Authors: Heather Blanton
Prince Valiant pawed at the ground and snorted.
Billy leaned forward and patted the horse’s elegant black neck.
“Hang on, boy,” he whispered. Snatching a quick peek at his opponent, who sat
atop a muscular but restless sorrel, he said more loudly, “I’ll turn you loose
in a second.”
Seth, a young man with
red-hair, freckles, and the mass of a bean pole, shifted deeper into his
saddle. He was trying not to show any worry, but uncertainty wiggled around a
twitching brow. Prince Valiant was an animal of grace, balance, and stunning
conformation. You’d have to be blind to miss what he was—an animal built for
speed. As Billy casually rewrapped the bandage on his injured hand, he winked
at his opponent.
Seth’s face reddened and he
straightened indignantly. “Y–You’re just tryin’ t–to rile me.” He swallowed
against whatever it was that caused the stutter to cling to his words. “I ain’t
lost in Dodge yet.”
“Your horse is big and
“My h–horse can cut on a
dime and g–give you back a nickel’s change.”
Billy frowned. He had no
idea what that meant.
“A–and he don’t get
? A sliver of concern rose up in Billy’s gut. The rules were
simple. Race the course. Come back to this spot. Was he missing something?
Prince Valiant shook his
head and blew, eager for the run. Restless under a high noon sun, horses and
riders waited in an alley at the edge of Dodge, near the train yard. Gerald,
the rotund gentleman up ahead wearing a too-small tan suit with bulging
buttons, stood where the alley met the road. Moving his head back and forth, he
studied the intersection the two animals would cross. A crowd of twenty or so
men had gathered in bunches on each side of the alley and up on the boardwalk.
All of them watched eagerly for a signal from the man in the shabby suit.
As Billy understood it, they
would shoot straight across Front Street, continue down the opposite alley, do
a horseshoe around Boot Hill Cemetery, cross the railroad tracks, and follow
them back to this spot. The marshal, a fella by the name of Wyatt Earp, didn’t
agree with racing horses in town. He’d thrown more than a few cowboys in jail
for the deed. Gerald, the man who coordinated such events, had a handful of
boys who would be distracting Earp and his deputies anytime now. A fast, clean
race meant they would all be in and out in no time, and the town’s law
enforcement officers would be left sifting through the dust.
Prince Valiant was ready.
His muscles quivered with the desire to cut loose. Gerald stepped deeper into
the street, arms outstretched, a smoldering cigar in his mouth. Shifting
stiffly in the saddle, Billy wondered why no one was
traffic. As the answer struck him, Gerald slapped his sides and lunged for the
boardwalk like hounds from Hell were coming for him. Billy and Seth kicked
their horses and the animals bolted forward like lightning streaking across the
The moment the horses burst
onto Front Street, Billy knew this was a different kind of race. Prince Valiant
reared and whinnied at the confusion—a flowing menagerie of horses, wagons, and
men. Meanwhile, Seth and his mount zigged and zagged with such speed and
precision, Billy would have sworn the horse was on rails.
He didn’t need to be shown
twice. He leaned into Prince Valiant and let the horse have his head, slapping
him with the quirt to re-focus the animal.
As they lunged through the
traffic, a horse and rider burst out from behind a freight wagon. Billy jerked
the reins hard to the left, missed a collision, then he and his horse bounded
forward. Cheers, jeers, and ungentlemanly gestures greeted the racers as they
cut around wagons, pedestrians, and other horses. Billy understood now the
advantage a cutting horse could have. The boy could actually win this thing if
he took too much of a lead now. The thought burned like acid. Prince Valiant
wasn’t used to running a gauntlet. He was made for long, uninterrupted
stretches. Still, he could dig his hooves in and cut with the best of them.
Seth and his horse made it
the other side of the intersection. Billy lost sight of them because of the
traffic. Desperation buzzed in his brain. He thought of Hannah, and how she
used to stand at the finish line, cheering wildly for him. He thought of his
father who’d told him that horse racing was a colossal waste of time. Steering
with his good hand, Billy tightened his grip on the reins. He couldn’t lose
lose. He quirted his horse again. “Let’s go, boy.
Show ’em what you can do.”
Within seconds he was
nose-to-tail with Seth’s horse. The traffic disappeared as they cleared Front
Street and raced down the alley toward Boot Hill. Billy knew he needed to pull
up on the inside of the other horse as they made their turn around the
cemetery. After that, they would be on the home stretch where Prince Valiant
could win it.
Dust and the sound of
pounding hooves filled his brain. The Quarter Horse in front was stretched out,
long and lean. But there was a price to pay for all that muscle. Billy hunkered
down in the saddle, keeping his head close to Valiant’s neck. He and his mount
kept their attention trained on the animal in front of them.
They broke free of the
buildings, and the wood rail fence around the cemetery came into view. The
place was small, insignificant, and dotted with weathered wooden markers, a
fitting tribute to men who had led small lives. He was determined not to be one
Prince Valiant picked up
speed as if he knew he had to put the other horse behind him, and this was the
place to make the move. The urge to win was in his blood, if not in his brain.
Billy’s pulse trip-hammered in his chest. He was close enough to touch the
other horse’s flank.
Prince Valiant nosed in
between his opponent and the fence. The red-haired boy raised his quirt to hit
the approaching horse, but before he could bring his arm down, Prince Valiant
shot past, picking up even more speed. Billy didn’t look back. He and his horse
came out of the turn, spotted the railroad tracks two hundred yards out, and
lunged for them. He could hear Seth screaming at his horse, cursing him, trying
to get every ounce of effort from him. Funny, Billy didn’t hear any stuttering
coming from the boy.
