Authors: Jennifer H. Lyne
I scrambled out of the ditch. Wayne walked the horse back to the barn, and she snorted at the terriers scratching their fat bellies in the aisle.
I tried to sneak into the tack room before anyone saw me, but Herbert and Martha stood there in their sunglasses staring at me.
“Well, my word!” said Martha.
“Good Lord,” said Herbert, looking at the horse, then at me.
I tried to explain. “I tied her in a slipknot, but she was sitting back on the rope so hard I couldn't pull it looseâ”
“The horse just got off the plane from Brussels. I'm sure they don't do âslipknots' there,” snapped Dee Dee. My mouth went dry and I started to sweat. “Who
you?” she asked.
Wes looked awayâembarrassed for me, I guess.
“Dee Dee, shut up,” said Martha.
“Fine, Mother. Let the horse run down Route 220 and get hit by a tractor-trailer.”
Kelly was staring at me like she wanted to rip my head off.
“Are you new?” Martha asked me.
I didn't know which of them to talk to. They seemed like a bunch of witches, each one meaner than the last one.
“She's my niece. She's been breaking horses for me since she was a kid,” said Wayne.
Kelly rolled her eyes. I opened my mouth, but I felt Wayne's hand clamp onto my shoulder. “I'll talk to Sid about how we do things around here,” he said.
“Good idea,” Martha said sharply.
Wayne nodded at me to follow him into the lunchroom. Spanish music was playing on the radio and a bunch of grooms were sitting around eating. I was so nervous, I opened my bag lunch and ate half my sandwich before I realized it was somebody else's.
“That'd been my horse, I woulda beat the tar out of him for ripping the barn apart,” said Wayne. “You know why they're upset? 'Cause they paid a gazillion dollars for a horse that's afraid of a Jack Russell terrier.”
“What did I do wrong?” I asked.
He lowered his voice. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. A slipknot is the safest way to tie a horse. But they like to put these hotheaded horses in breakaway crossties.”
“But I couldn't get the slipknot to come undone when she panickedâ”
“Because the bar broke. Ain't your fault.” He unscrewed the top of his Pepsi and cussed loudly as it sprayed all over the floor.
I knew he was telling me the truth.
“You put Big John on the blacksmith list? He got a loose shoe in the back,” he said to one of the grooms. Thank God they were talking about something else.
The door to the lunchroom opened, and Dutch walked in. I held my breath.
“I could fire you for that,” he said.
I wanted to tell him that if the horse was afraid of little dogs, someone ought to work on that, since every barn in the world had at least one terrier scratching around. Wayne glared at me.
“I'm sorry, Dutch,” I said. It was the most insincere apology in the world, and I was looking him right in the eye when I said it.
Dutch stared at me, blinking his eyes, sizing me up. Maybe he saw something familiar. I could tell by his face that he knew I wasn't sorry.
“We're short a groom for the show this weekend. Are you available?”
Edgar had walked in behind Dutch. He motioned for me to say yes.
I was surprised and didn't know what to say. Of course I was “available.” Did I want to work with these snobs anymore? No. But we needed the money, and grooming would be easy.
“Sure,” I said.
“Be here at four A.M. Saturday. Sharp. You're working for Kelly.”
“Why would they put me with Kelly?” I asked Wayne.
“Well, now, that's a good question,” he said. “Maybe he's trying to teach you both a lesson. They'll pay you seventy-five dollars.”
That could cover the electric bill and maybe the water bill, too.
“You'll work from four A.M. until after dark,” said Edgar.
“Don't that violate some labor law?” I asked.
Wayne snorted. Edgar laughed so hard, he started coughing. “Honey, there ain't no union here,” said Wayne, his white dentures gleaming as he laughed.
I worked and went to school the rest of the week, tired and bored. The calluses on my hands got tough, and I could feel myself losing weight. My T-shirt hung off my shoulders, and I had to wear a belt with my jeans so they wouldn't fall down.
ATURDAY MORNING, BEFORE
dawn, I got out of my car at the barn, alone. My eyes burned from not sleeping. I was hungry, and the coffee I'd bought at the truck stop in Raphine was burning a hole in my stomach. I'd slept at home, not speaking to Melinda or Donald, passing them like a ship in the night.
