Sarah Jane Howard felt a trickle of cold sweat break away from the nape of her neck and begin its slow journey down the middle of her back. The jump was coming up fast; too fast.
Stay relaxed. Concentrate on your posture and balance. Let your horse make the jump.
At the last second Sarah Jane felt her hands come up as she tightened her grip on the reins. Little Powell responded to the movement and veered away from the obstacle.
"No!" Huger Monroe shouted from the far side of the ring. "You were lined up perfectly, Sarah Jane. Why did you pull back?"
Sarah Jane dismounted and led her horse across the ring. She knew what the problem was -- she lacked confidence in herself and her horse. "It's that top rail you added, Huger. I don't think Little Powell can make the jump."
Huger Monroe stared at his employer. He had been working for Sarah Jane and her husband, two-time national rodeo champion John "Cowboy" Howard, for the last four years as senior riding instructor for Wild Pony Ranch. Huger had won two medals, gold and a bronze, as a member of the 2008 Olympic Equestrian team.
He had met the Howards at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Sarah Jane was an accomplished rider who had won numerous state and regional competitions and had qualified for the Trials. She performed creditably at the event, although she was never close to making the team. Sarah Jane had boldly approached Huger after the competition and introduced herself. She told him she wanted to take her riding to the next level and had a plan to accomplish that goal.
"I want to hire you," she had told him.
Huger had jumped at the offer. He knew that post-Olympic opportunities were scarce for equestrians and he had nothing waiting for him after the Games. He needed a job.
"Trials are in two weeks, Sarah Jane," Huger patiently reminded her. "That jump is the standard Olympic height for show competition. That's what you'll face when we travel to Aiken. Little Powell has to make the jump."
Sarah Jane remained silent.
Without another word, Huger took the reins and swung up into the saddle. He made a few circuits around the ring to let Little Powell warm up and get used to his new rider.
Sarah Jane watched as horse and rider made a final pass and accelerated toward the jump. The stallion soared over the jump with an ease and beauty that was heartbreaking.
How does he do that? No wonder he won the gold.
Huger walked over to Sarah Jane wearing a small smile.
"My God, Huger, that was ..."
Huger handed Sarah Jane the reins and held up his hand.
"Your turn," he said.
John Howard looked up from his desk as his wife entered the barn and headed for Little Powell's stall.
He wandered over and watched as she prepared the stallion for their afternoon workout.
"I saw Huger this morning. He said things are going well."
Sarah Jane smiled. "I'm starting to figure out the jump, but it's still hit or miss. If I could jump like Huger I might actually make the team."
"You've still got a week to prepare, Sarah Jane. You'll do great."
"Will you be able to come?" she asked anxiously.
John nodded. "I was just checking my schedule. I've got the Southern States rodeo in Richmond on Saturday. I'll drive straight from there to Aiken for the Trials on Sunday."
Sarah Jane relaxed and finished saddling Little Powell.
John watched through the barn window as Sarah Jane led her horse into the ring and began putting him through his paces. He admired the elegant technique of English riding, so different from the Western style.
Who are you kidding, John? You and Sarah Jane don't even compete in the same sport. You're just a rodeo cowboy; she's an equestrian.
Thirty minutes later John pushed back his chair, rubbed his eyes, and glanced out the barn window in time to see Sarah Jane fly over the top of Little Powell and slam into the jump. He was out the door and racing across the ring by the time his wife's screams shattered the afternoon stillness.
Sarah Jane's eyes were squeezed shut as she struggled to breathe. Her complexion matched the paper in John's printer.
Huger was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. "Ten minutes, Cowboy," Huger said. "The dispatcher said we need to get some blankets to keep her warm."
John sprinted up the hill to the house and burst through the front door. He grabbed an armful of blankets from the bedroom, staggered back out the door, and tripped on the porch steps. He frantically retrieved the blankets and stumbled down the hill to the riding ring.
A siren shrieked in the distance.
"You've got several ribs that are bruised and two that are fractured," the emergency room doctor announced. "I'll write a prescription to help you manage the pain."
