Read Catch Rider (9780544034303) Online

Authors: Jennifer H. Lyne

Catch Rider (9780544034303) (6 page)

We got on the interstate and hit about eighty in that old truck of his. He said it was ninety miles—through Bath County, Allegheny, Rockbridge, and into Albemarle.

He told me that he slept in the barn sometimes, got up and worked there the next day, which I never knew. I said I wasn't sleeping in their goddamn barn—they could put me up in a hotel. For some reason, he thought that was hilarious.

The truck heaved up Afton Mountain and started down the other side. There was so much fog on the top of the mountain that tractor-trailers were pulled over, hazards flashing. As Wayne came over the top, the fog thinned, and I could see the cars in front of us again.

I looked at the white rock formations peeking through the exposed bluffs on top of the mountain. Ruthie's dad, Earl, had told me it was quartzite, one of the toughest rocks in the world. He had been working in the Massey Mine in Highland County when Ruthie lost her mother, and he'd quit and gotten a job at the mill because Ruthie and her sister were scared that they might lose him, too. But he was a miner at heart, knowing every rock and vein in Allegheny County.

One time, when we were little, he took Ruthie, Dorine, and me down near the Trueheart Mine in Amelia County in the early spring to look for gems in the rich, red clay. Amelia was on a fault line, ripe for rock hounds. We had packed a lunch and a couple of sodas and driven through the mountains, then through the tobacco fields lined with Queen Anne's lace and barbed wire, and then we'd turned off the main road and gone deep into the woods. Ruthie's father had pulled up to a white farmhouse and slipped a dollar bill under the door as payment for rock hunting. It was spooky. There was no one around but a deerhound covered in fat yellow ticks.

We'd dug our shovels into the silty creek bed, put a clump of dirt onto the screen, and hosed it off. I found a piece of shiny black tourmaline the size of my finger wedged into a rock, and when Ruthie's father saw it, he whistled. Over the years, he'd found dozens of aquamarines, amethysts, buckets full of smoky quartz, but this was something rare. He told me to keep it just like it was because God had taken his time with it. I was surprised when he said this—he wasn't usually that sentimental. But it gave me a tingly feeling down my back because he said it like he meant it, and for a split second I thought it might be true. If God, whoever that was, took his time with a piece of tourmaline, why the hell didn't he bring my father home from the Falling Springs market?

“These rich people are just like you and me,” Wayne finally said, interrupting my thoughts. “They put their boots on one at a time, just like we do.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

After we passed Shadwell, we took the Crozet exit. The spiny mountains rolled into hills with thick, wet pasture lined with black fencing. Horses grazed in clusters below barns on distant hilltops. The grass was bright green, no bare spots or patches of tall weeds. It was like green carpet that someone had laid out and stapled right up to the fence posts.

I hadn't been on this side of Afton Mountain in a while. When we looked for horses, we usually traveled the other way, toward West Virginia. Two Olympians from the U.S. Equestrian Team had come from near Charlottesville, and I wondered if I might meet someone who knew them. I'd read about Melvin Poe, the huntsman of Orange County Hunt, how he'd taken Jackie Kennedy out fox hunting. I pictured Melvin dressed in a pink coat and canary vest, flask in his pocket, dented hunting horn in his hand.

“Who owns the barn?” I asked Wayne.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield. They owned the paper mill before they sold it.”

paper mill?”

He nodded. “Their daughter, Dee Dee, is at the barn a lot with her daughter, Kelly, who you oughta steer clear of.”

“Why?” I asked.

“She ain't no good.”

I was going to ask him why and tell him I wasn't steering clear of anyone—she could steer clear of me—but for some reason I decided not to.


at a sign that read
above a fox head and hunting horn, and he turned in. I grew anxious, and my eyes searched the fields around us. We drove up a long driveway to a two-story stone barn. A stable hand was raking the pea gravel in the driveway, and another one was weeding planters overflowing with red verbena. I got out of the truck and jammed my hands into my pockets. I'd never walked into a barn before without bringing my saddle and chaps.

A Mexican stable hand in his forties nodded at Wayne and looked at me. He carried himself like a barn manager, checking the horses, watching what the other grooms were doing.

