tried to win a prize for Rachael at the milk bottle game. He spent five dollars without succeeding. Then Rachael took a try. She knew the secret of the game. The bottles have huge weights in them at the base, so the only way to knock them down was a square hit at the very tops of the bottles. In a minute she had knocked down three bottles.
The man approached with a small stuffed animal. “You know the trick,” he said softly. “I’ll trade this in for one of the big prizes if you don’t tell anyone else about it.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyway,” Rachael said. “You have to make a living, just like anyone else. I’ll take the small prize.”
The man pulled it back, and then reached up and snagged a huge stuffed rabbit, handing it to Rachael.
“Thanks,” she said, and turned and handed the animal to Lisa, whose eyes went wide. It was nearly as tall as her.
Robert wound up having to carry it back to the camp. “Good throwing, son,” Frank Jackson said as they walked into the camp.
“It wasn’t me,” the boy pouted. “Rachael got it. I just wasted five dollars. She is good at everything.
“I’m going to call him Thumper,” an excited Lisa said. “’cause every time I carry him, his ears thump me on the head.”
“Well it is time that we get Dutchess ready,” Frank said. “Your race runs at noon, and they will start whether you are there or not.”
Rachael insisted on accompanying the group to the corral to get Dutchess and her small saddle. Lisa had a riding helmet. They made their way to the starting line where several other ponies and riders were waiting. Rachael rubbed Dutchess down, while feeding her energy and confidence.
Robert saddled the pony, while Mrs. Jackson strapped the riding helmet onto Lisa. Then her father lifted her up onto the pony. It was still a few minutes to 11:45, when she could go to the starting line. Rachael leaned in and gave her a hug, and found that she was shaking.
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes,” Lisa said. “This is my first race ever, and I’m worried I won’t do well.”
“Well, today is my first race ever too, but I’m not worried,” Rachael said.
“You must be very brave,” the little girl said.
“Nope. It is just that I really love and trust Blackie, and I know that he will do his best. We might not win, but as long as we work together as a team, we will do alright.”
“I love and trust Dutchess too,” she said. “I feel better now. Thanks Rachael.”
With that the family walked her to the start line as a group, with her father being the member of the family allowed to stand with her until the start. The rest went to the temporary bleachers that had been put up.
You could see the entire pony track from the bleachers. The pony course was much smaller than the horse track, a simple half-mile oval. There were no gullies, jumps, or other obstacles to confuse the young riders. Both boys and girls raced together.
At noon sharp the starter fired his pistol and the horses took over in a rather ragged order. Dutchess didn’t lag, and soon Lisa was up near the front. Frank came back and stood in front of the bleachers.
When Lisa was in the backstretch, she was in the lead, although a boy a year or two older was close behind. As she turned the corner and was running towards the bleachers, it was hard to see who was in front. When they turned into the front-stretch, Lisa was a head behind, and Rachael decided she had to get down to the ground to be close to the girl at the finish. She didn’t notice that the rest of the family following her down.
Dutchess put on a valiant push at the finish line, but the other pony finished a nose ahead. When Rachael got to the pony, it was spent and Lisa was crying.
“I wanted to win,” she said. “Everyone else is going to win, and I am the only loser.”
“You don’t know everyone else will win,” Donna Jackson said as she held her daughter close. Rachael reached in and stroked her face gently, wiping away a few tears: “I think you did win.”
“What? No, that boy beat me,” Lisa protested, but her sobs had stopped.
“You came second, and there will be a ribbon or something for that,” Rachael said. “And that boy was quite a bit older than you. He has probably lost several races in the past, and this might even be his last year on ponies. Even if it isn’t, he can’t run that pony again. You and Dutchess did wonderful for a first time, and I bet you will win for sure next year, or the year after. You are a good team, and one day you will get the trophy.”
“I will?” the girl said with a smile. “I will! Next time we will win.”
The awards after the race were held and Lisa actually got a small cup as runner-up. She shook the winner’s hand at Rachael’s urging: the only competitor to do so. The boy congratulated her and told her she had run a great race, and that he would watch for her to win next year, as he would be too old to race again.
