Tee coaxed Nutmeg into a gallop, racing alongside the white rail fence that bordered the corral. Her ponytail, tucked stylishly through the back of her baseball cap, fluttered behind her like a flag in the breeze, matching the horse’s rust-colored mane and tail. Even the ignorant could
tell that Tee and Nutmeg were both enjoying the run.
The cowboys gathered behind the fence and stopped bridling, saddling and grooming horses, to watch the pair run. Ritch was especially proud of Tee. There was something between them, growing deeper and getting stronger. What it would ultimately become, they didn’t know. But they seemed to be willing to nurture it along for a time.
“I’m ready,” Tee shouted as she pulled her horse to a stop in front of the barn.
Ritch heard one of the cowboys echo his very thoughts: “Me, too.”
“I think we’re all are set,” Grey shouted. The counselors and cowboys all mounted horses and gathered in front of the barn. “Everybody knows how this is played, right? One of us will be ‘it’ and that person will attempt to tag any rider. If tagged, that rider will be ‘it.’ Tagging a horse does not count. You cannot dismount from your horse. No tag-backs. I’ll be ‘it’ first.”
Most of the riders nodded their heads in agreement.
The stoner brothers were standing outside the fence, capturing the event for whatever reason they videotaped everything else. Paul stood with his back to the corral while his brother, Pete, videotaped his announcement with the horses, counselors and cowboys in the background. “I’m here at the annual Counselor Horseback Tag Olympics at Camp Fear. The tension is high. The excitement is high. My brother and I are high. This is a great day!”
“Ready?” called Grey. “Go!”
Ritch and everyone else charged toward the opposite side of the field on horseback. The cowboy named James was beside him. Tee and Kathy were nearby. When the horses reached the fence, they all bunched up together, hemmed in by the fence.
Grey reached the group almost immediately. He reached his long arm out and tagged Maria, one of the last riders to reach the fence. “You’re it!” he yelled.
Maria immediately reached into the clump of riders and tagged James, who was blocked by the horses around him and had nowhere to go. “You’re it!” she shouted.
James reached over and tagged Kathy.
The cowboys were the first to break away from the mass of horses and riders. They probably saw the pile-up coming way before the counselors did. They split naturally into two groups, racing along opposite sides of the fence toward the other side of the field.
Kathy reached for anyone nearby, but without success, since the horses and riders had all scattered. She kicked her horse into a gallop and chased after Ritch.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ritch saw Paul and Pete running away from the fence as a horde of cowboys charged toward it.
Ritch was far too elusive for Kathy. He had more horseback riding experience than most of the staff, including the cowboys, and knew how to handle Wench. He charged toward the middle of the field and hard-reined her to the left.
Kathy and her horse ran right past. She realized she couldn’t turn fast enough to go back and catch Ritch so she headed for the next horse she saw, ridden by Julie.
From his perspective, looking over his shoulder and heading in the opposite direction, Ritch could tell Julie had very little riding experience. Plus, she was riding Sugar–a very lazy horse. No matter how hard she kicked, Sugar would not run. It was as if the horse had one speed, slow.
Kathy caught up with Sugar, which was somewhat difficult because she had to avoid Julie’s high boot-kicks to Sugar’s belly. But she did reach her, and tagged her on the shoulder. “You’re it!”
“No fair,” Julie shouted. “My horse doesn’t want to play.” But she tried, anyway. She kicked Sugar as hard as she could, coaxing the horse into a lope, but that wasn’t nearly fast enough to catch anyone. Finally, frustrated, she stopped in the middle of the field, hung her shoulders, dug her hands into her hair and screamed, “Aagghh!”
What happened next surprised everyone, even the cowboys. Sugar, obviously frightened by Julie’s scream, launched ahead like a rocket, heading straight for the security of the largest group of horses and riders.
Ritch didn’t think Julie realized that she had actually tagged one of the cowgirls when she did. Instead, she seemed determined only to regain control of her horse.
Her arms were flailing and her feet were still kicking, and poor old Sugar was running as fast as she had ever run in her life. In a second, as if realizing that she was running too fast, Sugar came to a dead stop, and Julie flew over the head of her horse, flipping in the air and landing flat on her butt.
