It was the night before the race. Cindy, her husband, and I had pulled into camp in the early afternoon. We tied the horses to the trailer, filled up hay bags and hauled buckets of water.
We pitched our tent and stored our food.
By the time we had our little camp set up the horses had eaten and emptied a bucket or two of water. I untied Mort and slipped on his bridle.
"I'm going to check out the camp," I told Cindy.
"Don't get lost," she told me. "There's a BBQ and trail meeting in an hour."
I swung up on Mort and rode off. I kept my mouth shut, but couldn't hide my scowl. I hated trail meetings. All they did was confuse me. By the time I yawned through the NATRC meetings I always felt like I needed a compass and a divining rod to survive the ride. I didn't see how it could matter anyway. I just let Mort follow the horse in front of him and when we were done we were done.
We jigged through the camp, Mort was feeling fine and wanted to strut his stuff a little. The horses were different than the ones I encountered on the endurance rides. They were mostly Arabs, but a lot of them were big and rangy. They were as skinny as Mort. They seemed calm and quiet.
The owners were different than the horse people I was used to. There were very few cowboy hats or boots. I saw a lot of tennis shoes and English boots. The riders seemed as lean and muscled as their horses. They would glance up at me and give me the same dismissive look I got from the morning kids at the horse shows. My face turned red and Mort tossed his head and jigged sideways.
I figured we might have to go blow off a little steam before he whacked out on me and I was about sick of getting looked at. We headed out a promising looking dirt road. By the time we left sight of the camp he had kicked into his trot and when I found a hole in the fence line, we hopped over the bottom strand of barbwire and headed up a good hill at a run.
Mort chugged up the incline, weaving in and out of the trees at a good clip. When we hit the top he was calm and content to stand and breathe. The sweet, clean smell of the air mingled with the light sweat on Mort's neck. I peeled my sticky legs off his back one at a time and scooted back over his flanks to let him dry. He pulled at the bit, wanting to graze, and I let the reins slide through my fingers. I breathed in and out in unison with his slowing heartbeat and felt better than I had since we had gotten to camp.
On the way back I became a little confused. I couldn't remember which way to turn on the road to get back to camp. Mort, using his unerring sense of direction, tossed his head and chugged until I turned the right way and we headed back to our BBQ.
The BBQ was great. The meat was lean and the sauce was spicy. Instead of baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw there was green salad, fruit and vegetable trays. It was like eating at my house.
As I stood in line with my plate I watched a group of the "lean and mean" competitors load up on fruit and vegetables and take very little meat or bread. I did the same.
"I'm not too thrilled with the food," Cindy complained. "I don't know how we're supposed to get full on this stuff." She looked at the dusty broccoli and carrots with disdain.
"I don't know, " I answered, "anything tastes good with onion dip."
I didn't want to point out the riders around camp seemed as in shape as their horses. It was sure giving me something to think about.
The pre-ride meeting was about the same as the NATRC meetings. Maps I didn't understand were handed out. The trail was discussed and the boggy spots, and slidey places were explained. As usual, I figured if I ran out of markers I would have to back track. I zoned out and started to think about Mort and I on the trail. I wondered how fast we were really going to go.
When the meeting was over I went back to camp. I dug my book and a flashlight out of my duffel bag and took Mort out to graze in the field behind our tent. I settled against a tree and turned him loose with his lead rope dragging behind him. He settled into the grass and I settled into my book.
The camp became quiet as the stars came out. Horses stamped and snorted and an occasional plaintive whinny floated through the air. I let my book fall in my lap and turned off my light so I could see the stars hanging so close over my head. Mort was like a film negative, a pale shadow against the dark grass.
I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythmic chomp and tear as he tore off big mouthfuls of grass.
The moon was going down when I woke up cold and stiff. Mort stood close by, dozing, his head hanging low and one hip cocked. I got up and stood by him, wrapping my arms around his barrel and hugging him close, trying to warm up. He snorted and shook his head.
"Don't you dare," I felt his muscles bunch and I lunged for his lead rope. He took off across the field at a high trot, his short little tail held straight in the air and his smart-ass head waving back and forth.
With every stride his whole being said, "See you later sucker!"
By the time I finally caught him the warm smell of coffee was teasing me and my fellow competitors were feeding their horses. I was plenty warm though and ready to ride.