“Whatever you do, you don't talk to that lazy son of a bitch,” Wayne said to me loudly. The man turned and smiled.

This meant that the man was someone I could trust. The meaner the insult, the closer the friend. Sure enough, Wayne winked and told me that was Edgar, one of the grooms.

The barn was all oak with brass fixtures. I had never seen anything like it before. There wasn't a speck of hay or sawdust in the aisle. A brass nameplate was attached to the door of each stall.
I saw a big gray hunter resting his chest against a nylon stall guard with his head way out in the aisle. I saw some Welsh ponies and what looked like Thoroughbreds. Each one was clipped and clean—I mean, not even an inch of a whisker. No hair in the ears, no dirt, nothing. I'd never been in a barn that barely smelled like a barn.

Mexican grooms were cleaning stalls, clipping, wrapping legs, and feeding. They talked quietly to one another in Spanish and moved around the horses with ease.

I followed Wayne down the aisle.

In one stall I saw a black bay Thoroughbred, standing up and sound asleep. On his blanket was his name in script:
. The aisle between the rows of stalls was lined with monogrammed fiberglass tack trunks.

I walked by the open tack room and looked in, smelling glycerin saddle soap and neat's-foot oil. Two grooms were cleaning dirty bridles hanging from a hook. They wiped their sponges across the translucent gold bars of soap in a quick rhythm. I could see from across the room that the bridles were made of English leather, not the cheap Indian leather that was already dark brown when it was brand-new and tore after only a year.

Wayne handed me a pitchfork and wheelbarrow and pointed to a row of stalls. A metal bowl with a cone on the bottom was bolted inside the first stall, and I asked Wayne what it was.

“Automatic watering system,” he said.

I'd read about these but had never seen one in real life. When a horse drank all the water, the metal bowl filled up on its own. I just stared at it, thinking about the hours and hours I'd spent—in the heat, in ice storms, you name it—filling up water buckets. “Do they freeze?”

“Hell no, they don't freeze,” he said. “They're heated.”

“So nobody here ever has to break the ice in the water buckets,” I said.

“Nope. And if the horse wants fresh water, he just pushes that knob with his nose,” he said. I guess he saw me wondering why we didn't have that system. “These things cost about three hundred dollars each, and don't even ask how much it is to do the plumbing and 'lectricity.”

He gestured to the wheelbarrow, letting me know we had to stop talking and work, and disappeared down the aisle. I pulled the wheelbarrow up to the first empty stall and shoveled hard.

Two girls a little older than me came around the corner in polo shirts, riding breeches, and black boots, and I peeked out at them through the bars. Their riding clothes were dirty, and their spurs were still fastened to their boots. They were tall and thin, with long shiny hair pulled into ponytails. One had thick blond streaks from the sun and wore a green shirt. She didn't have much makeup on. She had no expression on her face and an upside-down mouth, like a fish, and she walked like a jock. The other one had dark hair and looked a little friendlier.

“My mom bought that gelding,” said the dark-haired one.

“What?” said the blond one.

“I know—she's crazy. She must have been on Klonopin.”

“He's totally green. She can't ride him.”

“She paid fifty thousand dollars for him,” said the dark-haired one.

“Oh my God.” The blond one giggled loudly.

“She didn't even ask my dad.”

I waited for them to go by, but they stopped a few feet away.

“Is that Scotty's new turnout blanket?” the blonde asked. “It's green and blue.”

“Those are my horse's colors.”

“I guess now they're hers, too. She is such a copycat,” said the blonde.

“She's moving him to another barn this week. Thank God.”

I pushed the wheelbarrow, piled high with manure, out of the stall. The girls looked me up and down, said squirrelly little “hi”s, and watched me go by. I dumped the wheelbarrow into the manure pile, filled it up with sawdust, and pushed it back down the aisle past them. It was squeaking loudly, and I could feel them staring at me. I heard one of them murmur something. When I looked up at them, they smiled a little too hard.

Suddenly, a man's voice boomed down the aisle. “Are your horses cooled and washed, tack cleaned?”

