We spent a lot of time that week riding down in the lower pasture. Will helped us make a mock race course around the pasture that was wide enough for three or four of us to ride at the same time.
Daniel wanted to get Cricket used to competing against other horses, so Jake and I raced him every day. Jake got frustrated with old Ranger, and ended up riding Roy instead.
It seemed like the first few times, Cricket didn’t understand the idea that he was supposed to get ahead of all the other horses. He was happy just running along side Caramel. But on the third day, he “got it” and ran like the wind. Caramel ran as fast as she could to stay up with him but Cricket was soon several horse-lengths ahead of her.
The morning of the fair dawned clear and cool. After chores, we tried to load Cricket into the trailer but he’d never been in a trailer before and was freaked out over the idea. So we decided to take Caramel along to keep him company. I led her into the trailer with no trouble and gave her some grain. Cricket eyed us nervously from outside the trailer, then he hesitantly followed Will up the ramp and into the trailer.
Dad threw a mattress into the back of the truck so Daniel, Jake and Will could ride in the back, making room for the rest of us in the front. They sat with their backs against the cab looking back at the trailer.
Then we drove south, through the Zuni Mountains and red rock cliffs that still take my breath away, even though I see them fairly often.
Dad and Grandpa were talking about branding and castrating the young bulls. Mom was braiding Susanna’s hair and Anna had fallen asleep next to me on the back bench. I sat by the window and gazed out at the passing scenery. The drive south is one of my favorite things in the world.
The rains had lasted all the way into September. I’d never seen so many wild flowers in the fields and beside the roads. And beyond the yellow rabbit brush, white yarrow and red paintbrush stood the pink and red striped cliffs, with an occasional ancient Anasazi dwelling built right on the side of the sheer rock face. I always wonder how the heck they got up to those stacked stone dwellings. Dad says there are tiny carved pathways, fit only for a mountain goat or a sure-footed Anasazi. The Anasazi are all gone now, and no one knows what happened to them. It’s been around 800 years since they lived in those little caves.
Daniel tapped on the back window and I slid it open. He looked through and shouted like someone who can’t hear his own voice, “This is so cool. I didn’t know this was here! Where’s the rodeo?”
Will must have answered him, because Daniel turned away before I could say anything and I slid the window shut again.
The red rock cliffs receded from view and we drove into rolling hills of grass, piñon and sage. There was an occasional hogan or ranch, but mostly it was just wide-open, empty country. It was hard to believe there was a rodeo out there somewhere.
Finally, we turned down a gravel road and in the distance, I could see the announcer’s booth, up high over the rodeo arena. It was surrounded by trucks and stock trailers. Dad pulled in and parked in an empty spot next to the arena. We all got out, stretched and looked around.
A lot of people were sitting on their tailgates to watch the rodeo but the little bleachers were full too. Dad took Daniel to sign in. Mom and the girls went to the outdoor toilets and Will and Jake took off to talk to some cowboys they knew.
I put on my straw cowboy hat and began to walk by the booths that were set up on either side of a dirt road in a sagebrush field behind the arena. I recognized a Zuni Indian friend of ours who was selling grilled turkey legs and racks of mutton. Another booth was selling roasted corn still in the shuck. There was frybread, mutton stew and Navajo tacos.
On the other side of the road, the arts and craft booths were lined up under umbrellas or awnings. I wandered on, looking at the jewelry and some handmade dolls. I came to a table where a Navajo potter was selling clay pots and pipes. I picked up one of his pipes and turned it over in my hand. It had the cool temperature and heavy feel of clay.
“What is the glaze on it?” I asked.
“Pine sap,” he said. “After I fire it in a pit, I rub the pine sap on it while it is still hot. It’s ten dollars,” he added, straightening a pipe that had rolled over on its side. The pipe looked just like the one Grandpa uses.
“I just read Robinson Crusoe,” I told him. “He fired bowls in a pit.”
