“On your mark, get set…” The starter’s words ring out over the public address system, “Bang!” He fires his pistol into the air.
Drivers snap their reins, sending a clear message to the teams. Shaking the ground, they sprint away from the starting line, twenty feet of horses followed by twenty more feet of iron, wood, and canvas.
Racing into the first turn, wagons squeeze together as drivers lean to the inside to keep their balance, each expert coachman controlling ten tons of flesh and carriage, thundering down the track. Racing through the turn, the wagons reflect the light of the setting sun behind them. They pass the shadows of shade trees under Western blue skies. Into the straightaway they sprint, a continuous stream of dust kicks up into the air behind them. Maneuvering for position, each team tries to take the lead.
The announcer calls out their order as they enter the last turn. “It’s the Hawker Ranch in the lead, followed by the Bond Farm, La Rosa Ranch is third, and bringing up the rear is the Quest Group!”
Coming through the backstretch and heading for the finish, the teams gallop four abreast. A mountain of wood and animals roar past the grandstands.
People are jumping up and down, waving colored bandanas and hats. Everyone is standing, electrified, as the teams stampede by.
My seat vibrates as if a clap of thunder has just struck nearby.
All of a sudden, Crash! Boom! Bang! Comes from the finish line in an explosion. Clouds of dust the size of hot air balloons rise above, obscuring the finish, silencing the arena. Air currents scoop up the dust and carry it away, revealing a mound of wagons and horse teams in chaos.
Horses are tangled, trapped, raising their heads, straining to be free. Two teams of horses are knotted together, amid the pandemonium, and two lone horses are ensnared by wagons, held captive by their harnesses in the mangled wreckage.
What once were horse-drawn wagons are now twisted metal, torn canvas, and splintered wood.
The crowd, already silent, lets out a collective gasp, “Oh!”
A man behind me sighs, “They are going to have to destroy that horse.” He points at a trapped horse.
I leap from my seat, cross the blacktop, and climb to the top of the arena fence.
A grisly sight, horses are whinnying and snorting, struggling to be liberated, gasping for freedom.
“Looks bad,” a man nearby whispers to his friend.
It’s a miracle; all the drivers and passengers seem to have escaped injury. A few can be seen, in shock, eyeing the devastation, not knowing what to do first.
Trainers, bronco riders, and calf ropers are risking their lives running into the wreck to rescue the teams of horses.
Men brandishing blades of steel cut agitated horses from their harnesses. Spooked, shaking their heads, one Appaloosa and an Arabian dash in opposite directions. They run erratically through the arena, each turning at different intervals, only to dart back from where they came.
More men rush to help, carefully crossing the track, glancing in every direction, not wanting to be trampled by horses running wild in the arena.
One team of six horses, wagon less, is careening around the track eerily holding their heads high—manes blowing in the wind—bodies sweating—eyes bulging.
Someone shouts in amazement, “There goes Doc Cuthberson! Look at him climb into the wreckage!”
Another man yells, “He’s fearless!”
Before anyone can blink an eye, he’s in the middle of the debris grasping the reins of one ensnared horse, pulling it to its feet. Reaching to untangle another, he coaxes it to his side. Everyone in the bleachers is in shock, motionless, eyeing his every move.
Horses are still running loose in the stadium. Cowboys, with lassoes in hand, are chasing them down. Wagons from the massive wreck are being hoisted and towed from the pileup by teams of men with trucks and chains.
Holding the horses, he perilously stands his ground, ordering the cowboys, “Pull there! Push that wagon! Now that one!” He yells, “Hurry boys, hurry.”
Cowboys are yelling, shouting orders to untangle the wagons surrounding Doc and the two remaining horses. Working feverishly side-by-side, they thrust and heave, determined to free up the wagons. Finally, untangled, they are swiftly pulled away.
Smiling, almost laughing, Doc emerges from the chaos jogging toward the main gate with the two horses in his grasp.
Concerned owners and trainers run to him, eager to take their horses and calm them with familiar words and comforting strokes. Cautiously they inspect them for injury, and then whisk them away to their stalls for further care.
Many in the crowd sigh, one concedes, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
Another exhales, “That was a close call.”
“Were any of the horses hurt bad?” I ask.
“Won’t know till Doc checks them out,” someone responds in a hopeful tone, winking and holding up two crossed fingers.
Now is my chance to see Doc Cuthberson—to save Neewa. I jump from the corral rails and sprint to the stables to find him.
Arriving in moments at a gigantic wooden barn between the arena and stables, I hesitate before entering. Slowly I peer around the corner and inside. Thick wooden timbers climb from the floor to the crossbeams that traverse its length and width above me. Dim sunlight shines through a few tattered boards protecting the loft full of hay from rain and wind. Bowls of milk for the cats sit on the floor near more hay and next to the green poison for the unwanted rats that will soon prowl here in the night.
On the hay-covered dirt floor, horses held by their trainers wait their turn for the vet’s assessment of every bump and bruise. Everyone is talking about the crash. Their voices are laden with concern. That’s when I see him, kneeling alongside an Appaloosa gelding of at least fifteen hands, examining, and gently patting his side.