It was pitch-black. Some of the grooms were washing horses and bantering in Spanish. Others loaded the show trailers with hay, straw, horse blankets, shiny tack, unmarked bottles, and every kind of leg wrap and bandage I'd ever seen. They hosed down the tires and polished the stainless steel around the wheel wells. I couldn't understand them, and they didn't speak to me much. But they did smile when they saw me, and I knew one thing: they would tell Wayne everything I did, right and wrong.
I walked down the aisle of the barn and heard the loud crunch of dozens of horses eating grain.
“Let's go!” a groom yelled to me. “Get in the back of the blue rig. Ride next to Otterâhe don't haul so good.” He handed me a syringe with a bright yellow cap. “Here's a shot of ace, but only for an emergency. It's not legal for a show horse.”
Ace is a tranquilizer. I put it in my jacket pocket and climbed into the back of the idling tractor-trailer.
“How long's the ride?” I asked the groom.
“An hour,” he said.
He slammed the door, and I found myself under the heads of two horses kicking and stomping loudly. The truck pulled away from the barn with a jerk, and I braced myself with both arms.
One horse reached out and clamped his teeth down on the soft flesh under my arm, and I yelled, trapped between the two of them.
“Get off me, you son of a bitch!”
It felt like my arm had been slammed in a door. I elbowed him in the nose and he let go, staring down at me with the whites of his eyes showing. I cursed a blue streak and rubbed the mark, hoping nothing worse would happen to me back there.
I pulled out the syringe, took off the cap, and got ready to stab him right in the neck with it. I found that little triangle by the shoulder where you give a horse an intramuscular shot. But waitâwhich horse was Otter? I realized I was stuck next to more than a ton of horse, and the best thing to do was nothing. The other horse grabbed my sleeve in his teeth and pulled. I let him nod up and down, shaking my arm like a rag doll, until the sleeve of my coat was covered in slobber. As I steadied myself, the big rig heaved onto the interstate and powered up into a loud roar. The horse let go of my sleeve and played with the clip holding the hay net.
The sun was coming up when we arrived at the show grounds in Culpeper. The big rig parked, and I helped the grooms back the horses down the ramp one at a time. I walked them out in the freshly clipped grass and wiped off the white lather that had formed on their flanks and chests. I held each horse's lead shank while the grooms unwrapped their shipping boots.
I'd been to shows before, but not at this level. The horses I saw at the show grounds amazed me: barrel-chested hunters, springy jumpers, and Welsh ponies that were clipped and braided to within an inch of their lives. The riders schooling their horses at this hour were real athletesâall business, no chatter. I was surprised to see kids already in their show clothes working their horses over fences under the lights before the sun was fully up. The horses' foggy breath came out in bursts with each canter stride, and the coaches sat wrapped in their jackets with their hot coffee. It was only the beginning of September, but fall had come. Shadows were sharpening and the sun seemed low in the sky.
The riders were all dressed exactlyâand I mean exactlyâthe same. Their breeches all fit the same, with a little wrinkle in the seat, the crotch, and the knees, but not too much. Not too much stretch, either, but enough. They all wore the same brand of tall black field boots, the same short steel spurs with black spur leathers, the same navy coats and helmets. The tailoring and color of their clothing was so identical that if they'd lined up and walked in the same direction, they could have been an army parading in front of a review stand. I had pictures of riders in rust-colored breeches and charcoal pinstriped coats on my wall at home, but everyone here was dressed exactly the same and I didn't know why. It was intimidating.
I put the horses in their stalls in the tented barn that had been set up for the show. Then Edgar gave me a list of things to do. For two hours, I unpacked, raked the aisles, polished bits, and rubbed the horses down, looking over my shoulder for Kelly.
When I went to fill up water buckets, I found a moment to watch the first rider compete in the ring.
The loudspeaker crackled. “Number three hundred seventy-eight is on course. This is Czar, owned by Fairleigh Farms, shown by Eliza Niven,” said the announcer.