The lightning pace of Prince
Valiant’s pounding hooves felt like Billy’s pulse.
leapt the railroad tracks, turned hard to the left in a spray of dust and
gravel, and headed hell-bent-for-leather for the back of the buildings where
this had all started. In the distance he saw Gerald gesticulating wildly, arms
flailing madly, then he disappeared into the alley.
Billy didn’t take it for
granted that he couldn’t hear Seth’s screams or his horse’s hoofbeats. He and
Prince Valiant aimed for the alley, charging for it like they were under
cannon-fire. They leapt another set of tracks and pounded toward the alley
where Gerald had been standing. They slowed and turned the corner, expecting to
see Gerald and a crowd—
Billy pulled Prince Valiant
up hard, practically putting the horse down on his haunches as they skidded to
a stop. In the settling dust, a tall man, dressed in a black hat and long black
duster, stood alone, calmly loading bullets into his revolver. Billy scanned
alley. The man raised his head, the Stetson slowly revealing
cold blue eyes and a bushy handlebar mustache. He slid his gun into his holster
and pushed aside his left lapel to reveal a silver star.
Gerald was waving me away.
The absence of pounding
hoofbeats from behind could only mean that Seth had understood the signal. Air
escaped Billy’s lungs as he sagged in the saddle, regretting his arrogance.
“My name is Wyatt Earp,
Dodge City marshal.” The man’s deep voice resonated with confidence. “That is
one fine-looking piece of horseflesh, son. But racing it on busy streets is
frowned upon.” And, in case Billy had any questions about his immediate future,
Earp added somberly, “You are under arrest, and your horse is hereby
Billy stepped into the eight-by-ten cell and winced as the door
clanged shut behind him. He could feel Earp watching him but didn’t turn. He
needed to take all this in. He appraised the filthy, stained cot to his left
and swore he saw something on it move. Or slither. Fighting a feeling of
failure that threatened to swamp him like a flood, he trudged to the far wall,
turned his back to it, snatched off his hat, and slid to the ground.
He’d started out with a good plan. Go west. Find Hannah. Get off
the train in Dodge City for one or two horse races. Same as all his other
choices, this one had been just about as smart as kicking a hornet’s nest.
just what have my
stellar decisions cost me? The love of a good woman. A relationship with my
son. Ever seeing my mother again. A few bones in my right hand. The family
fortune. My dignity. My horse
I am on a roll.
Earp rested a boot on the
iron crossbar at the bottom of the cell door and shook his head. Gripping the
bars, he chuckled. “I have brought in some sorry sights, but I think you’re
about the sorriest. This is the last place a boy like you should find himself.”
Billy rolled his head back
against the wall and shut his eyes. “Most of the men you bring in here are,
what, drunk and belligerent? Broken and defeated?” Billy’s voice faded,
softened to a tone that was merely thinking out loud as he raised his head to
stare through Earp. “Is that what a man becomes when he loses everything?”
Earp scratched his nose.
“Listen, son, I’m not your priest—”
“And I’m not your son.”
“True enough. But you are in
my cell. And that means you’ll listen when I talk.” Apparently taking Billy’s
silence as agreement, he went on talking. “For what it’s worth, you may be dead
broke—stripped of everything ’cept your long johns, and I’d still say you’ve
got more going for you than ninety percent of the mongrels I haul in here.”
Billy dragged his knees up
and rested his hands on them. “You don’t know anything about me. Everything I
had going for me is gone.”
Earp fell silent. His hard,
empty eyes studied Billy for a few seconds. In the next instant, his stare
drifted. Absently, he stroked the long bushy mustache that all but hid his
mouth. “I know that what you think is going to kill you today will make you
stronger tomorrow,” he blinked and returned to the moment, “if you let it.
That’s the ticket, son. You have to
to get back up and keep
swingin’. You’re the kind who will. That’s what separates you from the hapless
Long after Earp left to make his rounds, Billy pondered the
Get back up and keep swingin’.
His gaze traveled round the cell. Bricks, bars, and cobwebs. No
exit, no hope.
Hannah would have told him
to pray, to trust that God had a plan.
Disgusted, he snorted aloud
at that thought.
It had seemed so right and
easy a month ago to take this path and thumb his nose at his father’s threats.
Billy could still hear the fury in the voice, warning him to calculate the
“I told you before,” Frank
Page had said from the settee in their lavishly appointed parlor, “try to find
her, contact her in any way, and I will cut you off—stop your tuition payments
and cease paying your gambling debts. All of it will end. You’ll be out on the
street with nothing.”
Billy hadn’t doubted it for
a second, but he’d prepared. Those gambling debts were a farce. He’d been
saving money. Finding the Pinkerton report had only confirmed that his next
step was the right one.
“She hates you,” his father
hammered. “I made sure she knew you abandoned her because you were afraid of
losing your inheritance. She will not take you back. She has settled nicely
mining town. Seems it suits her.”
Billy didn’t miss the
implication, but then again, his father simply didn’t know Hannah. Perhaps if
she’d been abandoned in that town, alone with a child to take care of, that
might have put a different light on things. But Hannah wasn’t alone.
“Hannah may not love me
anymore,” Billy said rising to his feet to stare down at his father, “but she
would never hate me. Not even me.”
Did he still believe that?
What if she were cold to his arrival? Or worse, indifferent? Hope was not in
abundant supply at the moment. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of
jail, much less get to Hannah. He wanted to ask God for a miracle, but as Billy
surveyed the cell again, he knew he couldn’t ask for such an extravagant gift
from Someone he didn’t know. The thought filled him with an ice-cold emptiness
that struck deep at his soul.
At dusk, the office door opened and Earp walked in, stepping aside
for Eleanor. Surprised to see her, Billy stood up and met them at his cell
door. “Eleanor, I’m so sorry about your deposit. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
He had no earthly idea how, but he wouldn’t let another woman down.