The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon-Chapter One
The glowing eyes in the grizzled face of a bear, jaws agape, exposing canines, haunted Gemcie’s dream world. She felt the bear’s hot breath on her face as she drifted off to fretful sleep, soon interrupted by the rude clanging of a fire bell. Bolting upright in bed, she glanced at her alarm. It was 3:00 a.m. She threw her dressing gown over thin pajamas and marched down the cold metal stairwell to the parking lot. The pavement pricked her bare feet as she stood shivering with six other guests. A man in an official-looking red blazer finally appeared.
“Sorry, folks, false alarm. You can go back to your rooms,” he announced.
Back to her room, but not to sleep. Unable to find a comfortable position, she flopped from side to side like a hooked trout. Gemcie had already gone through the ritual of laying out her red wool riding jacket, inspecting her white riding pants for stains. Her stock scarf and pin rested next to her velvet hat. She couldn’t take another sleeping pill; she wouldn’t be able to get up and be at the barn by 5:30 a.m. There was nothing left to do except lie there, staring into the deep space of her own mind. She prayed that just lying still would glean her enough rest to perform well in the Grand Prix in a few hours.
Caught between the dream state and the waking world, she saw herself on Marshal, her powerful, gleaming, black Irish-Hunter, approaching the triple jump. He was chargy, tossing his head and grabbing for the bit just before the row of five-foot fences. She tried to set him up, sitting perfectly erect, sinking her weight into the saddle, but she couldn’t rebalance him. He lurched over the first obstacle, pulling a rail on the second. He struggled to regain his footing, but couldn’t and crashed hard into the third jump, squarely hitting the wood rails. Gemcie saw herself being thrown, bouncing off the standard, catching a jump cup in the back. Badly shaken, she stood up, put her hand to the small of her back, and felt a warm moist spot on her blouse. Marshal strained to get up, but floundered. After three attempts to rise on his forelegs, his right shoulder crumpled under his weight. Finally, he lay still, resting his head on the damp grass stained by his rich, dark blood.
The vet rose from his examination of Marshal then handed Gemcie a gleaming loaded revolver in dream motion. A canvas sheet, held up by field hands to block the scene from the eyes of the curious crowd, flapped in the breeze. Banners atop flag poles snapped in the hot wind. Looking into Marshal’s trusting brown eyes, rimmed in red, she saw the foal she raised ripping around the pasture on spindly legs. Unable to pull the trigger, she handed the gun back to the vet. This would be another night of no sleep on a sweat-soaked pillow. Fresh anguish settled into each cell of her body as she anticipated the event taking place in just a few hours.
Finally daylight came. She arrived at the barn feeling lightheaded with eyes raw and scratchy. She loved the world in the morning, vibrant and tingling with sparkling dew diamonds drying in the morning sun, but today she felt nauseous. Inhaling the smell of new-mown grass flying from the triple mower piloted by a Mexican in a straw hat helped rebalance her system. She drew a few deep breaths, held them in for a moment and exhaled.
She liked to arrive before the rest of the crowd so she could have a few quiet moments with Marshal before an event. He was munching on his morning oats, comfortable in a warm dry stall with mounds of fresh shavings. He nickered softly at her approach. His coarse mane stuck straight up, making him look like a punk rocker. He had a lightning-bolt blaze shooting from his forehead to his nose. His ears were a bit short for his massive head. He was thick in the neck like a prize fighter, and possessed an enormous barrel chest. Tail brushed to a glossy sheen, hooves polished, he received all the attention entitled to a champion from the grooms at the Mariposa Ranch before being trailered to the show grounds.
He chewed peacefully while Gemcie swept off the sawdust that had settled onto his coat over the night. The anxious ferret coiled in the pit of her stomach was stilled by the quiet strength of the stallion. She lovingly brushed the firm round mounds of muscles in his rump, feeling their warmth under her hand. It would go well today. Marshal was fit enough for both of them. He would carry her forward over the course in his steady rhythmic stride. Stout-hearted, he would sail smoothly over each jump without hesitation.
“What a good boy,” she said, willing his solid strength into her own body as she groomed him.
She liked to walk the course before the rest of the riders arrived so she could focus. Tapping knee-high boots with her crop, she visualized her ride, counting strides between jumps. Banners whipped in a crisp wind blowing over the green field. A course of fifteen, five-foot jumps placed strategically to test the skills of the riders were set in a snaking pattern. Bouquets of bold flowers flanked the standards and dressed up the day. A direct line to the first double looked easy, but she would have to press him forward to get over the ramped oxer. The first combination rested beneath the shade of a sycamore near the grandstand. Riding into the shadows, combined with the squeal of an excited child in the bleachers, could throw him off. She would keep a leg on, holding him steady. The Liverpool was at a least a thirteen- foot spread of shallow water just beyond a low flower box. Marshal had a twelve-foot stride. It would be hard for him to see the distance required to sail just beyond the obstacle without touching a hoof to the rim.
Dominique La Fevre, a bold, aggressive rider in the number-two spot that day, fell into step beside Gemcie.