The Navajo man nodded and smiled. “That’s right. I dig a pit and burn wood in it until it is full of coals, then I put the bowls and pipes down into the coals and cover them with hot coals and more wood. I let it burn for about three hours.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Is that all?”
“No, then I put it in the oven for a few more hours. And then I put the glaze on before it cools. Here, you can still smell the pine on this one that I fired yesterday,” he said.
I sniffed the outside of the pipe he handed me and thought I could detect the smell of pine sap. The potter’s fingerprint was on the outside of the bowl.
I bought the pipe and put it in my pocket. If Daniel wins, I’ll give it to him, I thought, as I thanked the potter and walked away.
I heard laughter and cheering, and went to the fence to watch the Wooly Riders. Even though this was one of the least-important sports of the day, it was one of my favorites. One time I had been a Wooly Rider myself.
A gate swung open and a little kid about six years old came out clinging to the back of a bucking sheep. He had one arm in the air, just like a bull rider, and his little body flexed and moved with the crazy up and down motion of the desperately bucking sheep. Round and round they went, past the eight second whistle. I cheered and whistled until the little kid was finally flung off to one side and the sheep went charging away to the other end of the arena.
The announcer gave him a 75 score and the little cowboy jumped up, picked up his hat and ran out of the arena, his chaps flapping around his bowed legs.
“Oh my gosh! Did you see that little guy!” Daniel exclaimed next to me. “This is so awesome!”
Jake leaned against the fence next to me. “Where’s Will?” he asked.
“I dunno, I thought he was with you,” I answered. “Did you sign in? When is the race?”
“After the junior bull riding,” Daniel said. “Out in that plain, on the other side of the wind mill. I want to go out there and practice. Will you bring Caramel and race me out there?”
“Yeah. I just want to watch the rest of the Wooly Riders and then be back for the bull riding,” I said, watching another wooly rider come out of a gate.
This time, it was a little girl. Her sheep seemed half-unaware there was a kid her back. She just trotted out of the gate and stood there looking around. The little girl kicked with her heels and the sheep trotted a little further and kicked up her heels once. I laughed and so did the audience. The whistle blew and the cowgirl got off. The sheep followed her while the crowd cheered and whistled. Her score was only a 55 but she looked happy.
The boys were gone and I looked back. They were unloading the horses and tack.
The two cowboys in the arena, the ones that herd the sheep and cows back into the pens after each rider, were doing some fancy riding while waiting for the next Wooly Rider. One of them rode near me and looked down and smiled. He lifted his hat in my direction and I saw he was a young Navajo guy. I smiled and nodded in return. He leaned back in his saddle and lifted his reins, encouraging his horse to rear up on his back legs, and then galloped away, winking at me over his shoulder. I laughed.
“Show off,” Daniel muttered next to me and I turned to see he was handing me Caramel’s reins.
“They’re not done yet,” I protested.
“Only one more,” he said, just as the last Wooly Rider came out of the gate.
It was a record ride. The little cowboy on the sheep seemed part of his animal, his body flexing and turning with every half spin and buck the sheep dealt out. His arm was whipping up and down as his hat flew off into the dust. The whistle blew and the clowns came near to help him off but the little cowboy ignored them and kept riding. His sheep finally got tired and fell forward onto her knees as the seven year old cowboy dismounted while the crowd cheered and whistled.
“Get that boy a bull!” the announcer shouted. “He rode a Wooly into the ground, folks!”
I mounted Caramel and followed Daniel and Cricket. Beyond the arena was a flat plain where the rodeo used to be held, years ago, before the arena was built. There was a tape stretched at either end, indicating the length of the race.
“That isn’t very far,” Daniel commented. “What do you think—a quarter mile?”
“Yeah. About. I guess it’s a short race,” I said.
“Cricket’s best at short distance anyway,” Daniel said, as we backed the restless horses up to the starting line. Jake had followed us, looking irritable.
“I should have brought Ranger,” he said. “I could have at least just ridden him around for fun.”
Daniel tossed his hat to Jake. He had a real cowboy hat now. There was a dress code at the rodeo. To compete, you had to be wearing jeans, boots and a hat.
