EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 16th chapter of an 18-part story that The Augusta Chronicle will publish in Your Life on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
STORY SO FAR: With Gogo the victor, Ben feels like a champ for the first time, only to be told to step out of the winner's circle. Another meeting with Joe Pastore threatens to light a fire for payback.
Ben didn't know why he was running, but he ran all the same, dodging around groups of people, around souvenir stalls and bandstands, until the trooper was out of sight behind him. Panting, Ben stood in the shade of an Italian ice vendor. He knew he was an idiot to have spooked like that; he hadn't done anything wrong. But Joe had a way of making him feel guilty, even though he wasn't guilty of anything. Just because his father was an arsonist, that didn't mean he was dangerous. Or untrustworthy. Or a lowlife. Or a loser.
It was just hard to remember that sometimes. Especially with someone like Joe messing with his mind.
With a shake of his head, Ben began walking back toward the clubhouse. He didn't know if the Brennans would be looking for him; he wasn't sure he wanted to know if they'd even noticed he was missing. Maybe he should just take a taxi back to the farm and wait for them there. He wasn't wanted at the celebrations, anyway.
As he started up the clubhouse stairs, he looked up and saw Mr. Brennan standing at the top, gazing out at the crowd with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. For an instant, Ben had a wrenching regret that this man wasn't his father, instead of the firebug sitting in a prison cell ten miles away up Route 9. He'd get a cab. He'd leave. He was about to turn away, when Mr. Brennan caught sight of Ben and his face lit up.
"Hey, where'd you go? You missed being in the pictures! We've been looking all over for you!"
Ben felt a jolt of elation. For a moment, he couldn't speak. "You wanted me in the pictures?"
"Sure!" Mr. Brennan began trotting down the steps. "Listen, we're all going to go out for a big bash to celebrate, but I have to run home first and pick something up. Ride with me, okay? I'm too wound up to be alone."
Ben just nodded, his heart too full of emotion to answer. He fell into step beside the older man as they headed for the truck. Mr. Brennan was bubbling with happiness.
"I knew Gogo had it in him! But boy, was I nervous. I was sweating bullets. I guess I'm just as much of a sucker as anyone else in this business, huh? Staking everything on an unknown quantity. Just a little nobody, that's who he was."
"A nobody?" Ben asked. "Didn't you breed Gogo?"
"Nope, bought him at auction. Sire wasn't anybody special, neither was the dam. But now Gogo will be the hottest date around," Mr. Brennan said with a grin. They had reached the truck, and he started the engine. "In spite of his undistinguished heritage."
Ben fiddled with the vent so it wasn't blowing hot air at him. "But I thought you had to have champion bloodlines all the way through."
"You're right, this business is all about breeding and bloodlines, and sure, we'll be able to make a good income on Gogo's stud fees," Mr. Brennan said as they pulled out into traffic. "But the dirty little secret in this racket is, parents don't really make that much difference in the long run - it's always a horse race. Just when you think you've got it all planned, some nobody you never heard of comes from behind and surprises the pants off you."
Parents don't really make that much difference, echoed in Ben's ears.
"Look at Seabiscuit. Everybody's heard of him now, right? Because of that book? But he was nothing special to begin with. Nobody expected anything from him, sort of an awkward-looking thing, disappointing past. He had a famous father, but that horse was mean and dangerous, and folks figured Seabiscuit was just a dud. But the past doesn't matter, Ben."
Ben realized Mr. Brennan was looking at him. He swallowed hard. He didn't trust himself to return that look.
"It's not the past that matters, Ben, and people are not like horses. Nobody cares about your bloodlines. It's not what your parents did that matters, it's what you do. But listen, there's one more thing."
Ben forced himself to look at Mr. Brennan. The older man concentrated on a turn before he went on.
"You have to forgive your father, Ben. He's made some terrible mistakes. But it doesn't make you a criminal if you love him."
Mr. Brennan turned his attention back to the road. They had left Saratoga behind and were in the countryside again, the miles spinning out behind their wheels as they headed for the farm. Ben swallowed hard. Then, surprised, he blinked back sudden tears as he watched a blur of trees and fields and houses flash by beyond the window. His heart pounded as he wondered if his father could see trees at all, or pastures, or horses eating grass. Probably not. Not from a prison cell. He thought about the last time he'd seen his father, in the city after the trial - an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, a beaten, defeated expression - just before he was taken away. It was all so unfair. Was Mr. Brennan right? Could Ben really forgive his father?
"I understand," he finally said to Mr. Brennan.
"That's fine, Ben. That's fine." Mr. Brennan gave him a swift smile, and hit the turn signal for the turnoff to Wind Rider Farms.
The truck surged up the driveway with a roar, and Ben decided that if Joe showed up again, he'd tell him to go to -
There was smoke billowing from the door of the horse barn!
(To be continued)
TEXT COPYRIGHT 2003 BY JENNIFER ARMSTRONG
ILLUSTRATIONS COPYRIGHT 2003 BY C.B. MORDAN
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF BREAKFAST SERIALS INC.