Authors: James Patterson
THURSDAY HAD BEEN
all about getting to the Grand Prix. Tonight’s first order of business was to get to the jump-off.
“How do you feel?” Daniel said after Coronado and I had done some light jumping in the ring.
“Like I want to throw up,” I said.
“I’m being serious,” he said, as if Daniel Ortega were ever anything but.
“So am I,” I said.
“Matthew next, followed by Andrew Welles,”
the starter said.
Rich Grayson. Appropriate first name. His father was the fourth or fifth wealthiest guy in the country.
He’ll be fine wherever he finishes tonight,
Or doesn’t finish.
He’ll be pissed. He’s as competitive as I am. But his life won’t change at all.
“Then Tyler four,”
the starter said,
“Eric five. Becky six.”
“Just a little more jumping, please,” Daniel said. “Don’t forget to use your legs as well as your hands.”
If I wasn’t calm, he was. It made me feel better. The way seeing Dad had made me feel better.
The two men in my life,
Only one of them official
Maybe Daniel and I would never be official. But I was glad he was here. He was smart. He was good. He only wanted the best for me. And even though I hated to admit it, he probably did know me better than I knew myself.
After Daniel signaled me to stop, I walked Coronado over to the fence.
“At least I haven’t seen Gorton down here,” I said.
“He is not even worth thinking about right now,” Daniel said. “He does not matter. The course matters. It is difficult, but it is fair.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But the jump-off was designed by some sick, twisted monster.”
“What jump-off?” he said.
Daniel being Daniel. He was telling me that all that mattered in the world right now were the next sixteen jumps.
the starter said.
Time coming at me fast now.
“Breathe,” Daniel said.
“Easy for you to say,” I said.
I heard a cheer from inside the International, then a groan, then heard the PA announcer saying that Eric Glynn had gone clean until the last jump.
The in-gate now for Coronado and me. Daniel next to us. I heard the announcer say Coronado was next in the ring, and then we walked out there and went into a trot around the outside of the course. Then I slowed him down to a walk and took one last look at the course, using a finger to map it out in the air in front of me.
We headed for the first jump. When we were six strides out, I heard the buzzer, which meant I’d passed the sensor and the clock was starting.
Cleared the first one.
Then the second.
We were into it now.
Sometimes a rider knew how much horse was under saddle on a given night. And sometimes it was a charade leading up to a big, hot mess.
Tonight I knew.
The first combination came up on us now, right in the middle of the course. About the same place where I’d given Coronado a crap distance and he’d plowed through the jump and stopped and sent me flying.
Takeoff. Landing. Takeoff. Landing.
Now you’re riding.
Two jumps on the tent side of the course. Gave him the right distance on both. Felt him clip the second jump. Closest I’d come yet to putting a rail on the ground. The rail stayed up. Into the far corner now, underneath the big screen, going into the second half of the course. Running easy. But running hot, too.
First tough rollback for us. Cut the turn as sharply as I could. Knife through butter. Squared him up. Cleared the jump with plenty of room to spare.
Two more jumps before the most dangerous double. Got over them clean. Now the double, the two jumps so close to each other riders thought of them as one piece. Like 15A and 15B.
I was talking to Coronado now.
Landed the first jump clean.
Nailed the second.
No thinking now. Just reacting to what was left. Just looking at the last jump. Focusing on the line. Seven strides in it.
Into the air one last time. Over the jump. Feeling a slight chip on the rail, but knowing he hadn’t hit it hard enough to knock this one down, either.
Still not done. Knowing there were a couple of strides left after the jump to where the timer was, before the round was officially over.
Finish the round,
Daniel always told me.
I rode Coronado as hard those last few strides as I had anywhere else on the course. We finished the round strong. He did. I did. I hadn’t heard the crowd the whole way around. I’d only been hearing the sound of my horse. But now I heard an explosion of noise from the stands and the announcer saying our time was 79.2 seconds. The great Matthew Killeen went next and was a full second slower. I was in first place, at least for now. It wouldn’t matter in the jump-off, when all the horses who made it would start even. A whole different competition.
Slowed Coronado down to a walk, then brought him over to where Daniel was standing. Daniel’s face was totally blank. No reaction from him at all.
“You got nothing?” I said. “I’ve got the best time so far.”
“Night’s not over,” he said, and headed back to the schooling ring to wait for the jump-off.
DANIEL WAS GOOD
at waiting by now. Waiting to feel like a real American. Or be treated like one someday. Waiting to feel safe again, someplace outside the ring.
In his heart he felt that there was no better trainer in the business. But if they didn’t have a horse good enough to make it to Paris, Daniel’s ability might not matter in the end.
Still, he could barely breathe as he watched, from the time the buzzer started as Becky approached the first jump until it sounded again, after she had pushed herself and the horse, pedal to the metal as she liked to say, past the timer set in the dirt, a few strides after the last jump.
Tonight while she was in the ring he did not need to call out to her a single time. Maybe he would tell her later that he had never seen her ride better.
But now there was still work to do. Emilio helped her down off Coronado and then Daniel and Becky watched his video of the jump-off course. He kept pausing it, showing her the places that he thought would make all the difference if she could go clean, particularly a rollback as tough and tight as he’d ever seen on a championship course.
“As good as you just were,” he said, “you have to do even more now.”
He saw her smile.
“Damn,” she said, “I was afraid of that.”
“You have to go inside on that turn,” Daniel said.
“If I can,” she said.
“There is no if,” he said. “You do not play it safe. You go inside. Absolutely.”
He put his phone away and looked at her. As nervous and scared and excited as he knew she was—all the things that he himself was feeling—her face was suddenly calm.
“Okay,” she said.