“Count to three and wave the hat to tell us when to start,” Daniel told him, ignoring Jake’s misfortune.
“One, two, three, go!” Jake said, half-heartedly.
“Yeeha!” Daniel shouted and horses jumped into action. Caramel ran faster than I’d ever felt her run before. Maybe it was the excitement of the place stirring her up. Her body became one fluid motion. She was full of strength and joy, and I felt like I was riding the wind.
But when I got to the end of the course, Daniel was already there.
“Wow,” he said. “You guys did really great. You should race too.”
“I’d lose,” I said. “I just lost to you, remember?”
“What will you give me if I win the race?” Daniel asked, flashing me a daring grin.
“My congratulations,” I said, turning Caramel to trot back down the field. Daniel didn’t say anything but he looked a little deflated.
“I’ll write you when you’re gone,” I added when he caught up with me. He nodded and grinned. I thought about the pipe in my jacket pocket.
“Good enough,” he said.
The junior bull riding had already started when we got back. I left Caramel saddled and tied to the trailer next to Cricket. Some kid from Texas took the highest score. The next-to-last kid broke his leg when he hit the ground. He didn’t seem to know it at first. He jumped up to go get his hat and fell again, looking down at his leg in surprise. I could see it was broken from where I was standing. An ambulance took him away. Bull riding isn’t a healthy sport.
Then the horserace was announced and people began to leave the grandstands and walk over to the race course. Daniel’s face looked a little pale to me. We walked with the rest of the family and led our horses.
“You still want to do this, Daniel?” Will asked him.
“Absolutely!” Daniel replied, and although he was pale, his eyes were shining with excitement.
The other riders were all seniors in high school. Daniel was going to be the youngest rider but he was taller than some of the older Navajo cowboys in the race.
I saw the cowboy that had lifted his hat for me earlier. He was lifting his hat for some other girl that cheered and waved at him.
What a flirt, I thought, glad I hadn’t done more than smile and nod.
Caramel was anxious and I could tell she felt like she was supposed to be out there next to Cricket. I talked to her softly and she calmed down.
“Can I ride her?” Jake asked, and I handed him the reins, glad to be able to get closer to the race.
“Look,” Will said. “One of the riders is bareback! Is that allowed?”
“Yeah. But it’s harder to ride bareback,” A man next to us answered.
“But you can go faster,” another one replied. I looked out at the crowd and saw Daniel talking to one of the judges. Suddenly, he turned and started taking the saddle off of Cricket. His cinnamon colored hide glistened with sweat where the saddle blanket had been.
“Ah, he should keep the saddle on!” Dad exclaimed. “He’s not experienced enough.”
“You haven’t seen him ride lately, Dad,” I said. “He’s really amazing. I think he’ll win.”
“These kids have been riding since they were Wooly Riders,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Daniel’s only got a summer’s worth of riding experience.”
I didn’t answer and honestly, I was a little nervous. What if Daniel fell off and got trampled? At that moment, he turned his head, looked at us and smiled, and his smile was full of confidence. I waved at him and Will whistled shrilly.
The riders lined up, horses prancing behind the line and then the whistle blew. Cricket reared a little at the rush all around him and I caught my breath. But Daniel stuck to his back like a cockle burr.
When Cricket’s hooves hit the ground again, I saw his neck lengthen and his whole body stretched out as he began to run for all he was worth. Then he was gone in a cloud of dust and I couldn’t see who reached the finish line first.
I pushed my way through the crowd and began to run down to the finish line. Will jogged along beside me.
“We should have just waited down here,” he said, as we neared the crowd near the end of the race course.
The dust began to settle and I saw the dusty and hatless riders struggle to bring their excited horses around and back toward the finish line. I searched the moving mass of horseflesh for Cricket and Daniel. Then I saw him.
There was Daniel, breaking free of the crowd and the dust to canter back into the race course. His head was high and his shoulders were proudly set.