Rachael and Lisa rubbed Dutchess down, and the smaller girl got her an apple as her prize for running so hard. Rachael checked, and found no injuries to the pony, other than some tiredness. “You’re next,” Rachael told Blackie, giving him an apple as well. “We’ll be back for you in an hour.”
From 12:30 to 1:30 the family explored the midway, with Lisa going on some rides with Robert. Rachael was a bit too tense to enjoy herself, but after riding the Zipper with Robert, Lisa came back announcing that she was done with “scary rides” and wanted to go on the Merry-go-round. She got in line, and Rachael and Robert were standing outside the fence when they saw Chef on the ride, with Mark riding a horse on one side and little Ariel on a unicorn on the other. Rachael looked around, and they saw Linda holding her baby Tanya not to far away.
“Hi Linda,” Rachael said as she dragged Robert along. “You got Chef out.”
“I did,” the shy girl said. “We spent the morning moving into the new apartment. I guess we will be neighbors, although Tyson said that he is hoping to find a place where we can live as a family. I really hope it all happens. Nothing in my life has worked out for me, but I really, really want him. He is so wonderful.”
“Chef has had a hard life too,” Rachael said. “It was when he found the church and got off drugs that he turned himself around.”
“Yes, he told me that there was a painting at the church I was to pray to tomorrow,” Linda said. “I just hope it all works out.”
“It will. Look at him with your kids. He clearly loves them like a father. I think that one day he will be walking Ariel down the aisle. And then Tanya a few years later. And he will make sure that both of them marry good men. Wait and see.”
“Oh I hope so,” Linda said. “I really, really hope so.”
After Chef got off the rides, Robert recommended the good food at the 4-H booth. Lisa and Robert each had a hot dog, but Rachael didn’t want to eat so soon before the race. Chef and his new little family weren’t aware that Rachael was racing at 2, but promised to be in the stands.
Rachael and Robert went back to get Blackie. Robert had to saddle him, and Rachael put the other tack on. She continued to flow positive thoughts into the horse, and kept him calm, even when they were lining up at the start. Robert held his reins prior to the start.
“The pony ride is over, little girl,” said a sour-faced woman of about 45. “This race is for women, not little girls.”
“Now Doris,” a younger and friendly woman said. “Be nice. You aren’t afraid that the girl will beat you, are you?”
“Her? And that half-grown colt? Not likely,” Doris said with a sneer. “Just keep away from me, girlie.”
“Okay,” Rachael replied sweetly. “How far ahead of you should we stay? Ten lengths? Fifteen?”
All the other women laughed uncontrollably at Rachael’s comeback. All but Doris, who just fumed and swatted at her horse to move to the right, the shorter route to the first turn. Rachael just moved to the left, where there would be clear sailing for her stallion to run.
At the start Rachael and Blackie got a fast start, and had a half-length on the other women at the first turn, even while taking it widely. Choosing the outside line at the first turn put them on the inside at the second turn, and from that point on they were ahead by an increasing distance. At the first gully crossing, Blackie leapt across, and most of the other women had to scramble down and up the sides. Doris tried to leap, as she had seen Rachael do, but her horse balked at the edge, throwing the woman. She went clear into the little stream, which broke her fall and probably saved her from injury. But it did mean she was caked in mud when she walked her horse back to the starting line.
She was back at the start when the horses next became visible. Or at least Rachael and Blackie were visible. No other horses were in sight.
“That girl cheated,” Doris complained. “No way she got around the track that fast.”
“We have been getting reports by cell from each of the marshalls around the course. They have all reported her in the lead by increasing amounts. There were no shortcuts taken.”
Doris just sniffed as she and the crowd saw Rachael heading to the final gully. She went wide, and to Robert’s surprise she went down into the gully, using the tuffet to make the leap in two jumps. Then she came home, letting up on Blackie to save him for his next race in the over-45s. The horse was not happy about it, preferring to run full blast for his favorite rider.
It was more than a minute later that the second place horse appeared, in a group of about five, and then four minutes later when the final horse came across, apparently limping a bit.
Rachael had already rubbed Blackie down and Robert had covered him with a blanket by the time the final horse arrived, so Rachael ran over and started to try and find out what had happened to him. She eased the pain, and then got the horse to lift a hind leg. Rachael used her special vision to find a small stone under the frog of the hoof. She pried it out with a small tool and then applied some healing to the hoof.
