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The Big Race

The Big Race
Jules — 20 Sep 1998, 1:17 PM

Like many other great horses, Intrepid had a vain streak. He enjoyed having a fuss made of him, and in some dim recess of his horse brain he had once made a connection between keeping the other horses behind him and being the centre of attention. All of the noise and bustle and crowds, and the milling horses around him, seemed to suggest that today was one of those days, and he arched his neck coyly and looked around himself to see if he was being sufficiently admired.

As it happens, he was. But then that's often the case with the pre-race favourite. Particularly when his rider is both a local and something of a favourite with the ladies of the town. The seasoned gambling men put their money on the horse to win because he gleamed with condition and careful grooming, stepped out well, and was transparently eager to be on his way and showing the other animals his heels. The ladies put their money on the rider to win because... well, because Tom Janeway might have the reputation of a rake and a gambler, but he was a reformed rake and gambler, and even when he'd been at his lowest ebb he'd always been unfailingly polite and chivalrous to the fairer sex. True, he didn't look quite as well turned out as his horse today, but there were plenty present who thought that the wild and ruffled look rather suited him.

Tom slowly drew in a deep breath, let it out just as gradually, and decided that Chakotay probably hadn't broken any ribs after all. Just bruising, and as a horsebreaker he was pretty much used to that as an occupational hazard. And, while there was a dull throb at his browline which made it impossible to forget that the Delta Q foreman's right hook had connected solidly enough to guarantee him a quite spectacular black eye, his vision had cleared now and was as good as ever.

Good enough for racing anyway, and that was all that really mattered. He looked around him, taking stock of the situation. Riders were still mounting and settling into their saddles. He saw Cowgirl Vickie being given a leg up by one of the gaggle of hands from the Circle V who surrounded her. B'Elanna had taken the excitable Liberty away to the side, out of kicking reach of the other horses. It was the chestnut filly's first race, and she was a little bewildered by the whole experience. B'Elanna nodded a brief greeting to Worf Rozhenko as he tipped his hat to her - the taciturn man from Defiant City had always had a soft spot for her, probably because he was part Klingon Indian like herself - but she kept Liberty well clear of his horse, General Martok.

Closer to Intrepid, the judge's brother swung himself into the saddle of Imzadi, and Tom turned away so that he wouldn't have to acknowledge him. Normally he got on pretty well with Thomas Riker, but these were not normal days, not with Sevenita in jail about to be tried for her life. He wasn't sure that he could manage small talk with the brother of the man whose word could get her hung, under the circumstances.

The Big Race (pt 2)
Jules — 20 Sep 1998, 1:19 PM

He wasn't sure he was capable of much in the way of conversation at the moment anyway. The events of the day - those encounters with B'Elanna, her father, the long-lost Harry - were all beginning to catch up with him. His head was reeling from more than just Chakotay's lucky punch. He needed time to himself to think, to sort out how he felt, to adjust to all these upheavals in their lives.

Perhaps he should have scratched from the race after all.

But his mother had said no, and she was probably right. Harry would still be there tomorrow; might even be recovered enough to elaborate on what he'd said about the jewellery. Tom still didn't understand why the indians would have troubled to steal it in the first place, but then he'd never understood why anybody would have stolen it. There was no motive, other than the one which had been assigned to himself. It had been a little tricky convincing Marshal Tuvok of his innocence in the light of the undeniable fact that he had just managed to pay off all his debts to Kaze Ogla and that he was honour bound not to reveal the means by which he'd done it, but that was nothing to the difficulty of convincing the rest of the town. Tom guessed that most of them still thought that he had done it.

This race was in some ways for them. To confound their doubts. To show them that he'd made something of himself since the shock of his father's death had caused him to take a long hard look and finally admit that there was a lot of room for improvement. To pay his debts - moral and otherwise. To prove to his mother and B'Elanna - and a scant handful of others - that he had been worth the faith and trust they had placed in him. And to prove it to himself as well.