“Where’s Jorge?” Dominique asked.
“He stayed back with Nicky. Her foal has dropped,” Gemcie replied, flashing a smile. “She’s ready to pop any minute.”
“Should be a fine filly. Good sire, and good dame, too,” Dominique said.
Dominique’s chocolate-drop eyes nestled in long dark lashes betrayed none of her secrets. Spiked short hair framed her face, giving her the childlike appeal of a Dickens urchin that made her look fifteen instead of twenty-five. Her small boyish hips and strong muscled legs were at home in tight riding pants. She tucked a blousy peasant shirt in, showing off a tiny waist. It was impossible to talk to her without becoming mesmerized by her moist, heart-shaped lips.
“Looks like you’ve got the edge, riding tenth. But this course doesn’t look to be as tough as Del Mar,” Dominique remarked.
“Yeah, that was a bitch. I’m never riding on grass without studs again,” Gemcie answered with a laugh.
“Marshal was sliding so much I thought you were going to take out the Judge’s stand,” Dominique said.
A half foot taller than Dominique, Gemcie had long elegant strides with limbs that flowed like liquid. Short-waisted and narrow in the hip, with long legs, she had a perfect rider’s conformation. Tall for a female rider, she competed well against the men.
“Who are you riding today?” Gemcie asked.
“He’s a handful.”
“Yeah, but he’s got scope and he’s super careful.”
“I heard Sandy Stake is riding today.”
“She ought to give it up. She looks like a fireplug,” Dominique said.
“Yeah, but she sticks like a tick on a dog.”
“How did you sleep last night?” Dominique asked.
“Not well. Some clown set off the fire alarm at the hotel.”
“What a drag. I never sleep well before an event myself.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“See you later. I’ve got to get to the warm-up ring,” Dominique said, parting company with Gemcie and walking briskly to her trailer.
When Gemcie arrived back at the barn, she was pleased to see Billy, her trainer, standing in Marshal’s stall.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it,” she said.
“Have I ever missed an event you was riding in yet?”
“Come to think of it, you never have,” she said and laughed, feeling more secure with her mentor on the scene. Not that she couldn’t ride without him. His training was second nature to her. She didn’t have to think about keeping her hands low and steady. When she was a child he had put handcuffs on her wrists while riding, forcing her hands to be still. Gemcie’s hot tears of frustration never made Billy let up. Sue Ellen, Gemcie’s mother, had become nervous, afraid Billy’s treatment was too harsh.
“Aren’t you going too far?” she’d asked. “Handcuffs seem a little over the top.”
“Don’t worry,” he’d replied. “She’s going to learn two things this way. One, how to stop over-using those hands; and two, she’ll learn how to roll off in a ball instead of breaking an arm trying to catch a fall.”
Trusting Billy was mandatory for Gemcie and her mother. The result: Not one extra muscle moved during her ride. She kept her body weight-centered, never weaving or bobbing. She left a lot to Marshal, never interfering with his natural forward motion. They did a lot of winning together.
“He looks good. I like that he dropped some weight. He don’t need any baby fat slowin’ him down out there,” Billy said, running his hand down Marshal’s front legs, searching for any lumps or warm spots. Pulling a hoof pick out of his back pocket, he signaled Marshal to lift his front leg. Resting it on his knee, he picked the caked sawdust from the hoof to get a better look.
“He’s been doing good on that hay mix. Keeps him mellow too,” Gemcie said.
“I want you to do about fifteen minutes of flat work before you get into the ring. Supple him up with some haunches into the rail,” Billy said. “Don’t get him all prancy though; I want him to stretch out.”
“I’ll finish off with some extended trot.”
“That would be good,” Billy said, releasing Marshal’s front leg from his knee. He straightened up, stretching his torso back and putting his hands on his lean hips. After sixty years of riding, he still held his wiry, six-foot frame erect. He pulled the zipper on his black fanny pack filled with sugar cubes. Marshal’s ears pricked at the sound. Billy slipped a few of the sweet treats into a flat palm and let Marshal nibble them from his hand. He gave the stallion several solid pats, rubbing his immense neck with gnarled freckled hands.
Billy had brought at least a half-dozen riders to Grand Prix-level in his career. Even though he trained many horses to Olympic-level dressage, for the last twenty-five years he’d focused on jumpers. He cut his riding teeth in the rodeo on a cow pony he said was his best friend. He posted a picture of him on the wall of his trailer.
“It’s true I’m sittin’ on the horse and it looks like I’m tellin’ him how to rope that calf but fact is, I was just along for the ride. That horse won me a lot a money,” he would tease, slapping his blue-jeaned knee as though the joke was on those who gave him credit for being a great trainer.
Marshal trotted softly into the warm-up ring, tuned up from the flat work and ready for the task ahead. Billy started them over some low jumps then moved them up to a line that simulated the angled gates in the ring, finishing with a couple of bigger jumps to sharpen Marshal’s reactions.
“Looks like that tight turn after the Liverpool is what’s going to give ya the most trouble here today,” Billy said. “Footing could get sloppy goin’ through there.”
