Summary: The cross country race for the Virginia City fall festival brings some unexpected challenges for Little Joe and his new horse, Penny. Prequel. Written for May 2019 Chaps & Spurs.
Rating: K+ / Word Count: 3244
The Autumn Race
It was springtime on the Ponderosa and after the long winter, the warmer weather was a welcome relief to the entire ranch. The plants, animals, and humans alike all seemed to be filled with joy and excitement that the winter was finally over. The winter seemed especially long for ten-year old Little Joe. Whoever invented winter must have never had children! Pure torture it was for him, sitting inside with nothing to do for months on end. It was one of the first warm days and with pent up energy, Little Joe came running out of the house, slamming the door behind him. He ran straight to the barn where his Pa and older brothers were already working.
Entering the barn, he collided right into Hoss’ large frame. “Whoa, slow down there lil’ buddy. What’s your hurry this morning?”
As Joe’s vision refocused after the collision, his gaze shifted towards one of the stalls where Adam and his Pa were already standing around. Inside the stall he noticed one of their normal horses and another horse he didn’t recognize. He returned his gaze back to Hoss before responding, “Umm… nothing. What is goin’ on over there?”
Hoss pondered how to explain such a delicate situation to his little brother. Sure, Little Joe knew a little about where babies came from, but not everything. Leading Joe over to a hay bale and sitting down, Hoss responded, “Well, you see Miss Daisy over there?” Getting a quick nod from Joe, Hoss continued, “Well, Pa wants to breed her, you know, he wants her to have a baby horse. Pa says it has to be done now because she is at her peak fertility to have a foal.”
Scrunching up his face in confusion and tilting his head slightly to the side, Little Joe asked, “Fertility? What does that mean?”
Hoss sighed. This was a question his Pa should be answering, but seeing as he was a little preoccupied at the moment, Hoss took a stab at the answer. “Well…umm…it basically means it’s the best time for a horse, or any animal or human for that matter, to have a baby. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess. But, why, Hoss? We already have plenty of horses.”
“Pa says this horse will be hobby horse, a special horse that we will only use for certain occasions. Maybe we’ll even train it to race. One thing’s for certain: it won’t be like our other horses that are used to help us with daily ranch chores.”
Little Joe thought about what Hoss said. He’d love to race one day and now they would have their very own “racing” horse. He made a promise to himself right then and there that one day he would be in a race with that new horse.
****Six years later****
Sixteen-year-old Little Joe was strolling down Virginia City’s main street in the mid-August heat. He was supposed to be getting supplies for his Pa, but as usual he got a little distracted. Hanging on a post outside one of the stores several colorful posters caught his eye. As he got closer, he read what it said:
WANTED! RIDERS FOR THE FALL FESTIVAL!
This year’s fall festival will include a cross country horse race. Rules put in place for the race are as follows:
Riders must be sixteen years old.
Riders must supply their own horse.
Riders and horses must be able to travel across a variety of terrains.
All interested riders must register by September 1st.
All riders must complete all challenges in the race without cheating, shortcuts, or foul play.
Any failure to abide by the above rules will result in disqualification.
GRAND PRIZE OF $100
This had been the opportunity he had been waiting for all along for the past couple of years. Pulling one of the posters off the post, he shoves it in his coat pocket to show his Pa later tonight before hurrying to pick up those supplies.
After dinner that night, Adam and Hoss headed out to the barn to finish some chores while Ben headed into the great room. He was pouring himself a glass of brandy when Joe approached him.
“Pa, there’s something I want to show you,” Little Joe said as he pulled out the flyer and handed it to Ben.
Ben carefully perused the piece of paper before looking up. “I’m a little old for this type of race. You should tell your brothers, though. This sounds like something they would want to participate in.”
Frustration built up inside Joe as he realized he would have to spell it out for his father. “I wasn’t showing it to you for you to ride in the race. I want to ride in it with Penny, that new hobby horse we bred a few years ago.” Joe stood back and waited for the explosion he was sure was going to come. He wasn’t wrong.
“Absolutely not! I will not have you riding in something so dangerous!”
“Dangerous? You let me help around the ranch all the time! There are so many dangers out there from wild animal attacks to stampedes with the cattle, not to mention Indian attacks that can happen at any time. It can’t be any more dangerous than that!” He knew better than to argue with his father, but he had to try to get him to see reason.
“NO. My answer is final, Joseph.”
“Please, Pa. It says here in the rules that you have to be sixteen. I AM sixteen. It won’t be against the law for me to race. Please? You just said the other day how proud you were about how responsible I was around the ranch. I promise I’ll be responsible here, too.”
Ben was right. He did say that Little Joe was much more responsible at sixteen than he ever was at that age. “I’ll tell you what. Let me think about it overnight without you badgering me. I’ll let you know my decision in the morning. Whatever I decide then will be the final answer. Clear?”
“Yes, Pa! I know you’ll see I’m right when you can properly think about it for a little while.”
