Read Gee Whiz Online

Authors: Jane Smiley

Gee Whiz

BOOK: Gee Whiz
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A
LSO BY
J
ANE
S
MILEY

The Georges and the Jewels

A Good Horse

True Blue

Pie in the Sky

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2013 by Jane Smiley
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Elaine Clayton

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smiley, Jane.
Gee Whiz / Jane Smiley; with illustrations by Elaine Clayton. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
(The horses of oak valley ranch; bk. 5)
Summary: Soon after her yearling, Jack, begins working with professional trainers at a nearby ranch, Abby Lovitt takes responsibility for a very large, very smart, and very curious retired racehorse named Gee Whiz.
ISBN 978-0-375-86969-3 (trade) — ISBN 978-0-375-96969-0 (lib. bdg.) — ISBN 978-0-375-98533-1 (ebook)
[1. Horses—Training—Fiction. 2. Ranch life—California—Fiction.
3. Family life—California—Fiction. 4. Christian life—Fiction.
5. California—History—1950—Fiction.] I. Clayton, Elaine, ill. II. Title.
PZ7.S6413Gee 2013
[Fic]—dc23
2012024370

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v3.1

Chapter 1

M
Y PLAN WAS TO LET
B
LUE AND
J
ACK PLAY FOR TEN OR FIFTEEN
minutes, then to catch Blue and tack him up, then to ride him in the arena while Jack trotted and wandered about. That way, I would get two horses done in the time it would normally take for one, and I would also get to watch Jack while riding Blue. I had already put Jack in the arena; now I opened the gate again and walked in with Blue. Jack came trotting over to us, his neck arched and his ears pricked. His tail was arched, too. I took off Blue’s halter and they sniffed each other, then Blue trotted away as if he were interested in every other thing in the arena but Jack. Jack trotted behind him.

Jack decided to investigate the cones. He went over to
one and sniffed it, then snorted and reared a bit, then sniffed it again. He trotted around it, and then stopped and looked at the cone beside it. Blue continued to ignore him—he was looking for bits of grass under the arena fence, walking along with his head down and his nose to the ground. I went to the center of the arena and started straightening the poles that were lying there. It was the last day of November, a cool, breezy day. The grass was beginning to turn green—it was bright-looking and appetizing, but I wondered if it had much flavor, since sometimes the horses spit it out. The quiet lasted for about a minute, then it was as if both horses had the same thought—“What’s
he
doing?” They turned at the same time, trotted over to one another, and sniffed noses. All at once, Jack reared up and took off along the fence line, and in half a second, Blue went after him. I smiled and continued to push the poles—there were about twelve of them—closer together. The horses galloped for ten strides or so, bucking and squealing. Jack even reared up once, but when they came to the far end of the arena, they turned into real Thoroughbreds—they stopped acting up and started running, and by the time they were halfway down the far side, I knew they were having a race. I stood and stared.

Jack was on the outside and Blue was on the inside. I think it was the moment that they stretched their necks out and lengthened their stride that I began to worry, because, in fact, it did not look like they were playing—it looked like they cared. And unlike the training pen, which we sometimes put them in but was too small for them to get going, the arena was big enough for some speed but maybe small enough for
trouble. A racetrack is a mile around. Not our arena. I looked toward the house. I didn’t know if I wanted Mom to see what was happening and come out and stop it, or if I wanted Dad to show up and yell at me. The best would be Danny. Danny should appear and treat me like a kid and help me prevent these horses from killing themselves.

Because they were going fast. Long, hard strides, digging deep into the footing, neck and neck, as they say at the racetrack. Blue was slightly ahead, but Jack did not want to give up. He even whinnied his high whinny. Their manes and forelocks flew, the sand rose around their bellies, and they ran. Their ears were pinned. I counted the number of circuits they made—one, two, three—and with each circuit, I thought of about a zillion different bad things that might happen. At one point, Blue’s foot slipped—he didn’t fall down, but he might have, so I imagined that for a while. Or he might have bumped Jack into the fence rail. Or he might have crossed Jack’s path and then they both could have gone down. Or there could be a hole or a depression in the sand that I didn’t know about—stumble, fall. What an idiot I was to have put them in here together. I shouted, “Hey, Blue! Hey, Jack! Slow down! Hey, fellas! Hey, Blue! Blue! How are you?”

And Blue’s ears flicked in my direction.

And Jack passed him.

Then they slowed down.

Then they trotted.

Then they tossed their heads and snorted.

Then Jack nipped at Blue and Blue nipped at Jack.

Then I saw how sweaty they were, and how hard they were breathing.

Then Blue turned and trotted over to me and Jack followed him.

They looked okay.

I said, “Thank you, Lord,” just the way Dad would have. And I meant it.

I got Blue’s halter off the gate and, since he had followed me, turned and put it on him right there, then I walked him around until he wasn’t panting any longer. Jack, in the meantime, was rolling in the sand—down, up, walk to another spot; down, up, walk to another spot. He seemed very proud of himself.

