Read Catch Rider (9780544034303) Online

Authors: Jennifer H. Lyne

Catch Rider (9780544034303) (2 page)

It took us a full hour to get back to the barn at Wayne's place. We untacked the horses in the run-in shed while the rain leaked through the roof and made big puddles in the sawdust.

“Get that tack dried off. Hang the saddle pads up, and put some Absorbine on his legs after running him like that,” Wayne said. Grumpy as usual. Every time I finished one thing, he gave me a list of ten more.

I pulled the dirty orange bottle of Absorbine off the shelf, cupped my hand, poured the green liquid into it, and held it against the ligaments under the horse's knee. The horse blinked and looked around at his new home. I always felt sorry for a new horse—just showing up in some new barn, no friends, no idea of how he was going to be treated. Horses weren't like stray cats or dogs, who could escape and live by their wits. They were property.

I figured this horse knew right away I was a good rider, but that didn't mean much. He could easily have been sold to a cuss of a man who beat him with a stick or to a lady who kept him in a bed of pine shavings for the rest of his life. That used to make my heart ache, but not anymore. I knew if you wanted to be a good horseman, you'd better remember they ain't pets. As Jimmy and Wayne had told me many times,
Whatever you do, don't marry your horse.

When I was about eight, I saw Wayne smack a horse in the head for rearing up and striking at him with his front feet. I yelled at him to stop, and he said, “Damn it, girl, that horse could kill you. You think real hard before you feel sorry for him.” He and Jimmy were rough when they had to be, so horses didn't cross them.

Now Wayne took good care of his horses because they'd be more valuable that way, not because they were his pets. I think Wayne did things when he was younger that he wasn't proud of now, such as shooting up a horse with a little painkiller before a show or poling—teaching a young horse to jump by raising the pole up while he's in midair, making him hit his hooves. These things are illegal now. But horses knew not to mess with him or he'd lay them right out.

The Absorbine soaked into the horse's skin. I cupped my hand again, poured more, and rubbed it onto my lower back, feeling the icy shock and smelling the menthol.

Wayne picked up a fifty-pound sack of feed from where the Southern States delivery man had stacked them beneath the overhang. He slung it over his shoulder. I did the same, breathing out so I could hoist it up, feeling the pain in my ribs. I looked at the veins in my skinny forearms and wished they'd pop out of the muscle like Uncle Wayne's did. I could be a weightlifter, my arms would still look like a couple of broomsticks.

I ripped a bag open and poured the feed into an empty barrel, then picked out a small black chunk of molasses caked with raw oats and put it in my mouth. It was sweet but dry, and I chewed, pretending I was a pony. I covered the feed barrel and locked it. The gray Shetland would eat himself to death if he got in there. I'd seen ponies who couldn't stop eating when they got their faces in a sack of sweet feed, and they'd keel over right there in the feed room. Many times I had helped a vet run a tube down a pony's nose into the belly and pump it full of mineral oil. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I'd be happy if I never saw that again. A horse rolling in the straw groaning with colic was a horseman's worst nightmare. By that time, he'd usually twisted a gut and there was nothing left to do.

“Get that donkey some hay.”

Wayne had a no-good donkey that stood out in the field and ignored everyone. He'd had him about a month.

“What's his name?”

“That donkey don't have a name.”

“You got a name for him. You had him a month.”

“I just call him Donkey.”

“Come on.”

“Mr. Wilcox.”

I laughed at him. “Who's that?”

“I don't know. Just a name,” he said.

Submarine stood in my way, chewing on a flake of fescue. He was an old skewbald pinto, huge feet and knees, a little swaybacked, large head and a big belly. He had strong hooves and a powerful build. Jimmy bought him for himself on a lark when they were doing work for a fellow over in Pig Run. Uncle Wayne said Sub was the soundest horse he'd ever seen. Although most horses threw a shoe at about six weeks, Sub kept his shoes on so long, the blacksmith had to pry them off at twelve weeks. Now he just stood there chomping on the hay. He was past his prime and was a sad sight, with his long whiskers and manure stains on his white spots. He wasn't doing nothing but taking up space. He was always in the way, and it made me angry.

I shoved Sub's hindquarters over and cut my eyes at the red horse. “How much you think you can get for him?”