Intrepid flared his nostrils and snorted, snatching at the bit. And suddenly Tom became infected with his mount's eager mood and the anticipation of the run, and didn't need any more reasons for going through with the race.

"Are you ready?" yelled the starter. "On the count of three! Three..."

Tom clamped down firmly on his thoughts, transferred both reins to one hand and pulled up his kerchief to cover mouth and nose. Even at the front, where both he and Intrepid aimed to be for the entire race, the dust thrown up by galloping hooves would be thick enough to choke a man.


Tom rammed his hat down hard, took a firm but gentle feel on Intrepid's mouth, and nudged him very slightly with his calves. The horse bunched, ready to spring.

"One... Go!"

The Big Race (pt 3)
Jules — 20 Sep 1998, 7:20 PM

Tom had spent the best part of a year practicing standing starts with Intrepid, teaching the horse to go from a halt to full gallop in a heartbeat. All his patient teaching now paid off, as Intrepid pushed off with all the power of a coiled spring and got his nose in front of the bunch. Out of the corner of his eye Tom saw Imzadi, the winner of the race for the past two years, at his shoulder and then the other horse dropped back slightly, wildly overexcited and still fighting against her rider. It would take the mare a while to settle, Tom reckoned, and with any luck the extra effort she'd have to put into regaining the lost ground would count against her in the long run. Too many races are lost at the start. Tom had worked long and hard to ensure that his wouldn't be one of them.

When B'Elanna had first joined him and begun training Liberty alongside the stallion, she had questioned the importance of spending so much time on the starts and his other race riding tricks. To her mind it was much more important to work on the horse's fitness, endurance and balance. But Tom had stuck to his guns and argued that speed alone wasn't enough. In the rough and tumble of a four mile cross country race, you needed guile and tactics as well. And you needed a horse that neither panicked nor disobeyed you in the face of the unexpected.

The horses reached the far end of the racetrack that had been used earlier in the week for the trotting and buggy races and turned off it to head out into open country. Here, across the scrublands of the Nekrit Expanse, the ground underfoot was firm but not so hard that it would jar the horses legs and they could make good time. Tom urged Intrepid on with voice and legs, and rejoiced in the exhilaration of the extra burst of speed as his horse found another gear and stepped up the pace. To him this was what made life worth living: a good horse, responsive to his every touch, riding like the wind itself. The race was part of the experience, but it wasn't the most important part. He'd tried - and failed - to explain to B'Elanna why it was that he could feel compelled to race, but tended to dismiss winning as of secondary importance. It was the strategy and tactics of manoeuvring for position which stimulated and excited him. Winning was merely the ultimate endorsement of the success of those tactics.

Ordinarily, at least. This time his reasons for racing were rather more pressing than just to experience the ultimate rapport between horse and rider. He crouched lower over Intrepid's withers to offer as little resistance to the wind as possible.

He checked his horse slightly as they rounded the turn that would take them along the banks of the Big Coffee, knowing that the ground there was uneven and rocky. Intrepid came obligingly back to a controlled gallop and they let the others catch up as he picked his way neatly along the unforgiving ruts where the ground had turned to mud when the waters were in flood in the spring and the grazing steers had gouged deep tracks in it which had dried hard in the sun.

Glancing behind, he saw B'Elanna in the small bunch just behind him, and allowed them to swoop on and absorb him into their midst. It would do Intrepid no harm to have a breather, with over half the race still to run. Let someone else make the running for a few minutes.

The Big Race (pt 4)
Jules — 20 Sep 1998, 7:23 PM

Tom found himself riding alongside B'Elanna for a while, close enough to exchange words.

"You got off to a flying start!" she called.

She could hear the grin, even if his mouth was hidden under the protective mask of the kerchief. "I guess all that practice was worthwhile after all, wasn't it? How's Liberty going?"