"That's it?" John asked.
The doctor nodded. "There's nothing else we can do. The bruising will diminish and the fractures should heal in a few weeks."
"I guess I'll take tomorrow off," Sarah Jane said in a slurred voice. "I ride horses."
"You don't need to be riding horses for at least four weeks, Mrs. Howard," the doctor said. "Six weeks would be better."
The ride home was made in silence. John helped Sarah Jane upstairs and settled her in the bed. "You can have another pill in an hour," he said softly.
Sarah Jane waved him off and closed her eyes.
John turned off the light and quietly left the room.
The next two days passed slowly for Sarah Jane. She remained inside resting, watching television, and counting the hours and minutes between pain pills.
On Wednesday afternoon she made her way carefully down the hill to the horse ring. John was working with Jubal, his enormous chestnut stallion, in preparation for the rodeo.
"A little," Sarah Jane replied.
John noticed the sadness in his wife's voice and expression and felt a familiar wave of depression envelop him the way it often did when a loved one was hurting and there was nothing he could do. They both knew this was her last chance to compete at the highest level in her sport and now that chance was gone.
He glanced over a few minutes later and watched Sarah Jane slowly climbing the hill to the house.
She looks like she's eighty years old. The ribs will heal but I don't know if her spirit will recover. It's like that fall knocked the life out of her.
Thursday was a better day. The weather was warm and Sarah Jane sat outside on the front porch letting the sun work its magic on her injuries.
Friday was another beautiful day. John finished grooming Jubal around noon and came up to the house for lunch.
"What time are you leaving?" Sarah Jane asked.
"I'm not," John replied. "I can't leave you like this."
"The hell you can't," Sarah Jane said, her voice rising. "This is a big rodeo. Besides, there's nothing you can do about my ribs."
John grinned. "You must be feeling better. In that case, I'll leave right after lunch. I'll be home late tomorrow night. You call if you need me."
An hour later Sarah Jane kissed her husband and watched him drive away. She glanced at her watch. It was time for another pill. She went to her medicine cabinet and quickly swallowed three Tylenol. It would have to do; she had a plan.
John Howard was frantic. He had called his wife repeatedly and gotten no answer. He finally dialed Huger Monroe and asked him to check on Sarah Jane.
Huger called him back ten minutes later.
"She's gone, Cowboy."
"Gone?" John repeated in a bewildered voice.
"She took the truck. One of the horse trailers is missing and Little Powell's stall is empty."
John was stunned by the news. "I'm on my way to Aiken," he finally managed.
"I'll see you there," Huger replied.
John continued trying to reach Sarah Jane as he drove, leaving several voice messages.
She's afraid to talk to you. She's afraid you'll try to take this away from her. What are you going to say when you get there, John? You know you would do the same thing if you were in her shoes.
It was after midnight when he reached Aiken. There were no motel vacancies in the area and he had no idea where Sarah Jane was staying. She still hadn't returned his calls. With nothing else to do, John stopped at a convenience store for some snacks and then drove to the event site to await the break of day.
Huger found him in the parking lot the next morning.
"You look horrible."
"That's because I spent the night in my truck. Have you seen Sarah Jane?"
"No, I just got here. I had one of the ranch hands bring me down so you can drive Sarah Jane back when this is over. I'll drive your truck."
John nodded, momentarily overcome. "Thanks for thinking of that."
Huger spotted her an hour later warming up. "How are you feeling?" he asked quietly.
"What, Huger, I ..."
"No explanation necessary, Sarah Jane. I understand."
Sarah Jane's eyes widened as she saw her husband approaching. "John, I know what you're going to say, but I'm sorry. This opportunity won't come again. I have to try."
"Good luck, that's all I was going to say."
Sarah Jane stared in amazement. "Well, thanks. Uh, how was the rodeo?"
"Fine," John replied.
"What does that mean?" Sarah Jane asked.
"I won." John leaned over and kissed his wife. "I'll see you later."