Wayne sized up the horse, shifting his toothpick from one cheek into the other and back. The horse had some old splints in his front legs, but they didn't seem to bother him.

“He's a short-coupled firecracker,” I said. Short-backed horses tend to be hotheaded, for some reason. “Looks like one of the old-time Thoroughbreds with Arab blood, not these brittle ones you see on TV.”

Wayne smirked at me, probably for repeating things I'd read in books. But he knew I was right. He leaned against the wall, crossed one leg over the other, and thought.

“He pulls on your hands,” I said, still trying. I wanted Wayne to like the horse as much as I did. “But his mouth ain't hard—he just wants to go. He's an athlete. We might try a different bit to slow him down.”

Wayne felt the horse's legs for swelling, found nothing. “You know we ride everything in a D-ring. Good hands are good hands.”

He grabbed a rag off a shelf and wiped mud out of the horse's nose. The horse pinned his ears back, annoyed.

“You didn't want to slow that durned horse down anyway,” he said.

I wished just once I could use a different bit, a twisted-wire or a copper-mouthed snaffle, even a double-reined pelham like the ladies used when they rode sidesaddle in the old days. I imagined myself riding a jumper in a Grand Prix class at a horse show, holding his twelve hundred pounds of fury back in a fancy three-ring elevator bit.

Wayne had a strong opinion that any good rider could ride a horse in a simple bit, no tricks or shortcuts. “Fancy bits are for bad riders,” he always said.

I got impatient. “So how much?”

He sucked on his dentures, pulling his cheeks down from his eye sockets until he looked like a crazy man. He snapped the teeth back in place. “A few thousand.”

“That's it?”

“Been on the track so long, he can't go clockwise,” he said.

I felt frustration tighten my throat. “We could fix that in the ring.”

“Then fix it. I'll give you twenty percent,” he said.

I knew that Uncle Wayne and his half-crooked horse-trader friends made all kinds of deals in the run-in shed with rain leaking down on them, and I wanted to make those deals too. He must have bought and sold thousands of horses—pleasure horses, carriage teams, mules, trick horses, you name it—to and from men with names like Boojie Dowdie, Apple Woodzell, or just “the Liptrap boy with the red truck.” They didn't trust each other, none of them. If you were buying a horse, you had to look out for yourself—feel the horse's legs, trot him out, and ride him. If you were dumb enough to buy a lame horse or an old horse, you deserved what you got. Except sometimes Wayne would take a horse back from a good customer for credit. No money back, but he'd find him something else. Even so, I was the only person alive who really trusted him, and he was the only person I could trust.

I had read about the fancy show-horse world. It worked differently there. When a horse was for sale, the buyer's vet took x-rays and provided a report. Wayne and his fellow horse traders laughed at that. X-rays! You could tell a horse had incurable navicular disease—which Wayne called “vehicular disease”—if he tiptoed. What kind of real horseman needed a damn x-ray of a horse's legs?

I scratched the red horse's neck and he closed his eyes. My nails left a mark as they pulled up the grit.

“You wash your horses or what?” I teased Uncle Wayne.

He flicked his toothpick into the mud.


and the wind began to blow. Uncle Wayne and I walked through the sloppy paddock up to his old saltbox farmhouse. The roof was rusting at the seams and the porch hung off. We went up to Wayne's kitchen door, where Grittlebones, an old yellow cat, was sitting on the top step. He was missing teeth and his ears looked like he'd been chewed on by a pack of hyenas. He saw Wayne coming and ran under the porch.

“He looks skinny,” I said.

“Then I reckon he better get to work,” Wayne said.

Bouncing my left foot off the cinder block he used as a bottom step, I opened the door and went inside.

I smelled the smoke from the pine logs and the salty deer stew that had been sitting on the wood stove all day. Wayne was the only person I knew who cooked on a stove all summer. I hung my chaps over a chair by the fire to dry and got two bowls from the cupboard. As I put the stew into the bowls, Wayne opened the tin oven on top of the wood stove, pulled out a couple of biscuits wrapped in tinfoil, and handed one to me.

We sat in chairs facing each other and ate quietly. Wayne rested his heels on the wood stove, careful not to burn the rubber soles. It was only four thirty, but Wayne was usually in bed before dark.