"Okay, I guess. Still very excited though. Intrepid looks like he's out on a practice run."

"They're all the real thing to him. Whoa, look! That Kazon up front is trying to break from the group. Better try and stay with him or we'll get left behind."

They spurred their horses on and managed to keep the distance at a steady two lengths behind as the Kazon made his break. Tom saw him look back over his shoulder, then spur his horse onwards to try to extend the distance. It seemed folly to him to exert so much energy in mid race, but Intrepid was cruising at this speed so he let him extend his stride and stay with the Kazon's shaggy mount with the suspiciously blurred brandmark. B'Elanna fell back a bit, unwilling to push Liberty just yet. Besides, Intrepid and his rider might be happiest running at the front, but she'd discovered that Liberty worked best in company, where she had someone to compete against.

The shifty eyed Kazon raised a hand in greeting as he spurred his horse onward into Coffee Canyon and around the first twisting bend. It was an odd gesture to make, and it was enough to make Tom Janeway narrow his eyes in suspicion and check his colt slightly.

In consequence he was more than half prepared when Darrell and Larry Ogla stepped out from behind the rocky outcrops that had hidden them from sight and raised their tripwire. With only seconds to react in, he slipped his weight sideways to turn Intrepid, gathered the reins to collect him, and indicated by the urgent pressure of his legs that Intrepid should jump - now! - onto the rock step at the side of the canyon on which the tripwire rested. Intrepid responded gamely, but a rear shoe clipped the tripwire as he gathered himself to pop down on the other side, and he stumbled to his knees.

When B'Elanna and the rest of the following pack rounded the bend shortly afterwards, there was nothing to be seen except the glint of the sun on a small section of wire at the side of the canyon, and the Kazon indian rounding the next bend a quarter of a mile ahead.

The Big Race (pt 5) - B'Elanna Bites Back
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 7:12 AM

Where's Tom? B'Elanna thought wildly. He can't have got that far ahead, surely?

In sudden apprehension, she spurred Liberty on faster, trying to shed the group she was part of and catch up on the Kazon. But, taking her move as the signal to stay with her, the others urged their horses on as well. By the bend B'Elanna was boxed in behind Tom Riker and Worf Rozhenko's mounts, and the long straight sweep of the canyon ahead showed only the race leader - closer now - and no sign of Tom whatsoever.

And she knew she was in trouble.

She knew Riker and Rozhenko well enough to know that they were only interested in winning. Blocking her so that she was firmly boxed into the middle of the group was almost a compliment, albeit a backhanded one; her reputation as a horse trainer, plus the fact that she'd been working with Tom, who had a still better one as a race rider, meant that they weren't going to underestimate her or her horse's chances, despite Liberty's inexperience. Under normal circumstances she'd have cursed a little with impatience, but she wouldn't have resented it - or not much. If a similar opportunity to frustrate their chances had presented itself to her and Tom, she didn't doubt that they'd have taken it.

But Tom wasn't there, seemingly wasn't anywhere. And when she tried to drop back out of the pack to go around the other horses and get ahead of them that way, she found her every move shadowed by the two other Kazon Indians in the race. If she slowed, they slowed with her. If she tried to make a break to either side, they hemmed her in closer. One ran on either side of her, matching Liberty's pace, so close she could almost touch them. She was being deliberately targetted, she realised, and there wasn't a thing she could do.

She found herself gradually being forced across the trail to the right, towards the river, and dismissed her worries about Tom in the sudden realisation of what they were up to. They were trying to force her off the track and out of the race. She stole a quick look at them - long lank matted hair, with the usual entwined feathers and rocks to indicate their place in the tribe's pecking order. These would seem to be middle men, which figured. Snarling faces, glittering eyes, definitely hostile. She scowled back at them under her kerchief. With the way ahead still blocked, she couldn't do much about their intentions, but she was darned if she was going to go without a fight.