A girl on a dainty chestnut hunter entered the ring at a working trot. They picked up a canter, made a large circle, and headed for a three-and-a-half-foot gate. The horse jumped it easily. I watched the horse transition smoothly after each fence, the rider's coattails fluttering open to reveal a charcoal satin lining as she looked up for the next one. I listened to the girl's mother at the rail. “Steady. Collect him. Sit up. Sit
.Â .Â . One .Â .Â . two .Â .Â . three .Â .Â . and .Â .Â . good .Â .Â .” The mother counted strides between fences, then turned away, trying to keep a poker face, muttering something about how the girl needed to concentrate.
I walked back to the barn, past lanky riders in their expensive show clothes. Their chin straps hung down unfastened. One ate a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich while she sat in a golf cart with her feet propped up. Another slumped on her pony while a groom attached her spurs and her mother raced over with coffee.
In one of the warm-up rings, I saw Marshie Dunn, a well-known trainer. I had seen her only in magazines, and she was beautiful. She had smooth golden hair, cropped to her jaw line. She was coaching a boy on a pony back and forth over a vertical. Her voice was big, smooth, and reassuring, not sharp and dissatisfied like Dutch's. The rider was getting frustrated with the pony, so Marshie walked over to the boy and talked to him. She put her hand on his knee and smiled as she talked, letting out a big laugh as she rubbed the pony's face. I saw the boy sigh and relax. I could tell how much they all three liked one anotherâthe boy, the pony, and Marshieâand I hoped they would win.
Then I saw Kelly cantering in another warm-up ring.
“Kelly, you are such a natural!” another rider said to her.
Anyone is a natural with a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar horse, an army of grooms, and one of the best trainers in the country,
“Where were you?” Kelly asked when she saw me.
“Looking for you,” I lied.
“Can you pick out his hooves?” she asked in a high, tight voice. “And keep his stall clean.” She turned back to the other rider. “So .Â .Â . I want to sell him by the time I go to college and buy something new.”
“You could go for something a little more pushbutton. He's kind of green, Kelly,” the other rider said.
“Totally. I'm so over it.”
I could not imagine calling a horse like that “green.” He could have taken a blind old lady around that course.
Kelly pointed her toe, indicating for me to clean her boots. I dug a rag into the creases around the ankles of her boots, removing the dust and grime.
“When you're done, please get me some french fries,” she said.
“She's never done this before,” Kelly said to her friend as I walked away.
I wondered what it would be like to think about horses, shows, college, and boys without worrying all the time about everything. I knew Kelly's mother made her miserable, and she knew I knew. So why did she have to do this routine of pretending she loved to ride, pretending I wasn't in on her secret? I was. She hated riding. If she'd ever liked anything about it, her mother had taken it away.
I got the fries and ate a few before I took them to Kelly.
“They were five dollars,” I told her. She looked at me with her mouth slightly open, then said, “I don't keep money on me when I'm riding.” She laughed, cutting a look at her friend. She ate some of the fries and handed them back to me. “You can eat the rest if you want,” she said. I threw them in the trash can. I wasn't eating her leftovers.
I followed her to the ring. When she started trotting the horse, I noticed that he was tossing his head and fighting her, trying to get his tongue over the bit.
“I think you need a different bit,” I called.
Kelly looked at me like I was crazy. I knew I would get yelled at for this, but I was right, and I decided I didn't care what she said to me. It wasn't fair to the horse.
“He hates that bit. Try a plain snaffle,” I said, digging myself in deeper.
“We always ride him in this. He's just excited to be here.” Kelly smirked.
“Well, he's sticking his tongue out like a dog.”
“No, he isn't,” she said.
She pulled his head around so she could see his big tongue hanging out, and then she walked him over to me.
“If you don't like it, we'll switch back,” I said.
“Fine,” she said under her breath.
“Good idea.” I turned and saw Wes. “I'll get it,” he said.
Wes jogged back to the barn and returned with a plain snaffle bit. They took the bridle off the horse's head and switched the bits. Kelly trotted the horse again, and this time he dropped his head.