In the old days, my mother had told me, Wayne had run around until all hours of the night. When I was growing up, he seemed to have a lady friend now and then, but it never lasted. Either she couldn't ride, she was too stupid, or she had a husband. Sometimes all three. I never liked any of them except old Beezie Winants, who was a legendary horse trader in her own right. She was the only one worth a damn. I think Beezie caught him with someone else, which was too bad, because she was a load of fun. She took me riding all the time at her place and gave me a bunch of free lessons.

The others were too flirty and pretended like he was some kind of cowboy. When I would show up to ride and see some lady hanging on the fence rail talking to him, I would find something else to do until she was gone.

Uncle Wayne worked as a farm caretaker, but he used to get a new job with a new truck every couple of years. If I asked him, he just said the old job didn't suit him, but it was really because he'd go on a crazy drunk and disappear for weeks. Then he'd sober up for another six months, or a year, or two years. My mother, Melinda, said there was no rhyme or reason to when it happened. He'd do it if things were good, and he'd do it when things were bad. Jimmy said one time that Wayne did it when he needed to get something bad out of his system, like a wave tossing a piece of garbage up on the beach. I've never been to the beach, but that's what I imagine. What it actually was—well, that was Wayne's secret.

I figured he must have stayed at this caretaker job just because the farmer there left him alone. Wayne watched the cattle and patrolled for coyotes with a rifle twice a week, and in return, he could buy and sell as many horses as he liked and keep them there.

When we finished eating, Wayne drove me home in his blue pickup. I loved that big old truck. We sat on Navajo sad- dle blankets. They were half polyester, not wool or anything, but they were soft. That old Ford truck had the biggest cab—felt like a tractor-trailer in there. The window handle was so big, sometimes I'd pretend I was cranking the winch on a big ship out in the ocean, raising the mainsail or whatever it's called, when I put my window up.

The mist hung over the hay fields and the water splashed into the wheel wells when we went through puddles. We passed a pond on a cattle farm, and I saw the snapping turtles poking their heads out of the warm layer of rainwater.

Whenever we passed that stretch of Route 687, I'd look out to the west and remember the time Jimmy said that the Appalachian Mountains were the oldest in the world. Five hundred million years ago, they were the tallest mountains on earth, like the Himalayas are now. Another time he told me he'd heard that the mountains in southern China are similar, with the same trees, same climate. I figured one day I might just go there and see if this was true. Maybe I would ride one of those tough Mongolian horses on the Great Wall itself.

I looked at the creases in Wayne's face. His thick hands rested on the steering wheel, yellow stains on his fingers from smoking. Jimmy and Wayne used to stay out late and come home laughing loudly, and when I'd wake up, Wayne would be snoring on the couch. I loved those mornings. Melinda didn't like the drinking, but she and I loved all of us waking up together. We'd eat sausage and gravy, and waffles with syrup, and we'd watch cartoons. Jimmy used to laugh so hard at Daffy Duck that he could barely breathe, at how Daffy was always mad at everyone about everything. Strange how people laugh at different things. Jimmy didn't get mad about nothing.

When Jimmy died, four years ago, Melinda and Wayne pretty much stopped talking about him. They certainly didn't talk about how he died. I didn't want it this way. I guess it was the only way they could handle it. But after that I was so scared something would happen to one of them, I barely let them out of my sight without having a nervous fit. The one thing they told me about the accident was that he hit a tree on Route 220, like lots of other people had. They said it was foggy. I knew where it was, because I saw the fresh marks in the tree, but I never said anything. We'd drive right by and not say a word.

I was so scared they were going to die too and leave me that Wayne started taking me everywhere: horse auctions, farmers' co-ops, truck-stop breakfast meetings. At first, he wasn't sure what to do with me, but I didn't care. At gas stations, he'd lock the truck doors and go inside the diner to get me a hot chocolate, but I'd climb out and follow him. I tried to work up the courage to ask him if I could come live with him, but I couldn't do it. Then one day, I blurted it out while we were waiting for a train to pass at the crossing. He paused for a second, and then he said I had to live with my mother. I was embarrassed for asking and angry at him for saying no, and my face got hot. I didn't speak to him for the rest of the day, and for the first and last time, he got me a candy bar before he dropped me off.

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