The Big Race (pt 6) - B'Elanna Bites Back
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 7:18 AM

There was barely room for one horse between her and the river now. She steeled herself for action, knowing what must come next. Sure enough, the Kazon on her right suddenly yanked on his horse's reins, bringing it to a juddering halt before pulling its head round and chasing after Liberty's tail, just in case B'Elanna should think of trying the same trick.

The other Kazon nudged closer to Liberty, swinging his horse suddenly against the filly's flank, barging and boring to shove her off balance and push her ever closer to the river. B'Elanna steadied her horse, indicated with her knee that Liberty should keep heading straight, despite the conflicting signals. And she shifted both reins into her left hand, watching for the next move with narrowed and wary eyes.

Liberty danced along the bank of the Big Coffee, sure footed and certain with only a scant six inches between her and a swim, and B'Elanna was suddenly grateful for all of Tom's race tricks and nonsense, for giving her mount and herself the trust and confidence that they could gallop along a precipice if need be. Five inches, four... And then the Kazon made his move, reaching out with one hand to shove her off. She checked Liberty slightly so that his arm slid forward of her shoulder, reached up with her free arm to grasp his and grip it with all her strength, flipped up her kerchief by brushing chin against shoulder. And sunk her teeth into him, good and hard.

His outraged bellow of pain was music to her ears. He pulled away and she released her grip on him, spat, and swore that she'd swill her mouth out at the earliest opportunity. Seizing her chance, she swung Liberty across and did a little barging of her own. One handed, he hadn't the control to counter her action, and she regained some of the precious track that she'd lost.

And then the other Indian pulled up to Liberty's shoulder, taking his companion's place. He smiled at her, and it wasn't a nice smile. She looked desperately at the track ahead, and cursed as she saw her way was still blocked. And the Kazon edged his horse across to push her back towards the river once more.

She coughed. With her kerchief dislodged she was breathing dust, and she didn't exactly have a moment to spare to rearrange it. She kept her eyes on the Kazon, but her heart sank. She could hardly expect the same trick to work twice.

The Big Race (pt 7) - Tom Takes The High Road
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 3:26 PM

Tom had somehow managed to avoid becoming unseated when Intrepid stumbled. After a bucking, plunging stagger that had him grabbing both the pommel of his saddle and his horse's mane in the most undignified of fashions, the colt had regained his footing and Tom his seat. The Kazon ahead of him had gained twenty feet or more in the interval, but Tom was more interested in the men who had tried to sabotage the race, even if it was pretty certain that the Indian had known to expect it... and he was very conscious of the fact that in a moment a dozen more horses would come pouring around that bend and onto the tripwire at high speed, and that they might not all be as fortunate as himself.

He shrugged a foot out of a stirrup, hooked it around the wire and pulled. The wire broke free easily, and he caught the long end in one hand, and flung it aside. The man hiding beyond the rocky outcrop on the river side of Coffee Canyon broke and ran, heading for the cover of the canyon wall, and Tom whirled his horse and gave chase. The race was important to him, but at this moment it was the furthest thing from his mind. He'd recognised Larry Ogla, and had to assume that his co-conspirator was Kaze's other surviving son Darrell, and that this was somehow all connected with the Delta Q Ranch's intervention in the water rights dispute, and possibly even Jabin's murder and Sevenita's arrest for it.

The two men scrambled up one of the narrow paths up the side of the rock face, and Tom set Intrepid up it to follow them. The horse was used to his rider's odder notions of what constituted a cross country ride and didn't turn a hair, plunging in their wake as nimble as a mountain goat. Darrell had too good a start, but Tom caught Larry up before he'd half negotiated the path, and leaned out of his saddle to grab the suddenly panicked would-be saboteur by the collar of his shirt. He pulled Intrepid to a bounding halt, and dragged his quivering captive round to look him in the face.