Paul Stone raised both arms into the air, fingers extended, and yelled, “The Lithuanian judge gives that maneuver a ten!”
But the cowgirl she touched did feel the tag, and she headed off to tag another. Some would argue the next tagged counselor was not paying attention. Others would say she let herself be tagged. Tattoo Tina flew across the corral with fire in her eyes. She wasn’t just going to tag some no-experience counselor. She was going after the best one in the group. She aimed her sights on Ritch and flew like a bat out of hell to get him. Beneath her T-shirt, her breasts bounced with the rhythm of a horse’s gallop.
Pete stood behind the fence, eye stuck to the viewfinder, filming her charge.
Paul stood next to his brother, microphone by his side, staring. “I’m in love with Tattoo Tina,” he muttered. Then he added, “I’m in love with Tattoo Tina’s Ta-Tas.”
Ritch leaned into Wench and rode her as hard as he could to get away from the cowgirl. He wove through this pair and that, dodging horses and riders like a barrel-rider at the rodeo. The maneuvers worked, but only briefly, as Tina tugged the reins right or left to get back on track, chasing Ritch across the corral.
Ritch saw the other horses and their riders stop in two groups on either side, as they watched the two racers heading across the field. He knew it was only a matter of time until Tina cornered him against the fence, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He charged straight toward the fence at the empty side of the corral with Tina right behind like a hound chasing a fox. Wench’s heavy breathing, the feel of the wind in his hair and the sense of competition, reminded Ritch of times he raced with his brother across the fields in Ocala. Nostalgia and a seldom-felt high blended together in a way Ritch had not felt in a long time.
He trusted Wench, and sensed that she trusted him. As he approached the fence, he squeezed his calves tightly around her belly and leaned down close to her neck, putting his weight into the stirrups. Ritch hadn’t jumped a horse in four or five years, but he could still hear his brother’s coaching as he headed toward the fence. “Straight on in, hug her belly, don’t watch the obstacle, look over the obstacle, always look over the obstacle.”
Wench pricked her ears forward toward the fence, as if to say she was up to the task, and she performed like a champion, raising her front legs and pushing off with her mighty hind legs, launching the two over the fence to the flat ground on the other side. They landed safely and smoothly. With elation, Ritch tugged Wench around to face the field they had just left.
Pete and Paul ran toward him screaming like they’d just won the Kentucky Derby.
“Man, that was awesome,” Paul shouted. “Do it again.”
“Yeah. Jump the fence again,” Pete said, video camera pressed against his eye. “I’m not sure I got that shot.”
Tina pulled her horse to a stop. “No fair, you son of a bitch,” she yelled. “You left the stinkin’ field.”
Ritch raised a single hand, acknowledging his error. “I’m it,” he yelled.
The other counselors and the cowboys cheered the stunt. The Camp Safe Harbor horses had their skills, but no one expected this.
Just then, the whistle blew.
“Just what is going on here?” Christine hollered. She marched out to the field from where she was standing just beyond the fence. Stepping onto the first rail of the fence, she began to climb over. The task took longer than it should have because Christine was in poor shape and was afraid of heights, any heights. Eventually she marched out to the middle of the field and stood in the blazing afternoon sun, hands on her hips as if asking for a fight.
Ritch dismounted and slowly walked Wench back toward the barn. He knew the games were over and the lecture was about to begin.
“We’re just cutting lose, Christine,” Grey called.
“I just saw a counselor put a ten-thousand-dollar piece of camp property in serious danger.”
“Whoa,” Grey said. “No one was in any danger. Ritch knew what he was doing.”
“That’s not how it looked to me. If you keep misusing camp assets the board will decide that you shouldn’t be using camp property.”
Grey approached Christine on horseback. Looking down at her, he insisted, “The board will do no such thing.”
“And how do you know what the board will do?” “My father’s the chairman,” he said.
Christine stopped dead in her tracks. She glared at
Grey. She turned and glared at Ritch on the other side of the fence. Then she turned and marched toward the gate.
All of the counselors watched her walk out of the corral, around the fence and back to the dining hall. “Yee- haw,” they shouted together.
Ritch knew they had won but sensed that the victory would be short-lived. Victories like this never lasted very long.
Neither would this one.
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