“Maybe. What I do know right now is that if I hear one more peep about this before my decision tomorrow morning, my answer will immediately be no. Got it?”
“Got it!” Joe responded as he rushed out of the house towards the barn to tell his brothers, leaving Ben just standing there shaking his head at his youngest son’s endless energy.
Morning arrived quickly. Too quickly for Ben and not quickly enough for Little Joe. Ben was already sitting at the dining room table reading the paper when Little Joe came down the stairs with a bounce in his step. Joe eyed his father carefully. He didn’t know if the decision would come before breakfast or after. He knew one thing, though, he didn’t want to bring up the issue before his Pa brought it up.
Hearing his son walking over to the table and taking a seat, Ben cleared his throat and put down the paper. He was planning on telling his youngest his decision before breakfast, but just then Hoss and Adam came in the door ready for breakfast. Guess he would have to wait to tell Joe. He knew the waiting would be torture to him, but waiting another half hour or so wouldn’t kill him either.
Breakfast was an unusually quiet affair, at least it was unusually quiet for Joe. He kept stealing glances towards his father while Hoss and Adam chatted cheerfully about their plans for the day. Ben sat there, keeping mostly quiet as well.
As breakfast slowly winded down and the day’s assignments were passed out, Joe’s older brothers headed outside to get ready. Joe remained at the table along with his Pa. “Well Joe, I’ve made my decision.” Joe looked up expectantly at Ben. “While I didn’t appreciate how you went about it yesterday, you did make some valid points. You are becoming more responsible every day and I have to start loosening the reins a bit. I can’t hold on to the little boy you once were forever. I will allow you to race, provided you don’t fall behind on your duties around here or your schoolwork.”
Joe released his breath he didn’t know he had been holding in before shouting in glee. “Yippee! Thanks Pa! I promise I’ll stay caught up with everything!” Joe took off like a bullet out of his chair heading towards the front door before sliding to a stop and turning around. He ran back to give his Pa a huge hug. Ben returned the hug as a smile settled on his face. His son would always be his little boy no matter how old he got. Releasing the embrace, Joe took off again in a hurry as Ben called after him, “Joe! Don’t forget you’re mending fences on the east pasture today!”
After Ben finally allowed him to enter the race, Little Joe eagerly started training with Penny. He was out in the far pasture one Saturday afternoon when he noticed his best friend Mitch Devlin riding across the field towards him.
“Hello there, Joe!”
“Hi Mitch. What brings you out this way?”
Bringing his horse to a stop next to Joe, Mitch responded, “Just wanted to tell you that my Pa also gave me permission to join the race. He was hesitant at first, but after he heard that you had permission, he readily agreed to let me enter too.”
“That’s great! I always wanted to race with my best friend.” Joe exclaimed as he pulled his horse next to Mitch.
Nodding, Mitch added, “You know Joe, I’ve been thinking. We ought to make this race a bit more exciting.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we should make a bet to see which horse is better. I’ve been eyeing one of those new saddles at the mercantile the past couple weeks. I was thinking, whoever loses this race buys the winner that saddle.”
Joe scratched his head before reaching out to shake Mitch’s hand to accept the bet. “You got a deal. Just so you know, though, Penny here is the fastest horse in this territory.”
Mitch let out a laugh, “We’ll see, Joe. We’ll see.” Turning his horse around, Mitch left to start training as Joe stared after him.
“Come on, Penny. We’ve got a bit of an incentive to train harder for this race now.”
It was finally the day of the race. While the late September sun shone brightly, the early morning air had a bit of a coolness to it, a sure sign that winter was almost here again. Little Joe guided Penny down the main street to the starting line for the big race. As he approached the starting line, Joe looked to the right and could see the winner’s podium. The grand prize trophy could be seen sparkling in the early morning sunlight as well as the various colored sashes lined up for the first through third place riders and horses. Suddenly a surge of nerves shot through Joe and he slowed Penny down.
Noticing Joe was lagging behind, the whole family stopped. Hoss, however, turned around to meet up with Joe and gave him a few final words of encouragement as they caught up with the rest of the family. “You’ll do just great, Joe. You’ve been training for weeks. You just gotta trust both your and Penny’s instincts.”
“That’s right Joe. We’re really proud of you no matter the outcome of the race.” Ben replied hearing the very end of the conversation. Not much for words, and knowing Joe probably wasn’t hearing much of the conversation anyway, Adam just gave Joe an encouraging slap on the shoulder. Joe just weakly smiled at them and continued towards the starting line as he tried to gain control of his nerves.
As he approached the start, he noticed that the Devlins had arrived with Mitch already at the starting line. Joe made his way up next to his friend. It was very strange to be competing against his best friend. Normally, they worked together, like thinking up pranks and helping each other try to catch the biggest fish in Lake Tahoe. Now it was like they were total strangers. Neither said anything to each other, just nodded their heads politely at each other. Joe knew it was crazy to think this, but he couldn’t help wondering if this race would tear apart their friendship.