"Tell your Pa that this is the end of it! He either quits this petty vendetta against the Delta Q, or I go to Marsh Tuvok and tell him that you tried to fix the race so that your Indian friend won by nobbling the favourite. I don't imagine he'd be too thrilled - you're not real popular in his book at the moment. And I'd hate to be Kaze when the bookmakers find out what he tried."

Larry's mouth opened and closed, but he seemed incapable of speech. Tom half relented. Pushing it too far could only escalate the bad blood between the ranches. So he let go of the man, who promptly dropped to the ground in a quivering heap, and spurred Intrepid onwards up the track. As the horse picked up pace he called back over his shoulder:

"And it's lucky for you that I spoiled your wire trap anyways. Otherwise you might just have ended up killing the horses and riders behind me... and I guess Judge Riker wouldn't be any too pleased if he found out what you'd almost done to his brother."

From the aghast look on Larry's face, it was clear that he too believed that Judge Riker would be very much less than pleased. Tom grinned to himself briefly, and then he remembered that he was supposed to have been in a race.

The Big Race (pt 8) - Tom Takes The High Road
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 3:37 PM

Tom's halt and his detour had let the rest get ahead of him - obviously - but from his vantage point up high he could see them, still pounding along the river track. With renewed hope and urgency, he kicked Intrepid out of a canter into a hand gallop along the path. He'd spent all his life exploring this country, and knew its trails like the back of his hand. This one led back down and joined up with the main track along the canyon just before it broke and opened out onto the scrublands that led back to the racecourse. If he set a crazy enough pace along it, he might just stay in touch with the race.

A heartbeat or two later, he spurred Intrepid on again, to a pace that was not just crazy but positively suicidal. From his lofty viewpoint he'd seen that the two Kazon Indians were trying to ride B'Elanna off the track, and realised that Kaze Ogla had had more than one ace up his sleeve. Getting back to ground level became a pressing need, and he wasn't sure he could wait for the relatively easy downward trail he'd planned to take.

The path forked up ahead. To the left, the path continued gently on down. To the right, it dropped away into a staircase of rocky ledges called the Suspiria Steps. Though he'd done it many a time on foot, it was a route that normally even Tom Janeway would have fought shy of negotiating on horseback. But desperate circumstances demanded desperate remedies. He pulled Intrepid back to a canter and put his bold, trusting colt at the steps. Intrepid popped down the first one and landed with a jolt that rattled Tom's teeth. The next was just as bad. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Kazon make their move and B'Elanna's countermove in response, but he didn't really have a lot of attention to spare.

And then he was back on the path, with Intrepid gratefully accelerating over the easy going of the sandy trail. They picked off the stragglers easily enough, then Intrepid got the notion he wanted to be at the front again and snatched at the bit. Tom swung him slightly wide of the bunching group of horses, approaching them on the river side. It wasn't his intention to let anyone get between him and the Kazon, accidentally or otherwise.

The bunch behind and alongside B'Elanna and the Kazon were obviously concerned, but the tricky Indians had placed themselves so that there was little they could do to intervene. Tom saw Cowgirl Vickie spurring on her horse Mesquite, and heard her yell out to the riders ahead, "Give way! Give way! We've got dirty tricks afoot back here! Let B'Elanna through!"

Worf Rozhenko and Thomas Riker cast startled glances back over their shoulders, and noticed for the first time that there was trouble. They saw enough that they didn't like in the configuration of the pack behind them to move aside to the left, giving a grateful B'Elanna just enough gap to spur Liberty through.

And then Tom was up with the Kazon, ramming Intrepid through between the two of them, his eyes glittering with bitter amusement.

"Hi, guys. Miss me?"

The Big Race (pt 9) - Less Dire Straits In The Home Straight
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 5:30 PM

"You seem kind of keen on inviting people to go for a swim. Why don't you try the water for us, and let us know if it's warm enough?"

