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Authors: Catherine Madera

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BOOK: Rain Shadow
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“Let’s put up our tents there, by the tree line.”

Jacob gestured toward the edge of the meadow and maneuvered the truck and horse trailer into one of the few remaining spots. Taylor rested her arm in the open window on the passenger’s side and watched the activity outside. Horses stood tied to trailers or grazed in temporary circles of electric fence, children played, and men and women sat in lawn chairs in front of campers. An excited energy filled the air, anticipation for the Ride and Tie competition that began at six the next morning. Taylor felt her own excitement rise and fall: first swell in anticipation of finally competing after three months of training, then drop to anxious worry that she’d disappoint Jacob or do something harmful to Rain.

“You’re not nervous are you?”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Taylor grimaced.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jacob shrugged his shoulders, a teasing look on his face. “Your hands are only balled into fists right now and you have a certain ‘deer in the headlight’ stare.”

Taylor looked down at the fists she didn’t know she was making.

“Let’s just hope I can run like a deer tomorrow.”

“I have faith in you. So does your horse.”

With a spring in his step Jacob walked to the back of the trailer and unloaded Rain. While he set up a temporary fence for the horse Taylor
got out the two small tents they’d be sleeping in for the night and began
setting up camp. Tonight they’d have Rain vetted to ensure she was sound for the 15 mile ride ahead and she and Jacob would talk strategy. They were one of ten teams eager to test their abilities in the vast, mountainous land surrounding pristine Black Lake. Though within easy driving distance of civilization, the area still felt like wilderness.

At least one of them was eager, thought Taylor as she watched Jacob make his rounds of the campsites that were scattered around the small meadow. Even from a distance she could tell he was excited, his arms gesturing as he made conversation with what appeared to be a village of old friends. The man was in his element. Once in awhile she’d watch him motion to their camp and she felt self conscious sitting alone in
her collapsible chair. As minutes turned to hours anxiety built and began
to roll and crest in her stomach like never-ending waves on the beach.

She felt worse the next morning.

“I might get sick, Jacob, are you sure you want to do this with me?”

They both were stretching in the chilly early morning air, listening to the hum of camp activity. Horse’s whinnied and pawed in anticipation of race day. Rain’s head was high, ears perked, as she kept tabs on the situation. Jacob remained quiet as he held a toe stretch.

“Have you not trained, ridden miles, even quit smoking to do this?”

“Yeah, but … ”


Bu
t
nothing. You’ll be fine once we get going. Everyone has jittery nerves at the start.”

Taylor didn’t respond. Instead she went to the horse and did a meaningless check of tack. Even though Rain was light and easily recognizable Jacob painted their team number on her rump— #21.

“Your age! This is a good sign.” Jacob was cheerful about everything; it was almost annoying. He fairly glowed with competitive energy.

She’d been assured, by several nice folks at the pre-ride meeting, that 15 miles was a cinch. Right.

Excited, prancing horses jockeyed for position at the start line as Taylor followed Rain and Jacob to the trail head. They’d discussed strategy the night before as they ate hot dogs around the camp fire.

“The second third of the race will be hardest, Taylor. I recommend you jog first, over the flats. I’ll get us through the mad dash of the
opener, tie up Rain and do the Stony Mountain Loop. You tie Rain after
you make it over and run the last bit, which is mostly over flats, too.”

She said nothing.

“Unless you want the mountainous part. I don’t want to steal anything from you.” Jacob took a huge bite of his hot dog and chewed.

“No, you’re right. You ride first.”

Pride never partnered well with jittery nerves, something she was reminded of the following morning as she surveyed the group of horses jigging and snorting, their bodies tense with suppressed energy. Hill or no hill, she wasn’t ready to handle the stress of the starting line just yet.

