When the time for the Cattleman’s Cup arrived, the atmosphere changed. The serious part of the day had arrived. This is when the mountain cattlemen acknowledged their peers and recognized their best and gamest rider.
The race was a point to point, the exact route determined by the terrain and the rider’s courage. It covered a broadly triangular path. The riders had to pass two checkpoints and return to the start/finish line opposite the tent. Other than this, they were free to choose.
The horse Drew Mitchell rode was big and powerful. Its eyes alight with a fierce equine intolerance of lesser animals. This was no Timor pony, compact and neat. Instead, it was seventeen hands of untamable power. A coal-black stallion with slashing teeth and hooves to rake any horse or rider that ventured too close, as it stamped impatiently at the start. At best, an uneasy truce existed between horse and rider, more a grudging recognition of opposing strengths than any concession of sovereignty. Yet, for all that, Cynthia sensed that they were somehow a matched pair; proud, untamable and game to the point of madness.
“Wow!” Jo said, coming to stand by Cynthia, the photo shoot abandoned for the moment. “I can see why you don’t want to let this go. He’s impressive enough in the flesh, but put him on that horse and he’s a god.”
Cynthia bridled, offended by the suggestion that there was anything beyond her need to solve the mystery of her rescuer, though uncomfortably aware that there was.
“He intends to use me,” she defended.
“Big deal,” Jo responded unsympathetically.
The crack of the starter’s gun and the roar of the crowd interrupted them. They watched the horses stream away towards the nearby hills in a jostling torrent that divided as it passed through the first gate. The steady riders chose the flatter route, skirting the nearest peak. Drew Mitchell led the crack riders and more powerful horses higher across the shoulder, shortening the distance but calling upon the strength of the horses to breast the slope and the broken ground.
Watching through her borrowed binoculars, Cynthia marveled at Drew’s riding. He sat erect in the saddle, legs almost straight, feet thrust firmly into the stirrups. Yet, horse and rider moved as one, each contributing their strength to a determined grasp on the lead, challenging all comers. They crested the ridge, still riding hard, and disappeared beyond. Another distant glimpse, when they topped the farther ridge, was all she saw. After that, the commentary broadcast from the loud speakers was her only guide to the progress of the race.
The appearance of the first flatland riders, augmented by the cracks who’d chosen the easier way home, raised a cheer from the crowd.
“Oh God, will you look at that.” The words burst out of Jo and Cynthia followed the line of her pointing hand to the ridge.
Her gasp of horror was lost, drowned in the roar of the crowd. They too had seen Drew burst over the ridge at full gallop and start down the hill. The slope was steep, rock-bound and cut deeply by erosion gullies, but neither horse nor rider paused in their headlong flight. He was sitting forward in the saddle, his body erect and his eyes scanning the ground ahead. He did not need the spur; the horse was fully committed to the descent and could not have paused without falling. Only the pressure of his knees and the shift of his weight guided the flying animal, for the reins lay loose in his hands. A strange and marvelous alchemy had merged horse and rider into a mythical centaur, clearing fallen trees in its stride and soaring across gullies in a bound. The strike of its iron-shod hooves rang clearly across the distance as the crowd fell silent in fear. If they reached the flats without falling, the race was theirs, but none believed they could do it. One missed step would bring them down and no one believed that either would survive the fall.
Cynthia had no doubt that Andrew Mitchell lived again during that terrible descent. It was the stuff of legend. The Man from Snowy River himself could have done no better! Her own feelings were chaotic. Defining what she felt physically was easier than unraveling the emotional turmoil of fear, elation, terror and ecstasy. Her knuckles ached from the tension of holding the binoculars. Her knees trembled uncontrollably. A Gordian knot had formed in her stomach and her throat muscles tightened to the point where she could hardly breathe as she willed horse and rider to survive.
When they reached the flat unharmed, the crowd vented their relief in a wild roar that seemed to make the ranges themselves tremble. Cynthia had to lean against a tent pole to prevent herself from falling.
“I’m glad it’s you,” Jo said, her voice constricted by the tension. “I don’t think I could stand the strain of having him around.”
The ending of the race was an anticlimax, though Drew still covered the final hundred metres at a dead run, emphasizing the extent of his victory by scorning the gate and clearing the fence instead. The crowd surged forward and then back in fear as the horse displayed his displeasure at their presence. Foam streaked his chest and flanks while his sides heaved with exhilaration and effort. His nostrils flared angrily at the crowd and he hastened their flight with a barely restrained lunge. His eyes were wild with a burning rage, and his rider was little better, glaring balefully at the fools who hindered their passage to the mounting yard and baulked his horse with repeated roars of applause.
The latter, Drew acknowledged brusquely as the crowd was shepherded clear by the mounted stewards so that he could ride into the railed yard. There he swung down from the saddle and sternly curbed the excited movements of his mount. Walking him around the circuit until his blood had cooled and he no longer lunged savagely at anyone who came near.
Cynthia watched from the rails her pulse still racing. She had been quite rude, abruptly abandoning Jo to force her way through the crowd. Driven by a compulsion she was afraid to examine too closely, she wanted desperately to catch Drew’s attention, to share the moment. He ignored her as thoroughly as he ignored the excited crowd. Lost to them all, still communing with the shade of his ancestor, brought closer by that wild ride.
She left him reluctantly, joining Jo and the Mitchell group to the left of the raised stage carrying the trophies. It would take some time for him to calm the horse and experience had taught her that no woman could compete successfully against a man’s perceived duty. Utterly drained, she was thankful for the offer of a seat in the front row. Her feelings sorely tempted her to collapse into it, but she forced herself to sit gracefully, acutely conscious they'd saved the vacant chair at her side for Drew Mitchell.