With a timing born of rough riding tricks he hadn't even dared to try to explain or teach to B'Elanna yet, Tom Janeway manoeuvred Intrepid close and dislodged one Kazon with a perfectly placed elbow. There was an approving cheer from the following pack as he splashed down in the slow running waters of the Big Coffee. Tom checked behind him.

"Clear the way, Vickie! There's another one heading in your direction." A second elbow saw the other Indian somersault back over his horse's rump, to land in the dirt with a resounding crash. Cowgirl Vickie and her nearest neighbour hauled their horses apart in startled haste, and galloped past on either side of the unseated rider, hooves flashing within inches of him.

To appreciative whoops, Tom spurred his horse forward until he came alongside B'Elanna. "Where'd you get to?" she yelled. She was still trying to pull her kerchief up straight; not an easy thing one handed.

Tom shook his head. "Tell you later. We've a race to run, remember?" And as the remaining riders rounded the final rocky outcrop and turned for the uphill gallop back towards the racecourse, he let Intrepid have his head and started his long run for home. After a startled glance, Thomas Riker, Worf Rozhenko and B'Elanna shook up their mounts as well and followed in his wake.

As the four of them drew away from the rest, it became obvious to all of them that the lone Kazon ahead was tiring. He'd been running solo for the best part of two miles now, and it was taking its toll. He'd made his break too soon and too fast, and the horse was visibly flagging, wavering off a straight line. The others ate up the distance between them, and flashed past him with a quarter of a mile to go.

Tom began to worry a little about Intrepid, whose endeavours in the course of the race had in many ways exceeded those of the Kazon horse, but his colt had been bred and trained for stamina and endurance, and he kept doggedly on. Tom left him to it, sitting very still in the saddle. His horse was already giving his all. Anything he could do would only distract him. Tom Riker's Imzadi gradually edged alongside him and nosed ahead. Tom guessed that the judge's brother was about to become the three times winner of this race.

And then they hit the racetrack and heard the swell of cheering voices from the stands as they ran the last hundred yards. Intrepid pricked up his ears, knowing that they were cheering for him and him alone, stuck out his nose and flung himself at the line.

His vanity did the trick. He won by a nostril.

The Big Race (Epilogue) - The Conquering Hero
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 7:06 PM

Tom Janeway grinned from ear to ear as his horse was led into the winner's circle. He slid down his shoulder, and leaned against his mount, arms draped around Intrepid's neck, eyes closed, drinking in the moment and savouring it.

"He still looks fresh as a daisy. I can hardly credit it."

Tom opened his eyes to see a grinning B'Elanna, Liberty at her heels.

"I guess I've got all that stamina training you nagged us into to thank for that. I seriously never believed he'd make it through that last mile, after all that happened in the course of the race, but he just kept going." He rubbed the colt behind his ears, just where he liked it. "He!!, I've changed my mind about the importance of winning or not winning this race a thousand times throughout the past three months, when I've pretty much ate, slept and dreamt it, but I think more than anything I'm glad about it for his sake. He gave his all, and then some. He deserves it."

"And so do you," was B'Elanna's reply. "I'm in your debt - both for coming to my rescue this afternoon, and also for all those sneaky tricks you taught me, that I was arrogant enough to consider beneath me. They certainly came in handy today."

"How'd you do? I was... kind of too busy to look."

B'Elanna smiled, a lazily contented and self satisfied smile. "Third place. Not bad for Liberty's first outing."

"No," agreed Tom. "Not bad at all."

"What's this? A mutual admiration society?" asked Thomas Riker, rubbing down his mare in the next stall to Intrepid. "I figure maybe it is; I've heard rumours about you two. You make a pretty formidable pair of trainers. Congratulations, Tom. I guess we're going to have to worry even more about the Delta Q's horses in races now than we did already."

Tom laughed, happy in the exhiliration of the win but a little anxious behind the eyes nevertheless. "You don't think that they'll disqualify me for my - ahem - somewhat unorthodox route? I did leave the track, after all."

