Riding to Win

Business partners, employers and lovers have come and gone. Darolyn Butler-Dial and her horses not only endure but are victorious.

But Darolyn didn't cheat; Darolyn doesn't cheat.

"She was there on the first day," Peter says.

"So she knows," his wife, Cynthia, says.

Darolyn is not a woman who usually needs to be rescued.
Deron Neblett
Darolyn is not a woman who usually needs to be rescued.

There's a lot of whispering. Scandal is brewing. A timekeeper tells them to calm down; it's easy for a spotter to space out and miss a person.

The whispering continues. "Problem is, we don't have very much evidence at all," Peter says. "I don't think we have enough hard data to squeeze her through the wall."

Like they're solving a murder mystery, they try to figure out how and when Laura might have cheated. "There's no shortcut there," Peter says.

"But she could've just went right by," his wife says.

"That's not a big deal," Peter says as he exhales heavily. This is too hard.

Peter heads up the hill to talk to Laura. He sadly sits down and tells her they have to talk. Laura is a sophomore at Texas A&M majoring in biomedical engineering and physics. Aside from Darolyn and Mark, she's the hardest worker in the camp. She's an enthusiastic and energetic Rumanian immigrant who doesn't do things halfway. She would never think to cheat. She calmly tells Peter that of course she was at each stop and recites which riders were with her. Peter says he'll check her story with those riders.

Laura's number was 525. The spotter messed up and wrote down 225. Not her fault: Scandal over.

Brittany's knee hurts. The knot from where she was kicked two weeks ago got harder and bigger as the day went on. Out on the trail she was sure her horse was lame. She decided that her horse was so tired it was hallucinating. It seemed to spook at every rock, she says. She got off and checked the horse's foot for rocks, but she didn't see any. She loosened the saddle so it could breathe. She thought she was never going to make it around the last loop.

"It seemed like it was 1,000 miles," she says. "Really, it did."

Vicki told her just to get off her horse and walk.

At six-ten Brittany rides up crying. Mark lifts his daughter off her horse. Still sobbing, she throws her arms around his neck.

"Dad, just carry me," Brittany says. "Please, Dad."

He puts her down, his arm still around her: "I'm not carrying you.... This'll help." He pours ice water over her helmet. She runs off.

Mark lifts Brittany back onto her horse after the vet says it's sound. "You did good," Mark says. "I'm proud of you."

Mark taps a few extra-strength Tylenol into his hand. His back hurts, but his back always hurts, he says.

Vicki is sitting on the steps of her trailer, her cheeks red. "I don't want to do that again," she says. Well, maybe next year, she says, when she gets her strength back. Cancer takes a lot out of a person. Her daily medication makes her tired.

"I feel like my skin is leather," she says. "I hope Darolyn is proud of me."

Vicki is so tired she doesn't know if her feet can push the gas pedal driving home. All she wants to do tomorrow is sit by the lake with her three rottweilers. But even though the ride is over, the work isn't. The horses still have to be cooled down, hosed off, fed and watered. The gear has to be packed up and the electric corral broken down. The hay and horse manure have to be scattered and scooped. They work until the sky is black.

It's almost midnight, the horses are loaded into the rig, and the girls are asleep in the back. Mark has a large cup of coffee and some natural No-Doze. The air-conditioning is on high and he turns up the volume on the CD player. As Mark drives, cowboys sing about swaying in the saddle, riding easy with the sun.

Mark pulls the rig to a stop at 4 a.m. Finally showered and clean, Darolyn comes out to meet him. When she visited her daughter, the camp officials wouldn't let Darolyn shower in Cici's room. But they let her in the pool. Stiff and sore from riding and driving, Darolyn could barely move, but as soon as she stepped into the water, a volleyball game started. She and Cici played against each other; Darolyn won.

As they lead the horses into the pasture, Darolyn's watch alarm goes off: Time to wake up. They have a couple of hours to sleep and shower. Then they have to saddle up the horses for the 10:30 a.m. trail ride.

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