Read #1 Blazing Courage Online

Authors: Kelly Milner Halls

#1 Blazing Courage

Text copyright © 2015 by Kelly Milner Halls
Cover illustration by Phil Parks
Cover illustration © 2015 by Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. International copyright secured. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., except for the inclusion of brief quotations in an acknowledged review.

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Additional images: © iStockphoto.com/benz190 (grunge texture); © iStockphoto.com/Piotr Krześlak (paper texture).

Main body text set in Janson Text LT Std 12/17.5.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

The Cataloging-in-Publication Data for
#1 Blazing Courage
is on file at the Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-1-4677-7219-8 (lib. bdg.)
ISBN 978-1-4677-9399-5 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-1-4677-8830-4 (EB pdf)

Manufactured in the United States of America
1 – BP – 7/15/15
eISBN: 978-1-46778-830-4 (pdf)
eISBN: 978-1-46778-989-9 (ePub)
eISBN: 978-1-46778-988-2 (mobi)

To my father, Gene Milner,
who helped make my horse dreams come true.

CHAPTER ONE

The Auction

“Wait!” I yell. Jack Manley, my stable manager, is walking so fast I can hardly see him through the dust. Hundreds of hooves can do that—raise a sandstorm in a stadium—especially when every hoof is up for auction.

“Keep up, Annie!” he bellows in his gruff, cowboy voice. “Do you want that mare or not?”

It's hard to believe the day has finally come. After a lifetime of collecting Breyer horses and Kathleen Duey novels, after thirteen months of cleaning tack and shoveling manure, I am about to buy a horse—as much horse as my two hundred and six dollars of savings can get me. More horse than I've ever had before.

The United States government takes care of miles and miles of open wilderness that is home to wild horses. When the herds get too big, they round a few up and sell them to the highest bidders. Jack had been studying the Colorado round-up horses for days to pick the right one for me.

“My choice is an Appaloosa,” he says over his shoulder, “sixteen hands of spotted awesome. We should be able to get her for a song, if you get the lead out of your boots.”

Jack's stride is so much longer than mine that I have to jog not to get left behind. He's fast for an old guy, and tall, but it's hard to tell. Fifty years of rodeo takes a toll. Break enough bones and you wind up crooked. I top out at five feet. I'm short enough to be a jockey, but too heavy;
pleasingly plump
, I overheard someone whisper once. So what? Horses don't care what you look like.

Hundreds of people fill the arena seats, most holding bidders' numbers. Our number is 1206—my birthday. Jack says that's a good sign. Only a hundred horses fill the red pipe corrals on the far end of the dirt arena floor. Some of the animals seem calm. Others, not so much. Jack explains the calm horses will go for more money, because they've been green broken.

“They've been sweet-talked,” Jack says with a wink. “They don't think you're going to eat them, and they're rider ready.” Then his smile disappears.

“What?” I say.

“She's here,” Jack replies. “The Butcher.”

Most of the people have turned out to buy riding horses cheap. Everyone from dude ranchers who give tourists a thrill to top trainers—all shopping for equestrian bargains. The best horses will go to them, but what about the rest?

“She'll buy a bunch of them,” Jack growls. “She'll ship them to China, and they'll come back as dog food.”

I feel sick to my stomach, and I can't help staring. She doesn't look evil. Boots to hat to braided gray hair, she looks ordinary. She glances our way and whispers to the man sitting next to her. He tips his black ball cap, and they laugh. I wonder, what could be funny about that job?

Jack nudges me. “Forget her. It's starting.”

The auctioneer steps to the microphone. Auction workers lead horses, one at a time, to video cameras, and instantly they appear on the stadium Jumbotrons. People oooh and ahhh at each new horse. My heart beats like the wings of a dragonfly.

We wait for the Appaloosa Jack scouted, but I worry. A Paint mare built like a Quarter Horse goes for two hundred. A Palomino colt sells for two twenty five. A string of twenty-two horses sell for more than I have in my pocket, and the Appaloosa is still eight horses down the line.

I tug on Jack's sleeve to ask if he's worried too when a wave of laughter distracts me. A little four-year-old Buckskin slips out of her halter and gallops away from the handler. He chases after her, yelling, “Whoa!” The cameraman runs behind them. He's trying to get a shot for the video screen, but he gets too close. The horse bucks and kicks her back hooves inches from his face. He falls back into the dirt as she canters away, victorious. I smile.

Jack leans back and tips his hat over his eyes, our bidding paddle on his lap. Wrangling this little cyclone could take a while, so he settles in for a catnap. But the Butcher isn't resting. Her eyes follow the mud-caked Buckskin. Her number is in the air as she bids $30 for the stubborn little horse.

“I hear forty,” says the auctioneer. A second person—I don't see who—bids, just before the handler corners the horse and slips the halter back on her head. She bites him hard on the shoulder, then pulls back against the lead rope. In a panic, she rears up on her hind legs, fighting for her freedom. The Butcher smiles and raises her paddle.