Then he helped her back into the saddle, and she took Coronado around the schooling ring, once, then twice, then letting him rest on the side. From inside he heard the announcer saying the jump-off was about to begin.
Then Daniel saw Tyler Cullen walking his horse, Galahad, in Becky’s direction. Cullen’s back was to Daniel, so he didn’t see him jogging to catch up and get ahead of the horse, putting himself between Tyler and Becky.
“You’re in my way,” Cullen said.
“I wouldn’t,” Daniel said.
He did not say it in a threatening way, or in a loud voice. This wasn’t the playground and trying to show another boy how tough you were. Daniel knew he could do nothing to distract Becky in this moment. So he had kept his voice low. He had even forced a smile onto his face. Daniel was sure no one in the ring, not even Becky, had heard what he had just said to Tyler Cullen. He just stood there with his arms casually in front of him, staring at Cullen as Cullen stared back at him, hoping that things wouldn’t escalate with the jump-off just moments away.
Unsure what would happen next if they did.
Then Cullen said, “I’ll see you later, dude,” turned his horse, and walked it away.
THE TWO RIDERS
ahead of her both got rails. First Jennifer Gates’s horse. Then Georgina Bloomberg’s. Becky couldn’t believe that’s the way the order fell. Both had tried to go inside on the killer rollback, both had gotten too close to the jump.
But they’d gone for it.
One a Gates, the other a Bloomberg.
Nothing for them to lose, as much as they wanted to win.
“Hey, maybe I won’t need to go inside,” I said to Daniel as we watched from the in-gate.
Daniel didn’t even look up at me. Just slowly shook his head.
“Killeen and Cullen go after us,” he said. “We go inside.”
I kidded myself into thinking I could do some breathing exercises before I rode Coronado into the ring. Thinking maybe that would stop my heart from racing. Dad had talked about there being a big horse race here tonight. I felt like I had one running inside me. Tried to settle myself down by closing my eyes, imagining Daniel taking me through the jump-off course on his phone even though the course was in front of me, my ride a few seconds away.
Then we were out there.
No need to warm him up. Looked down and saw my hands shaking on the reins.
Three horses left,
I told myself.
And I had the best one.
I would happily have signed up for this three weeks ago when I was on my ass in this ring, even if I was going up against a course this hard, and against Matthew Killeen and Tyler Cullen.
Gave Coronado a little kick-start with my boots.
Eight if you counted the second jump in a wicked combination.
it felt like a horse race.
First jump clear.
One more before the rollback. Thought I was too close to it.
I’d laugh sometimes watching the video after, the weird noises I’d make out there, the things I’d say to my horse.
We weren’t too close to the jump. Coronado almost seemed to buy himself some room on his own, veering slightly to the left.
Made the jump.
I was thinking about the rollback before I even landed the jump.
Damn, he is going fast.
He’d been fast before. Been fast at the end in the qualifier. A lot faster now. I never hesitated on the inside turn. Felt the horse leaning into it even without me asking him, leaning hard to his left, making me feel, just for a moment, like he was about to fall right over. Like a skier on a slalom run.
I said again.
Squared him up.
Made the jump.
All that was left was the combination, one more jump after that.
Get over clean, post a time, see what happened with Matthew and Tyler.
Crushed the combination.
Every rider’s nightmare, no matter how good, no matter how many shows won. Knocking down the last rail after a kick-ass ride.
And this has been one banging, kick-ass ride.
Cleaned it, cleared it, nailed it, made sure to keep him going past the timer, the way I’d been taught, not wasting the couple of tenths of a second that could pass if you didn’t ride like hell past that timer.
Didn’t have to wait to hear my time, because there it was right in front of me on the screen.
Even though Jennifer and Georgina had gotten rails, they’d been getting after it, too. Neither one had been under 40 seconds.
When I got back to Daniel, just as Matthew was entering the ring, he still hadn’t changed expression. No shocker. Daniel being Daniel, even now.
“We watch from here,” he said.
Somehow I was more crazytown with nerves now than I’d been all night. I’d been in control of Coronado out there, as much as an animal that big, going that fast, can be controlled. Now everything was totally out of my control. My gaze jumped up to the tent, into the stands. All I could do was watch.
Matthew was next into the ring. Tyler Cullen, going last, was in the in-gate. As I passed him, he said, “Don’t spike the ball too soon.”
“You talkin’ to me?” I said.
Matthew went clean. But his horse, My Pirate, got away from him going into the rollback, and he had no choice but to go outside, and the lost time cost him. He came in at 39.9.
We were down to Tyler Cullen now.
“I can’t lose to that bastard,” I said to Daniel.
“You won’t,” he said.
It was as if time had stopped, even as I could see the clock going at the other end. Tyler had a lot of horse himself with Galahad, just one without quite as much size to him or speed as Coronado had. Or bloodlines nearly as good. And whatever I thought of Tyler Cullen, the guy could ride his ass off. Daniel knew in his head what my time had been after landing every jump. He said the splits out loud, and jump after jump, my time was better than his.
But not by much.
I stopped listening and focused on Tyler as he approached the rollback.
He went inside, looked as if he was about to cut it as well as I had.
But as he did, Galahad skidded slightly. I thought he might go right around the fence, but somehow Tyler got him under control, got him over the jump.
“He’s a half second behind,” Daniel said.
“Hush,” I said.
I watched Tyler, then the clock, then Tyler.
Saw where he was after the combination.
Shit, it’s like a dead heat.
I couldn’t watch the clock anymore. Closed my eyes. Opened them and saw Galahad in the air over the last jump, saw him take it clean.
Saw Tyler raise his right hand in the air, like in triumph, as he landed.
Then he looked at the big screen at the same time I did.