Tears stream down my cheeks as I stagger up to him and cry out, “Dr. Cuthberson, my puppy has distemper—she is going to die—you’ve gotta save her!”
I plead, “Can you help her? Please?”
Perplexed, he looks up at me as he gets to his feet. Stepping away from his patient, he takes off his big hat and with one great swipe brushes off his jeans. Staring at me, he circles around the far side of the horse and continues his evaluation, checking head, front quarter, hindquarter, and legs.
At last he looks at me and says, “Little girl, what the heck are you doing here?”
Glancing away he spits a wad of chew onto the dirt floor and then observes the tears streaming down my cheek.
He leans over the horse between us and with a thick Western accent whispers, “Bring ‘er to my office tomorrow morning, I’ll take a look at ‘er, we’ll see what we can do.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I blubber wiping tears from under my eyes, standing, staring at him, in shock.
The concerned owner of this horse peers over Doc’s shoulder at me. Many others owners stand there among many horses patting their steeds, waiting their turn.
Doc turns to the man and says, “This one will be all right. Wrap up all four ankles good and tight.” He nods to a man in a white coat to his right watching every move.
The horse’s owner exhales in relief.
Turning on his heels Doc walks away, headed for the next one in line. A rancher walks up to him. Doc recognizes the man and smiles.
“Doc, I need you out at my ranch right away. I can fly you out in my plane,” the rancher says sounding troubled.
“I hardly use a car anymore,” Doc says as he walks alongside the rancher. “I have to check on the rest of these horses first. Then we’ll go.”
Both men have serious expressions on their faces as they go separate ways. Again Doc Cuthberson disappears, this time swallowed up by a swarm of horses and their caregivers.
I am overjoyed. All I know is he’s gonna see Neewa tomorrow. He’s going to save her. I know he is.
I turn and run toward the main fairgrounds leaving the chaos at the stables behind me. Sounds of whinnying horses being tended by worried trainers fade into the distance. While the cheerful sounds of the fair, come back into focus. I’m back in the hustle and bustle of the carnival and beside myself with happiness. Trying to hold back my sobbing and regain my composure, I stop near a bench along a walkway and sit.
Below the evening sky are the bright lights of the fairgrounds. The Ferris wheel turns against the star-studded backdrop. Riders scream as they reach the top of its great circle and then descend back to the ground. In the distance the Egyptian Boat rocks one way and then the other, increasing its arc, higher and higher with every to and fro.
I’m up and jogging again, encircled by people strolling, laughing, eating, and rushing to their next thrilling moment.
Vendors hawk their toys, beckoning would-be buyers to come forward.
The fair will be closing down later tonight, it’s over until next year.
I run to Dad who is sitting at the information booth where we agreed to meet.
“Christina, I haven’t been able to find him,” he blurts out.
“But I have,” I shout. “I found him and we can bring Neewa to his office in the morning.”
“He’s going to see her on a Sunday morning?” His voice gets louder in disbelief.
“Yeah, I got it covered. I’ll tell you all about it, but right now all I want to do is go home.”
Heading for the exit, with everyone else going home too, I spot Doctor Cuthberson being driven through the fairgrounds to the airport. He’ll soon be flying out to that ranch.
“He is going to see a sick horse out in Winnemucca,” says one man to another walking next to us. “The ranchers depend on him to care for the large animals in this county.”
“He’s the only one in these parts,” a woman chimes in.
“Yup, he travels miles to care for the horses, cattle, and sheep around here,” another adds.
Working my way through the crowd toward the van with Dad, my thoughts wander. No one told me he doctors only large animals. He’s different from the other veterinarian in town who cares for dogs, cats, and smaller pets. He stays in his office and has the animals come to him. Dr. Cuthberson flies across the county to take care of all the ranchers’ large animals.
Once in the car, I tell Dad the whole story. How I first laid eyes on him through the crowd of people. Where I ran to find him at the chuck wagon race, and all the riders and horses that barely escaped injury in the terrifying accident. And about witnessing all the people running to the rescue, and the Doctor in the middle of the wreck saving the trapped horses. Lastly, I tell Dad how I found him at the stables caring for every one of those horses.
We arrive at home and I run to check on Neewa. She is not well, about the same as when I left her this morning, maybe worse. She tries to drink some water from the bowl I raise to her mouth, but only takes a little. Her nose feels like dried leather. Trying to greet me, she shakes as she stands, then collapses down to the ground in a ball of white fur.
I cry as I tell her, “You have to hold on, I’m going to take you to the doctor tomorrow. He is going to save you!”
Neewa looks at me as if she understands. But her look tells me, this had better work, because I’m not gonna be able to hold on much longer.
I sob and tell her, “Tomorrow everything is going to be better. I know Dr. Cuthberson will save you.” I hold her close to me. “You have to make it through the night! You have to, you hear me!” I pull her face into mine. Her dried nose against my cheek.
“I can’t keep you inside Neewa, you’re too sick. You have to stay outside again tonight.” She looks at me with her sagging big gray eyes. I clean the crusty discharge from the corners and hold her close to me as she closes her eyes and falls asleep in my arms.