“What are you doing?” an elderly male voice said. Rachael looked up and saw the vet for the races approaching. She held out the stone: “This was under the collateral sulcus of the left hind hoof. I think he is fine now.”
“That will be for me to decide,” the vet said, looking over the horse, which was fine now, and no longer limping. He wondered at the young girl using veterinary terminology as if she knew what it meant.
Rachael then got her trophy, more than a foot high. Lisa insisted on carrying it back to the corral as Rachael and Robert walked Blackie back, getting congratulations from family and friends.
“Good race, honey,” a familiar voice said. It was her mother: with Geoff and Bobby on his shoulders.
“You came,” a surprised Rachael said. “Who is looking after the shop?”
“Mike is working some overtime,” Geoff said. “We weren’t going to miss your first race. Jane came in to take your Mom’s spot. We are all proud of you.”
“You’re like Annie Oakley,” Bobby said from his high perch. “Just without the guns.”
Rachael fed Blackie his apple, and then spent an hour with her family at the midway. She introduced her Mom to Linda, who was glad to meet her new neighbor. The timid woman was less familiar with Geoff, but her anxieties eased when she saw that Chef and Geoff got together well. And Bobby immediately took up with her son Mark, and the two boys ran off to explore the midway.
At four the last race of the day was the over-45s, and it would be Frank’s turn to ride Blackie. When Rachael had run the course, Robert had pointed out where she jumped the tuffet, and told his father that was the line to take.
The race went just about as smoothly as the others. Frank was in mid-pack when they got to the first gully, and he had to fight to keep Blackie from attempting to jump it again. This time there was well over 100 more pounds on his back, and he wouldn’t have made the jump.
But he only slowed to a trot and quickly scrambled down then up in the gully, giving Frank a chance to catch some of the horses who were slower climbing. He left the ravine in third place, and managed to make up the gap on the leaders over the backstretch. Blackie did not like running behind other horses. He was a leader.
At the second gully, Frank moved into the proper position, and let Blackie leap for the tuffet. The horse stumbled a bit as an edge of the tuffet gave way, but got out on a second jump. The other leaders had scrambled down and up, and were several lengths behind, allowing Frank to run Blackie in without pressing. The whole family and friends were there at the finish to congratulate both horse and rider.
“Not bad for an old man,” Frank crowed as he took handshakes from the men and kisses from the women.
“Blackie isn’t that old,” Rachael quipped. “Oh, you mean his passenger.” She showed she was only teasing by kissing the man on the cheek.
Lisa had an even bigger trophy to carry back to the camp. There was another tent. Geoff had borrowed one from Gary, and he, Maria and Bobby were going to spend the night at the camp. Maria told a concerned Rachael that Grandma was spending the evening looking after Grandpa (and sleeping in Rachael’s bed).
Dinner that night was at the 4-H tent, and even Chef and Linda joined in. Rachael had seen her father slip Chef a loan of $40 to cover the meal and more treats for his kids. Tanya in particular fell in love with cotton candy sold at the races, and wore almost as much across her face as inside of her mouth. Rachael gave three twoonies to Bobby, and he led the older two kids over to get a candy apple each.
Chef’s new family rode the Hobo Army bus back into town, wisely getting onto one of the earlier ones with tired and sleepy kids. The last bus was supposed to go at midnight, but three more runs had to happen after that to get everyone home that had come that way.
There was a dance that night, and riders got in free, but Rachael could only take two dances with Robert before they had to turn in. During that time they changed the plan again, with Robert going to run the first and third race of the day on Sunday, and Rachael running the second. After all, it would not be fair, or good for Robert’s male ego, if his girlfriend won three trophies, and he only got one.
Lisa was in the tent, snoring loudly, when Rachael climbed into the sleeping bag.
Thanks for a wonderful day. It may be the best ever, as Bobby says. And tomorrow should be the same. Thank you for getting Chef and Linda together. You wouldn’t think they are right for each other. He is big, and older, and she is so tiny and pretty. But he needs someone to care for, and she has a ready-made family for him to love. And she simply adores him. Thanks for having Mom, Dad and Bobby here for my race. It means so much to be able to share it with them, even though I am starting to think of the Jackson’s as a second family.
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