The bang of the pistol marking the beginning of the race pulled Joe out of his thoughts. By the time he refocused on the task, all the other horses were already quite a bit ahead. “Shucks! Let’s go Penny!” and they raced from the starting line trying to catch up with the others.
As the poster originally stated, the race was intended to test both the horse and rider alike putting them through a series of challenges in all types of environments. Each team was required to navigate through fields, forests, mountains, deserts, and rivers as well as make it through long distance endurance, obstacles, and jumps. It wasn’t a race for the faint of heart.
Little Joe and Penny raced through the first task across the field. Several makeshift fences were in place for the horses to jump over. After hurdling over a couple jumps, it was a fast sprint to get to the second task. This is where the race became a bit more challenging. Headed into the forest, riders and horses had to dodge low hanging branches, stumps on the ground, and jump over low laying logs. Luckily for Joe, their ranch was in the middle of a forest and Penny was used to all the hazards that were associated with it. Joe just let Penny take over, watching the greenery of the pine trees blur by him.
After two tasks, they had managed to move into fourth place. They passed a couple of riders in the forest who weren’t as adapted in the forest environment having either been thrown off their horse by low hanging branches or just got spooked in the confining space of the forest trail.
The third task took the riders across the river. It was a quick challenge, but could be costly if not careful. Joe watched as one horse in front of him stumbled on a hidden rock in the water. The rider did a flip off the horse into the river. Penny and Joe were now in third place.
Beyond the river, the elevation began to increase. They were headed into the mountains. By far it wasn’t the highest mountain Joe had ever traveled through, but it certainly wasn’t flat ground either. Boulders and loose rocks were at every turn. Joe carefully led Penny up the narrow trail winding its way up the mountain. At the summit, Joe could see the two riders in front of him already starting their trek down the mountain. He could also clearly see that Mitch was currently leading the race. Mitch was at least a half mile ahead of him. It was a distance Joe could easily cover, but not here on the mountain. For now, Joe needed to focus on the trail as it was just as dangerous to go down the mountain as it was to go up.
They were almost to the bottom of the mountain when Penny got spooked by a loose boulder. Penny veered to the side as Joe desperately tried to hang on. Joe saw it all playing in slow motion in his head. Just as he thought it was over for the pair, Penny caught her footing on solid ground. Joe regained his balance and they headed off in the direction of the final challenge.
The last challenge was a long-distance endurance race across the desert. It seemed a might unfair to Joe to have this as the last task. It was now the middle of the day and even though it was already early autumn, the midday sun was hot as it beat down on them. Plus, the horses were tuckered out after such a long race. Unfortunately, Joe didn’t have time to complain about it now; he had a race to win.
He could see the rider in front of him slowly losing speed. As he caught up to them, Joe could tell the horse was just plain tired. He knew from experience that the desert in the middle of the day can be like an oven sometimes. It wears on the horses and this horse was feeling those effects. All that lay between Joe and Mitch was open ground. Joe pushed Penny on trying to shorten the distance between the two of them.
As they entered the last leg of the race headed into town, Joe was quickly catching up to Mitch. Joe spurred Penny on closing the gap between the two friends. With only 500 feet to the finish line, Joe caught up with Mitch. They were neck and neck. Joe tried to push Penny a bit more to get ahead, but she kept her current pace. The finish line kept getting closer… 300 feet, 200 feet, 100 feet. As Joe crossed the line, he looked to his left at Mitch’s horse. It was too close to tell who won. They’d have to wait for the official ruling.
As the horses returned toward the podium, Sheriff Coffee came running up to them. “You boys couldn’t have made it an easy decision for this old man, could you? We all know you both are best friends. What we didn’t know is that even your horses seem to be best friends because it was a dead even race! You both crossed at the exact same second. Congratulations you two!”
Joe and Mitch looked at each other dumbfounded. They tied? That couldn’t be possible, could it? Joe held his hand out to Mitch who was still trying to come to grips with the final ruling. “Well done, friend.” Mitch took Joe’s hand before he started laughing. It was like the universe was protesting them racing against each other. “I guess this means our bet will have to be postponed until next year’s race.”
Side by side, they made their way up to the winner’s podium. There was only one first place trophy and one first place sash, so Joe let Mitch have the trophy while Joe and Penny took their respective sashes. The $100 grand prize reward was split between them.
Bidding goodbye to his friend, Joe returned to his family. Adam was the first to congratulate him. “Well done! Who knew my little brother was such a great racer?”
“Aww, Adam. You know how good I am with Cochise. It just came natural to me and Penny.”
“Well son. Are you ready to head home?”
“Home sounds awfully nice, Pa. I’m starved as well and I wasn’t even the one galloping across the countryside! I’m sure Penny is just as hungry as I am.”
“I don’t know about Penny, but I know I’m as hungry as you.”
“You’re always hungry, Hoss.” Hoss just scoffed at the statement while Adam and Ben chuckled. Mounting up, they all headed out of town after a memorable day with food on their thoughts.
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