Taylor milled around within the group of runners who kept to the side of the dirt logging road, well out of the way of the riders. She watched Rain fidget and chomp the bit. The mare had clearly plugged into the highly charged energy and her dark eye had adopted a faraway look, the gaze of a race horse focused on a far off finish line. Taylor also recognized something happy beneath the veneer of nervous energy. She thought suddenly of Liz then and the pleasure the woman received from competition. It was an honor to pursue feats of glory.

As she thought of it, Taylor bent at the waist and stretched her hamstrings and the backs of her legs. Time to run toward glory. When she straightened and looked again to the horses, she frowned. Brenda, a trim blond, stood at Rain’s shoulder and looked up at Jacob, a laughing smile on her face. She was too far away to eavesdrop, but Taylor clearly made out the woman’s annoying cackle. No doubt she was rolling her big goldfish eyes, too. Not unlike Steve’s winking, Brenda appeared unable to resist an obsessive urge to roll her eyes during conversation.  She’d done it plenty during the socializing that occurred after the pre-ride meeting.

At first Taylor had felt special to walk at Jacob’s side, the chosen partner of an obvious athlete. The vet was popular and his appeal rubbed off. Then Barbie Doll Brenda appeared and everything shifted. Jacob introduced her as “an enthusiastic newbie with a great horse.” Suddenly Taylor got it. It was about Rain; it had always been about the mare.

Even though the every other day runs had trimmed Taylor’s figure to a size eight, she felt about as appealing as baggage when considering
the other runners. She pulled at her t-shirt and watched Brenda’s metallic
gold hair bob as she flipped it around. The woman was perfectly toned and looked like she belonged. Well, except for the tan. Nobody in the Pacific Northwest was that brown in early May. It looked all the more artificial in the pale light of the grey sky over head.

Maybe it was the eye rolling, the too-tan skin, the perfect body; whatever the details, she instantly disliked Brenda. And the feeling was mutual. The two women completely ignored each other.

Taylor fought the urge to walk over and interrupt the cozy scene across the road, jar Jacob to his senses, to the steady, authentic person Taylor had come to know. Around Brenda’s preening and effervescent questions the vet seemed to grow a couple inches and was encouraged to engage in intellectual monologues on equine alternative therapies and their usefulness, among other things. Taylor wished she had a dollar for every time he said the wor
d
modalit
y
.

Did he really want to impress a woman like Brenda? Taylor felt unsure as she stared at the woman’s lean backside and watched her put a hand on Jacob’s forearm. Taylor was certain he was enjoying a rider’s view of Brenda’s big boobs squished tight inside a hot pink sports bra. Men. 

Why did she care, anyway? Taylor wished Melissa were around. She’d make some crack about Brenda’s frizzy gold hair and rolling eyes and help Taylor see how silly it was to be jealous of such a person. Was she jealous? Jacob was in his 30s, too old for her anyway. She had no right acting possessive. Maybe it indicated a need for male approval or something—another item for the Headshrinker’s List.

Still, even her horse craved Jacob’s attention. Though the vet was totally engrossed in conversation he laid his hand on Rain’s wither every few minutes, his touch settling her amidst an anxious crowd of jostling horses. Taylor felt insecure about their intimate exchanges. He’d saved the mare’s life, after all. Rain probably loved him more. Maybe she wished to be his horse and do away with the newbie owner she’d gotten stuck with.

Glancing quickly at her watch Taylor pushed the thoughts away. Only two minutes to start. She kept her eyes on the light grey horse and waited as her muscles tensed.

Bang.

The sharp crack of a pistol echoed in the meadow. What looked like chaos followed. A swell of bodies crested onto the trail ahead like a hairy calico wave: bays, chestnuts, blacks, a palomino, and a couple of ghostly greys all broke at a dead gallop.

Pure adrenalin propelled Taylor into a sprint. She ran for several yards, carried by the horses’ energy and the momentum of the runners around her. One by one, the horses melted into the forest ahead. She watched Jacob’s back disappear around a bend in the dirt road and dropped to a jog as she patted the back pocket of her stretch pants. The map was still there, crinkly under her fingertips.