“First place by a full length goes to bareback rider, Daniel Suarez from Gallup, New Mexico!” the announcer shouted over the speakers. My first thought was to wonder who Daniel Suarez was, but then I realized I had never heard our Daniel’s last name before.
Our Daniel, I repeated to myself, smiling. Our Daniel had won!
Will was whistling and cheering loudly, and soon Daniel caught sight of us and moved over to the edge of the race course, holding Cricket’s head in tight as he pranced through the other horses and over to us.
“Congratulations!” Will called out.
I didn’t say anything but I was smiling from ear to ear. Daniel’s gaze flickered briefly toward Will but back to me again. I could tell he was proud of his achievement and wanted me to say something.
“You did it,” I said, as he came nearer. “I knew you would.”
Daniel’s face retained a poised and stoic look. I wondered what he was thinking. Then he leaned down with his hand outstretched toward me. I was confused for a moment but Will pushed me forward a little.
“Get on behind him,” he said in a low voice. “A guy needs a girl behind him or winning doesn’t mean a thing.”
I looked over my shoulder at Will, opening my mouth to protest or ask what he meant but I knew it wasn’t the right time. I could share Daniel’s glory for a moment or miss it forever.
So I stepped forward to grasp Daniel’s hand. He pulled me up behind him and then turned back into the crowd of cowboys. My hat fell off and Will picked it up.
I felt self-conscious. Every guy in the crowd was casting envious looks at Daniel. I giggled and bit my lip, trying to keep a straight face.
Daniel moved Cricket in and around the other horses while the announcer talked about him and the race and named a second place winner. I don’t remember a single thing he said.
I felt like I was in a place outside of time, watching an event flow past me like a leaf on the surface of a river. But then suddenly I was the leaf, swirling and spinning beneath a sky so vast, I stopped breathing in awe of it. Then the details of the moment slowed the spinning world until I breathed again.
The crowd began to walk back to the rodeo arena for the bull riding event. Jake rode up beside us, and Mom and Dad were walking toward us. Dad had Daniel’s saddle on his shoulder and Mom had Daniel’s hat in her hand. All the riders had lost their hats in the race.
“I’m getting off now,” I said.
“Not yet,” Daniel answered quietly and to my surprise, I stayed where I was.
“Congratulations Daniel!” Dad called out. “You did great. Will and Mona were sure you would. Don’t worry about the saddle. I’ll put it in the trailer.”
“You’re making all the other cowboys jealous with Ramona up there behind you,” Mom added, grinning at us as she handed Daniel his hat.
For the first time, Daniel smiled. I could see the corners of that smile from where I sat behind him.
“I know,” he said, and put the hat on his head.
“We’re going to have some lunch at the truck now,” Jake informed us, as Mom and Dad began to walk away.
“Jake,” I said, about to ask him to give Caramel back to me. But he whooped and rode off, so I couldn’t. Will waited for me though and he put up a hand to help me down.
As I slid off of Cricket, I remembered the pipe in my jacket pocket.
“Wait,” I said. “I got something for you, Daniel.”
I held up the pipe, wrapped in newspaper. He looked at me in surprise for a moment and then dismounted Cricket before he unwrapped the pipe.
“A pipe like Grandpa’s!” he exclaimed, turning it over in his hands. “Where did you get this?”
“From a Navajo potter over there,” I pointed with my chin at the booths in the distance.
“Oh, that’s cool!” Will said. “I should get one too.”
I took Will’s arm and we began to walk back to the arena. Daniel walked beside us, leading Cricket.
“Thanks, Mona,” he said. “You give really awesome gifts. It’s like you think about who people are and then give them exactly what they like the most.”
“Hey, that’s true,” Will nodded. “That’s exactly right. Mona does give great gifts.” He squeezed my arm against his side.
My little world seemed perfect at that moment. I walked between them, Daniel and Will, and felt like I’d never be happier than I was that minute. And when I glanced at Daniel, he smiled and said exactly what I was thinking.
“I’ll never forget today. It’s just perfect.”