"Who's telling them? And if they did they'd have to argue the toss with every dang rider in the race," Riker stated flatly. Worf Rozhenko and Cowgirl Vickie, moving to offer their own congratulations, nodded their agreement. "The way I figure it, if you want to take a harder and longer route than the rest of us, it's scarcely cheating. Foolhardy maybe, but I guess the situation didn't leave you much choice. And if it weren't for you, every horse in the race might have run slap into that wire and fallen. You deserve the win, whichever way you look at it."

A weight seemed to have lifted from Tom's shoulders. "Glad you think so."

The Big Race (Epilogue pt 2) - The Conquering Hero
Jules — 22 Sep 1998, 7:10 PM

"Now, what the blazes actually went on out there? I think I've figured out that those Kazon were trying to put you and B'Elanna out of the race, Tom, but I can't for the life of me understand why." Riker shook his head slowly from side to side, as if that might dislodge some idea from inside it that would clear matters up.

Tom frowned, then shrugged. "Well, as near as I can figure it, it was Kaze Ogla's doing. Your brother will have told you of the trouble down at the Big Coffee earlier this week? Ma helped the Marshal set them straight, but Kaze kind of resented her interference, and swore he'd get his own back. I figure that putting me and B'Elanna out of the race was it - particularly with Intrepid being the pre-race favourite."

"But the Kazon...?" asked Worf.

"There have always been rumours that Kaze's name wasn't entirely coincidental," put in B'Elanna. "That maybe he had more Indian blood in him than perhaps the Ogla family were willing to admit to. I'm willing to bet that it was just him keeping the grudge in the family, as usual."

"More than that..." Cowgirl Vickie had handed Mesquite over to some of the Circle V hands to take back to the stables, and was now perched on the rails of Intrepid's winner's stall, listening with frank fascination to all that was said. "The lead Kazon was obviously supposed to win. Might be kind of interesting to find out from the bookkeepers where Kaze was placing his money this afternoon."

"Hmm. You might be right at that." Riker considered for a moment. "You could make a mint of money from betting on an outsider to win. And nobbling the pre-race favourite - and Miss B'Elanna here - wouldn't hurt his chances none, either."

But there seemed no real way of finding out, other than to ask Kaze Ogla to his face, which none of them particularly favoured as an idea, so the matter was dropped when Tom was called up to collect his winners purse. And with that, the race meeting was over and the crowds began to drift away, mindful of the passing time and their preparations for the ball that evening.

Tom went back to Intrepid and unsaddled him, dumping the surplus tack in his mother's buggy to be taken back to the Delta Q. B'Elanna found him there, fiddling with the stirrup leathers and staring into space, lost in thought.

"Coming back to the ranch?" she asked.

"Not quite yet. I'm going to lead Intrepid back - he's done enough for today. But there's something I need to do in town first, so I figured I'd take a detour and do it on the way."

"Something that can't keep?" she asked, the curiosity shining in her eyes.

He laughed, so it was obviously nothing too grim or serious. "Something that's kept far too long already, the way I figure it. You might as well go on back to the ranch. I'll pick you up there when it's time for the dance."

"Another secret?" B'Elanna frowned slightly, and he remembered her reaction to his silence over Sevenita.

"Kind of, I guess. Not for long though. It's just... I'd kind of like all the family to be together so I can tell you all at the same time."

B'Elanna's smile was dazzling in its suddenness. "Hey, were you including me there, as well as Kessie and Harry and your Ma?"

"I guess I was." The smile was wicked; pure Tom Janeway at his most devilish. "Your father too, whether he likes it or not." Then he sobered. "I wish... I wish they'd been there to watch it."

"I know. But there'll be other races."

"I guess. But not like this one. This one was... kind of special, in all sorts of ways."

And he hitched Intrepid up to the buggy and drove it into town to leave it for his mother at the Provencal, leaving B'Elanna to wonder just what precisely he'd meant by that remark.

to be continued... in "Payback Time"