John and Huger found a seat in the stands and waited for the Trials to begin.
The day wore on as the qualifiers waged a ruthless battle for a coveted spot on the team. For most of the competitors this was the culmination of years of effort and sacrifice to achieve the dream of representing their country in the Olympics. Most of them would be disappointed.
"How is she doing?" John asked a couple of hours later. "She made all her jumps. That's good, right? They all look about the same to me."
Huger had been watching Sarah Jane carefully. His initial worry had been replaced by growing wonder. The equestrians had spent the morning competing in cross country and other equitation on the flat events, as well as show jumping.
"I've never seen her ride like this," Huger stated flatly. He saw the look of concern on John's face. "What I mean is this is by far the best I've seen her ride."
"She's having a good day," John murmured.
Huger shook his head. "It's more than that, Cowboy. She's doing things that are, or at least were, beyond her ability."
"What do you think it means?" John asked.
Huger continued to watch Sarah Jane. "She's broken through to the next level."
There was a short break before the dressage competition. They found Sarah Jane grooming Little Powell.
John handed his wife a bottle of water and watched anxiously as she swallowed four Tylenol. She looked ready to faint. "It's okay if you want to quit."
Sarah Jane pinned her husband with a baleful glare.
"You don't have to give me the death ray look. I was just saying."
A few minutes later they returned to the stands to watch and wait.
Dressage was an event that had always fascinated John. He found the choreographed movements of horse and rider to be as subtle as they were sublime. He didn't really understand what he was seeing; he just knew that he enjoyed it and admired the talent of the participants.
Sarah Jane was one of the last ones to enter the ring. This was it, the final event of the competition. John watched in silence and reminded himself to breathe.
And then it was over. John glanced over at Huger.
Huger reluctantly pulled his eyes away from the show ring. "Magnificent," he said.
Sarah Jane was waiting for them. She was somehow laughing and crying at the same time.
John resisted the urge to sweep her into his arms, settling instead for a careful hug.
"My God, I've never ridden like that, John. Did you see me Huger? I'm so glad I came. I wanted to go out on top."
"We need to celebrate," John declared.
"I think I'll celebrate with a pain pill," Sarah Jane replied. "I hope you or Huger can drive while I sleep."
"Do you want something to eat?" John asked.
"Maybe later," Sarah Jane replied. She glanced at Huger, fear and hope written on her face. "I guess we better hit the road."
Huger cleared his throat. "I think we should wait for the results."
John pulled Huger aside. "Do you really think ..?"
"She's close, Cowboy, very close. We need to wait."
The results were posted thirty minutes later. The disappointment Sarah Jane felt was mitigated by the pain medication and the fact that she had never thought she had a real chance to make the team. It was the best performance of her life and that was enough.
"The last position on the team is blank," Huger noted.
A moment later an official approached a microphone and waited for the crowd to grow quiet. She formally announced the names of the qualifiers for the United States Olympic Team to loud applause.
The official waited for the applause to diminish. "There is one piece of unfinished business. We have a three way tie for the final spot on the team. This is unprecedented. I have conferred with the head of the governing body and my fellow judges seeking guidance on how to resolve this situation. The two riders not named to the team will serve as alternates. The person we have selected was a unanimous choice for the final spot. I have to say this rider's dressage performance was one of the best I've seen in a long time."
Sarah Jane heard a buzzing in her ears that threatened to drown out the words of the speaker. Heads were turning her way. Some people were smiling at her. A few were scowling.
The speaker sounded far away. She could only hear fragments, something about Little Powell and Sarah Jane Howard representing Wild Pony Ranch.
"When I wake up tomorrow you'll have to tell me if this was all just a dream."
John smiled at his wife. They had stopped for supper and Sarah Jane had taken another pill. They still had several hours of driving ahead. "I can answer that right now," John said softly. "It was definitely a dream -- a dream that you made come true."
Sarah Jane laid her head against her husband's shoulder and closed her eyes. "And those are the best kind," she whispered.