Silence fills the arena, as the auctioneer says, “Fifty? Do I hear fifty dollars? Anyone?”

All eyes move to the next horse in line as the auctioneer raises his gavel to make it final—all eyes but mine. “Forty-five, once,” he calls. By the time he says, “Forty-five, twice,” I am on my feet, but I don't know what to do to stop it. I lean forward, my eyes locked on the Butcher, willing her to disappear somehow.

“Fifty!” cries the auctioneer. I don't see the paddle but relief washes over me, and I continue my death stare at the Butcher.
Let her go
, I think.
Let her go
.

The auctioneer looks at the Butcher, asking if she wants to raise her bid, but she shakes her head no. I feel relief for the first time since the bidding began. “Take that,” I say under my breath. She sinks back in her chair, waiting for her next victim.

The auctioneer slams the wooden gavel and shouts, “SOLD! A crazy little Mustang to bidder 1-2-0-6. Congratulations, Jack!”

I spin like a top to face Jack. He's smiling like a jack-o-lantern. “Only fourteen hands,” he says, “good thing you're small.” We walk to the truck to prepare the trailer, and he continues. “Guess what? You can buy a cheap saddle now, too.”

CHAPTER TWO

Going Home

Jack lets me lead the little mare from the arena to the horse trailer, but he stays close. “She's unpredictable,” he says. “Keep your wits about you.”

Her nostrils flare as we move outside. The fresh air comforts her. But getting her into the trailer could be trouble. A sign of things to come, Jack says, but I don't care. All I can do is stroke her black mane, her pink muzzle. I trace my fingers across the white patch on her face. It makes her eye seem electric brown. My own horse. I almost can't believe it.

“She's bald faced,” Jack says. “That's what it's called when most of a horse's face is white, but its body isn't.” Ugly name for a beautiful mark, I think. He takes the lead rope from me and tells me to step inside the front section of the trailer. He unwinds the lead rope to make it longer and hands me the lose end.

“Remember,” he says. “Unpredictable.”

I watch her, holding the lead in one hand, a bag of apple slices in the other. I see fear in her eyes, but not panic. She watches me, but she hasn't yet taken a step inside the trailer. Forcing her could be suicide. As scared as she is, if anyone shoved from behind, she'd kick their teeth out. Worse, she could take a step in, rear up, and break her neck on the roof of the trailer.

“Slow and easy,” Jack says as he walks to the back of the trailer. He hands one end of a long, thick rope to an auction aid and holds the other end himself. Jack moves to the right side of the trailer, the auction man moves to the left, and slowly they take up the slack until the rope is resting on the Buckskin's haunches. As they pull tighter, the Buckskin feels pressure on her hips that urges her to move forward. But she is not happy about it, and her ears go back to prove it.

“Start to pull her lead rope,” Jack says, trying not to yell. “And try to keep her calm.”

“Hey little girl,” I whisper as I gather up the slack. “We're going to be good friends, you and I.” Her tan ears move forward, and so does her body. She doesn't know what I'm saying, but she studies the tone of my voice.

“Come on, girl. I already love you. Can't you love me a little?” I offer her a slice of apple.

She makes a soft, reassuring sound, a nicker deep inside her throat—like the purr of an oversized, untamed kitten. I wonder how long it's been since she's eaten. She breathes deeply, then slowly moves toward me, all the way into the trailer. As she takes the treat from the palm of my hand, I smile.

“You like that?” I ask, as I pull another piece from the bag. She takes it, too. “I'm glad,” I say. “You'll like me, too. You'll see.” Her muscles tense as Jack slams the back trailer door and locks the latch. She's alert and unsure but still taking bits of apple. For now, she's decided to stay calm.

“Time to head home,” Jack says, petting the Mustang's forelock. I step out of the trailer cabin and head for the passenger side of his old truck. All I can do is smile as I put on the seatbelt.

“Look at you,” Jack says, snickering, “All that homeschooled smart girl melted away to reveal sappy sweet in its place? Just for the case of dog food riding in my trailer?” He punches my arm and it stings, but only a little.

“Hey!” I say. “I'm not the one who did the bidding. Who got sappy first?”

“I guess I had rocks in my head,” he says. But he's smiling like an outlaw as he slips a CD in the car stereo. Willie Nelson never sounded so good.

Unloading is easier than loading was. The little Buckskin is more than ready to get out and pushes back the minute the trailer gate opens. That's good, as long as she doesn't panic and twist an ankle—or worse, run away. If she bolted, it could take days to find her.

I snatch up the lead the minute she's out and dangle an open bag of apples—a peace offering—to distract her. She's tired, so she doesn't resist. “Smart horse,” I say.

“What's
that
?” Peggy yells from atop her giant grey Thoroughbred. Jinx was an Olympic dressage champion before Peggy's father bought him. His real name is Imperial's Silver Jinx, and I'd need a stepladder to climb into his saddle. But Peggy the teen queen would never let me ride him anyway. To her I'm just “the help.” She's not that even much older than I am. What a pain.

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