“We were just—” the tall one started.

“Did you cool that horse off or just throw him in his stall? And did you put ointment in the pony's eye?”

The other girl was cowering. “Sorry, Dutch.”

I froze. Had she really said “Dutch”?

A tall middle-aged man rounded the corner. It was
Dutch Thompson, who coached all the top equitation riders in the area. He always had a few riders in the finals. Equitation is a small world—it's junior riders only, under eighteen, and it's judged on the rider, not the horse. I'd never been in an equitation class in a horse show. But I knew I could compete in one if I wanted to. It was just a test of horsemanship, and I was a better horseman than any of these girls.

I'd been reading about Dutch Thompson for years. I'd seen at least fifty pictures of him coaching, I'd watched videos of his clinics, I'd read his column in
of the Horse.
I knew his horses' names from back when he used to compete in Grand Prix jumping events around the world. I knew what color breeches he wore and how he rode with his lower leg a little bit forward like they did on a fox hunt. I knew that he grew up in The Plains, Virginia, and that he spent every winter on the Florida circuit.

But I didn't know Wayne worked for him. That dumb old man had told me all this time that he was “working at some show barn” in Crozet, and when I'd asked him the details, he'd just said, “Ponies.” What a fool. I wanted to go find him, but I couldn't move because Dutch Thompson was staring me down like he was going to eat me. He was polished, all business, in clean khakis and a striped oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up. In that outfit, he looked like he was working in an office, not running a barn.

“That horse gets peanut hulls. Didn't you see that?” he said sharply, towering over me and watching me with hawk eyes. I was too scared to answer.

He pointed to a chalkboard on the wall, then over at the horses.

“This horse gets straw in his stall, this one sawdust. Water bowls are scrubbed every day with Betadine.” He looked around—for a groom, I guessed. “Is someone training this girl?”

Dutch walked to another stall, slid the door open, and examined a chunky chestnut. He rested his hand on the horse's chest to see if he had a fever, pulled the horse's lip up, pressed into his gums, and watched the color return to the thumbprint. He caught me watching him.

“I need those stalls done. We're bringing horses in,” he said coldly.

I started shoveling fast, sweating. I cleaned one stall, then another. I felt like it was taking forever. At one point, I knocked into the wheelbarrow handle and dumped it over, spilling sawdust into the aisle.

“Here's what you do.” I turned and saw Wayne looking at me through the bars.

“You could have told me this was Dutch Thompson's barn.”

“You heard of him?” Wayne said.

“Yeah, I heard of him. He's famous.”

Wayne shrugged.

“I have two more stalls,” I said.

“First get rid of the wet bedding. Then take whatever is dirty but dry and stomp it down into the wet spot to soak it up.”

“You done with yours?”

He nodded and pushed his steel-tipped boot down into the straw, which soaked up the urine. I could tell he'd done this a thousand times.

When we were finished cleaning, I followed Wayne outside along a fence line toward the upper fields. We passed Dutch giving a lesson to a girl on a pony, trotting back and forth over a wooden pole on the ground.

“See that pony tossing his head?” asked Wayne. “He's out of patience, and in a minute he's gonna get ornery. He wants to jump.”

Sure enough, the pony put his head down and bucked. “Pull his head up!” Dutch yelled to the rider.

“You don't think Dutch knows what he's doing?” I asked Wayne.

“Not if you ask me. Or that pony.” He reconsidered. “Well, he do and he don't,” he admitted. “He knows how to win.”

We walked up the hill toward an old brick mansion surrounded by boxwood hedges.

“The Wakefields live there,” said Wayne.

Wayne gave me a halter and lead rope, and he rattled the gate loudly. Hearing the sound, a group of tall, muscular horses in their paddocks lumbered over the hill toward us. Glistening in the sun, they stomped their feet impatiently, ready to go in and eat dinner. They were well fed, lean, and strong. Wayne glanced at me to see my reaction. I had never seen horseflesh like this.

“We got two Danish Warmbloods, a Thoroughbred, and a Hanoverian mare,” Wayne said proudly. “And a half-Shire, half-Thoroughbred gelding.”

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