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter 27

 

 

T

he trail master had explained the 15 mile loop in detail the night before: a winding, rolling first five miles followed by the much more challenging middle five of Stony Mountain. Not technically
a
mountai
n
yet more than enough for someone who’d only been training for about three months. Fortunately Jacob was a serious runner. He’d finished the Seattle Marathon three times. After descending the hill on horseback she’d tie Rain to an available tree and jog two and a half miles. Jacob would sprint the last two and a half.

The first mile was predictable. Taylor had come to expect the heaviness in her feet, the way her body felt utterly earth bound when she began to run. But, inexplicably, the weight would lift and it felt easier. For awhile. Then the battle to keep running would commence after about mile three. This was followed by exhaustion and later the notorious “runner’s high.” It wasn’t like nicotine, but Taylor had come to crave it. The whole running thing—the burning in the muscles, the tingling in her skin, the way her face felt warm—insisted she fully inhabit her physical body. Jacob said it would become an addiction.

The crowd began to thin after a couple of miles. No horses were in sight at first and the faster runners—Brenda included—went on ahead. But soon Taylor came upon mounts tied to trees, some whinnying and pawing the ground in anticipation. Since it was a shorter training ride, strategy was completely unique to each team. Some teams switched every mile or so.  That way, Jacob said, the runners could go faster with more frequent rests on horseback. In an actual race there were rules governing the number of times runners had to switch and more rigorous vet checks. The flexibility of the training ride ensured Taylor could avoid Stony Mountain by running a longer distance at first.

The technicality of the sport was intimidating. Taylor watched in awe when she observed the first “flying exchange,” a coordinated passing of the horse with the rider dismounting on the off side and the runner swinging into the saddle without anyone stopping. She tried to imagine such a feat as she ran along the bumpy red earth trail, its edges punctuated by lacey groupings of ferns and imposing fir trees.

Overhead a featureless grey sky was visible in between hunter green tree tops spiking heavenward. It hinted at rain. To keep her mind off straining muscles, Taylor tried to name the plants and trees in the forest around her. Though she’d grown up in the northwest, she’d never been interested in flora and fauna. Not like Jacob who knew that Foxgloves were poisonous, Salmon Berries edible, and that the stalks of Fireweed could be used to make rope, if necessary.

There weren’t many flowers on display in the lush undergrowth, but Taylor identified several kinds of trees. From time to time she noted a rotting stump offering its services as the “pot” in which a leggy young fir rooted itself. The base nurtured in the decomposing crumbles of the
tree that came before, the seedlings gained strength. “Nurse Stumps” Ja
cob called them. Ever after Taylor felt a tender affection for the stumps.

Soon they would run through a clear cut and, after, an old gravel pit that carved out the trail just before Stony Mountain. There Taylor would find her horse waiting. The air felt humid, the warming before a shower, and insects fluttered at face level. Sweat began to bead at her temples and Taylor swiped at a swarm of gnats.

The longest Taylor had ever run at one stretch was eight miles. Never
mind she’d about died doing it. The vet check midway would ensure the horses were not pushed beyond what they could endure, but she worried about her own endurance.  She wanted to make Jacob proud.

She heard Rain’s husky nicker before actually seeing the pale rump
materialize through the branchy undergrowth. Taylor ran faster, relieved
and comforted by the mare’s greeting.

“How’d you know it was me?” Taylor patted Rain’s neck as the horse bobbed her head in anticipation. She untied the lead quickly, looped it around the saddle horn and swung onto the horse’s back. Rain immediately started jogging, as if
she knew there was no time to waste. Taylor began posting the trot. Refusing
to acknowledge her screaming thighs she instead pondered the uncanny way that the horse sensed things, like the way she recognized her owner’s approach without the use of vision.

BOOK: Rain Shadow
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ads

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