And me, well, my anxiety faded away and all I could think about was how beautiful and free they had looked, their tails streaming and their muscles shimmering. It was the way it had been earlier in the fall, when a trainer, Ralph Carmichael, was in town. He trained the horses to jump by having them gallop in pairs, or even in groups, down a jumping chute. The first time you saw it, it seemed like dangerous chaos, but then you realized that the horses not only enjoyed it, they were smart about it. Once we’d let Blue do it a few times, he knew more about jumping than I had been able to teach him.

When I came in for supper, which was macaroni and cheese and green beans, but with a peach pie, Mom and Dad were acting funny, so I knew something was going on. Then, when I was passing through the hall to go upstairs to the bathroom, I saw that there was an opened envelope on the telephone stand, and it was from the Wheatsheaf Ranch in Texas.
It took about half a second for my heart to jump into my mouth, because that was the ranch where Warn Matthews lived. Most people would say that Jack, who was almost two, belonged to Mr. Matthews. Most people would say that Jack’s dam, whom Dad had bought from a dealer in Oklahoma, had been stolen, so when she gave birth to a surprise foal out in our pasture, the foal belonged to Mr. Matthews, too, even though the mare colicked and died when he was a month old. Some people might say that although I adored Jack, I had to give him back. But Mr. Matthews didn’t think like that. He said that since we bought the mare in good faith, and since we took good care of her and her foal, we would share him “for now.” My problem was, I kept worrying about “later.” My hand just about grabbed the envelope on its own, but the letter wasn’t in the envelope. Mom or Dad probably had it in the kitchen. They were waiting for “the right moment.”

I went upstairs, but I was back downstairs in a hurry. When I sat down at the table, the letter, a typewritten page, was sitting at my plate. I picked it up. Even though Mr. Matthews had been plenty nice to me, that didn’t have to keep going. Sometimes people do things to you for your own good, and those things don’t feel good at all. The letter read:

Dear Abby, Mark, and Sarah—

It has been a busy year around Wheatsheaf, especially on the horse-racing side. You may or may not know that our three-year-old Yardstick, by Bold Ruler out of our homebred mare Hot Spell, has had quite an exciting season—fourth in the Kentucky Derby, second in the
Preakness, then first in the Whitney and second to Buckpasser in the Travers. Of course, we would have preferred to win! But Yardstick has held up well, and should have a good year next year as a four-year-old. We have also been back and forth to Europe this year. We purchased an interest in a horse named Hill Rise, who looked as though he would be running in the Queen Elizabeth at Ascot and then the Arc. As it turned out, he didn’t go to France, but his win at Ascot was incredibly exciting, especially since he was bred in California
.

All of this is by way of an apology for not having kept in touch with you concerning the yearling “Jack,” by Jaipur out of Alabama Lady. Yes, early in the summer, the Jockey Club informed us that after considerable debate, they have decided to allow Jack into the studbook. Although there is no definitive evidence that Jack is indeed Alabama Lady’s colt, or that your mare was Alabama Lady, the breeding and foaling dates, along with the circumstances of the theft and her appearance at By Golly Horse Sales, are sufficiently compelling to tip the scales in our favor. My guess is that they went back and forth about this matter for a good long while, but whatever happened, they have now decided to accept him. Being a gelding may have helped him, because they only have to let him race, and don’t have to worry about offspring. Anyway, we must make up our minds what to do next
.

Normally, a Thoroughbred born in January, as Jack was, goes into training in September of his second year—which would have been this past September—so that he can have a couple of races as a two-year-old. Around
Wheatsheaf, we don’t press the two-year-olds very hard, but we have found that the ones who wait to run, for whatever reasons of health or circumstances, are harder to handle and are less likely to do well. My own theory is that three-year-olds are like kids in junior high—sassier and more rebellious—so you want your horses to have learned their job when they are still willing. Since we have our own training facility here, we can take it horse by horse, start them, and go on with them as we wish, and then we normally ship them to Kentucky and Arkansas to begin their racing careers. But I don’t see how this will work with Jack. For one thing, he is not used to Texas weather, especially the humidity, and for another, my son Barry, whom you have not met, has gotten to know a fellow in your neighborhood who runs a well-respected training facility pretty much down the road from you called Vista del Canada. The man’s name is Roscoe Pelham, he’s an experienced horseman, and he’d like to have Jack over there
.

The only other question that remains is what Jack’s registered name will be. Some racehorse names are pretty ridiculous—I’m proud of “Yardstick” in a way, because lots of Bold Ruler horses have what I consider prideful names, but “Yappy” and “Buckaroo Banana” just seem a little silly to me. So we need to start thinking of something
.

I hope this is good news for you, and that you and your horses, and Jack, of course, are all well and happy. Maybe sometime after the racing season, you folks can come down to Wheatsheaf for a little visit
.

I look forward to hearing from you
.

Warn Matthews
    

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