Not wanting to over-do her warm-up, Gemcie stopped to watch Dominique ride. Judgment, a powerful, seventeen-hand Hanoverian gelding took some real ability. She didn’t have a regular mount, which put her at a disadvantage. It takes time for a rider to know the quirks of any horse. Her form was exquisite, with legs at the girth, chest up, head high. She had spent her childhood under the instruction of the best trainers in Europe. Eventing top horses honed her riding skills to perfection. Her delicate feminine physique belied her tough interior. She pressed hard to win and took chances.
Judgment was shaking his head as she approached the second combination. She clucked her tongue, giving him a solid swipe with her crop to get him over. He lurched over the fence, but seemed to forget about what was troubling him for the next three obstacles. Then he nearly pulled a rail on the triple. A stiff breeze could have tipped the scale as the rail rocked in the jump cup when the horse’s bunched rear passed over it. Dominique approached the Liverpool in a wide, sweeping turn, squeezing him up hard. Through sheer mental determination she got him over the thirteen-foot span, pulling him up sharply to make the bending line to the next jump. It was not a pretty ride, but she made it around clean.
“It’s six strides up to the first line, four to the in-and-out, a long five down the next line, and a steady seven home,” Billy whispered the last-minute instructions as he lifted Gemcie’s leg forward to tighten Marshal’s girth.
“Gemcie McCauley aboard Marshal,” the announcer’s voice blared over the loudspeaker.
She trotted lightly into the ring doing a quiet canter around the outside of the course, letting Marshal feel the crowd. When he relaxed, she moved forward to the double combination under the sycamores. He noticed the grandstand, flicking an ear in its direction, but she felt no hesitation from him. He launched from a perfect spot and they sailed lightly through. The next ramped oxer with a six-foot spread he easily negotiated. Some horses get tired in a week of jumping at a horse show, but Marshal seemed to revel in the challenge. He just grew stronger and more confident, seeming to love the excitement. Gemcie let Marshal fly over the course at his pace keeping a loop in the reins so she would not be tempted to interfere with his movements. She trusted him. The forward flow made him happy. Ears pricked all down the triple line, he jumped the oxers as well as he’d ever jumped anywhere. She couldn’t have asked for more.
Billy’s heart was pounding with pride as he watched them sail confidently over the demanding field of jumps. Gemcie’s focus never wavered. Nothing existed for her beyond the moment when she was riding a course. Her alert, blue eyes remained riveted on the line she wanted Marshal to jump. Her mind melded with his. She was fluid, graceful, giving. She embodied everything Billy strove for in a rider. Marshal was majestic, brave and bold. Billy always said, “Marshal has the mark of a champion, the gaze of the eagle, he looks beyond humans, his eyes to the sky.” They were going to do it! They were going to take him to the World Cup! At nineteen, Gemcie was one of the youngest riders vying for the Cup. They had already won the last five Grand Prix on the Pacific Coast circuit this year. They were the combination Billy worked for all his life.
As they made the sharp roll back turn to the Liverpool, Gemcie put both legs on, building stride. She held him steady with both reins, looking fiercely to the other side of the water jump. Her timing was a split second off, the leg pressure a hair too much. Marshal lurched as though he’d been goosed. His stride became uneven; his takeoff too long. His front hoof caught on the lip of the Liverpool on the way out. He tripped, landing on his shoulder, rolling tail over nose. Gemcie flew twenty-feet into the air, slapping the ground solidly, and landing on her back. Spread eagle, she lay perfectly still. A communal murmur went through the grandstand as the crowd stood to see what was happening. The field doctor ran to Gemcie with two men carrying a stretcher behind him. He leaned over her, feeling her neck.
“Don’t move,” he whispered in her ear in case she became conscious.
He felt her pulse and instructed the men to lift her onto the cot.
“Don’t move her too quickly and don’t drop her legs!” he barked.
Billy gathered up Marshal, who was on his feet, but his focus was on Gemcie.
The stallion’s dripping nostrils flared crimson. Billy soothed him, patting him softly on his wet muscled neck. He walked him out, circling the arena.
“It’s okay, big fella. It’s not your fault, big fella. It’s okay, big fella. She’ll be fine.”
Billy looked on with concern, from a distance, as the doctor clamped a neck brace on Gemcie. He could see Sue-Ellen charging across the field with her breasts threatening to topple out of her spandex top. Breathless and panting, she arrived in a flurry.
“Is she okay? Will she be all right? Please tell me, I’m her mother.”
“We don’t know yet. She will need x-rays and an MRI to answer that question.”
“Mama,” came from Gemcie, slowly coming back to awareness.
“Don’t worry, honey, I’m with you, darling, she soothed, taking her daughter’s hand and holding it close to her heart. “I’m always with you. You know that. Now just be still.”
The medics lifted the stretcher and slid it into the waiting ambulance. With red lights flashing, it forced a pathway through the crowd. Billy continued to hand-walk the badly shaken, confused Marshal, until he was calm enough to be put back in his stall.